Tuesday, January 30, 2007

'Round the Zoo: Part Two

A Chat With Robinson Devor

[image]
The Woman Chaser (1999)

*****

Part Two: The Beauty of Loose Filmmaking (for part one, click here).

So, how did you end up in Seattle?

Well, the first time I was here, The Woman Chaser was playing at the Varsity, and so I came up to do some press, and I met some people. And then the SIFF Screenwriter's Salon asked me to come back to read a screenplay that I was working on called Black Lava, which I was very fond of, with this incredible playwright in LA named Richard O'Hannacy [not sure about the spelling]. And I worked on that after The Woman Chaser, and I thought, well, I can be even more free and more independent than ever, because I'd had a little success with The Woman Chaser. So, I wrote something with him--he wrote it--and I was working on it with him, and it was very...out there. And I came up here, and the only time it's ever really been exposed was to this audience that SIFF put together, and I met some people here--I met Charles.

That was my next question. I was go-
ing to ask how you met Charles Mudede.


I met him briefly, and then I came back and stayed away for a year. I was
dating a girl up here, and didn't really stay in touch... And I started working on
this idea. I was very influenced by [Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes'] Rosetta.

I think a lot of people have been influenced by Rosetta.

And I lived in Africa for awhile, and I thought, maybe there's a way
to do a story about a child soldier that was somewhat similar in the
approach. I guess the difference between Dogme films and the Dar-
dennes Brothers is that the Dardennes have that emotional pull.

They're not dark and grainy either.

I like their style a lot. There's that simple desire of their protagonists. There's
a very clear social...not message, but [it's] very simple, powerful stuff. So, I star-
ted working on this story about a child soldier returning from a civil war and wan-
ting to re-engage his childhood and having great difficulty doing it. I wrote that
on my own and I was up here and...in the process of getting it financed and...

Charles Mudede

That was called Super Power?

Yes, that was called Super Power. I started to read some of Charles's journalism, and I thought it was very funny and very smart, and I thought, well, this guy's from Africa. Maybe I should show him the script, and if he hates it... I might as well show a critic the script before I make it--especially an African critic--and if it's terrible, then I'll know it. So, I sent it to him, and he thought it was okay, and we started up a friendship, and I said, Why don't you work on this with me? And he said, All right, so we worked on it again, and then it got into the Sundance Lab, and so we went to the Lab...and then it really had some momentum. We went to Africa and scouted locations and were all ready to come back and...show where I was gonna shoot it and who the production company was gonna be that facilitated it in Africa. And the company in New York moved in another direction by the time I got back. I think they actually financed a film that played at Sundance two years ago...Craig Lucas, he's a Seattle playwright that went on to do Forty Shades of Blue.

That was Ira Sachs.

It was either that or...

Craig Lucas did an adaptation
of his play...The Dying Gaul?


Yeah, I think it was The Dying Gaul. So, they made a good choice,
and they did it. Then we came back. We had a lot of effort and e-
motions put into that script and then we just said, well, it's a terrib-
le business. We've got to be creative and we've got to make a film,
and so we said what can we do in our own backyard, instead of in
Africa. And that's how Police Beat came into being, which had all
these great vignettes. I basically appropriated the column.

But that didn't provide the actual narrative.

It's just like material. I said, Can I go through all your work?

When I first heard about it, I wondered how can anyone make a movie out
of that. Obviously, there's a lot in the film that didn't come from the column.


That's true.

I wouldn't have seen a movie in that. I would've seen a documentary.
Maybe someone should make a film out of David Schmader's Last Days...


Yeah, that's the beauty of loose filmmak-
ing. It's that...every second was practi-
cally written without a formal script.

It didn't have a formal script?

Oh, it was very loose, very loose.

[image]
DP Sean Kirby and star Pape S. Niang on the set of Police Beat

That reminds me, I caught a press screening of Police Beat at SIFF last year. Afterwards, there was a screening of March of the Penguins, and Charles was
sitting in front of my friend and I. The whole time, he was hunched over with his head in his hands. I wondered if he had heard somebody say something after Police Beat that rubbed him the wrong way, although he doesn't strike me as overly sensitive. Then I read his review of Penguins in The Stranger. It has this classic quote--I hate it and I love it--something about how the only animal worth making a documentary about is the human or a creature with two legs or something like that.


That sounds like a definite Charles quote. He's gonna eat his words now, right?

About what?

We're working on a documentary about a creature with four legs.

That's a good point. By the way, the Internet Database also lists a film called The
Minotaur
. I'm assuming that's not the title anymore or that it's a different film?


So, we went to Sundance with Police Beat. It was very exciting, and we
got into business with Ted Hope and his company. We had this project
called The Minotaur, which was this very Northwest, post-9/11...

So that has no relation to the documentary?

None whatsoever.

I just assumed--half man, half beast.

We've noted the thematic aspects of it. [laughs] That was a story about the global theater of terrorism. How panic was embodied by a variety of nationalities colliding in Vancouver and heading across the border down into Seattle. It was a narrative script, and it was in the political thriller genre, and we worked on that all last year, a very long time. And it was a great time in our lives to work on it, and we were very optimistic that it was going to be the next plateau in our film career...but just having some kind of an agreement with a good company really doesn't mean anything unless... Every time I fear that I've turned over some control to some other person in terms of timing and enthusiasm, it's been a disaster. I've never found anybody, except for maybe Charles, who can work as passionately and as diligently and as fast as one would like the rest of the world to work, because filmmaking is a very slow business. And the more successful a partnership you have, the more problems they will have. I think we were one of several projects. It was a disappointing experience and part of it was our own fault. What we were writing was not as focused as it could have been. We had some people in Seattle, some extremely good people. Just to be able to work on this for a year, we partnered with this guy named Jeremy Meyer [Police Beat executive producer], who is this very smart, very savvy guy, who's supported some of the arts here at the Northwest Film Forum. We were very, very lucky to have a year to work with him... Some people care about Seattle filmmaking to the degree that they will invest their hard-earned dollars to allow artists to work. It's a very rare, special opportunity. It doesn't happen much, but we had it last year, and I would have to say we failed. But that's the way it works. You can't make everything successful. So, that's what The Minotaur was.

[image]
Funky Minotaur (Christian MacNevin)

Next: Blue and Green Noir

*****

Endnote: Police Beat image from The Seattle P-I (Josh-
ua Trujillo) and Charles Mudede image from GreenCine.
Click here for Andy Spletzer's GC interview with Mudede.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Why Is Everyone So Sarcastic?

Noir City 5: Days Two and Three
Cry Danger (1951, Dir. Robert Parish
Special Guest: Richard Earlman
Abandoned (1949, Dir. Joseph M. Newman)
Hell's Half Acre (1954, Dir. John Auer)
99 River Street (1953, Dir. Phil Karlson)


Hell's-Half-Acre.jpg
Hell's Half Acre

The San Francisco Film Noir Festival
Friday, January 26th-Sunday, February 4th, 2007
The Castro Theatre
San Francisco, CA
For a complete listing of the screenings go to:
http://www.noircity.com/noircity.html

More Noir City 5 Articles:
http://www.siffblog.com/reviews/descent_into_darkness_003621.html#more
http://www.siffblog.com/events/welcome_to_noir_city_003613.html#more

Day Two of the San Francisco Film Noir Festival featured a double bill of films written by Bill Bowers. Bowers' plots may have been run of the mill, but his dialog was some of the best in noir. In the first film, Cry Danger (available on VHS from Republic) the terminally sarcastic Dick Powell stars as Rocky. A phony alibi has recently sprung him form the pen where he was serving a life sentence for a murder and robbery. When he gets out he immediately sets out to expose Castro, a ruthless thug who he thinks actually committed the robbery. He also wants the $50, 0000 he feels Castro owes him for time he did in jail for Castro's crime.

Supposedly Rocky wound up in jail because he was framed; I think it was his complete inability to answer any question without making a smart ass rejoinder, regardless of the gravitas of the situation, that actually landed him in jail. When Castro asks him, after an initial payoff of $4,000, "What do you plan to do with all the dough?" Rocky responds "I plan to get an operation, so I can play the violin again." His semi-alcoholic sidekick, portrayed by the great character actor Richard Erdman who attended the noir festival, is equally as witty. When cutie blonde trailer trash, Darlene sees him take a morning shot of bourbon she asks, "You drinkin' that stuff so early?" He replies, "Listen, doll girl, when you drink as much as I do, you gotta start early."
The second half of the double feature was Abandoned (not available on VHS or DVD) which Bowman script doctored adding much need wit to a fairly turgid story of a woman, Paula, who comes to the big city to find her missing sister. She finds out her sister was killed by some very nasty racketeers running an illegal adoption ring. Along with a charming local reporter, an unwed mother and the D.A. she busts up the racket. The real standout in the film was Raymond Burr as the corrupt private investigator who plays both sides against the middle. The scene where the racketeers torture him with a pack of matches is discreetly shot but incredibly brutal.
On day three, the festival screened two Evelyn Keys films, neither on VHS or DVD, Hell's Half Acre and 99 River Street. Keyes left me unimpressed as an actress, but the two films were great. In Hell's Half Acre, Keyes plays Donna Williams. Donna travels to Honolulu and searches the sleazy tenement district, Hell's Half Acre, for Chet Chester an ex-racketeer hunting down the killer of his girlfriend. Donna believes Chet may be her husband reported missing in action twelve years earlier during the attack on Pearl Harbor.
What makes this film great is not the leads or the plot but a triumvirate of character actors giving completely unrestrained performances as the heavies. First, there's Phillip Ahn, a great actor, whose career followed the path of most Asian American actors of the classic period: Charlie Chan film, Japanese baddie, Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing, Korean soldier, servants/small shop owners, tong leader and finally one of David Carradine's mentors on Kung Fu. In Hell's Half Acre, he portrays the lead bad guy with great gusto. In this pot boiler, he betrays the lead, murders two people with his bare hands and carries on a torrid affair with a married white woman played by Marie Windsor. Marie steals the show as Ahn's mistress. She's delightfully trashy and has a great drunk scene. Jessie White plays her slovenly husband. Better known for comedy, he strikes just the right balance between pathetic loser and menacing sleaze ball. He's quite effective in a scene where he drunkenly attempts to assault Keyes.
By the way, if you think I'm kidding about Love is A Many-Splendored Thing, then check out the scene where the heroine introduces William Holden to her Chinese family- it's a who's who of 1950s Asian American actors.
In 99 River Street, other more compelling characters overwhelm Keyes. It's really John Payne's film. Like Dick Powell, he transitioned from light musical comedy to film noir after the war. He gives a surprisingly complex performance as an embittered ex-boxer who simmers with barely controlled rage. He drives a cab, dreams of owning a gas station and argues a lot with his beautiful but shrewish wife, Pauline who married him when he was poised to become the champ. Unbeknownst to him, she has plans to move on. She's tied up in a jewel theft and with the handsome thief, Victor Rollins. When Payne goes to pick her up at the florist shop he sees her in the arms of Rollins. After a series of dizzying plot twists, Payne finds himself hunted by the police for Pauline's murder and in turn playing the hunter. He has to find Rollins so he can clear himself before Rollins leaves the country or his cohorts in crime gun him down. Keyes' plays the struggling actress eager to help him and fearful for his precarious situation. When she points out the danger he's in he replies, "It's dangerous to cross the street. Or to park your cab in front of a florist shop." Words to live by.

'Round the Zoo: A Chat With Robinson Devor

Part One: A Great Organic Tomato

[image]

Now my friends all came to see me they point at me and stare
Said he's just like the rest of us so what's he doing in there
They hide in their movie theaters drinking juice-keeping tight
'Cause they're certain...that zoo's no place to spend the night.

-- James Taylor, "Knocking 'Round the Zoo" (1968)


[The song recounts Taylor's stay in a mental ward.]


*****

Last September, I interviewed local director Robinson Devor (Police Beat) for
a magazine article. Since I was only able to use a few quotes, I transcribed the en-
tire interview for Siffblog. At the time, Devor, along with co-writer Charles Mud-
ede (The Stranger), was working on In the Forest There Is Every Kind of Bird.
Since then, he's completed the documentary and changed the title to Zoo.

Subsequently, it was accepted by the Sundance Film Festival, where it screen-
ed last week, eliciting widespread praise for an extremely tricky premise: The
film was inspired by the infamous Enumclaw Horse Case. At the time, Devor
mentioned that he had a negative pick-up deal with THINKfilm (Murderball,
Half Nelson). They have since picked up Zoo for theatrical distribution.

Where are you from originally?

I'm a New Yorker. I grew up outside of New York City, about 50 miles.

You got rid of your accent, apparently.

You know, there's an accent perimeter. It's about an hour in every direction.
You get just outside of that, and you don't have a New York accent. I went to
college in Texas, kind of on a fluke. I had a friend from back East, and he said
there was a good film school in Dallas at SMU, which is Southern Methodist
University. I was probably gonna go to NYU or something like that. It seem-
ed really intriguing to go some place different, and I had a couple good friends
who were going there. They had a good program. I was very broke in college,
and film school is an expensive thing-to make films. In college, if you have no
money whatsoever--this was back before video was such an easy way to
work on your craft-just to buy the film and develop it and stuff, I was always
just scraping by. So, I didn't really have a lot of production experience, but
they had very good criticism classes that exposed me to...Italian cinema
and other things, the basics of film education. It was not bad.

So, you were working exclusively with film and not video?

Yeah, it was a comic degree title, it was Radio, TV, and Film. [laughs]

I interviewed Lynn Shelton, who went to school in New York.
She has a weird degree, too. It's not film, it's like Media Arts...


Media Studies or something like that.

Yeah, a combination of things. So, where in New York did you grow up?

I grew up in Pound Ridge, which is in Westchester County.
It's basically, you know...suburbia. John Cheever country.

[According to Wikipedia, Eli Wallach, Richard Gere,
David Letterman, andEartha Kitt are some of the
celebrities that have called Pound Ridge home.]

I grew up in Connecticut--Hartford--but we left a long time ago.

I grew up right on the border of Connecticut.

[image]
Devor working on Police Beat (2005)

Is it true that you divide your time between LA and Seattle?

You know, that's an old fact. I think that [his IMDb bio] was
written about five years ago. I lived in LA for at least 10 years,
then I moved here. I actually just had my five-year anniversary.

You couldn't have made Police Beat if you didn't
live here, that's the feeling I got from that
[film].

Well, that was just a new person [Z, a Senegalese bike cop] experiencing Seattle.

But it felt like it was made by someone who knew the
city, because I could recognize things that somebody
from out of the city might not. You didn't necessarily
film the obvious landmarks, like the Space Needle.


I was advised against filming certain things. [laughs]

That's probably a good idea, unless you film
things in a different way, like in The Parallax
View
. That's a good use of the Space Needle.


Absolutely. So, I was dividing my time a little bit. I kept a place
that I had--it was rent-controlled--in Santa Monica that I didn't
want to give up, but I had to give it up. It was just, you know,
when you move to a new place... It was just for a year that I
was holding onto it, but I fell totally in love with Seattle.

[image]
The Parallax View (1974)

When did you decide to become a director?

I was directing some theater when I was a junior in high school. I
guess that's fairly early, but I wanted to get very enamored with
theater. I guess, it's the most immediate... Certainly, you know, you-
are watching films at an early age, when you're a teenager, and they're
a huge influence, but you grow up in New York and you have a chance
to go into the city and watch theater and things like that, and also I
was reading a lot of plays. The most immediate way...was just to
get into theater, so I was very into theater for a couple of years.

But you knew you weren't going to be a theater director?

Well, I still love it. It's just one of those things I was doing when I was a junior and senior in high school, and then I took a few years off, honing my social skills and just going to college, and not being as serious about the arts. [Later] it was the typical thing: I wanted to be in a band, and then I came out to LA, and I was working on being in a band and then I directed a half-hour documentary. I used to go to this kind of avant garde film group in LA, and I met this guy named Michael Guccione--no relation to the other Guccione. He's one of the best filmmakers who's working in the United States, he's just very obscure. His films were magnificent, and I asked if
I could co-direct something with him, and he said, Well, sure. If you can get the money, you can co-direct something with me. [laughs] A very shrewd answer.

You got the money?

I found the money. We did a documentary on Angelyne.
She's kind of a billboard queen. So, that was the first thing
I did. After that, though, I was very serious about trying
to be a poet. I was gonna go to graduate school and study
with James Dickey, but he died the year I was gonna go
study at the University of South Carolina.

[Maybe that's why critics describe his films as "poetic."]

[image]
Angelyne (1999)

Was there a particular film, director, or incid-
ent that convinced you to become a director?


Film is such a special experience that I would hope it's not
there merely to inspire me or someone else to just do it. All
the great film influences really have nothing to do with, Yeah,
I wanna do that. They're private, profound experiences.

Or was there something that just seemed doable, that made
you think, I could do that. Or I could do that even better...?


It's like when you get a great organic tomato, and you're
like, I could grow this. It just didn't work that way for me.

It sounds more gradual then--or organic, to go back to that word.

Yeah. It's not that you want to do what somebody else does or what's possible. It's really about creating that space that you're in that's a hypnotic environment, so that you can go there again, and you never really will be able to do it... Of course, you're a participant in other people's films. I think with those great experiences, it's almost like somebody shows you a new world, and what you're trying to do is find entrance to those worlds, and go there again through your own work. And sometimes you can do that. Of course, you're the one that's creating the smoke and the mirrors and all that stuff, so it's not actually the same thing, but you can feel like you're entering a strange world, an interesting world. That's really what it is. I've always said for me, like with Police Beat, it was a film about place, an environment, and a tone. I can be very happy in a movie if at least somebody takes me into a new environment. If it's captured cinematically, if I feel it's new and exciting. You get that feeling when you're scouting and when you're thinking, and then it goes away when you're shooting, a little bit. And it still goes away when you're watching dailies, but then it comes back when you're editing, and you start to feel that... You lose it as you start to edit, but it's really about just trying to create that very strange sensation of newness.

Are you saying that once you started making films, then you really knew
it was for you? And also that all these other things, like poetry and mus-
ic and theater directing, were all steering you towards film directing?


There are a lot of very talented people in this world, with much more tal-
ent than I have, who can excel in a variety of arts. I had a ridiculous aspir-
ation when I was 20 that I would be like Marcel Duchamp, and I would do
a little poetry in the morning and a little filmmaking in the afternoon and
cut a record in the evening. But I always said whatever I'm worst at will
fall away quickly, and maybe whatever I'm okay at will be clear. So, I was
terrible at music and poetry was all right... But filmmaking is such an enor-
mous endeavor. It takes so long to show that you have any skill at [it] or
that you are happy with what you've done, so in a way it's a perverse en-
durance test. I take some pride just in the fact that it takes a lot of stami-
na to hang in there, to keep working, to try to build a career. So, half of it
is being stubborn, but feeling very passionate about it. It's one of the
tougher art forms, I think. All art forms are difficult, but filmmaking is
especially difficult, because it takes a lot of money, relatively speaking,
to do it. Not as much as it used to. You can scale it down, just like mak-
ing an album, writing a novel. It just takes time and time is money.
So, that was a roundabout answer. What was the question again?

[image]
Duchamp (as seen by Man Ray)

Next: The Beauty of Loose Filmmaking

*****

Devor images from The Los Angeles Times (Myung J. Chun) and
The Seattle PI (Joshua Trujillo). Click here for Kenneth Turan
on Zoo and here for Sean Axmaker on Cascadia, AKA Police Beat.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Descent into Darkness

Noir City 5: Day One
Raw Deal (1948, Dir. Anthony Mann)
Kid Glove Killer (1942, Dir. Fred Zinneman)
Special Guest: Marsha Hunt

Kid-Glove-Killer.jpg
Marsha Hunt torn between naughty Lee Bowman and nice Van Heflin

The San Francisco Film Noir Festival
Friday, January 26th-Sunday, February 4th, 2007
The Castro Theatre
San Francisco, CA
For a complete listing of the screenings go to:
http://www.noircity.com/noircity.html

More Noir City 5 Articles:
http://www.siffblog.com/reviews/why_is_everyone_so_sarcastic_003633.html#more
http://www.siffblog.com/events/welcome_to_noir_city_003613.html#more


Noir City 5 opened with two films, Anthony Mann's Raw Deal (1948) (available on DVD from Roan Archival Group) and Fred Zinneman's Kid Glove Killer (1942) (never available on home video). The two films were probably doubled up because of their star, Marsh Hunt who appeared at the festival and commented on both films and her career. However, the pairing of these two films served another purpose; they illuminate the deepening and darkening of film noir over the course of its cycle, the shifting of the emphasis in film noir from the external to the internal.

Kid Glove Killer opens with the election of a new mayor who promises to clean up the city and smash the protection rackets bleeding the small business owners. What he doesn't know is that his right hand man, Gerald I. Ladimer, is in bed with the racketeers using his position with the mayor to shield the head of the racket in return for money and a promising political career. Ladimer arranges for the murder of the D.A. to prevent the exposure of the big boss, Matty. Later Ladimer kills the mayor with a homemade bomb. The film follows two forensics experts, Gordon McKay and his beautiful assistant Jane Mitchell (Marsha Hunt) as they investigate both murders. Here the audience is asked to identify with the investigators on their quest for justice. The audience identifies with the good guys and waits for the forces of right and reason to expose the criminal for the benefit of the little guy, represented by restaurant owner, Eddie Wright.
Six years later, audience identification shifts radically in Raw Deal from the investigators to the criminal and his accomplices. Here the film focuses on Joe who escapes from the penitentiary aided by the willing Pat and the seemingly unwilling Ann. The man hunting him down, Police Captain Fields has only a few scenes and absolutely no character development. The characters who concern us are not the protectors of law and order but the ones who threaten it. Both films feature a love triangle; in Kid Glove Killer Jane is torn between the secretly criminal Ladimer and the upright McKay and in Raw Deal Joe is torn between "bad girl" Pat and "good girl" Ann.
These two love triangles illustrate profoundly the shift in film noir from external concerns to internal concerns and in doing so the how the genre moved from light tales of the forces of good triumphing over evil to complex stories dealing with people who struggle with the good and evil within themselves and even the question of what is right and what is wrong. In Kid Glove Killer, the triangle remains strictly surface, there's no real suspense in the question of who Jane will wind up with, once Ladimer is exposed, the audience knows she'll wind up in the arms of McKay. The focus here is on his exposure as the bad guy. On the other hand, in Raw Deal, Ann knows that Joe is a criminal but she sees the good in him, the heart of gold. Here the suspense centers around who will Joe pick the good girl or the bad girl and more importantly what way of life will he choose?
This is where things get complicated. In Kid Glove Killer Jane secretly wants to marry her boss, but agrees to marry Ladimer since he is ambitious and actually expresses interest in her. Later when she comes back to the lab after Ladimer's exposure as the criminal and the racket's been busted up; McKay breaks down and proposes to her. Her mission is accomplished; she is married and can give up the career she hates for the career she wants: Wife. In Raw Deal the criminal Joe actually starts to buy into the same suburban dream. Oddly when he chooses "bad girl" Pat he is choosing to be a husband and father (granted as an escaped criminal living in Panama). Pat is at first overjoyed by his decision, but guilt and more importantly, an understanding that she wins him only by default, drives her to tell him the truth that Ann is being held by his psychotic boss in an effort to force Joe out of hiding and be killed.
So here the externally "bad girl", Pat a gangsters moll from the wrong side of the tracks, is actually the "good girl". She is lovingly devoted to Joe and if he chooses to go with her to Panama, Joe can live out life as a husband and father leaving behind his life of crime. She is a fresh start, hope and ultimately more of a Madonna figure than Ann. Ann, externally the "good girl", a woman who struggled along, playing by the rules, to build a humble but morally upright life for herself, ultimately becomes the "bad girl". Her love for Joe and his for her is sexually charged in a way that it isn't with Pat. When he chooses to act on his love for her he ultimately chooses self destruction. He dies in her arms. His decision is an immediate impulse as opposed to the lengthy rationalization he employees to talk himself into staying with Pat. His passionate love for the "good girl" has destroyed him as surely as if he's fallen for a femme fatale. Both women are left heartbroken. Pat must face both the death of her loved one and the realization that he preferred to die in another woman's arms then to live in hers. Ann loses her lover, has to live with being the one who drove him to his destruction and has to live knowing that she was not the girl she thought she was. This is a far cry from Jane's game of musical fiancées.
Ultimately, the pairing of Kid Glove Killer and Raw Deal illustrates clearly how film noir moved away from a simple world view to a highly complex one. The move from the American Dream of a stable society, where the bad guy is exposed, the hero wins the heroine and they live happily ever after to a shadowy underworld, where the whole notion of good and bad is questioned and there is no happily ever after, just existential angst or death.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Iraq In Fragments Interview - Oscar Worthy Edition

master_home5_03.jpg

So, the Oscar nominations have been announced. I'll skip the whole megillah of who I'd like to see win [Letters From Iwo Jima, Kate Winslet, Jackie Earle Haley, Clint Eastwood, Peter Morgan] and focus on the prize I really care about, best documentary. As much as I'd like to see Al Gore clutching a gold statuette [though, technically, Davis Guggenheim would be the recipient], I would prefer seeing him accomplish something of greater benefit to the nation, namely getting elected for real in 2008 [I'll happily settle for Hillary or Obama, though].

Gore might very well be the favorite for the award, but I'll be rooting for Yahya Sinno and James Longley, the producer/director team of Iraq In Fragments. Granted, Longley already has an Academy Award, albeit of the student variety, but this would be his first Oscar and, by extension, the first Oscar winner I will have interviewed. Academy voters, make both our dreams come true!

If you haven't seen the film, it's still in release all over the country. If you have already seen it and you want to learn more, by all means read the in-depth, exhaustively detailed, six part interview I conducted with Longley a year ago. It may not be the only interview you should read on this film but, surely, it will be the longest.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Welcome to Noir City

Noir City 5

NC5poster3s.jpg

The San Francisco Film Noir Festival
Friday January 26th-Sunday February 4th, 2007
The Castro Theatre
San Francisco, CA
For a complete listing of the screenings go to:
http://www.noircity.com/noircity.html
More Noir City 5 Articles:
http://www.siffblog.com/reviews/descent_into_darkness_003621.html#more
http://www.siffblog.com/reviews/why_is_everyone_so_sarcastic_003633.html#more

So what if you have to double cross your war buddy and take all the dough from the heist you've planned with him for months? Or embezzle a small fortune from your boss? Or maybe knock off your unwanted spouse and collect the insurance money? Won't it be worth it to sit at the historic Castro Theatre for ten glorious days and watch twenty films about people like you, people that had the guts to grab for what they want? Of course, you might want to remind yourself that most of them wound up dead. But won't it be worth it? After all she might be there waiting for you.

Yeah, she will be there, Marsha Hunt, star of RAW DEAL and KID GLOVE KILLER. Wouldn't you like to meet her at the reception? Watch those two classic films with her? Hear all those great stories about the making of the films, about her career and about those days in Hollywood? A dame who had to struggle against black listing in the fifties could probably teach a punk like you a thing or two about life. Richard Erdman will be at the festival too. He'll be grilled on stage about his role in CRY DANGER.
We're not talking about any twenty film noirs. Go ahead watch the same old movies in your cramped little apartment while the rain beats monotonously against the windows till you snap. Miss more then twelve films that have never been released on VHS or DVD. No one thought I WALK ALONE would see the light of day again. But there it will be on the big screen. A 35mm archival print of it surfaced sort of like that body you thought you buried so long ago. Then there's the new 35mm print of I LOVE TROUBLE struck especially for Noir City Five. Do you have any idea what programmer Anita Monga had to go through to get that print? To get restored 35mm prints of THE BIG COMBO and THE SPIRTUALIST? All so you could see them in their full black and white glory on the big screen. Don't you think you owe her something?
If all this won't convince you then there's just this. Wouldn't it be great to watch these films, even the ones you've seen before, on the big screen with a bunch of other movie lovers and listen to Eddie Muller, founder and president of The Film Noir Foundation and author of DARK CITY, tell you a thing or two about them. You may have caught him at SIFF last year when he brought us Seattleites two great and rare film noirs, THE MAN WHO CHEATED HIMSELF and THE WINDOW. He also taught us a lesson. Film noir boils down to this, "people who know they're doing the wrong thing and do it anyway." So do what it takes, and get your self down to San Francisco and spend ten days watching other people destroy their lives.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Un Bonne Flic

LE PETIT LIEUTENANT
(Xavier Beauvois, France, 2005, unrated, 110 mins.)


Un flic = French for a cop.

le petit.jpg
Antoine and Solo take a ride

I love the police procedural. It's been around for ages and shows no signs of stopping. As long as there are cops and criminals, the form will persist. And it
lends itself as gracefully to the big screen as to the small, especially on cable,
where writers, directors, and actors can take the time to get the details right,
like on HBO's The Wire. Police procedurals appeal to those who truly believe the
devil is in the details. Take away the details and a police procedural becomes
just another crime drama, a term so vague as to be almost meaningless.

I wish I could say that Le Petit Lieutenant reinvents the form or boasts some
kind of gimmick that separates it from the pack. But really, it's simply superior
to most. That's pretty much it. The script is smart, the cast couldn't be better,
and writer/director/actor Beauvois (he plays Morbe) has the right touch to make
it all work. He's not going for full-on melodrama any more than documentary-
style realism. He presents a number of archetypes, to be sure, but no one emerges as a stereotype. The writing and acting are far too good to let that happen.

G1014333459903.jpg
Antoine, Solo, and Caroline interrogate a suspect
Set in Paris, his fourth film focuses on one seemingly insignificant murder, but
it's mostly about the plainclothes cops trying to solve it. And here's where those archetypes enter the scene. There's a recovering alcoholic inspector, a jaded vet,
and an eager young rookie, the "petit lieutenant" of the title. You've seen versions of these characters on numerous cop shows, like NYPD Blue and Homicide, and in movies, like Serpico. Yet, the film feels fresh. At times, I was reminded of previous pictures, like La Balance (1982), for which Nathalie Baye won her first Cesar, but only at certain junctures. The movie, as a whole, doesn't feel like something I've seen before. Beauvois also has a way of showing how boring police work can be without actually boring the viewer. It isn't all running and shooting-except when it is.
As it opens, the soft-eyed, square-jawed Antoine (Jalil Lespert, Human Resources) has just been transfered from Normandy. He couldn't be happier. Tired of sitting around, he can't wait to hit the streets. His wife, meanwhile, likes living in the country, where she teaches grade school. Antoine loves her dearly, but he loves his job just as much. She wants to make a difference, but so does he. This conundrum could have come across as cliched, but Beauvois never pushes things too far. We see a little of Antoine's lady love, but not enough to make her a cop wife stock figure.
Antoine's co-workers include Inspector Vaudieu (Nathalie Baye, who scored a second Cesar for her nicely shaded performance), veteran cop Mallet (Antoine Chappey), and Muslim cop Solo (Roschdy Zem). For the most part, they get along pretty well. Soon, they're almost like a family, which just pushes Antoine's wife further from the frame. Yes, there's a little racism, but not as much as you might expect. There are also echoes of Helen Mirren's Jane Tennyson (Prime Suspect, which ended its run last year) in Baye's inspector, who develops maternal feelings towards Antoine, but times have changed and for the most part, the men accept her as their leader.
le petit 3.jpg
Mallet, Solo, and Antoine tie one on
By the end of the film, we've gotten to know the whole gang. We see them on the job and off the clock-at recovery meetings, with their families, and downing a few at the local watering hole. They're brave and foolhardy, compassionate and selfish, funny and cruel. So often while watching cop dramas, I never stop to think how heroic they are to put their lives on the line for the greater good. And I certainly don't like to be told what to think. Beauvois and co-writers Cedric Anger, Guillaume Breaud, and Jean-Eric Troubat give the audience more credit than that. But by depicting these people as fully-rounded individuals, and then showing what happens when the worst possible scenario plays out, my sense of appreciation was greater than if they had been depicted as complete losers, on the one hand, or superhuman, on the other.
There's nothing trendy about Le Petit Lieutenant, and nor is it an homage to the golden age of the procedural (Bullitt, The French Connection, etc.), but the fact that these happen to be a movie-mad crew of crime fighters just intensified my respect. Look closely, and you'll spot posters all over the squad room for films like Jean-Pierre Melville's Un Flic and Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America. This kind
of attention to even the smallest detail makes Le Petit Lieutenant the best police procedural I've seen in years-next to The Wire, of course-but it accomplishes
more in 110 minutes than most cop shows do in an entire season. Don't miss it.
le petit 4.jpg
Note the poster in the background...
*****
Le Petit Lieutenant is currently playing at the Varsity Theater (4329 University
Way N.E.). For more information, please click here for the official website,
here for Landmark Theaters, or call the Varsity at 206-781-5755.

Un Bonne Flic

LE PETIT LIEUTENANT
(Xavier Beauvois, France, 2005, unrated, 110 mins.)


Un flic = French for a cop.

le petit.jpg
Antoine and Solo take a ride

I love the police procedural. It's been around for ages and shows no signs of stopping. As long as there are cops and criminals, the form will persist. And it
lends itself as gracefully to the big screen as to the small, especially on cable,
where writers, directors, and actors can take the time to get the details right,
like on HBO's The Wire. Police procedurals appeal to those who truly believe the
devil is in the details. Take away the details and a police procedural becomes
just another crime drama, a term so vague as to be almost meaningless.

I wish I could say that Le Petit Lieutenant reinvents the form or boasts some
kind of gimmick that separates it from the pack. But really, it's simply superior
to most. That's pretty much it. The script is smart, the cast couldn't be better,
and writer/director/actor Beauvois (he plays Morbé) has the right touch to make
it all work. He's not going for full-on melodrama any more than documentary-
style realism. He presents a number of archetypes, to be sure, but no one emerges as a stereotype. The writing and acting are far too good to let that happen.

G1014333459903.jpg
Antoine, Solo, and Caroline interrogate a suspect
Set in Paris, his fourth film focuses on one seemingly insignificant murder, but
it's mostly about the plainclothes cops trying to solve it. And here's where those archetypes enter the scene. There's a recovering alcoholic inspector, a jaded vet,
and an eager young rookie, the "petit lieutenant" of the title. You've seen versions of these characters on numerous cop shows, like NYPD Blue and Homicide, and in movies, like Serpico. Yet, the film feels fresh. At times, I was reminded of previous pictures, like La Balance (1982), for which Nathalie Baye won her first César, but only at certain junctures. The movie, as a whole, doesn't feel like something I've seen before. Beauvois also has a way of showing how boring police work can be without actually boring the viewer. It isn't all running and shooting -- except when it is.
As it opens, the soft-eyed, square-jawed Antoine (Jalil Lespert, Human Resources) has just been transfered from Normandy. He couldn't be happier. Tired of sitting around, he can't wait to hit the streets. His wife, meanwhile, likes living in the country, where she teaches grade school. Antoine loves her dearly, but he loves his job just as much. She wants to make a difference, but so does he. This conundrum could have come across as clichéd, but Beauvois never pushes things too far. We see a little of Antoine's lady love, but not enough to make her a cop wife stock figure.
Antoine's co-workers include Inspector Vaudieu (Nathalie Baye, who scored a second César for her nicely shaded performance), veteran cop Mallet (Antoine Chappey), and Muslim cop Solo (Roschdy Zem). For the most part, they get along pretty well. Soon, they're almost like a family, which just pushes Antoine's wife further from the frame. Yes, there's a little racism, but not as much as you might expect. There are also echoes of Helen Mirren's Jane Tennyson (Prime Suspect, which ended its run last year) in Baye's inspector, who develops maternal feelings towards Antoine, but times have changed and for the most part, the men accept her as their leader.
le petit 3.jpg
Mallet, Solo, and Antoine tie one on
By the end of the film, we've gotten to know the whole gang. We see them on the job and off the clock -- at recovery meetings, with their families, and downing a few at the local watering hole. They're brave and foolhardy, compassionate and selfish, funny and cruel. So often while watching cop dramas, I never stop to think how heroic they are to put their lives on the line for the greater good. And I certainly don't like to be told what to think. Beauvois and co-writers Cédric Anger, Guillaume Bréaud, and Jean-Eric Troubat give the audience more credit than that. But by depicting these people as fully-rounded individuals, and then showing what happens when the worst possible scenario plays out, my sense of appreciation was greater than if they had been depicted as complete losers, on the one hand, or superhuman, on the other.
There's nothing trendy about Le Petit Lieutenant, and nor is it an homage to the golden age of the procedural (Bullitt, The French Connection, etc.), but the fact that these happen to be a movie-mad crew of crime fighters just intensified my respect. Look closely, and you'll spot posters all over the squad room for films like Jean-Pierre Melville's Un Flic and Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America. This kind
of attention to even the smallest detail makes Le Petit Lieutenant the best police procedural I've seen in years -- next to The Wire, of course -- but it accomplishes
more in 110 minutes than most cop shows do in an entire season. Don't miss it.
le petit 4.jpg
Note the poster in the background...
*****
Le Petit Lieutenant is currently playing at the Varsity Theater (4329 University
Way N.E.). For more information, please click here for the official website,
here for Landmark Theaters, or call the Varsity at 206-781-5755.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Inland Empire

Inland Empire.jpg

It's been said that watching a David Lynch film is like watching his dreams on screen. Since I usually have pretty f-ed up dreams, I can identify with that - in fact, perhaps that's a big part of why I love his films so much. Inland Empire really seems to take that idea to the extreme.

This meandering tale of an actress (Laura Dern) who gets lost in her current role and in-between the past, present, and future blended several images together: a young girl in a hotel room, a television show involving people in bunny costumes (the bunnies were my favorite part), an older foreign movie (the basis for the "remake" being filmed now), and the story of Dern and her leading man (Justin Theroux - who makes me swoon) in character and out in several different settings. The end result was more confusing than most other David Lynch plots.

There was some amazingly beautiful imagery, interestingly-framed shots, choreographed dance numbers, and trademark Lynch dialogue (as well appearances by regulars Grace Zabriskie and Harry Dean Stanton) that made me really like the film. Jeremy Irons injected some hilarity as the director, and this may be one of Dern's finest performances - the range of emotion she conveys is astounding.
What I didn't like was the grainy quality of digital video, the scenes so dark I couldn't see what was going on (reminiscent of Lost Highway), and the over-abundance of tight close-ups on the main character's face. See, a big part of what I love about Lynch is his ability to frame people in lush settings and colors, so that the film ends up looking more like a photograph or a painting - I like that he can take you completely away from reality, and the digital video camera he used gave a more realistic quality to the movie than I liked.
To be honest, I keep changing my mind about my feelings on the film as a whole. When I first starting writing this review, I was all set to tell you that is my least favorite Lynch film. Now that I've really had time to think my about it, my conclusion is this: It felt less like a film and more like pieces of art woven together - and it could definitely use some editing (its 172 minute running time made me lose interest a few times), but it's still essentially Lynch. My recommendation would be to see it, but only if you consider yourself a hard-core fan.

Steckler Tarr

lemongrove2.jpg belatarr.jpg

The NWFF recently screened a trio of Tarr, Damnation, S/*t/*ntang/>= and Werckmeister Harmonies, which seems to be making the art house circuit. In a piece written for the screenings at the Harvard Film Archive Michael Atkinson wrote:

"To label Tarr... as a downer is merely a philistine's impatient way of saying he's an existentialist, a modern-film Dostoyevsky-Beckett with a distinctly Hungarian taste for suicidal depression, morose self-amusement, and bile."


The last portion caught my eye. Is this true, the distinctly Hungarian taste for suicidal depression, morose self-amusement, and bile?

Well, my grandfather Lajos did commit suicide or, to be more precise, died of a morphine overdose which some thought to be intentional. His wasn't the only family death during that period. A few years later, a great number of my relatives expired. For the most part, however, they were snuffed out by the Nazis. Most of them would have preferred the morphine.
My cousin Laci managed to survive the war as a hardcore Communist. While out cheering the occupying Soviet troops, he was swept away to a Siberian gulag. When they discovered he was an electrical engineer who had done pioneering work on the transistor, they made him a proposal; help us and we won't torture you. It was an offer he couldn't resist and remarkably, several years later, they let him go. He settled in Sweden where he lived to a ripe old age and became an avid Reagan supporter.
My grandmother Roszi and my mother, M/*rta, both escaped the war. My grandmother was as witty as Margaret Dumont, but was an excellent baker and could make exquisitely flaky pastries that no one else in the family can seem to replicate. My mother is the funny one (no doubt due to the fact that she learned English from Carl Reiner). She told me this story recently. A couple of Germans were in Budapest, a decade or two after the war, and went to a Cabaret. They remarked to a man nearby that the entertainers in Hungary used to be much funnier, much sharper and more satirical than even the comics in Berlin. What had happened to all those comedians? The man looked at them and replied, "You killed them all."
So, suicidal depression, morose self-amusement, and bile. There might be something to that, but I prefer to think of the other qualities of my relatives.
My cousin Endre, for instance, who raised horses for the Hungarian army. A more dashing man you couldn't meet.
Or my cousin Gabrielle, who was more gorgeous than Pola Negri.
Or the gallantry of my cousin Andre, better known as Robert, who was not only one of the greatest war photographers, but enjoyed an affair with Marlene Dietrich.
But enough about my family. I enjoyed the Tarr films I caught at the NWFF and while watching one of those very extended shots of people walking, in what feels like real time, my mind drifted to a scene from The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies!!? I know. I should be brained with a film can for even daring to think of Ray Dennis Steckler while watching Bela Tarr. Regardless, I dimly recalled a shot of Steckler walking the entire length of Bunker Hill alongside the Angel's Flight funicular. I then recalled a similar scene in Rat Pfink a Boo Boo, where Steckler [or maybe it was Titus Moody] walks to the grocery store to buy a quart of milk; the most notable part of that sequence being the moment where the camera actually waits outside the store for the actual period of time it takes for Steckler [or Moody] to purchase the milk.
The same techniques, but such dissimilar results. What is it that makes one filmmaker a brilliant genius and another a brilliant moron? Perhaps the sum is greater than the parts or, as David Lynch might say, "When you make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich you take some bread and some peanut butter and some jelly. And you put the peanut butter on one side and you put the jelly on the other. And then you put the two pieces of bread together and make the sandwich. Now, the bread and the peanut butter and the jelly are all pretty good, each in their own way, but when you put them together, they're really tasty."

Steckler Tarr

lemongrove2.jpg belatarr.jpg

The NWFF recently screened a trio of Tarr, Damnation, S/*t/*ntang/>= and Werckmeister Harmonies, which seems to be making the art house circuit. In a piece written for the screenings at the Harvard Film Archive Michael Atkinson wrote:

"To label Tarr... as a downer is merely a philistine's impatient way of saying he's an existentialist, a modern-film Dostoyevsky-Beckett with a distinctly Hungarian taste for suicidal depression, morose self-amusement, and bile."


The last portion caught my eye. Is this true, the distinctly Hungarian taste for suicidal depression, morose self-amusement, and bile?

Well, my grandfather Lajos did commit suicide or, to be more precise, died of a morphine overdose which some thought to be intentional. His wasn't the only family death during that period. A few years later, a great number of my relatives expired. For the most part, however, they were snuffed out by the Nazis. Most of them would have preferred the morphine.
My cousin Laci managed to survive the war as a hardcore Communist. While out cheering the occupying Soviet troops, he was swept away to a Siberian gulag. When they discovered he was an electrical engineer who had done pioneering work on the transistor, they made him a proposal; help us and we won't torture you. It was an offer he couldn't resist and remarkably, several years later, they let him go. He settled in Sweden where he lived to a ripe old age and became an avid Reagan supporter.
My grandmother Roszi and my mother, M/*rta, both escaped the war. My grandmother was as witty as Margaret Dumont, but was an excellent baker and could make exquisitely flaky pastries that no one else in the family can seem to replicate. My mother is the funny one (no doubt due to the fact that she learned English from Carl Reiner). She told me this story recently. A couple of Germans were in Budapest, a decade or two after the war, and went to a Cabaret. They remarked to a man nearby that the entertainers in Hungary used to be much funnier, much sharper and more satirical than even the comics in Berlin. What had happened to all those comedians? The man looked at them and replied, "You killed them all."
So, suicidal depression, morose self-amusement, and bile. There might be something to that, but I prefer to think of the other qualities of my relatives.
My cousin Endre, for instance, who raised horses for the Hungarian army. A more dashing man you couldn't meet.
Or my cousin Gabrielle, who was more gorgeous than Pola Negri.
Or the gallantry of my cousin Andre, better known as Robert, who was not only one of the greatest war photographers, but enjoyed an affair with Marlene Dietrich.
But enough about my family. I enjoyed the Tarr films I caught at the NWFF and while watching one of those very extended shots of people walking, in what feels like real time, my mind drifted to a scene from The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies!!? I know. I should be brained with a film can for even daring to think of Ray Dennis Steckler while watching Bela Tarr. Regardless, I dimly recalled a shot of Steckler walking the entire length of Bunker Hill alongside the Angel's Flight funicular. I then recalled a similar scene in Rat Pfink a Boo Boo, where Steckler [or maybe it was Titus Moody] walks to the grocery store to buy a quart of milk; the most notable part of that sequence being the moment where the camera actually waits outside the store for the actual period of time it takes for Steckler [or Moody] to purchase the milk.
The same techniques, but such dissimilar results. What is it that makes one filmmaker a brilliant genius and another a brilliant moron? Perhaps the sum is greater than the parts or, as David Lynch might say, "When you make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich you take some bread and some peanut butter and some jelly. And you put the peanut butter on one side and you put the jelly on the other. And then you put the two pieces of bread together and make the sandwich. Now, the bread and the peanut butter and the jelly are all pretty good, each in their own way, but when you put them together, they're really tasty."

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Happy Family

51 BIRCH STREET
(Doug Block, USA, 2005, BetaSP, 88 mins.)


mikemina_banquet_thumb.jpg
Mike and Mina Block

All happy families resemble one another,
but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

-- Leo Tolstoy

*****

To the cynic, documentaries should only be made about special people, i.e. the famous and should-be-famous. To the humanist, all people are special. Yet the world is overpopulated by dull docs, because not all directors ask the best questions, get out of the way when necessary, etc. As a viewer, I fall into the latter (humanist) category. While some subjects may be inherently fascinating, an inept filmmaker can render anything boring. A talented one, on the other hand, can make a great film about anything if they go about it the right way.

Of course, I'm not suggesting there's only one way to approach a subject. All the ways haven't been invented yet. One form that is gaining in popularity is the first-person documentary. I give much of the credit--or blame, if you dislike the genre--to Ross McElwee (Sherman's March), whose films are all grounded in autobiography. Plus, he always narrates and injects himself in the action. He's friendly and forthcoming, so I find him to be a genial guide into the subjects he explores. On the basis of 51 Birch Street, I feel the same about Doug Block.

YoungDoug-Mom_thumb.jpg
Doug and Mina Block
Block set out to make a film about his parents, Mike and Mina, and their 54-year marriage. I don't think they were all that thrilled with the idea, but they gave their consent. Block begins by talking to both of them. His mother takes to his digital camcorder like a fish to water. I found her instantly engaging. Block admits he was never very close to his dad. Not too surprisingly, Mike is pretty tight-lipped in those initial interviews. Then, out of the blue, Mina contracts pneumonia and dies.
Block is devastated. There's a gaping hole in his life. Briefly, there's a gaping hole in the film. Without her involvement, how is he going to complete this project? Should he even try? Well, aside from the letters, home movies, and snapshots (his father was an amateur photographer), it turns out that Mina kept a journal--actually, she kept what looks like dozens, possibly hundreds of journals. Block forges ahead. Over the course of the film, he finds that Mina and Mike's marriage--and by extension his entire childhood--was a lie. A benevolent lie, perhaps, but a lie, nonetheless.
The first clue comes when Block asks his father, point blank, if he misses Mina. Mike says no, he doesn't. Not at all. Their marriage may not have been a happy one, but Mike's candor still comes as a shock to his son. Even more shocking is when the 83-year-old gets hitched only three months after his wife's death--to his former secretary, Kitty. Block starts to wonder if his dad was fooling around with her during his marriage to Mina. Mike denies any infidelity, but the doubts linger.
YoungDougandDad1960_thumb.jpg
Doug and Mike Block--then
Block is pleased his father is moving on, but he's also conflicted. Unlike Mike, he and his sisters, Ellen and Karen, miss their mother. The sudden remarriage to a past associate seems disrespectful to her memory. But there's more to it than that. Around Kitty, Mike starts to become less guarded and more affectionate. Consequently, as Block continues to interview him, the man opens up more.
It's got to be a discomforting experience for anyone who loves a parent, i.e. to see their death free the other to become the kind of person their children could only dream about. And now they're fully grown. Yet it isn't Mina's fault that Mike wasn't happy. As her journals reveal, she was unhappy, too. She kept it from the kids, but after years of psychotherapy, concludes that she was born at the wrong time. She never had the opportunity to pursue her interests. She had three kids in quick succession and Mike was always at work. Someone had to stay home to raise them.
There are more revelations to come, but that's the gist of the film. Although I wasn't reminded of my own parents, I was reminded of my paternal grandparents. When my parents realized their marriage was untenable, they divorced. This was a different era, the late-1960s. The Catholicism of their respective families might have complicated matters, except my parents weren't devout. My grandfather is another story. He was married to my grandmother until she died--of pneumonia. And he didn't sit around mourning either. Just as Block's father trades Long Island for Florida, my grandfather exchanged Hartford for Dublin and married his childhood sweetheart, who had been waiting for him since the 1920s. They had a few good years, but they were elderly and frail. First she died, then he followed suit.
blockfamily1970s_thumb.jpg
The whole Block gang
I would like to believe that my father's parents loved each other, but I doubt it. My grandfather was a fugitive from Ireland when he married his first wife, shortly after his arrival at Ellis Island in 1930. Instant green card. My point in bringing this up: Block's story may seem specific, but like the best autobiographical stories, it has surprising resonance. Anyone can feel a connection to it, even if they weren't born to a middle-class Jewish family in 1950s Long Island. An unhappy marriage is a universal thing. We all know one or have even been part of one. Fortunately, this is not a depressing movie. Mike Block couldn't be happier with his new life.
To return to my point about first-person documentaries, I believe it's the only form Block could've used to tell this particular tale. On occasion, he includes outside voices (a family friend, an author), but for the most part, 51 Birch Street is his perspective on his parents. Had someone else made the film, it might look completely different, but he's remarkably even-handed. Block admits his biases up front, yet he's still fair to both parents. On the surface, my grandfather's story may seem more exciting, but I'm not a filmmaker. I couldn't have done what Block has done here. Recommended to anyone who's ever had a family--happy or otherwise.
dougdad_thumb.jpg
Doug and Mike Block--now
We're a happy family
Me mom and daddy.

-- The Ramones
*****
51 Birch Street plays the Northwest Film Forum Jan. 12-18, Fri.-Thurs., at 7 and 9pm. The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave. For more information, please click here. You can also call 206-329-2629 for general info and 206-267-5380 for show times.

Happy Family

51 BIRCH STREET
(Doug Block, USA, 2005, BetaSP, 88 mins.)


mikemina_banquet_thumb.jpg
Mike and Mina Block

All happy families resemble one another,
but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

-- Leo Tolstoy

*****

To the cynic, documentaries should only be made about special people, i.e. the famous and should-be-famous. To the humanist, all people are special. Yet the world is overpopulated by dull docs, because not all directors ask the best questions, get out of the way when necessary, etc. As a viewer, I fall into the latter (humanist) category. While some subjects may be inherently fascinating, an inept filmmaker can render anything boring. A talented one, on the other hand, can make a great film about anything if they go about it the right way.

Of course, I'm not suggesting there's only one way to approach a subject. All the ways haven't been invented yet. One form that is gaining in popularity is the first-person documentary. I give much of the credit--or blame, if you dislike the genre--to Ross McElwee (Sherman's March), whose films are all grounded in autobiography. Plus, he always narrates and injects himself in the action. He's friendly and forthcoming, so I find him to be a genial guide into the subjects he explores. On the basis of 51 Birch Street, I feel the same about Doug Block.

YoungDoug-Mom_thumb.jpg
Doug and Mina Block
Block set out to make a film about his parents, Mike and Mina, and their 54-year marriage. I don't think they were all that thrilled with the idea, but they gave their consent. Block begins by talking to both of them. His mother takes to his digital camcorder like a fish to water. I found her instantly engaging. Block admits he was never very close to his dad. Not too surprisingly, Mike is pretty tight-lipped in those initial interviews. Then, out of the blue, Mina contracts pneumonia and dies.
Block is devastated. There's a gaping hole in his life. Briefly, there's a gaping hole in the film. Without her involvement, how is he going to complete this project? Should he even try? Well, aside from the letters, home movies, and snapshots (his father was an amateur photographer), it turns out that Mina kept a journal--actually, she kept what looks like dozens, possibly hundreds of journals. Block forges ahead. Over the course of the film, he finds that Mina and Mike's marriage--and by extension his entire childhood--was a lie. A benevolent lie, perhaps, but a lie, nonetheless.
The first clue comes when Block asks his father, point blank, if he misses Mina. Mike says no, he doesn't. Not at all. Their marriage may not have been a happy one, but Mike's candor still comes as a shock to his son. Even more shocking is when the 83-year-old gets hitched only three months after his wife's death--to his former secretary, Kitty. Block starts to wonder if his dad was fooling around with her during his marriage to Mina. Mike denies any infidelity, but the doubts linger.
YoungDougandDad1960_thumb.jpg
Doug and Mike Block--then
Block is pleased his father is moving on, but he's also conflicted. Unlike Mike, he and his sisters, Ellen and Karen, miss their mother. The sudden remarriage to a past associate seems disrespectful to her memory. But there's more to it than that. Around Kitty, Mike starts to become less guarded and more affectionate. Consequently, as Block continues to interview him, the man opens up more.
It's got to be a discomforting experience for anyone who loves a parent, i.e. to see their death free the other to become the kind of person their children could only dream about. And now they're fully grown. Yet it isn't Mina's fault that Mike wasn't happy. As her journals reveal, she was unhappy, too. She kept it from the kids, but after years of psychotherapy, concludes that she was born at the wrong time. She never had the opportunity to pursue her interests. She had three kids in quick succession and Mike was always at work. Someone had to stay home to raise them.
There are more revelations to come, but that's the gist of the film. Although I wasn't reminded of my own parents, I was reminded of my paternal grandparents. When my parents realized their marriage was untenable, they divorced. This was a different era, the late-1960s. The Catholicism of their respective families might have complicated matters, except my parents weren't devout. My grandfather is another story. He was married to my grandmother until she died--of pneumonia. And he didn't sit around mourning either. Just as Block's father trades Long Island for Florida, my grandfather exchanged Hartford for Dublin and married his childhood sweetheart, who had been waiting for him since the 1920s. They had a few good years, but they were elderly and frail. First she died, then he followed suit.
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The whole Block gang
I would like to believe that my father's parents loved each other, but I doubt it. My grandfather was a fugitive from Ireland when he married his first wife, shortly after his arrival at Ellis Island in 1930. Instant green card. My point in bringing this up: Block's story may seem specific, but like the best autobiographical stories, it has surprising resonance. Anyone can feel a connection to it, even if they weren't born to a middle-class Jewish family in 1950s Long Island. An unhappy marriage is a universal thing. We all know one or have even been part of one. Fortunately, this is not a depressing movie. Mike Block couldn't be happier with his new life.
To return to my point about first-person documentaries, I believe it's the only form Block could've used to tell this particular tale. On occasion, he includes outside voices (a family friend, an author), but for the most part, 51 Birch Street is his perspective on his parents. Had someone else made the film, it might look completely different, but he's remarkably even-handed. Block admits his biases up front, yet he's still fair to both parents. On the surface, my grandfather's story may seem more exciting, but I'm not a filmmaker. I couldn't have done what Block has done here. Recommended to anyone who's ever had a family--happy or otherwise.
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Doug and Mike Block--now
We're a happy family
Me mom and daddy.

-- The Ramones
*****
51 Birch Street plays the Northwest Film Forum Jan. 12-18, Fri.-Thurs., at 7 and 9pm. The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave. For more information, please click here. You can also call 206-329-2629 for general info and 206-267-5380 for show times.

Monday, January 1, 2007

One (or More) That Got Away

SHERRYBABY
(Laura Collyer, US, rated R, 96 mins.)


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Sherry in her favorite halter

"Two thumbs up."
-- Ebert & Roeper

"Grade A! A miracle of an actress!"
-- Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly

"She's on a fast track to an Oscar nomination!"
-- Peter Travers, Rolling Stone

*****

That's a small sampling of the raves plastered across the DVD case. (Granted, Gleiberman is spelled Gleiverman, but you get the point.) Maggie Gyllenhaal already proved she could carry a film with Secretary (2002), so why didn't SherryBaby open in Seattle in 2006? Is it because the feature isn't quite up to snuff, regardless as to the quality of Gyllenhaal's performance? Or is it something else? After all, the trailer ends with those hopeful words: "Coming soon to theaters everywhere." Yeah, right. Sundance Grand Jury Prize nomination aside, it opened on five screens in the US.

A friend sent me an advance to elicit my opinion. Curious anyway, I was happy to oblige. First of all, I caught three of the pictures Gyllenhaal made last year, Monster House (voice only), Trust the Man, and Stranger Than Fiction (I missed World Trade Center). Trust is weak, but Gyllenhaal does what she can with an underwritten role, while Fiction is quite enjoyable -- and Gyllenhaal's outspoken baker is one of the highlights (more so, for my money, than an uncharacteristically restrained Will Ferrell). Regardless as to the vehicle, Gyllenhaal hasn't let me down yet.

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From the team who brought you Fur...
So, what about SherryBaby? Did it deserve a wider release? And is Gyllenhaal's Golden Globe-nominated turn truly "Oscar worthy"? At the very least, I haven't seen her play this character before. Sherry is a bottle blonde former drug addict with a penchant for revealing outfits (foundation garments are her bête noir). Upon her release from prison, she moves into a Newark halfway house and reports to Parole Officer Hernandez (Giancarlo Esposito). He requests that she find a job and allows her to see her five-year-old daughter, Lexi (Ryan Simpkins). Her brother, Bobby (Brad William Henke), and sister-in-law, Lynette (Bridget Barkan), have custody of the girl.
Sherry lost touch with Lexi's father ages ago. In the interim, Bobby and Lynette have come to think of the child as their own. As with 2005's Clean (Olivier Assayas), a superior effort, the rest of the film revolves around the ex-con's shambling attempts to get her life in order, so as to become a full-time mother again. She starts by using sex to get what she wants. It's pretty clear she's operated like that since adolescence. So, the secondary question is this: How long will Sherry continue to debase herself? (And why does she do it anyway?) After all, her brother -- house in the suburbs plus pool -- turned out all right. Once her father, played by Sam Bottoms, enter the scene, the answer to the second question comes into focus...
Of course, there would be no movie if Sherry didn't start to fuck up shortly after re-entering straight society. Her brother, parole officer, and recovery meeting boyfriend, Dean (Danny Trejo), do what they can to help, but it's really up to Sherry, and she's her own worst enemy. Thanks to a sexual favor, however, she does manage to get a coveted job working with children (a development that recalls Half Nelson). A few wrong turns later and the film is over. Sherrybaby is even more inconclusive than Clean, though optimists are likely to find the ending more hopeful than not.
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Robert Rodriguez regular Danny Trejo
For the most part, Sherrybaby is Gyllenhaal's show, but that doesn't mean the other actors fail to register. As usual, Esposito is great and the rugged Trejo, an even more unlikely foil than funnyman Ferrell, proves a surprisingly sympathetic co-star. As for Gyllenhaal, she's very good -- and often very nude -- and the film isn't bad, but it felt pretty familiar, even as I sensed a first-time director striving for specificity.
I think there's a simple reason why Sherrybaby failed to secure wider distribution. As Variety's Dennis Harvey puts it, "This unadorned, largely downbeat tale is the kind of starkly realistic, small-scale drama that's always a difficult theatrical sell." Of course, Candy, another indie about addiction, made it to Seattle in 2006 -- all the way from Australia -- but then it followed in the wake of Heath Ledger's highly touted turn in Brokeback Mountain. Clearly, Gyllenhaal isn't considered as much of a box office draw.
And maybe she isn't, which is unfortunate. Either way, she's sure to have a long career ahead of her, so one poorly distributed feature can't exactly be considered a tragedy, and SherryBaby probably wouldn't have set the nation's box office on fire.
But it still seems unfair that it didn't even get the chance to try.
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Happy Endings - another great performance
Sherrybaby comes out on DVD on 1/23. I feel the same way about Mike Judge's dystopian satire Idiocracy and Goran Dukic's black comedy Wristcutters: A Love Story, which played at last year's SIFF. Both films have their faults, but deserve better than they've gotten. Judge's live-action follow-up to Office Space hits stores on 1/9. Featuring a rare appearance from Tom Waits, Wristcutters is still seeking theatrical distribution. Here's hoping it has better luck than SherryBaby and Idiocracy.