Friday, December 10, 2010

The Five Days of Claire Denis's White Material


(Claire Denis,
France, 2010,
unrated, 108 minutes)

Not worth
dying for.

-- A work-
er to Maria

Since the 1980s, French filmmaker Claire Denis has alternated between big movies, like 1999's Beau Travail, and smaller ones, like 2002's Friday Night (Vendredi Soir). Regardless as to their breadth and scope, there's an intimacy to all of her films as she observes her characters closely, allows each scene to breathe, and keeps dialogue to a bare minimum.

From the start, White Material registers as one of her more ambitious
productions. Clad in a light cotton dress, a foundation-free Isabelle Huppert wanders alone through a devastated landscape before Denis reveals her character's identity and the (general) location of the story.

Maria Vial (Huppert) turns out to be someone who believes she's special--and maybe she is. A coffee plantation owner, she lives in an unnamed African nation filled with, in her words, "dirty whites." As the French army leaves, they recommend she do the same. Her neighbors also hasten her departure, but Maria needs five days to put her crops in order. While the soldiers fly away in a helicopter, she whispers under her breath, "Pretentious, arrogant, ignorant." Good riddance to bad rubbish.

Meanwhile, an injured boxer (Chocolat's Isaach De Bankolé) heads
towards her remote property. Along the way, he passes rows of dead
bodies that recall the genocide in Rwanda. Then, he spots a band of
child soldiers, one of whom cradles a gold lighter bearing the initials
A.V. (he took it from Maria's property). "White material," he calls it.

When they meet, the Boxer asks Maria if she's seen his
uncle. She says she hasn't,
but she allows him to stay.

After her workers split the
scene, she leaves him be-
hind to look for replacements, while her father-in-law (The Intruder's
Michel Subor) calmly takes a bath and her son, Manuel (Nicolas Du-
vauchelle), tries to sleep away the day. All the while, a pirate radio
DJ encourages the rebels to hunt the Boxer down and kill him.

Maria runs into her husband, André (a nicely subdued Christophe
Lambert), while rounding up workers. He neglects to tell her that he's
been trying to sell the plantation. Along with her young stepson, they
head back to the ranch. Though she's extended their stay for econom-
ic reasons, she endangers her family by doing so. A good provider can
still be a bad parent. Similarly: bravery can register as recklessness.

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** *****
Nothing's mine, but I'm in charge.
-- Maria to a worker
***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** *****

While she goes about her business, the child soldiers sneak into her house. They rifle through the Vial belongings and humiliate a family member, who takes the abuse particularly poorly. I was hoping Denis wouldn't go to ex-
tremes to make her point, but the film takes a proto-punk page from Mar-
tin Scorsese's Taxi Driver playbook, and I found that development deep-
ly disappointing. What was subtle becomes, for a time, overstated.

The situation worsens from there, but at least Denis moves away from the
vigilante subplot. Suffice to say, the person who goes crazy was probably
disturbed in the first place. Though I can understand why Denis is critical
of Maria, and people like her, she takes it too far. Granted, movies about white privilege are rarely fun, and there's no reason they should be, but Denis is rarely so cynical. That doesn't make White Material a bad mo-
vie--and Huppert offers great value--but it certainly makes it a bummer.

White Material continues at the Harvard Exit through 12/24.
The theater is located at 4500 9th Avenue NE on Capitol Hill.
For more information, please click here. Images from IFC.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Cretin Hop: Part Two

ROCK 'N' ROLL HIGH SCHOOL: Special Edition
(Allan Arkush, US, 1979, 84 mins.)
"When we found out Roger Corman was behind the picture, we said, sure, we'll doit because we knew he had a reputation and we knew he made good movies."
-- Johnny Ramone (1948-2004)

As with Hair and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Rock 'n' Roll High School pivots around the idea that the freaks have something to teach the squares, namely: how to live.

Unlike its predecessors, Allan Arkush's first feature crosses the line separating the transgressive from the anarchic. Rocky Horror also builds to a big finish, but it's a tragedy (the failure of an impossible dream), not a triumph (fantasy made flesh).
Vince Van Patten plays the designated Brad: football captain Tom Roberts. Kate (Dey Young) is the cute nerd who'd give anything to be his girl; a future Janet, you might say. Principal Togar (Mary Woronov, doing her best Eve Arden impression) wishes more students would follow his lead. Death Race 2000 director Paul Bartel (Woronov's husband) plays Mr. McGree, a music teacher who longs to let his freak flag fly. By introducing these four dweebs in a row, Arkush sets the scene: before the film comes to an end, rock 'n' roll will set them free or eat them alive.

Instead of a male rebel rocker, Arkush and co-writers Richard Whitley and Russ Dvonch, who plays the Harold Lloyd-inspired "Freshman," offer a female: Riff Randell (P.J. Soles). Sure, she's a Ramones fan, but she's also a go-getter, a DJ who wants to write songs for the band.
More popular than cool, Tom could get any girl at Vince Lombardi High School, but he covets Riff, who lusts after leggy lead singer Joey Ramone, so he seeks advice from school fixer Eaglebauer (Clint Howard), a sort of freaky square.

In the first of four commentary tracks, Whitley explains that he originally envisioned the scenario with the Yardbirds, while Roger Corman encouraged the team to call the film Disco High in an attempt to ride Saturday Night Fever's box office-busting coattails.
Other artists under consideration included Todd Rundgren, Cheap Trick, Van Halen, and Devo, while Richard Meltzer, Darby Crash, and Pat Smear all show up as extras.

Meanwhile, the NYC-based Ramones enter the L.A. scene by performing in a moving convertible--like something out of Grease, but hipper (Joey's even chomping on chicken vindaloo). Riff buys everyone tickets to the concert, and the anarchy begins.
Though Arkush and Co. fail to explain where she got $1000 (100 X $10), this is the kind of film where it doesn't really matter. She has her own bathroom, so her unseen family must have money, and for once, that's okay.

Then Togar relieves Randell of her tickets until she wins them back through a radio contest. Instead of Tom, she takes Kate. Naturally, everyone ends up at the show, except for the principal (even McGree can be seen bopping about in his beret).
Unlike Suburbia, which features a few different bands at one gig, the Ramones receive a generous amount of time, and they deliver a great set--the way "Teenage Lobotomy" comes complete with subtitles that grow as the song goes along adds to the fun.

After Togar banishes rock from the school, the students take their revenge with support from Da Bruddas and, by extension, the MC5 (the riot occurs while Riff's copy of Back in the USA plays on the public address system). The famously fiery ending builds on previous teen-revenge touchstones like Jean Vigo's Zero for Conduct and Lindsay Anderson's If..., influences the filmmaker readily acknowledges in his commentary.

Part of the reason Rock 'n' Roll High School works so well is that it offers the kind of throwaway gags that filled the pages of Mad magazine. Brownsville Station's "Smokin' in the Boy's Room" doesn't just set the scene for a cloud of cigarette smoke, but for drug deals and hookah parties--all taking place within the same restroom.
See also: the paper airplane, the pinhead, the scalper, the nuns, and the giant mouse (truly a masterstroke). Says Arkush, "A lot of this stuff was just sort of made up on the spot." For my money, the only gag that doesn't work concerns the cafeteria-worker food-pelting. Compared to the rest of this good-natured film, it's unnecessarily cruel.

Additional extras on this special edition Shout Factory disc include the press book, photo galleries, radio spots, script pages from deleted scenes, and three more commentary tracks: Corman and Young; Arkush, Howard, and Soles (she admits it took some time to get into the Ramones); and Whitley and Dvonch (second unit director Joe Dante receives a story credit). In the first track, producer Michael Finnell joins Arkush and Whitley.

In his introduction, Arkush, who went on to create Crossing Jordan and Heroes, says that Rock 'n' Roll High School "has a very, very special place in my heart." According to Corman, it was shot in 15 days for around $200,000 (Arkush remembers a 20-day shoot).
Against all odds, the film made its way to Anchorage, AK where I caught a screening at the Fireweed Theater. Though they had just released their fourth LP, Road to Ruin, I had no idea who the Ramones were, but I loved the film. I still do.

Previous: Suburbia. Next: Ladies and Gentleman, the Fabulous Stains.

Roger Corman wanted the poster look exactly like the one for National Lampoon's Animal House. He got his wish. Image from

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Putting Out Fire with Gasoline

(Olivier Assayas, France, 2010, 333 mins.)

Fighting capitalism with guerilla means is romantic, but doomed to failure.

Olivier Assayas transcended his status as a French director with international productions like Irma Vep (with Hong Kong's Maggie Cheung, his ex-wife), demonlover (Denmark's Connie Nielsen), and Boarding Gate (Italy's Asia Argento). The films combine disparate languages and locations, but remain French simply because a Frenchman made them--plus, France plays a role in this protagonist's fate.

With his three-part take on Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, AKA Carlos (Édgar Ramírez, The Bourne Supremacy, Ché), Assayas casts a Venezuelan actor to play a Russian-educated Venezuelan terrorist (who prefers militaristic terms like "soldier" and "commando").

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New Order - "Dreams Never End"

Throughout the film, Carlos shuttles between Paris, London, Beirut, The Hague, Vi-
enna, Damascus, Budapest, Tripoli, and other cities in service of the FPLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine), East Germany's Stasi, the Syrian Air Force, and the Libyan government. In the process, he collaborates with the Japanese Red Army and German Revolutionary Cells, eliciting praise from Iraqi General Saddam Hussein.

In his line of work, it pays to be multilingual, but it also suggests that Carlos, master
of five tongues, has no real home (Assayas leaves his background a blur). As Ramír-
ez plays him, he's passionate, narcissistic, and sexually attracted to ammunition, tel-
ling a girlfriend, "Weapons are an extension of my body." (In Vogue, John Powers de-
scribes Ramírez as "carnal.") Carlos bombs and shoots up banks, airplanes, drug-
stores, oil conferences--whatever it takes to halt the Mideast Peace process.

During the raid on 1975's OPEC Conference, which takes up the bulk of part two, As-
sayas has his antihero take a quick snort of cocaine in the midst of a hijacking. It's
a throwaway moment, but it's also a telling move for an avowed anti-imperialist.

Granted, it was probably easy for him to acquire and provides a boost of energy to
a tired terrorist, but it's also the drug of choice for rock stars and stock traders. For
my money, this is the point where Carlos starts to lose the plot as the dedicated
Marxist learns to love--and expect--the cash-stuffed briefcases his efforts attract.

An opening credit makes it clear that Assayas wasn't aiming for documentary realism,
i.e., "The film must be viewed as fiction," but the moments where people sit in
rooms, talking and smoking, combined with an absence of CGI keeps a Hollywood feel at bay, even as Carlos becomes an international celebrity. There's action, but it isn't an action movie or a thriller, even though I never knew where things were going, other than that Carlos wouldn't meet his maker (he remains incarcerated in France).

Wire - "Ahead"

If it lacks the pop-cult buzz of Mesrine or The Baader Meinhof Complex, Carlos doesn't
lose itself in strategy like Ché, which also arrived in thirds. Furthermore, Assayas es-

chews a traditional score, but keeps the energy up with post-punk tracks that set the mood rather than reflect the era. It's anachronistic, for instance, that "Dreams Never End" represents Carlos in the first part...though his dreams do eventually end.

If Eno in the 1970s sets the tone for Clean, Wire in the '70s and '80s ("Dot Dash," "Drill," etc.) serves as the de facto pulse for the subsequent sections, along with songs from the Feelies, A Certain Ratio, Material, Fripp & Eno, and the Dead Boys.

In the end, Carlos gives Ramírez the role of a lifetime (I've admired his work since
the underrated Domino). It's hard to imagine anyone more perfect, and the actor doesn't put one foot wrong, though his co-stars, who are mostly very good, over-
act at times. More importantly, though, it's the apotheosis of Assayas's globaliza-
tion project, a theme running through his work at least since Irma Vep (a similar facility with languages in Clean brought Cheung a best actress award at Cannes).

While demonlover and Boarding Gate were chilly, Carlos, like Cold Water and Summer Hours--otherwise very different films--gets the balance right. You may not like this whoring, girlfriend-stealing, cop-killing autodidact, but he's too human to hate.

Ultimately I realized that the disconnected images I had of Carlos had an in-
teresting, even fascinating connection that somehow paralleled the evolution of
Western leftism in those years. So I felt it was the fate of one man and, in a
certain way, the story of one generation, plus a meditation on time, history,
fate and issues more universal than the specific history of Carlos
-- Olivier Assays to The New York Times

Carlos continues at the Northwest Film Forum through 11/7 in three parts, beginning at 5:30pm. The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave. between Pike and Pine. For more information, please click here or call 206-829-7863. Images from OutNow!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

In a Lonely Place


(Peter Sillen, US,
2010, 87 mins.)

I don't know if any place is a good place for poets.
-- Steven Jes-
se Bernstein

In the opening credits to his film about Steven
Jesse Bernstein
, Peter Sillen paints the darkest por-
trait of Seattle since Trouble in Mind. While you could make a similar case for Police Beat, Sillen films the Jet City like an Edward Hopper painting. The guy sitting at the counter, nursing a cup of black coffee: Bernstein.

The rest of it doesn't feel as noirish, though artist Susy Schneider recalls
how she and Jesse used to shoot guns. Unlike Kurt Cobain, however, he wouldn't turn one against himself (or anyone else). Talking about his work to network anchor--and one-time King County executive candidate--Su-
san Hutchinson in 1989, however, Bernstein does use the word "dark."

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Sillen uses home movie footage to show Jesse typing, reading, and smoking cigarettes. (Towards the end of his life, Bern-
stein called to ask me to bring a pack to the hospital. I declined, and he
let forth a stream of blood-curdling invective. To this day, I don't know
how he got my number at KCMU. I later found out he called several col-
leagues until he found one, Scott, willing to yield to his illicit request.)

Other speakers testify to Bernstein's loyalty, compassion, and unbridled
rage, of which I got a small taste. Amongst the interviews, Sillen works
in poems (via text, readings, and recordings) and shots of Bernstein's Seattle: neon-lit bars, noisy factories, and brick storefronts. Visually, the film recalls A.J. Schnack's Cobain documentary, About a Son, except his subject's image is largely absent from that film; here, it's everywhere.

Fantagraphics curator Larry Reid notes that the press dubbed Bernstein the godfather of grunge, but Reid more accurately describes him as an or-
. Jesse opened for Big Black and Nirvana, but he was more of a beat poet, who played in jazz bands and performed with a stand-up bass play-
er. I met his stepson, Julian, when I was working at Cellophane Square. One day, he told me Bernstein was teaching him to play blues guitar.

Sillen also interviews rel-
atives, like his brother,
Jeff, who looks almost
nothing like him, and
Northwest notables, like
photographer Charles
Peterson, Slim Moon (Kill
Rock Stars), Bruce Pavitt
(Sub Pop), Dave Reisch
(Holy Modal Rounders), and
Steve Fisk, who produced
Prison. They talk about his
need to create, his time in
mental facilities, his prob-
lems with drugs and alco-
hol, and his move from LA.

In the annals of local cinema, I Am Secretly an Important Man does-
n't just document a fascinating figure, but gives pride of place to Old Seat-
tle, aligning it closer to Martin Bell's Streetwise than to the work of Alan Rudolph or Robinson Devor. What comes through most clearly is that no one looked, talked, or wrote quite like Bernstein. If you've heard of him, then you already know how he died, and there's no need to rehash the details (he took his own life). Suffice to say that, as in many of the bet-
ter profiles, Sillen prioritizes the man's life and work over his demise.

Unfortunately, too many filmmakers, operating under the best of inten-
tions, begin with the untimely death of their subject before working their way backwards (John Walter's How to Draw a Bunny, a portrait of artist Ray Johnson, is one of the few to make a virtue out of this tired trope). The impression is that their film wouldn't exist otherwise. That's morbid.

Despite the darkness inherent
in Bernstein's poetry, it was also
funny, and he knew how to have
a good time--until he didn't. Of
everyone, Jeff sums him up best,
"In some ways, he was like the
guy who goes in and turns up
the contrast on everything."

This is a short film, and it can't
address every issue, but Pe-
ter Sillen does something si-
milar: he turns the contrast up on a person worth remembering.

I Am Secretly an Important
plays the Northwest Film
Forum 10/22-28. The NWFF is
located at 1515 12th Ave. be-
tween Pike and Pine on Capitol Hill. For more information, please click here or call 206-829-7863. Imag-
es from Anna Jennings and Arthur S. Aubry (another KCMU alumnus).

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Prison Riders and Ropers as Modern Gladiators

(Bradley Beesley, 2010, US, HD, 90 mins)

Oklahoma filmmaker Bradley Beesley has profiled the Flaming Lips and Okie noodlers (bare-handed fishermen). With Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo, he turns to incarcerated bronc riders and steer ropers, men and women who risk serious injury for a few seconds of glory. He begins six weeks before 2007's event, working in the impressions of convicts and correctional officers, and captures the contestants as they try out for teams, practice, attend parole hearings, and go about their daily routine.

His subjects include 14-year veteran Danny Liles, a 47-year-old convicted murderer, and Brandy "Foxie" Witte, a 23-year-old convicted felon, who searches for her birth family during the course of the documentary. To Liles, who's served 25 years, incarceration represents "years and years of boredom with moments of adrenalin."

Vintage film clips bring 70 years of prison rodeo history to life, while an inter-title notes that Oklahoma offers one of only two left in the world. Until 2006, the event was an all-male affair, but now welcomes women from Eddie Warrior Correctional Center in addition to men from the Oklahoma State Penitentiary and 10 other facilities.

According to Attorney Irven Box, more women do time in Oklahoma than any other state--which already suffers from an alarming rate of drug abuse and domestic violence. No one can predict what will happen to any of these prisoners when they get out, but it's heartening to see them work hard and to support their teammates, skills that will prove beneficial to those with a release date in their future. Beesley chose his subjects well, and it's hard not to root for their success in the ring--and beyond.

Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo plays the Northwest Film Forum 10/8-10 at 7 and 9pm. Beesley won't be present to introduce his film, but he will be in town from 10/4-8 to serve as a juror for the NWFF's Local Sightings Festival. The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave between Pike and Pine. For more information, please click here or call 206-829-7863. Images from

Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Deadly Charm of the Bourgeoisie

LE AMICHE / The Girlfriends
(Michelangelo Antonioni, Italy, 1955, 35mm, 104 mins.)

"Fashion designers usually dress like tramps."
-- Momina (right) to Clelia

Much as I love Michelangelo Antonioni, I like the way Le Amiche begins more like an Henri-Georges Clouzot thriller (his classic Diabolique appeared the same year). First, he introduces Clelia (Eleonora Rossi Drago), one of the film's fashionable women. Then, he introduces Rosetta Savone (Madeleine Fischer), who is staying in the hotel room next to the salon manager--after the maid discovers her close to death, lying on the bed in an evening gown. (The detective even recalls Paul Meurisse.) So, Antonioni sets a mystery in motion before he's even revealed the rest of the cast.

I was expecting an Italian version of George Cukor's The Women, but the director is going for something darker--though these ladies are just as fond of mink coats and funny hats. As J. Hoberman noted in The Village Voice, Jonas Mekas and Andrew Sarris, among Le Amiche's few original American adherents (it didn't make its way to the US until 1963), felt "that this detached look at life among the rich and vapid anticipated Antonioni's 1960 breakthrough L'Avventura."

Momina de Stefani (Yvonne Furneaux) then enters the scene when she comes to
call on Rosetta, who is recovering in a Turin hospital. So, while Clelia goes about her
rounds, Momina speaks with Rosetta's associates to determine why she overdosed
the night before. In the process, she ropes Clelia into her unofficial investigation.

The cast grows larger with each scene. Momina believes Rosetta tried to take her
life out of love for Lorenzo (Gabriele Ferzetti, L'Avventura), who painted her portrait, though he's married to fellow artist Nene (Valentina Cortese). Some reviewers de-
scribe Rosetta's intentions as ambiguous, but she confirms Momina's suspicions.

If Le Amiche has become known for bitchiness, the way Momina befriends Clelia is
actually quite sweet, especially since the latter came from blue-collar Turin before
making it in Rome, stating, "I've always worked, and I've never had time for friend-
ships." She also finds a friend in Carlo (Ettore Manni), the store foreman. While Ro-
setta's friend, Mariella (Anna Maria Pancani), finds him a "hunk," Momina's lover, ar-
chitect Cesare (Franco Fabrizi), dismisses him as "a common laborer." After Roset-
ta recovers, everyone--except Carlo--becomes part of the same social set. Unfortun-
ately, Rosetta isn't really better, and picks up right where she left off with Lorenzo.

Clelia thinks it's a bad idea, but Momina encourages the younger woman. Separated from her wealthy spouse, she thinks nothing of sleeping around, which doesn't offer much to brag about, but certainly sets Le Amiche apart from the hundreds of Italian movies where husbands cheat on their wives, and no one gives it a second thought.

Aside from Momina, the other ladies aren't as catty as their reputation suggests.
When Nene, who knows about the relationship, confronts Rosetta, she's more than a little decent about it, but that isn't what leads the part-time model to contemplate suicide again; it's that Lorenzo cares more about his lackluster career. He can't be with his successful wife, he can't be with his lover, and he doesn't seem to enjoy his own company much either. Worse yet, Rosetta's lack of identity makes her a drag.

In the end, Clelia throws away her hard-won social status to express what she thinks about Turin high society. Significantly, it's her choice, and not a fate she must undergo to prove a point about the impermeability of class and gender in 1950s Italy. Whether you agree with her actions or not, she exits with her dignity intact.

Le Amiche, in a new 35mm print, continues at the Northwest Film Forum
through 9/15 at 7 and 9pm (plus Sat. and Sun. at 5pm; no 7pm screening
on Sat.). The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave. between Pike and Pine on
Capitol Hill. For more information, please click here or call 206-829-7863.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Mother and Child Reunion

(Pier Paolo Pasolini, Italy, 1962, 35mm, 105 mins.)

"At your age, the only woman you need is a mother."

Despite modest exposure and mixed reviews, Pier Paolo Pasolini's second feature, Mamma Roma, has only grown in stature over the years, not least because Anna Magnani gives a larger-than-life performance as the retired prostitute of the title. (In Italy, the film is so iconic that Dolce and Gabbana based their latest ad campaign around it, casting Madonna as Mamma.)

In the words of Edward Guthmann (The San Francisco Chronicle), Magnani "erupts" with "lust, laughter and carnivorous pleasure." The description is ironic, though not far off the mark, since Pasolini depicts the relationship between a mother and a son rather than a carnal union. And if you can find a review that doesn't use any of the following words to describe Magnani, good luck: earthy, bawdy, lusty, and brassy. That said, Mamma Roma doesn't entertain a single suitor during the course of the movie.

But while the openly gay filmmaker (Teorema) and his Oscar-winning lead (The Rose Tattoo) have secured their place in cinematic history, what gets lost is that Magnani shares the screen with Ettore Garofolo, who plays her 16-year-old son, also named Ettore (Garofolo, a non-pro, was waiting tables when Pasolini found him). If anything, Garofolo, who gives a more passive but no less effective performance, gets more screen time than Magnani, even if Pasolini begins the story from her point of view.

As Mamma Roma watches her former pimp, Carmine (Franco Citti), marry a villager in a tableaux that recalls The Last Supper, she raises a good-natured ruckus, singing and slinging jokes in the direction of the irritable groom. What does she care? She's finally earned enough bread to leave the countryside, collect her boy, and go legit.

To her, the town, located somewhere on the outskirts of the Eternal City, is filled with
"hicks," and she can't wait to make her escape. Upon their reunion, Ettore, a gawky lad in a bulky suit, looks at his mother as if she's just arrived from outer space. It isn't that she scares him, but that he doesn't get her. Eager to make up for lost time, Mamma Roma flutters about him like a hyperactive butterfly. Just as they're getting ready to split the scene, Carmine darkens her doorstep, threatening to tell Ettore about his mother's former profession if she doesn't give him a bundle of money.

Mamma Roma leaves anyway, knowing full well that Carmine will track her down. In Rome, she takes a job as a produce vendor. Life should be perfect, except the city starts to pull Ettore away from her. First there are the hoodlums who persuade him
to join them in a life of crime, and then there's Bruna (Silvana Corsini), the pretty 23-year-old who catches his eye. In this Oedipal tale, it can't be completely coinci-
dental that the brunette could pass for a younger copy of his 43-year-old mother.

All the boys in the neighborhood have had a roll in the hay with Bruna, but that doesn't matter to Ettore. Nor does he mind when he finds out she has an infant son (fathers hold no interest for Pasolini). He wants to buy her gifts, but has no income, so he sells a few of Mamma Roma's tango records to purchase a gold necklace.

Out of desperation, Mamma Roma pulls strings to find him work (like Carmine, she
opts for blackmail). She also encourages Ettore to stop seeing Bruna, but he finds
it as hard to let go of the girl as to hang on to the job--waiter in a respectable res-
taurant--at which he turns out to be surprisingly good. The situation regresses from there, and Pasolini systematically eliminates all comedy and romance until only har-
rowing drama remains. If things don't end well, there's the sense that Mamma Ro-
ma, like Pasolini's picture, will keep on pushing, no matter what comes her way.

Whether she'll thrive or not is another matter. While she shares the same indomit-
able spirit that fuels Giulietta Masina's streetwalker in Federico Fellini's Nights of Ca-
, she's a different woman and this is a different story. Cabiria risks everything
for a greedy lover; Mamma Roma for a shiftless son. If the final sequence trades Christian allegory for a literal interpretation, I'd be lying if I say I wasn't moved.

Mamma Roma continues at the Northwest Film Forum through Thurs., 9/9, at 7
and 9pm (plus weekends at 5pm). The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave. be-
tween Pike and Pine on Capitol Hill. For more information, please click here
or call 206-829-7863. Images from The New York Times (Fondazione Aida).

Saturday, August 7, 2010

C'mon a My House

HOUSE / Hausu
(Nobuhiko Obayashi, Japan, 1977, 35mm, 87 mins.)

Chocolate, candy, bread, love, and dreams!

Infamous Japanese whatsit House is the quintessential 1970s artifact. The animated opening recalls The Rocky Horror Picture Show before introducing fresh-faced schoolgirls Fantasy (Kumiko Ohba) and Gorgeous (Kimiko Ikegami), who take pictures of each other while planning for summer vacation as H.R. Pufnstuf-style music plays in the background (in some translations, Gorgeous becomes Angel). It's all so...innocent. Think high-school horror classics like Carrie. Sada director Nobuhiko Obayashi even shoots in soft focus, just like Brian De Palma before him.

But you can tell you're in fantasyland when Gorgeous's widowed father (Saho Sasazawa), a film composer just returned from Italy, tells her, "Leone said my music was better than Morricone's." (Yeah, right.) Then she meets his new bride, Ryôko (Haruko Wanibuchi), who enters the scene like Joan Crawford--or the Bride of Frankenstein--in high dudgeon: eerily erect posture, flowing white gown. Used to being Daddy's favorite, Gorgeous doesn't take the news well. Obayashi extends the bizarro-world impression through freeze frames, colored gels, fake exteriors, sepia-toned flashbacks, silent-movie title cards, and additional animations.

Gorgeous decides she'd rather spend the summer with her friends, so she invites
Fantasy, Melody (Eriko Tanaka), Kung Fu (Miki Jinbo), Prof (Ai Matsubara), Sweet
(Masayo Miyako), and Mac (Mieko Satoh) to her aunt's house in the country. (Each
name describes the girl in question.) Unbeknownst to Gorgeous, Ryôko plans to
crash the party, ostensibly to win her over. By this point, the score has morphed
from acid bubblegum to electronic hum, suggesting the calm before the storm.

While the girls gather at the train station, the film slips into slapstick Monkees ter-
ritory: a shoemaker sings a song in English as Fantasy's crush object, Mr. Tôgô (Ki-
yohiko Ozaki), trips over Gorgeous's green-eyed cat, Blanche, and ends up with a
bucket stuck to his butt, but the girls make it to the manse without incident, not
counting an exchange with a wacked-out watermelon seller (Vendor: "Do you
like watermelons?" Mac: "No! I like bananas!"). Tôgô plans to join them later.

The minute they enter the cobweb-covered estate, freaky things start to happen.
Blanche, for instance, greets Auntie (Yôko Minamida) like an old friend. Rather than
fear, the weirdness fills the ladies with delight. They marvel at the rats, fix dinner,
and enjoy a leisurely meal, but then Mac disappears. Fantasy figures out what hap-
pened, but there's no proof, so no one believes her--her name is Fantasy after all.

As the vacation continues, the girls clean house and explore the grounds to tinkly
piano music that gives way to funky jazz. Auntie and Blanche, meanwhile, find some
rather novel ways to entertain themselves. Soon, mirrors are cracking, mattresses
are flying, blood is flowing, a possession takes place, and a musical instrument goes
berserk. Plucky as they are, the girls are still girls, and there's only so much they
can do, so they pin their hopes on Tôgô--and his sideburns--to set things right.

And then, just when things couldn't possibly get any weirder, my screener freaked
out, and refused to play until the end. (I blame it on Blanche.) Granted, I wasn't
about to spoil the conclusion, but I'm gonna have to wait until I can secure anoth-
er copy to see it for myself. Fans of Head, Suspiria, The Evil Dead, Pee-Wee's Play-
, and The Happiness of the Katakuris: meet your new cinematic obsession.

House continues at the Northwest Film Forum through Sun., 8/8, at 7 and 9pm. The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave. between Pike and Pine on Capitol Hill. For more information, please click here or call 206-829-7863. Though the Criterion Collection plans to release the DVD on 10/26--extra features include an experimental short by Obayashi and a video appreciation by House of the Devil director Ti West--you real-
ly should see Obayashi's brainchild on the big screen. Images from Janus Films.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

I'm a Believer

LEON MORIN, PRIEST / Lèon Morin, Prêtre
(Jean-Pierre Melville, France, 1961, 35mm, 117 mins.)

There's not a trace of doubt in my mind.
-- Neil Diamond
, "I'm a Believer"

Lèon Morin, Priest provides persuasive evidence that French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Melville didn't just make movies about men, like Bob le Flambeur and Le Samouraï, but about women, too. And from a female perspective.

For a director responsible for some of the best tough-guy films ever made, he had a sensitive--but not sentimental--side for which he still doesn't receive due credit, as exemplified by La Silence de la Mer, which also takes place during wartime.

Arriving in American theaters 49 years after its debut, his adaptation of Béatrix Beck's semi-autobiographical novel centers on Mrs. Barny (Hiroshima, Mon Amour's soulful Emmanuelle Riva), instructor at a correspondence school. In her opening narration, the widow describes the Italian soldiers descending on Saint-Bernard during the Occupation, noting how silly they look in their feathered caps.

Formerly known as The Forbidden Sinner

In an era in which same-sex attraction wasn't exactly encouraged, Barny acknowl-
edges a crush on Sabine (Nicole Mirel), the school's voluptuous personal assistant,
who boasts a silhouette similar to that of Mad Men's Joan (Christina Hendricks).

"The sight of her," Barny exults, "sent me flying through time and space," adding
that she "felt an intense pleasure when my gaze sparred with hers." To Barny, Sa-
bine is more like a figure from Greek literature than an object of desire. Quips her
roommate, "In short, you want to sleep with her." Barny denies any such intention.

Nonetheless, few men populate the village, since many have left to join the Resis-
tance. That leaves priests, like Lèon (Jean-Paul Belmondo, between Breathless and Melville's Le Doulos). Barny, a confirmed communist, meets him in the confession booth, where she aims to shock, but the open-minded Morin has a clever rejoinder for everything she says. (Despite her antipathy for Catholics, Barny's half-Jewish daughter, France, undergoes a baptism to protect her from the incoming Nazis.)

Lèon encourages her to take advantage of the parish library, which she does, read-
ing several books on faith. He wants to teach, she wants to learn. There is no im-
propriety. Each time, she notices the minor repairs to his cassock (the camera al-
ways see him through her eyes, which is to say: Melville's equally besotted gaze).

When the Nazis start to round up Jews, the school director doesn't say a word,
just looks profoundly uncomfortable. The implication is clear: like Melville (né
Jean-Pierre Grumbach), he's Jewish. No one, except Barny, seems to notice,
such that the occasional anti-Semitic remark ensues. "Jews aren't part of the
French race," states a colleague. Counters another, "There is no French race."

Melville and furry friend

Barny soon learns that other women seek out the priest for spiritual guidance. One
even attempts to seduce him. As the world around them changes, Barny and Lèon
change, as well, but not in the ways one might expect. The description of the film
as a love story implies a forbidden affair like the one in The Thorn Birds, except Lè-
on Morin
isn't a soap opera, despite Melville's flirtation with Sirk-style melodrama.

It is, instead, a film about faith and about life during wartime, but it's also about a chaste (if sexually charged) male-female friendship. Whether or not the priest and the widow are attracted to each other, they certainly find each other of interest.

As such, it's more talkative than Melville's other movies combined--or at least it seems that way--but the dialogue always engages. As do Riva and Belmondo. The lack of action may frustrate some, but it's his most heartfelt effort after Army of Shadows (a veteran of the Resistance, he felt a connection to both source novels).

In the end, Barny is one of Melville's strong females, like Army's Mathilde (Simone Signoret). She isn't a man in drag, though she does possess androgynous qualities.

His insistence that women don't have to be overtly feminine (though some do con-
form to that image), that they can be brave (Mathilde gives her life for the cause), and that they can be the intellectual equal of any man, doesn't make him a fem-
inist filmmaker in the conventional sense, but it does make him progressive, and helps to explain his enduring appeal. This is a beautiful, heartbreaking film.

Lèon Morin, Priest plays the Northwest Film Forum from 7/23-29. The NWFF is lo-
cated at 1515 12th Ave. between Pike and Pine on Capitol Hill. For more informa-
tion, please click here or call 206-829-7863. Images from Rialto Pictures and Shooting Down Pictures (click the link for a review of Le Deuxième Souffle).

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Papa Was a Rolling Stone in Daddy Longlegs

DADDY LONGLEGS / Go Get Some Rosemary
(Benny and Josh Safdie, US, 35mm, 98 mins)

Wherever he laid his hat was his home.
--The Temptations

Some people grow up with dads who are, well, dads. It isn't that their fathers don't have other interests or play other roles--husband, son, employee, etc.--it's that "dad" always comes first (at least in the minds of their children). Other people grow up with dads who are characters, with personalities so strong they subsume every other role they play, which doesn't mean they don't try to be good fathers. Just that it's a lot harder.

The character at the center of Daddy Longlegs, the first feature from Benny and Josh Safdie, is that kind of guy (on his own, Josh directed 2008's The Pleasure of Being Robbed.) In fact, that's what bystanders probably say when they see him coming, "Hey! It's that guy." Meet him once, and you'll never forget him. The thing is, you might not want to meet him again. He's like Vincent Gallo's whiny ex-con in Buffalo 66: funny from a distance, but far less so within close proximity.

Played by Frownland director Ronald Bronstein, he's a jittery, loud-mouthed perpetual motion-machine, filled with a combination of crippling insecurity and unbridled bravado. In other words, he's a New Yorker. A projectionist by trade, comic collector by proclivity, he's also a divorced dad with two rambunctious boys, nine-year-old Sage and seven-year-old Frey (played by Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo's sons...Sage and Frey).

The film covers two weeks during which his ex-wife grudgingly hands them over to him. Lenny loves his sons, his sons love him. What could go wrong? As it turns out: everything. But Daddy Longlegs isn't a Judd Apatow comedy where viewers are expected to laugh at his desperate attempts to feed his kids and hang on to his job.

Which isn't to suggest that the film lacks humor (hence the comparison to Buffalo 66, which otherwise follows a different path), but that a sense of unease permeates the proceedings, building to a feeling of dread before ending in a flourish of surrealism.

He may sound like a loner, but Lenny has a girlfriend, which isn't such a bad thing (his ex is also remarried to a man played by Ranaldo). She even likes his kids, but that doesn't mean she's ready to settle down. Nor is Lenny. The minute he gets a break from her and them, he picks up a woman and spends the night with her.

Click here for the trailer

Instead of taking off the next day, he invites himself to join her on a trip upstate. Just as he neglects to explain his domestic situation, she's equally neglectful, resulting in a funny, surprising, and rather lovely adventure. But as in all sequences: disaster lurks around every corner (keep an eye out for Abel Ferrara as "Robber").

And so it goes until the situation becomes almost unbearable. This is the point at which the tone shifts from the anxious arena of Husbands to the nightmarish environs of Eraserhead, to the extent that I had a dream days later in which the David Lynch and Safdie films bled into one and came to life--and I was the freaked-out parental figure (though I should mention that it wasn't my first Eraserhead-inspired dream).
At the press screening, a local critic--who has two kids--arrived late and left early. He didn't miss much more than the credits, but the film clearly rubbed him the wrong way (and he might not have wanted to be there in the first place). He's just one example, but I can imagine others who won't want to spend 98 minutes with a self-defeating character who never stops talking, never stops moving, and trails disaster in his wake like Pigpen trailed clouds of dust (the Safdies say they looked to their own father for inspiration). And yet, the more I think about it, the more I like it.

That Lenny's dilemma invaded my dreams, even though I don't have any kids, indicates the extent to which it got under my skin, making Daddy Longlegs the opposite of escapist entertainment. But if your father, like mine, was a character first, a dad second, you'll probably relate. And maybe you'll even feel a little less alone.

Daddy Longlegs plays the Northwest Film Forum 6/25-7/1 (7 and 9pm). Directors in attendance Fri.-Sun. The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave. between Pike and Pine. For more information, please call 206-829-7863 or click here. Images from OutNow!

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Death Takes a Holiday

GET LOW [***1/2]
(Aaron Schneider, US, 2010, 100 mins.)

One thing about Chicago, people know how to die.
People are dying in bunches, but not around here.

-- Frank Quinn (Bill Murray)

Comedies about death aren't exactly a novel proposition, but Get Low, which draws from a real incident, leaves the gallows humor behind for a lighter touch. After losing his sweetheart 40 years before, Felix (Robert Duvall) has lived like a hermit ever since. With guilt weighing him down, the "crazy ol' nutter" decides to throw a party. As he tells funeral director Frank (Bill Murray in top form), "Time for me to get low."

Frank and his assistant, Buddy (Duvall's Sling Blade co-star Lucas Black), find the re-
quest bizarre--since Felix plans to attend--but they can't afford to turn him down, so they fix him for a suit and post invitations up around Caleb County. Before he leaves this mortal coil, Felix longs to hear the tall tales the town folk have been spreading about him. While preparing for the big day, he reconnects with Mattie (Sissy Spacek), an old flame recently returned to Tennessee. Their encounters, which have a gentle sweetness, encourage him to share the truth he's kept bottled up inside for decad-
es. After that big build-up, his confession feels anti-climactic, but cinematograph-
er-turned-director Schneider's affection for his characters always shines through.

Show time: 6/13, 6:30pm, Cinerema (opens on 7/30).

Endnote: For more information, please visit the
official website. Image from Video Detective.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Soviet Swing Kids


Russia, 2008,
125 mins.)

Everyone has seen a hipster, but no one is one.
-- Douglas Wolk, 2010 EMP Pop Conference

Don't let the title scare you away. Hipsters has nothing to do with
the black-clad indie-rockers who roam around the clubs and bars
of Capitol Hill and Williamsburg, but a group of colorfully-dressed
kids giving the finger to the aesthetic dogma of 1950s-era USSR.

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** *****

New dates and times: Hipsters is now playing at the Egyptian Theater
(801 E Pine St.) at 4:05, 7, and 9:45pm through 12/8 (and 1pm on 12/4).

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** *****

Our guide into this eye-popping world--think plaid and floral prints in
chartreuse and fuschia--is Mels (Anton Shagin), a Moscow lad who lives
like a good little communist until he meets pretty Polly (Lilya 4-Ever's
Oksana Akinshina), after which he poufs his hair into a sky-scraping
pompadour, secures a garish suit, and turns into Mel. Soon, he's hitting
the town with Polly and her pals, like Fred (standout Maksim Matveev),
who thrill to the illicit sounds of Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker.

Since this is a
musical com-
edy, not a doc-
udrama, Mel
learns to play
the saxophone
in a matter of
minutes, thus
securing his
position as a
part of this
Russian rat
pack. As the
elusive Polly starts to yield to his overtures, Mel's old comrades plot to destroy the hipster community once and for all, but bigger forces are at play.

If the scenario sounds political, director Valery Todorovsky (The Land
of the Deaf
) elevates fashion, dance moves, and romantic entanglements
over any larger statements about the Soviet regime. Sure, it was repres-
sive, but so were the hypocritical worlds depicted in Rebel Without a
and Grease, the sort of touchstones his us-against-them story
suggests, along with Hairspray, Swingers, and Leningrad Cowboys
Go America
. Hipsters doesn't dig as deep as it could--and probably
should--but it's frequently quite spectacular. Definitely recommended.

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** *****

Original SIFF '11 show times: 6/10, 6:30pm, Egyptian Theat-
er, and 6/12, 2:30pm, Pacific Place. Director in attendance.

Endnote: Todorovsky will also be at the 6/12 screening of The
Land of the Deaf
(12pm, Pacific Place). As always, dates and tim-
es are subject to change. Please visit the official website for more
information. Images from Stockholm International Film Festival.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Fog of War: Countdown & the Story

(Lucy Walker, US, 2010, 92 mins.)

"How I Learned to Start Worrying and Fear the Bomb."
-- Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** *****

With a rigorous eye, Blindsight's Lucy Walker examines the arms race from the inception of the atomic bomb to the present, building her three-part structure around a speech from President Kennedy, in which he warned of "accident, miscalculation, and madness."

If Kennedy serves as the film's conscience, physicist Robert Oppenheimer, who over-
saw the Manhattan Project--only to regret the death and destruction it would engen-
der--serves as its heart (ghostly images of the pale-eyed scientist are almost as eer-
ie as his prophetic words). Even Oppenheimer, though, couldn't have predicted the ready availability of highly enriched uranium in the years after the Cold War, one of Walker's more chilling revelations. Aside from the deadly explosions in Oklahoma City, Madrid, and other urban centers, she looks at several near misses. As Kennedy concluded, "The weapons of war must be abolished before they abolish us," and she ends on a note of guarded optimism by speaking with F.W. de Klerk, who dismantl-
ed South Africa's nuclear infrastructure during his administration. Most of her oth-
er speakers agree: it's the right thing to do. Like Dr. Strangelove and Fog of War, Countdown to Zero marks an essential addition to the ranks of atomic cinema.

Click here for full-length review.

Show times: 6/2, 7pm, at Pacific Place; and 6/3,
9:15pm, at SIFF Cinema. Director in attendance.

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** *****

(Amir Bar-Lev, US, 2010, 94 mins.)

"A lot of politics is theatrical wrestling."
-- Stan Goff, retired special-ops expert

In My Kid Could Paint That, director Amir Bar-Lev took on an art world mystery. With The Tillman Story, one of the year's best documentaries, he takes on a military mystery. When NFL player Pat Tillman and his brother, Kevin, signed up to serve
in Afghanistan, no one knew exactly why, but the move made national headlines
and, against the deeply private young man's wishes, he became a symbol of pa-
triotism in action. Then, on his second tour of duty, a bullet took Tillman's life. President Bush stated that 9/11 had galvanized the 27-year-old, though Tillman never said any such thing, while the Army claimed he died defending his fellow Rangers (they also acted against his wishes by staging a military funeral). Devas-
tated, his parents knew the story didn't add up, so they pushed for the truth, despite massive resistance, and the Army finally admitted that their son had been the vic-
tim of friendly fire or "fratricide," but resisted all attempts to find out exactly what
happened. Consequently, it's a mystery that Bar-Lev, who edits his material togeth-
er like a maestro, can't completely solve, but he sheds light on a shameful episode
in American history while simultaneously paying tribute to a remarkable family.

Show times: 6/4, 4pm, at SIFF Cinema; and 6/6, 7pm, at SIFF Cinema.

Also recommended: Neil Jordan's flawed, but beautifully shot supernatural ro-
mance Ondine (with a very good Colin Farrell): 6/4, 7pm, at the Kirkland Perfor-
mance Center; 6/6, 9pm, at the Uptown; and 6/3, 11:30pm, at Pacific Place.

Also, in case you missed the SIFF screenings, Seven Gables theaters will be showing the following well regarded films after the fest: Joan Rivers - A Piece of Work (6/18); Holy Rollers, I Am Love, and Winter's Bone (6/25); Cyrus (7/2); and Farewell (8/6).

Endnote: As always, dates and times are subject to change. Please visit the
official website for more information. Images from and indieWIRE.
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Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Family Ties: The Boy & The Concert

NOWHERE BOY [***1/2]
(Sam Taylor-Wood, 2009, UK, 95 mins.)

In "Mother," John Lennon sang, "You had me, but I never had you." Fine artist-turned-filmmaker Sam Taylor-Wood delves into the story behind those words, starting with a 15-year-old Lennon (Kick-Ass's Aaron Johnson), who lives in Liverpool with his Uncle George (David Threlfall) and Aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas, all pin-curls and British reserve). George's death spurs Lennon to seek out Julia (Anne-Marie Duff), his birth mother, who turns out to be fun and flirtatious (their scenes together carry a subtle sexual tension).

The mother of two, Julia enjoys reconnecting with her son, even if the man in her life (David Morrissey) doesn't share her enthusiasm. She introduces John to rock & roll and teaches him how to play the banjo, but she also suffers from mood swings. Torn between the mother who raised him and the one who gave him life, John funnels his frustrations into music, forming the Quarrymen, but then he meets Paul McCartney, and revamps the line-up to work in George Harrison and Stu Sutcliffe (whose story fueled Backbeat). If John's relationship with Julia didn't come to a happy end, she would have a profound effect on his life--and inspire this tenderhearted tribute.

Click here for full-length review.

Show times: 5/22, 7pm, and 5/23, 1:15pm,
at the Neptune; and 5/27, 7pm, at the Admiral.

THE CONCERT / Le Concert [**1/2]
(Radu Mihaileanu, 2009, France, 119 mins.)

A cynic might call The Concert sentimental, a curmudgeon might call it shame-
less, but only a stone could fail to feel something by this crowd-pleasing comedy's emotional conclusion. It begins in Russia with former Bolshoi conductor Andreï (Alexei Guskov). In 1981, when Brezhnev ordered him to fire his Jewish players, he refused, lost his job, turned to the bottle, and now works as a janitor. His best friend, Sacha (Dmitri Nazaro), a cello player, has remained loyal to the Maestro ever since.

When Andrei intercepts a fax meant for the head of the orchestra, Sacha goes along with his scheme to get the gang back together, pass themselves off as the Bolshoi, travel to Paris, and perform with Anne-Marie (Mélanie Laurent, Inglourious Basterds). Andrei just happens to have a connection to her that the violinist's manager, Guylène (Miou-Miou), has kept secret for 29 years. After a series of slapstick misadventures, music and secrets come tumbling out. Radu Mihaileanu keeps things humming a-
long--with an assist from Tchaikovsky--but offers few real surprises, so it's fortu-
nate that his leads give such convincing performances, since most of the other
characters (the unctuous official, the crafty gypsy) cross the line into caricature.

Click here for full-length review.

Show times: 5/21, 7pm, at the Egyptian; 5/23, 1:30pm, at the
Egyptian; and 5/28, 7pm, at the Everett Performing Arts Center.

First week recommendations: Fatih Akin's Soul Kitchen,
Christian Carion's Farewell, and Mona Achache's The Hedgehog.

Soul Kitchen: 5/21, 7pm, at the Uptown; and 5/23, 1pm, at the Uptown.
Farewell: 5/29, 6:30pm, at the Egyptian; 5/31, 3pm, at the Everett
Performing Arts Center; and 6/12, 6:30pm, at the Uptown.
The Hedgehog: 5/28, 7pm, at the Uptown; and 5/30, 4pm, at the Uptown.

Endnote: As always, dates and times are subject to change. Please visit the official website for more information. Images from Creative Boom and Art Act Magazine.
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Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Cretin Hop

SUBURBIA: Collector's Edition
(Penelope Spheeris, US, 1983, 94 mins.)

"You'll love 'em or hate 'em."

Under the heading "Roger Corman's Cult Classics," Shout! Factory does punk fans a solid with this one-two punch: Penelope Spheeris's Suburbia and Allan Arkush's Rock 'n' Roll High School, both now available with a combination of old and new extras, including trailers for the next two films in the series: Piranha and Death Race 2000.

Spheeris, the director behind 1979's The Decline of Western Civilization (and the producer behind Real Life), opens her film exploitation-style as a suburban mother picks up teenage hitchhiker Sheila (Jennifer Clay, quite good). The next thing the mother knows, a Doberman has her young daughter in its clutches. It's unclear whether Sheila provoked the incident or not. Later, it transpires that wild dogs are roaming the streets of Orange County, and that Sheila, the victim of child abuse, wouldn't hurt a fly.

Presumably, the kids with whom she's about to co-habitate are like those dogs: rootless, hungry, eager to fuck shit up--or at least that's how the outside world sees them. (In her commentary, Spheeris says she took inspiration from the sudden closure of a guard-dog training center.)

After that disturbing prologue, she shifts her focus to the home life of a couple of other unhappy youngsters in the So-Cal suburbs. Deciding that he can't take his booze-sozzled harpy of a mother anymore, Evan (Bill Coyne, one of the cast's few professional actors) runs away, though he'll soon return to collect his younger brother, Ethan (Andrew Pece).

On his first night alone, Evan ends up at a punk show where the discomforting exploits continue as D.I.'s Casey Royer sings, "Richard hung himself!" while Skinner (Timothy O'Brien) rips off a valley girl's dress to the overwhelmingly male crowd's delight. No one steps in to lend her a hand. The bass player for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, then billed as Mike B. the Flea, watches with his pet rat. Oh, and someone doses Evan's beer.

So far, the punk scene seems more creepy than cozy as the kids also take issue with homosexuals and the disabled. Charming. Then bleached blond Jack (Chris Pedersen) spots Evan crashed out in front of the club and lets him sleep in his beat-up car. Stepson of a cop, Jack commiserates. "Parents are so lame," he sighs. The next day he throws a beer bottle at a vehicle, because "I hate buses." Jack, in short, is an idiot, but at least he has a heart, and Evan moves into his roach-infested crash pad. Turns out his roomies, who call themselves The Rejected, are the same creeps who put last night's party girl in her place, but they have more respect for the women--and the one-legged guy--who populate their own tribe.

So, Evan gets a T.R. (for The Rejected) tattoo and a haircut. Just as he's found a new home, a couple of rednecks start taking out the dogs, indicating that the punks may face similar treatment in the days to come. Now Evan's life revolves around TV, Rodney on the ROQ, stealing food from the garages of unsuspecting suburbanites, and defacing property (at least the skinheads in Shane Meadows' This Is England targeted condemned buildings).

If the kids aren't initially sympathetic, Spheeris gives the the blue-collar guys and the cops, notably Jack's stepfather, Officer Rennard (Donald V. Allen), back stories of their own. The former, for instance, have just joined the ranks of the unemployed through factory layoffs. They're angry, too. Consequently, comparisons to Dennis Hopper's Easy Rider don't quite work.

Instead, Suburbia updates earlier entries about teenage misfits kicking against the pricks, like If..., A Clockwork Orange, and Over the Edge. And with their flat, but effective line readings, it comes as little surprise to find that most of the cast didn't go onto acting careers, but they add the verisimilitude for which Spheeris was looking. As she explains, "It was easier to turn a punk rocker into an actor than an actor into a punk rocker."

Her first feature also offers choice quotes. Here's Redneck #1 on the gang, "Mental rejects running wild on our streets!" Here's Skinner to Rennard, "If we didn't have each other, we wouldn't have anything." Then there's this pungent exchange: Redneck #2: "Where's the war?" Skinner: "Up your ass!"

As with Rock 'n' Roll High School and Jonathan Kaplan's Over the Edge, the film ends with a showdown between the outlaws and straight society. I won't say who wins, only that Spheeris captures the feel of an old Western as surely as John Carpenter did in Assault on Precinct 13. Extra features include a photo gallery, three original trailers (two of which refer to the film as Rebel Streets), and two commentary tracks; Spheeris on one and Spheeris, Clay, and mattress king-turned-producer Bert Dragin on the other.

Next: Rock 'n' Roll High School

Images from MovieMeter.
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