13 August 2013

Creating Your Own Picture Story in Art Trash

Tropic of Cancer
(Al tropico del cancro)
1972, Italy
Giampaolo Lomi, Edoardo Mulargia

Often times, when I'm working from home, I throw something on the television to half-watch, depending on the task. Upon the recommendation of a horror aficionado friend of mine, I decided upon a giallo film called Tropic of Cancer (Al tropic del cancro)—no relation, as far as I could tell, to the Henry Miller novel—and marveled at what I saw. Mind you, I was listening to music on my headphones and fiddling on the Internet at the same time. With no knowledge of what was supposed to be transpiring in the film (and, most importantly, no desire to find out), I was hypnotized by its vulgar beauty. With a bit of creative invention on a few of the details, some of the highlights of Tropic of Cancer are the following: exquisitely arranged dream/fantasy sequences in which a fake-breasted blonde, vaguely resembling Linda Evans, runs slow-motion through a red hallway (in the direction of the sexy, hair-tosselling fan on set, it would seem) while naked black men reach out to grab her (her perfect hammy/beautiful look of terror is utilized several times in the film with Mario Bava-esque zooms); a curly-haired, baby-faced Porky the Pig döppelganger–fey in the sort of way that was befitting of villains in cinema once upon a time–getting a massage from his virile, young, native servant while a white teenage boy sheds his towel to dive into a pool filled of giant blocks of ice, cut against shots of two gorgeous agitated peacocks; a mustached Jack Palace lookalike wearing a see-through blouse getting Nancy Kerrigan-ed by The Invisible Woman while sitting on a deckchair; a strange macho rivalry between two hunky Italian men that are barely distinguishable from one another (intentional? I'm not sure), trying to win the affections of the fake-breasted white lady, spying on one another making passionate love to her; frenzied native dances that turn into frenzied native orgies as the white folk look on; the bizarre murderous ends for both Porky the Pig, speared in the mud like a swine, and Jack Palance, face burned off in a mine; and a voodoo spiritual involving a woman I imagine to be the wild voodoo priestess holding a giant bucket over her head while the natives dance around a naked couple in shackles in either a wedding ceremony or a murder ritual. Do these sort of art trash films get made any more? If so, where? And if not, what has replaced them? There's a void in the world of cinema when art and trash have to exist separately. I feel it would only spoil the fun I had by actually watching the film, so I put together a photo series for Giampaolo Lomi and Edoardo Mulargia's Tropic of Cancer for your viewing pleasure.

With: Anthony Steffen, Anita Strindberg, Gabriele Tinti, Umberto Raho, Stelio Candelli, Gordon Felio, Kathryn Witt, Alfio Nicolosi, Bob Lemoine, Pierre Richard Merceron, Fred Ade

Love and Death; or How to Find Yourself Crazed on the Streets of San Francisco

Blue Jasmine
2013, USA
Woody Allen

Sometime in the 1980s or possibly the early 1990s, Woody Allen shifted from being a "sure bet" to a "mixed bag." Some people might attest that the process of aging and its effects to the body and mind can account for the sort of decline we sometimes see in artists' work during their later years. I'm not sure we'll ever know what, if anything, is to blame, but somewhere after Hannah and Her Sisters, Allen's films started missing their mark; perhaps it was shortly after Allen's messy divorce with the second major muse of his career, Mia Farrow. At the rate of nearly a film per year, it's to be expected that not every one would succeed, though a few of the films (that I've seen) that came after Farrow reached the heights of his early greats (Deconstructing Harry, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Bullets Over Broadway, possibly Mighty Aphrodite).

Allen may have seen enormous success with his 2011 outing Midnight in Paris, which awarded the filmmaker his first Academy Award in twenty-five years and went on to be the most profitable film of his career. Despite these accomplishments, Midnight in Paris brought me to make the claim that I had given up on any further projects the director had left in him. It wasn't just that I disliked the film; it made me want to go to Home Depot, buy a bunch of lightbulbs, and smash them in the parking lot. There were other things going on in my life that might have amplified the violence I felt, but my hatred was genuine. With Blue Jasmine however, the fact that I even considered seeing it was the first indication of how premature the bullheaded proclamation I made was. Blue Jasmine is almost good enough to have erased the memory of grumbling, cringing, and sighing my way through Owen Wilson's magically tedious tour of Parisian history. Almost.

The first thing about Blue Jasmine that should be mentioned—as it has been by nearly every person I know who's seen it—is its star, Cate Blanchett. As most of us are aware, she ranks among a very small list of actresses in Hollywood today who can always be counted on to be somewhere near wonderful, no matter how good or bad the film the film she's in might be. As Jasmine, née Jeanette, Blanchett's performance is the sort of thing to elicit the most enthusiastic of gay squeals. She embodies all of the things that make the gays melt in their theatre chairs. She's beautiful, unbalanced, reeling from a tragic marriage, mentally unstable, alcohol and pill dependent, viper-tongued, and oblivious to her own absurdity, all while traveling down a road that dances on the ultra-thin line that separates redemption from degradation. Oh, and she also has a really expensive wardrobe. But it's not the character alone that would make the gays extend the vowel sounds in the word "amazing" while describing the film, it's Blanchett's possession of Jasmine that makes it so outstanding.

Ostensibly an update of A Streetcar Named Desire set during our current economic crisis, the film begins with Jasmine's relocation to San Francisco to move in with her sister Ginger (a wonderful-as-usual Sally Hawkins) after losing all of her money and possessions to the government after her wealthy businessman husband (Alec Baldwin) is arrested for fraud. She's clearly on a downward spiral, but it's unclear how close to rock bottom she actually is… or if there even is a bottom to land on. It takes a while into the film before one begins to recognize the weight of the drama at hand, as Blue Jasmine isn't drenched in the sort of stark Bergman-esque tone of Interiors.

Handling the film with a light touch and taking his time to expose the severity of Jasmine's situation, Allen turns Blue Jasmine into a much darker Midnight in Paris, exploring the wounded psyche of his protagonist. He cuts between Jasmine's life in San Francisco and her life of privilege in the Hamptons, slowly unveiling the fact that what initially appear to be flashbacks are actually scenes of Jasmine's life that she's reliving and replaying. When you realize that you're seeing what's happening in Jasmine's head, you begin to see all of her fears of appearance, gossip, and other people's judgments reaffirm themselves. Though she never explicitly acknowledges these fears (looking the other way is one of her specialties), the film tells us that everyone around Jasmine knows exactly what's going on in her life and that it's a pretty hot discussion topic. An early scene where Jasmine is at the airport talking all about herself to the unlucky old woman seated next to her really struck me as the camera veers away from Jasmine at the baggage claim to capture a brief dialogue exchange between the old woman and her husband about the "strange woman" hollering goodbye to her. Throughout the film, it appears that everyone else is privy to intimate details of the sordid life of her husband, as well as Jasmine's own shaky mental state, though this too could be all in Jasmine's head. It's almost as if the truth about Jasmine's life exists everywhere but in her own delusional mind.

For anyone who has spent any time in San Francisco, Jasmine's fate at the end of the film has a sobering ring of truth to it. A friend remarked after seeing the film that he had to suspend disbelief when people on the street stop to watch Jasmine have a breakdown outside the dentist's office, because such outward displays of crazy are so commonplace in San Francisco that few would have taken much notice. Granted, it isn't every day one sees that sort of eruption from someone who looks like Cate Blanchett. I don't believe one needs to have lived in San Francisco to be haunted by the closing scene, but for those who have, it certainly provides an extra layer of bleakness to the experience. I guess Allen will never cease to be on my radar, and I'm okay with that.

Though we didn't feel the same way, I highly recommend that you read Jonathan Rosenbaum's assessment of Blue Jasmine and Allen's class obsession.

With: Cate Blanchett, Sally Hawkins, Alec Baldwin, Bobby Cannavale, Peter Sarsgaard, Louis C.K., Andrew Dice Clay, Michael Stuhlbarg, Max Casella, Alden Ehrenreich, Tammy Blanchard, Joy Carlin, Richard Conti

10 August 2013

A Guide to the 66th Locarno International Film Festival, 2013

After a short two month break following Cannes, the major film festival season begun again this week with the 66th Locarno Film Festival, which is the first in a quick succession of major premiere festivals in the autumn of each year followed closely by San Sebastián, Venice, and Toronto chronologically. In addition to those top tier festivals, there are a handful of other notable premiere fests that will be starting soon, including the Festival des Films du Monde in Montréal, the Tokyo International Film Festival, and the Torino Film Festival. Locarno opened with the latest Hollywood crime film from Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur, 2 Guns, with Mark Wahlberg and Denzel Washington.

There are two main competitions that take place at Locarno: the Concorso Internazionale (International Competition) and the Concorso Cineasti del Presente ("Filmmakers of the Present" Competition for emerging filmmakers). Last year, the top prize of the Concorso Internazionale, the Golden Leopard, went to a surprise choice, Jean-Claude Brisseau's La fille de nulle part (The Girl from Nowhere). Pedro González-Rubio (Alamar) won the Golden Leopard in the Cineasti del Presente section with his documentary/narrative Inori. This year, the Concorso Internazionale features a mix of films from some major figures in Asian cinema as well as a few burgeoning auteurs.

You can access the full line-up for the Concorso Internazionale through Locarno's website, as I'm trying to steer clear of unnecessary list-making these days. The competition features the latest work from Shinji Aoyama (Eureka), Joanna Hogg (Unrelated), Hélène Cattet & Bruno Forzani (Amer), Albert Serra (Birdsong), Thomas Imbach (I Was a Swiss Banker), Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Tokyo Sonata), Júlio Bressane (Killed the Family and Went to the Movies), Emmanuel Mouret (Shall We Kiss?), Guillaume Brac (A World Without Women), Daniel & Diego Vega (October), David Wnendt (Combat Girls), Chang Tso-chi (When Love Comes), Pippo Delbono (La paura), Yervant Gianikian & Angela Ricci Lucci (Oh! Uomo), Joaquim Pinto (Twin Flames), Yves Yersin (Les petites fugues), and Hong Sang-soo, who will be presenting his second film of 2013 at the festival after Nobody's Daughter Hae-Won played in competition at the Berlinale. The only American film competing this year is Destin Cretton's Short Term 12, an expansion of his Sundance prize-winning 2008 short of the same name; Short Term 12 won the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at this year's SXSW Film Festival.

While several of the competition films have piqued my interest, there are two that top my list: Corneliu Porumboiu's When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism (Când se lasă seara peste Bucureşti sau metabolism) and Claire Simon's Gare du Nord. When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism is writer/director Porumboiu's first film following the international acclaim of Police, Adjective (Poliţist, adjective) in 2009—though he did co-write the screenplay with director Igor Cobileanski for The Unsaved (La limita de jos a cerului), which played in the East of the West Competition at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival this past summer. Porumboiu's latest follows the exploits of a movie director (played by Bogdan Dumitrache, who won the Best Actor prize for the film The Best Intentions at Locarno in 2011) whose affair with one the actresses begins to disrupt the film shoot. In Gare du Nord, four strangers–played by Nicole Garcia, Reda Kateb (A Prophet), François Damiens (The Wolberg Family), and Monia Chokri (Heartbeats)–find casual encounters in the famous Parisian train station. The extensive ensemble cast also includes my biggest crush of the year, Christophe Paou from Alain Guiraudie's Stranger by the Lake (L'innconu du lac), Lou Castel, Samir Guesmi, Jean-Christophe Bouvet, André Marcon, Ophélia Kolb, and Jacques Nolot. Simon's sadly overlooked previous film, God's Offices (Les bureaux de Dieu), also utilized an enormous cast (including Emmanuel Mouret, whose new film is also in competition) in a single location, with Garcia again at the center of the picture. Additionally, Simon also has a documentary called Human Geography (Géographie humaine) screening at the festival out of competition that almost sounds like a non-fiction version of Gare du Nord.

As I don't have much to reference regarding the Concorso Cineasti del Presente, I'll instead focus on some of the other notable films playing and/or premiering at Locarno this year. Following winning turns in Xavier Dolan's Heartbeats (Les amours imaginaires) and Laurence Anyways, Canadian actress Monia Chokri, who can be seen in Gare du Nord, makes her directorial debut with the short An Extraordinary Person (Quelqu'un d'extraordinaire), which co-stars another Dolan regular, Anne Dorval. In the Piazza Grande section, you'll find the latest comedy from director Sam Garbarski (Irina Palm), Vijay and I, which stars Moritz Bleibtreu, Patricia Arquette, Michael Imperioli, Moni Moshonov, and Hanna Schygulla; cult French filmmaker Quentin Dupieux's black comedy Wrong Cops, which re-teams Laura Palmer's parents Grace Zabriskie and Ray Wise alongside Marilyn Manson, Eric Wareheim, and Jack Plotnick; a May-December Parisian romance between Michael Caine and Clémence Poésy in Sandra Nettelbeck's Mr. Morgan's Last Love, which also stars Gillian Anderson, Jane Alexander, and Justin Kirk; Jeremy Saulnier's acclaimed thriller Blue Ruin, which won the FIPRESCI Prize for the Quinzaine des Réalisateurs at Cannes this year; Sebastián Leilo's Gloria, the Best Actress winner (Paulina García) at this year's Berlinale, which will be playing soon at both the San Sebastián and Toronto Film Festivals; and the latest film from Swiss director Lionel Baier (Garçon stupide), Longwave (Les grandes ondes (à l'ouest)), a road movie/comedy with Valérie Donzelli and Michel Vuillermoz.

Two new shorts from directors João Pedro Rodrigues and João Rui Guerra da Mata, Mahjong and The King's Body (O Corpo de Afonso), will screen at the festival. The directors' previous feature The Last Time I Saw Macao (A Última Vez Que Vi Macau) played in the Concorso Internazionale last year. An experimental documentary co-directed by acclaimed filmmakers Ben Russell and Ben Rivers, A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness, will also play out of competition, alongside Que d'amour, the new film by director Valérie Donzelli, and How to Disappear Completely, the latest from Philippine director Raya Martin. In a special section highlighting the work some of the festival's jury members work, there will be a screening of the president of the Concorso Internazionale jury Lav Diaz's film Norte, the End of History, which played at in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes earlier this year. There will also be a complete retrospective of the films of George Cukor at the festival, and it's always worth taking a look at their annual Open Doors section, which assists filmmakers in nations where funding can be difficult, as well as showing a selection of films from the particular region. This year, the focus is on the Southern Caucasus, highlighting films from Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. Expect some more festival guides to pop up on the blog over the next two months.

09 August 2013

Voluptuous Horror: RIP Karen Black

The world lost one of its shining stars yesterday, as legendary actress Karen Black died following a long battle with cancer. An actress with a look that was just as striking as her presence, Black saw her career take off at the very beginning of the 1970s after co-starring in Dennis Hopper's iconic Easy Rider and Bob Rafelson's stunning Five Easy Pieces, which garnered the actress an Academy Award nomination as well as the first of her two Golden Globes wins. Her other Golden Globe win came four years later for Jack Clayton's adaptation of The Great Gatsby, in which she played Myrtle Wilson. The '70s were a particularly lucrative decade for Black, who also appeared in Jack Nicholson's directorial debut Drive, He Said, John Schlesinger's The Day of the Locust, Robert Altman's Nashville, Dan Curtis' Burnt Offerings (as well as Curtis' cult TV movie, Trilogy of Terror), Alfred Hitchcock's Family Plot (his final film), Jack Smight's Airport 1975, and Peter Hyams' Capricorn One.

Black brought her talents as a stage actress to the screen as well, reprising her role in Altman's film adaptation of Ed Graczyk's play Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, alongside her Broadway co-stars Cher and Sandy Dennis. From the 1980s on, Black's film career comprised of a number of cultish oddities, of the horror ilk (Tobe Hooper's Invaders from Mars, David Winters' The Last Horror Film–playing herself, Alex Cox's Repo Chick, and Rob Zombie's House of 1000 Corpses) and the arthouse variety, starring in a pair of films from directors Lynn Hershman-Leeson (Conceiving Ada, Teknolust) and Henry Jaglom (Can She Bake a Cherry Pie?, Irene in Time). She also had cameos, playing herself, in Altman's The Player and in the TV mini-series version of Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City. Black's presence as something of a gay icon for queer movie lovers lead to a number of supporting roles in low-budget, American LBGT films, like Todd Stephens' Gypsy 83, Tag Purvis' Red Dirt, Steve Balderson's Stuck!, and a few others not worth mentioning.

In addition to acting, Black was also a gifted singer and songwriter, which carried over into a number of her film roles (Nashville, Gypsy 83, Can She Bake a Cherry Pie?). In the music world, performance artist Kembra Pfahler named her band The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black after the actress. Pfahler herself posted a few photos to her Instagram page yesterday regarding Black's passing. Musician Cass McCombs featured Black on vocals on the song "Dreams Come True Girl," off his 2009 album Catacombs; she also appeared in the music video for the song. The two are pictured above. Karen Black, you will be forever missed.

07 August 2013


To Die For
1995, USA/UK
Gus Van Sant

As far as the cast is concerned, To Die For is pretty great. As the bubbly, ambitious, murderess/weather girl, Suzanne Stone, Nicole Kidman gives one of the finest performances of her wildly divergent career. I shutter to think of another major Hollywood actress who has delivered more of a range of performances and film choices than Kidman has—for better (Dogville, The Others), worse (The Stepford Wives, The Paperboy), and up for debate (Eyes Wide Shut, Moulin Rouge!). The supporting cast—particularly Illeana Douglas as Suzanne's figure skater sister-in-law and Joaquin Phoenix as one of the juvenile delinquents Suzanne hires to kill her husband (Matt Dillon)—is also uniformly wonderful. Look for a cameo of sorts by David Cronenberg near the end of the film.

In terms of satire though, it's pretty limp. I struggle to call it "dated," but its commentary on celebrity and fame has become an inescapable subject since the dawn of the Internet. Television satires like Network or The Truman Show still feel viable and relevant, even if TV has changed significantly since their release, but To Die For ultimately has very little to say that doesn't sound rather obvious nowadays. Gus Van Sant does provide some excellent touches in the film, notably the homage his makes to Howard Hawks' Scarface with two tiny X's reflecting off Suzanne's blue eyes as she delivers the weather forecast the night her husband is murdered (pictured above). To Die For almost rises to the occasion (pun sort of intended) when the U.S. National Anthem puts Suzanne into a trance as she realizes the murder of her husband doesn't just lift the weight off her "shooting star" but places it in front of more cameras than she ever dreamed. This is hardly an epiphany for anyone familiar with the current trends in "unscripted" television and tabloids, but Van Sant and Kidman's combined efforts do stand tall here, if only for a glimmering moment.

With: Nicole Kidman, Matt Dillon, Joaquin Phoenix, Casey Affleck, Illeana Douglas, Alison Folland, Dan Hedaya, Holland Taylor, Wayne Knight, Kurtwood Smith, George Segal, Susan Traylor, Maria Tucci, Tim Hopper, Michael Rispoli, Buck Henry, David Cronenberg