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Friday, Apr 5, 2013
There's a sort of hypnotics at work in Deniz Tortum's Zayiat that hints at the core idea of the story while still keeping that essential kernel of je ne sais quoi intact.

At its heart, Zayiat (Casualties) is a story about the search for meaning not only as a metaphorical quest but also as an exploration in structure. Director Deniz Tortum adopts the long, stoic shots favored by iconic directors Akira Kurosawa and Abbas Kiorastami as a visual vehicle for a tale that is at as universal as it is deeply Turkish. The rhythmic cinematography at the heart of Zayiat is deeply compelling, drawing us into a story that may or may not be all that interesting on its own. There’s a sort of hypnotics at work here that hints at the core idea of the story while still keeping that essential kernel of je ne sais quoi intact.


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Thursday, Sep 10, 2009

His imagination knows no bounds. His initial trailer park tenets have expanded to hotel rooms, city parks, dive apartments, and now, far off roadside locations. His cast, almost exclusively made up of “found” talent among the fringes of normal society, continues to surprise with their acting adeptness and acumen, and no one understands the inherent facets of filmmaking (and how to deconstruct them) better. In a realm dominated by studio supplied splash, he’s the last remaining independent and as he continues to produce and distribute his own unique cinematic vision, Giuseppe Andrews finds new ways to explore and examine his muse.


This time out, we have a trio of films left over from a failed Troma package. Along with the previous reviewed Doily’s Summer of Freak Occurrences and Long Row to Hoe, they highlight a mighty middle period in the young man’s moviemaking majesty. Known as “The Soup Trilogy” (for the foodstuff’s importance, narratively), Actor, Babysitter, and Grandpa show the unlimited infinite nature of Andrews’ artistry, as well as his ability to find immeasurable truths in even the most unusual and/or unlikely places. Dealt with individually, we can see where these particular entries fit in his overall creative canon, as well as what they have to say about the particular human experience being illustrated, beginning with:


Actor

Bronze is a down on his luck thespian who needs a break badly. Literally living off his one recognizable moment in the TV cop show Boys in Blue (he played a TV stealing criminal), he spends his days hustling, his nights arguing with his live-in companion, a transvestite Christian rock wannabe. After a beer can robbery goes wrong, Bronze gets his songwriting pal an audition. When that falls through, he hits rock bottom. A bout with cellphone-induced ear cancer and an incident with a haphazardly thrown can of soup seals his sad fate.


As character studies go, Actor is a classic case of talentlessness and temptation. Miles Dougal delivers a killer performance as a wayward young performer, lost in a world of missed opportunities and unlikely alliances. He’s a journeyman who has watched luck pass by him time and time again. Auditions go poorly and get rich quick schemes stumble before they even start. While Bronze bellyaches quite a bit about his sorry lot in life, he does seem stricken by a dark cloud of misfortune. There is a sequence near the middle when he tells the story of a racehorse that could have been his, had he simply followed his gut reaction. Instead, he rejected the offer and ended up kissing away the keys to Easy Street. Similarly, his inability to keep his ego in check results in a disastrous audition/performance by his cross-dressing companion. Andrews digs deep here, using obvious scatology and skewed symbolism to illustrate the standard Tinseltown riches-to-rags (or perhaps better put - nominal-to-nothing) tale.



As he does with all of his movies, Andrews finds the roles that best fit his accomplished group of amateur cast members and then allows them to deliver his deliberate dialogue with off the page/cuff cleverness. Trailer park titans Walt Dongo and Tyree are especially effective as the sexually ambiguous rocker and a casting agent who needs closure for a particularly troubling onset relationship. Andrews constantly screws around with gender identity and clarity. We often wonder if the characters portrayed are gay, straight, somewhere in between, or utilized like they were in ancient Greek theater (men playing women, for example). But this is Dougal’s film, and it rises and falls on his tour de force efforts. We don’t always sympathize with Bronze, but we definitely understand his downward spiral. The end events, hinted at throughout the film, highlight just how far into the limelight landfill Hollywood will drive a struggling cinematic cast-off - and if he’s anything, this bad actor is a true piece of celluloid refuse.


Babysitter

Plop - named after the sound he made upon his birth - is a notorious infant caregiver wanted by the police. Apparently, unwitting parents (including a particularly proud gay couple) have hired the semi-retarded redneck nanny under the pretense that he takes good care of his toddler charges. Instead, Plop beats and humiliates the children, taking out his own sad mental issues out on them. Thanks to an ex-girlfriend. However, the cops are hot on his trail. It won’t be long before the long arm of the law, or a mangled baby with a can of soup, ends Plop’s cruel crime spree once and for all.


As close to John Waters as he will probably ever come, Andrews’ brilliant Babysitter is a hoot and a half. It’s high brow comedy crafted out of incredibly low brow burlesque. True, the thought of some middle-aged man with an adult diaper full of Number Two beating a plastic doll baby stand-in like an MMA fighter may not sound like the stuff of major satire, but our multi-talented director creates one of the classic cult rubes with the pompadoured Plop. And the results are resplendent in their dumb humor hilarity. Miles Dougal once again shows his range and amazing mastery of the regressive son of soil’s psychosis. We simultaneously despise and delight in Plop’s personal dementia, a sleazy infantilism mixed with jaundiced jealousy to create a cracked comic kick in the head. By the time our child abusing bumpkin gets his canned comeuppance, we’re ready for the release. Andrews builds up so much ridiculous chutzpah over the course of this film that the finale acts like a brazen, blissful palette cleanser. 



And Dougal is only half the story. Dongo and Tyree are back again, this time playing officer and tranny gentleman/femme fatale respectively. Their informal Q&A, providing most of the flashback insight into Plop’s particular problem, is hilarious, loaded with line readings straight out of a electroshock therapy session. They also trade roles, so to speak, the policeman stepping in for the lady to handle the necessary undercover work. Similarly, Dougal, dressed up in obscenely short overalls, a big bad wig, and even worse teeth, turns the common hillbilly into a thing of unabridged beauty, avoiding cliché while clinging desperately to every stereotype the character suggests. As usual, there are elements of juvenile joking throughout, including a character who has the ability to pass gas through his penis. But for those who known Andrews and his work, such telltale toilet humor is more of an ambient aside than a reason for being. The real meaning here is in the individuals and their idiosyncrasies. If Waters stands as the reigning Prince of Puke, Babysitter argues for Giuseppe Andrews rightful place as his post-modern protégé.


Grandpa

After a fall at a local bar, an elderly alcoholic asks his adult grandsons for one last favor. Seems several years ago he took five hookers to a remote hotel suite known as the Pony Room and spent the entire evening satisfying their every need. Now, nearing death and continuously soused to the gills, he wants Ed and Burt to take him back there for a weekend of reminiscing. The road trip will be difficult, especially with Grandpa’s lack of control (bowel or otherwise), but what waits there is even more disconcerting - a cursed can of chicken noodle soup.


Really three very fine films in one, Grandpa proves that Giuseppe Andrews is more than just poop jokes and sexual assaults. Sure, the material inside the Pony Room, co-stars Miles Dougal and Tyree trading liquor-induced, curse-laden barbs and corporeal tales out of college is right up the filmmaker’s foul mouthed alley. And the road trip element, with its diaper changing pitstop and hilarious In-N-Out Burger stand-off is again standard issue Andrews. But the moments between Ed and hired paramour Tiffany Naylor argue for a maturity and romantic atmosphere that - all oddball dialogue aside - shows how serious he can be. There is a warmth here, and a tenderness, that we just don’t see in the rest of his oeuvre. And Naylor’s bikini dance is sure sexy in all its natural big girl beauty. While his amateur actors are always up to the challenge of his crazed comedic conversations, our wining and dining couple deliver a kind of simmer onscreen chemistry that’s almost impossible to manufacture.



Which, of course, proves Andrews’ point. Grandpa is about losing touch with your past, about living off memories instead of striving for new experiences. When Ed abandons his relatives at the remote hotel, taking off to be by himself, we understand the main message. While going back to re-experience a fabled tryst might be fun, created a new one with someone special is far more compelling. These scenes between Ed and Naylor are nuanced, beautifully acted, and well shot. They match perfectly with the handheld mayhem of Dougal and Tyree romping around the Pony Room. Even the ending is unusual here, suggesting a kind of karmic reward (and plausible penalty) for each character’s particular path. Oddly enough, this is the one time when the entire soup subplot really doesn’t work. It seems thrown in haphazardly and doesn’t really flow with the rest of the narrative. Still, for what it offers elsewhere, this is a fine capper to a trio of talent-filled tales.


As they often do, movies like Babysitter and Grandpa offer insight into what Andrews could achieve if given the proper no strings attached mainstream movie deal. Certainly, any studio would have to accept his unusual casting calls and tendency toward full frontal nudity. They’d also have to accept a certain level of undeniably raunchy humor. But the trade-off is tremendous. As isolated incidents within each of these three films show, no one understands the authenticity and truth of human emotion and longing better than Giuseppe Andrews. While “The Soup Trilogy” may suggest something far more dirty and disturbing, this amazing auteur continues to craft masterpieces to the misbegotten. He remains a stellar cinematic prophet.


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Sunday, Aug 30, 2009

Unlike the claims made by interviewees in many documentaries about a single, allegedly fascinating personality, there is one particularly grandiose one spouted off early in Ondi Timoner’s rough-cut but fascinating We Live in Public that actually seems to be true. Speaking of online media entrepreneur Josh Harris, one person refers to him as “the greatest Internet pioneer you’ve never heard of.” While the film that follows does a crack job of making this case, it doesn’t much bother trying to convince viewers that they’ve necessarily missed out on anything by this omission.


Harris made himself millions by founding and selling a couple brilliantly-conceived businesses right at the dawn of the Internet, and went on to sell his soul for a shot at fame—before claiming that it was all just “performance art.” One business, Jupiter Communications, made him wealthy simply by collecting and selling online market research to people before most anybody else thought of it. His next venture, Pseudo, was even more forward-thinking. Never mind that it was the mid-1990s and online video involving watching a few seconds of movement on a tiny RealPlayer screen, in between long bouts of herky-jerky movement and flashing “Buffering” signs. Harris set up the first online television network, with channels on multiple subjects (hip-hop, art), all swaddled in a glittery blanket of Silicon Alley cool. Blinded by the light (and the sneaking possibility that nobody was really watching), investors snapped up the stock and Harris rode off with yet more millions.


Which is where Timoner’s film gets interesting. Flush with bubble money, in 1999 Harris dumped $2 million of it into building a multi-level underground stage for an art project of heretofore unseen scope. Called “Quiet: We Live in Public,” it was a giant stage completely wired for video and sound, where a hundred people would live in total surveillance. There was free food at a long banquet table, a bar with free drinks, a clear-sided public shower stall, long rows of cubicle-hotel sleeping racks, a heavily-stocked firing range, and (just for kicks) Stasi-like interrogation sessions. Most importantly, though: everything wasn’t just being recorded on film, all the participants could watch themselves and each other while it unfolded. It was an exhibitionist’s wet dream.


Harris would later try to claim in a 2008 communiqué that Pseudo (a hot-air enterprise which burned through millions before getting sucked down the sinkhole of the dot.com crash) was “a fake company” and just “the linchpin of a long form piece of conceptual art,” not a critical misreading of the public’s online desires. “We Live in Public,” however, certainly fulfilled the definition of conceptual art (that, or a very expensive game of rats-in-a-cage, played by a cold-hearted sociopath who just wanted to turn humans into his own personal TV actors).


The astounding footage that Timoner—who was one of Harris’ willing internees—includes makes the whole thing look like the Stanford Prison Experiment spliced with some hellish eternal loft party, all booze, tears, glitter, and mind games. Packed with free-loading performance artists, rave kids, and the whole orbit of hangers-on spun off from the decade’s IPO-flush party scene (and shut down by the NYPD on January 1, 2000), the whole thing seems the perfect capper to a particularly narcissistic period in the history of a famously self-obsessed city.


And that was before Harris launched his next project: wiring every nook and cranny of the apartment he shared with his girlfriend, Tanya Corrin, for online broadcast.  While his exhibitionist bunker show presaged reality TV with the kind of visionary brio that made him so wealthy (Survivor and Big Brother premiered just months later in the summer of 2000), it was this next phase that truly managed to predict just where society was going.


It’s definitely disturbing to watch the scene Timoner includes where Harris and Corrin have a blow-out fight and then split off to their respective corners to check what people are saying in the online chat rooms. But one would be hard-pressed to say how different this scene is from a very common one from 2009: a couple sitting together in a restaurant and not talking, just plicking away at their respective PDAs.


It wasn’t for nothing that Harris was referred to as the “Warhol of the Web.” Self-indulgent or not, the creepily self-referential and airless digitized worlds he created were like flares being sent up from the not-so-distant past, lighting up the path that was taking us toward the anti-private, everybody’s-a-star world of today.


We Live in Public is nowhere near the film it could be. Although there’s a light dusting of criticism here and there, Timoner’s relationship with Harris (the two have been working on the film since 1999) seems too intertwined for her work to truly open the book on a man whose badly-timed brilliance seems almost matched by his eerie, clinically detached voyeurism and bratty quest for fame at all costs.


But then, most people who worked with Warhol seemed to take his similarly alien quietude in stride, as well. Of course, Warhol at least occasionally bothered to tell his painted or filmed subjects that they were fabulous, Harris (currently flogging another venture in look-at-me! Entertainment hucksterism, Wired City) just seems to be looking for the next IPO.


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Friday, Aug 28, 2009

At 73 he remains an icon in his native Brazil, a bold and brash filmmaker who takes the norms of society (and the country’s reliance on religion) and attacks them with anarchic glee. He’s a true eccentric, his off camera persona matching his onscreen façade right down to the overlong fingernails and sinister goatee. As the classic character Zé do Caixão, otherwise known as Coffin Joe, he introduced South America to true movie macabre, and as a writer/director, he’s dabbled in every genre from sexploitation to the Western. Now, Jose Mojica Marins has returned to his legendary undertaker character to conclude his long planned trilogy, and while Embodiment of Evil can be enjoyed by anyone curious about the foreign fright master, those who’ve followed the character since its inception will be richly rewarded.


After spending 40 years in an prison asylum, the craven killer known as Coffin Joe is finally being released. With the help of a lawyer, who just happens to be the wife of a policeman that the villain blinded decades before, he reconnects with his assistant Bruno and sets up shop in the slums of São Paulo. There, he “deputizes” some new followers and begins his ultimate quest - to gain immortality via finding the “perfect woman” to continue his bloodline and bear his son. There are several candidates among the disenfranchised and destitute, but Joe insists on finding just the right one. During the search, he is tormented by the past, seeing ghostly visions of those he has wronged. As the law comes closer and closer to capturing him, Coffin Joe must avoid local superstition and forces from the Underworld, each one desperate to see him fail.


It’s so satisfying to see that little has change in the near half century since Jose Mojica Marins first unleashed this heretical undertaker on the God-fearing populace of Brazil. Still angry, still vehemently humanist, and still ready to blaspheme and belittle everything - from the Saints to the State, Coffin Joe has become even more relevant in the new century. He’s like a dissident distributing death, not a call for change. In his top hat and cape, he’s a case of nasty nostalgia, a reminder of what we used to fight for and an illustration of why said struggles are far from over. Draped in lots of gruesome atmosphere and some amazing special effects, Marins turns this final chapter in the character’s quest for everlasting life into a Grand Guignol geek show, complete with shocking sequences of vivisection, cannibalism and sexual sadism.


But it’s the message that’s much more important to Marins than the splatter. This is a movie that challenges the conventional wisdom, that argues for a man “higher than God and lower than Satan”. At any opportunity, from a minor moment interacting with his potential minions to major clashes with authority, Coffin Joe spews his “man first” mantras. It’s a philosophy based in freedom, self-actualization and fulfillment, anti-establishment stances, and most importantly, a rejection of faith. Clearly, Marins sees the Church as the root of all evil. He constantly challenges it necessity and own hypocrisy, even offering up a priest character who, while seeking revenge, has a few questionably kinky habits all his own. In Coffin Joe’s world, life is all that matters - and a life free of the restraints and unrealistic demands of The Bible is the most important of all.


This doesn’t mean that Embodiment of Evil skimps on the splatter, however. Like Dario Argento’s finale for his Three Mothers series, this is a film that relishes the repulsive nature of post-modern gore in all its ingenious facets. There are scenes that simply stun you in their cruelty, including one particular moment when Marins’ “blinds” a subject with her own scalp. Yes, it’s as nasty as it sounds. Perhaps the most disturbing scene is the trip into Purgatory, Coffin Joe confronting the keeper of said dominion as acts of horrific physical depravity play out in the background. Like the filmmakers he’s most influenced by - Alejandro Jodorowsky and Kenneth Anger - Marins believes in the power of images. Even if they don’t make much sense, we can still appreciate the artistry, impact, and vision involved.


And thanks to the callbacks to his previous films, tying everything together with an attempted narrative flow, Embodiment of Evil keeps everyone happy. Newcomers to the series can pick up the plot almost instantly while enjoying the up to date gruesomeness, while fans familiar with Joe’s insane ravings will get a healthy dose of said screeds. There are times when things seem purposefully confrontational and the actors playing the policemen occasionally come across as stodgy and amateurish. Indeed, one frequently feels that the cast can’t quite get a handle of Marins’ motives. Sometimes, they sync up with him quite nicely. At other instances, it’s like their starring in a parody of his impassioned secular scarefests.


Still, unlike many former masters who return to the territory that made them famous, Jose Mojica Marins truly delivers with Embodiment of Evil. While it doesn’t have the daft deranged darkness of his first few films, or the intellectualized assault of his pseudo-documentaries, it’s a brilliant wrap-up to an equally impressive career. Indeed, it’s rare when someone can be both revered and reviled in his own country, a legend to some, a legitimate threat to others. Though a lot of his issues within Brazil stem directly for the way he thumbs his nose at their convictions, Marins wouldn’t be so important if he wasn’t so good at what he does. After nearly five decades delivering the kind of foreign fright flick shivers that turn the curious into obsessives, his latest is a triumph of tenacity and temerity. If ever a filmmaker lived up to his own self-created reputation, it’s Jose Mojica Marins. He doesn’t just make Coffin Joe movies - he lives them. And a world of scary movie mavens is happier for it. 


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Thursday, Aug 13, 2009

It is still the quest of many a young naïve dreamer - take your talent (no matter how major or marginal), pack up a bag, leave your wholesome hometown in the dust, and head out to Hollywood. There, set yourself up in some fleabag rat trap, spend your days pounding the pavement and your nights waiting tables, resolute in your desire to “make it big”. Sure, there are pitfalls along the way - conmen and casting couches, phony film insiders and experts in exploitation (personal or otherwise) - but you believe you have the goods. You’re convinced you’ll make it. Of course, when you don’t, it’s the end of the world and a true sense of desperation takes over. And as the incredible new comedy Attack of the Slime People proves, when you’re needy, you’ll do anything - including a few things that aren’t quite legal.


Former filmmaking hotshot Buddy Flavinoid is having a bad day. Actually, it’s been a horrible couple of years. Believing himself to be the best director in Tinseltown (and he has the homemade shrine to prove it) his last production, The Attack of the Atomic Reptiles, tanked. The reason? Buddy hated the original actor hired to play the lead, so he bludgeoned him to death and recast the part. Though he got away with it, the crime has haunted him ever since. Now a mysterious backer wants to finance his latest film - Attack of the Slime People - and Buddy is having the same problem. He wants the Elvis-like Tadd Bentley to star. But producer Dick Goldberg and his saucy assistant Shelia think that stalker/obsessive Sydney Point would be a much better choice. Up against the wall once again, Buddy has no choice but to break out the old Louisville slugger and start solving his problems.


Imagine David Lynch’s demented sitcom On the Air retrofitted for the ‘50s b-movie biz mixed with a hilariously healthy dose of baseball bat wielding spree killing and you have some idea of the unsane madness that is Attack of the Slime People. It is safe to say that there has probably been no greater illustration of Hollywood’s dehumanizing effect on talent than this clever, quirky bit of burlesque. With a terrific tour de force performance by co-writer/co-producer Robert Tiffi and spot on era-appropriate direction from Martin King, what could have been artificial and phony becomes arch and very, very funny. This is the kind of quirky exercise where character traits are amplified to running gag perfection, where our leads ever-present smile turns from inviting to insidious at the drop of a dime novel. When combined with a terrific set of side personalities, a viscous Chihuahua, and a snarky sense of satire, the results are truly memorable.


King conceives this entire project as a clever bit of space age bachelor padding. The retro feel is so ripe you can almost smell the sour gin sweat of Flavinoid’s favorite local dive bar. In the lead, Tiffi is terrific, never once playing the role as realistic. Instead, this is one flailing filmmaker who comes across as a combination of Tex Avery’s cartoon and a walking insurance ad. Flavinoid is so clueless, and Tiffi is so brilliant at portraying this disconnect, that we’re amazed when he manages to do anything other than walk aimlessly in circles. This over-the-top tool has his drawbacks, meaning we never really sympathize with his production plight, but King keeps things in check. This is even true of ancillary characters like the slyly psycho Sydney Point or Flavinoid’s elephantine assistant Marge.


Indeed, while Tiffi gets all the close-ups and the cast gets to play period piece dress up, our director handles it all expertly, keeping things light and breezy. This is the kind of mannered material that could get easily bogged down in its desire to be purposefully kitschy and/or camp (read: the lame Lost Skeleton of Cadavera). But thanks to some excellent restraint on King’s part and the exceptional casting overall, what could be tedious instead comes across as electric. Even better, Attack of the Slime People has a subtle statement to make about selling out for the sake of proposed stardom - the title even gives it away. In the irritated ingénue Allison Hayes, a wistful young thing who just can’t believe she has to sleep her way into schlock cinema irrelevance, we get all kinds of well-honed warnings. She often sounds like the voice of the filmmakers speaking directly to an audience of wannabe indie actors and auteurs.


What’s really great about Attack of the Slime People, outside of the expert way it handles its hilarity, is that King and Tiffi are fearless in their desire to entertain. They inject all kinds of mayhem into this movie, from goofy fake names (just try and pronounce police detective Bacon’s moniker - I dare you) to Flavinoid’s issue with dogs. The insider jabs, like namedropping and referencing, also work well, as do the times when King just holds the camera on his star and lets those slightly smoke-stained pearly whites do the talking. From his frequent hooker show/slap downs to the spastic way he carries himself, Buddy Flavinoid is a crazy cult creation - and a surefire cinema superstar. Even if Ed Wood truly could direct rings around this stilted human statue, he’d never have our hero’s flair for flopsweat.


In a realm which regularly congratulates itself for being better and more artistically in touch with its source inspiration than the audience it caters to, it’s nice to see a clever collaboration like Attack of the Slime People. While budgetary reasons keep us from ever witnessing a frame of Flavinoid’s failed oeuvre (it would be super sweet to check out some Atomic Reptile sequences, though), we really don’t need the added illustration. It’s clear from their approach and attention to detail that King and Tiffi totally understand this filmic failure. If he isn’t Hollywood hope perverted, he’s definitely the dream deferred. It’s easy to see why so many Tinseltown types move from a night of 1000 stars to a day with the locusts. Attack of the Slime People may sound like another typical bit of Bert I. Gordon ‘50s falderal. Instead, it’s an outsider send-up that’s as cheeky as it is clever. 


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