[26 March 2009]
It’s safe to say that no other film released in 1999 approaches Julien Donkey-Boy in audacity, ambition, bewilderment, discomfort, and, ultimately, success. Drawing from Faulkner, Cassavetes, Danish formalists like Lars Von Trier, and of course German master Werner Herzog, writer/director Harmony Korine assembled a startlingly original piece of work that is that rarest of things: an almost wholly successful experimental film.
The film centers around what Roger Ebert somewhat dryly called “a very dysfunctional family.” German auteur Werner Herzog plays the abusive, ranting father, who drinks cough syrup out of a shoe, talks at considerable length about recordings of bird-talking championships and the movie Dirty Harry, and never stops berating his children. Trainspotting‘s Ewen Bremner is the titular Julien, a basically lovable schizophrenic prone roughly equally to fits of sorrow, rage, tenderness, and insensibility. Trying to protect Julien from their abusive father and from his own destructive impulses is his sister, portrayed by Chole Sevigny; the only source of acceptance or love in Julien’s life, he comes to think of her as more than just a sister (hint: she’s pregnant for most of the film). Finally, there’s the younger brother trying to be everything his family is not: strong, successful, and above all, normal. These relationships are, in essence, the film’s plot. There is no action, per se, aside from charting the developments (or lack thereof) between the characters. In that sense, you could call Julien Donkey-Boy a kind of love story.
The film borrows heavily from several sources. Structurally, there are traces of Faulkner, with the film recreating the disjointed and temporally dislodged perspective of a schizophrenic, as in The Sound and the Fury. Dramatically, the scenes of the awkward dinners of a family on the edge of complete madness recalls Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence.
Julien Donkey Boy was also the first American film made in accordance with the rules of Dogme 95, a now-defunct set of formal filmmaking constraints pioneered in Denmark and popularized by the likes of Lars Von Treir (Breaking the Waves) and Thomas Vinterberg (The Celebration). A minimalist movement focused on capturing real life as accurately as possible, Dogme Films must abide by a strict and somewhat arcane set of rules (one of them involves the film’s aspect ratio). The most important ones, however, are the basic ideas that the film must use available light, the filmmakers must not import any props, and that all camera work must be handheld. These restraints give the film the gripping immediacy of real life (as well as much of its muddled confusion).
Despite these debts, much of the film is pure Korine. The man behind films like KIDS and Gummo, Korine cemented his personal style with this film. First of all, it’s devastatingly funny. Even in the most intense scenes, there is an intentionally laughable absurdity that leavens things, usually comes in the form of a heavily-accented and possibly rhyming put-down form Herzog, as when he shouts “A winner doesn’t shiver!” while hosing down Julien in the freezing pre-dawn. It’s a complicated idea that you can be moved and scared and laughing all at once; it’s something that happens often in real life, but is nearly impossible to convey on screen.
Julien also continues Korine’s obsession with life on the fringe, with several real-life disabled people on screen. Are we supposed to laugh at the amputee drumming with his legs? What about the rapping black albino? Well, yes and no. These people are obviously a bit insane, but they’re also dedicated to overcoming their obstacles and having an amazingly good time doing it. If you have a chuckle about the ridiculousness of it all, well, that can’t be helped.
Julien Donkey-Boy is a complex, confusing, and gripping film, and, despite its characters’ eccentricities, one of the most true-to-life films I’ve ever seen. Chris Chafin
Though I’m embarrassed to admit it now, at the time I sided with those who believed that David Lynch should resign from the Director’s Guild after the 135 minutes of incomprehensibility that was Lost Highway (1997). I was too young to see Blue Velvet (1986) in the theaters, so my introduction to Lynch came by way of Dennis Hopper as Frank Booth hosting “What’s That Smell?” on Saturday Night Live. Though I knew the sketch was a cartoon version of the real thing, I found it weird and wonderful enough that I continued to watch as Special Agent Dale Cooper tracked down Laura Palmer’s killer in Twin Peaks (1990) and as Sailor serenaded Lula in Wild at Heart (1990). Obviously, I wasn’t completely oblivious going in to Lost Highway, yet nothing that Lynch had done previously—not even the student-film surrealism of Eraserhead (1977)—prepared me for the cinematic leap that he was asking me to make. Little did I know that two years later he would ask me to leap again, with the decidedly un-Lynchian The Straight Story (1999).
Films often speak to one another, but The Straight Story is a rare example of a movie that speaks to its predecessor’s detractors. The consensus was that after he posed the narrative challenges of Lost Highway, Lynch then went out of his way to prove that he knew how to make a conventional film. Even the title suggested normalcy: sure, it refers to the real-life Alvin Straight, who, at 73, rode his tractor 240 miles from Laurens, Iowa, to Mount Zion, Wisconsin, to visit his ailing brother, but so too (and no less obviously) does the title refer to the movie’s squeaky-clean “G” rating and a story that unfolds in an almost laughingly linear manner. The only thing more shocking than a naked Isabella Rosellini arriving unannounced at the Beaumonts’ suburban home in Blue Velvet is the word “Disney” preceding “a film by David Lynch” before the opening credits of The Straight Story.
The word “laughingly” above is both unfortunate and accurate. Were it not for Lynch’s track record and Richard Farnsworth’s Oscar-nominated performance as Alvin, the movie’s earnestness would warrant great and deserved derision. A line like “The worst part about being old is remembering when you were young” would never work in a movie by, say, Chris Columbus or Ron Howard, but somehow here Lynch/Farnsworth imbue it with gravitas. There’s no getting around that John Roach and Mary Sweeney’s screenplay is laden with Hallmark-card moments, but Lynch, the proud Eagle Scout, has earned the benefit of a doubt, and, in any case, scoffing at a man who tries to make his final amends ultimately reveals more about me than it does about the filmmakers.
But a discussion of The Straight Story that emphasizes the degree to which it deviates from Lynch’s standard fare ultimately proves to be a lazy interpretation. The more illuminating approach identifies how it seamlessly fits with his other work, for there is no doubt that, atypical though it may be, The Straight Story has Lynch’s scent all over it.
First, the soundtrack: It’s lighter here—it gallops more than it portends—but that is the unmistakable sound of Angelo Badalamenti, a Lynch staple since 1986. In fact, thanks in large part to Badalamenti’s trademark style, the movie’s opening scene—a shot of the night sky and a music cue that feels like a lost track from the Twin Peaks sessions—leaves little doubt as to who was at the helm.
Second, the pace: a character in Mulholland Drive takes a full five minutes of screen time to sip a cappuccino and then spit it out (or that’s what it felt like anyway). Lynch’s pace has been known to be deliberate to the point of boring, and The Straight Story is no exception. Watch as the camera inches—literally—over the lawn as the sunbathing woman first leaves her post and then returns, before it then turns to the house and respectfully keeps its distance as Alvin falls. This is a film that is, at times, S-L-O-W slow. I’d even go so far as to say that it’s as slow as riding a lawnmower across the country.
Finally, the character of Alvin Straight himself. Alvin joins a long list of Lynch’s characters who are driven to the point of being monomaniacal. The difference here is that Alvin isn’t investigating some kind of mystery that will eventually shatter all that he believes about himself and the world. He wants to see his brother. He wants to see his brother real bad. So who cares if this is a quest that Red State America can embrace? Alvin’s monomania is no less intense than any of Lynch’s other heroes.
Nowadays, Lynch seems content to make movies that are increasingly inaccessible for all but the most devoted cinephiles. This is not a criticism. Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire have helped me appreciate Lost Highway, though I still find it a hard movie to love. There are things that, no matter how hard I try, I will never understand. This is what I take from Lynch’s recent work.
But for a time there, at the end of the last century, David Lynch offered something very different. The Straight Story is, appropriately for a director who is so obsessed himself with identity of late, two things in one: on the one hand, it is everything that makes a Lynch film a Lynch film, only in a form that is far easier to digest; on the other, despite the aforementioned argument suggesting otherwise, it is the one movie in his oeuvre that will forever stand out in contrast to the others. Who knew that a simple story, well told would end up being his most radical achievement of them all? Kirby Fields
In 1999, professional wrestling had achieved a status of cultural relevance it hadn’t seen since the ‘80s with Hulk Hogan and hasn’t seen since. During an epoch of professional wrestling dubbed “The Attitude Era”, thanks to a high level of quality of the (admittedly) scripted television storylines, wrestlers and their catchphrases became embedded in the public lexicon. What was once lambasted as lowest-common denominator entertainment had suddenly piqued the public’s curiosity.
During these early days of the internet, rabid fans clamored for insider knowledge. Wrestling’s newfound attempts at scripted realism mined wrestlers’ real-life stories for screen fodder further fueled this fascination. With this in mind, writer/director and long-time wrestling fan Barry W. Blaustein capitalized on professional wrestling’s foothold in popular culture with his documentary, Beyond the Mat.
Blaustein parlayed the public’s fascination with wrestling into a brutally honest, well-rounded documentary that garnered a major theatrical release and distribution through Universal. No mean feat at the time, documentaries were rarely shown in wide theatrical release in a pre-Michael Moore-boom society.
The documentary’s influence on Darren Aronofsky’s recent film and Mickey Rourke comeback vehicle, The Wrestler is apparent. Aronofsky even gave a copy of Beyond the Mat to screenwriter Robert D. Siegel to serve as his muse while writing the script for The Wrestler.
Gritty, alternately heart-warming and heart-wrenching, beneath the sweaty soap opera glamour of wrestling, Beyond the Mat‘s narrative delves deep into the even more dramatic stories of the actor/athletes enshrouded by a super-human persona.
Young, hungry aspiring wrestlers are interviewed as they attempt to break into the ranks of WWE and then-active competitor, WCW. The dreams of these hopefuls are contrasted alongside the business end of wrestling with interviews and footage of WWE head honcho and CEO, Vince McMahon.
The film also separately chronicles the personal stories of wrestlers like the then-53-year old Terry Funk and his protégé, Mick Foley. In spite of the damage done to his body from years of in-ring abuse, Funk’s refuses give up touring and performing. Although he has a loving family at home and is preparing for both his daughter’s wedding and his own retirement, Funk debates whether he can really walk away from wrestling – even at the cost of his physical well-being. It’s not so much the stardom that is addictive, but rather the roar of the crowd and the brotherhood of life on the road.
While the subject of adjusting to a more mundane existence outside the brotherhood of professional wrestling a recurring theme in The Wrestler, the story of wrestler Jake “The Snake” Roberts bears even more of an eerie resemblance to Mickey Rourke’s characterization of Randy “The Ram” Robinson a decade prior.
Beyond the Mat‘s most poignant footage comes during Blaustein’s interviews with a very real and painfully honest Jake “The Snake” Roberts . Once a main eventer with a compelling presence, Roberts’ own personal demons stemming from his troubled childhood translated to a tragic and troubled adulthood complete with drug addiction and a turbulent relationship with an unforgiving daughter. (Sound familiar?)
Almost as hard to digest as Roberts’ tragic presence baring his soul to the lens, is Blaustein’s profiling of Mick Foley. Foley, now a best-selling author who wrestled under as the insane Mankind and sadistic Cactus Jack during WWE’s “Attitude Era” is presented as a normal, grounded, 30-something family man at the top of his game as WWE World Champion. It’s a cringe-worthy moment, watching Foley’s wife and two young children seated ringside as their patriarch is pummeled in the ring, hit repeatedly in the head with a steel folding chair. The outcome and the stunt were pre-planned by Foley and his opponent, The Rock; the tears, fear, and screams of his family – as well as the stitches Foley received post-match – were real.
To hear Foley speak (rather eloquently, actually), the in-ring abuse is part and parcel of what makes wrestlers stars. The more convincing the beatings, the more personal satisfaction these wrestlers feel with their performance. At its crux, Beyond the Mat paints wrestling with a human face, attempting to make sense of an insider’s industry to the outside world that looks on in strange fascination. Lana Cooper
“Saving someone’s life is like falling in love. The best drug in the world. For days, sometimes weeks afterwards, you walk the streets, making infinite whatever you see.”
When speaking about the relevance of Martin Scorsese’s film-making at large, Bringing Out the Dead becomes one of the least revered of the bunch. Scorsese has always been a master at character utilization, but Bringing Out the Dead is easily on par with the likes of Mean Streets and Raging Bull. Nicholas Cage’s character Frank Pierce, a paramedic that strolls through the New York night saving lives, leads a life of little hope and candid regret. Scorsese and Cage click with great precision, finding the subtle qualities that express the human condition. Instead of utilizing heavy portions of dialogue for Cage’s character, Scorsese let the people around him—such as the co-pilots, people on the scene of the incident, and hospital employees—describe the basic elements of the plot. In quite possibly the finest acting job of his career, Cage signifies with facial qualities and hallucinations of a girl he failed to save (Rose), the amount of misery his life is buried in. Hands down one of the bleakest films in American cinema, Scorsese finds an obsession in the struggle of the common man, much like he did in Taxi Driver and Raging Bull.
Most importantly, Robert Richardson’s cinematography work is arguably some of the best in the world of American Cinema, complementing Scorsese’s ideals of mood evocation with elegance and ease. The lighting puts the characters in the middle of a visual nightmare in Hell’s Kitchen, while the fluidity of the camera movement runs slow to complement the sluggish nights on the job. Being the mastermind behind the likes of JFK, Natural Born Killers, and Kill Bill—Richardson has provided himself with quite the resume over the past couple of decades.
Also not unlike Scorsese, this is quite possibly the best musical direction ever put together for one of his films. Combining elements of doo-wop, early rock ‘n’ roll, and punk (two Clash songs in fact: “Janie Jones” and “I’m So Bored with the U.S.A.), music may be the only element that distracts from the grief (well, that and a little help from John Goodman as a co-pilot always focusing on his next meal). The opening song of the film, “T.B. Sheets”, written and performed by Van Morrison, is about a girl in her hospital bed dying, drawing a parallel to Frank’s anguish over the death of Rose. Leave it to Morrison to parallel emotional hell the way Scorsese and gang does.
It’s interesting to look back ten years, considering this was the last film released on the Laserdisc format, and here we are converting into Blu-ray. As many of the films with large budgets of the day fall flat in comparison of today’s special effects, Bringing Out the Dead is a testament to working on the big bucks tastefully. Due to the emotional rollercoaster it takes you on, while not screaming for repeated sittings, this may not go down as one of Scorsese’s masterpiece. However, Scorsese newcomers will dig it up for years to come, serving as a testament to a man’s diversity in filmmaking. John Bohanonn
It would be easy to misread Pedro Almodóvar’s1999 film All About My Mother as nothing more than a playfully transgressive romp, in which absurd characters misbehave with wild abandon for comic effect. This is, in fact, what Almodóvar seemed to be after in several of his earlier movies, such as the wonderfully madcap Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, or the nuns-and-drugs farce Dark Habits. On the surface, All About My Mother is no different: it tells the story of Manuela (Cecilia Roth), a grief-stricken woman who moves to Barcelona in order to stalk an aging actress (Marisa Paredes) who played a role in the accidental death of her son. Meanwhile, Manuela renews her decades-old friendship with a transvestite prostitute (Antonia San Juan) and also becomes the caretaker and adoptive mother for an ailing, pregnant nun (Penelope Cruz). It’s an improbable, even ridiculous premise, and it becomes even more so as the plot piles on absurdities on the way to an unlikely and highly melodramatic ending.
Yet at the same time, All About My Mother is an uncommonly moving film, and it contains moments of rapturous beauty and genuine power. As Manuela searches for her old friend Agrado (San Juan) in Barcelona’s seamy backstreets, the camera rises up into the sky in order to look down on a group of prostitutes being circled by johns in their cars. The shot is a grand gesture, fit for a moment of great triumph in a sweeping epic—and in the context of Almodóvar’s comically gritty premise, it comes off as audacious in its unexpectedness, and also outrageously beautiful. In All About My Mother, Almodóvar brings all the emotionally lush grandeur of cinematic art to bear on characters and subject matter that many artists would treat only with pity or laughter. Although the film often is funny and absurd, Almodóvar imbues every shot with passionate artistry and a deep-running, non-condescending affection for his characters.
All About My Mother closes with a loving dedication: “To Bette Davis, Gena Rowlands, Romy Schneider…To all actresses who have played actresses, to all women who act, to men who act and become women, to all people who want to become mothers. To my mother.” Almodóvar is the all-too-rare male filmmaker who makes movies about women. His female characters are far more than just objects of desire for male protagonists; instead, women’s lives, wants, and stories are the central concerns of nearly all of his films. All About My Mother contains several rich, multi-dimensional, and meaty female parts, all of which Almodóvar presents with the self-conscious intention of paying tribute to great women of cinema’s past. The movie’s title is an explicit allusion to All About Eve, and Almodóvar also borrows much of its plot, while at the same time weaving in extended allusions to A Streetcar Named Desire and passing references to artists, writers, and filmmakers ranging from Mark Chagall to Oscar Wilde.
Almodóvar’s point here is not to prove his self-conscious postmodern cleverness. Instead, he treats his allusions with the same intense affection that he directs toward his characters. Almodóvar understands that love for art is at its core an expression of love for life and for all of humanity, and he wants to show us that every woman—every grieving mother, every transvestite prostitute, every pregnant nun—deserves the same kind of boundless, overflowing love that movie audiences routinely offer up to stars on screen. All About My Mother is a great film because it uses its self-conscious allusions not to create cold, sophisticated ironies, but instead to provide audiences with a passionate, open-armed reminder of art’s power to transform our small lives and desires into grand-scale collective visions of beauty and love. Ryan Williams
When Being John Malkovich appeared in 1999, few people knew what to expect. Here was a film that was written by a former sitcom writer, directed by a music video auteur, based around a positively ridiculous concept (a semi-professional puppeteer discovers a portal into the head of actor John Malkovich that drops you outside the New Jersey Turnpike 15 minutes later), with its stunning female lead (Cameron Diaz) actually made to look absolutely unattractive, and—oh yeah—even the pet monkey has a flashback sequence at one point. What should’ve been the laughing stock of the film industry instead turned out to be so much more: Being John Malkovich one of the most stunningly original, innovative, and unquestionably tragic films to appear within the past two decades.
Directed by Spike Jonze and written by Charlie Kaufman (who’s since made a small cottage industry out of writing Charlie Kaufman movies), Being John Malkovich is a rare film that doesn’t live and die by its kooky premise: it explores every emotional facet of it through and through. The film’s first half-hour, in fact, might as well be the greatest comedy ever printed to celluloid, as the wacky sets (being on the seventh-and-a-half floor of an office building means that every character must uncomfortably slouch over at all times), sharp dialogue, and unique brand of humor (watch the scene where Craig tries to sound-out Maxine’s name without even hearing it) wins you over with quirky charm, completely disarming you for what’s to come. The film’s tragic final hour delves deep into heavy, dramatic territory, exploring such themes as modern day celebrity, homoerotic personal discovery, psychological intimidation, and spiritual imprisonment without even blinking an eye. Yes, Being John Malkovich exists entirely within its own universe, and, as such, even a Charlie Sheen cameo works wonders.
When the film arrived in 1999, it was greeted with deserving critical acclaim and three Oscar nominations: Jonze for Directing, Kaufman for Screenplay (natch), and Catherine Keener for Supporting Actress for her positively villainous turn as Maxine (Keener would go on to have small roles in Kaufman’s later projects Adaptation. and Synecdoche, New York). Yet as soul-crushingly good as Keener is, there are few films that truly live and die by the performance of an ensemble, and what Malkovich is blessed with is career-best turns from every single actor involved. Have you ever seen John Cusack play someone so emotionally distant, or Cameron Diaz craft a character that’s so hopelessly unsure of her own personal identity? King of them all, however, is Malkovich himself, delivering a performance so nuanced and pitch-perfect that you forget he’s even acting: the first time that Cusack’s Craig Schwartz begins controlling Malkovich—his body slightly seizuring at the adjustment—we buy it without question. It always feels like Malkovich is losing control of himself, a task that’s even more daunting when you consider that Malkovich is playing a parody of himself the entire time. Even when the ultimate inevitable happens—Malkovich crawling into the portal into his own head—the resulting scene is blessed with a confusion and surrealism that defies any proper description: it’s a moment that can only be accomplished on film, and truly must be seen to be believed.
Ten years later, the film hasn’t aged a day. It’s still as fresh and as ruthlessly innovative as it was upon first viewing, by no means deluded by the numerous Kaufman (and Kaufman-esque) scripts that have been produced in its wake. Part fantasy, part comedy, and part drama, it’s fair to say that no other film—before or after—has ever given us a universe so unrelentingly unique or a story so profoundly heartbreaking. Evan Sawdey
We’re living in the golden age of a number of phenomena—texting, blogging, “green”, and Google—about which one can be suspicious, or at least ambivalent. But we can all be delighted in what is truly, today, a golden age of animation. I am not a fan of CGI, though it can have its moments. (Certainly The Lord of the Rings is some kind of miracle.) Its use and overuse in most other movies is distracting and usually boring. But not when it comes to animation. From the uniformly incredible Pixar movies to the Ice Age series (Hail, Scrat!), the steady stream of animated films over the last ten years, as a group, clearly surpasses the collective Oscar winners for the same period.
Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke helped lead the way. Named by Roger Ebert as number six in his Ten Best movies of the year, Princess Mononoke is visually stunning, wildly inventive in plot and character, complex, involving, and proof that anime’s visual style (which otherwise leaves me cold) can be elevated to high cinematic art.
Set in feudal Japan, there are really two interwoven plot lines in what is essentially an ecological message movie. One is the love story between prince Ashitaka, who has been poisoned by a demon wild boar, and Princess Mononoke, a wild child and avenging superhero adopted as a baby by wolves. The prince has been charged by his villagers to find the boar’s origins and find a cure. The princess is fighting a battle to save her forest and its inhabitants from the industrial ravages of Irontown.
The second plotline is the attempt of Lady Eboshi, the leader of Irontown, to destroy the Forest Spirit, the presiding deity of the forest, in order to consolidate her power. The plot has a great many twists and turns, including a stunning battle between the Irontown army and an army of wild boars, and the beheading of the Forest Spirit, which results in the near destruction of the entire region when it is covered in a lethal black goop. Unlike most American animated movies, and one of Princess Mononoke’s charms, the ending is not all sweetness and hope. The world is saved and there is perhaps a future for prince and princess, but much has been irretrievably lost and love may not survive in the new, more modern, emerging world.
Not surprisingly, Princess Mononoke was the biggest box office hit of all time in Japan until Titanic came along, and although its limited American release was disappointing, when released on DVD the movie did extremely well, no doubt helped along by Ebert’s endorsement.
As much as I (and my two daughters) love this film, it’s not our favorite Miyazaki. The wildly inventive and visually stunning Spirited Away (2001) and Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) both have moments that match classic Disney films of the ‘50s. We can’t wait to see Miyazaki’s newest film, Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea, which is in production for American release. From the look of the trailer it promises to reveal a master at the height of his powers. Christopher Guerin
What’s the best independent movie of the ‘90s? Was it Quentin Tarantino’s tough talk and homage-heavy masterpiece Pulp Fiction? How about the Coen Brothers bowling cult in the making The Big Lebowski? Could it be something made outside the confines of America, like Lars Von Trier’s Breaking the Waves or Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter? Frankly, you’re way off if you consider anything other than Lloyd Kaufman’s loving homage to true, outside the mainstream art, Terror Firmer. That’s right, the Troma title, freely adapted from its company chief’s own tell-all tome All I Need to Know About Filmmaking I Learned from the Toxic Avenger is a ballsy, brazen dismissal of traditional Hollywood and the so-called professional production dynamic involved. In its place are a collection of outsiders so dedicated to their craft that they can’t see the serial killer carving up crewmembers in their midst.
Indeed, it wouldn’t be a Troma film without buckets of bloods and dozens of bared breasts. The storyline follows Kaufman’s cinematic alter ego, a blind auteur named Larry Benjamin as he tries to create yet another sequel to the successful Toxie franchise. Working with a group of interns and volunteers, our hack hero must balance the needs of drone diva starlet Christine (a delightful Debbie Rochon) with the less than polished artisanship of his helpers. They include suave and sophisticated boom mike operator Casey (Will Keenan), overly sensitive PA Jennifer (Alyce LaTourelle), and manic make-up man Jerry (Trent Haaga). As the bodies start piling up like cordwood, the company starts to wonder if there’s a psycho stalking the shoot. Of course, all Benjamin cares about is getting the days storyboards on celluloid before everything f*cks up.
For all it’s inside joking and absurdist humor, its Grand Guignol overindulgence and reliance on toilet gags as satire, Terror Firmer is a fascinating deconstruction of the filmmaking myth. It’s a slap in the face to all those pretenders to the cinematic throne and wipes its ass with the so called artistic endeavors of the big budget media conglomerates. It’s rude, crude, crafty, and of so effective. It’s also the most personal film in the entire Troma catalog. Kaufman can actually be heard channeling several of his own corporate missives here, from safety to humans to the necessary ridicule of inept film school graduates. With Rochon, Keenan, LaTourelle, and Haaga carrying most of the narrative weight, Kaufman is free to indulge in his Id-inspired commentary on trying to make meaning out of a bunch of film stock and a group of game but rather scattered onset talent.
In many ways, Terror Firmer plays like a mild mockumentary. We actually believe in the inherent truth in many of the mangled set-ups, the sequences where major mistakes are crafted out of too little sleep, too many crappy cheese sandwiches, and not enough time in the trenches. Several of the supporting characters are made into standard stereotyped caricatures - gay, slutty, suitcase pimp, naïve innocent, overworked waste - and Kaufman definitely utilizes their pre-programmed presence. Indeed, the only element underserved here is the whole Toxie tribute, which feels forced onto the film to stay within the Troma universe (and avoid anything fiscally messy, like paying for the rights to another project). As blood-drenched death scenes meld into moments of interpersonal struggle, Kaufman covers the entire subgenre in one savage sweeping.
Toward the end, as a particularly paunchy cast member runs buck naked through the streets of Manhattan (with the typical nonchalant reactions of the native New Yorkers), Kaufman is forced to put the mystery to bed, to reveal the murderer and make us understand his mentally deficient motivations. As the plotline unspools, as everyone in the cast joins in for sequences of shock, horror, dismay, and handicapped redemption, Terror Firmer delivers its final farcical blow. Given the identity (and gender orientation) of the killer, Kaufman gets Lemmy from hard rock icons Motorhead to deliver a PSA on hermaphrodites. Then, South Park gods Trey Parker and Matt Stone (who got their big break with Troma) appear, playing the roles of misunderstood she-males. It’s enough to make your already swollen brain itchy with irony. As with most of this amazing movie, thwarting convention is not enough. Terror Firmer takes the rules and runs ramshackle all over them - and if that’s not independent filmmaking, what is? Bill Gibron
“It’s all right. It’s okay. There’s something to live for. Jesus told me sooooooooo…”
‘Uncle’ Bill Borchardt
For wannabe auteur Mark Borchardt, no truer words have ever been spoken. Stuck in a dead end part of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, reduced to living with his mother as the various bills and delinquent debts build up, he maintains a single, solitary dream - to be a filmmaker. He’s tried before: an incomplete project known as Northwestern has haunted his professional pipe dreams since the day he abandoned the shoot. If he can raise enough cash, he can finish off the simmering slice-of-life statement and finally put to bed the rotten reputation he has with members of his family. That he’s 30 and so disconnected from the realities of his world makes his goals that much more unrealistic - and romantic.
In Chris Smith’s sensational documentary American Movie, Borchardt’s plans to get Northwestern off the ground again gives way to an insightful character study in which real people take the place of standard fictional folks. Yes, this is an actual human being, a genial huckster with a gift for gab and a growing drinking problem. Borchardt is many things in Movie - dreamer, deadbeat dad (he has three kids), ex-military man, family scandal, best friend, boyfriend, and bungler. While clearly talented when it comes to creating evocative visuals (Smith shows us clips of Borchardt’s iconic images to support the point), the overall narrative drive of film escapes him. For as much encyclopedic knowledge he carries about the craft, he just can’t seem to get beyond the basics.
Movie follows Borchardt as he finishes up a failed horror short known as Coven (which he, bizarrely enough, pronounces with a long “O”). His plan is simple - make this gory black and white genre entry, sell 3000 VHS units, rake in a pile of cash, pay off his investors, and jumpstart Northwestern. Supporting him in this backwards business strategy are his far too understanding mother, his ex-junkie buddy - and talented classical guitarist - Mike Schank, and certified scene stealer (and aging relative with moolah) Uncle Bill. As he tries to channel his muse, as he sits at the local airport with a pen and pad in hand trying to hammer out script rewrites, Borchardt stands like a celluloid Don Quixote - only in this case, the windmills he must battle are his own raging inner demons, a love of beer, and a failure to recognize his own limits.
It would be sad if it wasn’t so true, and Smith keeps things light and genial by balancing his lead’s darkness with the sunny sponsors around him. Schank is especially memorable, a curly haired manchild who used to party so hard that he has “several stories” about winding up in the hospital, too inebriated/high to maintain consciousness. Bill is also a veiled voice of reason, his inability to fully embrace his nephew’s dreams counterbalanced by his own lonely life in a dirty trailer on the outskirts of town. Wisconsin is viewed as the last bastion of culture and creativity. Borchardt (and via his observations, Smith) loves to focus on the wind spent winter vistas, the skeleton of trees painting dark black tendril lines against the smoky gray backdrop of the sobering sky. It’s what keeps him struggling. It’s what keeps him trapped.
True, there are moments of joviality here, times when Borchardt celebrates the arrival of a new credit card and Schank secretly tells Smith’s camera that he just won $100 bucks on the lottery. There are also sequences of unnecessary sadness, as when our subject and his ex fight ferociously in front of their underage children, or when Uncle Bill sings one of the dire dirges he himself writes. For Smith, the situation is crystal clear: Borchardt is someone with just enough skill to get by - perhaps even thrive somewhat - but lacks a foundational force that would truly move him to greater rewards.
It’s interesting to note that, in the 10 years since American Movie became a Sundance sensation, our visionary has yet to complete Northwestern (he’s currently making something called Scare Me). Perhaps he can’t. Maybe he never could. Or it could be, that with time and perspective, Borchardt came to realize what American Movie symbolizes. He’s able, but he’s no artist. Now that’s indeed something to live for. Bill Gibron
Even before they started taking down the Marlboro Man billboards, just about everyone agreed cigarettes were bad for you. Macho associations aside, it was more a matter of freewill; not unlike drinking alcohol, certain risks are associated with legal, if unhealthy behavior. That’s America. Of course, more than a few people would have been outraged to learn how much chemical manipulation was taking place in order to make those cancer sticks even more habit- forming.
So: some dirty secrets were kept strictly under wraps, as a matter of policy. Big Tobacco counted the money and its executives testified that, to their knowledge, nicotine was not addictive. Considering the money involved, the perjury committed, and the industry’s unfettered success with litigation, only the most recalcitrant underling would dare defy its wrath.
Enter Jeffery Wigand, VP of Research and Development at Brown & Williamson in Louisville Kentucky. He is well paid if unfulfilled, but reaches the end of his moral rope once he discovers the company is systematically using toxic chemicals (like ammonia) to enhance the addictive properties of its cigarettes. His refusal to play ball gets him fired; his refusal to remain silent about it invokes the god-like wrath of his former employer. Enter Lowell Bergman, producer for the CBS show 60 Minutes, who could accurately be called a crusader (as a compliment from his fans and an epithet from his enemies).
Bergman meets Wigand by chance, but quickly realizes the powerful information the scientist is struggling to conceal. The tipping point—for both men—is when they each understand how badly Wigand actually wants to speak out, and it’s only the threat of a lawsuit (and loss of severance) that is keeping him quiet. To ensure they have made their position clear, B & W initiates some subtle and not-so-subtle harassment of Wigand’s family. Once the death threats begin, he decides to tell his story to Mike Wallace. The rest is history.
The Insider is an unqualified artistic success, and one of the most important movies of the last ten years. It is remarkable drama, compellingly portrayed. It is also director Michael Mann’s finest film. It features a gorgeous soundtrack (courtesy of Lisa Gerrard). It boasts some of the finest acting in Al Pacino’s legendary career. And Russell Crowe not only delivers his personal best work, he turns in what is possibly the best performance since De Niro in Raging Bull. With all respect to Mann’s considerable abilities, he wisely manages to stay out of the way and let the scope of this story supply its own abundant energy. His restraint has the opposite effect of the overwrought (and overrated) Heat, which attempted to parlay an armed robbery into an opera.
With The Insider, he takes grand theater and mostly scales it down to its human elements: the people making the decisions and the people devastated by them. Forget the forever discussed showdown between Pacino and De Niro in Heat. The ongoing confrontations (initially contentious, ultimately loving) between Pacino and Crowe are effulgent. Their entire time on the screen is a two-and-a-half hour acting clinic.
Jeffrey Wigand, as a character (and a role) is practically too good to be true: his life is derailed in part by his own hubris and mostly by the ugliest kinds of corporate machinations. Ultimately he recognizes his fate is to accept the circumstances and consequences that are bigger than his privacy or security. Crowe is equal to the task. Beyond the superb script and expert direction, he instinctively grasps that in order to convey the depths of Wigand’s turmoil (and, equally important, avoid an easy, almost inevitable descent into bathos—one shudders to think of what the majority of A-List actors would have done to this part, if given the opportunity), he has to present a brilliantly flawed man always at risk of imploding. Wigand is not a saint and neither Crowe nor Mann attempt to portray him as one. There is so much anger, frustration and fear coiled within his super-sized frame, Crowe consistently seems obliged to expel words from his mouth as much as speak them. As Wigand, he is almost unrecognizable with his added weight, bleached hair, glasses and disheveled defensiveness.
As Lowell Bergmann, the irrepressible producer who has the pleasure (and burden) of working with the megalomaniacal Mike Wallace, Pacino conveys the passion and purposeful edge that made Wigand’s ultimate triumph possible. Bergmann’s quandary is less dangerous but arguably more unwieldy: after gaining Wigand’s trust and convincing him to break his confidentiality agreement, he is directed by the brass at CBS to censor the segment. “The greater the truth, the greater the damage,” he is told in a sickening sequence that illustrates the ways in which corporate media’s cowardice might be even more profound than Big Tobacco’s rapacity.
The Insider is a rare artistic achievement that is compelling as it is important. It is a document that recalls the world as it used to be, while depicting the decisions and events that changed it for the better. Sean Murphy
Kevin Smith’s Dogma is a film poised deftly between two cinematic spheres: iconoclastic religious satire and juvenile, foul-mouthed comedy. Its particular clandestine genius lies in how the latter is enfolded into the former to such an extent that the off-color content becomes an argument against the limiting aspects of organized belief. In a nutshell, all of Smith’s fart jokes, dick jokes, shit jokes, sex jokes, and stoner jokes are not only funny; they’re spiritual conduits. They’re an anti-Augustinian embrace of the carnal and the corporeal aspects of human existence as the purest and truest sign of the grace that the Almighty bestowed upon his mortal creations.
As strange as it sounds, it bears saying: Silent Bob is a humanist. And Jay is a fucking prophet.
If Dogma has a cinematic antecedent, it is clearly Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Both films intelligently satirize the vagaries and hypocrisies of organized religion without targeting the scriptural teachings of Jesus. Both films were met with protests by religious groups who hadn’t actually properly watched them. And both films are routinely held up by devotees bent on proving that their comedic heroes could indeed tackle serious issues as well as they could deploy laughs. Nonetheless, Dogma is virtually singular in American mainstream cinema for its acceptance of faith and honest engagement with the structures of belief. Smith doesn’t point and laugh at believers like Bill Maher, nor does he build an aesthetic wall between the faithful and the doubtful as Mel Gibson did (though he does employ nearly as much fake blood).
Although Smith is forever associated with slacker cinema thanks to early efforts like Clerks and Mallrats, his later works took aim at push-button social issues like sexual orientation (Chasing Amy) and pornography (last year’s Zack and Miri Make a Porno). More than anything, though his visual sense is most often criticized as slack (and rightly so), his scripts display not merely a facility with hilariously foul language but also a penchant for keen observations about the weight that cultural expectations place upon people’s shoulders. This is most evident in Dogma, as Smith places his various characters (human and supernatural) at vastly different angles to faith and to religion. He then has the patience to point the camera at them and let them talk it out, and the skill to make their words insightful, relevant, and often damned funny.
Though much of Dogma is made up of little more than people talking, it’s worth noting how ambitious and deeply unique a film it is. By the late ‘90s, Smith was clearly champing at the bit to move beyond the View Askewniverse that had made him a fanboy icon. After the feature-length in-joke that was Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, he did move on, but Dogma made it evident that he was already packing his bags. With a plot built on an obscure piece of Catholic dogma (plenary indulgence; Google it), characters based on Christian mythology (yes, I know: God hates it when we call it that), and the endless jabberings of Jason Mewes, it’s a strange brew indeed.
It’s got a sharp reading of Lewis Carroll’s “The Walrus and the Carpenter” as a critique of organized religion, and it’s got demonic rollerblading teens armed with hockey sticks. It’s got Salma Hayek stripping, and it’s got a brave confronting of Christianity’s historically-inaccurate Aryan Jesus imagery (though the critic places the blame with the colorblind Bible rather than at the feet of Byzantine religious art, where it belongs). It’s got a movie-geek rant about John Hughes flicks, and it’s got a tremendously affecting speculative description of a preteen Jesus learning that he’s the Son of God. It’s got Ben Affleck and Matt Damon dealing death in righteous judgment, and it’s got Alan Rickman and Linda Fiorentino jostling for sardonic supremacy. It’s got Jason Lee’s terrible villainous scenery-chewing, and it’s got more hilarious bug-eyed Chris Rock reaction shots than should be allowed. It’s got Alanis Morissette’s mischievous and delightful cameo as God. And for a Kevin Smith movie, it has more than its share of fine visual moments: the lovely opening sunrise over the Jersey Shore, a sublime wide shot of Rickman walking on the surface of a lake at night, and, of course, the Buddy Christ.
And in the end, it’s a richly human film about how we understand what is beyond humanity, and how we engage with those who try to tell us how we should understand it. With a shit monster in it. Believe it. Amen. Ross Langager
Of Barry Levinson’s four films depicting Jewish life in Baltimore, Liberty Heights is perhaps his most intimate and idyllic. The semi-autobiographical movie is a portrait of a “typical” Jewish family in northwest Baltimore in the 1950s. In the throes of some of the major issues of the time—integration, racism, McCarthyism, anti-semitism, and economic flux—the Kurtzmans respond to such upheaval not with anger and serious dysfunction but rather with the innocence, curiosity, and naïveté of the film’s 17-year-old narrator Ben Kurtzman.
Levinson himself grew up in northwest Baltimore and was a teenager living in the city’s Liberty Heights neighborhood during the 1950s. So it’s clear that the film is designed to show us how Levinson saw his changing world in those years. In fact, Ben succinctly sums up this view at the very outset of the film: “I grew up in the northwest section of Baltimore. It was all Jewish. In fact, I didn’t even think of it in those terms. I just assumed everyone was Jewish. The whole world was Jewish. [Then] I began to sense there was a world beyond what I knew.”
Indeed, Liberty Heights is a film about change. Not just a boy’s transformation from childhood to adulthood, but people’s response to an expanding and increasingly integrated world.
The actor Adrien Brody, who plays Ben’s older brother Van, eloquently echoes those sentiments in an interview accompanying the DVD version of the film: “It’s a time in history that people were just beginning to kind of attempt to understand other people that were different from themselves. It’s an enlightening time.”
What makes Liberty Heights such a significant film, however, isn’t that it deals with change in a compassionate, sympathetic, and respectful way—which it does—or even that it depicts a unique and changing people in a special place during a singular time—which it also does. Instead, Liberty Heights is significant because it beautifully portrays a family, faced with a changing world, that wields—for better or worse—the universal coping mechanism of all peoples: humor.
During an early scene in the film, Ben visits a local swim club with two friends. The three teenagers are turned away at the entrance by a sign that reads “NO JEWS, DOGS, OR COLOREDS.” Faced with such overt prejudice, the boys don’t get angry and tear the sign down or become bitter and disenchanted or do any number of cathartic things the audience might hope for. They simply turn to humor. They debate why Jews was listed before dogs and whether this means people saw Jews as inferior to dogs even though clearly Jews are more thoroughly potty-trained than dogs. In using humor instead of vitriol, the boys simultaneously disarm themselves and the audience. It’s a tried-and-true method of self-preservation, perfectly depicted here and throughout the film, that’s been used over time by the maligned.
Even in one of the film’s concluding scenes—after it appears Ben’s father will be arrested on racketeering charges and his brother has been involved in a disturbingly violent, alcohol-fueled weekend—humor still reigns. In the high school auditorium following Ben’s graduation, Ben approaches Sylvia, a classmate—and the only black person in his recently-integrated class—with whom he has developed a intimate relationship without his or her parents’ knowledge. Both of their families, as well as their classmates, watch as the two converse. “What do you think would happen if I gave you a kiss right now?” Ben coyly asks her. “I think our parents would die,” Sylvia jokes. Not surprisingly, Ben sweetly kisses her on the lips for all to see. Both families react negatively, but the tone of the film is clearly one of humor and sarcasm not bitterness and animosity.
In the end, though, despite the excellent way in which Levinson showed humor to be a universal defense mechanism, the best way to gauge whether Liberty Heights is a truly timeless film is to ask how well it portrays the lives of its subjects, Baltimore’s Jews in the ‘50s? To find the answer, as I did not so long ago, you don’t need a doctorate in history or an extensive knowledge of Maryland’s past. Instead, just head about 15 minutes northwest of Liberty Heights to Pikesville, Md., to a restaurant called the Suburban House. On any given weekday, you’ll find at least a handful of septuagenarians knee deep in a heated game of Mahjong and corn beef on rye. Mention Levinson’s name and the smirks, witty retorts, and stories you get in response tell you that the filmmaker got it right. Michael Kabran
Like Scorsese and DeNiro, the Coens and Clooney, the pairing of Tim Burton and Johnny Depp represents a perfect matching of sensibilities. Sleepy Hollow is engineered so that both of them are playing directly to their strengths. Burton loves to create twisted, gothic worlds of abandoned windmills and pumpkin-headed scarecrows, and there is no one more qualified than Depp to conjure up the equally fractured personalities that inhabit them. Sleepy Hollow is the third of what, after 2010’s Alice in Wonderland, will be eight joint ventures for the pair of them.
Like their first collaboration, 1990’s brilliant Edward Scissorhands—and like fellow 1999 honoree American Beauty—Sleepy Hollow is an examination and condemnation of the suburbs. Poking beneath the seams of the idyllic countryside (which, to be fair, never looks quite that idyllic through Burton’s lens, as there’s a permanent gloom and fog that’s a stark contrast to Scissorhands’ bright palette), he finds horrors far worse than the street thugs of the city: a ruling cabal of unstoppable men (whom Burton calls the “Dutch Masters”), materialistic and status-seeking women, and, only slightly less scary, a reanimated, decapitated Hessian who preys on the town’s residents.
Depp’s Ichabod Crane comes to this environment from the city, but, unlike Edward Scissorhands, he’s never a true outsider. Instead, Depp plays Crane as soft. He can’t ride a horse. He swings an axe like a girl. He’s afraid of spiders. In the face of danger, he (hilariously) hides behind small children. (When a servant girl sweetly says, “Thank God you’re here,” he returns a look of unbridled fear.) His investigation is based on science and reason, and he scoffs at the village’s reliance on religion and magic. When all these tics are added up, they make Crane come off as slightly elitist, and kind of a ponce—more of a suburbanite than a streetwise city boy. Yet by presenting all of Crane’s flaws right on the surface, Depp makes the character all the more likable. When Crane goes up against the ruling elite of Sleepy Hollow, it’s not with an “us vs. them” mentality—it’s almost like self-reflection.
Of course, though the “Dutch Masters” and their wives may be the true villains of the movies, the flashier adversary in the film is the legendary Headless Horseman (played masterfully, when he has a head, by Christopher Walken, and by Ray Park when he does not). He is the real “other” inserted into the world of Sleepy Hollow, and his philosophy is opposite of Crane. Crane values logic above all. He’s a man of science. He stands for reason and order. The Horseman kills “for the love of carnage” and represents nothing less than pure chaos. (Reality in this world—as is often the case—is somewhere in the middle. Magic defies all of Crane’s reasoning, but it can be used for good, altruistic purposes.) While there are many bad guys in the film, the Horseman is the only true monster.
Which is a good thing. More often than not, if it’s a Burton film, the freaks are the ones you feel empathy towards, and the so-called normal people are revealed to be the monsters. (Such is the case with Edward Scissorhands.) But Burton does monsters so well, it’s almost a shame when he softens them up a little. Here, there is no softness to the Headless Horseman, with his ice-cold eyes and sharpened teeth. Absent of empathy, we get a classic monster-movie ending so pitch perfect it could’ve been lifted straight out of one of the great silent horror films of the past. And we get to watch that ending with Crane, who makes us feel a little bit better about being freaked out by it. Marisa LaScala