Thursday, October 30, 2008

This Halloween: Ask Ken Russell all those questions that have so been troubling you!

More news from NYC's Anthology Film Archives: Its Hallo-
ween program will be a special midnight screening of Ken Russell's The Devils, with Big Ken himself present to answer your questions about this -- and a lot else, we hope -- his most revered (and loathed) movie. From 1971, this Warner Bros. release spans 103 naughty minutes, will be shown in 35mm, and stars Oliver Reed (above left), Vanessa Redgrave (center) and Dudley Sutton. Russell (above right) is making make his stage directorial debut this fall in NYC with a production of Anthony Horowitz’s MINDGAME, at the SoHo Playhouse, where performances began October 28. To mark the occasion, AFA is offering this special screening of the director's most notorious film, which provoked a scandal upon release and remains, the AFA tells us, one of the most unforgettable films of the 1970s. (I don't buy that one for a moment, but if you haven't seen this oh-so-tasteful movie, you won't find a more appropriate time to do it than Halloween.) Set in 17th-century France, it portrays the witch-hunt that ensues when a rather bizarre nun, Sister Jeanne (Redgrave), is used by a power-hungry elite to destroy Father Grandier (Reed), a liberal, libertine priest who heads the fortified town of Loudun.

“Outrageous even by today’s standards, THE DEVILS is perhaps the best example of Russell putting his taste for excess to good use. […] THE DEVILS is bursting with Inquisition-style torture and some truly blasphemous sequences, but it isn’t your average exploitation flick. Russell uses the witch-hunt motif to explore manias – sexual, political, religious and otherwise. It is no surprise that aficionados consider THE DEVILS to be the film Ken Russell was born to make.” –BRATTLE THEATRE

Hmmmm. I'd say Russell was born to make any number of those splendid little films he did for the BBC (many of which have just been released to DVD). Watch those, compare them to The Devils, and then decide which film the man was "born" to make.

Anthology Film Archives is at 32 Second Ave. at 2nd St. Subway : F or V to 2nd Ave; 6 to Bleecker. Tickets: $8 for adults, $6 for students & seniors; $5 for members.
Ph: 212-505-5181 Web:

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

AFA celebrates a French New Wave(r) who neglected to crest with the other Big Five

Whatcha doin' for Halloween, film fans? Want to dip, for a change, into something deeply, troublingly scary? You don't need vampires and werewolves, slashers and hackers. Spend just 44 minutes with a leper named Raimondakis (that's the fellow, above), the leader of an abandoned colony on the Cretan island of Spinalongaan, and you may be left with profound memories to last a lifetime, rather than merely a single jolt on All Hallows Eve.

To be completely honest here, the 1973 short film that features Raimondakis, L’ORDRE by Jean-Daniel Pollet, does not screen until the day after Halloween, but it is part of a week-long, first-time (in the USA, at least) retrospective that begins October 31 and covers the work of M. Pollet, a much-vaunted filmmaker who was a revered member of the famous French New Wave and yet remains nearly unknown in the USA. This, I submit, is due in good part to our film media's (and film-goers') need to limit fame to a relatively small and easily-remembered crew that includes the usual suspects: Chabrol, Godard, Rivette, Rohmer, and Truffaut.

The ever-industrious (and rather amazing, when one considers its year-in, year-out programming) Anthology Film Archives is presenting the retrospective with support from the Cultural Services of the French Embassy and Jackie Raynal. The entire Pollet program can be found here. (In addition to Raynal, thanks are also due, says the AFA, to Delphine Selles, Sandrine Butteau, Nathalie Charles and Nicolas Denoize (Cultural Services of the French Embassy); Boris Pollet; Pierre André Boutang; Françoise Gessler; Gaël Teicher (P.O.M. Films); Emilie Cauquy and Samantha LeRoy (Cinémathèque Française); Laurence Berbon & Philippe Chevassu (Tamasa Distribution); Jonathan Howell (New Yorker Films); Cyril Neyrat; Hedi El Kholti; Jean-Louis Leutrat; Sam DiIorio; and Michael Chaiken.)

(above: from Jean-Daniel Pollet's MÉDITERRANÉE)

Now, how did someone as film- and history-challenged as I even know about the work of M. Pollet? The truth is, I knew nothing at all until last week, when I happened to rent the newly-released DVD of the very enjoyable six-part narrative Paris vu par. There I discovered that the offerings of the three filmmakers I'd never hear of -- Pollet, Jean Rouch and Jean Douchet -- were every bit as good as the work of the three grand old masters Chabrol, Godard, and Rohmer. (For a more complete review, simply scroll down to the next post.) Pollet's piece covers ground walked many times over -- an assignation between a prostitute and her john -- yet it is as good, maybe better, than any other of this ilk that I recall. It's shorter, too. (Each episode in the film lasts around 15 minutes.)

The actors -- Micheline Dax and Claude Melki -- are on-point throughout, and Pollet creates a time, place and relationship with wonderful economy, zest and an utter lack of sentimentality. Going in, you'll think "I've seen this before"; going out, you'll know you have not. The bug-eyed and doleful Melki, by the way, who died in 1994, possessed quite a special quality, and Pollet used him in at least three of his films: the 20 minute Pourvu qu'on ait l'ivresse (1958), the 20-minute Gala from 1961, and Paris vu par. (Pollet evidently preferred the short film form; only two in this retrospective are full-length.) Some of Melki's dolefullness can now be found in the performances of his nephew, the ubiquitous Gilbert Melki (Lucas Belvaux's Trilogy: One, Two & Three, Changing Times and Cote d'Azur).

As eager as I am to see Let the Right One In, this Halloween I think I shall try my best to take in -- and learn more about -- the work of Jean-Daniel Poillet. In addition, AFA has just announced that the filmmaker's son, noted artist Boris Pollet, will introduce many of the retrospective's screenings and present slide-shows of his own work (one of which, Corrida, is shown above), including paintings related to the oeuvre of his father, particularly the seminal film MÉDITERRANÉE, which will be shown Friday, October 31, at 7:15; Saturday, November 1, at 9:00; and Monday, November 3 at 7:30.

Monday, October 27, 2008

DVDebuts: A Quartet of Films, Two Wheat, Two Chaff

TrustMovies fell down on his viewing this week, what with the New York Tabletop Show in full swing (that's china, crystal, flatware & linens to you uninitiated). Or perhaps I should say "partial swing": the economy is affecting everything these days, and in very heady, heavy doses. Still, we managed to view eight films in the course of the week:

Journey to the Center of the Earth 3-D, YPF and The Incredible Hulk are all covered in the three prior posts, and Craig Lucas' interesting failure Birds of America will be found on GreenCine Guru Movie Reviews in the next day or so, I hope. Which leaves us with...

An uncredited rip-off of the much-better 2006 French film by David Moreau and
Xavier Palud, Ils (called Them in the USA), THE STRANGERS, as you might expect from an Americanized version (semi-stolen, at that), has racheted up the blood & gore (if not the suspense), explained a little too much, and added a few characters and backstory -- to no avail. If you have not seen the earlier film, you will probably find this somewhat enjoyable (if that is the right word for such a inhumane, ugly movie). Liv Tyler does a fine job; Scott Speedman has less to work with, and writer/director Bryan Bertino accomplishes his dirty deed with a kind of crass finesse. Ils, set in Romania, offered little explanation, but savvy viewers could piece together the awful circumstances and make something understandable of it. The Strangers, trying to have it all ways -- motiveless crime, irredeemable horror and a happy ending (of sorts) -- cheapens everything it touches.

If the name of the director attached to each of the six short films (made over forty years ago) that constitute PARIS VU PAR (SIX IN PARIS) was left out at the beginning of each episode, I wonder if even the savviest viewer would know which three were done by the famous (and now grand old men) of French cinema and which by directors/writers of whom most of us have never heard? Filmed in 1965, the movie remains surprisingly good fun today, even if the DVD transfer is among the worst I've seen from a major distributor (which I would call New Yorker Films, as far as independent/foreign fare is concerned).

No matter. What is on view here from Rohmer (above, right), Chabrol and Godard (above, left), who constitute the famous, and three lesser-known Jeans (Douchet, Rouch and -Daniel Pollet) provides wit, entertainment and a nostalgic look at mid-60s Paris, as well as mid-60s moviemaking. Both come off rather well, and the work of the three Jeans certainly stands up to that of their better-known brethren. Among the many delights: the chance to see Joanna Shimkus (later to become Mrs. Sidney Poitier) toward the start of her too-brief film career; Stéphane Audran and M. Chabrol himself on screen together as a nasty married couple; Barbet Schroeder in an early acting role in Rouch segment "Gare du Nord." Themes include the attitude of French men vs. that of American/Canadian women (Godard and Douchet), desire and happiness (Rouch), the worm turning (Rohmer), an unusual prostitute/client negotiation (Pollet) and the sins of the French bourgeoisie (yup: Chabrol). Not an episode outlasts its welcome and each is worth a watch, though I will say that Chabrol, thank goodness, has grown a little subtler over the ensuing decades.

I guess I am a sucker for a decent multigenerational family saga, and THE STONE ANGEL from Canada via adapter/director (from the Margaret Laurence novel) Kari Skogland fills that bill. The movie -- telescoped rather much, I should think, from the novel -- is episodic and often moves from present to past. Skogland handles this quite well, for awhile, at least, and her film, full of life and some simply magnificent cinematography from Bobby Bukowski, never dawdles. Eventually, however, this lack of dawdling, becomes troublesome. The telescoping begins to rush things and, during the middle of the movie, we don't mesh with the characters or their story in the way a better-realized family saga would allow us to do. In the final third the film gets back on course, and the sense of having lived through generations comes home with some feeling and force.

The cast is quite a help here. Ellen Burstyn has one of her best roles in a long time, and she fills it out beautifully. Her character Hagar is not always such as easy woman to like, and Burstyn lets us see all of her -- as does the beautiful young actress Christine Horne (above left), who plays Hagar in her younger years. It is also a pleasure to finally find the always-competent Dylan Baker (above right) in a pivotal role, and he, too, comes through. Cole and Wings Hauser play younger/older versions of the same character, and Ellen Page shows up for a small role, too. As good as The Stone Angel often is, you may sometimes wish it were a bit better. But if you’re a fan of the family saga, I warrant it'll get you where you want to go.

Once in awhile, you'll come across a straight-to-video that's a revelation. THE LAZARUS PROJECT is not one of these. However, for quite awhile it holds your interest, mostly via writer/director (from a story by Evan Astrowsky) John Glenn's surprisingly placid and simple filmmaking techniques. After being jerked around so frequently and so hard by moviemakers attempting to produce their own version of shock & awe, it's rather nice to discover a mystery/thriller that's quiet. Further, the cast, including the sexy/gorgeous Paul Walker (above left), the pert 'n pretty Piper Perabo (center), and Lambert Wilson slumming (above right) is nothing to sneeze at. Unfortunately the quietude gives way to typically overwrought melodramatics and an overlong chase sequence as the finale approaches, and the ending is one of the stupidest and most unbelievable I can recall in a very long time. (I'd explain why, but I do not want to spoil what minor surprise is in store, should you choose to rent.)

Saturday, October 25, 2008

At Home on the Couch with JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH: 3-D

Another step forward in the technological revolution is here! And it is... the same-old same-old. We had high hopes for enjoying the DVD version of Hollywood's new Jules Verne-inspired Journey, particularly when we learned it had been formatted for 3-D viewing. According to Variety, the movie, after four months of theatrical release and surprisingly consistent business at the box-office, has just passed the $100,000,000 mark, and most educated guesses peg the reason for this success on the ever-recurring "novelty" of 3-D.

As one of those who remember quite well the advent of the original spate of 3-D movies (Bwana Devil, The Maze, House of Wax and many more) -- of which we kids could not get enough, even though our parents yawned and claimed that this spanking new process gave them a headache -- I have now myself come full circle into that head-achy state. A year or two back I attended a screening of a 3-D African Safari movie in New York City's IMAX and found it semi-enjoyable. About half the screen seemed slightly out of focus for most of the running time (which was mercifully short). The effects were fun (for awhile) but the overall feeling I was left with was: This again? And not much better, after all these years?

And that, I am afraid, is my judgment on the new 3-D Journey, at least as it appeared from our couch on a large, widescreen TV. One of the first "effects" -- the appearance of a trilobite -- is cute and offers just about everything that (so far) 3-D is made for. From then on the movie's 3-D effects are either status quo or downhill. So much so, in fact, that my partner removed his 3-D glasses after a very few minutes and we decided to eject the DVD and turn it to the reverse side, where we could watch in 2-D. Once finished, I went back and watched again in 3-D. Believe me, the movie does not merit a second viewing unless you are very, very young. It is a pleasant enough family adventure film, heavy on thrills and short on violence, with a tiny cast (3 people throughout most of the movie!) that works well together: Brendan Fraser, Josh Hutcherson and Icelandic actress Anita Briem. The dialog is passable and sometimes cute, the screenplay gives a genuine and certainly earned nod to original author Jules Verne, and the special effects -- explosions, giant sea creatures, dinosaurs -- are well-enough handled. It's the 3-D effects that lack: out-of-focus backgrounds coupled to the "dark" quality that comes, I am guessing, from the viewing via those red/blue glasses.
Will the kids care? Certainly not, and parents will probably go along for the ride. But if you are planning to rent the DVD (in our current economic times, why buy?) where will you find it? Probably at your local, independent video store -- which may be a rare boon for this disappearing breed. I rented it from my local store here in Jackson Heights, complete with two pair of 3-D glasses, one pair of which was pretty mangled. I took these back and exchanged them for a new pair. If you rent movies on line, forget about 3-D, as Netflix, GreenCine and Blockbuster are not supplying the glasses. I expected that Blockbuster would be smart and offer glasses with its in-store rental of the film. But no: According to my local Jackson Heights BB store, you've got to purchase the film in order to get the glasses. There is, however, another option: You can buy paper or plastic 3-D glasses on-line. In quantity, I believe -- but what the heck: You'll then be ready for all the upcoming 3-D features sure to hit DVD in the months/years to come.

So go ahead: be a kid again (particularly if you're the parent of a young child). But park your brain -- and some of your vision capability -- elsewhere.

DVD "Find" of the Week: YPF

To get it over with YPF is the advertising-friendly moniker for YOUNG PEOPLE FUCKING, a title

that, although it's likely to drive away some of its intended audience (who would love this movie if only they gave it a chance), explains its content better than any other title I can imagine. Divided into sections such as "foreplay," "interlude" and "orgasm," the movie is truly sexual. But unlike Shortbus, a film I love equally well and that offers hardcore delights along with its humor and feeling, YPF is much more visually discreet. We view a few boobs and butts along the way, but little of the nether regions, let alone any male equipment standing at attention. Yet, given the exceedingly smart and believable dialog on display, we don't need anything more.

An ensemble piece featuring four couples and one very odd and endearing threesome, YPF was directed by Swiss-born Canadian Martin Gero (shown top, left), whose first outing as a director this is. He's co-written the movie with one of his actors, Aaron Abrams (top, right), and together with a splendid cast of those titular "young people" -- all of them eager, good-looking and talented -- Gero & Abrams show us the pleasures, fears and surprises found in sexual coupling via dialog, backstory and moment-to-moment acting/living that is about as good as this genre provides (as good as I have so far seen, at least).

Each couple/threesome is given its due, and while most of the stories/characters are likable and humane, the film is nonetheless full of the pitfalls of modern life, love and relationships. It's also Canadian, which -- typically enough for some of our more stupid and knee-jerk critics -- makes it an easy butt of jokes. I don't really understand this, as Canada continues to give us so much that's good and original (Slings & Arrows, Snow Cake and The Drowsy Chaperone, to name a few), and its creative people continue to head south where they enrich America's arts no end. (And, no, I am not myself Canadian, though I have often wished to be over these past eight years.)

In any case, I highly recommend YPF, if you're looking for 90 minutes of interesting fun about a subject important to all of us: young or old, of any political or religious stripe. If only for the series of sharp, brief visual moments in which one couple (played by Mr. Abrams and Carly Pope) discovers the surprise and wonder of achieving sexual bliss with someone that each cares for, the movie's a must. This little moment of heaven, beautifully created by Gero, Abrams, Pope, cinematographer Arthur E. Cooper and editor Mike Banas is amazing. If you've experienced the real thing, you're lucky. If not, well, you've got YPF to satisfy you until then.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Weighing in on a Few of Last Summer's Schlockbusters

"Why don't you cover the big movies?" I am once-in-a-while asked. Because they don't need me, for starters. And they are simply not very interesting or intelligent, except as fodder for cultural pronouncements about the state of mainstream movie-making/watching. (And, yes, I am including The Dark Knight in the preceding not very interesting or intelligent comment.) I am seeing fewer and fewer of these "big" movies, and after this past summer I will probably see even less. I did manage to visit my local theatres (even an IMAX) for three films (Iron Man, the latest Indiana Jones and the aforementioned gloomy chevalier. On DVD just yesterday, I saw The Incredible Hulk. Only one of these films was remotely worth my time.

My companion of 20 years came home from IRON MAN raving about how much fun -- how intelligent -- it was. Because our tastes, while not alike are often similar, I headed out to a theatre ASAP and sat there waiting for all that fun and intelligence to make itself plain. After all, director Jon Favreau had already given us three enjoyable movies -- Made, Elf and yes, even Zathura (Try the latter. Really). But the sparking repartee I had hoped for too often seemed on the level of a mediocre James Bond movie; the story plodded; the action scenes all went on too long and -- other than a brief moment in that small village when Iron Man first tries out his "stuff" -- were remarkably uninventive; Gwyneth, Jeff and Terrence were wasted; and, if you're looking for some fine acting from Mr. Downey Jr., try Charlie Bartlett -- a little (and little-seen) delight from last winter.

Soon after this tiresome afternoon, two friends wanted to see INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL (Gee: Couldn't they have made that title a little longer?). I joined them, and all three of us could not believe (pace Barry Levinson) what just happened. Yes, there were moments, but one expects a bit more than that from the likes of Speilberg & Lucas. (Or does one? Perhaps not anymore.) By the end of this far too lengthy movie, it seemed as if everything including the kitchen sink had been tossed into the mix. And none of it remotely mattered. The three people in our crowd represented pretty much the spectrum: mainstream, independent/foreign, and rarely-goes-to-movies. We all felt exactly the same: one fat waste of time.
But the worst of the bunch? Christopher Nolan's THE DARK KNIGHT. Yes, I know: By the time you read this, the film will no doubt have grossed over one billion dollars. Yeah? So did Titanic. My objections are not so much that the movie is dark. I appreciate dark. But dark and irredeemably stupid is not a good mix. Granted, Heath Ledger's "Joker" is something to see. But when a villain performance like this is not balanced by anything at all, the result is overkill. I'm a Christian Bale fan since Empire of the Sun, but Bale's one-expression bore-a-thon here is disastrous, and together with Maggie Gyllenhaal's single note (has ever a couple in film history produced less sparks?), the result is simply tiring. To save his life, Christopher Nolan can't direct a decent action scene that makes logistical sense (Batman Begins had the same problem), and watching his film on a giant IMAX screen gave wonderful depth to the upward/downward views of the giant buildings -- but little else.

I no longer expect any intelligence from the movie-going public, but I do expect some from critics. And most of them abdicated altogether regarding this one. Just because a movie nods now and again toward current events (terrorism, the dark side, anarchy, etc.) does not mean that it has anything remotely interesting to say about these events. The Dark Knight does nothing thought-provoking with any idea it raises. Finally, though, the coup de grace is delivered by an ending so ridiculous as to be almost a joke. Spoiler ahead, though is there anyone left who has not seen this movie? Since nobody (save Batman and one other person) knows what actually happened to the Aaron Eckhart character, why do they decide to claim that Batman did the dirty deed? If they're going to lie, as the person-in-charge quickly decides to do, why not lie helpfully and say that some unknown assailant killed Eckhart? This would leave Batman, instead of spending his time running from the powers that be, free to continue fighting for truth, justice, and the blah, blah, blah. But no. The moviemakers opt for stupidity instead. What a crock! The only reason for this, of course, is to spin another sequel that gives us more dark, phony angst. There is not a trace of logic here, and this ridiculous ending renders Gotham City not worth saving -- neither the idiots who run it, nor the idiots they rule, nor especially the idiots who sat slavering in those darkened theatres and will soon be watching again from their couches at home.

Which brings us to THE INCREDIBLE HULK, just out on DVD. I wasn't even going to bother with this one, since Hollywood had so thoroughly screwed it up only a few years back with the "deep" and dreadful Ang Lee version. But my companion seemed to want to give it a try, so… OK. Comic book movies are rarely, maybe never, able to be more than comic book movies. (Uh... that's why they're called comic book movies.) Director Louis Leterrier and writer Zak Penn seem to have understood this and so give us an action movie that's swift, sharp and relatively short (for this genre). They nod with charm and appreciation to (some) former Hulk incarnations, and they compress the backstory so quickly and cleverly into the film's beginning that you are immediately put on notice to pay attention.

The dialog is occasionally witty and subtle ("You wouldn't like me when I'm hungry," is one good example), and the special effects are fun (though the Hulk, as usual, looks a little fake). Best of all, nothing -- especially the fight scenes and chases -- outlasts its welcome. This may be a silly movie, but it's a lively one. Edward Norton and Liv Tyler make a nice couple, providing the heat and feeling missing from the Bale/Gyllenhaal pairing, with Tim Blake Nelson making a late entrance that adds some unexpected zip to the proceedings. All in all, no great shakes but finally: a summer blockbuster that offers a decent serving of escapist entertainment.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

BEN X -- and a lengthy chat with writer/director Nic Balthazar

By the time it opens theatrically in the U.S., Nic Balthazar's BEN X will have played in 13 countries -- from its home in Belgium to Canada, Finland, Hungary, the UK, Turkey and more (in Israel, for some reason, it went straight to video). It has won five film festival awards (Montreal, Palm Springs and Sedona) and is currently nominated for the Audience Award at the 2008 European Film Awards.

Film Movement, one of our favorite distributors, has picked it up for U.S. release, and it opens this Friday at NYC's Cinema Village for at least a one-week run, maybe more. (If you don’t catch it theatrically, you can rest assured that, as with any of the Film Movement titles that get a theatrical release, it'll appear on DVD at a later date.) As impressed as I continue to be with the Film Movement catalog, and as much as I can identify with a main character who is bullied badly in school, I have to say that Ben X is not among my favorite FM titles. The story comes complete with a full quota of angst: A somewhat autistic young man (Asperger Syndrome, perhaps?) is bullied and made fun of by his classmates. His (broken) home life is only slightly better than that of school, and so he begins to lose himself in a particular video game, slowly merging game and reality.

The possibilities for melodramatic excess are high and Balthazar, a first-time filmmaker, generally gives into them. Yet his film possesses enough event and mystery to grip an audience and his cast does a proper job of bringing the story to life. Where the movie most lost me was in it's overboard use of the videogame -- the very thing, of course, that may endear it to teenagers. As the film moves along, there seems to be more and more of this "game" until I wanted to shout, "Enough already: I understand what's happening."
Writer/director Nic Balthazar (above) was in NYC last month because his film was showing as part of the Real Abilities New York Disabilities Film Festival, so TrustMovies took advantage of the chance to speak with him about his film, his career, his main character's disability and… bullying.

TRUST MOVIES: Though you were born and raised in Belgium, have you lived in other places?

Nic Balthazar: (chuckling) I'm the kind of guy who said he'd be living in New York City by the age of 23 but is still living in Belgium. However, I am in NYC now! Actually, I live Ghent. The story of my life is the cliché of the guy who wanted to become an actor but who was smart enough to realize he wasn't good enough. Like the cliché of the footballer who realizes that he will never play in the major leagues. Further cliché is that, as an actor, you then become a director. Further, further cliché: You become a film journalist, as I did. In Belgium I am a TV personality: I was a talk show host and I also do a travel show that lets me go all over the world. That is how I became a director and started to direct my travel documentaries.

What led you to making this film -- or more appropriately, to first writing the novel on which you based the film?

The genesis of the film was a book I was asked to write: An educational project where an editor at a publishing house asked me to write a book for adolescents. I thought, "Oh, a writer who doesn't write much is going to write a book for adolescents who don't read much." Then I came across a story about a teenager who jumped off a very tall building in Belgium because he was constantly bullied at school -- from middle school right through high school until he could not take it any longer.

How close to the "real" story does yours come?

There are many similarities but, without going into details and then spoiling the film for those who have not seen it, I don't want to say too much. The mother of the boy actually said that "Nobody can ever tell me anything that will offer me consolation." So I thought maybe if I write this story it will offer some consolation. I hope that my film can bring some hope where there was none.
I wrote the book first. And the film was sort of already there in the structure of the book. An actor actually asked me to make the novel into a play -- for a solo performance. I did not think this was such a good idea, but we did end up making a kind of multimedia theatre pieces that became a huge hit in Belgium. It also incorporated bits like you see in the film. Sort of like a TV documentary that incorporates gaming, the internet, music -- a kind of theatre production for young people who don't usually like theatre. Both the novel and the play were successful. In a survey taken the year after the book came out, the kids said that, after Bridget Jones Diary, this book was their favorite.

How did you cast your lead actor? Was the real character this good looking? My experience with the autistic (granted not all that encompassing) is that most of them are nowhere near as attractive as your leading actor, perhaps because they let themselves go physically and don't -- or can't -- care so much about their appearance.

No, no, a lot of the autistic are very good looking. In the broad autism spectrum, which is a lot more elaborate than we realize, there are all kinds of autism, not just the Dustin Hoffman RAIN MAN sort.

Do you mean that one might not call people like your main character "autistic," but rather say that they possess some symptoms of autism?

Yes, but there are so many of these people -- and different levels of autism -- that it is difficult to say or to know how to place these people who have a kind of brain deficit or brain malfunction For example, their social skills are underdeveloped. Some people have the incapacity to know what a smile is. Others know what all the different kinds of smiles are. Facial expressions are so much more important a part of communication than, for instance, conversation and the words we say. Often people with Asperger Syndrome -- some people refer to this as high-functioning autism -- can speak very, very well. As well as Obama. This diagnosis has been made regarding people as different as Mozart, Glenn Gould and Bill Gates. Certainly, not all high- functioning people are geniuses but it usually means they have well developed intellectual skills but very underdeveloped social skills.

Did you see Sandrine Bonnaire's Her Name is Sabine?

Yes, yes, and that person was on the other end of the autism scale. Two sides of a coin-- you have to see it as a ball, in fact, Sabine is on one side of the ball: core autism. Ben X is what they call mild autism. Autistic people have told me that they don't like to be seen as having mild autism. It is not mild to them -- because other people then demand that they function well in society, when this is so difficult for someone who gets lost trying for social communication: Hence the bullying, the anxiety, and the despair. Anxiety is really the one constant here. But once we know about Asperger and the autism spectrum, we can help .We can give patients a structure and take away some of the anxiety. Not take away the autism, of course, but we can help. Or we can ignore all this and make their lives miserable.

How did you determine how much of the "video game" visuals to show during the film.

In the editing room of course, but the interesting thing about the video game was that it gave us our chance. Video games really are things that the autistic do play, and the games may help them get out of their isolation. In fact, most -- many -- teenagers of all kinds do this. It can, however, provoke another isolation that they get into, by going too deep in the game. Speak with any youngsters who game more than 3 to 4 hours a day and they'll tell you that real life and virtual life are merging.

Hmmm. Some of us might say the same thing about movies and real life.

Right. The interesting thing is that we did not have any Speilberg kind of budget for Ben X. We could not go up to Pixar and ask them to manufacture effects for us. So what we did was to pair up with a Korean video game that really exists. This pairing was the thing that gave the film its look and the production values that we would not have been able to have otherwise. We went into this online video game and we had actors play out the scenes. So then I could go into the film and do anything I wanted: booms shots, dolly shots, all those things. You've heard the phrase they use: second life -- like a combined chat room and video game? With this, you could basically take the screenplay of any Woody Allen comedy and shoot it inside this virtual space. So we did this with our own screenplay. Then we cut the virtual into the real. We had a kind of virtual space; sitting around the table with my four gamers, I'd say "Action!" The result earned us the Heineken Red Star award at the Palm Spring Festival. I am really happy with the award, because this is kind of a new thing for filmmakers. We were the first film to combine "machinima" and live action!

Can you talk a bit about suicide, autism, bullying and how they all impact on your film?

From the outset, I never wanted to make film where suicide would be seen as a solution or any sort of plausible revenge. The statistics are that four out of ten teen-agers actively contemplate suicide, and one out of ten actually do it. They may not succeed, but they try. We, in Flanders, live in one of the richest countries in the world, just as you do in America, yet the despair among teenagers is incredible. After hanging around schools here in the New York City area, I could tell you stories that would chill your bones -- about the violence and despair and hopelessness. You know, I think that the flaw of my film is the also the strength of my film: It has a really strong message, and this is always dangerous.

How is this dangerous?

Messages are dangerous to filmmaking. If you put a message into your movie but don't make a cool film out of it, you end up with just this finger-wagging message. "Thou shalt not bully!" That would be plan dumb for a filmmaker. Your story must be the message, and the message must be your story. These topics need to be addressed. Not just autism -- but alienation, drug issues, bullying, broken homes, suicide. So many things.… It seems as though we have put almost all the problems into one film, but these problems are all connected. Our young people are the canaries in the coal mine, and they are in incredible pain, dealing with incredible violence. Where does this go?

It seems to me that you movie is really as much about the evils of bullying as about the lack of the public's comprehension of autism.

I am glad you say that because to me autism is only one part of it. This is about a person with autism saying that the world around me does not understand me, but I don't understand the world around me. People who have autism feel this -- this lack of empathy. But so do nine out of ten teenagers. They feel this same way! They have difficulty getting into other people's minds. We live in an autistic society, so to speak, because of this lack of empathy. We’re so competitive, so aggressive, with little empathy for others. Consequently, anyone who falls out of the "normal" category is likely to be bullied.

Perhaps this film will appeal more to young people than to adults and seniors.

Yes, this is not an art-house film. Just because it has subtitles does not make it art-house. At the Montreal Film Fest we won the Grand Prix des Amériques, as well as the audience award for most popular film. This seems to be a film that can appeal to different generations.

What's next on your agenda, film-wise or novel-wise?

The strange thing is that, with the incredible success of Ben X, we went immediately to Montreal and Toronto, where people asked us if we would sell the remake rights. But we hung on to them, and that is why I am currently rewriting the same story in the context of an American remake. But who know if it will happen? I have been told that I have a 25% possibility of success.

I would think that, because Ben X, in its way, is rather mainstream, perhaps you will succeed at this.

Yes, I think you are right. So far, here in America, it is seen more as an art film. But in Europe, it was seen as more mainstream.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Fear(s) of the Dark -- and a brief chat with one of its artists/illustrators: Charles Burns

If you love animation (black-and-white animation, in particular), I don't think you'll want to miss the nifty little (barely 80 minutes) compilation that opens in New York on Wednesday, October 22 at the IFC Center and will also be available simultaneously on-demand -- with a national roll-out to follow. Called Fear(s) of the Dark, it first appeared in NYC last March, as part of the FSLC Rendezvous with French Cinema series. I saw it at that time and was properly impressed (click here, then scroll WAY down for my GreenCine review); upon a recent revisit, I found the film holds up very well indeed.

Boasting a nicely sophisticated shape, in which its longer stores are framed by two pieces -- one dark and "dog"ged, the other visually and verbally witty -- these two "framers" also separate what lies inside. The first of the inside tales is by noted artist Charles Burns. Because Burns happened to be in NYC briefly, prior to the opening of the film, we grabbed our opportunity for a quick phone chat…

TrustMovies: The IMDB has you pegged at around 53 years old -- which would mean you pretty much experienced your adolescence during the 1960s. Which movies were your favorites back then?

Charles Burns: My family didn't see that many movies, actually. When I was growing up, we moved around a lot: to Seattle, some years in the DC area, to Boulder, CO, and in Missouri, too. But mostly Seattle. In the early 60s, I remember on TV they were re-running old classic horror movies, and also some cheap and sleazy 50's movies with things like giant centipedes. {Editor's Note: Could it be this one? } These had an impact on me! I also remember forcing my mom to take me to see Jason and the Argonauts

I remember that one! And I think I saw the centipede movie, too. Did your mom live through the experience?

She lived through it, yes. It was a rare occasion when she would take me to the movies. But I would not let up on her about that one.

You made your initial impact in the world of comics?

I've been mostly divided between comics and illustration.

The press kit for Fear(s) of the Dark mentions your "distinctive ice cold, hard edged, black and white art work…" Would you call your animation "ice cold"? I wouldn't. The other adjectives ring true to me, and your work is all line art. But ice cold? I found that your rendering of your lead character, for instance, possessed a real sweetness and innocence.

Yes. I tried to give him a kind of naïve quality.

Which leads me to ask about some of your themes -- like women as "the other" -- or alien. But of course you also have aliens in your story. So which one actually is more "other" -- the woman or the creature?

(Charles laughs.) Well, it's like what I've always done: I enjoy playing around with male and female stereotypes. In this case, I'm turning the very feminine role into something else. The first time you meet the girl, she is very sweet and feminine. Then she starts transforming….

Yes -- and isn't that "wound" almost vaginal -- or is that just my own preoccupation?

On, no, it's not just your perception. When I use that kind of Freudian symbolism, I make sure that it's a little heavy handed, very overt. I like playing with these kinds of strong symbols. There is also something in the nature of a wound that makes anyone shrink away. In observing audiences who are in the act of viewing this film, I've noticed that they kind of flinch when they see the wound.

Are you exclusively cartooning/animating/illustrating these days?

This is my first piece of animation, though I have been doing my own comics since the early 80s and doing illustration for that time, as well. My work is pretty equally divided between comics and illustration. But the comics are more personal.

Would you call the illustration, then, more like "work for hire"?

No, because it's all my work. I don't look down on one side or the other. But so far as work that I have complete control over, that would be the comics. And this is actually one of the reasons that I became involved in this move. The producers wanted each of us artists to be completely involved -- in the writing, storyboarding, editing, in just about everything.

How much did you know about the concept of Fear(s) of the Dark when you came aboard? In the sense of it being a group effort, and the framing of the film using two of the animators?

I think we all knew what it was going to be. I was lucky to be able to work on this film. My motivation was having this control, and being able to work with other artists whom I really admire. I already knew the other American artist, Richard McGuire, and some of the others, too -- and I knew all of their work. So being part of this film was like being invited to take part in an exhibition of artists whose work you really admire.

The press kit mentions that your "decade in the making magnum opus 'Black Hole' is creating huge internet buzz right now, as it’s soon to be turned into a feature film directed by Alexandre Aja (The Hills Have Eyes)." How far along is this project?

(Burns laughs again) That was awhile back! As of now, Black Hole has been optioned by Paramount Pictures and David Fincher is attached to direct. But that's as of now.

Things can change?

In Hollywood, things can always change.

Given how well Fear(s) of the Dark has turned out, let's hope that everything proceeds on a positive course. And -- even if the movie doesn't get made -- that you end up with a pile of money!

(A quieter laugh, a moment of silence) Let's hope.

DVDebuts, Wheat-to-Chaff in one fell swoop

The most interesting --and unexpected -- film I saw all week was SHELTER ME (scroll down two posts for the full review). Other than this, the DVD releases from the past ten days or so ranged from good to mostly OK, with only one waste-of-time in the bunch. We'll start at the top and work our way down….

How nice to see Stuart Gordon (Re-Animator, Dagon, King of the Ants) working with a good cast, on a smart B-movie like STUCK. His rendition of Mamet's Edmond was not particularly well-received; though worthwhile in patches, it didn't quite cohere. His latest endeavor, however, allows him to give full rein to his preference for gore and pain but in a more believable (not sci-fi, not fantasy) manner than usual. My companion, who closely followed the true-life tale that the movie takes as its jumping-off point, remarked at the close of Stuck that it was good that Gordon did not adhere too literally to the truth. Instead, he allows his imagination to take flight in regard to both character and story. And with two fine actors like Stephen Rea and Mena Suvari in the leads (check out her good work in Scott Caan's clever The Dog Problem), the film seduces us to watch in fascination and horror as two decent people collide, and then one of them, rather than accept responsibility, goes step by step to the dark side.

SAVAGE GRACE took a pretty severe critical drubbing, but, really: How difficult is it to surrender to a story chockablock with this much sex, sin, and perversion? Top it off with a cast that includes Julianne Moore, Hugh Dancy, Stephen Dillane, relative newcomer Eddie Redmayne and others, good period costumes and setting and a story based more than loosely on fact and you've got a pretty good movie. In his first full-length film since 1992's Swoon, writer/director Tom Kalin does an adequate job of serving up these very strange characters. There's a flatness to his handling that good performances can lift only so much. On the other hand, with this amount of bizarre behavior, better flat than over-the-top.

With STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURE releasing to DVD so soon after Taxi to the Dark Side (which deservedly copped the Best Doc Oscar for Alex Gibney), how much Iraq torture can viewers handle? Since both films bombed at the box-office, not much, it would seem. From the outset S.O.P. offers the usual Errol Morris signatures -- repetition in images and music, re-enactments -- this time with a smoother, higher-budget look that belies the documentary form and makes it appear that the film is glossy fiction. But once Morris gets into his interviews, reality takes over and we're hooked. If only the filmmaker did not keep coming back (and back and back) to his usual tropes. He doesn't need them here.
A nasty, jolting surprise, JOY RIDE: Dead Ahead is an example of paint-by-numbers done with enough style, speed and creep-outs to drag you along on its merry/bloody way. Only the denouement disappoints. (Spoiler ahead, but not really -- not if you've seen a couple of slasher/thrillers lately.) Please: Will movie-makers and their stupid studios retire forthwith the nonsensical You-just-can't-kill-him ending. It worked once, twice, maybe thrice. Now it is simply an abysmal "sequel" ploy, and this movie -- its straight-to-video release notwithstanding -- is too good for it.

A kind of Genghis Khan - The Early Years, MONGOL is a stately "actioner" that's too long for its own good and manages to repeat itself (he escapes, he's caught; he escapes, he's caught) with alarming regularity. It is quite beautiful to watch, however; the performances are capable and the actors nice to look at. I would recommend it, depending entirely on your taste and tolerance for this sort of thing.

Another film that's too long for what it has to say, BEAUFORT tackles the Israeli military and the men at the top through the eyes of the grunts. It reminded me at times of everything from Pork Chop Hill (Korea) to Go Tell the Spartans (Viet Nam) to Sam Fuller and especially another Israeli war film Yossi & Jagger. Over its long running time, however, I found myself growing as tired of this ancient fort in which the combatants are forced to remain as they themselves do. And I feel now even more convinced of the injustice done prior to last year's Academy Awards by the foreign film committee in declaring The Band's Visit ineligible due to too much English being spoken. What a crock. That fine film might just have stolen the award from The Counterfeiters, which was also a fine, if much darker movie, but not, I think quite as interesting or rich as that band and its wary/welcoming villagers.
As a big fan of Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Cercle Rouge and Le Samourai), I was probably looking forward to LE DEUXIEME SOUFFLE a bit too much. In any case, this 1966 offering in wide-screen black-and-white has now been given the Criterion treatment, and the DVD is a visual delight -- even if it is far too lengthy at 2-1/2 hours. Though its title translates as "Second Wind," the movie barely gets its first. You'll know where it's going even if you can't predict all the details, and the fact that the actors include the likes of Lino Ventura, Paul Meurisse, Raymond Pellegrin and Marcel Bozzuffi, each sporting no more than 1- 1½ expressions throughout grows increasingly tiresome. (Sometimes, as in a movie like Le Trou, also written by José Giovanni, the lack of expression seems real and necessary, but here it appears to have more to do with style than humanity.) The leading lady, Christine Fabréga, an absolute icon of mid-60s, teased-and-sprayed-hair, does not quite make it past a single expression. But boy, she captures the time period -- as does the film itself. Its depiction of criminals as utterly ruthless yet often with a soft spot for each other seems simultaneously real and phony. Try it, but you may not buy it. (It certainly does not pass the fabled Harry Cohn test -- when your posterior goes numb from too long a sit.)

Not being a fan of M. Night Shyamalan, I didn't expect much from THE HAPPENING and so was no more disappointed than usual. This is another of his poorly thought-out, gosh-what's going-on? movies without even the silly surprise ending that has come to be expected from M. There are some truly weird moments (the men falling from the construction site is dreamy, stunning and terribly upsetting) but, as ever, your final question may be, "So what?"

Has anyone else experienced the trouble I've had in renting the newly-released-to-DVD version of Vertigo -- the new "Legacy" version? Instead I keep receiving either the very old, non-wide screen or the slightly newer version in which you just hit "zoom" to widescreen it -- and consequently lose a lot of sharpness and detail. Well, I'll keep trying….