Thursday, April 30, 2009

A WINK AND A SMILE: This was -- or is -- Burlesque? I Don't Think So....

If you're getting your hopes up that Deirdre Timmons' new movie A WINK AND A SMILE is going to give you some idea of what old-time burlesque was like, disabuse yourself of that notion double quick. The film may offer a clue as to what burlesque aspires to now, but if so, that seems a bit sad to me. Not that the old Burley-Q was any great shakes, back in the day. It kept a certain class of guy happy, thinking he was seeing something

naughty (and back then -- the first half of the last century -- I suppose, he was). But if what we see in Ms Timmons' film can be taken as gospel, what Burlesque means these days is some kind of psycho-therapy for needy gals who want to bolster their self-image. My, how times have changed.

What we see in this new documentary is not remotely like the seedy old theatres (or audiences or acts) where I ventured a couple of times during my youth to find out what the "deal" was. No, this stuff caters to a much more modern, with-it audience, who's always ready to "deconstruct" what's going on in order to make it more palatable and perhaps feminist-friendly. The film tracks a semester at Seattle's Academy of Burlesque, run by a young woman with the stage name of Miss Indigo Blue (shown two photos above, in blue feathers). Ms Blue trains her students for the big event -- their first real "strip" at the end of the semester, and we watch and listen as they practice. Sort of. All this is interrupted by views of some current successful strippers who strut their stuff. These include a cross dresser named Waxey Moon (shown just below) Whoops: I am told by a certain Anonymous in the comment that follows this post, that I have misspelled Waxey (it's Waxie) and, in any case, the photo is of a performer called Ultra. Sorry about that., a kind of performance artist Lily Verlaine (the most interesting and, for my money, the biggest turn-on, of the bunch) and Ernie von Schmaltz, a male impersonator who is certainly the funniest of the lot.

More a comment on burlesque than burlesque itself, the movie take itself so seriously that is it finally rather difficult for us in the audience to do the same. "Humor is part of Burlesque," Ms Blue says at one point, yet so insistent is the film on making its point that you'll find damn little of that humor here (and when you do, as usual, it must be commented on and so defeats itself).

One more thing: Ms Indigo Blue, on screen far more than anyone else in this film, appears to be growing a mustache. This was so obvious in the print shown at the screening that I attended, that I found myself wondering often throughout the film just why this should be. Was it some kind of ironic comment? Or simply what happens when a hi-def video camera encounters a brunette? Was a better make-up job needed? Or is this part of Ms Blue's act (the movie offers other gender-bending moments)? Whatever, I found it disconcerting, as nobody connected with the movie appears to have even noticed.
More group therapy than anything else, A Wink and a Smile would have done better by giving us more of what its title promises -- and a lot less blather. The movie opens Friday, May 1, exclusively at Manhattan's Quad Cinema.

(All photos shown are from the film itself.)

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Bouli Lanners' ELDORADO: Dry, funny, sad, this male-bonding road movie delivers

Bouli Lanners (shown just below) is an odd duck. From his weighty physical presence, definitely more attractive clothed than not, to his shuffling gait and reticent manner, he sneaks up on you. Pretty soon, you can't take your eyes off him. Now 44, he's worked as an actor in European film and TV pretty consistently over the last 20 years, during the past

eight of which he's also begun writing and directing -- first with a short titled Muno (2001), then the full-length Ultranova (2004) and now ELDORADO. Because Lanners' first two filmmaking endeavors remain unseen here in the USA, I can only judge by his latest: a two-guy road movie that may remind some of Monte Hellman's over-rated Two-Lane Blacktop. But other than the two-guys-in-an-old-American-car motif, comparisons nod in the direction of Lanners. In every way, his is the superior film.

Start with its short length -- only 80 minutes, yet the writer/director manages to fill every one of these with something that interests and often rivets. His two main characters fascinate. One, played by Lanners, while clearly in charge, never insists. He's a lonely guy, and it's this loneliness that drives him. The other man, younger and even more problemed, remains a kind of mystery throughout -- even though we meet his family and get to know him better, in certain ways, than we probably know some of our would-be friends. The bond that forms between the two stems from the need and desire to help, and this keeps the movie on a kind of moral ground from which it never veers (if, that is, you are among those who believe that people are more important than property). Though it makes a number of bizarre side trips involving odd characters -- the oddest of whom is known as "Alain Delon" -- every moment and every character rings true, despite our often having done little more than watch some a bit of bizarre behavior. This, I say, is an accomplishment.

Lanners seems to innately know how much to say and show so that he gives us just enough to allow us to understand and forge ahead, while still struggling a bit with the ideas of identity, responsibility and trust. In the press notes, the writer/director says the movie came from an event that happened to him one day upon returning to his home. He's taken the bare bones of this event and leapt off into his own version. Of immense help to the project is Lanner's other lead actor (whose first film this is): Fabrice Adde. Gifted with a beautiful face, as interesting in repose as it is animated (which happens but occasionally in this film), Adde makes a great foil for Lanners, while maintaining the mystery of his character right up until the end. (Even then, we can't say for certain what has happened or why).

Audience members were guffawing noticeably during the screening of Eldorado, yet the film cannot be called a comedy; the final few scenes in particular are quite dark. Using a wide-screen format, Lanners and his cinematographer Jean-Paul de Zaetijd produce some memorable vistas, yet somehow the view we take away with us from this unusual film is "interior." Out of the tension produced by the isolation from family and the need to connect, the movie-maker has managed to create a weird kind of life and art, complete with humor, sadness and a profundity that never pushes.

Eldorado opens for an exclusive Manhattan run on Friday, May 1, at the Angelika Film Center. Other cities may soon follow, and -- as the film us being distributed by Film Movement -- a DVD release is also assured.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Gotz Spielmann's REVANCHE: Interesting, well-performed, but highly manipulative

Maybe I am just peculiar about manipulation: I can tolerate it, in fact welcome it, in a movie like Shall We Kiss or an arthouse crowd-pleased such as Paris 36. But give me a "serious" film in which I start to feel manipulated -- and red flags arise.

So it is with Gotz Spielmann's new REVANCHE. I was enormously impressed with the writer/director's earlier Antares

(released here via Film Movement) and so approached his latest with perhaps too much expectation, increased by some very good press worldwide and a nod from our own Academy as a contender for Best Foreign Language Film last year.

Revanche -- the French word for revenge -- begins beautifully, with a placid view and quiet ambient sound that is suddenly broken by an event. What this event is we don't know at the time but learn much later in the proceedings. And that, my friends, is all you're going to get from me regarding plot, as Revanche, even more that most films, I think, depends on our being surprised as we move along. By approximately one-third of the way through the film, however, I had most of it figured out. So carefully planned (or as I began to interpret this, manipulated) has been Mr. Spielmann (shown above, right) in his arranging of locations, events, characters (and their physical states) that far too much coincidence has piled up and any real surprise has leeched out long before the movie reaches its conclusion.

Further, being quite slow-moving, it takes its sweet time in doing this, which gives those of us who've been moving ahead in our imagination yet another reason to start tapping our feet with impatience. There is a sense that the manner in which the whole comes together has been manufactured rather than having blossomed organically. (This is not true, by the way, of any of the individual characters and their stories, but it is definitely true of the way in which these character/stories/events coalesce.)

The performances, as with Antares, are first-rate and do much to carry the film along. Johannes Krisch, Irina Potapenko, Andreas Lust, Ursula Strauss and Johannes Thanheiser (who makes a great grandpa) comprise the ensemble. The generally bleak landscape is captured beautifully by cinematographer Martin Gschlacht and the fine sound design is from Heinz Ebner. I suspect mine will be a minority viewpoint on this movie, which, despite my own misgivings, I recommend that you try. I'll look forward to Mr. Spielmann's next outing -- and to having a conversation with the filmmaker (who is currently in town) later this week.

Revanche open Friday, May 1, at the IFC Center in New York City, with further openings, one hopes, planned down the road. An eventual DVD release is likely, as well.

(The final three images are are from the film.)

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Gregory's PLAGUE TOWN: a Q&A at AFA. Find out how they made those fluids flow!

What a lovely way to spend an April evening! Relax, sit back -- and barf -- as Anthology Film Archives hosts the New York premiere this Wednesday, April 29 (at 7:30 and 9:30 pm) of a new "slasher" movie from MPI and Dark Sky Films entitled PLAGUE TOWN, directed and co-written (with John Cregan) by David Gregory.

What makes the evening special is that

after each screening, there will be an audience Q&A with Gregory, actors James Warke and Lindsay Goranson (others in the cast are promised, as well), so any questions that might arise as you watch this oh-so-tasteful can of carnage may be answered before you leave the theatre.

The slasher genre, like that of the zombie, is growing ever more needy of some resuscitation and reanimation, so any contributions along these lines are generally appreciated by TrustMovies -- who actually preferred Hostel: Part 2 to its predecessor and was a big fan of the original Saw, though I gave up on the series after its lame first sequel. Of late, Eden Lake has proven the best -- that is to say, the most difficult to watch, while being simultaneously the best-plotted, -written, -directed and -acted film in this genre for quite some time.

Slasher films cut such a wide berth -- some slash via the occult/supernatural, others are of the straight-up serial killer variety, while a few diddle with fantasy or sci-fi though most are content to simply stick a group of attractive young people in the lair of a Jason or a Michael Myers -- that comparisons are tricky. Mr. Gregory's movie is one that mixes fantasy and pseudo-science with its dismemberment and blood-letting, and so must be judged against others of that ilk, I suppose. In most ways the movie comes up, if not empty, rather far from full.

After an opening that looks a little like what Hammer Films used to do with its more contemporary horrors, the movie cuts to an argumentative family vacationing in Ireland. Though lost, they remain nasty and finally happen upon one of those "hidden" communities that only seem to exist in the minds of scare film afficionados. Slaughter ensues. The acting is passable -- better than that when the dialog allows (not often, unfortunately) -- and the filmmakers and production people certainly have done their homework where dark cinematography, creepy sets and scares are concerned. But everything here, from thought to budget to time spent, seems to have been lavished on little but the gross-out special effects -- which are, of course, the raison d'etre of the slasher genre.

Wow -- look at that guy's head suddenly severed horizontally. Another fellow is shot, then taken prisoner and then has his head repeatedly, almost joyously, punched in by various objects. The women fare no better. Some of the townspeople of this sick community do look very strange in an interesting manner, and this goes a certain distance in making the film bizarrely watchable. (The best scene in the movie details a very weird "date" between the aforementioned fellow and what looks like the community's prize "catch," shown above.) But as we pretty much know the explanation for what is going on from the very beginning (not to mention the tag line on the movie poster), there is not much suspense engendered. Nor do we ever come to care for the extended family and its tag-along friend.

The eminent film magazine Fangoria has called Plague Town "a nightmare captured on film," which I would not disagree with, though that phrase does cut two ways. Still, a slasher movie premiering at AFA makes an interesting change from that fine institution's recent retrospectives of Shirley Clarke and Thomas Imbach, so if you've a mind to visit, please do -- and ask a question or two for me.
(All photos are from Plague Town.)

TRIBECA: Don't pick up that shovel! Amir Naderi's VEGAS: review and interview

Is it possible for a single movie to capture --via the travails of one family over a small span of time -- what is currently happening to America? I wouldn't have said so prior to sitting through Iranian filmmaker Amir Naderi's new work VEGAS: Based on a True Story. Now, I'm not so sure. For all its faults, and there certainly are some, Naderi's movie shows us how characters can disintegrate when their own defects and desires come up against some deliberate misinformation. Whether this

misinformation comes via their government, a stockbroker or -- as in this case -- just a guy they've let into their lives, the results can prove equally horrific.

That Vegas is set in Las Vegas -- not the glitzy, "family-friendly" hotels we're used to seeing, but the workaday world of the hand-to-mouth, small-casino crowd -- might make the movie appear too specific and non-representational of America at large. I don't think so. Isn't living on credit a form of gambling? In any case, the father, mother and son pictured here look pretty typical, as played decently enough by, respectively, Mark Greenfield, Nancy La Scala and Zach Thomas. Mom and Dad have some addiction issues (gambling, cigarettes, and control among them), but they're trying, with varying degrees of success, to manage these. Then a small event happens that sets the movie on its course; around 90 minutes later, we leave the theatre, to twist a Bond reference, both shaken and stirred.

The three main performers (with some help from a few good supporting performances) have the yeoman task of carrying the entire movie, which was directed and co-written by Mr. Naderi (with the help of Susan Brennan, Bliss Esposito and Charlie Lake Keaton). The actors start slowly, seeming initially a little drear and uncomfortable, but they eventually pull us in and by film's end have delivered the goods. Stylistically, Naderi (shown above in black-and-white) offers few flourishes, nor does the rather grim location -- a small, nondescript house and yard -- call for these. The director keeps things simple and a little boring (digging holes plays a major part in the movie but I don't think we need see as much of this digging as we do). It's the people and their downward-spiraling situation that grab us.

What has happened and why is never fully explained; the viewer is free to believe this or that about him or her. Yet Naderi gives us the information we need, so that -- no matter how we parse the situation -- the results would likely be similar. The lure of easy money has held America in thrall for years, decades, centuries perhaps. Isn't this an integral part of The American Dream - from our first Gold Rush to the recent and foolish housing bubble? What Vegas: Based on a True Story offers us, finally, is the result of this dream. It ain't pretty.

Where can you view this unusual movie? Making its American debut at the Tribeca Film Fest, the film is looking for distribution and will screen again at the Tribeca venue AMC Village 7 on Sunday 4/26 at 10:45 pm, Thursday, 4/30 at noon, and Friday, 5/1 at 3:15pm.

As timely as Vegas: Based on a True Story appears, the movie, it turns out, is already two years old. We can accuse Mr. Naderi of prescience, perhaps, but not of pandering to current events. After the screening, we meet at the Tribeca PR headquarters, University and 13th Street, with Naderi and his leading actress, Nancy La Scala, with a brief time to ask but a few questions. While the director himself comes across as some kind of Iranian "player" who possesses a good sense of humor, Ms La Scala, glamorous and dressed to the nines, looks nothing like the rather plan-jane wife and mother she portrays in the movie.

(Editor's Note: there may be some spoilers along the way in this interview, so be warned.)

Initially the filmmaker makes himself scarce, so we speak first with Ms. La Scala, who tells that she has also appeared in Species 2 and Jane Campion's In the Cut with Meg Ryan.

Greenfield, Thomas, Naderi and La Scala at the Tribeca premier
(Photo by Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images North America)

TrustMovies: Is that why Meg Ryan was at the screening of Vegas this morning?

Nancy La Scala: Was she there? I didn't know that. No: We did cross paths during the shooting of In the Cut, but that was all. Though one of the things I learned from her during the shooting was that you should only be called by your character's name -- and nothing else -- during the shooting. Otherwise things can get too confusing. As soon as Meg is out there, even if she is walking on the street, you call her by her character's name (her name in the film was Frankie). So that was something interesting I learned.

Does this usually happen on movie sets?

No, but since then I have made sure that when I am working, that's how I am known -- for instance, on this film, as "Tracy."

Boy, this one really is a very strange move. Depressing!

It's different all right. Especially during the times we are going through right now.

I hate Las Vegas; always have. I think it's hell on earth -- whatever shiny exterior they might give it. And now, it's supposed to be kid-friendly and family-friendly? Gimme a break.

Sure, if your kids and family love to gamble! People get so consumed by that.

Yes, like your character, who is so compulsive. Somebody said to me after the screening that he didn't buy the fact that you would leave you child like that. But that's not true. The boy left you and went back to his dad. And you were into gambling previously, and we see how quickly your character gets into the digging, once she's decided to.

Yes, and throwing away the tomato plants, which has been her life completely. She nurtured them so much, like she was nurturing a family.

To me, this movie seems to reflect American right now.

Interesting -- that the film is appearing during this time. What is really interesting is that when we were started working on it, it was like a snowball effect, starting with people losing things like their jobs. Walmart had come in, then Panda Express, Hollywood Video and all. But yet one mile down the street from all that, you'd find someone living in a bus trailer, with all this junk. And you'd realize that they had lost their job. Pretty soon so many people were like this. But then you'd see these same people in the bar having a drink and playing the slot machines. I wondered sometimes if people really understood what they were going through? Do you allow yourself to let go of what you want -- and just appreciate what you have?

Or in Tracy's case, let go of everything: What you have, what you want -- the whole thing.

When Tracy finally makes that decision, it's sort of like following the two addictions she had before.

What's finally so odd and crazy-making is that everything in the movie seems like it could be a scam. The visiting Iraq vet, the police inspector. But if you look at America right now -- the world, really -- the same thing seems true. Everyone from

Above: Naderi and Thomas during Tribeca.

(Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images North America)

governments to our leading bankers to those of us who've been investing in what they've told us to invest in. It's all a scam.

Yes, and it doesn't matter what kind of situation it is. You could be buying hot dogs from the guy on the street corner and not know what you're getting. That's why I found the story so interesting. This isn't your typical American movie, with some Hollywood ending.

Is the movie not based on any one true story?

This is based a true story of someone Amir knew, when he had gone to live in Vegas. He met a lot of different people, and this story is based on someone's life. You see so many of these people, going through such great loss, and yet they have these addictions-- gambling, drinking, smoking, whatever -- even Tracy has the addiction of having to always be in control. That was her addiction.

Well, one of them.

(At this point, Amir Naderi enters the room, seats himself,
and we move the conversation over to him.)

You've lived in America for awhile, right?

The filmmaker tells us, in a very thick accent, that he was indeed born in Iran, though he has now lived a major portion of his adult life in the United States. When I ask about the retrospective of his work put on by the Film Society of Lincoln Center some years back, he explains that the retrospective actually opened on September 10, 2001, and by the next day was among all the other sudden "non-events" that were swept away by 9/11. Talk about luck and timing....

To get to your new movie, I had some problems with it toward the beginning but as it went along, it grew more interesting and strange and finally it captured me completely. I found it one of the most depressing films I've seen because it seems to stand for American now -- what's left of it. We have lied to ourselves about the situation we were in, and our government has done the same thing, so that now we don't know what is real and what is not.

Amir Naderi: Funny but when we made this film, we did not think about these things. We filmed and we edited it, and we finished it two years ago--

Two years ago? You finished this two years ago? How long did it take to shoot?

Six months. I tried to put my characters through all this -- the situation, the house, the whole thing…

And the difference in the house at the beginning compared to the end of the film. My god…

You know we really tried to take care of that house. We watered the yard every day, and we took care of that house as we were filming, too.

How did you raise the money to make this movie?

This was a kind of crazy situation -- making a film in Vegas. It is so different there from making a film here in NYC. Here, you have control; there, no. And so the first money raised to make the money -- $25,000 -- I lost it.

What do you mean, you lost it?


You lost the production money to make the film by gambling it away? Are you in a 12-step program? (Naderi and La Scala laugh heartily) Were you a gambler before you came to Las Vegas? Before you started to make your film?

I came here to shoot photos for a book about Las Vegas and I was here for five or six years.

Were you a photographer originally, before you became a moviemaker?

Yes. And I like to show -- not the big, famous casinos -- but the small casinos.

You show a couple of these in your film.

Yes, I find these are the real Las Vegas. Very pure, this. I find the people who live there in Las Vegas and work there, they are very pure.


Yes: They know nothing about life except gambling and easy money.

Hmmm.. I would call them maybe innocent, rather than pure. Or maybe stupid.
Did something like what you show us in the film really happen?


Is then, that man who comes to talk to the family, really a policeman, after all? Or this an additional scam?

The detective? No, I found this guy later, and I added him to the story. For the drama.


Because I find that audiences, they like Rashomon -- the different stories. And I try to find the truth that way. I am a filmmaker, with imagination. I do it that way.

You were born in Iran..

I was.

Under the Shaw, in that time? You lived there during the Shaw's reign?

I left my country for good 25 years ago. Around 1983, and then I lived in New York.
What did you get from my film about me as a filmmaker? Was I more Iranian or American?

Funny: I did think about this occasionally while I was watching. Vegas did not compare to much Iranian film that I have seen -- except maybe in the seeming simplicity of the characters as they are introduced. And the lack of a big budget That's about the only things. Otherwise, I'd say you are now more American.

The PR representative motions that our time is up, so we say good-bye
and good luck with finding a distributor. This film certainly merits one.

(All photos from the film itself, unless captioned otherwise.)

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Coming late to Lionel Baier's STEALTH

Can't believe I waited this long to see a film that will certainly be on my 2009 Best-Gay-DVD's-of-the-Year list for GreenCine -- perhaps at the top of it -- even though it was released to DVD in 2008. As big a fan as I was of Lionel Baier's earlier (2004) Garçon stupide, I still arrived unprepared for the difference that two years can make: bigger budget, wider scope, more professional look. As a filmmaker, Baier, who plays himself in STEALTH -- which was titled Comme des voleurs (à l'est) in the original French -- is still the inquisitive, questioning, unsatisfied heart of both films. Yet here, perhaps because the latter film appears to deal with Baier and his family (whether it is in any way a truthful account, I do not know), he and all the characters around him -- family or not -- take on the importance of life, real rather than reel. And though there is much humor and irony in his movie, by its end I found myself surprisingly moved, oddly satisfied, and even a bit exalted by the experience.

You can't really call Stealth a comedy, but there are plenty of comic moments along the way, as Lionel discovers a heretofore unknown Polish ancestry -- and goes a bit berserk. His becomes involved with a Polish immigrant to Switzerland (above), begins to question his sexual identity, and before we know it, the film has become a "road" movie, taking one detour that has us wondering if we've wandered into Frontière(s) territory (see below). Thankfully, we have not.

Baier seems a philosophical young man, interested in everything from sexuality and transgressive behavior to nature versus nurture, countries or origin and countries of choice. Along the way he comes to grips (or at least to a nodding acquaintance) with issues of identity, parenting, extended family, sibling rivalry, "greens" and more. He doesn't solve anything, nor is the viewer likely to. But his journey proves as delightful and worthwhile to us as to him. And, as I say, if you don't feel at least a little uplifted at its conclusion, I'll be very surprised.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Health Warning: Watch SEVEN POUNDS and you may want to order your own jellyfish

It takes a lot -- a whole lot -- of poorly-presented schlock to get TrustMovies to go after a film with the cold-hearted, take-no-prisoners tenacity of a Freddy Krueger. The Gabrielle Muccino (shown, left)/Grant Nieport/Will Smith concoction SEVEN POUNDS is that schlock -- in spades. It has been a long while since I have had to sit through a film with so little to say that took this long to say it: two hours and three minutes. A lot of Mr. Smith's movies are too long (Enemy of the State, Bad

Boys 2, Bagger Vance, Independence Day, and on and on), but some of them offer other reasons to watch.

Initially, Seven Pounds (which made its DVDebut last week) appears to be some sort of mystery, and this may keep you interested -- for a time. Slowly, however, all the tiresome dawdling that director Muccino (shown top, left) and writer Nieport cook up drains the film of its inherent interest. Further, Nieport's absolutely dismal sense of dialog neither captures the way real people talk nor gives us a trace of wit or cleverness.

The Dane, right, clearly sees something
more interesting than either Smith or Dawson.

Most of the give-and-take between the movie's characters is rote and boring, never more so than when the "romantic" leads Smith and Rosario Dawson are getting/not getting and then getting/not getting together. You'd be hard put to find more attractive, sexier stars than Ms Dawson (below, looking particularly gorgeous) and Mr Smith, so why not give them something interesting to say or do. But no: "Just give them a Great Dane," someone must have suggested. They did -- and let it go at that.

Seven Pounds is the kind of manipulative, manufactured tale that desperately needs style and pacing to carry its audience along. Muccino seemed capable of this, back in his early Italian days (But Forever in My Mind and The Last Kiss). Since then -- Remember Me, My Love; The Pursuit of Happyness; and now this catastrophe -- his hand has grown heavier and his films less interesting. At every point along the way, from the printing press to the flashbacks of better days, you just know that every acorn planted will spring into full bloom by the finale -- and strangle you in its branches.

Woody Harrelson, left, with Smith: The eyes have it.

What's particularly odd and galling is that, had the entire movie -- including each and every plot point -- been handled with grace, charm, wit and particularly speed, a small gem might have resulted, rather than the bloated, plodding junkpile we have here. If you're going to manipulate your audience (see Shall We Kiss, for example), then do it with style! If you've already viewed Seven Pounds, I expect my headline will resonate. If not, and you insist on barging ahead until this "toxic asset" has rendered you depressed and brain-dead, just remember: Pick up your phone and dial 1-800-JELLYFISH.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Films of THOMAS IMBACH screen at Anthology Film Archives

So, who's this Thomas Imbach guy? Yup: that's him at left. Film buffs, particularly those with a bent toward experimental or maverick cinema, might want to learn the answer via a small retrospective of the Swiss filmmaker's work hosted this weekend by Anthology Film Archives.

Now in his mid-forties, Imbach has written and directed only nine films, beginning, according to the IMDB, in 1987 with Schlachtzeichen (not shown in the retrospective, along with the hour-long Happy Too from 2002 ) and ending (for now, at least) with his 2007 I Was a Swiss Banker. Seven of his nine films will be shown at AFA (the complete schedule is here), including two documentaries of note: the award-winning Ghetto (1997) about the kids in an upper middle class suburb of Zurich and Nano-Babies (1998) that deals with the spontaneous experiences of children placed in day-care who are too young to express their feelings in words. Also screening are Well Done (1994), the hour-long Restlessness (1990-91), Happiness is a Warm Gun (2001) and Lenz (2006).

According to the AFA press release, Imbach's "films have consistently probed the boundaries between film and video, documentary and fiction, traditional cinema and cutting edge technology." This description did not ring any particular bells with me, and indeed, having now watched three of his movies, none of the above verbiage (except that boundary between documentary and fiction) rings a bell post-viewing, either.

I Was a Swiss Banker (great title: it sounds like it could be anything from camp to a financial exposé) is actually the lightest, most free-and-easy of the films, as the titular character -- a sleaze of sorts, although we don't learn much about this -- suddenly bolts with one of his client's cash. To elude the police, into a near-by lake he must dive, and from there on, the movie is rather like a modern fairy tale. Since the hero is played by a chunky and hirsute "hottie" named Beat Marti (above left and below right, of whom we get some full-frontal along the way), and because the various women he encounters are attractive and the landscapes are lovely to look at, the film is consistently easy on the eyes. Whether or not it has much to tell us, I am not as certain.

We do see the contrast between the "banking" and "bucolic" life or nature vs commerce (one of our hero's little romances seems to nicely combine the two). Our male centerpiece is surrounded by beautiful brunettes and one very controlling strawberry blond. There is beaucoup water imagery, along with a lot of air and sky, but the plot makes no sense in terms of the real world (If you throw away the loot from your robbery, does this mean that the police will simply stop searching for you?). But heck, this is a fairy tale, so let's not analyze. I think Imbach means for "Swiss Banker" to be a kind of lark. It's certainly the lightest of the three films I saw. I just wish it provided more fun.

Lenz is another matter entirely (this filmmaker could never be accused of repeating himself). Here, a crazy man named Lenz (as in the Georg Büchner work) wanders around in a rather cold climate. We soon learn that he is not a crazy man, after all; he's simply a filmmaker, trying to research, or maybe wrap-up, his latest project (Lenz/Lens?). But he is also trying to reconcile with his estranged lover and mother of his child, which, given his mood swings (could this guy be bi-polar?) is not going well. As played by Milan Peschel (below, right), Lenz is alternately funny, loony and sad. This pretty much describes the movie, too.

There are wonderful touches throughout this film -- from a funny little "sung" story about an Eskimo to a gorgeous distance shot of skiers against a mountain road. The tension derives from the artistic impulse toward freedom coming up against the stability necessary for family life. A blond wig makes several appearances: at the beginning, again during sex, and as our hero performs a musical number in a bar. Some filmmakers seduce you by pulling you into their movies; others do it by pushing you away. I think Imbach belongs to the latter group, which makes his road a harder one but perhaps, for him, more worthwhile.

The most interesting of the films proved to be Happiness is a Warm Gun, which imagines the after-life (or maybe the moment just before death) of German peace activist Petra Kelly and her lover/murderer Gert Bastian. Hell, it would seem (according to this movie), is having to spend your limbo life in a modern airport.

Petra is played well by Linda Olsansky (above, left) who bears a pretty good resemblance to her real-life counterpart, whom we see often throughout the film in news footage. Gert is played by Herbert Fritsch (above, right, and below), who looks a much younger man than was the real Bastian.

America's own sleazebag commentator Robert Novak (of the Valerie Plame affair) also appears in the film, quizzing the real Petra about her "Communist" connections. Evidently, if you were for peace 20 years ago, according to our right wing savants, you must have been a Communist.

The movie bounces all over the place: past, present, imagination, reality. Sometimes Petra has her head wound (as seen below: a bullet hole in the side of her temple) and sometimes not. Whether this has to do with Imbach's meaning in the film or simply the way the actress has combed her hair, we don't really know. (Because the movie often imagines the life and concerns of its leading character, it bears comparison to another film opening this week that does something similar: Il Divo.) There's humor in Happiness/Gun, as well as surprise, moments of some drama, and a lot of ideas about politics, psychology, religion and humanity. Whether or not you will have the patience or desire to work these out will depend, I think, on your ability to handle Imbach's brand of "experimental" cinema.

Based on the three films I saw, all narratives, certain similarities take shape, even though the tales they tell seem quite different from each other. The males in each are hugely problematic, if not downright woeful; it's the females who understand what is important, are strong and have the better grip on life and responsibility. Visually, the director loves water imagery and nature -- whether it be sunflowers, the Matterhorn or Lake Constance (below).
Imbach has promised to attend each of the screenings and to answer question afterward. So gird up your loins, keep your mind open, and visit AFA this weekend.