Wednesday, September 30, 2009

INTIMATE ENEMIES plumbs the French-Algerian War; Q&A w/Florent Emilio Siri

An excellent (anti)war film, Florent Emilio Siri’s INTIMATE ENEMIES is filled with ironies and opposites as it tracks the (mis)adventures of a platoon of French soldiers during the French-Algerian War. Divided into segments, each one covering a specific mission, the movie intro-
duces us to a smart and decent rookie

lieutenant, played by one of France’s finest actors, Benoît Magimel (A Girl Cut in Two, The Piano Teacher), and his dour, knowledgeable sergeant who’s perfectly content to kill and torture when necessary, played by the equally fine Albert Dupontel (the current Paris and Avenue Montaigne).

Siri (shown at right) has made a couple of fine actions movies: The Nest (rent this one -- one of the best of its genre in the past two decades) and the under-rated Hostage. With Intimate Enemies, he brings his action skills to the war front and the results are impressive. Action scenes are staged with immediacy, flair, and sometimes ugly surprise (who knew that the French used napalm in Algeria?), but it is the quieter moments, often concerning how these men come to terms with what they've done and are doing that register with sometimes shattering impact. How they punish themselves -- physically, mentally -- for what they are forced to do is particularly grueling to experience.

The beginning of the film is given over to an interesting build-up of situation and character. Then, when a new head of intelligence arrives, things get serious. To torture or not is discussed crisply, smartly, believably, and there are comparisons along the way between the French in Algeria and the Germans during WWII. The ironies and heartbreak of a colonial war are brought home most strongly in the scene of an execution of an FLN member who had served France in WWII -- and received a medal for his bravery on behalf of his country.

How war destroys men -- from without and within -- is brought home with striking clarity and strength by Siri, co-writer Patrick Rotman and their entire cast. It easy to understand why this film was a critical and popular success in France. Would that it could be on our shores, too. Unlikely, however, as war films of late -- about a war as unpopular as any that America has fought in the past century -- have tanked right, left and center. But at least Intimate Enemies is getting a small theatrical release and, one hopes, another on DVD. It opens Friday, October 2, in New York City at the AMC Loews Village VII.


TrustMovies spoke with director Florent Emilio Siri from his home in France today, asking a few questions about his film, its history -- and French-Algerian history. Herewith are his answers, and there are some spoilers ahead, so maybe see the movie first, then read:

TrustMovies: What’s your background? Are you of Algerian descent?

Florent Emilio Siri: No, I’m not. But I grew up in a neighborhood with a lot of Algerians immigrants. The Algerian War is still a taboo subject in France. There is really nobody that talks about this. In my genera-
tion, between the ages of 30 and 45, there is something that, even now we cannot understand. There is nothing about this war in our history books, and it is not talked about in school. France is very proud of its involvement in World War I and even Would War II. But not of Algerian War. It was not even a war - just a “police action.” In the end, France lost Algeria – which had been French for over 100 years.

In my generation, we grew up with a different culture. My father is Italian and my mother French. I grew up in a neighborhood full of immigrants. In our school we had a lot of people coming from Africa and North Africa.

The Algerian War actually began in 1945, when the French celebrated the liberation from WWII. A lot of Algerians took to the streets to celebrate the end of the war, and they raised the Algerian flag, which the French did not like. In the ensuing attack, they killed almost 3,000 people.

This is why I wanted to make this movie. I didn’t know a lot about the war, and I wanted to find out. My scriptwriter Patrick Rotman had worked with Bertrand Tavernier, and between Rotman and Magimel and me, we tried to find a producer. We didn’t have much money, so we shot in 48 days for about $10 million dollars. Everyone did this film for half their usual salary, and I believe that they all felt we had to make this movie

Was your prowess as an action movie director of good use to you in filming a war movie?

It was useful because we had to shoot quickly. And there is some similarity in the genres. I had to use violence to show violence. The movie is very violent, I wanted to shoot from the POV of the soldiers to show how scared and traumatized they were. So this ability was very useful.

What were the major differences in making a French action film like The Nest and in making an American one like Hostage?

It’s less formatted in France because you are free to do whatever you want. You can even kill the hero! Hostage was built for Bruce Willis, whereas The Nest was a movie for me. After my first movie - - A Minute of Silence, which we did for only $1 million -- I was frustrated because the movie was only screened in one theater, and the subject was very important for me, very personal. I shot it in 30 days, and had to shoot some scenes at night, and I knew I could do better. The Nest was a kind of movie we never saw before in France. I grew up seeing all these American western and action movies, so finally I said to myself, “Why can’t we do that here?

After The Nest was screened was the American Film Market, I got a lot of calls from very important people – Bruce Willis, John Woo, Michael Douglas -- and, although the other projects never took off, that is how Hostage happened.

The IMDB Notes that Splinter Cell, which you were involved in, was a video game. Do you have any desire to do more of these?

But I only worked on a four-minute short movie which became the intro for the game. Before I did films, I did a bunch of rap videos. When you are a young director, nobody is going to give you a film, so instead I made music videos. It was interesting to learn how to direct in 3-D, but, really: I am not coming from video games. In fact, Eric Rohmer was one of my teachers of film!

Any plans to return to the USA and film again? What about A.K.A., which I noticed mentioned on the IMDB?

A.K.A. was a movie I was developing with a French producer about a con man in Hollywood. But the script is not there, so I am not going to make that one, it seems. I have a lot of propositions for the U.S. but you never know. There, they see me inside a box: only action movies. They wanted me to direct another Die Hard, but I wanted to come back to France to make my Algerian war film.

I believe that all the best war movies are anti-war. How could they not be, since war is so horrible. In Intimates Enemies, we see how war has changed the Magimel character in that he is unable to go home and instead must drive by his family apartment rather than go up and be with his family. He has been destroyed, on some level, by what he has done. His death later is simply the final destruction. Does this make sense to you?

Yes. He is just going along, like someone in the landscape. The movie postulates that he is somebody like us, like you or me, looking at this war. If you were there, you would be like the Magimel character, Lieutenant Terrien , trying to protect the population, beginning with your sense of idealism. Then, step by step, we understand how the cynicism of the war changes a person until someone who is against torture will become a torturer.

Because the French-Algerian war still festers in France, did your film bring the war back to French consciousness?

Well, I hope it did. We tried. We wanted our audience to identify with Lieutenant Terrien ‘s character from the beginning, and this is bizarre in a way because suddenly, we must ask ourself, Would I make the same choices as he did? I hope the movie, from ths aspect is good, because the audience is inside this war with this character.

So what is next on your agenda?

I am now making a movie about an escape from Devils Island with Benoît Magimel and Jean Dujardin.

When will it be released?

In 2011. We’re shooting in Mexico, we hope in June of 2010.

(All photos are from the film itself, except those of M. Siri.)

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Abel Ferrara's CHELSEA ON THE ROCKS opens in... Chelsea!

CHELSEA ON THE ROCKS? Well, why not. According to one resident of the fabled New York hotel for artists and artistes, the place is situated atop a vortex. Maybe. TrustMovies is more inclined to think that, rather than occupy-
ing a spot above some otherworldly psychic whirlpool, the hotel simply attracts, as it has since practically its inception, the kind of creative but undisci-plined tenant whose

life is already approaching shambles. With this kind of a guest list, who needs outside provocation?

For anyone who has followed the trials and tribulations of the storied place (often covered by The New York Observer's peach-colored gossip sheet) as it swings back and forth between managers and management companies, this will be old news. But when film director Abel Ferrara (shown at right) brings his roving camera and weirdly probing mind into the mix, you can expect some bizarre fun as you learn how precarious a place it has become. Or maybe always was -- what with all the fires, floods, suicides, murders and more.

According to Ferrara's energetic but sloppy mishmash of interviews (nobody is identified on screen -- that's Ethan Hawke, above -- though once in awhile the name of a speaker is mentioned in passing) and some truly silly re-enactments (Sid and Nancy! Janis! ghosts!), the hotel does seem to attract those who glom onto seedy glamor, while dripping violence and psychosis. Or at least these attributes attract the filmmaker, who spends way too much time re-enacting that Sid & Nancy story, cheesily and to little effect (though Bijou Phillips, the blond just below, does get to sing -- and well, as usual).

Better when it simply sticks to the interviews and reminiscences, the movie pays particular homage to Stanley Bard, who for years ran the place and still appears to be in the picture, if on the sidelines. Some of the most charming moments belong to film director Milos Forman (below, right), who take us on a little tour with Stanley (below, left) and tells a funny, shocking story about a smoke fire he once witnessed and how it -- and the tenant -- were extinguished. Another resident tells of an artist who would retrieve his mail from his hotel mailbox in one continuous sweep, depositing it directly into the trash: "These people were completely unencum-
bered by the kinds of things the rest of us worry about." Amen.

The film's strongest moments come from a Viet Nam veteran who talks at length about killing and karma. His words bring to mind our shameful past, as well the present. I've never heard anything quite like this short section; it's a scene such as this that, as usual, makes a Ferrara movie -- for all its sloppiness -- unmissable.

(Yes, that's Grace Jones at left, appearing in another of those dizzy re-enactments. But it's always fun to see Grace.)

Chelsea on the Rocks open Friday, October 2, exclusively at the NYC's Clearview Chelsea, mere footsteps away from its storied subject.

All photos are from the film itself, except that of Mr. Ferrara, by George Pimentel, ©

Monday, September 28, 2009

A BEAUTIFUL LIFE -- ironic title -- makes its tardy theatrical debut

Once in a while a film comes along that leaves TrustMovies questioning why certain small indepen-
dent endeavors ever see the light of day.
A BEAUTIFUL LIFE is one such: a project so full of cliché that you worry perhaps the filmmaker had never before seen a movie prior to making his own, or worse, has simply cribbed everything in his film -- idea, plot, characters, dialog and photogra-
phy -- from other recent examples. He simply tosses them all into his pot, lights a fire under it and stirs occasionally. No special ingredients, nothing remotely spicy or unusual. The result, if you are a virgin to the movie-going experience, might be edible. For cineastes, however, it's going to seem bland and utterly generic.

Using this sort of monkey-see-monkey-do recipe, even the cliches become lumped together and sometimes lose their identity. Instead of the hooker with a heart of gold, we have a stripper/exotic dancer whose organ has received the Midas Touch. There's also a home-
less waif with a big secret who ends up living with the macho Latino illegal, a guy who just needs a little affection and, uh, papers. We have drugs, we have sex, but we don't have much rock-n-roll. And as for that big secret, it is revealed oh-so-slowly via sudden mem-
ory jogs, done with -- you guessed it -- overlit, flashing, soft-focus moments that have now gone past de rigeur into out-and-out visual water-boarding. You will have guessed what our heroine's past has entailed within probably the first flashback, which means the remaining numerous "hints" simply increase the torture.

With dialog of the write-it-as-you-go-
along variety -- which the cast delivers as well as anyone could -- this movie disproves the old saw about an actor being so good that you could listen to him or her read the phone book. A Beautiful Life is the phone book, and pity the poor pro-
fessionals such as Dana Delany, Debi Mazar, Jesse Garcia (above), Bai Ling (at right) and Rena Owen trapped into reading it. As for Angela Sarafyan -- shown below (no, that is not a disembodied head perched atop her torso but maybe a poorly planned and executed "still"), who has the lead role of Maggie -- the actress possesses a good deal of beauty and the necessary quota of vulnerability, all wasted here. The film's direction is by Alejandro Chomski and the screenplay and adaptation is by Wendy Hammond (from her play) and Deborah Calla -- each of whom we hope will be shown to better effect by their next offering.

A Beautiful Life (you will "get" the irony in that title, believe me) opening this Friday, October 2, at the following theaters:
New York City – Quad Cinema
Los Angeles – Sunset 5
San Francisco – Landmark Lumiere
Chicago – AMC Piper’s Alley

On Photography: AMERICAN JOURNEY and IN THE STREET make Film Forum debut

If the new, off-the-cuff documentary, An American Journey: Revisiting Robert Frank's "The Ameri-
cans," by French journalist Philippe Séclier (shown, left) simply renewed our interest in a great photographer, Robert Frank, that would be enough. But there's more. Watching the hour-long film makes one practically slaver to see the new exhibit, Looking In: Robert Frank's The Americans, which recently opened at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, as well as to find a copy of the photographer's famous book, which I had heard of and from which I seemed to recognize certain photos without having been able, until now, to attribute them to their proper source.

Séclier's film is an odd one, as might be expected from a filmmaker who credits himself as "director and driver." In the documentary, he drives around America, somewhat as did Frank on his original journey, retracing steps and trying to finds the locations -- and even the people -- that the photographer originally used. (Surprisingly, some of each remain, though not untouched by time.) He talks with other photographers and friends who who knew Frank: a German Jew whose family moved to Switzerland to survive WWII and afterward came to the USA.

Along the way we learn a lot of interesting tidbits: Frank never seemed to need contact prints, photographer Wayne Miller notes, because he had such certainty of his photographic choices; what happens to American flags when they grow old and tattered; and that phone call a new bride made to her father, immediately after being photographed by Frank. As artist Ed Ruscha notes, "It takes an outsider to come here and show us what it's all about." Frank sure did -- poverty, racism, and a certain self-satisfaction, among other things -- and so the man was not initially popular in his adop-
ted country. In one of the most charming moments, photo teacher Jno Cook shows how he created, with a push from his young son, the first (and presumably only) Robert Frank coloring book. Mr. Cook also comes up with perhaps the most interesting and trenchant observations about Frank's work and the unusual ways in which his shots connect to each other. This is fascinating stuff.

The film ends with an relatively recent exhibition in China (shown below). Only 23 photos from the book are included in the documentary, and some of these but glancingly. Anyone hoping to get a movie-theater-size-screen look at the man's work may come away disappointed, but that work is perhaps better seen in the Met Museum show or via the book that started in all. Séclier's film is best used and viewed as an enticing appetitzer.

Along with the 58-minute main feature, Film Forum is also presenting an exquisite little short called In The Street that features moving pictures taken during the 1940s in NYC's Spanish Harlem by Helen Levitt, Janice Loeb and James Agee (and here we thought the latter was just Walker Evans's writer/sidekick). The opening credits advise us that the poor quarters of great cities are both theater and battleground; the short film then proceeds to bear this out. The scenes captured here in black-and-white are simply wonderful, particularly the little boy around six or eight who is, for whatever reason, wearing a dress. The filmmakers come back to him several times, as he prances, jumps for joy, busses a girl -- and then slugs her. Oh, those guys -- how early they learn!

Though this was the fashion for female bodies at the time, how overweight most of the adult women appear still surprised me. We see cats grooming each other, kids playing in open fire hydrants, folks walking their dogs, and children, adults and the elderly all connecting. The sometimes grainy but always beautiful images, such as the one above, are a pleasure to view, set as they are to a tinkling jazz piano score. If the Séclier/Frank film offers information on some marvelous photography, this fifteen-minute short features the cinematography itself.

The double bill of An American Journey and In the Street opens at Film Forum Wednesday, September 30. The schedule is here.

(Photo credits, top to bottom:
Courtesy of Lorber Films
Philippe Séclier by Liza Bear
©John Cohen, courtesy of Deborah Bell Photographs, New York
©John Cohen, courtesy of Deborah Bell Photographs, New York
Courtesy of Lorber Films
Photo by Helen Levitt)

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Sally Potter's RAGE opens all around us -- and TM gets a private Q&A w/filmmaker

RAGE, the new movie from Sally Potter (Orlando, The Tango Lesson, Yes) is suddenly everywhere: on cell and iPhones, the internet, DVD and even theatrically (in Britain, at least). So what is it? And is it any good?

If you're going to entertain us with a stunt, as I think Ms Potter (shown just below) has done this time 'round, there's nothing intrinsically wrong

with that so long as the stunt is a good one. Rage, as a matter of fact, is a very good stunt: smart, swift, nasty, funny and entertaining as all hell.

The cast alone will make the movie a must-see for many: Simon Abkarian (shown at close of this post), Bob Balaban, Steve Buscemi (shown below), Judi Dench (two photos below), Eddie Izzard (three photos below), John Leguizamo and Diane Wiest -- plus several newcomers like Lily Cole (five photos below), Patrick J. Adams and Riz Ahmed (four photos below), who should be going places fast. Ah, yes: and Jude Law in what is his best -- and certainly most unusual-- performance in several years.

The only cast member who seems out of his element is David Oyelowo as a Shakespeare-quoting police detective who looks about a decade too young for the job. Samuel L. Jackson would have been perfect here, but Mr. Oyelowo seem entirely too green and immature: posing in the role, rather than inhabiting it. Otherwise, everyone's just about right, and they're all having immense fun with these characters -- from Ms Dench as a top fashion scribe to Mr. Balaban as a marketing professional, from Mr. Leguizamo, who plays the bodyguard to Mr Izzard, to Ms Wiest as a member of the family who owns the fashion concern.

There's a reason this movie is debuting via the "new" media. It's about the new media: how we use it and how it uses us. In a famous NYC fashion house, a young fellow is recording the goings-on and sharing them with you and me and everyone we know. I thought this character -- his name is Michelangelo and the art connection, I think, is no coincidence -- was an intern in the workplace, but Ms Potter (see the interview below) says no: He's younger than that. The entire movie is made up of talking-head interviews, against a background screen, during which Michelangelo quizzes various members of the fashion staff and its retinue about all that is going on. While the interviews are in progress a lot of interesting stuff happens - and the movie becomes a mystery, a satire, a thriller (a very cerebral one, I grant you) and an exploration of capitalism, globalization, fashion and especially the new media. By the end of its speedy 95 minutes, you'll be hanging on every word and (spoken about) deed. And then Potter really throws a monkey wrench into the works.

With nothing more than these interviews (we come back and back again to each cast member, from one day to the next, as a fashion shows commences and protests mount in the streets outside). The mystery, suspense, fun and havoc that this young, unseen blogger has managed to create (or perhaps he is only reporting) is quite a little feat. As Ms Potter notes in her interview below, she wanted to see how large an imaginative space she could create from a mere skeletal form. A pretty big one, I would say.

It's amazing how much fun, energy and sheer delight the writer/director can wring out of her plot and characters, considering that all (or almost all) is done with simply a camera, a background screen of different colors, a smart script and a bunch of expert performers (casting counts for so much here). Potter creates a whole world with about as minimal effort and expense -- but not minimal intelligence -- as would seem possible. While watching Rage on your cell phone or computer might seem enticing (this certainly fits the movie's modus operandi), I'd still suggest renting the DVD and viewing it on as big a screen as possible. Actors this good deserve to be seen in all their wonder.

Sally Potter has been with us -- and on the radar -- for some time now. Her breakthrough film Orlando came out in 1992, and her first short Thriller appeared in 1979. TrustMovies has always enjoyed her work and looked forward with anticipation to what she might try next (her movies do not resemble one another in any obvious way), so the chance to speak with her in person -- rather than via one of those lucky-to- get-a-word-in-edgewise blogger roundtables -- was too attractive to pass up. She proved a wonderful interview: quick, sharp, funny and appealing. Here's the gist:

TrustMovies: I have to say I was initially shocked to learn that Rage is not getting a theatrical release here in the U.S. The release pattern for this film really takes the cake: Debuting on cell phone and iPhone, simultaneously released to DVD here in the USA, but appearing theatrically in Britain! But then I realized that everything is changing now, distribution-wise…

Sally Potter (that's she again, at right, on the set of Rage): But the film is getting something even more exciting than a theatrical release: it’s the first-ever feature film to be released on cell phones. You know: It’s a choice. And this is so much a part of the story itself -- the grasping of the nettle, of the new technology out there, and then finding out where we can go with that.

If there was ever a movie I’ve seen that worked with this new technology, it’s this one!

It’s the story: And you can’t really separate the story from its method of release.


So for me this is not disappointing at all! Theatrical releases: I’ve been there, done that. The Angelika and... da-da-da. But all that is an old model, in a way. Mind you, I am not saying that this is the end of movie theaters or anything like that.

No, don’t say that!

I don’t think so. It can’t be. What it might do – just like the debut of photography stimulated painters to find new ways of exploring paint, and so this was not the end of painting but the beginning of new painting -- maybe an internet/cell phone release can be the revival of a thrilling, collective cinematic experience. Where cinema becomes somewhere to go for something you can only uniquely do in that way.

We saw Rage on our home TV -- which has a nice, big widescreen -- a few weeks ago, and we really enjoyed it that way. It’s a fun movie!

Well, I hope so.

I had thought of you as much more prolific, but then when I went on IMDB, it has only been five films in the past 17 years.

Six. This is my sixth. The Gold Diggers was before Orlando.

I was surprised because in my mind there were a lot more.

It’s because I am a writer/director, so the cycle is a long, slow one. If you are a director for hire, somebody else has spent the year or two working on the script, so you can come in and do the preparation for the shoot, then the shoot, the edit and then you move on. That way, you can do a film a year. Of course, there’s Woody Allen…. But I don’t know how he does it. But when you are a writer/director – which I have become: I don’t think most people start out to be that. You just end up there because I found there was no one writing scripts that I wanted to do -- then the cycle is slow. You can’t write a good script in less than a year, in my humble experience, so by the time you have written for a year or two full-time, and then you shoot and then you edit and find out what you’ve got, that’s a four-year cycle.

Do you find that you film changes at all from the writing to the shoot to the edit.

Does it change?! Yeah -- you try to keep the film changing at the rate that you as a human being are changing. In a way. But sometimes it just has to be what it is. By the time is has arrived, it has got its own life, which you have to obey and follow. I think this cycle is very similar to that of a novelist. I don’t think most novelists turn out a book more than every few years. It’s a kind of marathon runner/stamina thing – in the middle of which there is a sprint called “the shoot.” But, really, it’s a long haul.

Because your films are so different, one from the next, do you have a guiding force that drives you in certain directions: Or is it just exploration of the possibilities of narration and film?

Joan Allen in Potter's YES

The guiding principle, the choice of projects, is really intuitive, I think. What I do know is, because it is going to take so long, it must be a subject that I am really enthralled with, passionate to explore more of, and feel that it will sustain me through the ups and down of a long period of time. It must have enough in it to keep me feeling that it will be worth spending this long period of time on.

Yes. That four-year period is a long one, particularly as we get older.

Earlier in my life I imagined, hey, a movie a year, maybe a movie every two years! I’ve got all these movies in mind, waiting to be done. And so there was a great feeling of frustration and disappointment that I could not do more. And it has been a struggle. Well, in the end, then I think of a film that comes to mind: The Third Man by Carol Reed. And it’s as though I can’t think of anything else he did.

Odd Man Out? Oliver?

(She laughs.) Yes, yes, I know he did those, but for me it’s The Third Man that counts. So when people think of me and my work….

Ah — I see what you mean. Now I am thinking of Rage, but I would think first, I guess, of Orlando. That was the film that introduced me to Tilda Swinton.

Yes, and I suspect most people might think of that one first. But not everybody. For some people it’s Yes. That’s the one that really stands out. For others, it’s The Tango Lesson. People find their own “one.” But I think this business of somehow, "more is better"… Well, I am trying to adapt to the idea that this is not the case. We’re in the age of “too-muchness”

And also, if, like me, you are doing films where each appears very different from the last, you have to go back to zero point where financing is concerned. After Orlando, they all wanted me to do Orlando 2. Son of Orlando, Daughter of Orlando. Or history, or costumes….

Christina Ricci, left, and Johnny Depp in Potter's The Man Who Cried.

How did you go about assembling such a nifty cast? Rage is cast so well with wonderful choices and each does a fine job.

First of all, I love casting. It’s a process I enjoy: the alchemy of that moment and how this actor is going to fit with that scene. And I really love working with actors -- the process and the nature of the process. I have never had a problem of getting people I really wanted for a film.

So all of these people were handpicked by you?

Absolutely. I worked with two wonderful casting directors (Editor's note: Irene Lamb and Heidi Levitt), but each actor was my choice.

Did they all work for scale?

Yes they did. They were all shot for two days, exactly. Some had a bit more preparation and some a bit less. And they were all paid the minimum union rate.

What is that?

The exact amount I don’t know, but it must be pretty small. More in the range of I think about perhaps $350 per day.

Where will you go from here? Any plans for the next film?

I always have "dreams and schemes." Something floating around in my mind. And indeed some are already in treatment or outline. But until this one, Rage, is out there in the world -- maybe a couple of months more -- well, I am a monogamous devotee: Right now, there is only Rage.

There is something I’ve got my eye on. But I want to know, first, if this latest experiment, if you can call it that, this kind of “barefoot film-making” with a global reach….

Yes. Your movie is global, and it’s about so many things: the fashion industry, globalization, capitalism -- but it is also about the new media more than anything else.

It is -– you are absolutely right.

And this is so interesting and exciting – and scary.

I think a lot of people find this scary. The whole film industry is in a paroxysm of terror about it.

Tilda Swinton in Potter's Orlando

That’s probably the only reason I am even here. I started reviewing on my own, and after a time got asked, “Would you like to work for us? We can pay you in DVDs and a little bit of money.” So I said, yes, and I loved doing it, but after a couple of years, the money ran out and the gig shut down. So now I am doing it all for free. But – I am getting invited to so many films and getting to meet people whose work I have admired. And since I am old enough now to perhaps retire and live on my savings very frugally for a few years, until the end…

You know what: Those of us who have never made huge sums of money out of what we’ve done are freer. We are freer! Those who are terrified are the ones who have made huge sums of money and are frightened of losing it. I have never made much money, so I have nothing to lose and everything to gain from the new media. And so you find that you are suddenly ahead of the pack and waving, as you go shooting through the gate!

When you were making RAGE did you worry about never being able to show anything but talking heads? This worked for me, but it’s quite a gamble.

No. That was my choice. I am a huge fan of minimalism, anyway. Not for its own sake, but there is something about the purity of a skeletal form that enlarges the mental space around it. I wanted to see how big an imaginative space I could create.

You really have done this. Before we close, is there anything you’d like to talk about that journalists never seem to ask?

No. I loved your questions and I don’t think there is anything missing.

Do you want to soapbox about anything? Like they do in London Parks and talk to the crowds?

I actually did that once. I was quite young at the time. I am trying now to remember the subject…. Probably it was one of the more abstract things I was thinking about. Perhaps I did it as a kind of performance art. I generally try to say the things I want to say in my films and through my characters rather than anywhere else. But I am very excited to find that after 30 years of experience since my first film -- slightly more, really -- that I have ended up being one of the first to use this new technology. There is some sort of sweet revenge there. I mean I am the first person to have ever had her film debut on cell phones!

That’s true. Other films have debuted via streaming and such.

But this is the first on cell phone. Ever. Can you believe it?!

When I first heard that kids were watching movies like King Kong on their cell phones, l just thought, Oh, please! How stupid! All those neat special effects on a 3-inch screen? But your film seems perfect for this media.

Yes: designed for it.

I saw a bit of it on an iPhone, and it looked simply beautiful!

And what people often don’t seem to plug into about the new media is that is that these new things always seem to build on the old. Looking at these small things: they are miniatures, and the history of miniatures is the history of painting.

Were you an artist originally?

Well, I did a foundation course at St. Martin’s School of Art in London, but I really started out in movies. Where I found the exploration of scale was often a thrilling thing.

Yes, and once you have sat through two or three movies on an IMAX screen, you really crave something small. And the idea of miniatures is so part of the younger generation now. Even the leading character, though unseen in your film, seems like a miniature. He is what –about 16 or 18 years old.

You mean the off-screen character, Michelangelo? No --I imagine him to only be about 12.

12 years old?! That never even occurred to me. Well, then he wouldn’t be an intern.

No, but they never call him an intern. They say things like, Why aren’t you in school? Or they refer to him as small or young. Really, anybody can invent their own age for him, but in my mind he was 12!

It’s time for the next journalist’s turn, so we say good bye to one of our favorite interviews so far – wishing Ms Potter great good luck for the success of her new film.

Friday, September 25, 2009

THE NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL opens up: It's the 47th edition; I remember the first

Yes, film fans: TrustMovies saw every last movie at the very first New York Film Festival, back when. In fact, he saw every movie during the first few years of the festival because he worked for (what was then called) Philharmonic Hall box-office, part-time, as a guard. (There was no Alice Tully Hall at the time.) The powers-that-
be had hired him for his height -- and the fact that he could put his recently drama school-graduated vocal prowess to use, making announcements in the lobby, while herding the unruly crowds into line for the sellout programs. "Up against the wall, movie-lovers!" he would command, putting a "cinema spin" on a much-loved slogan of the day. During those first few fests, he fell head-over-
heels for Bo Widerberg's Elvira Madigan but wondered why the programmers had included Alexander Kluge's Yesterday Girl. Now, he suspects, he'd feel pretty much the reverse -- or at least he'd better understand the merits of both movie-makers.

Time moves on, tastes change (or grow, one hopes) but the days of seeing every film in a fest like this are long gone. Not if one wants to keep up with little -- but important -- movies like The Blue Tooth Virgin, at least -- and speak with their filmmakers and performers. This year, I'll take in maybe half a dozen of the NYFF roster; at this point I've already seen three: Vincere by Bellocchio; Corneliu Porumboiu's Police, Adjective; and La rabbia di Pasolini, reconstructed by Giuseppe Bertolucci, which is part of the fest's sidebar showcase Views from the Avant-Garde.

I'll cover those first two at length when they receive their theatrical release (both have already been picked up for US distribution); for now I'll just give a brief rundown, in case readers may want to venture out to wait on cancellation lines in the days to come. Vincere is a dark, dark tale of Il Duce and a woman who loved him, married him and fathered his child, only to see -- But you'll have to see for yourself. It's worth it, as this is Bellocchio, after all, whose skills I think have only grown as he has aged. We discover here a very different side of popular Italian actress Giovanna Mezzogiorno (above, right) and get yet another taste of the fellow who may well be the most talented, versatile and charismatic young actor in Italy, Filippo Timi (above left). The movie is strange and disturbing, most of all because it dispenses with much of the political, spinning it into the purely personal -- while forcing us to understand how the two are connected and how Italy itself seems forever devoted to fascist media moguls (I didn't realize till seeing this film that Mussolini was one such, prior to his rise to ultimate power) and the hypocrisy of the so-called "family values" of the Catholic Church.

plays Saturday, September 26, at 8:30 & Sunday, September 27 at 6. Marco Bellocchio will appear in person for a conversation with Phillip Lopate on Sunday, 9/27 at 2pm. If tickets elude you during the fest, despair not: IFC Films has picked up this one for theatrical release sometime in early-ish 2010.

I was not as taken with Corneliu Porumboiu's earlier 12:08 East of Bucharest as were some (it proved a little heavy-handed for me), but I found his new film Police, Adjective remarkable: quiet and contained but full of surprise and the steady unfolding of a view of society -- Romanian -- still trapped in/enrapt with its fascist tendencies (well, the film is set in and around a police department) and the old laziness of the Communism work ethic, despite its slowly opening up to more western "democratic" mores. A police procedural-cum-moral dilemma in which very little happens but what does counts for much, the film is exceedingly slow-moving but so beautifully photographed that viewing it puts you in an almost constant state of pleasure (the crisp cinematography by Marius Panduru makes the absolute most of color, wherever it can be found). The acting by lead Dragos Bucur, above left, and Irina Saulescu, right, as well as by Vlad Ivanov (the abortionist from 4 months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) is terrific, and Porumpoiu's dialog is spare until it is needed. At these times you almost want to stop and hit the rewind button, so pointed and simultaneously on-target and obfuscatory the words become.

Police, Adjective, like The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, is another top-of-the-line movie from Romania. IFC Films has picked it up for distribution, and it plays at the NYFF on Monday, September 28, at 9:15 and Tuesday, September 29, at 6.

I'll have more on the Pasolini "Rage" (as well as on Sally Potter's new Rage, plus an interview with the director) in the coming week....

BLUE TOOTH VIRGIN opens on both coasts; interview w/Russell Brown and Austin Peck

As usual, a lot of movies are opening this week, not to mention what's on tap at the New York Film Festival (more of which tomorrow). So how do you choose? If you're smart or have any interest in writers & writing (or maybe want to do some yourself), there's one little gem of a film you should not, under any circumstances, pass up. With a title like THE BLUE TOOTH VIRGIN, you're not likely to forget it.

That title actually doubles as the title of the screenplay that one friend gives to another in order to get the latter's feedback on it. This is the second film in a month -- the Hungarian Holocaust family drama Tickling Leo was the other -- in which the title doubles as the title of a piece of writing important to the film. Other than this odd coincidence, the two films have little in common -- and Blue Tooth is by far the better film.

Initially, it appears that this will be another of those Hollywood tales of jealousy and ambition, creative yearnings and human foibles. Indeed, all these are present and handled with humor and grit, even if we've seen their like on film before. Then the movie begins to morph into something deeper: an exploration of why we write and what we hope to get from our endeavor. In the process, writer/director Russell Brown (shown above) delves into other areas: self-deception at work/home and niche vs mainstream are two such. The movie has but a few scenes, almost all of which take place between only two characters. This could be deadly, were it not for the dialog -- which is spot-on most of the time: funny, acerbic, and meaningful -- and the movie's theme, which grows richer as the tale moves along.

Brown also peppers his film with smart and pointed quotes about writing -- and the process of -- which add to the movie's meaning and pep up its style a bit. (The accompanying animated visuals are fun, too.) Then, in the middle of the film, come two astonishing scenes: One between the character of David (well-played by Bryce Johnson, above) and his therapist (the wonderful Roma Maffia, below), the other between Sam (a nicely needy and off-kilter Austin Peck, two photos below) and his "script consultant" (played by Karen Black, shown three photos below, who finally, after several decades, has a memorable role again). These two scenes are as good as any I've witnessed in a movie in a long while.

Ms Maffia does a therapist "turn" unlike any you will have seen; she's sensational (but is this behavior typical of today's L.A. shrink, I wonder?), but the scene with Ms Black that follows is quite extra-
ordinary. It begins by sounding like your typical Hollywood, holistic, feel-good babble. But no: It's for real and soon morphs into something wonderfully profound, during which Black's character does an infinitely better job of psychoanalysis than does Maffia's shrink. (This scene also manages to address -- among other things and from an odd angle -- the difference between mainstream and niche.) A final scene in a coffee shop takes us back to the film's beginning but cleverly adds a new voice to the mix that topples our expectations and make us reconsider these characters anew.

I cannot recommend The Blue Tooth Virgin highly enough. I realize that writers (and those who would like to write) will find it especially meaningful, but since self-deception is such a deeply human trait, I doubt that many moviegoers, if they think about it for more than a moment, will be immune to the movie's message and delights. The film opens via Regent Releasing in a limited theatrical run on Friday, September 25, at NYC's Quad Cinemas and in L.A. at the Laemmle Music Hall. Current and past playdates -- cities and theaters -- are listed here.

It's rare for TrustMovies to get the chance to speak with both an actor in and the writer/director of a new independent film, but that was the case with Blue Tooth. He first met soap opera star Austin Peck (formerly of Days of Our Lives and currently on As the World Turns), who plays Sam, at Manhattan's Playwright Tavern (8th Avenue between 45 and 46) for a quick interview that turned into a lengthy talk about soaps and soap acting, careers, and fame. (Because the World Turns is shot here in NY, Peck is able to live on the east coast, although he was raised in Los Angeles.)

To call this guy a hunk is to severely understate the case: Dressed in jeans and a white t-shirt, he stands 6" 3", with chiseled facial features, an expansive chest, and arms that look as though they're rarely disengaged from a bicep machine. Though I avoid watching soaps, I suspect the actor's physical attributes are better put to use there than in The Blue Tooth Virgin, in which Peck appears near-nerdy, glamming down noticeably behind eye-glasses and keeping his undistinguished-looking clothes on rather than off.

TrustMovies: I noticed on the IMDB that you won an award early in your career -- from Soap Opera Digest....

Austin Peck: Soap Opera Digest fans are known for being the biggest fans and buying the most materials of any magazine. I started out on the soaps back in L.A. in 1995 and also did some theater while I was doing the soaps.

I have always had the sense that soaps were over-written and under-acted. How do you feel about that?

I think it can be true. It’s funny: Soap opera writers always imagine that if there is not constant train of dialog, people will stop watching and turn their TVs off. So they never let anyone be quiet or have nice, silent time. Also, most people watch soaps differently than you watch other TV or a film. It’s not the way you watch something like Mad Men and be riveted. Instead, people are eating their lunch or watching their kids or walking from one roon to another, doing some other activity. Soaps are kind of geared toward that. As actors and writers, we are kind of victims of this genre that was created years ago.

Is acting any different for you on soaps or on film?

No, it’s the same thing. Sometimes on the show I am bad – because it's just a bad day. You're doing the script and saying the same thing you've already said six times. It's hard, whereas when you are in a film and or play with a beginning, middle and end, it's different. On daytime TV it's just the same moment over and over and over again. The average person views the soap opera only maybe 2 or 3 days per week. So the writers have to make their audience always know what going on. So there's a lot of repetition. Everybody on soaps is victim to what started years ago. I don't really think it has to be that way anymore. But the writing is always over-written. Always. I am not being critical. That's the way it is.

Have you ever written anything yourself?

I like to write, but it‘s not like, Im going out there trying to sell it.

Once I was away from soaps for awhile, and when I came back to it it was like I saw it in a different way. During the time away I had been reading about String Theory -- how Einstein had died trying figure it out: How E=MC squared might fit into quantum physics and how these two things could then work together. I was watching this program about the whole thing, and suddenly I thought: "God—it's like soap opera. And soap opera is like a different dimension! Real life is here, and then soap opera is in this other dimension. And with that, I had freed myself of having to take responsibility for it!

On that note, there's this scene that kind of takes your movie into another dimension. It’s the scene between you and Karen Black, which was, for me, the single best scene I've seen in a movie since... I can remember when.

Wow! Well, Karen is such an icon. She really is.

Did you realize how important his scene was when you were filming it?

Well, no, it just took up the day for the coverage, you know...

Does a single scene usually take that long to film?

Well, yeah, with the coverage and all —the lighting and everything else. I’m amazed at the reaction people are having to this film. It was a real joy to do – I connected really clearly to the struggle that my character was having. And the whole creative process thing: To be edified by your creativity. But then at the same time, the fear of being edified, of being validated. You're seeking after something, and then you get it, and you wonder -- Is this what I was really looking for? When I finally saw the film, I saw that it had translated differently from how I remembered doing it.

Ah.... Does this happen often?

No, and your response to this scene is really nice!

That's part of my coming at the movie from the standpoint of a writer. In this one scene it gets almost to the core of what we want and what we need and why we do what we do.

Everybody has a story to tell -- which is why reality shows are so big right now. And probably why we all hate them so much...

Yes! Because they are not reality.

Right; they're all scripted. No matter what they say. But still they're about real people. Like, I like to write, and I think I'm good. People, like my mother, will tell me what she thinks of it. The truth, too, and that’s not always what I want to hear.

At the end of that scene Karen Black says, "Sam, you are a great writer." I wondered at the time, why is she saying that? But then at the end of the film, we get a glimpse of what she means. And the movie also takes in the idea of mainstream vs niche. And who wants what.

I really did like that about the script. You get the feeling, first, that Sam is not a good writer, but then at the end, the girl comes up and say to him, You actually changed my life. It doesn't get better than that! I made a decision about the role -- after talking with a friend of mine -- that my character will never, ever be a mainstream writer, as much as he might want that.

That’s his cross to bear but its also something wonderful that he’ll find his niche. Will this film maybe make a career difference for you?

I don't know. I’d love that. But you never know. We'll see what happens. You know what they say: Today's expectations are tomorrow’s disappointments.

Maybe I’m a late bloomer. I once heard this phrase: I'm on a journey of a thousand miles, and I think that’s true of my life. But right now, I have only maybe traveled just a mile or two.

Come on: Only a mile or two?

Well. maybe thirty. I just told the love of my life, just today, "I am on this journey, and its full of maybe pitfalls and darkness, and I can’t help but see purpose and God, and I want you to come along with me because I love you."

Nice. You were married before, right? And you have kids.

Yes, I have two kids, four and seven.

And you are how old now…?

38. My mother is one of my closest friends – I’m a momma’s boy -- and she always says, “It’s an inside job.” And I think that what this movie is about: At the end of the day, it is always an inside job. But the characters in the film are always looking outside. It's a daily struggle. That's why I connect to the film, because of the insecurities and neuroses of the characters.

Also, don't actors have double the struggle because, if they are well known, there is always that added "fame" thing to deal with.

I don’t know. But I had one experience that was very interesting. I had been on Days of Our Lives for three years and I got this call from South Africa, telling me how popular I was over there and asking me to go there. They told me Days was the number one show in the country – not just the #1 soap opera but the #1 show. The whole country would just shut down when it was on.

What?? No wonder South Africa has had such a troubled history! So did you end up going there?

This was all new to me, and my role had only been airing in South Africa for a few months back then, and I was a really bad actor -- but I think I am a little bit better now than I was then. I was excited by the whole idea, so I went to South Africa. My character's name and my actual name were one in the same. When I got off the plane people on the ground began calling my name: Austin! Austin! Austin!

And you know, I did not expect this in any way, shape or form. In L.A. when you are on a soap, it’s no big deal. It's like being on the B or C -- or X list. You’re not really that famous. But guards had to take me out the back entrance because there were so many fans waiting for me. This was crazy. But then they then told me that I really did have to say hi to these fans because they had waited all day and night there for me. Then I started thinking, wait a minute: I have not done anything to deserve this behavior. Nothing. So I look over the balcony and there are thousand of people screaming. I just thought, holy cow. I had armed bodyguards the whole time I was there – this was back in1998 – and I felt totally freaked out. I’m thinking “I’m a bad actor on a soap opera — I have not done anything worthwhile, and yet they are acting like this?!
Even if you were a good actor: What is that about?!

Exactly! It this were done for somebody who was really really famous and a great person who had done great things, it would be something else. But people were hanging on every word I said for ten days. It was too crazy.

Ah, fame….

Yes, and this is what some people experience every single day of their life. It is a bizarre experience. But still, this does not "fix" you. It does not make you whole.

On that interesting and worthwhile note, we have to bid adieu to Mr. Peck (do see his very good performance in The Blue Tooth Virgin) and move on to the writer and director of the film, Russell Brown, whom we speak to the following day from his home in Southern California.

This is your first film since Race You to the Bottom. I would not have guessed that the same man made both.

Well, actually, I see the movies as kind of similar. They both are really about people who are dealing with self-deception. Unconsciously or consciously, I’m not sure, but I seem to gravitate toward this theme: People who don’t know themselves and are using devices to sort of make their lives easier and make themselves happy. Yet these devices prevent them from seeing themselves as they really are.

In Race You to the Bottom, the guy in the movie is in this relationship with this girl because he does not really want to accept himself as gay. And in The Blue Tooth Virgin, Sam, the writer, is struggling with who he really is and what he really wants to do. I think my own writing has taken a step forward with this movie in that this theme is explored in a deeper way.
I would agree. Where did this movie first come from?

It came from this same theme, but here I zeroed in on the writing aspect. I have been in this creative process many times, with friends who have evaluated my work and I theirs. I thought there was a lot of fertile territory here for a movie.

It’s rare to encounter a movie about writing that actually works. Adaptation is one of the few, and for me, Blue Tooth works even better in some ways: particularly in addressing the themes of who we are and why we write. Has there been anything like this about writing that's been done previously?

Nothing I can think of, actually. I really like chamber movies than deal with small ensembles. I love Erich Rohmer’s films a lot and My Dinner With Andre and some of the Bergman chamber films like Autumn Sonata. Not that my movie is in that same category in terms of overall quality, but that is was what I was kind of riffing off, in terms of structure.

It’s about why we write (or why we should write), as much as anything else, right?

For me, the movie is about why we write and all the different reasons for this -- our motivations. Really, in any artistic field, the most important thing is to be honest with yourself about why you are doing what you are doing. Whatever field you’re in, don’t tell yourself lies about why you are doing what you’re doing.

Given the human being’s penchant for hypocrisy, this is hard.

Yeah and that is what this guy -- both of them, really -- are doing.

Your scene with Karen Black is spectacular. It’s so good, and it is also so good to see her back in form and in an important role for a change.

I adore Karen and think she in some ways an under-utilized talent. She is so wonderful and she still has so much to give as an actress. She brought a depth to this scene that I don’t think was on the page, and for that I will always be grateful.

In that scene, Austin Peck (who plays Sam) really does goes through a process with Karen’s character. He made some really great acting choices in that way.

How did you come up with that scene?

The movie was always sort of designed where Sam’s script needed to take on a relevance to what was going on in his own life. Somewhere along the way, I really latched onto the concept of morphing. While it is a sort of joke in the movie, it also becomes a kind of central theme. So that’s the scene where Karen's character reveals to him how this script unknowingly reflects what is going on in his own life.

The idea of mainstream vs niche is also handled quite interestingly….

The audience’s concept of who Sam is and what kind of a writer he may be, has also morphed and changed during the course of the movie. In a way, you start off the movie sympathizing with David, but by the end you’re maybe thinking David is not such a great guy.

The movie is also about how you are getting information about things, and who is giving you this information. Who you are getting criticism from matters, and what they have invested in this is also important.

What was the budget and the length of filming time for both Race You to the Bottom and The Blue Tooth Virgin? The former looks much more expensive than the latter.

Yes – it was! Race You to the Bottom was a 21-day shoot and three times the budget of Blue Tooth, which was an eight-day shoot.

What are working on now?

I have a couple other projects – I’m working with different producers and setting up financing. There is nothing right around the corner, but hopefully we will get actors attached and raise some money for another movie.

When I spoke with Austin, he mentioned that your movie only has seven scenes in it. Is that really true? I realized, after watching, that every scene was quite important in getting across one point or another, but I didn’t realize there were only seven.

I think there are essentially only seven scenes in the film. For exam-
ple, the golf course scene is split between and green and the post-game dinner discussion – but I think of these as one scene. Also, there are no scenes with more than two people -- other than briefly at the very end -- and I think the film is pretty different in this way.