Thursday, July 30, 2009

Days of Future Passed Part 4 - Adventures in Vomit

Halfway through the first semester of college and my buddy Steve was well on his way to flunking out. He’d pretty much stopped going to classes, and was spending most days hanging around the dorm smoking dope and listening to Jethro Tull albums with a group of guys who were also on their way to flunking out. Steve wasn’t cut out for college. He really missed his girlfriend Wanda back home. I met her once when she came up for a visit and she was nice and really really hot. One night I could hear Steve talking to her on the pay phone in the hall, and it was clear things were not going well. After a few minutes of yelling, I heard the phone slam and Steve barged into my room, his face bright red.

“Dude, ya got any money?”

As luck would have it, a letter had come from my mom that morning and in it was a crisp $20 bill, which, back then, a guy could live on for a couple weeks.

“Yeah, I’m like loaded man, gotta twenty, what cha need?”

Steve needed to go home and talk to his girlfriend because she was “flakin’ out”, so on Friday after my classes we got on a Greyhound bus and about two hours later we were in beautiful Newport News, Va.

It was a town populated largely by shipyard wielders and active military. Steve’s dad met us at the bus station and, for a dad, he was a pretty cool guy. He was a civilian but worked at Fort Eustis, and he told a very funny joke about Eustis being an acronym for Even Uncle Sam Thinks It Sucks.

We drove directly to Menchville High, where Steve’s younger brother was playing in a basketball game. Steve tried to call Wanda from a payphone in the lobby, but got no answer. Thinking she might be at the game, we wandered through the deafening gymnasium as Steve looked around, under and over the massive crowd hoping to catch a glimpse of her.

Eventually, we found our way back to Steve’s family just as the game was starting. I met Steve’s mom, who had driven his brother to the gym earlier that evening. She was very nice, but you could tell she felt that Newport News and its lousy basketball games were very much beneath her.

Menchville's opponent had apparently never played basketball before and after just a few minutes the home team had a big lead, and it was clear the rest of the game would just be a formality. Steve asked his mom for her car keys, saying we were starving and he had promised to take me to Dino’s, a local pizza joint he was always raving about. She complied, and handed over the keys, plus a crisp twenty of her own. Between us we now had almost 40 bucks and VW full of gas…the world was ours for the taking.

Steve tried to call Wanda again, and this time her mom answered and told Steve that Wanda had gone to Nags Head for the weekend with some of her friends, and would probably not be back until Sunday night. No, she did not know the number where they were staying.

Steve almost had a moment of uncoolness when he slammed down the phone, but quickly composed himself and we did what young men in crisis usually do, we went and crammed pizza and beer down our necks.

Dino’s disc lived up to the boffo advance billing, its gleaming pepperonis swimming in a sea of garlic and gooey cheese, and we dined aggressively. Afterwards, we cruised Warwick Boulevard for awhile, rubbing our bloated bellies and belching as loudly and grossly as possible.

We passed a drive-in theatre, probably one of the last in Virginia, and its poorly lit roadside marquee proclaimed the current offering to be “Th Exerest”. Clearly there were issues with vandalism or spelling or possibly both, but Steve’s dark mood immediately brightened.

“Dude, have you ever seen that??”

I intimated that no I hadn’t seen it, but had heard a lot about it

“Oh man, ya just gotta!!”

Steve quickly executed a near perfect Bat Turn across 4 lanes of traffic and a moment later we were at the window of the crumbling ticket shack, where he gladly forked over the exorbitant Dollar-a-Car admission. As we slowly drove over the crunching gravel searching for the optimum parking space, the opening credits glared from the enormous bulkhead of a screen.

I knew a little about “The Exorcist”. It was some sort of monster movie, and I loved those. I told Steve about how I used to watch them early Saturday mornings out of Channel 5 in Raleigh. Frankenstein, Wolfman, Frankenstein meets the Wolfman, all that stuff. Seen ‘em all. Old hat.

“You ain’t seen shit Dude” was his pithy response.

So there was cute, angelic little Regan and her movie star mom.

Regan starts acting strange, the docs take a look

Then, Holy Freakin Shit

The Exorcist was not just a monster movie. No, it was something much darker and much more terrifying than that. It was the embodiment of foulest evil, all the more hideous because it seemed so profoundly real. I knew nothing of the art of filmmaking back then, but as I consider it now after over 20 years experience in the business, what William Friedkin and his team achieved with this movie was extraordinary. Special effects then were basically limited to make-up tricks and piano wire, yet they made it work, They made your skin crawl and your pulse race and, in my case, bolt from the passenger seat of a VW and bump your head on the roof.

Considering the full arsenal of computer image manipulation available, would a filmmaker today be able to redo this film and make it even more disturbing and deeply horrifying? At the risk of sounding like an old coot: I doubt it. I doubt it very much. And to the rare credit of Hollywood, so far no one has tried. And I hope they never do.

We drove back to Steve’s in a stunned silence and he finally admitted that this was the third time he had seen it. I asked him was if it was as scary the third time around.

“No”, he said, “It’s scarier”

We slept late the next day. His mom plied us with waffles and eggs and we sat around for a while visiting with his folks. I had to admire Steve’s mastery of evasion. Every time the subject of school work came up, he dodged and weaved and deflected and changed the subject until none of us really knew what the hell we were talking about anymore. Steve then asked his Dad to take us to the bus station, because we both had to get back and “study”. You could tell Dad didn’t buy it for a second, but Mom seemed to be relieved so she dropped us off at the depot. As a goodbye, she slipped us our own individual twenty spots, and in sort order we were on the next Richmond-bound grimy Greyhound.

We got back in time to catch a ride to Charlottesville with Steve’s stoner buddies. It was Saturday night, which meant all the frat houses on Rugby Road would be in full oblivion party mode.

Those rich kids at UVA really knew how to have fun. The street was crammed with thousands of students, possessed not by demons but by the sweet insanity of youth. We were aimlessly milling about, dancing and flirting, as a dozen amateur rock bands attempted “Sweet Home Alabama.” And while there was some projectile vomiting, it was due to Purple Passion and keg beer, not the influence of Beelzebub.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Apres Lui (2007)

Catherine Deneuve is extraordinary in this portrait of Camille, a self assured and successful woman who comes undone by sudden and shocking grief, as the death of her university student son in an automobile accident leaves a deep and irreparable void. She finds conventional coping methods utterly ineffective, and her grief eventually causes her to pursue a perilous path.

Camille’s ex-husband, well played by Guy Marchand, and pregnant daughter (Elodie Bouchez), can only watch, as we see Camille slowly unravel and focus more and more of her attention on her late son’s best friend (Thomas Dumerchez), who is nearly paralyzed with his own guilt and deep remorse. As Camille becomes involved in every aspect of this young man’s life, we see that she is not just seeking a replacement for her lost son, but a kind of profound solace that pushes their relationship to the brink of forbidden territory.

“Apres Lui" is a well told and quite believable tale, as director Gael Morel wisely avoids any manipulative pathos. We feel what we should feel simply watching this story unfold, and no one has to beat us over the head with overwrought melodrama. The art direction and cinematography are also quite strong, as the palette of deep greens and blues serve to make Deneuve even more striking and luminous than usual.

Not that Catherine needs the help, as she dominates this subtle film as only a seasoned professional can. In fact, in the full flower of her maturity, Deneuve is no longer merely an actress. She has become a force of nature.

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Thursday, July 23, 2009

La Cienaga (2001)

Ill-kept swimming pools, bored adolescents, oblivion drinking and oppressive humidity are just some of the issues plaguing two large and chaotic Argentinean families in Lucrecia Martel's gritty depiction of a rather dreadful summer vacation.

Graciela Borges is quite the hoot as Mecha, a spoiled matriarch drama queen who has two hobbies: yelling at the servants and drinking until she literally falls over. Her cousin Tali (Mercedes Moran) and her large brood come for an extended visit, and the two women launch a drunken and harebrained scheme involving a Bolivian shopping trip.

Meanwhile the kids, devoid of any adult supervision, engage in "Lord of the Flies" type anarchic, and potentially dangerous, misadventures. The film has a loose-leaf, improvised feel and offers a revealing glimpse into upper class Argentinean families, albeit ones that have clearly gone to seed. La Cienaga doesn't end so much as simply stops, and is one of those rare films that seems too short.

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Saturday, July 18, 2009

Old Men in New Cars (2002)

It's a common dilemma. You know you should watch that austere Scandinavian art film because it will somehow make you a better person, but what you really want is a shoot’em up with lots of car chases and stuff blowing up. Well, thanks to stunt coordinator turned director Lasse Spang Olsen now you can have both!

Kim Bodina, Denmark’s answer to James Gandolfini, stars in this violent, yet quite funny, tale of small-time hoods set on the gray, damp streets of Copenhagen. Bodina and his motley gang of reluctant henchmen (they would prefer to be pastry chefs) attempt a number of elaborate heists and daring rescues in their efforts to fulfill the wishes of a dying friend.

The film starts a bit slowly, but soon the air is filled with bullets and cars smashing into walls and cargo planes spinning out of control and oh my gosh it’s an adrenaline junky’s dream movie. Yet, underneath it all, there’s that pitch dark, bone dry comedic sensibility that characterizes so many Scandinavian films. Olsen has struck an amazing balance between dark quirky minimalism and white knuckle excitement, and I suspect he may be the love child of Aki Kaurismaki and Michael Bay.

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Friday, July 10, 2009

Luche Libre Starring Blue Demon (1970)

I've been a fan of flamboyant Mexican wrestlers ever since my Dad and I saw Mil Mascaras beat the snot out of the villainous Greg Valentine at the fairgrounds 30 years ago. Yeah, yeah I know wrasslin' is fake, but I would think a 250 lb man jumping on you from the top rope would have to smart at least a little bit. Mexico holds its heroic grapplers in high esteem, featuring them in magazines, advertisements and, naturally, action films.

In this silly diversion, a group of luchadors enmascarado attempts to protect some beauty pageant contestants from the evil designs of a mad scientist and his seemingly inexhaustible supply of midget wrestler henchmen.

Our barrel-chested heros get themselves in a variety of pickles, but are saved by teamwork, agility and the fact that the mad scientist's various contraptions always seem to go haywire at critical moments.

The action is accompanied by a twinkly cocktail party jazz score that makes no sense whatsoever. The filmmaking is sloppy, amateurish, riddled with continuity errors and I adored every minute of it. Alain Resnais did not direct this film.

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Monday, July 6, 2009

Human Resources (1999)

A cold, biting realism permeates every frame of Laurent Cantet’s impressive feature debut. Human Resources is a simple story of young Franck (Jalil Respert), a business school student who returns to his hometown northwest of Paris to intern with a metal fabrication factory. Franck grew up virtually in the shadow of this massive plant, and his father (brilliantly played by Jean-Claude Vallod) has worked there as a union laborer for thirty years. Respert receives his share of razzing from family and friends in the early going, as we quickly realize this child of blue-collar culture is returning as a suspect white-collar anti-hero, and we feel for his predicament. All goes well for Franck with his management overlords, as they assign him to a special research project that, unknown to Franck, will give them decisive leverage over the union in upcoming labor negotiations.

There is palpable tension at home, however, as the more Franck achieves in his new position, the more it isolates him from his father and childhood friends. Clearly the father is quite proud of the son, but neither of them, due to their generational and cultural differences, has the ability to express those feelings to each other. Then one night, Franck discovers a secret letter on a superior’s computer that causes a chain of dramatic and extraordinary events, and ultimately a heartbreaking father-son role reversal. Cantet has done a number of films about the dangers of workplace politics, culminating in the excellent 2008 Palme d’Or winner The Class. Here we see the roots of the intellectually gripping naturalism that has become his stylistic signature. Not as dark as Haneke, and not as documentarian as the Dardenne Brothers, Cantet creates absorbing and highly believable portraits of those who find their work rewarding in ways other than monetary.

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Thursday, July 2, 2009

Mondays in the Sun (2003)

The debilitating effect of unemployment on the male psyche is explored in this well directed drama from Spain. A group of idle men, all former co-workers at the same defunct shipyard, regularly convene at a neighborhood bar, where we learn all about their shared history and the challenges they face pursuing new employment in a world that no longer values skilled labor. The story is told in a leisurely progression of vignettes, each done in a casual, laconic naturalism, which reinforces the central predicament of the men. When one has nothing to do, there is never any need to rush.

While theoretically an ensemble piece, this is actually Javier Bardem's movie, as he gained significant weight for the role and the added bulk makes his presence even more formidable than usual. The film strikes a near perfect balance of pathos and humor, and Bardem's witticisms while waiting in the unemployment queue will have most viewers rolling with laughter.

Yet we are never far removed from the grim prospects these men face, as they approach middle age with their hopes and self-esteem shattered. Director Fernando Leon de Aranoa, who also helmed the equally excellent "Princesas", is clearly a talent to watch.

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