IN A DECIDEDLY DISINGENUOUS COVER STORY in the New York Times Sunday magazine this past week, Judd Apatow, whose career includes stints at memorable television series like “Larry Sanders Show” and “Freaks and Geeks,” and finally, the commercial and comedic success of his feature debut The 40 Year Old Virgin and of his co-producing efforts, such as “Anchorman” and Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, is painted as a cry-prone, damaged man exploiting his own fears and life to make art that both entertains and alarms. While the unkindness of the reporter’s phrasing of certain delicate moments he observes over the course of a year and a half hanging out with Apatow is troubling, there are insights into the comic mind behind these efficient, generous movies.
Seth Rogen plays Ben Stone, a 23-year-old chubby, goofy-funny, um, stoner, who lucks one loosey-goosy night into a hookup with Alison Scott, an older woman who works for E! Entertainment Television. Condom hijinks lead to the titular condition. Ben’s surrounded by a houseful of bosom buddies, all weird and funny but deeply, darkly 23, blurting more puerile humor than you can shake a man-stick at. They’re convinced soon, someday, they’ll start up a website that tells you precisely where you can find the nude scenes in movies; there’s a funny double payoff when they discover someone’s done their dream job already. Mostly, they get high, insult each other, talk about sex, and get high. Accoutrements of the post-collegiate male American lifestyle today litter the sets: bongs, Perfect 10 magazine, Sierra Nevada, Corona, Pacifco, Red Stripe. (The Canadian Rogen speaks in his native cadences, as well as making hilarious references to his Vancouver origins.)
AT THE AGE OF 71, WILLIAM FRIEDKIN’S MANAGED TO MAKE A MOVIE that has moments that are even more terrifying than The Exorcist (1973). The sustained intensity of that movie remains mysterious: a while back, over the course of several weeks, I watched Friedkin’s blunt yet elusive film five times in a row, in 10-minute bites each day. I have some notions, but its power (beyond the great male fear of the power of emerging female sexuality) remains enigmatic. (Mark Kermode has written a couple of editions of an exceptional book about that film.) The exquisite and troubling Bug is based on a Steppenwolf-produced play from 2004 by Tracy Letts (who also wrote the screenplay). Michael Shannon, who originated the role, plays Peter, a Gulf War veteran who happens into the life of Agnes, a weary Oklahoma woman who lives in a motel literally named “Rustic,” the letters on its roof battered by years of winds. Ashley Judd plays Agnes with unstrung empathy, and a certain modicum of fearlessness as the story turns brutally dark. Agnes still lives in fear of her ex, Goss, played by a bulked-up Harry Connick, Jr., especially after she finds out he’s been released from prison early. Once the pair bond, “Bug” grows relentless. There’s a staggering amount of technique on display, even as the events of Peter’s growing paranoia about “all the technology, the chemical, the information” become repellent. The dialogue is theatrical without coming off stagy; there are swell small observations like Agnes’ “People who don’t drink make me nervous”; “I was bad to drink back then”; “You a con?” getting the very con-like reply, “No, ma’am”; and Judd’s drawn-out Kentucky drawl, “Not that I got much to say unless I talk about mis-e-ry.” Directing opera of late seems to have reinvigorated Friedkin’s interest in storytelling through sound; the sound design, which includes nearly silent passages, the whoosh of ceiling fans and helicopter blades (real or imagined). These are the wings of dark angels, as in Douglas Sirk’s final masterpiece, the equally claustrophobic Talk To Me Like The Rain (1975). Michael Grady’s boldly colored cinematography, and a willingness to zoom from close to closer up, lends even more intensity to the febrile goings-on. Shannon’s generously theatrical, gestural performance is matched by a couple of shared hallucinations by Peter and Agnes, as we see what they think is happening; with a roar of helicopter noise, the motel room is battered and lit and shakes like they were inside the house that detonates at the end of Antonioni’s Zabriskie Poin.” (There is a little bit of Billy Bob Thornton’s Karl Childers in the clipped mien adopted by Shannon, but that is only a parallel, and surely not an influence on his fully realized performance.) Some will reject as familiar the down-at-the-mouth characters and others will find the increasing violence intolerable. Still, I was awestruck by huge chunks of the movie’s infuriating descent beyond madness and the inexorable style. For example, there’s a jumpcut from a striking sex scene to an exterior shot of the motel by day, which immediately jumpcuts to night. That’s a Billy Friedkin editing shock. There’s also the memorable end credit, “Additional Music by Serj Tankian,” and yes, those stings from the System of a Down frontman are used in just the way they ought to be. [Ray Pride.] Bug opens wide Friday.
WRONG, WRONG, WRONG, WRONG, WRONG . “Little Miss Chris Marker” this is not. Robinson Devor’s darkly bruised essay film on taboo, Zoo, finds him rejoining the writer, Charles Mudede, and cinematographer Sean Kirby, who together made the hypnotic slice of Pacific Northwest weirdness, Police Beat (2005). There’s some murkiness about which of the actual participants in the events are heard or seen on film, and I’m content to consider it a fictional essay. Zoo, follows the reaction in the Washington after a gathering of “zoophiles,” who gathered on a ranch to have sex with horses, which was then legal in that state, led to the death of one man, whose handle, possibly from AOL, was “Mr. Hands” from a perforated colon. (There are three incredibly brief and distant bursts of imagery that are explicit.) As a succession of impressionistic reenactments, Zoo, visually, is one of the most beautiful films I’ve seen this year. The way one image follows another is often majestically constructed, which makes one wonder what they will do next with a less unsavory subject. The fleet, assured, satisfying editing is very busy, with intermittent traveling shots that hold the weight of gravity. Dark color and shadow are bolder in Zoo, than brightest light. (The ecstatic fracture of Olivier Assayas’ Demonlover (2002) also comes to mind.) Perhaps the taboo transgressed here is not bestiality, but the boundaries of cinematic genre. It’s unsettling more in its stylistic extremes than its ostensible subject matter of taboo otherness and self-justifying perversion. At moments, it also resembles a Clare Denis project photographed by fine arts photographer Gregory Crewdson. [Zoo expands to Austin on May 25.]
AT THE AGE OF FORTY AND WITH HER THIRD FEATURE, Waitress, writer-director Adrienne Shelley, known to some as the pint-sized brain-and-beauty of Hal Hartley’s early movies like The Unbelievable Truth and Trust had found her bumptious voice, a warm-hearted but not-so-soft-headed comedic tone that mixes discomfort with grown-up reassurance. Her characters are so far from perfect, and do things people usually do in the real world but not on screen, but there’s something, well, delicious here. It’s the arrival of an almost fully-formed goofy comic voice, and sadly, the end as well: Shelley died before finding out her film had been taken up by Sundance and then bought by Fox Searchlight for this Mother’s Day release. In a small east coast town, Keri Russell plays a savant of pies at the local diner, someone who can express their every frustration in the form of chocolates and cherries and delicious crust. She’s peeved most of the time by her alarmingly stupid husband, played by Jeremy Sisto as an ignorant, possessive boor, and a pregnancy leads to complications with the new doctor in town (Nathan Fillion). The mix of dark and sweet is Shelley’s very own: I do not believe that someone actually got the line, “Calm down, you psychotic ape!” to function both as cartoon and character—”Sorry, it was a compliment” is another indicator of her tone of dialogue—and when one of the other waitresses dolls up another server played by the writer-director, and she murmurs, “Look what you did. You made me almost pretty,” the heart breaks. Murder and suicide jokes are slightly discomfiting, but a role as a randy local for Andy Griffith, fifty years after A Face In The Crowd, is wonderful. “Once you’re done wiping away your indiscretions, I’ll be in my booth,” he drawls. (Griffith has a gorgeously written, nicely overwrought speech late in the tale.) [Waitress expands on May 18 to 125 locations across the country.]
IF TIDELAND, TERRY GILLLIAM’S MISANTHROPIC MISFIRE, taught us anything, it is that a real trainwreck, not a metaphorical one, ought to be depicted as a crushing, onrushing, unmoored bulwark of metal and spark and fire and steam and dread. The charmless, innocuous, overpopulated, hardly-written Shrek The Third is the first depiction of a trainwreck I’ve ever witnessed set to “mute.” (And Tideland is a better movie.) While there are isolated gags that are either inspired or satisfying to the snickering child in all of us, such as the one oft-repeated in commercials, of a post-“Mr. Bill” gingerbread cookie that poops a peanut M&M from quaking fear, and a few quick glimpses of a nerd having a nosebleed (the only time I heard uniform laughter) they’re few and far between. (Note that I have resisted the temptation to Google the phrase, “Shrek The Turd.”) Long passages of inertia are broken up by gusts of tedium. Most of the settings and the themes, such as the fear of having children, something dealt with ickily, stickily, hilariously and with great, great heart in Judd Apatow’s upcoming powerhouse comedy Knocked Up, seem less about satisfying a diverse audience than about addressing middle-aged-verging-on-sclerotic issues close to the makers of Shrek—wealth, the fear of losing wealth, and whether their children will have cause to hate them just for being older and irrelevant to them. (The joke music cues tend toward the iPods of those born in the 1940s or 1950s as well, such as Heart’s “Barracuda.”) Let’s throw in a cooking metaphor: Shrek the Third is like a complex sauce made by someone with no sense of smell. Cameron Diaz and Eric Idle, voicing a knobby-kneed wizard, are the only voices that shine through. For most of the movie, Mike Myers’ Shrek, Eddie Murphy’s Donkey and Antonio Banderas’ Puss-‘n’-Boots don’t sound phoned-in, they sound phoned-in by uninspired imitators. (Mother of Mercy, is this the end of Puss? Yes.) At several points, dozens, nay, hundreds of characters fill the screen. These incomprehensible passages are more like a reading from the Far Far Away telephone directory than any kind of fun. (How in the ungodly fuck do you mess up the framing and timing of a joke about one of the three blind mice tumbling out of frame down a flight of cement stairs?) I think the last word ought to be left for the youngest critic in the room the Tuesday night screening I attended, a croupy little girl who gooed loudly at a quiet moment about forty-five minutes in, “Mommy, can we go home and watch Shrek?” [Corrections 18 May; h/t reader Armin T.] [Ray Pride.]
WATCHING PROCESS PLEASES ME LIKE ALMOST NOTHING ELSE: to watch work, as I would when I worked on training films, asking someone to reassemble, then disassemble again, after taking apart a steam turbine engine. Fiction filmmaking doesn’t afford many opportunities to demonstrate work as work; watching paint being painted is not the same as watching it dry; but still, watching a writer write is not the same as what a writer feels while writing and after the task has unfurled. While Richard Linklater’s ambitious Fast Food Nation ends with a shot-in-three-days on-the-killing-floor slaughterhouse scene, reminiscent of Georges Franju’s great short documentary, Blood of Beasts, Austrian documentarian Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s Our Daily Bread (Unser täglich Brot) is another creature: deeply rooted in landscape and duration, it is hypnotic and magisterial, about moment and passage, about the industrialization of food and the necessity of nurture. Geyrhalter shot and directed, and his eye for the surreal reality of the highest tech of industrial farming monumental and surreal, wordless, a collation of clean, bright images of supernal calm and the most striking cropduster scene since North by Northwest. An experimental non-narrative epic, featuring rushing rivulets of peeping chicks, floating apples, tomatoes sorted by roving, unmanned machines and fish-gut sucking devices of metronomic efficiency, Our Daily Bread is a strange, lovely, and wholly disturbing look at one of the many worlds behind our accepted world. [Our Daily Bread has its American television premiere on Sundance Channel, Friday, May 18 at 12:35AM and 10:35AM, and Sunday, May 20 at 3:35PM. Clips and resources are available here.]
A WICKED BEDAZZLEMENT AND SOME SORT OF FUCKED-UP TREASURE, Hal Hartley’s comedy-turned-terror Fay Grim is as misunderstood (and darkly subversive) as the deepest runnels of American foreign policy. A ton of reviewers hate the fact that Hartley’s unexpected return to form begins as a comedy and matures into something angrier and much, much less than hopeful: can the clever yet smarmily arrogant Henry Fool face up to an Osama Bin Laden figure? Or did Fool inspire a generation of jihadists? This is dastardly stuff, with lots of deadpan jokes, nicely embroidered if difficult to follow paranoia, and intermittent beauty.
A sequel of sorts to Hartley’s 1998 Henry Fool, the mannered writer-director’s tenth feature stars Parker Posey as single mother Fay Grim, from Woodside, Queens, who’s raising 14-year-old Ned (Liam Aikin, from Henry Fool and Lemony Snicket) in the shadow of the reputation of his disappeared dad, that crude brawler of a Zelig, Forrest Gump savant and polymath who has more secret pasts than most of us have socks. Something’s happened: two CIA men, including Agent Fulbright (Jeff Goldblum, gorging on Hartley’s meritorious mouthfuls), prompt Fay into a welter of international intrigue that’s been prompted by notebooks left behind by Henry, and interpreted by her imprisoned brother, Simon (James Urbaniak, with customary dour depth) and Simon’s publisher of his jailhouse poetry, Angus (Chuck Montgomery, all beard and baritone). There are consistent, insistent bursts of gratifying grandiloquence that could well be inspired by the lavish, logorrheic, lovely Don DeLillo. A typically flavorful passage from this world where literature matters as much as anything comes when Fay’s trying to figure out why the notebooks are so important to so many governments, and Angus says, “Iconoclastic avant garde poetry of the kind your brother has come to personify, this marginal yet vital form of artistic expression, it is becoming less and less popular in America… But I have an idea.” Then again, Hartley’s not above paraphrasing Goebbels’ “When I hear the word culture, I reach for my revolver,” by writing “Why is it when I hear someone talk about ‘civilization,’ I hear machineguns?”
Sight unseen, based entirely on a few of the images in this coming attraction, I want to put in a good word for the work of cinematographer Darius Khonji, who shot Wong Kar-Wai’s My Blueberry Nights, which opens Cannes today, and has already been insta-blogged and rapid-dissed. Reportedly, the movie opens with this shot of Norah Jones, nodding at a bakery counter, with frosting mussing her lip. Doesn’t the composition suggest a Buddha head you might have seen at the end of In The Mood For Love? Here’s the link to the trailer. Below: ten minutes of WKW at Cannes 2000 with Mood; a grubby copy of a WKW Motorola commercial with Faye Wong; WKW’s swell video for DJ Shadow’s “Six Days”; deleted scenes from Happy Together; and a nine-minute segment on DoP Chris Doyle from the BBC “Culture Show.”
It’s nice when someone notices you noticed a masterpiece: It’s much more thrilling to see a stellar trailer for a brilliant movie than for a friend to point out that you’re unexpectedly quoted in it. Julia Loktev‘s gorgeously restrained work is only hinted at with these glimpses of Benoit Debie’s remarkable HD cinematography. Debie’s showreel is worth a peek. Leslie Schatz’s intent sound design is only hinted at in this trailer. [H/t Thea Stranger & Larry Gross.]
I AM NOT ONE TO RESIST THE OPPORTUNITY TO RUSH HEADLONG AND HEEDLESS toward an apparent horizon of light and gush when I see a movie that cares for the mystery of love and longitude in shared human experience, but I have to say that the only release in 2007 to hover near the Irish marvel of a musical, Once, opening next week, would be 28-year-old Sarah Polley’s feature debut as a writer-director, Away From Her. After 12 years as a memorable screen presence, and six years since her 38-minute, dearly laconic comedy I Shout Love (2001) etching a dysfunctional, twentysomething Canadian relationship tethered to repetition, proximity and Hockey Night on CBC. Away From Her, based on the Alice Munro short story “The Bear Came Over The Mountain,” [linked here] opens with credits on white, something filmmakers are usually urged to avoid for a number of technical reasons. But that, succeeded by cross-country ski tracks across a white field, gently, yet emphatically, introduce the content of the story: all that fades; light, memory, life. Julie Christie plays Fiona, a woman who realizes that her memory is fading and that she will have to urge Grant, played by the iconic patriarch of Canadian cinema and television, Gordon Pinsent, to do the right thing, to recognize that the conflicts that will come as her Alzheimer’s progresses must be addressed now. Of course, Fiona is in the person of 66-year-old Christie, her shoulder-length armor of curled tresses, this wildness of hair gone to silver and straw, and she is powerful, in scenes of strength and precognition, but later in those of loss and befuddlement and rage as well.
You can neither make beautiful, great movies without risk as you can make babies without sex. Risk is part of the artistic process. That’s why I like performance, because performance is walking a high wire.
~ Francis Coppola
“Probably the most heralded movie I’ve ever been in was Forrest Gump. While I was sitting on the park bench, I asked Bob, ‘Is anyone going to care about this guy?’ He said, ‘I don’t know Tom. It’s a mine field. It’s a fucking mine field.’ So when it works, you just say, ‘We dodged all the mines.'”
~ Tom Hanks