The House


Dazzle

Dutch filmmaking provocateur Cyrus Frisch opens his new film Dazzle with a pixilated shot of a man walking down a sun-glistening beach, revealing the current world in a fractured state, but with slight glimmers of hope lingering in the background. Frisch's cinematic kaleidoscope presents a voyeuristic look at a city's many scattered, sidelined street dwellers from the view of a girl's apartment. The twentysomething girl is hardly seen, but her voice is overlaid on the disparate—essentially documentary—video recordings taken throughout Amsterdam as she feverishly rants on the phone with a doctor who initially calls to speak with her missing-in-action boyfriend Christian. Her disembodied voice proves a telling vehicle, almost God-like, and as she looks on from above, judging the desperate fools who sit on her block corner, guilt takes over her mind.

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TAGS: cyrus frisch, dazzle, hiroshima mon amour, tribeca film festival


Star Trek

[Editor's Note: The Conversations is a monthly feature in which Jason Bellamy and Ed Howard discuss a wide range of cinematic subjects: critical analyses of films, filmmaker overviews, and more. Readers should expect to encounter spoilers.]

JASON BELLAMY: America's relationship with Star Trek began before man ever set foot on the moon. Gene Roddenberry's creation was born in 1966 and lasted three seasons on TV before dying of low ratings in 1969. Forty years, endless reruns, four live-action TV series and 10 feature films later, Star Trek is alive and well in the pop culture. In just a few days, on May 8, the crew of the starship Enterprise—Kirk, Spock, Bones, Scotty, Uhura, Sulu and Chekov—will hit the big screen yet again in an origin story directed by J.J. Abrams. Star Trek, as the film is simply called, is perhaps the most anticipated movie of the spring. And though its arrival is hardly a surprise in this era of remakes and retreads, the brand's longevity is nonetheless impressive.

From 1987-2005, there was some form of modern Star Trek on TV. The Next Generation (1987-94) begat Deep Space Nine (1993-99), which begat Voyager (1995-2001), which begat Enterprise (2001-05). All of these series can be traced back to the 1966 pilot that started it all, but it's safe to say that none of these series would have been possible without the varied yet undeniable success of Star Trek at the cinema. From 1979-91, six Star Trek films were released featuring the recognizable cast and characters of the original TV series. Almost two decades later, these films are cherished by some ("Trekkies" or "Trekkers"), mocked by others and seemingly ignored by everyone else.

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TAGS: babylon 5, battlestar galactica, gene roddenberry, george lucas, j.j. abrams, Mystery Science Theater 3000, star trek, star trek enterprise, star trek ii: the wrath of khan, star trek iii: the search for spock, star trek iv: the voyage home, star trek v: the final frontier, star trek vi: the undiscovered country, star trek voyager, star trek: deep space nine, star trek: the motion picture, star trek: the next generation, star wars, the conversations


Tribeca Film Festival 2009: Dazzle

A much duller tale than its Irish literary festival setting would suggest, The Eclipse is the third feature film directed by award-winning playwright Conor McPherson, who has further damaged the proceedings by clumsily inserting jump-in-your-seat ghost-story thrills into a wan character study. In a picturesque seaport town, woodworking teacher Michael Farr (Ciarán Hinds, imposing and largely wasted) operates on several levels of denial, burdened by his unresolved grief for his recently deceased wife, demonstrations of authoritarian bluster to his two tween kids, longings to resurrect collegiate writing ambitions, and horror-movie visions of his institutionalized father-in-law. Michael pauses in furtively adapting his spectral encounters at his icy attic's desk long enough to work as driver and gofer at the annual lit shindig for both a supernatural-fiction hottie (Iben Hjejle) and a loutish American drunk who pens bestsellers (Aidan Quinn, hamming like a sitcom Hemingway). Hinds and Hjejle do a coy mating dance, he predictably ends up in a knockdown ball-squeezing brawl with jealous Quinn, and has his zombie nightmares interrupted by a slip on a real pool of blood—though a suicide in this context is just a plot point to facilitate the tearful, healing embrace of a spouse's apparition. The dialogue and situations all tend to the generic and mechanical, shaken up far too infrequently by Hjejle's tipsy smile or Hinds's slapstick tumble into a lakeside hilltop's man-sized pothole. The types played by the three leads never bridge their insurmountable distance from reality, and Hjejle's familiarity with the spirit world implies a survivor's trauma equal to Hinds's, but one is never revealed. Attempting to darken its touristy middlebrow sensibility with shocks and farce, this Eclipse characteristically doesn't illuminate anything.

The Eclipse @ the Tribeca Film Festival

This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.

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TAGS: aidan quinn, ciáran hinds, Iben Hjejle, the eclipse, tribeca film festival


Tribeca Film Festival 2009: The House of the Devil

Yet another of this year's homage-facsimiles, The House of the Devil forgoes campy self-awareness in favor of reverential faithfulness—and in doing so, implicitly critiques contemporary horror cinema. With its cinematography combining unadorned realism and angular expressionism, and its title sequence emblazoned with yellow title cards and marked by synth music, freeze frames, and sudden zooms, Ti West's latest mimics '80s horror flicks with a straight face. Its rhythms, dialogue, and period detail are so finely attuned to the style of its chosen era that, were it not for a technical dexterity generally absent from its predecessors, the film might pass as an exhumed relic.

West clearly knows his stuff, but isn't out to flaunt it with a smirk, and thus there's great pleasure to be had from his introductory passages, in which college sophomore Samantha (Margot Kidder lookalike Jocelin Donahue) rents a house (from Dee Wallace's landlady) and, strapped for cash, responds to a campus flyer for a babysitter. West, however, doesn't rush his heroine into a situation that—as confirmed by the title, and the fact that when she calls about the gig, it's Tom Noonan's sinister voice that answers—is destined for horror, laying out Samantha's friendship with Megan (Greta Gerwig) and her dire financial motivations with methodical patience. "I promise to make this as painless for you as possible," says Mr. Ulman (Noonan) in convincing Samantha to accept the job, a comment rife with black humor. Yet West plays his material not for giggles, but for slow-burn chills, employing languorous long takes and pitched, frequently low-positioned camera setups to build a sense of unreal terror. Upon arriving at the rural Ulman estate, located right past a cemetery, Samantha learns that the job involves watching an elderly woman while Mr. Ulman and his wife (Mary Woronov) enjoy the evening's historic full-moon eclipse.

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TAGS: the house of the devil, tribeca film festival


Tribeca Film Festival 2009: Soul Power

Sparingly touched upon in 1996's Academy Award-winning When We Were Kings, the three-day, all-star Zaire '74 music festival that ran alongside Muhammad Ali and George Foreman's epic Rumble in the Jungle fight receives the spotlight treatment in Soul Power. Directed by Kings editor Jeffrey Levy-Hinte, this amiable if slight doc is culled from the hours of footage left out of its predecessor, and the results are unsurprisingly underwhelming, less because of the performances captured than because there's no substantive story to tell. Concocted by Hugh Masekela and Stewart Levine (the latter heard, with stoned-red eyes, not-so-cryptically referring to an extra 32 pounds of luggage), and promoted by Don King, Zaire '74 brought together African-American and African artists on stage in Kinshasa, Africa, the underlying intent being to present and promote racial/cultural solidarity. Bill Withers, B.B. King, and headliner James Brown all espouse a desire to reconnect with their ancestral home, a sentiment frequently heard but rarely explored, given that Levy-Hinte relegates himself to using only footage shot at the event.

Soul Power spends its first half documenting the humdrum buildup to the show, which is dominated by canned press conferences, photo opportunities, and dull-as-dirt snippets of an investment firm representative mildly fretting over logistical non-issues. Once the legends hit the stage, the film finds a more comfortable groove, with Withers's mesmerizing rendition of "Hope She'll be Happier" and Brown's rollicking "Say It Loud (I'm Black and I'm Proud)" proving two of the standouts. Still, there's little rhythm or depth to Levy-Hinte's affectionate portrait. The optimism felt, and returning-to-our-roots declarations made, by many of those involved are undercut by Brown's surprisingly candid admission that he will "not get liberated broke," as well as the unmentioned tyranny of concert benefactor, Zairian president Mobuto, whose giant portraits are seen looming above the city. Furthermore, while Brown is a magnetic figure, the sporadic appearances by Ali hopelessly unbalance the proceedings, his fiercely outspoken interviews providing the only morsels of substance and, consequently, throwing into sharp relief Zaire '74's status, in relation to Ali-Forman, as the occasion's second-stage.

Soul Power @ the Tribeca Film Festival

This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.

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TAGS: soul power, tribeca film festival


If you were listening to a piece of groovy music and were responsive to it, you wouldn't mind following its vibe, nodding at refrains, enjoying the use of instruments, tempo, rhythm—so why is it audiences get impatient when movies attempt to do the same thing? Jim Jarmusch's The Limits of Control feels both formally rigorous and genuinely spontaneous, the way good musical improvisations allow for freedom within selected confines. And I'd argue it's enough to create a movie about an actor with a very strong presence (in this case, Isaach De Bankolé) moving through spaces (in this case, various locations in Spain) and allowing the images to convey a sense of mood, tension, atmosphere, whatever you want to call that feeling we get from watching moving pictures on the screen. The narrative is pared down to a man purposefully going forward, occasionally stopping for Tai Chi or two separate cups of espresso.

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TAGS: christopher doyle, dead man, isaach de bankolé, jim jarmusch, john hurt, neil young, the limits of control, tilda swinton, year of the horse


Coming Up In This Column: Monsters vs. Aliens, Grey Gardens, Parks and Recreation, Southland, 30 Rock, Saving Grace, Desperate Housewives, but first...

Grey Gardens

Fan Mail: In response to Matt Maul's question about The Dirty Dozen, Franko does try to kill Reisman in the book, which Nunnally took over into the script. It would have made the ending a whole lot less conventional, but that's true of Nunnally's script as a whole.

Monsters vs. Aliens (2009. Screenplay by Maya Forbes & Wallace Woldarsky and Rob Letterman and Jonathan Aibel & Glenn Berger, story by Rob Letterman & Conrad Vernon. 94 minutes): List-making, not screenwriting.

In the opening scene, a computer geek at an Antarctica tracking station knocks a paddle-ball out into the faces of the audience. Since this is one of Jeffrey Katzenberg's hopes to dominate the world with 3-D movies, I thought it was kind of cutely nostalgic that the opening scene imitated one of the most famous in-your-face moments from House of Wax, one of the best of the 1950s 3-D movies. But then the other references began to pile up: The Day the Earth Stood Still, George Lucas (the movie starts in his home town of Modesto), Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman, War of the Worlds, E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Mulan, Creature From the Black Lagoon, The Blob, The Three Stooges, Star Wars Episodes II and III, and on and on and on. It was as if the writers felt it was enough just to make the connections, a technique that has thoroughly been discredited by such disastrous move parodies like Date Movie, Meet the Spartans, and Disaster Movie. Just referencing other films without doing anything more simply gets exhausting. Although I should mention that my wife, who has not seen as many science fiction movies as I have—she is a scientist and always objects to the science parts—enjoyed the film more than I did, as did the audience we saw it with.

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TAGS: desperate housewives, grey gardens, monsters vs. aliens, parks and recreation, saving grace, southland, understanding screenwriting


Lost

One of my favorite American novels of the last 30 years is John Crowley's Little, Big, a book that straddles the line between realistic fiction and genre fiction, between the mundane and the miraculous. Briefly, it's the tale of a large, rambling family in upstate New York who seem curiously devoted to a strange belief system that they refuse to spell out in its entirety for either their baffled new son-in-law or his son (the two point-of-view characters). The reader gradually grows aware of just what's going on inside the giant home, Edgewood (a house with its own secrets), but everything fantastical is kept just off the page, as it were, until the climax, which seems more like a post-apocalyptic phantasmagoria than anything else. It is, above all else, a story about faith. About people in thrall to a force beyond their power that they're not even sure they can understand or control. It contains some of the most beautiful writing I've ever encountered. And it reminds me a lot of Lost.

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TAGS: Alan Dale, Alice Evans, evangeline lilly, fionnula flanagan, henry ian cusick, jeremy davies, jorge garcia, lost, matthew fox, michael emerson, nestor carbonell, recap, sonya walger, the variable


Tribeca Film Festival 2009: Cropsey

Unable to unearth concrete new facts about the case of murderous Staten Island "pied piper" Andre Rand, documentarians Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio instead exploitatively reprint the legend ad nauseam in Cropsey. A homeless man who camped in and around the grounds of the derelict Willowbrook State School for the mentally challenged, Rand was sent to Sing Sing for the 1987 abduction of a 13-year-old girl with Down's Syndrome, Jennifer Schweiger. An ostensible psycho—an impression conveyed by a perp-walk photo of him drooling like a lunatic—and also a possible devil-worshipper who prowled the abandoned hospital's corridors and underground network of tunnels, Rand became Staten Island's very own Cropsey, a term that, according to a regional historian, is a Hudson Valley catch-all for a madman who preys on innocent children.

The directors grew up in Staten Island spooked by such folklore, which seemed to come true in the form of Rand, even though he wound up behind bars solely thanks to circumstantial evidence. When Rand goes back on trial in 2004, this time for the 1981 snatching of another little girl, the filmmakers begin their own inquiry into the issue of his culpability while also attempting to nab an interview with the alleged kidnapper. What they discover are mounds of scary photos and news clippings, numerous locales happy to talk about the anxious era and advance outlandish rumors, and hospital ruins fit for menacing musical cues and nighttime visits from Zeman and Brancaccio that devolve into apparent outtakes from The Blair Witch Project.

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TAGS: cropsey, tribeca film festival


Tribeca Film Festival 2009: Moon

Forty years after its groundbreaking debut, 2001: A Space Odyssey continues to cast a long shadow, its influence so pervasive that it's nigh impossible to craft a contemplative sci-fi saga without at least subtly paying homage to Kubrick's classic. Rather than fleeing that monolith in the genre, director Duncan Jones (a.k.a. Zowie Bowie, son of David) warmly embraces it with Moon, an assured, mesmerizing tale of intergalactic loneliness, self-inquiry, and man's innate, enduring hunger for life which repeatedly and openly tips its hat to 2001 and its progeny (Solaris, Silent Running).

As a pitch-perfect introductory commercial elucidates, in the near future, Earth's energy and environmental dilemmas have been solved by Helium 3 solar energy harvested from rocks on the far side of the moon. The station established to accomplish this vital task is manned by one man, Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell), who at film's start is two weeks shy of finishing up his three-year tour of duty alone in the echoing base, which boasts the all-white décor of a space station from a '70s-era movie, is shot by Jones in deliberate, ominous widescreen compositions, and is also populated by Gerty 3000, a robot with the soothing HAL-ish voice of Kevin Spacey and a rotating series of smiley-face emoticons for expressions. When a routine maintenance checkup on a roving harvester goes awry (thanks, in part, to a distracting and gorgeously wrought hallucination of a girl standing amidst a shower of dug-up rubble), Sam awakens in the sick bay, where he discovers—spoilers herein—that the station has a new resident: himself. Except that it's not exactly himself, as the new Sam is a far healthier, more temperamental mirror image who initially keeps his distance and silence but eventually forms a tentative relationship with the injured Sam, who is desperate to return home to the wife and young daughter he communicates with via taped messages. How two Sams have come to suddenly coexist in this lunar domicile is the prime mystery of Moon's first third, one that's unsettling in a manner less horror cinema-scary than existential.

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TAGS: moon, tribeca film festival







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