Sunday, July 31, 2011

If Kerouac Were an Illiterate Argentine Sculptor

Originally posted April 30, 2007.
Tati (Ignacio Benítez), left, with his root sculpture, and Waguinho
(Carlos Wagner La Bella) on the road to Buenos Aires.

The Road to St. Diego 
(El Camino de San Diego)
Directed and Written by Carlos Sorin
Starring: Ignacio Benitez, Carlos Wagner La Bella, Paola Rotela, Silvina Fontelles, and Miguel González Colman


Who is this Diego Maradona? As far as I can tell, he’s a retired soccer player, the Argentinean Pelé, a permanent fixture in the gossip columns, a cross between Che Guevara, John Lennon, Elvis, and Babe Ruth, a man loved and worshipped in his homeland but despised in every other soccer-playing country, particularly in Latin America. When I was in Chile a few years ago, people were still talking with mucho gusto about Maradona’s cocaine addiction, his rehab, his weight gain, and his heart attack, which is the real-life incident that puts the plot of this poignant comedy into motion.

In the idiot-parlance of Hollywood pitchspeak, The Road to St. Diego is Heart Beat (the 1980 film about Jack Kerouac) meets The Motorcycle Diaries meets the Virgin of Guadalupe, which, as far as I know, is Jesus’ mother, not a movie.

Tati Benítez, played to perfection by Ignacio Benítez, is the man who goes on the road in Argentina. Who is he? Let me put it this way: If he were an American, he wouldn’t be Jack Kerouac; he’d be Mark David Chapman—an obsessive fan stalking his idol, determined to murder him in cold blood (with a legally purchased handgun, no doubt) and steal his fame.

Happily, Tati is not American; he’s an illiterate Argentine from the backwoods whose inherent sweetness shines through in the charming way he’s always saying gracias to everybody. Tati has lost his job as a lumberjack, and has taken to carving sculptures out of tree roots and selling them to tourists to support his wife (Paola Rotela) and three kids. He’s also Maradona’s #1 fan: he has Maradona’s number 10 tattooed on his back; he’s taught his pet parrots to call Maradona’s name; he spends 50 pesos of his very limited funds on an autographed picture of Maradona; and he wants to name one of his girls Diego, but the authorities won’t let him because it’s not a girl’s name.

The film begins as a mockumentary—everybody in town tells their stories about Tati, mocking his passion for Maradona. They tell him that his autographed photo is a fake. “You probably bought it from a Brazilian,” someone says.

One day as he’s walking in the woods, Tati sees a tree root that looks like Maradona raising his arms in triumph after scoring a goal. He cuts it off, takes it home, polishes it, and carves number 10 on its back. He considers it miraculous, like finding the face of Jesus. Did he find it just “because,” he wonders? Or is it a sign from God? He decides to donate his sculpture to a soccer museum. But when he hears that Maradona has had a heart attack and is in the intensive care unit of a Buenos Aires hospital, he changes his mind. Despite the very reasonable objections of his put-upon wife—We don’t have enough money, she tells him—he says that he’s going to Buenos Aires to give the statue to Maradona himself. It is his destiny.

Encouraged by a psychic reading, Tati, his statue wrapped in plastic, hits the road. He takes busses. He hitchhikes. He meets people. They ask to see the statue and he shows it to them. Some ridicule it. Others think it’s a great likeness.

But only when he gets a ride from Waguinho (Carlos Wagner La Bella), a garrulous Brazilian truck driver carrying a load of live chickens, does it begin to appear that the statue may, indeed, have miraculous powers. The first miracle: Waguinho—who’s known as “The Bear” to the numerous prostitutes he frequents—initially isn’t going to take Tati with him because, like all Brazilian soccer fans, he hates Maradona. But then he decides he likes Tati and takes him anyway, despite the statue—and he’s going all the way to Buenos Aires.

It’s after Tati turns down a shopkeeper’s offer to buy the statue for 300 pesos and a couple of salamis because Maradona brings him good luck (he settles for a picture of himself with Tati and the statue) that Waguinho begins to believe in the statue’s powers. A spiritual man—he’s deeply impressed by his aunt’s ability to talk to the dead—Waguinho kisses the statue as if it’s a religious icon.

But it’s miracle #2, the saving of the cargo of 50,000 chickens, that makes Waguinho a true believer. A crowd of striking workers have closed a bridge and won’t let him pass. “But my chickens will die and I’ll lose my job,” he tells them. He then negotiates with the strike leader, telling him of the statue. The strike leader says that only the workers can vote on whether or not to open the bridge. Tati shows his statue to the mob of workers, Argentineans and soccer fans all. They cheer wildly and agree to open the bridge. The chickens are saved.

Greater miracles, encounters with whores and blind men, as well as a happy ending are still to come, of course. Ultimately, though, The Road to St. Diego serves as yet another reminder—and the Tribeca Film Festival is full of them—that some of the best movies being made today are coming from outside the U.S.A., especially Latin America.

There’s a scene towards the end that may give Americans pause, though that’s clearly not the intention of director and screenwriter Carlos Sorin. Maradona has left the hospital, and hundreds of fans have gathered outside his Buenos Aires estate to get a look at him and to give him gifts. The scene, however, is eerily reminiscent of the way fans used to gather at the Dakota when John Lennon was alive. And when Tati asks the guard at the gate if he can give his statue to Maradona, it may make you think of a scene in another film making its U.S. debut at Tribeca—The Killing of John Lennon.

But, happily, it’s not America, it’s Argentina, and fans there, no matter how obsessive, are not in the habit of carrying handguns.

Saturday, July 30, 2011


Originally posted October 1, 2007.
Transplanted New Yorkers Karen (Natascha McElhone) and her ex-partner Hank (David Duchovny) contemplate their new life in Los Angeles, with shades required.


By Mary Lyn Maiscott

I like the new Showtime series Californication, but I’m not sure why. At the beginning, Hank Moody (subtle!), played by former X-Filer David Duchovny, was so pricky that one wondered what the creators were up to. Anti-hero: sure, but it seemed clear that we were supposed to like him (and that women, including his ex, for all her protestations, couldn’t resist him). And then there were all those breasts jiggling above him in medias coitus. Was this just an intellectual soft-porn show for pricky men? Hank delighted in insulting his sex partners, saying weird, almost old-fashioned things like “Consider yourself defiled” (or was it “violated”?). And then he blindsided a blind date, a friend of his agent’s wife, by derogatorily sizing up her background, based on nothing but a pleasantry or two from her (and you got the feeling that he was supposed to be, somehow, spot-on).

Which brings me to another problem with the show: it keeps stealing from movies. Hank’s instant character assassination of that unfortunate date has to derive directly from the scene in Annie Hall in which Alvy Singer (Woody Allen), nervous before his stand-up act at Columbia University, takes a look at Allison Portchnik (Carol Kane) and does the same kind of synopsis, only without the snideness and with an admission that he’s acting imbecilic. (“No, that was wonderful,” she replies. “I love being reduced to a cultural stereotype.”) Also, unless it’s common in L.A. for women to stand naked in front of men and ask for a sober appraisal of their body—in Californication this happens twice—the writers have borrowed from Nicole Holofcener’s Lovely and Amazing as well. Moving along, in the third episode, Hank’s agent (played by the ever reliable Evan Handler, Charlotte’s Jewish love on Sex and the City) gets an S&M thing going with his assistant—or should I say Secretary?

The show’s rogue protagonist also gets away with some ridiculous antics, such as stealing an extremely valuable painting—hello, Hank? Does the word larceny ring any bells?

All that aside, there’s something very engaging about the show. For one thing, it holds good writing in esteem. We’re constantly told what a genius Hank (currently suffering from that famous disorder writer’s block) is, and though the passages we hear—from a blog he reluctantly agrees to do for an L.A. magazine, as though blogs had not become an accepted form of expression for writers from James Wolcott to Jane Smiley (and, hey, me!)—aren’t exactly brilliant, they’re occasionally evocative and even moving.

Also, lately Hank has become more of a good guy (focus groups unhappy with the anti-Christ?). I was glad when the maligned blind date reappeared, in that TV way where people always run into people, and Hank offered a true apology and started seeing her (with nary a breast in sight for what Nancy Franklin, in The New Yorker, called the ta-ta cam). In addition, despite his own transgressive ways (his ex tells him he’s drowning “in a sea of pointless pussy,” a phrase deemed so good Hank resurrects it for us in voice-over), Hank attempts to save his agent/friend’s marriage—in the only way he knows, by suggesting maybe his wife is as much a “dirty girl” as his assistant (and within another episode or two, she is). As perhaps a safety catch, Hank has an adolescent daughter, an aspiring rocker with gothic bangs, that he is crazy about and always tries to do right by; and his ex’s pompous fiancé appears to have no redeeming value other than making Hank seem great in contrast, even to the man’s teenage daughter (whom, oops!, Hank has slept with before learning of her age and paternity). Also, Hank is played by Duchovny, whose slightly off good looks (the lower lip and short chin somehow bespeak both poutiness and detachment) and innate intelligence and in-on-the-joke-ness prevent him from being truly villainous.

So this is the balancing act the show now seems to be trying to perform: How far can this contemporary Ginger Man—an allusion Hank would need to explain to most of his young conquests—go while still remaining lovable as well as edible?

And how long will it take for Hank and the series itself to find a unique voice?

Friday, July 29, 2011


Originally posted on April 26, 2008.
Philippe Petit dances between the Twin Towers.

Man On Wire
Directed By James Marsh

By Robert Rosen

Man on Wire
, a compelling and very funny documentary about Philippe Petit’s tightrope walk between the newly constructed Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, on August 7, 1974, never mentions what happened to those skyscrapers 27 years, one month, and four days later. This isn’t a criticism; it’s just a peculiarity—because it’s impossible in 2008 to watch this movie and not think about September 11, 2001, especially if you’re seeing it at the Tribeca Film Festival, an event that rose from the ashes of 9/11; especially if you live about a mile from Ground Zero and heard the first plane fly over your house and collide with the North Tower; and especially if for the next three months not a day passed when you didn’t smell the toxic fumes that wafted from wreckage.

And it’s impossible to watch Man on Wire through the perspective of nearly 34 years and not think that if somebody were foolhardy enough today to try the equivalent (if there is an equivalent) of what Petit did in that innocent and long-ago summer, the result would be a very different movie, something more akin to Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay—but without the comedy.

Petit and his crew of merry pranksters were French, for God’s sake, and after casing and photographing the joint, they, with help from a compatriot on the inside, posed at various times as workmen and journalists, and using counterfeit IDs and uniforms, smuggled into the WTC a thousand-pound metal cable, a bow and arrow, and other assorted goodies to commit an act that the Department of Homeland Security would now classify as conspiracy to commit terrorism.

In 2008 the perpetrators wouldn’t have made it to the elevator—forget the roof. How naïve the “tight” security of 1974 looks in this age of perpetual war.

And how amazing that in an age when everybody who owns a cell phone is an amateur videographer, there’s no video or film of Philippe Petit dancing in the clouds, suspended on a wire strung between the tallest buildings in the world. There are only still photographs.

But none of this really matters because Man on Wire is spellbinding from beginning to end. A combination of home movies shot in France in the 1970s, contemporary interviews with the now middle-aged conspirators, newsreel footage, stills, and re-creations (including a seemingly gratuitous scene where Petit, upon achieving instant celebrity, makes love to a groupie in her loft and then feels guilty that he betrayed his girlfriend), Man on Wire seems more like a flick about planning an impossible bank heist—the participants call it a “coup”—which gives the film a dramatic tension rarely found in documentaries.

The perpetually entertaining Petit, who’s also an expert pickpocket, had dreamed of walking across a tightrope strung between the Twin Towers since he was 17 and saw a drawing of the yet-to-be-built WTC in a magazine in his dentist’s office—a moment amusingly dramatized in one of those numerous re-creations. As he waits for the construction to be completed, he warms up for the great feat by performing two other “clandestine” walks—between the towers of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, and the towers of Sydney Harbor Bridge in Australia.

The film then details the planning and training for the WTC walk, most of which takes place in Petit’s backyard in France—a military-style operation that looks as if it’s being conducted by the Marx Brothers (and Sisters). Some of Petit’s more memorable accomplices include his girlfriend, Annie Allix, whom he broke up with immediately after the walk; Barry Greenhouse, the mustachioed “inside man” who loaned Petit his ID so he could forge a few copies; David (aka Donald) Foreman, a New York musician whom Petit didn’t completely trust because, as Foreman says of the day he met the wire walker, “I smoked pot every day for 35 years; no reason to think I didn’t smoke it that day”; and Jean-Louis Blondeau, Petit’s oldest friend, who conceived of using a bow and arrow to string the cable between the two towers, and explains how he fooled the WTC security guards: “I put a lot of pens in my pocket. Americans carry a lot of pens, don’t they?”

My only regret about this film: the Petit Gang didn’t recruit me. I was most definitely available that summer. And I’d have joined them in the blink of an eye.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Soundtrack to the Tribeca Film Festival

Originally posted May 6, 2007.

Donovan: “Mellow Yellow” on a green guitar. 
(Photo by Scott Gries/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival)
 By Mary Lyn Maiscott

“Music loves film, and film loves music.” I know, this doesn’t quite make sense, but what if I tell you Donovan said it? Then it kind of works, doesn’t it?

The musicians playing the wonderful Tribeca/ASCAP Music Lounge, held at the Canal Room May 1-4, sometimes felt the need to muster up a direct tie between the two art forms, but they really didn’t need to. People—often between movies—were just there for the songs, and many of the songs were great, especially as delivered in such an intimate setting (and with an open bar nearby). Nevertheless, Jon Auer, of the Posies and Big Star, introduced one song as “an audio version of a Douglas Sirk film”; Adam Schlesinger and Mike Viola performed Schlesinger’s über-catchy “That Thing You Do!” from the eponymous 1996 movie; and Donovan—elfin as always in striped pants and a black waistcoat—revealed that his friend David Lynch loves “Season of the Witch” (as did we, the audience).

Mary Gauthier: Hardscrabble lives set to music. 
(Photo by Scott Gries/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival)

Another recurring theme was the sad song, with which many of the artists identified: Folk singer Mary Gauthier, declaring herself the “anti-Donovan”—the ’60s icon was on the same Wednesday bill—said at one point that she should be playing a happy song for a change but that she hadn’t yet written one. Similarly, as a kind of disclaimer for a love song he’d written for his wife (“Angelita”), Jon Auer, whose new album is entitled Songs from the Year of Our Demise, asked rhetorically, “Who am I, fuckin’ Paul McCartney? Fuckin’ Ben Lee?” This was another inside joke of sorts: Lee had played only two sets before, and had wowed the crowd with his self-possessed charm (the David Lee Roth scissor kicks went over big), slightly askew tunes, and peace-and-love vibe (especially with “We’re All in This Together,” sung standing on the bar). John Doe and Exene Cervenka, founding members of the punk band X, reminded us of our current political situation with “Lonesome War” and “Will Jesus Wash the Bloodstains from Your Hands?”

John Doe and Exene Cervenka: X marks the spot. 
(Photo by Scott Gries/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival)
Which brings me back to Mary Gauthier. Her songs are indeed filled with gravitas, as befits a middle-aged woman who has seen some hard times. And now we’re all seeing hard times as a nation; I think that’s one reason that her eloquent “Mercy” struck a nerve. The wonder of art is that even when it’s evoking the terrible, if it’s good it lifts us up, and Gauthier’s music was truly transporting.

Another thing about art: even within one form, it comes in many varieties. For the Music Lounge, Loretta Muñoz and her crew at ASCAP put together an eclectic lineup. Besides the artists already mentioned, it included such diverse talents as songwriter legend Jimmy Webb, bluesy chanteuse Alice Smith, and, in a rousing finish to the four-day event, rock ’n’ roll idol John Rzeznik of the Goo Goo Dolls. To quote Donovan again (quoting Pink Floyd), “Shine on, you crazy diamonds.”

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Manhattan Rhapsody

Originally posted May 3, 2007.
Kate (Debra Messing) finally gives Murphy (Edward Burns)
the time of day in Burns’s Purple Violets.
Purple Violets
Written and Directed by Edward Burns
Starring Selma Blair, Patrick Wilson, Debra Messing, and Edward Burns

By Mary Lyn Maiscott

“Pulp and popcorn and the same old crap.” This is Brian Callahan (Patrick Wilson), author of several popular detective novels and one unpopular “literary” novel, talking about what people seem to want from writers and other artists. Fortunately, those things are not what Edward Burns gives us (well, maybe a little of the popcorn) in his lovely new film, Purple Violets. Burns has taken the LIRR from Brothers-McMullen Long Island to Woody-Allen Manhattan, a land of cozy Soho restaurants, charming Village streets, and expensive big lofts, with the occasional foray into the Hamptons. (As in Allen’s films, you never believe anyone has financial concerns, even when he or she is supposed to.)

Patti Petalson (flower theme?), played by Selma Blair, has writer’s block, a lousy boss (in a real estate office), and a lousy marriage. But her luck changes when Brian, her college love, drops into one of those nice restaurants—kind of an ex-boyfriend ex machina—where she’s dining with her best friend, Kate (an acerbic Debra Messing). Of course, Patti has that pesky husband, the British Chazz (Donal Logue, who’s not afraid to be odious), and Brian has a girlfriend (Elizabeth Reaser)—even though she, a much younger indie-label A&R person, thinks he’s hopelessly square. He also has to explain to her that The Great Gatsby isn’t a band, but Burns has the confidence and knowingness not to hit us over the head with too many literary allusions just because two characters are writers (unlike the publishing-world movie Suburban Girl, and oh yeah, Patti, like that other movie’s female lead, reads while walking, but in her case it’s only from the bus stop to the door). Rounding out the main foursome is Burns himself, nicely portraying “the Murph,” Brian’s lawyer and best friend and Kate’s former beau, whom she has never forgiven for an indiscretion during those often-referred-to college days.

Blair has the right touch for Patti; she’s darkly beautiful but in a low-key, contained, slightly mysterious way (and I’m hereby bestowing on her the first Frances-McDormand-in-Laurel-Canyon-Small-Breasts-Are-Sexy Award). When Brian says that Patti is more talented than he is, we believe him, because she seems to have more reserves within her than he does (this could partly be due to Wilson’s all-American, Pat Boone looks, very effective in Little Children). Messing’s bitter, funny Kate is a good foil for her, as is Burns’s urban-good-ole-boy Murphy, who stalks Kate into letting him apologize for that long-ago dalliance.

In the parlance of cliché, Patti needs to find herself, and that she’s able to do so in a way that does not invoke the same old crap, but instead is intelligent and even somehow restorative (to the audience, I mean), is a blessing. With Woody in London (director-wise), it’s good to have Ed Burns in New York.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Butterfly Effect

Originally posted May 1, 2007.
In a segment called “Happiness,” Forest Whitaker contemplates
the delicacy—and power?—of a butterfly.

The Air I Breathe
Directed by Jieho Lee
Written by Jieho Lee and Bob DeRosa
Starring: Kevin Bacon, Brendan Fraser, Andy Garcia, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Forest Whitaker, and Julie Delpy

By Mary Lyn Maiscott

No sooner had I watched Sarah Michelle Gellar extract herself from the tender hands of Alec Baldwin in Suburban Girl than I witnessed her tumbling into the rough (metaphorically speaking) hands of Andy Garcia in The Air I Breathe, in which Garcia plays an elegantly dressed gangster whose nickname “Fingers” refers to his tendency to separate digits from the bodies of debtors. His cruel ways set into motion a series of events that only become clear once we’ve seen all four stories of people whose lives interconnect (partly through a car accident, in the way of Amores Perros and 21 Grams).

The titles of the four stories are “Happiness,” “Pleasure,” “Sorrow,” and “Love”; according to notes on the film, these emotions refer to a Chinese proverb that calls them the cornerstones of life. But since a butterfly theme keeps popping up, audience members might instead latch onto the idea of the “butterfly effect”—the theory that the mere flapping of lepidopteran wings can cause a ripple in the atmosphere that eventually leads to something huge, like a tornado.

In this movie, when a bored and boring stockbroker portrayed by Forest Whitaker decides to get crazy and bet his all and then some on a horse (named Butterfly, of course), he triggers a tornado that won’t quit—usually taking the form of mayhem, which is why my eyes were shut for a lot of the film (this is also the way I watch, or don’t watch, The Sopranos). Whitaker’s carpe diem actions apparently bring him happiness, but there’s a twist to its source, as there is in the next segment to Brendan Fraser’s pleasure and, finally, to Kevin Bacon’s love.

More straightforward is the sorrow of Gellar, who plays an unstable singer traumatized early in life (another car accident—these people should watch where they’re going). This may be no surprise to Buffy fans (I never saw the show), but Gellar has range. I fully believed her terror while under the thumb (no worries: she keeps her own) of Fingers—however improbably; it’s as though John Gotti were the manager of Britney Spears and no one blinked. Gellar’s pop princess goes by the name Trista (obviously a play on triste, the word for “sad” in both French and Spanish) and, in a climactic moment, reveals her closely held real name to Fraser’s sensitive, psychic thug (but not to us, making it a tad non-climactic).

The other main characters do not appear to have names but are listed in the credits as the emotions they embody; thus Fraser is “Pleasure,” and the actor playing him as a teenager is even identified as “Young Pleasure” (aha! perhaps Trista’s real name is Sorrow). As signaled early on by the exciting, pulsing opening music, this is not a subtle movie—its color, sometimes grainy, sometimes dark, often looks ugly and feels assaultive. But Fraser and Gellar’s jump-started relationship does have an exquisite quality, rooted in urgency and mysticism. Can he save her (sadly, Fingers is no vampire, so she can’t do it herself)? Or how about that other fellow from whom she’s separated by only two degrees.

Monday, July 25, 2011


Originally posted April 29, 2007.
Archie Knox (Alec Baldwin) and Brett Eisenberg
(Sarah Michelle Gellar) engage in some editing foreplay.

Suburban Girl
Directed and Written by Marc Klein
Starring: Sarah Michelle Gellar and Alec Baldwin

By Mary Lyn Maiscott

“I left her a message.” This line from the romantic comedy Suburban Girl, based on two short stories from Melissa Bank’s The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing, is not meant to be funny. Indeed, it’s meant to be poignant, as it’s spoken by a middle-aged man who has just called his estranged daughter. Unfortunately, that man is Alec Baldwin, so of course the entire audience at the press screening I attended burst into laughter. You can’t blame that one on the screenwriter/director; it was simply a case of art and life colliding (the Baldwin character also refers to having “two ex-wives and a spiteful daughter,” making me wonder if the actor did perhaps have a hand in the script). But who do we blame for the guffaws that erupted at the sight of a tear-streaked, beefy Baldwin face turning toward his delicate young girlfriend, Sarah Michelle Gellar, who has just discovered him falling off the wagon with a bottle and a blonde?

Something is amiss with this movie, and you sense it from the start. The titles montage shows Gellar editing a thick manuscript while walking down the street. I’ve worked in publishing many years, and I’ve never seen anyone do this (a reckless pedestrian, she reads books while walking, too). As she’s engaged in this ambulatory process, she crosses out an “of” and replaces it with a “that.” Huh? (I’d like a cup that coffee, please.) Named after Brett Ashley in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, Gellar’s book editor—or rather, associate editor, as we’re often reminded, as though the title were shameful—seems to know everything Dante and Byron did or didn’t say and makes remarks like “Don’t you just love alliteration?” Even her doofus soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend says something to the effect of, “I cheated on you because I was reading too much Strindberg.” Her new, older squeeze, a high-powered publishing-house head named Archie Knox, also speaks Literarese, but Baldwin manages to soft-pedal the writer references and has some funny lines, including one about his own early novel’s being on “Amazon’s endangered species list.”

Ultimately, this is one of those Shopgirl, thanks-for-teaching-me-now-I-must-move-on movies, with a big dose of de rigueur Sex and the City New York glamour. At least it’s more realistic than its cousin The Devil Wears Prada, if only because you can imagine yourself wearing Gellar’s India-inflected pretty clothes. And Gellar and Baldwin are appealing, both separately and as a couple. Still, I can’t quite trust a film in which a young woman wears a black lace low-cut cocktail dress to her father’s funeral—especially when she’s a devoted daughter who always answers his calls.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

A Goy in the Land of the Jews

Originally posted April 28, 2007.
Mauro (Michel Joelsas), right, and Hannah 
(Daniela Piepszky) with the gang from Bom Retiro.

The Year My Parents Went on Vacation (O Ano em que Meus Pais Saíram de Férias)
Directed and Written by Cao Hamburger
Starring: Michel Joelsas, Germano Haiut, Daniela Piepszky, Paulo Autran, Eduardo Moreira, Simone Spoladore, Caio Blat

By Robert Rosen

Brazil, 1970: The people are under the iron-fisted rule of a vicious right-wing military dictatorship, but they’ve gone soccer-mad anyway. Everybody, regardless of age, sex, religion, or political affiliation, can’t wait for the impending World Cup tournament to begin. And why not? Pelé’s in his prime, he’s just scored his 1000th goal, and Brazil’s already won two World Cups.

Twelve-year-old Mauro (Michel Joelsas) is a soccer fanatic of the first degree whose ambition is to be a goalie. He obsessively plays a tabletop version of the game, collects pictures of the Brazilian players, and talks passionately about them with his father, Daniel (Eduardo Moreira), a Jewish communist whose wife, Bia (Simone Spoladore), is a Catholic communist.

To avoid arrest, Daniel and Bia have to flee the country, and they tell Mauro that they’re “going on vacation,” promising him that they’ll be back in time for the World Cup. They then drop their son at his grandfather’s house in São Paulo’s Bom Retiro district—which is composed of Yiddish-and-Portuguese-speaking Eastern European Jews—and drive away in their blue Volkswagen Beetle, leaving Mauro standing there holding his suitcase.

It’s hard to believe that loving, responsible parents like Daniel and Bia would, under any circumstances, dump their son on the street without first making sure that the grandfather’s home. But that’s what they do, and it’s this one flaw, as easily overlooked as it may be, that tarnishes an otherwise extraordinary film.

Mauro’s grandfather, the local barber, has died of a heart attack just a few hours earlier, and Mauro’s left to pound on the apartment door until Shlomo (Germano Haiut) the next-door neighbor and superintendent of the synagogue, finds him and tells him what’s happened.

The community gathers in the temple to debate Mauro’s fate. Are they obligated to take care of him because he’s the grandson of a member of the temple? Or is he not their responsibility because he’s a goy—they know this because Shlomo saw Mauro’s uncircumcised penis. To Shlomo’s alarm, they agree that Mauro should live with him until the parents return.

And it’s here we embark on a classic tale, beautifully acted and totally believable, of a goy among the Jews, a twist on the biblical story of baby Moses being taken in by the Egyptians—a fact not lost on the Bom Retiro community; they begin calling Mauro “Moses.” The other twist, of course, is that this is Brazil, a country not exactly known as a hotbed of Old-World Judaism—though an unsuspecting viewer might think that the story were set in Boro Park, Brooklyn, or in Williamsburg before the hipster invasion.

Adrift in this strange milieu, trying to adjust to his situation, Mauro, like a tramp from Godot, waits for his parents to return, seeing them in every car that resembles their blue Volkswagen. He tries his best to get along with Shlomo, despite the fact that the old man feeds him fish for breakfast, which Mauro finds disgusting. (And Shlomo, in turn, tries his best to get along with Mauro, despite the fact that the boy unwittingly desecrates his talis, using it as an accessory for his soccer uniform.)

Mauro also meets Ítalo (Caio Blat), a young revolutionary who knows his father, and the film perfectly captures the look and atmosphere of a student union circa 1970. But mostly, as the adults try to track down his parents, Mauro hangs out with a group of neighborhood kids reminiscent of the gang from The Wonder Years. Though they sometimes play soccer—with Mauro as goalie—the boys have another hobby, which they find infinitely more interesting. Their friend Hannah (Daniela Piepszky) allows them to peep into the changing room of her mother’s dress shop from a secret spot behind the wall—for a price. “First time’s free,” she tells Mauro.

As the entire country comes to a halt to watch the World Cup, Mauro’s parents still haven’t returned, leaving him in despair, unable to enjoy Brazil’s great victory, a moment of national ecstasy tainted by brutal scenes of political repression.

This is the kind of movie that could leave one feeling irrationally hopeful about the state of filmmaking. And one would hope—perhaps irrationally—that it might even provoke a few Hollywood studio heads to ask themselves: Why are we so often incapable of telling a coherent story that isn’t marred by gaping plot holes, and why do we so rarely make films like this?

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Reluctant Vampire

Originally posted April 26, 2007.
Khalil Shams (Carlos Chahine): doctor, vampire, scuba diver.

The Last Man (Atlal)
Directed and Written by Ghassan Salhab
Starring Carlos Chahine

As if Beirut, Lebanon, doesn’t have enough problems, now they’ve got vampires on the loose? That’s an intriguing premise for a movie. And The Last Man does get off to a promising start, stringing together a number of compelling images: a flamenco dancer, a Christ-like man sitting up in his bed, the world beneath the sea as seen by a scuba diver. But the film doesn’t deliver on its promise, and it takes about 45 minutes to realize that this is a movie that goes nowhere slow—real, real slow.

The plot: Corpses of young men and women are turning up with puncture wounds in their necks, drained of blood. The authorities suspect a garden-variety serial killer. A kindly family physician (and scuba diving enthusiast), Khalil Shams (Carlos Chahine), participates in the victims’ autopsies and begins to suspect that he himself may be the one responsible. This disturbs him; he’s a compassionate man of medicine, he thinks, not a supernatural killer. At first he seems to have no memory of the murders, but he discovers that he has developed a taste for blood. For the most part, the good doctor—an attractive, balding bachelor—wanders the streets of Beirut and haunts its nightclubs, giving people the creeps and wearing a cool pair of shades during the day because the sun hurts his eyes, though it does not turn him into a pile of dust. Except for one ambiguous scene (is the doctor having sex with a patient?), it’s only later in the film that we see him feasting on his victims. And at the end he meets a fellow vampire, a white-haired man in a white coat (the Man from Glad?). They do not speak.

So, yes, the bodies pile up, yet nothing really happens. There’s no suspense, no drama. Most of the time, like the doctor, you don’t know what’s going on. But the crux of the problem is that you don’t get to know the victims in any depth, or care about them. No real relationships between vampire and victims are established. There’s no cat-and-mouse game—think Dracula and his unsuspecting houseguests. Nothing is adequately explained. What do the recurring shots of a flamenco dancer mean? Why is the vampire a recreational scuba diver? What does that have to do with anything?

There are some artful, arresting images—a shot of a lighthouse against the sky, the underwater scenes—and you are left with a visceral sense of modern-day Beirut, a city once known as the Paris of the Mediterranean but now ravaged by over 30 years of intermittent war.

But it’s the pace of this movie that ultimately drives a stake through its heart. A good vampire yarn should be rousing, and this one is somnolent. For my money, it’s hard to beat the original Dracula (1931), and Carlos Chahine is no Bela Lugosi. Actually, he’s not even Tom Cruise.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Freaky (Russian) Movie

Originally posted April 25, 2007.
Valya (Yuri Chursin), sits in his Moscow bedroom, 
brooding about what to do with his life.

Playing the Victim
Directed by Kirill Serebtennikov
Written by The Presnakov Brothers
Animation by Roman Sokolov
Starring: Yuri Chursin, Vitaly Khaev, Marina Golub, Anna Mikhalkova, Lia Akhedzhakova, Yelena Morozova, and Marat Basharov

By Robert Rosen

My sister-in-law, who’s visiting from St. Louis, and whose taste in film is rather adventurous, asked me, about 15 minutes after I saw Playing the Victim, if I’d recommend it.

“I don’t know,” I said, realizing that this was not an easy question, and that I hadn’t even figured out if I liked it or not. The film, I told her, was certainly different, and it had its inspired moments of twisted post-Soviet comedic absurdity, to be sure (as well as its flaws, like subtitles that sometimes didn’t flow, making them difficult to read). It was, I said, a very freaky movie filled with allusions to Hamlet: the main character Valya (Yuri Chursin)—whose job is to act as the victim in police video reconstructions of murders—is visited by his father’s ghost, and he’s constantly dithering about what to do with his life.

But then I began to describe a scene: “Well, Valya’s in his bedroom, fucking his girlfriend, Olia [Yelena Morozova], you know, she’s riding him in the woman-superior position and she’s bitching about how they’re never going to get married and she’s going to be 33 and nobody’s going to want her, and she’s got a scarf wrapped around his neck to cut off the oxygen to his brain to enhance his orgasm (she’d read about this technique in Marie Claire), and then Valya’s mother [Marina Golub] walks in…she’s a piece of work, too…she might have poisoned his father and now she’s banging his uncle, who might have also had a hand in the murder…anyway, she starts talking to Valya like nothing’s going on, like his girlfriend isn’t even there. She wants him to go out and buy bread and they start arguing if he should get a regular loaf or pita bread, which she thinks is ‘more flavorful.’ But Valya refuses to buy pita bread because he’s afraid that terrorists have poisoned it. ‘What terrorists?’ the mother asks. ‘Those who bake the pita,’ Valya says, and then proceeds to pantomime the events of 9/11, showing two planes crashing into the World Trade Center, complete with sound effects. Then, as he’s having his orgasm, the movie switches to animation, with trains going through Valya’s skull and stuff like that. Well, maybe that was two scenes, but you get the idea.”

She did get the idea, I think, and it was after delivering this spontaneous soliloquy that I realized I must have liked Playing the Victim—and the more I thought about the movie, the more I liked it. Part of my problem, perhaps, was that it took me a while to figure out what the hell was going on. The opening scene is a murder reconstruction, as seen through a video camera operated by a less than competent policewoman, Lyuda (Anna Mikhalkova), who seems more interested in making dinner plans over her cell phone than concentrating on the job at hand. Apparently, a man has dismembered his girlfriend in a portable toilet outside a snack bar in a Moscow park. But who’s that guy sitting on the toilet making goofy faces at the camera and providing fart-like sound effects when the murderer says, “She farted,” in response to the chief detective’s (Vitaly Khaev) question, “What happened after you stuck the knife in her neck?”

Part of the film’s absurdity is that these murder re-creations—there are five altogether, and they’re all seen through the wandering, amateurish eye of the video camera—seem to serve no purpose whatsoever, beyond a vague explanation that they’re being done as an “investigative experiment” for legal reasons. The murderers are already in custody and they have already confessed (or have sworn that it was only an accident), sometimes on camera, sometimes dispassionately, sometimes hysterically.

But the real point of this film is to show the yawning chasm between Valya’s post-Soviet generation—a neo-lost generation, which he symbolizes with his aimlessness, his ambivalence, and his South Park T-shirt—and the older, more serious generation that came of age in the Soviet Union, symbolized by Valya’s boss, the middle-aged chief detective. All the detective’s frustration comes pouring out of him in the penultimate murder re-creation, a shooting in a Japanese restaurant. He delivers a fierce and eloquent Shakespearean soliloquy on the theme of “What the hell’s the matter with you kids today, shooting each other in the head over stupid insults…I had a wife and kids when I was your age.” And it has been set off by the detective’s distaste for sushi, which he sees as a symbol of all that’s wrong with the new, open and “democratic” Russia.

Impressively, Playing the Victim was shot on a budget of $750,000, and there is much to be learned from it—about the art of filmmaking and storytelling in general, and about black comedy in particular.

Yes, Cecilia, by all means, go rent it when you get back to St. Louis—if you can find it.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Yes, It’s Possible to Make a Decent Movie with “27” in the Title

Originally posted May 1, 2008.
Elliot (Joe Anderson) confronts the cryptic suicide 
notes of his bandmate in The 27 Club.
The 27 Club
Written and Directed by Erica Dunton
With Joe Anderson, David Emrich, Eve Hewson, James Forgey, Alexie Gilmore, and David Sherrill

Robert Rosen

As some of you might be aware, I know a thing or two about numerology. It’s a subject I researched extensively when I was writing Nowhere Man: The Final Days of John Lennon. Lennon, born October 9, and Yoko Ono, born February 18, were numerology freaks, huge fans of Cheiro’s Book of Numbers, and deeply enamored of the number 9 and its multiples 18 and 27. Because Mark David Chapman, in his psychotic delusions, believed that by killing Lennon he’d write Chapter 27, the missing chapter of The Catcher in the Rye, in Lennon’s blood, 27 is a key number in Nowhere Man.

For those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about, I invite you to read two postings on my other blog, “Chapter 27.” The first is called “John Lennon’s Bible and the Occult Significance of 27.” The other is called “27: The Unluckiest Number in Rock ’n’ Roll”—which brings us to The 27 Club.

The 27 Club
, as you may have figured out from the heading, is not the only movie to recently appear that has 27 in the title. The other is Chapter 27, a film about the murder of Lennon that ripped off its title from Nowhere Man, but didn’t bother to explain what Chapter 27 means—which is only one of the reasons it’s received some of the most vicious reviews garnered by any movie in recent memory. And though I don’t think that Chapter 27 is “the most godawful, irredeemable film to yet emerge in the 21st century,” as Premiere magazine said, I do think that it’s unfortunate that The 27 Club follows so close in its wake. Both movies are ostensibly about death, fame, and rock ’n’ roll, and some people may confuse them. And though The 27 Club may be flawed, it’s still a good little film, with much to recommend it.

For one thing (and this obviously can’t be taken for granted), The 27 Club explains its title: A number of great rock musicians—Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Brian Jones being the best known—have died at age 27, and collectively, they’re known as “the 27 Club.” (Check out the cottage industry in 27 Club T-shirts and posters.)

Why would anybody want to join this exclusive fraternity? That’s the existential question that haunts Elliot (Joe Anderson), the lead singer in a hugely popular group called Finn, when Tom (James Forgey), his childhood friend and bandmate, purposely overdoses on drugs on his 27th birthday and leaves behind a bunch of cryptic Post-it notes, which don’t exactly explain why he did it, but do acknowledge that 27 is a magic number.

Anderson is the best thing this film has going for it. He plays Elliot with such laconic rock-star coolness and detachment, it’s startling every time he opens his mouth to utter a coherent sentence. Deeply depressed after identifying Tom’s body at the morgue—their story is told in flashbacks—he sets off from L.A. in a convertible, on a cross-country trip to New York for the funeral, first stopping in his home town of (Janis) Joplin, Missouri, to deliver one of the Post-it notes to Tom’s father (David Sherrill), a former Marine, who does not look kindly upon the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle.

What we have here is a beautifully photographed, though essentially plotless road movie, with lots of nice desert scenery, a couple of numerology clues in the form of addresses and room numbers slipped in, and an array of quirky characters Elliot meets along the way. They include a nerdy, prayerful store clerk (David Emrich) whom Elliot hires for $10,000 cash to be his driver; a much too clean homeless man (Jimmy Hager) who sings in a mission choir; and Stella (Eve Hewson), a young hitchhiker and hardcore Finn fan who recognizes Elliot, but keeps it to herself and remains totally and unbelievably blasé in his presence. (Perhaps she acts this way because Hewson is Bono’s daughter and presumably unaffected by the rock-star aura.)

And though these implausible characters (along with a couple of ineffectual New York record executives) and a weak ending [POSSIBLE SPOILER]—a mission choir brought in to sing at Tom’s funeral does not actually sing—detract from The 27 Club’s overall appeal, it still remains an enjoyable film about an unusual subject that kept me engaged throughout.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011


Originally posted April 2, 2009.
Sugar (Algenis Perez Soto) and his Dominican teammates at a baseball academy in San Pedro de Macorís.

Written and Directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck
Starring Algenis Perez Soto, Ann Whitney, Richard Bull, Ellary Porterfield, Rayniel Rufino, Andre Holland, and Jose Luis Romero

Sugar is more than a poignant, compelling film with an appealing cast of virtual unknowns and an interesting soundtrack featuring Chilean singer Gepe’s very cool Spanish version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” Arguably, it’s also an important movie—about language, the immigrant experience, and baseball.

But I’ll leave that argument to other, more knowledgeable writers, like my friend the journalist J.C. Malone, who was born in San Pedro de Macorís, in the Dominican Republic, and has written, in both English and Spanish, a biography of that modest-size city’s best-known native son, Sammy Sosa.

For those who don’t follow the game, it should be said that San Pedro is to baseball what Liverpool once was to rock ’n’ roll: a breeding ground and launching pad for raw talent. At least 30 big-league ballplayers were born there. And they all got their start in one of San Pedro’s baseball academies, where coaches and scouts molded them into potential professionals, creating for these local athletes an opportunity to be plucked from poverty and obscurity, deposited in a major-league spring-training camp, and given the chance to conquer America.

But as every aspiring professional ballplayer knows, the odds of making it to the big leagues are slim, because pure athletic ability is only one factor in a wide array of physical, social, emotional, and intellectual skills that an athlete must master if he’s to have a real shot at success.

Sugar makes this clear in the opening scene, which takes place in an academy classroom, where a group of Dominican ballplayers are learning to speak baseball English—“pop fly … ground ball … home run.” Later, in the locker room, they practice their English singing “Take Me out to the Ball Game.” Though they know almost all the words, they don’t seem to understand what a lot of them mean, and it’s touching to watch them struggle through the most difficult phrases, singing the song with feeling, as if it were a hymn.

It’s this struggle to communicate in a foreign language that provides the film with some of its most entertaining moments. Most of them come courtesy of Miguel “Sugar” Santos (Algenis Perez Soto), a determined and intelligent, though immature, 19-year-old pitcher whose family is depending on his rubber arm and explosive curveball to lift them out of the slums of San Pedro—depicted here with unsentimental realism—with a big-league contract.

When Sugar—so called because he likes desserts and has a “sweet” pitching motion—finds himself playing for the Swing, a class-A team in the Iowa hinterlands, he quickly learns enough English to order three different kinds of eggs for breakfast and to call an opposing player a “cocksucker,” a term he picks up from Brad (Andre Holland), a Berkeley-educated African-American shortstop with laid-back California charm, a firm grip on reality, and enough Spanish to exchange pleasantries with Sugar, calling him his hermano.

Brad’s rudimentary Spanish is far more advanced than that of the Higginses, a family of devout Christian baseball fans who provide Sugar with room and board while he’s in Iowa. The mother, Helen (Ann Whitney), befuddles Sugar when she points to her washing machine and says, “You put the sopa in here.” She thinks she’s saying soap, though she’s actually saying soup. And her teenage daughter, Anne (Ellary Porterfield), confuses Sugar even more, taking him to a Christian youth meeting and later flirting with him, allowing him one innocent kiss, and then running away.

Yet it’s the contrast between Brad and Sugar that brings into focus the dilemma at the heart of this film: What do you do if you don’t beat the overwhelming odds and make it to the big leagues? Brad plans to teach history. But Sugar, like the other Dominican players, has no real fallback plan and no education—he doesn’t even know who Roberto Clemente is. If he doesn’t make it to the big leagues, his choices are limited. He can either return to his disappointed family and the poverty of the D.R. or go to the Bronx and live in one of the largest Dominican communities in America, working at a survival job in the taunting shadow of Yankee Stadium.

Communicating a visceral sense of what it’s like when your future dangles on the most delicate thread, the filmmakers do an excellent job of showing how Sugar and his Dominican teammates walk, with no net underneath, a physical and psychological tightrope between the D.R. and the American Dream. They show how easy it is to lose your stuff and let momentary failure shatter your confidence; how difficult it is to break out of a slump; and how painful it is when your life and your family’s well-being hinge on a dream that can vanish in the time it takes to drive a hanging curve over the left-field wall.

Monday, July 18, 2011

In the Mood for Pie

Originally posted April 3, 2008.
Elizabeth (Norah Jones, in her movie debut) contemplates providing a stake for poker player Leslie (Natalie Portman), with a Jaguar in the balance.

My Blueberry Nights
Directed by Wong Kar Wai
Written by Wong Kar Wai and Lawrence Block
Starring Norah Jones, Jude Law, Natalie Portman, David Strathairn, Rachel Weisz and Chan Marshall

Mary Lyn Maiscott

Remember the huge hypodermic needle in Pulp Fiction that John Travola desperately jabbed into Uma Thurman’s chest, bringing her back to life? For Wong Kar Wai’s new movie, that humungous needle is Natalie Portman, who injects a jolt of juice into My Blueberry Nights about two-thirds of the way through, just when you think you’ve been stylized, poeticized, and melodramaticized into a near coma. Portman, playing a gambler with a bad brassy-blond haircut, accomplishes what the likes of Jude Law, Rachel Weisz, and the esteemed David Strathairn cannot manage: she creates a believable character in the midst of a completely unbelievable story.

Portman, unfortunately, does not play the protagonist. Elizabeth—aka Lizzie, Betty, Beth—takes the form of singer Norah Jones, she of the obscenely creamy voice. I’m going to guess that Wong chose Jones—as opposed to, say, Courtney Love—because, while beautiful, she also has a childlike, innocent appeal. Not once but twice are we asked to contemplate, along with Law, who constantly smiles at her as though she were a baby or a puppy, her sleeping face besmeared with vanilla ice cream (though come to think of it, talk about obscene…). After being jilted (somehow that old-fashioned word seems right for this film), Elizabeth hits the road, waitressing and bartending her way across the country and sending postcards to Law’s Jeremy, a Brooklyn café owner, telling him all about the colorful people she meets. These include a cop named Arnie (Strathairn), who’s so in love with his estranged wife, the blowsy Sue Lynn (Weisz), that he drinks all the time, never pays his bar tab, and brutally beats up Sue Lynn’s new boyfriend. Somehow, this is all supposed to make Arnie extremely lovable and his wife totally contemptible. (It’s just that kind of movie.) Set against these broadly drawn characters, Elizabeth comes across as a tabula rasa, which would be okay if she weren’t quite so rasa. It’s hard to accept that someone this passive could muster up the energy to take all those buses and answer all those help-wanted ads.

Perhaps the movie is meant to be a fable of sorts. How else to explain this line (more or less) that Jeremy says to Elizabeth, both—isn’t it cute?—with bloody noses from different bullies: “You were on the subway? Why would you be on the subway?” As though no Brooklynite would stray from her own little corner, at least not when it’s shot so lovingly by cinematographer Darius Khondji. Indeed, the lush visuals, a staple of Wong’s, are almost enough to make the film worthwhile, if you don’t mind everything being fetishized—from pie à la mode to cigarette smoke. For some reason (those visuals?), everyone smokes in this movie, even the innocent Elizabeth and including Chan Marshall (whose Cat Power song “The Greatest” adds to the atmospheric effect), making a brief appearance as Katya, Jeremy’s ex-girlfriend. Fortunately, Katya speaks Blueberryse, the true language of Jeremy (though his comes with a botched Manchester accent). When she asks, “Sometimes even if you have the keys, those doors still can’t be opened, can they?,” he replies (with that goddamned smile), “Even if the door is open, the person you’re looking for may not be there.” Well okay, maybe that’s better than “I met a younger woman who gets me all hot when she eats ice cream.”

Part of the problem may be that this is Wong’s first English-language feature film (written with the mystery-novelist Lawrence Block). Certainly the Hong Kong director’s ripe style, in films such as In the Mood for Love, has won him many fans and accolades in the past. I’m just glad he had the good sense with My Blueberry Nights to cast Portman as Leslie, the wispy high roller who threatens to walk away with all the chips and most the movie.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Reconciliation Is Not an Option

Originally posted August 18, 2009.
Sixteen-year-old Alistair Little, of the Ulster Volunteer Force, prepares to murder a Catholic.

Five Minutes of Heaven
Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel
Written by Guy Hibbert
Starring Liam Neeson, James Nesbitt, Anamaria Marinca, Mark Davison, Richard Dormer, Kevin O’Neill, Gerard Jordan, and Paula McFetridge

Sometimes, it’s just not possible to bring together two people whose historical animosity runs deep, and allow them to discuss their differences in a controlled setting, as was done, for example, at the White House “Beer Summit.” Sometimes, the injuries are too personal, the wounds too raw. Sometimes, a better understanding cannot be reached—because there’s nothing more to understand, and the damage is undoable. Sometimes, revenge (served cold) is the only answer.

At least that’s the way it plays out when an Irish “reality” TV show arranges for Alistair Little (Liam Neeson), a Protestant former member of the Ulster Volunteer Force, to meet with Joe Griffin (James Nesbitt). Thirty years earlier, in Northern Ireland, Griffin witnessed Little’s assassination of his older brother, Jim (Gerard Jordan), for the crime of being Catholic—an act his mother (Paula McFetridge) held Joe responsible for. “Why didn’t you do something?” she screams at him in heart breaking despair.

Reconciliation is not an option in Five Minutes of Heaven, a title that should not be confused with the kissing game “Seven Minutes in Heaven.” Griffin most definitely does not want to kiss Little. Rather, he wants to plunge a knife into his heart with the TV cameras running. That’s the only reason Griffin has agreed to the meeting—the notion of the media trying to exploit his tragedy for ratings and drama disgusts him.

Five Minutes of Heaven—based on a true story and shot on location in Northern Ireland—is a physically and emotionally brutal movie. That brutality becomes clear in the opening minutes, as documentary footage of “the Troubles,” as they’re euphemistically known, shows the aftermath of various bombings, including one shot of a man whose legs have been blown off, crawling away from the site of the explosion.

It’s also a film filled with wrenching performances and almost unbearable tension. The sequence leading up to the killing of Jim Griffin is so detailed and realistic, it’s hard to watch. The camera follows Little, 16 at the time, and played by Mark Davison, as he prepares to murder his 19-year-old neighbor—so he can be somebody important, so he can walk into the local bar and have the men applaud his great achievement.

We see Little in his bedroom, dressing, digging out his gun, loading it, and then meeting up with his equally young accomplices. Meanwhile, in a nearby part of this gritty town, Joe Griffin (Kevin O’Neill), then 11, kicks a soccer ball against the wall outside his apartment as his brother sits in the living room and his parents get ready to go out.

The film then cuts to the present, where the adult Little and Griffin are traveling in separate limousines to the luxurious Belfast estate where the TV show featuring their highly anticipated rendezvous will be filmed. Little, cool behind his shades, is resigned to doing what he feels he must do. Three decades after the murder, including 12 years spent in prison, he realizes that his motivation for the horrendous act is no different than that of a Muslim suicide bomber. Griffin, nervous and having second thoughts about going through with it, tells his driver to pull over to the side of the road so he can have a smoke.

Anamaria Marinca, who plays Vika, a production assistant who immigrated to Belfast from Vladivostok, creates an especially appealing character. We get to know her as she prepares Griffin for the filming of the show and as they stand on a terrace of the manor house, smoking cigarettes. When Griffin tells her that he thinks Little is a celebrity who turned the murder of his brother into a lucrative TV career and is now leading the “life of Riley,” Vika sets him straight. Little, she says, is a “broken man.” She knows, she says, because she visited him at his home. Griffin goes so far as to tell Vika that he’s planning to kill Little. Why she doesn’t mention this to her bosses is hard to say. But it’s during this conversation that we learn the meaning of the movie’s title: “five minutes of heaven” is what Griffin says murdering Little will bring him.

Though the disparate elements of this sad and powerful film never completely jell as it flashes back and forth between past and present—one reason is that young Joe Griffin doesn’t quite look like the person who will grow into the adult Joe Griffin—the pace never lags, and the story is never anything but gripping, even with a clichéd ending that’s less than believable.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Exquisite Corpse

Originally posted April 8, 2010.
Anna Taylor (Christina Ricci) leaves a good-looking corpse.

Written and directed by Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo
Starring Christina Ricci, Justin Long, Liam Neeson, and Chandler Canterbury

By Robert Rosen

I might just as well have called this review “Necrophiliac’s Delight,” because that’s what this queasy, creepy film is—a cinematic work designed to sexually excite those among us who are turned on by the idea of making love to a beautiful young corpse. And that exquisite corpse—or is it?—is played by Christina Ricci, who parades around a mortuary in the fetching red satin slip that she died in, though she also spends a great deal of time completely nude, and the camera does not shy away from lingering over her pert, dead nipples. So if your idea of a dream lover is a very pale Ms. Ricci laid out on an embalming slab, and you’re not put off by that rather unbecoming gash in her forehead, then After.Life is the movie of your dreams.

Let’s not even talk about the nonsensical plot, beyond saying that Ricci’s character, Anna Taylor, is killed in a car crash after a fight with her boyfriend Paul Conran (Justin Long)—who brings to mind David Schwimmer as Ross (minus the whining)—and her body is turned over to a sinister, Twilight Zone–style funeral director, Eliot Deacon (Liam Neeson), who possess the ability to talk to the dead (or does he?). There’s another Twilight Zone–ish touch, as well—the old dead-person-calling-on-the-telephone routine. Add a pinch of Roger Corman’s take on Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and I think you’ve got the picture.

All of which is not to say that After.Life is without merit. Writer-director Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo did a fine job creating the macabre funeral parlor atmosphere—this is definitely not the cozy family world of Six Feet Under—and the film did indeed creep the hell out of me, until it began to grow tedious. But in terms of plot and logic and sheer compellingness, it doesn’t come close to modern horror classics like The Others or The Sixth Sense, both of which I enjoyed without reservation. But I will say that if I’d seen this film when I was eight, as I was when I saw The House of Usher, I’d have had nightmares for at least the next year.

Friday, July 15, 2011

The True Horror of Dean Koontz

Originally posted June 26, 2008.
Dean Koontz and his golden retriever, Trixie. Photo © Jerry Bauer

By Robert Rosen

I think it’s safe to say that Dean Koontz, who’s already churned out more New York Times bestsellers than most authors could reasonably hope to write in a lifetime, does not need a review on Maiscott & Rosen to further his career. And I think it’s equally safe to suggest that anything I say about him, positive or negative, will have no impact whatsoever on his illustrious track record. In fact, I’d suspect that Koontz is smart enough to ignore all his reviews, and if he needs any reassurance about his talents, such as they are, all he has to do is check his bank account. Koontz, in short, is review-proof; I doubt that even the savagery of Times critic Michiko Kakutani could ruin his day.

So why am I reviewing a Koontz book, particularly one that was originally published in 2004? Because I keep thinking about the book—for all the wrong reasons.

That I read it at all could be called an act of destiny that Koontz himself might build an entire plot around. I was visiting my mother in Florida, and somebody had abandoned a copy of Life Expectancy by the pool. Having never read Koontz, I was curious. Also, I think it’s a good idea to occasionally read enormously successful bestsellers by writers of no known literary merit—like Dan Brown. There’s always something to be learned.

So I picked up Life Expectancy and—unlike Brown’s hackneyed Da Vinci Code, which I tossed aside after a few paragraphs—I was hooked. And I stayed hooked for 200 pages. Like Stephen King, whom Koontz is often compared to (and whose “voice” is virtually indistinguishable from Koontz’s), he knows how to tell a story. Or at least he knows how to get one off the ground, and, in the process, work in an interesting point or two—like why God is not Santa Claus and why people laugh at sitcoms that aren’t funny.

The problem with Life Expectancy, however, is that it’s 496 bloated pages, and it was hard to imagine, after 200 pages, how Koontz would be able to keep it going for another 296. In seeking an answer, I read the book straight through to the end before abandoning it in the seat pocket of an airplane, feeling as if I’d ingested 10,000 calories of the fattiest kind of mental junk food—the equivalent of, say, 200 or so éclairs baked by Jimmy Tock, the quirky yet lovable pastry chef who narrates Life Expectancy, which is supposed to be his autobiography. The story in a nutshell: Tock lives with a prophecy; he will confront unspeakable horror on five days in his life, and he knows the dates.

Standard fare for a book of this kind, to be sure. And Koontz keeps it moving along at a brisk pace by employing every cheap trick and cliché in his bag. Among them are evil clowns; middling sitcomish humor; secret passageways; one-dimensional characters acting improbably in improbable situations; implying a character is dead only to later reveal that he isn’t; and, most important to his modus operandi, withholding vital information till the end of the book that he should have divulged at the beginning. Also in the tradition of such novels, it appears the primary purpose of dialogue is to fill space—there are lots of meaningless exchanges where the characters say one or two words each, and keep it up for the better part of a page.

Yet this was all forgivable because Life Expectancy is intended as nothing more than a routine work of genre fiction, and it’s hardly one of the worst. But there’s one other factor that must be taken into consideration.

Obviously I’m not the first person to wonder if Koontz takes money for product placement in his novels—he denies the charge on his website. Yet, his use of a Ford off-road vehicle at a crucial plot point seemed like blatant product placement, and it broke whatever remained of the spell Koontz had cast.

A Ford Explorer driven by Tock, the pastry-baking narrator, outmaneuvers a Hummer driven by a homicidal clown. And not once in this seemingly endless and unnecessarily detailed scene does Koontz use a synonym for “Ford Explorer,” like “SUV” or “light truck.” Page after page he never lets you forget that it’s a humble Explorer careening impossibly up and down the side of a steep, snow-covered mountain, carrying Tock and his pregnant wife to safety.

And it was here I realized that the true horror of Dean Koontz is that it’s books like his that dominate the publishing industry—at the expense of better, more compelling books by writers who aren’t as formulaic, shallow, or blatantly commercial. Of course, this is old news to anybody who’s been paying attention. But like that Ford Explorer, Life Expectancy rubs this sad reality in your face, and ultimately becomes something far more cynical than the escapist trash it’s supposed to be.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

For Adults Only: A Brief History of Rothian Cinema

Originally posted August 7, 2008.
Consuela Castillo (Pénelope Cruz) chats with her professor David Kepesh (Ben Kingsley) at a party at Kepesh’s Manhattan apartment.

Directed by Isabel Coixet
Screenplay by Nicholas Meyer
With Ben Kingsley, Pénelope Cruz, Dennis Hopper, Patricia Clarkson, Peter Sarsgaard, and Deborah Harry

By Robert Rosen

The last time somebody made a good movie out of a Philip Roth book it was 1969 and Roth had just published Portnoy’s Complaint, the scandalous sensation that people talked about then the way they talk about Britney and Brangelina now. But the film that came out that year wasn’t Portnoy—it was Goodbye, Columbus, based on the title novella from Roth’s first book, published ten years earlier. The movie was a smash at the box office, and the critics, too, loved this Jewish-flavored, suburban, poor-boy-meets-rich-girl comedy. Directed by Larry Peerce and starring Richard Benjamin and Ali McGraw, it’s perhaps best remembered for one of McGraw’s lines; when a friend asks her character, Brenda, what she’s doing over the summer, she says, “I’m growing a penis.”

Complaint landed in theatres three years later. Again starring Benjamin, this time as North Jersey’s most creative onanist, the film didn’t come close to capturing the outrageousness of the novel’s obscenely hilarious monologue that Alexander Portnoy delivers to his psychiatrist.

As director Ernest Lehman ultimately realized, there was no good way to portray onscreen a compulsive adolescent masturbator, who, in the book’s most memorable scene, “fucks the family dinner,” a piece of raw liver.

So Lehman chose the sitcom route, and though at times he raised Portnoy to the realm of mildly amusing, the film, which also lacked the chemistry of Goodbye, Columbus’s Benjamin-McGraw pairing, was a critical and commercial disaster that served as a textbook example of why Roth’s novels—whose power is verbal rather than visual (as opposed to, say, Michael Crichton’s)—are so hard to turn into movies. Not counting a 1984 British made-for-TV version of The Ghost Writer, nobody would try again for 31 years.

But that belated attempt, The Human Stain, directed by Robert Benton, written by Nicholas Meyer, and starring Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Kidman, was at best a noble failure about morality and political correctness in the age of Clinton.

So here we are in 2008, and along comes director Isabel Coixet, a Spaniard, a woman, and presumably a Catholic—her best-known films are The Secret Life of Words and My Life Without Me—who, working with screenwriter Meyer (who must have learned something from The Human Stain), seems to have found the key to transforming Roth’s distinctly Jewish-American male sensibility into a film as literate and affecting as the novel it’s based on.

The Dying Animal
, a slim work published in 2001, covers some familiar Rothian territory: The Roth-like narrator, commitment-shy college professor David Kepesh, tells the tragicomic tale of his obsession with a younger woman, Consuela Castillo, his student.

The film’s called Elegy, and it’s an erotically charged story that some people will describe as pornographic and others will flock to for the opportunity to feast their eyes on Pénelope Cruz’s voluptuous body and Patricia Clarkson’s brave little striptease. Against this tableaux of sexuality, Coixet explores with intelligence and realism such themes as aging, death, disease, and infidelity, making Elegy adult entertainment in the literal sense of those words, and creating an almost unbearable tension in the small dramatic moments, such as when Kepesh (Ben Kingsley) asks Consuela (Cruz) out on a date.

The plot (set in New York but filmed in a distractingly inauthentic-looking Vancouver) traces the complications of David’s relationships with Consuela, a levelheaded Cuban from a wealthy, conservative family; George (Dennis Hopper), his friend and colleague, an aging beat poet; George’s wife, Amy (a small but substantial role for Deborah Harry, here looking all of her 63 years); Carolyn (Patricia Clarkson), his longstanding girlfriend, who spends most of her time in Seattle and whose only demand is that Kepish not, as she puts it, fuck other women; and Kenny (Peter Sarsgaard), his semi-estranged son, a doctor who’s facing his own infidelity issues.

is by no means perfect, but it would be nitpicking to argue that Consuela needs to be more fleshed out (so to speak), or that David is too serious at times, or that George seems like a bit of a caricature.

All I will say is that 39 years is too long to wait for a good Philip Roth movie, and I can only hope that Coixet and Meyer team up for another one soon. May I suggest Sabbath’s Theatre?

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

After the Masterpiece

Originally posted April 28, 2008.
Above: In Shane Meadows’ Somers Town, Tommo (Thomas Turgoose), carrying all his worldly possessions, arrives in St. Pancras Station. Below: Meadows, in New York for the Tribeca Film Festival. In his autobiographical films the director uses Turgoose as a stand-in for his younger self. Meadows photo © Robert Rosen 2011.

Somers Town
70 minutes
Directed by Shane Meadows
Screenplay By Paul Fraser
With Thomas Turgoose, Piotr Jagiello, Elisa Lasowski, Ireneusz Czop, Perry Benson, and Kate Dickie

By Robert Rosen

If I had doled out stars at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival, I’d have given Shane Meadows’ violent, funny, autobiographical masterpiece This Is England 4½…maybe 5. I’d never heard of Meadows at the time, and his film took me by surprise. My review, which I called “A Clockwork Skinhead,” remains one of the most frequently accessed pages on this site, with readers generally locating it by Googling some variation on the phrase “Suck my tits.” In the film, that is what 19-year-old Smell (Rosamund Hanson) wants her 12-year-old boyfriend, Shaun (Thomas Turgoose, making his acting debut) to do to her.

Meadows’ 2008 TFF entry, Somers Town, a 70-minute, mostly black-and-white feature—the final few minutes, set in an Oz-like Paris, are in color—grew out of a half-hour short, and appears to be more a case of the director catching his breath than a genuine follow-up. (The true follow-up will be King of the Gypsies, about a bare-knuckles fighter, currently in pre-production.)

Somers Town, however, has much in common with This Is England­—starting with its star, Turgoose, a fearless young actor with a deadpan sense of comic timing who serves as a stand-in for Meadows himself. This time he plays Tommo, a 15-year-old orphan from Nottingham, who falls for Maria (Elisa Lasowski), a much older, very attractive French waitress at a local London café. But unlike This Is England, which peers into the abyss of the social order and rips out its heart, Somers Town, named for the working-class neighborhood near St. Pancras Station, can almost be described as a light romantic comedy-drama.

Almost—because when Tommo arrives in London with a duffel bag containing all his worldly possessions, a gang of local thugs promptly rip him off and kick his head in for good measure. And though this vicious stomping doesn’t approach the ultra-violence of This Is England, it’s still far too ugly a scene for anybody to mistake this film for a light anything.

The meandering plot mostly revolves around Tommo’s friendship and rivalry with Marek, played by another talented, unknown young actor, Piotr Jagiello. A 15-year-old Polish immigrant who lives with his divorced father (Ireneusz Czop) near St. Pancras Station, Marek clandestinely shelters Tommo in his cramped apartment.

Marek, an amateur photographer, is obsessed with taking pictures of his “girlfriend,” Maria. Deeply impressed with the photographs, Tommo first asks Marek if he has any porno shots, and then learns that his new friend and benefactor hasn’t even kissed Maria. Tommo gets it into his head that Maria’s soon going to fall in love with him, and he tells Marek to give him all the shots of his, Tommo’s, girlfriend. (Marek later catches Tommo masturbating with the photos.)

More complications and comedy ensue. Maria says that she loves both boys equally, then leaves for Paris without saying a word. Marek’s father, struggling to earn a living, learn English, and assimilate in a new country, finds his son and Tommo drunk out of their minds, busting up the apartment. Graham (Perry Benson), a middle-aged businessman, puts Tommo and Marek to work doing odd jobs, and in one scene greets the boys at his door wearing an open robe, his enormous belly hanging over a very tight pair of briefs. Perhaps this is why, when Graham later offers Tommo a full-time job and says that he’ll have to do everything he tells him, Tommo replies with deadpan perfection, “You mean have sex with you?”

It’s all very believable, very real, and very well done—authentic British flavor and sound is a Meadows trademark.

Oh yeah, those stars… I almost forgot. As one of Meadows’ characters might say, in a thick, almost indecipherable accent requiring subtitles to understand: Oi, fook all. And as I might say: I ain’t ratin’ this movie with no fuckin’ stars, like some priggish, cane-wielding headmaster. Because the downside of creating a masterpiece is the high expectations it engenders, and to grade Somers Town in such a clichéd way would be an insult to Shane Meadows and his extraordinary troupe of actors. I’m just going to wait for King of the Gypsies, and then I might dole out a few more stars. And you? You’ll just have to see Somers Town and decide for yourself how it stacks up.