Michelle Devereaux

Emotions in motion



FILM Imagine being trapped, No Exit–style, on a city bus — let’s say Muni’s dreaded “Double Deuce” Fillmore for the sake of creative visualization — in the midst of a dozen or so out-of-control teenagers hell-bent on humiliating and terrorizing their peers and, if you have an obvious human frailty, you as well. Sound like fun? Well, Michel Gondry’s The We and the I puts you there (dramatically speaking, at least) and is often surprisingly just that. To paraphrase Sartre, “Hell is other people … on the bus,” but thankfully we get to take the trip from the safety of cushy theater seats and comfy couches.

Arguably minor Gondry (unlike 2011’s abominable The Green Hornet, whose failure can only be described as major), it’s a nice little palate cleanser in anticipation of his upcoming, much-publicized “return to form,” the Audrey Tautou–starring Mood Indigo, a film that looks to be as visually lush and romantic as The We and the I is stripped down.

Almost all of the film takes place on the aforementioned city bus as it crawls around the mean streets of New York City’s Bronx borough, ostensibly to take home kids (all played by nonprofessional actors, all minorities) after their last day of school. One or two of them do disembark early, but most seem stuck on a fossil-fueled existential journey of the damned. At about the 70-minute mark it’s hard not to wonder if the disgruntled bus driver isn’t just tooling around in circles past the same storefronts à la Joel Barish’s mind trips in Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) — just exactly how big is the Bronx anyway? “Drop out, get your GED, join the army. I don’t give a fuck,” the driver tells a confused girl. It’s clear that the kids suffer from this kind of general adult apathy, but most bear it with a hard-edged bravado that belies their vulnerability.

That particularly applies to the trio of bullies at the back of the bus, who treat both the kids and the adults with equal-opportunity disdain. They smash an arty boy’s acoustic guitar, hurl insults while sneaking smokes, and even shame a middle-aged guy with a cleft palette. But most of their ire is saved for Teresa (Teresa Lynn), a slightly chubby, obviously troubled girl who shows up wearing a laughably bad blonde wig after being MIA from school for weeks. Teresa becomes the emotional heart of the story after it’s revealed her relationships with several kids on the bus are more complicated than initially thought.

Those kids include a drama-queen sexpot with apparent self-harming issues, a refreshingly upfront couple of gay teens, and a gaggle of giggling girls who toss around a water bra like a football. (The girls, tellingly, are just as aggressive as the boys.) Geek and bully alike connect regularly through the preferred teen method of communication: social media, specifically in the form of a YouTube video of a local doofus named Elijah repeatedly falling on his ass. Some joys are universal.

Visually, The We and the I marks a departure for Gondry. While his films always have a low-fi, arts-and-crafts vibe full of DIY quirk, this one generally eschews his love of handmade ephemera. (A major exception is the boom box rejiggered to resemble a tiny bus, which tools around to Young MC’s “Bust A Move” during the opening credits.) There is a touch of fast-motion and papier-mâché goofiness, but mostly the whole thing is done in a straightforward, verité style.

The tone, however, is pure Gondry: dopey-funny and sophisticatedly unsophisticated. You get the sense that, unlike his tony New York–loving counterparts Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach, Gondry is a true populist. The We and the I is certainly nothing if not populist. But it’s also about the individual — specifically who we are inside and outside of an often-grueling social system. Despite some hiccups, like an unnecessarily dark third-act revelation, it’s more or less successful in illuminating the joys, cruelties, and uncertainties of life, which remain viscerally real after the sun sets and we finally get off the bus, vulnerable as ever in our solitude. 

THE WE AND THE I opens Fri/22 in Bay Area theaters.

Little runaways



FILM It’s hard to make any grand pronouncements about Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom. Does the Boy King of Quirk’s new film mark a live-action return to form after 2007’s disappointingly wan Darjeeling Limited? More or less. Does it tick all the Andersonian style and content boxes? Indubitably.

In the most obvious deviation Anderson has taken with Moonrise, aside from a new font for the title sequence (Futura, we hardly knew ye), he gives us his first period piece. The tale is set in 1965, when New Penzance Island (entirely fictional, but ostensibly off the New England coast) is populated by children who would rather listen to educational records about British composer Benjamin Britten on their portable turntables than the latest Stones album — ironically, this is perhaps Anderson’s only film not to feature any ’60s British Invasion pop. (There is, however, plenty of Hank Williams on the soundtrack to lend some low-fi kitsch.)

After a chance encounter at a church play (Noye’s Fludde, Britten’s operatic version of Noah and the ark), pre-teen Khaki Scout Sam (newcomer Jared Gilman) instantly falls for the raven-suited, sable-haired Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward, ditto). It’s not hard to understand why — Hayward’s sad doe eyes and petulant mouth bring to mind a mini-version of the prototypical Godard femme fatale; she’s Anna Karina in a training bra. The two become pen pals, and quickly bond over the shared misery of being misunderstood by both authority figures and fellow kids.

The bespectacled, corncob pipe–smoking Sam is an orphan, ostracized by his foster parents and scout troop (much to the dismay of its straight-arrow leader Edward Norton). Suzy despises her clueless attorney parents, played with gusto by Bill Murray and Frances McDormand in some of the film’s funniest and best scenes (they both call each other “counselor” when arguing). Suzy’s mother has cuckolded her dad by having an affair with island cop Bruce Willis (in full middle-age-man mode, looking a bit like a decrepit Tintin), who takes an interest in the troubled Sam.

But that interest can’t stop the two kids from running off together into the woods to play Blue Lagoon. It’s hard to blame them. “Does it concern you that your daughter’s just run away from home?” Mrs. Bishop asks her husband. “That’s a loaded question,” he responds after a significant beat. The whole thing begins to resemble a kind of tween version of Godard’s 1965 lovers-on the-lam fantasia Pierrot le Fou. (Suzy even stabs a boy with scissors in a pivotal scene.) But like most of Anderson’s stuff, it has a gauzy sentimentality more akin to Truffaut than Godard.

Imagine if the sequence in 2001’s The Royal Tenenbaums where Margot and Richie run away to the Museum of Natural History had been given the feature treatment. It’s a simple yet inspired idea. And it becomes a charming little tale of the perils of growing up and selling out the fantasy. It’s also very funny — any movie that features Tilda Swinton, bedecked in navy cape and jaunty hat, as a soulless bureaucrat who refers to herself exclusively as “Social Services,” can’t be all wrong.

Still, something is missing. Much of Anderson’s wit and charm stems from a postmodern out-of-time quality, a sense of existence just this side of real. But that ironic detachment seems to be methodically sapping his ability to make a different kind of love connection: the one between his onscreen romance and his audience’s collective heart. Yes, it’s beautiful, exotic, lovely, and romantic (in both the lower-case and upper-case “R” senses). But it doesn’t feel remotely risky. And so it doesn’t seem real. In a word, it’s simply too damn tame.

Even when Hurricane Maybelline descends on the island, there is never any sense of mortal danger, emotional or otherwise. At one point Sam gets cold-cocked by a bolt of lightning, quickly rises as his head still smokes, and announces, “I’m okay.” I don’t think anyone in the audience was surprised. Even the possibility of the Great Flood itself washing everything away seems a bit of a skin game.

As his characters do, Wes likes his toys. I like his toys as well. But I wonder if it might be time for him, like Sam and Suzy, to grow up a little and put away some childish things. He can feel free to hold onto the portable turntable, though — especially if he puts on some old Stones records.


MOONRISE KINGDOM opens Fri/1 in San Francisco.

Tribute: A force of nature and Force of Habit


When my big brother, David Devereaux, owner of Mission haunt Force of Habit Records, passed away suddenly at the untimely age of 41 this past July 4, it left a hole in the city’s punk and vinyl scene almost the equivalent of the hole it left in my heart.

I eventually became a movie journalist, but David’s musical tastes had a profound influence on my own — he cut his teeth on AC/DC at 12, and I followed suit at the same age; he discovered the Ramones at 14, and I attended my first Ramones show at 16. It would have been hard for them not to. Except for a brief stint playing alto sax in junior band, my brother was never a musician. But that certainly didn’t stop him from devoting his life to music.

While he came to embrace all kinds of bands and performers — from fellow Montreal native Leonard Cohen to the Pogues and Tom Waits — punk rock remained his one enduring passion. He even gave his son, Jaxon, the middle name Joey, a tribute to his earliest and greatest punk influence, Joey Ramone.

Somehow my brother managed to embody the anarchic enthusiasm and ear-splitting debauchery of his favorite musical style just by being himself. When he wasn’t attending live shows (favorite local bands included Teenage Harlets and Fracas), listening to his beloved vinyl collection, deejaying under his nom de guerre “Brain Dead Dave,” or promoting local bands in landmark dives like the Knockout, he provided his own soundtrack of fuzzed-out feedback from his seemingly perpetually flapping gums. Just like punk rock, he could be difficult for some people to take, yet he always made an impression. Let’s just say he was a force of nature.

When David told me he was opening his own record store a little less than a decade ago, I balked. All that overhead seemed like a recipe for financial disaster, and he was already doing well enough selling vinyl online. No doubt, the store was something of a money pit, but from the moment I first saw it, I understood: this was to be a place of and for community. These days, when even big box music stores are closing their doors, it seems like a small miracle that Force of Habit was able to stay open as long as it did; it’s a testament to the passion and commitment of my brother and the tight knit band of local vinyl buffs.

Force of Habit opened quite possibly for the very last time on July 11 so that community could say goodbye to the store and its colorful, unforgettable owner. The turnout was fantastic, with the party raging into the wee hours. One of David’s musical heroes, Jello Biafra, even showed up, finally leaving (after trying to weasel some free records) with a colossal stack of vinyl at closing. While friends of my brother have expressed interest in reopening the store, for the foreseeable future this punk rock community center remains shuttered.

My brother and I were one and the same in many ways. We could both be described as stubborn and combative. While I’ve devoted my life to studying and writing about movies, my brother lived music. We were both professional fans, so to speak. We butted heads constantly, but I’ll never love anyone more. I don’t really know how to adequately say goodbye, so I’ll leave my parting words to someone who helped shaped David’s life profoundly, and who was also gone too soon:

“Hangin’ out all by myself/I don’t wanna be with anybody else/I just want to be with you/I just wanna have somethin’ to do/Tonight/Tonight/Tonight.”

I couldn’t have said it better than Joey Ramone. Rest in peace, brother.

In spite of himself



FILM Apparently Steve Coogan in no way cares if you think he’s an asshole. Fitting, then, that he has perfected an onscreen persona as vain and insecure as it is vapid and self-indulgent. Playing a fictionalized version of oneself has always been a tricky proposition, but Coogan has taken the gambit of self-portrayal-as-schmuck to the level of masochistic brilliance (Larry David, take note). Why would someone this purportedly insecure want to expose himself for the insecure mess that he is? Who cares? In The Trip, comedy as self-flagellation goes down with the ease of an expertly mixed cocktail at a Michelin-starred eatery.

Eclectic British director Michael Winterbottom, who previously worked with British actor Coogan in 2005’s Brechtian Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story and the 2002 cult fave 24 Hour Party People, humiliates Coogan (2008’s Tropic Thunder) on all number of levels in this largely improvised comic romp through England’s Lake District. Well, romp might be the wrong descriptive. Dubbed a “foodie Sideways” but more plaintive and less formulaic than that sun-dappled California affair, this TV-to-film adaptation displays a characteristic English glumness to surprisingly keen emotional effect.

Ironically, the “real” Coogan’s persona is rooted in a fictional character. Alan Partridge, the sniveling talk show host Coogan has embodied in all his vile glory for nearly two decades, has come to virtually define him not only as an actor but also, perversely, as a man. Partridge’s penchant for clueless assholery has reached legendary proportions in the United Kingdom, and the Coogan-is-Partridge attitude is clearly widespread. “Is it true what they say about you?” a young man asks before holding up a copy of the Daily Mail with the screaming headline “Coogan is a Cunt.” Yes, it’s part of the actor’s dream sequence, but it nicely folds his rampant insecurity together with the affirmation that (as seen in The Trip, anyway) he is indeed pretty much just that.

Coogan displays all the characteristically carefree joie de vivre of a colonoscopy patient with hemorrhoids as he sloshes through the gray northern landscape trying to get cell reception in between dining on haute cuisine and being wracked with self-doubt over his stalled movie career. His happily married, happy-go-lucky frenemy, comic actor Rob Brydon (his Tristram Shandy costar, also playing himself here), is subjected to constant denigration during their travels but takes it all in stride. “I’d love to quote your work back at you, but I don’t know any of it,” Coogan jabs after Brydon does a spot-on Partridge. A particular highlight is the much-vaunted scene featuring the pair’s dueling Michael Caine impressions.

While Coogan can’t help but come off like a pathetic middle-aged prick in a puffy coat, somehow his confused narcissism is our perverse panacea. Also be sure to enjoy the snot martinis and scallops, as well as Brydon’s gleeful “small man in a box” routine. Just don’t be put off by the schadenfreude. Coogan insists.

THE TRIP opens Fri/17 in Bay Area theaters.


SFIFF bonus blurb: British comedy “The Trip”


Eclectic British director Michael Winterbottom (2002’s 24 Hour Party People) rebounds from sexually humiliating Jessica Alba in last year’s flop The Killer Inside Me to humiliating Steve Coogan in all number of ways (this time to positive effect) in this largely improvised comic romp through England’s Lake District. Well, romp might be the wrong descriptive — dubbed a “foodie Sideways” but more plaintive and less formulaic than that sun-dappled California affair, this TV-to-film adaptation displays a characteristic English glumness to surprisingly keen emotional effect. Playing himself, Coogan displays all the carefree joie de vivre of a colonoscopy patient with hemorrhoids as he sloshes through the gray northern landscape trying to get cell reception when not dining on haute cuisine or being wracked with self-doubt over his stalled movie career and love life.


Throw in a happily married, happy-go-lucky frenemy (comic actor Rob Brydon) and Coogan (2008’s Tropic Thunder, TV’s I’m Alan Partridge), can’t help but seem like a pathetic middle-aged prick in a puffy coat. Somehow, though, his confused narcissism is a perverse panacea. Come for the dueling Michael Caine impressions (“She was only 16 years old!”) and snot martinis, stay for the scallops and Brydon’s “small man in a box” routine.

The Trip

May 2, 4 p.m.; May 5, 6:45 p.m.

Sundance Kabuki

1881 Post, SF


Babes in bondage



YEAR IN FILM ‘Tis the season to dismantle. For us film critic types, that means picking over the past year’s movie offerings with the ill-advised intensity of Natalie Portman working a hangnail in Black Swan. (That scene was so gross, yes?)

Speaking of sadomasochistic tendency (and La Portman), 2010 saw an intriguing mini-trend in psychological horror, most exemplified by a trio of films: Vincenzo Natali’s riotous sci-fi cheesefest Splice, Mark Romanek’s austerely devastating Never Let Me Go, and Darren Aronofsky’s aforementioned phenom Black Swan. Superficially, these movies couldn’t be more different. Splice is an homage to B exploitation and Cronenbergian body horror; Never Let Me Go is a pedigreed adaptation of a dead-serious study of emotional subtlety and Black Swan is a grandiose, visually exhilarating spectacle, not to mention one of the weirdest films ever to likely get an Oscar nod.

Dig a little deeper (perhaps with Winona Ryder’s Black Swan nail file?) and some surprisingly similar themes, motifs, and motivations become clear. This new breed of female-centered “body horror” challenges certain well-worn horror tropes, whether intentionally or not, along with the subject-object relationship of women in movies in general. And while female body horror is certainly nothing new (vaginas with teeth, anyone?) these movies do offer a refreshing new spin.

Genetic clones, genetic hybrids, and guano-crazy ballerinas, the female characters in these films exemplify the idea of the “other” superficially, but also collapse the traditional idea the “monstrous feminine.” Even if we aren’t meant to identify with them in totality, their terror is still our terror, not some janky Freudian nightmare of their otherness and our supposed repulsion to it. This kind of female subject-object horror revisionism has been seen before — Georges Franju’s 1960 French quasi-surrealist masterpiece Eyes Without a Face and the raucous little Canadian cult indie Ginger Snaps (2000) come to mind — but it hasn’t punctured mainstream Hollywood film in quite this way before.

All three movies work off the principle relationship of the matriarch and her offspring: Elsa (Sarah Polley) and Dren (Delphine Chaneac) in Splice; Nina (Natalie Portman) and her mother (Barbara Hershey, her plastic surgery–pummeled visage unintentionally representing the concept of “face horror”) in Black Swan; and Miss Emily (Charlotte Rampling) and later Madame (Nathalie Richard) and Kathy (Carey Mulligan) in Never Let Me Go.

Black Swan goes so far as to encourage a curiously gender-flipped Oedipal reading of Nina’s relationship with her (s)mother, who feverishly paints portraits of her daughter while Nina slaves away at ballet practice. Indeed, the movie’s true WTF moment comes when, at the behest of her tyrannical director Thomas (Vincent Cassel), Nina masturbates, almost violently so, until she realizes that her mother is watching her from the bedroom corner.

From her raw, toe-shoe ravaged feet to her undernourished frame to the intermittent appearances of blood oozing from imaginary sores, Nina experiences physical and psychological disturbances that lead to an eventual complete breakdown and physical metamorphosis in the classic body horror tradition. “I wanna be perfect,” she laments. That desire for perfection ultimately manifests itself in the masochistic self-infliction of physical pain to achieve transcendence. It’s a subject Aronofsky mined to great effect in his last film, 2008’s The Wrestler.

Psychological and physical metamorphoses are rampant in the movie, characterized by Nina’s overly precious pink butterfly wallpaper and Thomas’ uber-masculine Rorschach blotter–inspired living room. In a motif most reminiscent of David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986), Nina begins to see nonhuman physical transformations in the form of scratches that elicit bristle-like feathers on her back, much in the same way The Fly‘s Seth Brundle grew coarse insect hairs as he slowly morphs into “Brundlefly.” Nina finally asserts her sexual independence by absorbing her “black swan” by way of sexually demonstrative doppelganger, Lily (Mila Kunis). In the process, she becomes something all-powerful and completely unknowable, achieving total perfection. She also ceases to be human.

Transcending the entrapment of biology plays a major role in Splice and Never Let Me Go as well. In Splice, Dren’s jacked-up DNA is a source of fear and revulsion to Elsa’s husband and coresearcher, Clive (Adrien Brody), and she is held captive while they study her in their pursuit of greater scientific truth. But her creator-mother can’t help but delight in her otherness, which mirrors her own in some perverse way. She even insists that Dren, who resembles something akin to a beautiful chicken-alien-minotaur, is “perfectly formed.” The moment Dren reveals her magnificent wings for the first time (wings she didn’t even know she possessed) recalls Nina’s crazed transformation in Black Swan. Both characters eventually embrace their outsider status, although it’s hard to say if it really works out for either of them. (Baby steps.)

Officially, Never Let Me Go isn’t really a horror film, but more of a Merchant Ivory–style sci-fi. In addition to being an exercise in stylistic restraint and melancholy, Romanek’s film is an affecting, straight-faced mediation on life and loss. But its core conceit can easily be read as a story of body horror as well. Kathy, the pretty, waifish clone-girl at the center of the narrative, grows up at a genteel English boarding school called Hailsham, a place she finds as warm and nurturing as the womb. But it’s also a place from which there is no escape. By virtue of her very birth, Kathy is bound by a grisly obligation, metaphorically and literally: eventually her body will be dismantled bit by bit, her organs redistributed, so that in her death (or “completion,” as its dubbed in a kind of gentle Newspeak) “real” people may live. But her body’s eventual betrayal is not Kathy’s ultimate source of horror. Her true other-ness isn’t represented by physicality, but by spirituality: like all her fellow clones, she must question the very idea that she is human, what it means to be human, and whether or not she even possesses that supposed essential blueprint, a soul. The audience shares Kathy’s existential horror at that most inner fear. Eventually, though, it’s virtually impossible to not acknowledge what makes Kathy, like Nina and even Dren, so potently human. Their humanity, of course, is in their very imperfection. Nobody’s perfect, except for maybe that little spitfire Natalie Portman. At this point, I think it’s safe to say she’s at least better than the rest of us.

Franco’s reign


FILM Contrary to popular belief, James Franco is not always high; he is just very, very tired. When the near-ubiquitous actor-writer-director-visual artist-scholar-astronaut-Japanese body pillow enthusiast — who recently came out to the Advocate (as straight) — was in town for the Howl premiere at the Castro Theatre last June, he looked suitably exhausted and bedraggled — in an impish, adorable way, mind you.

Franco, who also recently (and somewhat inexplicably) admitted to compulsively masturbating four to five times a day, suffered from perpetual bouts of yawn-talking during his interview with the Guardian. He was a half-hour late due to a professed need for some “alone time.” Draw your own conclusions.

Taking on the outsized persona of poet-provocateur Allen Ginsberg in Howl is yet another item to tick off on his list of improbable accomplishments, which range from studying for simultaneous graduate degrees to starring on the venerable daytime soap opera General Hospital (as the mysterious, um, “Franco”) in between movie gigs and solo art shows.

And an accomplishment it most definitely is. It’s almost inconceivable that the same actor who initially gained acclaim for his uncanny portrayal of James Dean could also perfect the role of another great midcentury icon, the formidable bear-guru of all things counterculture, less than a decade later.

“I guess I thought if I ever played one of the Beats, it would never be Allen Ginsberg,” he admits, a fact that ironically drew him to the role. “It was actually more attractive to play Ginsberg rather than Neal Cassady or Jack Kerouac, who were closer to a James Dean type.” Fortunately for the slight, almost delicate Franco, this wasn’t the Ginsberg that most of us have come to know. “It’s Ginsberg to an age right before he became heavier and bearded and bald, the recognizable Ginsberg,” he explains.

Franco’s passion for the Beats goes back to his rebellious teen years, when he and his friends took regular trips from his Palo Alto home to City Lights bookstore in North Beach. “Everybody loved Kerouac, Burroughs’ Junky, or whatever. But Ginsberg — he was in touch with all the movements that came after the Beat movement, so he always stayed current. Now Ginsberg is probably my favorite.” Surprisingly, a major source of Franco’s inspiration for the role was his older brother, Tom, a sculptor who is “very into meditation.”

Besides an affinity for the darkly offbeat, the late Ginsberg and his onscreen doppelganger might have something else in common: a dangerous flirtation with overexposure. So far, at least, it hasn’t hurt Franco, who still allows himself plenty of me-time to reflect on a brilliant, if overextended, career in his own (very personal) way.

HOWL opens Fri/24 in Bay Area theaters.

Sonny dearest


FILM It’s tempting to label Mark and Jay Duplass’ Cyrus as “mumblecore goes mainstream.” Yes, the mumblecore elements are all there: plentiful moments of awkward humiliation, characters fumbling verbally and sometimes physically in desperate attempts to establish emotional connections, and a meandering, character-driven plot, in the sense that the characters themselves possess precious little drive.

The addition of bona fide indie movie stars John C. Reilly, Catherine Keener, and Marisa Tomei — not to mention Hollywood’s chubby-funny guy du jour, Jonah Hill — could lead some to believe that the DIY-loving Duplass brothers (2005’s The Puffy Chair, 2008’s Baghead) have gone from slacker disciples of John Cassavetes (informally known as “Slackavetes”) to worshippers at the slickly profane (with a heart) altar of Judd Apatow.

But despite the presence of Apatow protégé Hill (2007’s Superbad) in the title role, Cyrus steers clear of crowd-pleasing bombast, instead favoring small, relatively naturalistic moments. That is to say, not much actually happens. Mumblecore? More or less. Mainstream? Not exactly.

On the surface, Hill’s character in particular has the ring of an outrageous Hollywood comedic foil, the kind of outsized and broadly drawn (in every sense) clown who ratchets up the action by assaulting the movie’s loser hero, John (Reilly, in lost puppy dog mode) with endless, over-the-top Machiavellian schemes.

Cyrus — a disingenuous 21-year-old schlub who still lives with his mother (Tomei) and engages in creepy, inappropriate activities with her, like wrestling in the park — is actually more sad mouse than psychotic lion. The most heinous crime he ever perpetrates on fellow schlub John — this one painfully sincere, competing for his mother’s affections — is stealing his shoes.

“Molly and I are really best friends,” he tells John, before giving him a steely-eyed stare-down while serenading him on the synthesizer, in one the few moments between Cyrus and John that’s both funny and tension-filled.

Despite playing a character with some serious psychological issues, Hill comes off as likeable. Unfortunately the movie is neither as broadly comic nor as emotionally poignant as it needs to be — the two opposing forces seem to cancel each other out like acids and bases.

Strongly evocative of 1970s new American filmmaking, Cyrus‘ naturalism mixed with absurdity brings to mind great ’70s auteurs like Hal Ashby or even Robert Altman. Even the set and wardrobe (particularly the winsome Tomei’s poodle curls, heavy mascara, and hippie caftans) nostalgically evoke the era. But the Duplass brothers have neither the chops nor the strong point of view of world-class filmmakers. Those great earlier films were shambling and disjointed, yes, but they did ultimately have a destination. Cyrus is content to just spend the day in the park, engaging in some Oedipal wrestling.

CYRUS opens Fri/25 in San Francisco theaters.

In the cut



FILM "If we don’t use human DNA now, someone else will," declares Elsa (Sarah Polley), the brash young genetic scientist bent on defying the orders of her benign corporate benefactors in Vincenzo Natali’s pseudo-cautionary hybrid love child, Splice. From that moment on, it’s pretty clear that any ethical conundrums the movie raises aren’t really worthy of debate: what Elsa wants to do in the name of scientific progress — splice human DNA into gooey muscle masses to provide said corporation with proteins for gene therapy — is, you know, deranged.

A hipster Dr. Frankenstein with mommy issues, Elsa bucks both corporate policy and sound moral judgment and does it anyway, much to the horror of her husband and fellow hotshot research scientist, Clive (Adrien Brody). (His name is a sideways reference to Mary Shelley’s titular mad scientist, played by Colin Clive in 1931’s Frankenstein; hers recalls 1935’s notoriously electro-coiffed Bride of Frankenstein, Elsa Lanchester.) But the potential scientific discoveries prove too seductive even for Clive, who reluctantly plays Elsa’s sad-eyed Igor. After all, these are the type of science weirdos who can gaze upon genetically engineered mounds of unarticulated, writhing flesh and coo, "She’s perfectly formed!" Um, yeaahh.

Elsa’s genetic tinkering soon results in the dramatic birth of something akin to a homicidal fetal chick crossed with a skinned bunny. Clive is horrified by this affront to nature and suggests killing it, but Elsa wants to study its life cycle for posterity. It grows at an alarming rate, and when human characteristics become apparent, Elsa clings to it with the instinctual vigor of a tigress protecting her cub. She gives her female laboratory spawn the name "Dren" ("Nerd" backward, after the acronym for their research facility) and outfits her in oddly anachronistic Holly Hobbie-style dresses. Clive remains largely unconvinced. "None of her animal components have predatory characteristics," Elsa assures him. "Well, there is the human element," he quips.

In a matter of days, Dren develops from a shy child into a precocious teen (French newcomer Delphine Chanéac) with a typically adolescent itch to rebel. The mute, atavistic Dren is like a gorgeous autistic Minotaur, bounding around on incredibly powerful gazelle-like legs while clinging to her stuffed teddy bears and batting her doe eyes in wonder, existential confusion, and (soon enough) quizzical animal lust.

When Elsa and Clive are forced to hide Dren at Elsa’s abandoned family farmhouse to escape detection from prying corporate eyes, Splice evolves into another kind of hybrid: a genetically engineered Scenes from a Marriage (1973) crossed with the DNA of The Omen (1976) and grafted onto the most very special My So-Called Life episode ever. Eventually the movie gets downright lascivious — a particularly cringe-inducing plot twist comes to mind — but a few small moments toy with the transcendent, like Dren’s discovery of her wings on a snow-laden rooftop. Both Brody and Polley seem to be gamely slumming, and their casting does add an aura of respectability to the proceedings. But make no mistake. Splice‘s genetic imprint is pure genre-pulp sleaze and cheese.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Splice may be a ludicrous, cut-rate exercise in Brood-era David Cronenberg — Natali has clearly orchestrated an homage to his fellow Canadian’s enduring obsession with body horror — but it’s a damned entertaining one. It’s also a curious entry considering Natali’s earlier efforts, notably 1997’s relatively austere exercise in Kubrickian Big Think sci-fi nuance, Cube. The only Kubrick evidenced in Splice comes in the form of Clive’s large collection of vinyl hipster toys.

Perhaps this about-face fits somewhere comfortably between Cube and Natali’s rumored next project: a remake of Wes Craven’s Swamp Thing (1982). Splice in some Craven and pretty soon Natali’s DNA will be such a bouillabaisse of sci-fi horror tropes he’ll give his Frankenstein-aping heroine Elsa a run for her money.

SPLICE opens Fri/4 in Bay Area theaters.

The Dobler Effect


YEAR IN FILM If 2008 was the year of the bromance, 2009 likely sounded its death knell. (The title alone of the March release I Love You, Man proves the genre blip has said everything it possibly could.) This can only mean one thing: confused hetero men-children have returned to their first loves, idealized pretty-girl ciphers who fulfill their wanton need to worship and be “understood.” This year in particular has seen a resurgence of those impossibly sensitive, crush-worthy romantic misfits. Sadly, as in the past, they usually spurn flesh-and-blood females for unattainable pseudo-goddesses.

Call it the Dobler effect, in honor of every indie girl’s sigh-inducing Valentino, Lloyd Dobler. The raw heart of Cameron Crowe’s gushy-earnest 1989 romantic dramedy, Say Anything, Lloyd (John Cusack) falls for Diane Court (Ione Skye), a brainy, humorless beauty who eventually succumbs to his potent weirdo charms. But Lloyd puts Diane on a pedestal so high it’s a wonder she can even hear his proclamations of undying devotion. For me at least, Say Anything has always posed a conundrum: if the awkward, goofball guys are all going for the gorgeous ice princesses (and getting them), who’s left for all of us — I mean, those — awkward, goofball gals?

At least Crowe made Diane a complex character in her own right, unlike Mark Webb’s creation of Summer in his clever yet ultimately trite breakout hit, (500) Days of Summer. Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), his lovelorn protagonist, embarks on a love affair with Summer (Zooey Deschanel), a free-spirited, haughty, and (according to omniscient voice-over) spellbindingly hot woman who tears out Tom’s heart like so much ribbon from the mixtape of a hated ex.

While Tom decides his idealization of Summer is the product of insidious pop romanticism, that’s not entirely the case: Summer herself is its product. She simply transforms from the personification of Tom’s need to be needed to that of his need to be free of that need. (Did I mention Tom is pretty needy?) A disingenuous apparition, she’s as workshopped as any of the insipid, sentimental slogans Tom conjures at his day job for a greeting card company. Perhaps that’s the point, but it doesn’t make her, or rather the idea of her, any more palatable.

The movie may be emblematic of the Dobler effect, but 2009 did offer some light at the end of this tunnel of one-sided love. Released early in the year and largely overlooked, James Gray’s romantic drama Two Lovers offers a stinging rebuke of the Pedestal Girl in a way (500) Days of Summer only pretends to. But in terms of romantic trope blow-ups, Charlyne Yi in Paper Heart outdoes them all. A quasi-documentary love story, the film’s meta-conceit might be wobbly, but that doesn’t make its message any less refreshing. Yes, the weirdo goofball finally gets her man. It seems in 2009, we can finally chalk one up for all the real girls.

21st Century ‘Fox’


FILM A lot of people have been busting filmmaker Wes Anderson’s proverbial chops lately, lambasting him for recent cinematic self-indulgences hewing dangerously close to self-parody (and in the case of 2007’s Darjeeling Limited, I’m one of them). Maybe he’s been listening. Either way, his new animated film, Fantastic Mr. Fox, should keep the naysayer wolves at bay for a while — it’s nothing short of a rollicking, deadpan-hilarious case study in artistic renewal.

While the movie’s gorgeous autumnal color palette of saffron, ginger, cinnamon, and pomegranate recalls the Indian location of Darjeeling, Fox explodes that film’s stagnant complacency. A kind of man-imal inversion of Anderson’s other heist movie, his debut feature Bottle Rocket (1996), his latest revels in ramshackle spontaneity and childlike charm without sacrificing his adult preoccupations.

Sporting a double-breasted corduroy suit and velour pullover, Mr. Fox (George Clooney in full suave mode) is the essence of the old duality of man-fox conundrum. The ultimate impish rogue, what he might lack in competence, he makes up for in self-assured, foxlike élan. But Mr. Fox’s true animal nature has been compromised by domesticity. Forced to give up his chicken-stealing and killing ways by his wife (a subtly sly Meryl Streep), he’s also stymied by his only son (Jason Schwartzman), an attention-starved, Max Fischer-esque oddball with a penchant for sporting a towel as a cape.

Based on Roald Dahl’s beloved 1970 book, Fantastic Mr. Fox captures the essence of the source material but is still full of Anderson trademarks: meticulously staged mise en scène, bisected dollhouse-like sets, eccentric dysfunctional families coming to grips with their talent and success (or lack thereof).

And then there’s that pesky, romantic death obsession. Sure the animals are cute, but at times the stop-motion animation lends them a singularly creepy subtext. Fur routinely flits around in scattershot directions, seemingly independent of body movement. The effect weirdly evokes those time-lapse shots of animals in rapid decay.

As Mr. Fox himself points out, these are "wild animals with true natures and pure talents" — talents that often involve killing one another. After a fatal showdown with a malevolent rat (Willem Dafoe), Fox waxes philosophic. "In the end, he’s just another dead rat in a garbage pail behind a Chinese restaurant," he intones. It’s possibly the most contextually stupefying, hilarious moment in a film teeming with them.

When Mr. Fox finally embraces his essential foxiness once again, ultimately succeeding in gaming the system (more or less), it feels like a victory for Anderson as well. After all, he’s concocted a family film as slyly subversive as its titular character, and done so on his own terms. Let’s hope it’s in his nature to make more movies like this one.

FANTASTIC MR. FOX opens Wed/25 in Bay Area theaters.

Running with the night


FILM NOIR FEST The Columbia trademark: a literal goddess swathed in virginal white robes, she serenely holds aloft a torch à la the Statue of Liberty. What say we gussy her up in black satin and replace that blazing torch with a hot little .45? It seems apropos, considering the Roxie Theater is hosting a "Best of Columbia Noir" retrospective. But does the program manage to eclipse all that angelic light? Yes and no. While there is plenty of nefarious activity on display, a weirdly frequent moralizing often fails to capture the noir spirit.

Take Knock on Any Door (1949). A social justice–courtroom drama steeped in moral outrage, it has the gall to cast Humphrey Bogart not as rogue private dick but as upstanding defense attorney. As directed by Nicholas Ray, Door is a prestige picture flirting with humanity’s underbelly, eventually offering a mea culpa to wash itself clean.

Even "B" movie bona fides like The Whistler (1944) can’t help suffer a little moral affront. Its titular character operates in Rod Serling mode: part superego, part harbinger of doom. Robert Rossen’s Johnny O’Clock (1947) offers all the traditional noir elements, but dang if its criminal antihero (Dick Powell) doesn’t get redeemed by true love. When the SF-set The Lineup (1958) focuses on a pair of drug henchmen, it’s a fascinating character study; when it follows forthright SFPD detectives, it’s Dragnet.

Speaking of lineups, there’s a curious dearth of femmes fatales in this one. Even Sam Fuller, the king of exploitation with a social conscience, fails to deliver one in his otherwise crackerjack Crimson Kimono (1959), a gritty exploration of race relations in midcentury Los Angeles. Anita Ekberg camps it up in the uproarious, Freudian cheesecake-fest Screaming Mimi (1958), but her femme fatale status is seriously undermined by a lack of personal responsibility — she’s like a buxom Barbara Stanwyck with a frontal lobotomy.

Thank the dark lord for the grotesquely atmospheric and oddball Soul of a Monster (1944). It won’t be giving much away to reveal that the movie takes the femme fatale concept to its logical end. Never mind the film’s coda about faith and redemption, the sight of the devil marching resolutely through dark streets, downing power lines in her wake, obliterates all that corn. We can finally chalk one up for the bad girls.


Sept. 17–30, $5–$9.75

Roxie Theater, 3117 16th St., SF

(415) 863-1087, www.roxie.com

Mad women


TV DAMES I’m sure you’ve heard: the critically lauded Mad Men‘s characterizations are subtle and layered. Its insights into contemporary society, as viewed through the prism of 1960s-era domestic and professional life, are at once nuanced and precisely rendered. Its dialogue is rich in subtext and dramatic allusion. In short, it’s, you know, deep.

But, also, the outfits really rock. And so do the fabulously messed-up women who wear them. Take vixen head-secretary Joan Holloway, as portrayed by flame-haired siren Christina Hendricks. While Joan — a sex kitten who’s all business — bumps her sculptural up-do on the proverbial glass ceiling, the men in the Manhattan offices of the Sterling Cooper advertising agency ogle her "valentine’s heart" rear end. Joanie lives for the attention. Brimming with confidence, smarts, and curvaceous sass, this formidable gal wields her sexuality like a fleshy weapon; 40 years in the future, she could have toppled corrupt government administrations without smearing her lipstick. Instead, she makes the coffee, taunts Serious Career Girl Peggy (Elizabeth Moss) about her weight, and brushes off getting raped by her fiancé in the boss’s office with a terse, ladylike smile. Let’s hope in 1963 her color-coordinated pumps trip over a copy of The Feminine Mystique.

If working city-girl Joan is the show’s sugar-voiced femme fatale, then Betty Draper (lead ad exec Don Draper’s icy, model-perfect wife) is its luridly soapy secret weapon. A young Grace Kelly type trapped in the suburban wastelands of upstate New York, Betty (January Jones) is equally as confused — and formidable — as her urban sex goddess counterpart. It’s hard to believe, for instance, that the Princess of Monaco would slap a neighbor in a grocery store after being accused of an inappropriate relationship with a 12-year-old boy. Or reprimand her cheating husband for his choice of mistress ("How could you, Don? She’s so old.")

Betty’s uptight, provincial-princess façade is also the source for some martini-dry comedy. When a foppish younger man tries to seduce her, she sets him straight. "You’re so deeply sad," he coos. "No, I’m happy," she replies. "It’s just my people are Nordic." Joan stretched out luxuriously on a streamlined chartreuse sofa in a purple shift dress might represent the apex of the show’s downtown aesthetic, but Betty’s delicate upstate hausfrau is its hypocritical, bourgeois soul. When the new season premieres Aug. 16, I’ll be glued to the flat-screen with highball glass in hand, enjoying all the scandals ’60s-era Manhattan and Westchester County have to offer. Like Don Draper, I feel no need to have to choose just one woman, especially when they all offer such distinct, guilty-pleasure charms.


Trip at the ‘Brain’


CULT HORROR "I am a genre terrorist," legendary Italian "B" filmmaker Lucio Fulci professes in an interview on the freshly released two-disc edition of his 1990 film Cat in the Brain (Grindhouse). "I perform my commercial deflagration, then I get bored and move on." Likely aware of his more successful compatriot Dario Argento’s moniker, the "Italian Hitchcock," perhaps the late Fulci fancied himself as a sort of Italian Howard Hawks with mild frontal lobe damage: whimsically genre-tripping (comedies in the ’50s, westerns in the ’60s, thrillers in the ’70s) while mastering and exploding conventions. But this would be something of a fanciful delusion. Fulci’s mid-career adoption of giallo, the "spaghetti horror" he helped pioneer and perfect, trapped him in an almost literal genre hell of his own making. With the success of the breakout Zombie (1979), blood-and-gore-thirsty fanboys cried out for more, and Fulci, eager for the commercial success that mostly had eluded him to that point, demurred.

It’s fitting then, that the hallucinatory Cat in the Brain would star Fulci as himself, a director tortured to the point of madness by brutal, graphic visions of his past and current productions: limbs hacked off with chainsaws, numerous decapitations, heads cooking in microwave ovens, and generally just a lot of gorings, stabbings, slicings, slittings, flayings, and disembowelings. When a psychiatrist suggests he is suffering from an identity crisis due to work stress, Fulci objects, "If I made films about love no one would buy a ticket."

But don’t assume Cat in the Brain is Fulci’s attempt to drive the final nail in giallo‘s coffin, much as Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (2007) tried (and failed) to do to its 21st-century offspring, torture porn. It’s certainly bad enough to do so: Fulci’s acting is painfully garish, the edit (featuring footage cobbled from his past films) is out to lunch, and the atypically pedestrian score is worthy of the worst MacGyver episode. But much of Cat‘s perverse charm, like much of giallo, comes from its chainsaw-rough edges. Fulci’s meta conceit may be more Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (a 1994 release he derided as a rip-off) than 8 1/2 (1963), but it’s still satisfying. In the end he has perpetrated a cinematic rope-a-dope, a "statement of innocence in the form of a joke," as his journalist daughter writes in the DVD’s liner notes. The maestro of splatter held an abiding affection for the genre after all, despite his alter ego’s haunted visions. Fulci’s messy violence and gore might not have always been in the best of taste, but for the man himself, they set the stage for an awful lot of good, clean fun.



Easily capturing the paradoxical essence of the world’s largest megalopolis seems about as likely as a phalanx of harajuku girls uniformed in Little Bo Peep costumes successfully scaling Mount Fuji. Now imagine that Bo Peep army solely consists of two Frenchmen and a Korean, and you have a sense of the heady task undertaken by the filmmakers of Tokyo!, a French production comprising a fantastical triptych of stories about the celebrated city from writer-directors Michel Gondry, Leos Carax, and Bong Joon-ho.

The first, Gondry’s Interior Design tells the intimate fable of Hiroko and Akira, a spirited young Japanese couple who relocate to the big city and become confounded by its mix of vast possibility and soul-crushing suffocation. The aimless Hiroko eventually succumbs to a fate that curiously mixes urban alienation, cultural traditions of utilitarian uniformity, and the whimsical surrealism of an old-fashioned folktale. The result is a sweetly touching, delicately composed encapsulation of old- and new-guard Japanese culture.

Carax’s Merde stars Denis Levant (1991’s Lovers on the Bridge) as a homicidal sewer dweller — part evil clown, part C.H.U.D. — who wreaks havoc on Tokyo out of an avowed hatred for the Japanese. A half-cocked homage to Godzilla, the titular Merde (yes, that’s French for "shit") represents a cartoonish outsider’s view of Tokyo and its denizens. Is it a sly attack on cultural isolationism or just myopic, er, horse merde? Either way it’s painful to watch.

After that unfortunate palate cleanser, Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-Ho (2006’s The Host) channels Michelangelo Antonioni by way of Haruki Murakami in Shaking Tokyo, an atmospheric tale of a shut-in (or hikikomori) who is literally jolted out of his hermetic existence by a strong earthquake and a comely pizza delivery girl with an unusual set of instructional tattoos. Bong’s story effectively conveys the internal turmoil caused by modern disaffection and fear (here, Tokyo itself is the monster), but it would have been nice to see a story that explores the city’s teeming life in all its richness, vigor, and eccentricity instead of envisioning what it would be like without it. Seriously, where’s a harajuku girl when you need one?

TOKYO! opens Fri/20 in Bay Area theaters.

You go, I go, we all go for Viggo


A painter, poet, jazz musician, and political activist, Viggo Mortensen is a mass of complicated, sometimes conflicting energies and interests. He’s as macho and swarthy as they come, but with a contemplative thirst for truth. He’s shy, but a bit of a motormouth (and can run on in at least six different languages). Mortensen is a matinee idol with a philosopher’s soul — Jean-Jacques Rousseau trapped in the body of Rudolph Valentino.

When I interviewed him last month during his stop in San Francisco to promote the David Cronenberg–directed thriller Eastern Promises, it became clear that the strong-yet-delicate thing isn’t just a clever shtick. Looking tan and lean and sporting an impressive ‘stache, he was soft-spoken and friendly. It didn’t hurt that he came bearing gifts — before I even sat down, he placed a shrink-wrapped copy of Exene Cervenka’s book of collage, 666, on the table in front of me. (Mortensen’s boutique company, Perceval Press, publishes the book by the artist and X frontwoman, who is not so coincidentally his ex-wife and the mother of his teenage son, Henry.)

What sometimes gets lost in the Viggo-induced swoon is that the man is a fine actor. Mortensen is often the best thing in his movies, though in the past that sometimes wasn’t saying much. After delivering what should have been a star-making performance in Sean Penn’s 1991 directorial debut, The Indian Runner, he languished in B-movie hell (American Yakuza) and dud big-budget productions (Boiling Point, Daylight). Peter Jackson might have given him the exposure he was due in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but it took a weirdo genre director eager to flex more commercial muscles to give him the roles he was born to play: sensitive, soul-searching, primordial beasts.

In Eastern Promises, his latest collaboration with said weirdo director, Mortensen plays Nikolai Luzhin, a driver and all-around henchman for the notorious Russian organized crime syndicate Vory v Zakone. During its making, Mortensen helped literally and figuratively to flesh out the idea for what became a major thematic refrain — the detailed prison tattoo work found all over Nikolai’s body. "[Tattoos were] mentioned in the original script in passing," he noted. "But like everything else, I wanted to know what that meant. A friend of mine, Alix Lambert, made a great documentary called The Mark of Cain, where she went into maximum-security prisons in Russia and learned about Russians and Ukrainians and Georgians — men and women — who have identified themselves with these symbols. I learned, among other things, that symbols and text — religious or other — that seem to mean one thing on the surface actually mean something quite different. It’s a CV, a résumé, that they have on their bodies."

Mortensen studied Russian for the role and traveled to the country for research. "I checked with people who had backgrounds not dissimilar to the character I was playing. Once they realized I wasn’t trying to mock them or wasn’t going to do yet another clichéd Russian or be critical of them — I was just trying to get it right — then they were very helpful. So the tattoos were correct."

Mortensen acknowledges that his comfort level with Cronenberg has freed him to do things he might normally be hesitant to do — for instance, fend off an attack from two mobsters in a bathhouse while wearing nothing but the aforementioned tattoos. He has done full-frontal nudity before, in The Indian Runner, but never in such a physically demanding, exposed fashion. In an intricately choreographed scene destined to be one of the most talked about of the year, Mortensen brutally yet balletically propels his body through the frame in mostly long shots. Like the climactic (ahem) sex scene in A History of Violence, this is Eastern Promises‘ defining physical act, a turning point that irrevocably alters the emotional predicament of its central character. And it’s a doozy.

"We talked about it long before shooting and as we were working out the choreography," Mortensen said. "And I said, you should just shoot it like you do the rest of the movie — for real. It shouldn’t be limited. You shouldn’t have to try to make the body look glamorous or avoid seeing the whole body as much as possible. Forget about the fact that people are going to do screen grabs. It’s just the way it is." (Michelle Devereaux)

The Muppets take San Francisco


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Be warned: the following is in no way a professional, measured critique of the career and oeuvre of one Jim Henson, master puppeteer, kiddie empire creator, and upcoming Yerba Buena Center for the Arts retrospective honoree. Oh, no. Below are the semicoherent ravings of a Muppet-philiac Henson fangirl. One whose first experience of the legitimate thea-tah was not The Pirates of Penzance but "Pigs in Space." One whose initial exposure to the ways of l’amour involved a pig and a frog getting it on after extensive rounds of bike riding and loaded sexual repartee. One who breaks into Muppet palsy — spastic flailings of staccato, head-wagging ecstasy — whenever she hears The Muppet Show siren song of "It’s time to play the music / It’s time to light the lights." One who, in her aggressively weird late teens, sported a sassy shag haircut dyed a deep shade of Grover blue because, perhaps, she secretly wished she were a Muppet.

And who could blame me, uh, her? After all, Muppets can do anything, and they usually have a good time doing it. These anarchic, orgiastic amalgams of felt, foam, and fun fur are investigative reporters, musicians, demolition experts, hack comics, boomerang-fish throwers, mad scientists, misunderstood performance artists, masters of the ancient art of ka-rah-tay, and so much more. Above all, they are vaudevillians with the incessant desire to entertain — just like their ingenious creator. Part Walt Disney (minus the Nazi sympathizing), part Groucho Marx — and looking like the cloned offspring of Lyle Lovett and Jesus Christ — the late Henson was nevertheless about as unassuming as they come. He is universally remembered as the nicest guy you’ve ever met (or, in my case, wish you had). But while his Muppets may have gained superstardom on Sesame Street, it may surprise some to know that cooperation didn’t always "make it happen" in Henson’s working relationships.

"We were very competitive with each other," director and longtime Henson collaborator Frank Oz (the voice of the inimitable Miss Piggy) admitted when I used a recent promotional tour for an Oz project as a chance to quiz him, quickly, about his Muppet past. "We put each other in lousy situations and tried to screw each other over." Of course, that’s not to say Henson was the Eve Harrington (as in All About Eve) of the puppet world. He valued collaboration with his fellow artists above all else; competition was a creative catalyst. "He appreciated everybody else’s work too," Oz, who calls Henson a "genius," clarifies. "There was a camaraderie, a great affection amongst all of us."

Henson’s creative fervor and Puritan work ethic helped make the Muppets a success, but so did his business acumen, something he leavened with that patented nice-guy attitude. "He really wanted everyone to be happy in a business deal," says Muppet performer (the Great Gonzo) and Marin resident Dave Goelz, who worked with Henson from the early ’70s until Henson’s sudden death from pneumonia in 1990. "The reason Jim was such a good businessman was very simple: people loved to work with him." Goelz, who will make appearances at the YBCA on June 21 and 22 to introduce "Muppets 101," fondly remembers the sense of community Henson fostered, having never experienced the tug-of-war that characterized Henson’s relationship with Oz.

The YBCA retrospective is thrillingly comprehensive, although it could be more cohesive. The three Muppet features being screened comprise what I like to call "the real original trilogy": 1979’s The Muppet Movie, 1981’s The Great Muppet Caper (viva Charles Grodin!), and 1984’s The Muppets Take Manhattan. Also included are assorted Muppet marginalia (Mike Douglas appearances, the infamous "Sex and Violence" Muppet Show pilot, some fantastic behind-the-scenes footage), forays into less kid-friendly puppetry (a betighted David Bowie in the Terry Jones–penned Labyrinth, the gloriously strange Dark Crystal), early commercial and experimental work, and later TV work like Fraggle Rock, the corny yet inspired (the Muppet modus operandi) ’30s gangster-movie send-up Dog City, and episodes of the gothic fairy-tale theater The Storyteller.

The Muppets aren’t lowering the stage curtain anytime soon. In addition to a planned Dark Crystal sequel, a Fraggle Rock movie is in the works. Disney bought the rights to the Muppets in 2004 (something, believe it or not, Henson was trying to make happen shortly before his death, recognizing that the juggernaut could give his franchise the protection it deserves). And the Jim Henson Co. continues to produce work in part inspired by Henson, like the film adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s MirrorMask. Still, no one has the gall to suggest it’s like it used to be. "Sammy Davis Jr. died on the same day," Oz notes. "There’s no other Sammy Davis Jr., and there’s no other Jim Henson."

Why exactly have the Muppets managed to endure? The answer, according to Goelz, is simple. "They are us," he says. "They describe a world that’s filled with conflict, but nonetheless they’re motivated by charity. It all came out of Jim’s philosophy. He believed that people are basically good, and he operated that way."

So it turns out I am a Muppet after all. The really good news, it seems, is that we all are. Corny? Maybe. But also pretty damn inspired.*


June 21–July 1; $6–$8

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Screening Room

701 Mission, SF

(415) 978-2787


Brutal fucking movie


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A corpse is a corpse, of course, of course. And no one can talk to a corpse, of course. Unless, of course, that corpse is brought to you by the famous Mr. David Lynch. In this case the corpse gets up and shuffles away, walking the earth like something out of a Samuel Beckett play directed by George Romero.

My thirty-three-year practice of the Transcendental Meditation program has been central to my work in film and painting and to all areas of my life.

"Are you looking for an opening?" Look over here, if you dare, and make your entrée through a tableau of rabbit-headed domesticity complete with sitcom-style applause and a laugh track inserted at decidedly odd moments. Entrances and exits are everything in Inland Empire, which takes place in a universe so slippery your front door may no longer open into your living room but rather into a dark alleyway — and your identity might change if you step through.

So in July 1973 I went to the TM Center in Los Angeles and met an instructor, and I liked her. She looked like Doris Day.

"You have a new role to play?" Yes, you do, at the place where evil was born; your creepy new neighbor is more than happy to warn you of your imminent danger even as you stride around the ornate mansion that you and your violently jealous husband occupy. No matter, though. That new role is your big break, and your star turn in On High in Blue Tomorrows could mean you’ve finally stepped over the threshold into that magical land "where stars and dreams come true." Not coincidentally, it’s also where evil was born — and where hammy Southern accents go to die.

I call that depression and anger the Suffocating Rubber Clown Suit of Negativity. It’s suffocating, and that rubber stinks.

Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2 fantasy is Lynch’s almost three-hour New Nightmare, both a film and a studio lot overrun with elliptical numerical references: stages 4, 5, 6, 32, and 35; page 57. Where are we? Hollywood or Poland? And what time is it exactly? Is it 9:45 or just after midnight? Is it real time or remembered time, those two warring temporal spaces at the core of so many film noirs? Douglas Sirk–ian blue tomorrows are always just out of reach, but this is a rare instance in which the answer It’s only a movie isn’t very comforting — both viewers and characters seem trapped in a hellish real or imagined world that Lynch himself can’t or won’t explain. One thing is for certain: if you’re running along the Walk of Fame, it’s safe to say you’re in danger.

It’s so magical — I don’t know why — to go into a theater and have the lights go down. It’s very quiet, and then the curtains start to open. Maybe they’re red. And you go into a world…. It’s best on a big screen. That’s the way to go into a world.

Oh yes, Inland Empire was shot entirely on digital video. And it’s not that fancy-shmancy digital either. No, it’s crap digital. But it’s glorious crap — at once making the horror more potently ugly and profane and lending it the quality of gauzy impressionism. By the 4,000th squashed close-up of Laura Dern’s twisted face, you’re thinking there’s nothing so grotesque as a degraded image — see YouTube, tweaked-out coverage of the Iraq War. Then Lynch’s digital expressionism rallies, the incandescent flares of pixilated light at the twilight’s last gleaming. Everything is illuminated unless it’s not. A cut is not a cut but rather a buzzing lightbulb; a long shot is not a long shot but instead a menacing corridor.

I love Los Angeles.

Delivering her lines like a long-lost relative of Maria Ouspenskaya in The Wolf Man and lensed and styled to look like a cross between Jane Wyman and an evil squirrel, Grace Zabriskie plays the ultimate nosy neighbor — one who inaugurates this pleasure and boredom zone by opening a window into the leading lady’s future. Her director has a digital-video eye for combinations of lemon and gray as well as cheap Pepto-Bismol pinks and barf tones — he can make a palatial mansion look as grim as Eraserhead‘s dead living room. This is a movie about the horror of set design, the terror of lamps. Lynch can’t help but look for and stare down the rabbit hole, that spot where it’s hard to disappear, that place just down the way, the space that’s tucked back, difficult to see from the road — the lost highway that connects to the dark hallway and the innumerable nooks and crannies of negative space. As always, he fixates on the sinister brutality in pop’s lexicon; this time, instead of candy-colored clowns tiptoeing into bedrooms, it’s hearts wrapped up in clover.

It was the light that brought everybody to LA to make films in the early days. It’s still a beautiful place.

Is Inland Empire really The Passion of Laura Dern? Yes, this is Dern’s movie, her face being cut up in nearly every scene ("brutal fucking murder," as one character puts it), and Laura, what do you make of it? Are you in there? A spotlight trained on you, long and lean, running horizontally through the night in silent slow-motion, then toward the camera, then fast, then screaming like Rita Hayworth in the mirrors at the end of The Lady from Shanghai, but for three hours. Come back, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, Gene Tierney and Mary Pickford, Judy Garland and Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Fontaine and Natalie Wood, Marlene Dietrich and Marilyn Monroe: Lynch wants to make you stars again! A coast-to-coast search will soon be under way for the shot-for-shot remake of Inland Empire.

And sometimes things happen on the set that make you start dreaming.

No doubt, as the fate-strapped actress Nikki Grace, Dern makes an exquisite corpse. Oh, wait — she’s actually Susan Blue, Nikki’s alter ego and the character she plays in her latest film, a Southern potboiler that also stars Devon Berk (Justin Theroux) as Billy Side. Susan wanders through her fever dream screaming desperately for Billy, who always seems to be around the next darkly lit corner but rarely materializes. As the giant talking bunnies say, it all has "something to do with the telling of time." Of course, Nikki and Susan might have just fused into some kind of Lynchian-Freudian beast. The infamous Lynch psychofugue. It’s an assumption borne out by a third Dern personality, a ball-busting broad with a mysterious bruise on her lower lip who permanently totes a rusty screwdriver.

What struck me about O.J. Simpson was that he was able to smile and laugh.

Dern’s performance is like a disco ball in a hall of mirrors; it’s rarely clear which character she’s playing, but she’s never less than entirely committed. One minute she’s a kittenish starlet, long legs stretched out across a sun-drenched gazebo. The next she’s a haggard has-been with a busted lip, climbing a set of dingy steps into a dark office, where she tells the man seated there — who is he exactly? And who’s he talking to on the phone? — about how she once thwarted a rapist by plucking out one of his eyeballs.

I don’t necessarily love rotting bodies, but there’s a texture to a rotting body that is unbelievable. Have you ever seen a little rotted animal?

"Hey — look at me and tell me if you’ve known me before." This line repeats throughout Inland Empire, and yeah — there’s definitely David Lynch déjà vu at work here: Mulholland Drive‘s twisted Tinseltown, Twin Peaks‘ slutty-girl world, Blue Velvet‘s dark suburbia, Wild at Heart‘s seedy glamour and endless Dern worship. Plus the inevitably singular moments: Where, before or since, has a splattered bottle of ketchup foreshadowed a murder? Committed on the exact square foot of cement that encases Dorothy Lamour’s Hollywood Boulevard star?

I love seeing people come out of darkness.

Just as it’s tempting to view Mulholland Drive‘s semiuseless dude passages as a simple opportunity for Lynch to spank Quentin Tarantino, this time around his humane take on Eastern Europe might be a genial yet hostile retort to Eli Roth. The director himself won’t say anything about his movies or their influences — he’ll never fess up that Mulholland Drive is essentially Carnival of Souls moved from Salt Lake City to showbiz central, even if one of Inland Empire‘s most terrifying moments echoes the zombies-running-at-the-camera shock tactics of Herk Harvey’s 1962 cult classic. (The scariest Dern close-up adds more voltage to the peak jolt of Takeshi Shimizu’s video version of Ju-on, which goes to show, what comes around goes around.) Inland Empire‘s new capitalist whores might be talking with or back to the ones in Lukas Moodysson’s Lilya 4-Ever and Ilya Khrjanovsky’s 4, a recent movie with an amazing sound design overrun by Lynchian subsonic rumbles.

Fellini had me sit down. He was in a little wheelchair between two beds, and he took my hand, and we sat and talked for half an hour…. That was Friday night, and Sunday he went into a coma and never came out.

Inland Empire is more than long enough to have some dodgy or cringeworthy moments, which include a fair amount of bad acting by models, the jarring soundtrack misfire — rare for Lynch — of Beck’s "Black Tambourine," and a final lip sync of Nina Simone’s "Sinnerman." No one can double for the late Dr. Simone! But Dern, her dirty strands of hair looking like facial wrinkles and bruises, can double over endlessly. By the time she’s on Hollywood Boulevard, caught between a young female junkie and a homeless untouchable calmly discussing how to get the bus to Pomona, she’s suffered a shattering fall from the confines of her lavish, hermetically sealed estate in the recesses of the Inland Empire (both the one in her zip code and the one in her mind).

I went to a psychiatrist once.

"You gotta swing your hips, now. Come on, baby. Jump up. Jump back. Well, now, I think you’ve got the knack. Now that you can do it, let’s make a chain, now. (Come on baby, do the Loco-motion.) A chug-a chug-a motion like a railroad train, now. (Come on baby, do the Loco-motion.) Do it nice and easy, now, don’t lose control: a little bit of rhythm and a lot of soul. So come on, come on, do the Loco-motion with me."

So I say: Peace to all of you. *

All the sentences in italics are from Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity, by David Lynch (Tarcher/Penguin, 2006).


Opens Fri/9

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Careers and Ed: Look Ma, no grants


› culture@sfbg.com

Starving is overrated. No matter how romantic your notions of the long-suffering, misunderstood artiste, it’s hard to get around the fact that you’ll never get that big one-person show if the rain reduces your paintings to gesso mush because you don’t have a roof to put over them.

Enter the grant provider. Part john, part pimp, and possessing all the bureaucratic zeal of the most exacting mafioso, a grant foundation can seem like an ambivalent overlord to struggling creative types: while most artists want and need grant money, they may find expectations frustratingly impossible to meet. When you factor in an ever-increasing conservatism in the arts-funding world, it’s enough to make anyone wonder how to take artistic risks while still being kept in acrylic paint and photo fixer, much less food.

"That’s the thing about the arts these days. It’s so hard to get your project off the ground," Chesley Chen, a 38-year-old independent filmmaker, says over a piece of Safeway strawberry-rhubarb pie ("It’s surprisingly good") in his Sunset District flat. "The vast sum of money goes to sustain these megalithic art houses rather than nurturing local artists." Chen points out that because of today’s conservatism, most organizations are looking for safe projects to fund — ones lacking controversy and with an obvious social relevance.

It’s ironic, then, that Chen’s latest project is about as socially significant as it gets and yet he’s still struggling to secure meaningful funding. After being moved to tears by a piece in Harper’s last year written by a Ugandan woman suffering from AIDS, Chen began an e-mail relationship with Beatrice Were, an HIV-positive Ugandan mother who started the Memory Book Project for similarly afflicted women. Shunned by their communities because of the AIDS stigma, these mothers are given the chance by Were’s organization to share their thoughts and dreams for and with their children.

Chen soon realized what a powerful documentary the story would make. Problem was Chen found that most funding groups require a pitch reel to give an indication of what a finished project will look like — a logistical impossibility given Were’s location. But for Chen, abandoning the project wasn’t an option, so he was forced to look for alternatives.


Some organizations do offer seed money for projects, but these grants are extremely competitive and definitely for those who don’t mind plenty of demands and hand-holding. Creative Capital (www.creative-capital.org) is unique in that it views its funding model not as a philanthropic effort but as a venture capital investment. Founded in 1999 and offering grants in multiple disciplines, the organization usually works with its artists over a period of three to four years and offers advisory services, continuation funds, and even a yearly retreat. In return, each funded artist agrees to share a small percentage of profits with the group, which is used to fund other works — but only if their project turns a profit. The average grant is for $35,000, but out of roughly 3,000 applications a year, Creative Capital only awards about 50 grants.

For filmmakers, the Independent Television Service (www.itvs.org) offers research and development funding on an ongoing basis in conjunction with PBS. The grants cover expenses such as travel, script development, and the crucial fundraising reel. The group concedes that these funds are "extremely limited and highly competitive," but for those lucky chosen few, the ITVS offers something no other grant provider can: a "comprehensive public television launch" that provides marketing, publicity, station relations, and outreach support. In other words, people actually get a chance to see your work when it’s done.

For the record, Chen has been turned down for both. "With the exception of walking my dog, I don’t think I left my home for three or four days," he remembers. After the initial bout of earth-shattering depression, he decided that if he had to, he would shoulder the whole $60,000 budget himself and just go into debt. "Bankruptcy is not the most desirable thing, but there are worse things to go bankrupt for."


Chen decided to get a fiscal sponsor, a strategy he used to help fund his documentary Sandman, which aired on KQED last year. On paper, fiscal sponsorship seems like a counterproductive measure — the artist ends up actually paying the sponsor, not the other way around. But sometimes it makes real financial sense. Because of a sponsor’s nonprofit status, any person or organization making a donation will be able to write it off come tax time. Donations are made to a foundation under the project’s name, the foundation processes the paperwork, and then it gives the money to the artist less a fee. Essentially, the artist is piggybacking on the organization’s charity status. Any nonprofit can offer fiscal sponsorship, but it’s a good idea to go with one that knows what it’s doing — this will involve the IRS, after all. Another big benefit: sponsorship allows the artist to apply for grant funding that is usually only available to tax-exempt organizations.

For Memory Book, Chen is partnering with the San Francisco Film Arts Foundation (www.filmarts.org), which takes 7 percent of funds raised for its fee. This is higher than the 4 or 5 percent fee some foundations charge, but Film Arts makes up for it with a speedy turnaround time. Instead of having to wait for his money for up to seven or eight months, Chen will get it "as soon as the checks clear." Attaining a Film Arts sponsorship can be an arduous two- or three-month process, but the organization’s criteria are based more on fiscal feasibility and sound planning than inherent artistic value. If your fundraising outline consists of, as Chen puts it, a "cupcake sale every Saturday," you’ve got problems.

For fiscal sponsorship for all disciplines, check out the New York Foundation for the Arts (www.nyfa.org), which sponsors artists nationwide, offers assistance in everything from fundraising and budgeting to bookkeeping services, and has a detailed online database of available grants, NYFA Source.


Now that you’re nonprofited up, what’s the next step? For Chen, that was the $60,000 question. First he made sure his current lifestyle wasn’t going to siphon any money away from his project. "I cut out all luxury items," he says. "I stopped going to movies." He budgeted $20 a week for groceries (including pie). "I let my hair grow," he continues. "People wanted gifts for weddings. That wasn’t going to happen. Their present was me not starving."

Then Chen talked to a friend who mentioned she had experience arranging benefit dinners for various causes and asked if he was interested. "It was such a foreign idea," he says. "But she took care of almost everything." That included securing a private chef (who donated his services and provided his home for the feast), contacting retailers such as Mission District specialty grocery Bi-Rite Market (which donated the meat and produce), and convincing wine wholesalers to donate three bottles of vino per course. Students from City College’s culinary department volunteered to serve the 16 guests, who each paid a minimum of $250 to attend. From the dinner alone Chen raised $3,500. It might not sound like much, but put it in perspective: the Uganda hotel for his crew of four will cost $2,000 for the 21-day duration of the shoot.

Chen soon realized that directly soliciting in-kind donations might be the way to go. "Once I got over that initial reluctance, it was actually quite easy," he says. The dinner invitations were sent via e-mail, but Chen snail-mailed subsequent requests for cash for a more personal touch. First he sent requests, complete with self-addressed stamped envelopes, to the wealthiest people he knew, followed by the mere well-off, and finally, friends who may only be able to pitch in $10 or $20. He figures he’ll have raised upward of $10,000 before heading to Uganda this month.

Soon he’ll have his precious fundraising reel, which he plans on using in pitches to the Sundance Documentary Project and possibly HBO. Then, who knows? Maybe he’ll splurge and treat himself to a haircut. *

For more information on Chesley Chen’s Memory Book documentary or to make a donation, e-mail him at ccc@chesleychen.com.



It’s being released to coincide with World AIDS Day, but Thom Fitzgerald’s 3 Needles isn’t so much about AIDS as it is blood — human hemoglobin seems to pour from every frame. Part Holy Communion, part arsenic-laced Syrah, it’s constantly being wielded by the film’s characters as a weapon in their desperate struggles to survive both the disease and its political and social ramifications.
The movie’s sweeping triptych of stories spans three continents. The first tale, which takes place in China, features Lucy Liu as a very pregnant woman bound to a man dying of AIDS who illegally collects and runs blood out of her dilapidated VW bus. The second (coyly titled “The Passion of the Christ”) follows a poor, HIV-positive Montreal porn actor (Shawn Ashmore) and his Quebecois waitress mother (Stockard Channing), who purposely infects herself with the virus so she can sell her life insurance for a huge profit. Finally, in coastal South Africa two missionary nuns (Sandra Oh, Olympia Dukakis) and a nun in training (Chloe Sevigny) care for dying AIDS victims in the midst of white plantation owners exploiting HIV-infected employees who are so ignorant about the disease they believe they can be cured by passing it on to virgins (i.e., children).
So it’s not exactly Happy Feet. But compared to those sad sacks in Babel, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s exercise in sadistic anguish, 3 Needles’ characters handle their various afflictions with aplomb and ingenuity. The fight may be futile, but it’ll still be fought — complete with a few sacri-licious jabs at the Big Man himself. It’s doubtful that bisexual Irish Catholic provocateur Fitzgerald (The Hanging Garden) is calling for an Elton John–style outright ban on religion, but his piercing words and images offer a visceral inoculation against the complacency of the church, the worldwide government, and the free market itself.
It all adds up to a wet, crimson slap in the face of global apathy — and a desperately needed one at that. After all, breaking through the polite rhetoric should only take a little prick. (Michelle Devereaux)
Opens Fri/1 in Bay Area theaters
See Movie Clock at www.sfbg.com

Pixies stick


A smiling Kim Deal holds up a T-shirt with “Pixies Sellout” emblazoned across the back. “Where did you get the inspiration?” she asks guitarist Joey Santiago, who named the band’s comeback tour. “’Cause we sold out in minutes!” he offers sans irony. Santiago might not be in on the joke (somewhat inexplicably), but for the rest of us the subtext is clear. Sure, the Pixies are now well into middle age and showing it, but to claim these indie rock demigods are simply trying to cash in on past success is a little unfair. Since they were never really able to enjoy major-league (outside of the United Kingdom) success (which happened after the breakup) in the first place, they’re just now getting used to this whole rock-glory thing.
LoudQUIETloud, shot during the band’s 2004 world tour, frames their collective “holy shit, they love us!” state of shock perfectly while still managing to focus on the individual members’ personal struggles with art, family, and commerce. Before the tour’s start, lead singer-songwriter Charles Thompson (a.k.a. Black Francis) is plugging away at solo gigs and Nashville records; a newly sober Deal (the only Pixie left with any hair) hasn’t recorded with the Breeders in years and is holed up in Ohio; Santiago is scoring films and raising kids; and drummer David Lovering is pursuing “hobbies of magic and metal detecting” (seriously).
Still, amid all the drug tiffs, card tricks, and mostly energetic renditions of classic tunes like “Caribou” and “Hey,” we get precious little insight into the Pixies’ much-ballyhooed musical influence. Even the film’s title — a reference to the band’s signature seesawing song structure — is never explained. Actually, the title is a good characterization of the movie itself: despite the notorious rancor between members that ultimately led to the band’s demise, for the most part they come off as quiet, funny eccentrics in between the thunderous live footage. They’re so unrelentingly low-key, in fact, it’s hard not to wish one of them would explode, like a Pixies chorus, into something a little less tame. (Michelle Devereaux)

Trash hits Toronto: part two


FEST REPORT Because I’m psychotic, I jammed 22 movies into six and a half days at the Toronto International Film Festival — and was actually pissed at myself for not seeing more. Out of curiosity, I sprinkled in a few prestige pictures: Ken Loach’s The Wind That Shakes the Barley, about the early days of the Irish Republican Army; and Pedro Almodóvar’s Volver, starring a Penélope Cruz so va-va-voomy that it’s almost a relief when another character asks her if her chest was always that enormous.
I knew it’d be tough to top my two early favorites, both detailed in last week’s Guardian: from Korea, monster movie The Host; and from Hong Kong, Johnnie To’s stellar, Sergio Leone–infused gangster story Exiled. Several came mighty close though, including Andrea Arnold’s Red Road — about a woman whose numb existence spent watching surveillance camera footage is rocked when a man with ties to her tragic past happens to stroll into her line of vision. Not only is Red Road exquisitely directed, it features the best acting (particularly from lead Kate Dickie) of any film I saw at TIFF. That’s not a slight against the always-excellent Christian Bale, star of Werner Herzog’s Rescue Dawn, whose Fear Factor–influenced portrayal of a jungle-bound prisoner of war erases all memories of Batman (but not, perhaps, freaky foodie Patrick Bateman).
Fellow Bollywood fans know a Shah Rukh Khan performance is not to be missed under any circumstances, though committing to the 192-minute Never Say Goodbye meant missing out on a few other screenings in the process. (It was worth it.) The fangirl mentality also drew me to Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain, a polarizing work I heard variously described as “Aronofsky’s 2001” and “Aronofsky does Soderbergh doing Solaris.” Yep, it’s a bit baffling — but in a weirdly spellbinding way. Hugh Jackman, you are almost forgiven for Van Helsing.
TIFF’s documentaries were an overall strong bunch. Prickly American History X director Tony Kaye takes on America’s pro-choice–pro-life debate in the nearly three-hour Lake of Fire. Though the film’s most graphic images are (barely) muted by Kaye’s decision to shoot in black and white, the content — especially the interviews with right-wing extremists — is just as shocking. Other top docs: Macky Alston’s The Killer Within, about a nice, normal family grappling with the knowledge that 50 years prior, its patriarch shot and killed a college classmate for the murkiest of reasons; AJ Schnack’s Kurt Cobain about a Son, which takes the experimental approach of layering audio interviews with the late musician under newly shot footage of Cobain’s Northwest stomping grounds; and the more conventional punk celebration American Hardcore.
The fest’s lightning-rod film was Death of a President, a made-for-British-TV faux doc that imagines what would happen if George W. Bush were assassinated. (Before you start cheering, feel the terror of these words: President Dick Cheney.) JFK remains my favorite dead-prez whodunnit, but Death of a President manages to maneuver its scandalous concept into a perceptive take on post-9/11 civil liberties.
One last thing: do I have to give back my film critic’s wings if I say Borat Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhs was my favorite TIFF movie? Because if loving Borat is wrong, I don’t wanna be right. (Cheryl Eddy)
FEST REPORT Navigating TIFF’s public screenings often leads to a heavy bout of queue fatigue. You line up to purchase tickets, to pick up tickets, to get into the theater, and invariably to get into the exclusive confines of the ladies’ room. And then there’s the peculiar indignity of the absurdly named “rush” line: the film is already sold out, so if you want in, you have to take the chance that there’ll be a no-show ticket holder you can replace. And that requires waiting forever.
But being the first to discover little gems makes it all seem worth it: Agustín Díaz Yanes’s Alatriste (starring an español-speaking Viggo Mortensen) plays like Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean if Uncle Walt had done a tour of duty in Gallipoli; the Canadian National Film Board doc Manufactured Landscapes follows photographer Edward Burtynsky on a fascinatingly meditative trip through the industrial wastelands of China; and Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Syndromes and a Century, the perfect companion piece, offers a brilliant, surreal slow boil on urban alienation in an increasingly modernized Thailand.
Of course, there were disappointments too, like Catch a Fire, Phillip Noyce’s well-acted yet underwhelming biopic of South African freedom fighter Patrick Chamusso. And let’s not forget the schlock, like the silly slasher film from Montreal’s Maurice Devereaux. I squinted when the director credit came onscreen, pretending for a moment that I had made it to the TIFF big time but winced at the sight of the movie’s irony-soaked title: End of the Line. (Michelle Devereaux)

Comedy with overbite


› a&eletters@sfbg.com
Legendary critic Pauline Kael once described Taylor Hackford’s An Officer and a Gentleman as “crap on a motorcycle.” It might be as cheese-constipated as movies get, she argued, but at least it has the good sense to amplify the cheese to mind-obliterating excess: Junk this big and fast is bound to satisfy an audience — or at least stupefy it into submission.
The tactic is especially relatable to that dubious summer movie subgenre, the TV-show-to-movie adaptation. If most television shows are crap, most shows made into films attempt to shine up the turd with tremendous torque: over-the-top set pieces, deafening pyrotechnics, gimmicky postmodern conceits, and general crap-tasticness (Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle was even accommodating enough to throw in some actual motorcycles).
Strangers with Candy offers a perversely ingenious spin on this sad state of affairs. The late-’90s Comedy Central TV series (created by longtime collaborators Amy Sedaris, Stephen Colbert, and Paul Dinello) was in essence a parody of a bad TV show to begin with, so it’s only appropriate that the movie plays like a parody of a movie based on a bad TV show.
The story revolves around the tribulations of Jerri Blank (Sedaris), a skeezy 46-year-old former junkie, prostitute, and child runaway. After being released from prison, Jerri decides to start her life over. (“Can we chay-ange?” she asks in dramatic voice-over as she shanks a fellow inmate in slo-mo.) She returns to her childhood home, promptly enrolls in her old high school as a freshman, and tries her best to fit in — which for the clueless Jerri means showing up wearing the highest waisted jeans ever while carrying a copy of the yellow pages in lieu of a textbook.
If the show was an excuse to satirize the fertile ground of straight-faced coming-of-age melodrama, the movie is an excuse to take the satire full tilt: Virtually every scene ends with a swell of the climactic, emotional score as characters come to terms with their feelings (“I wasn’t pushing you away, I was pulling me towards myself”). And the crap-on-a-motorcycle principle culminates with the purposefully sitcomish main plotline — which hinges on Jerri and her team winning the science fair with a feces-powered battery — leading to a Carrie-style “fire” and rampage in the gym.
Strangers was a relatively obscure cult success on basic cable, and many mainstream moviegoers probably won’t know what to make of this odd little gem. Dedicated fans, however, have little to worry about. The principals reprise their roles (including Dinello as the naive, not-so-ambiguously gay art teacher Mr. Jellineck and Colbert doing a variation of his self-satisfied asshole talk-show persona as Mr. Noblet), and the nasty spirit at the core of the show hasn’t been diluted.
That nasty spirit is personified by walking, talking track mark Jerri Blank, and Sedaris gamely destroys any shred of personal vanity she might have had left after the series to portray her again. Jerri’s pathetic desperation and her obliviousness to her shortcomings make her part childlike rube, part vicious opportunist, and Sedaris revels in every poisoned aside she spits through her contorted overbite. “I was thinking about pussy,” she deadpans. “Science fair is for queers.” Despite Jerri’s rottenness, she’s more of a comic-tragic figure than someone simply to laugh at. Her gameness to try and fail over and over (without ever realizing she’s failed) makes her, if not entirely lovable, at the very least endearing. She may be a bitter pill to swallow, but Candy is still one of the sweeter surprises in a movie season inevitably stinking of a certain number two. SFBG
Opens Fri/7
Bridge Theatre
3010 Geary, SF
(415) 267-4893
California Theatre
2113 Kittredge, Berk.
(510) 464-5980
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for theaters and showtimes