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Articles by

<Glenn Heath Jr.>

05/18/12 10:45am

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For Wes Anderson, even the smallest worlds are intricate, volatile, and melancholic, worthy of our exploration. As a result, the size of a particular universe matters less than the many clues populating its physical and emotional terrain. The tracking shot-heavy opening sequence in Anderson’s latest film, Moonrise Kingdom, which opened this year’s Cannes Film Festival, further confirms this approach, gliding up, down, and around a 1960s family abode ripe with trinkets. In the whisper of time it takes Robert Yeoman’s camera to float down a lengthy hallway, Anderson introduces the Bishop clan rooted in stasis, with Walt (Bill Murray) and his wife Laura (Frances McDormand) laying about in boredom while their three young sons engage in harmless acts of play. The same cannot be said of their daughter, twelve-year old Suzy (Kara Hayward), who restlessly and actively peers out the window through her binoculars waiting for something, or someone, to whisk her away on an adventure.

Set on New Penzance Island, a beautifully rocky and blustery locale bisected by rivers and tree lines, Moonrise Kingdom follows Suzy as she escapes her stifling home front with pen pal and experienced Khaki Scout Sam (Jared Gilman). The two children explore the woods, build campfires, and get to know each other on their own terms. Their disappearance not only sends the local townspeople into search party mode, it casts a light on specific secrets and insecurities concerning the local police chief (Bruce Willis) and Sam’s Khaki Scout Leader (Edward Norton). If this ripple effect proves anything, it’s that the adult world cannot be trusted until it proves itself worthy of a child’s respect and admiration. In this sense, Suzy and Sam’s flight is an act of protest against a community that has no place for their complexity, no empathy for their angst.

While it certainly echoes the director’s previous work, Moonrise Kingdom represents Anderson’s transition toward a more instinctual way of exploring physical cinematic space. Shot on Super 16mm, Moonrise Kingdom is chock-full of grainy long shots accentuating Sam and Suzy’s elemental call of the wild. A private beach, an open field of green, and a steep cliff face are just some of the beautiful monuments filling Anderson’s zooms and pans with Western spirit. This sensibility directly contrasts with the rigidity created by the Bishop parents or the Khaki Scout institution. These sublime images represent the scream of vibrant youth gasping for air at any cost.

Interestingly, Moonrise Kingdom contains no snazzy pop songs for comfort (Benjamin Britten acts as stand-in), or much in the way of slow motion to crystallize unity (although there is one stunning example late in the film). Instead, Anderson moves away from his stylistic crutches and uses the angles, bends, and dips of nature to redefine his character’s sense of community, a colorful cosmos worthy of being called home.

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Thai master Apichatpong Weerasethakul also riffs on familiar themes in strange new ways with his jazzy 59-minute “documentary,” Mekong Hotel. Basically a series of vignettes where actors/spirits contemplate their own brutality, omniscience, and compassion, this genre hybrid establishes the Mekong river region as a kind of luminescent open-air purgatory for tormented ghosts. The consistent mention of rising floodwaters and the bloody reappearance of a female phantasm called “The Pob Ghost” are fascinating analogies for Weerasethakul’s ongoing examination of spiritual and elemental rebirth.

But it’s the brilliantly lyrical guitar score, which plays over their character’s elliptical conversations about reincarnation, possession, and memory, that lend the many static shots a hypnotic rhythm. No matter how fragmented or incomplete the discussions feel, this juxtaposition between sound and light makes perfect sense for a film devoted to bridging so many grand ideas in such a contained temporal space. Life and death, harmony and chaos, confidence and regret live side-by-side in the musical notes on the wind, and in the symmetry found gliding across the river’s surface in the indelible last shot.

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Far more taxing but equally rewarding is Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise: Love, the rigorous first entry in a supposed trilogy. Margarete Tiesel turns in a titanic performance as Teresa, an Austrian sex tourist who leaves her catatonic teenage daughter behind to rendezvous with equally horny friends in Kenya. The group of abrasive women intend to sleep with native Africans in order to get their exotic fix, a self-destructive process that becomes a brilliant parallel for the slow death of colonialist self-entitlement. As Teresa cycles through lovers, one more manipulative than the last, she denies the failures of her dalliances despite the absurdity of her approach.

Seidl gives every shot a meticulous sense of balance, making the graphic imagery and scathing subtext all the more disturbing when juxtaposed with the beautiful beach setting. Maybe the best example of this comes when Seidl stacks a group of Kenyan vendors on one side of a divider rope that faces a long line of Europeans permanently beached on lawn chairs. Teresa’s misguided search for love, companionship, and appreciation is a byproduct of this type of collective cluelessness, not only to the social and cultural experiences of others, but to one’s own delusions of grandeur.

05/14/12 9:28am

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The 65th Festival de Cannes runs from May 16th to 27th, and Glenn Heath will be filing dispatches from there for the L beginning later this week.

Only in the internet age could a born and bred San Diegan cover the Cannes Film Festival for a great publication straight out of Brooklyn. It’s film criticism without borders, without limits. But the facelessness of modern technology and temporal ambiguity of social media can bring out the worst in people, and what makes attending film festivals like Cannes so rewarding, especially for a writer like me who lives far away from the critical hub of New York City, is getting to meet fellow critics, programmers, and talent face-to-face. There is no substitute for a friendly handshake or an infectious laugh, and in many ways these small human moments transcend the films themselves. Great memories are not made via Twitter, but over a cold beer or piping hot espresso.

During a year of endless personal transition, most of it incredibly necessary, Cannes 2012 has been my one constant on the horizon, a reminder of the passion, discovery, and friendship I found at last year’s festival. So to say I’m humbled and excited to go back for a second helping would be an understatement. On paper, the 2012 lineup is impressive by any standard.

Kiarostami, Hong, Audiard, Carax, Resnais, Haneke, Reygadas, Cronenberg, Vinterberg: the list goes on, and that’s just a sampling of the auteurs with films in competition. Especially interesting is the U.S. slant to Cannes 2012, with the inclusion of films by or about Americans ranging from John Hillcoat’s prohibition drama Lawless with Shia LeBouf and Tom Hardy to Jeff Nichols’s Mud, a sun-drenched southern headlined by Matthew McConaughy and Reese Witherspoon. But I’m most excited for Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly, starring Brad Pitt, supposedly a gritty throwback to the Friends of Eddie Coyle style of B-movie filmmaking.

Last year’s Un Certain Regard section offered some of the festival’s strongest entries (Miss Bala, Martha Marcy May Marlene), so my expectations for this year’s crop are high. There’s work by Xavier Dolan, Lou Ye, Pablo Trapero, and 7 Days In Havana, an anthology film focused on the Cuban experience with vignettes by Gaspar Noe, Benecio del Toro, Julio Medem, and more. Personally, I’m curious to see if Sundance sensation Beasts of the Southern Wild can live up to the astronomic hype it’s attained from critics and programmers alike. The Director’s Fortnight sidebar, which I completely ignored last year, has two must-see entries in 2012. There’s Pablo Larrain’s No, the third film (after Tony Manero and Post Mortem) in his trilogy about Chilean repression and isolation under the iron thumb of Pinochet. Even more essential is a special screening of the late Raul Ruiz’s La Noche de Enfrente, supposedly completed one week before the master filmmaker’s death.

Ultimately, it’s hard to imagine me finding time for the Cannes Classics sidebar this year, although seeing the restored (again) cut of Once Upon a Time in America sounds undoubtedly enticing. But like the veteran critic Mike D’Angelo told me during my inaugural trip to the Croissette, “I’m here to see new films”, and it’s a mantra that makes a lot of sense when facing a program as sprawling as Cannes. Time will only tell if this “great” lineup of new films lives up to expectations, but it’s wonderful to be excited about all that potential, especially during the long flight across the Atlantic. It will also be grand to see some old friends, and meet some new ones for the first time.

05/09/12 4:00am

Streets of Fire (1984)
Directed by Walter Hill
May 11, May 12 at IFC Center’s “Walter Hill at Midnight

Is there a more beguiling revisionist Western than Walter Hill’s Streets of Fire? Considering the film’s psychedelic urban color scheme, rollicking pace, and shape-shifting editing style, it’s hard to imagine a stranger vision of the American frontier. Instead of simply tweaking genre conventions, Hill’s self-proscribed “Rock and Roll Fable” makes strange variations on setting and character feel altogether organic. This singular version of Chicago is a semi-wasteland made up of warring districts with borders defined simply by fire, rain, and darkness. Neon marquees and dank alleys stand in for the open range. Motorcycles and roadsters take the place of horses and covered wagons. The indigenous threat to civilized society is represented not by cutthroat Indians but rampaging bikers, brazen leather-dipped thugs seemingly ripped from Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising. This is neither Western dream nor nightmare, but some acid trip in between.

There’s certainly a burning love for the classic Western in Streets of Fire. Hill uses the skeletal structure of Ford’s The Searchers as a jumping off point, witnessed in the film’s breakneck opening sequence. During a steamy concert for thousands of crazed fans, rocker vixen Ellen Aim (Diane Lane) is kidnapped by The Bombers, an audacious street gang led by Raven (Willem Dafoe) who takes pleasure in terrorizing a populace paralyzed by fear. We know it’s an assault on “normal” life that must be avenged, and war veteran Tom Cody (Michael Pare) shows up sporting a trench coat and pump-action shotguns to do just that. But what makes Streets of Fire so special is its passion for complex fringe characters usually ignored by the genre. McCoy, a butch ex-soldier played with equal parts toughness and vulnerability by Amy Madigan, is never questioned for her sexuality, just her level of resolve. Ultimately, she is just as important to the outcome of Streets of Fire as its male hero.

Since time and space are essentially subjective in Streets of Fire, Hill sees little need to play by the rules. A sense of aesthetic freedom runs deep in the smooth camera movement, jarring cuts, and no-nonsense trajectory, fostering the idea that big-budget filmmaking and autuerism can live in perfect harmony. Early in the film, Cody sums up this brazen attitude: “There’s no point stealing a car if you’re not going to ring it out.” That’s essentially Walter Hill’s daring approach to filmmaking.

05/02/12 4:00am

Wild Bill (1995)
Directed by Walter Hill
Friday, May 4 and Saturday, May 5 at IFC Center’s “Walter Hill at Midnight

Half delusional, half haunted, Walter Hill’s Wild Bill takes historical “revisionism” to insane heights, splintering the idea of Western heroism into a thousand pieces. Psychology and legend intertwine throughout Hill’s kaleidoscope visual aesthetic, where the dirt and grime of Bill’s colorized present spins out of control to include blown-out black and white memories, and back again. The signs of genre demolition are apparent from the very beginning, as Charles Pince’s (John Hurt) raspy voice echoes like a god over Bill’s well-attended funeral procession. “By luck or design it had fallen to him to play the hero’s part,” Pince futilely states as the coffin passes his perch, the irony being that nothing in the following storyline will resemble that of an easily defined archetype.

After a series of brutally violent vignettes chart Wild Bill Hickock’s (Jeff Bridges) most notorious killings in the 1860’s, Hill settles on the man’s final days in Deadwood, where a blubbering man-child named McCall (David Arquette) looks to settle an old score with the long-haired gunslinger. This simple narrative arc is eviscerated by jarring flashbacks that may or may not truthfully represent Bill’s past experiences, the most fascinating being a psychedelic confrontation with a band of Sioux Indians reminiscent of Jarmusch’s Dead Man. Here more than ever, Hill uses telephoto lenses to collapse the frame, compressing the wide-angle panoramas into suffocating close-ups. For Bill, wide open Western spaces usually synonymous with freedom and individualism represent nothing more than a prison of iconography.

If Bill in all his tormented glory seems fixated on re-imagining the past in order to make sense of its traumatic fluidity, loyal friends like Calamity Jane (the great Ellen Barkin) constantly attempt to reaffirm his legendary status as an icon. His “heroic” actions are the only thing that makes sense in this world of deformed morality. This thematic dichotomy reveals layers of repression and emotion bursting from the seams of a dusty blood-caked Western universe spinning off its axis. While Hill once again brings the pain with the type of thunderous, canon-like pistol fire he patented to perfection in films like the great Extreme Prejudice, Wild Bill strives to be an altogether different beast; a raw treatise on the poetic underbelly of male self-destruction.

11/04/11 11:33am

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The character actor Tom Noonan will be at 92YTribeca tonight for a rare screening of his 1994 directorial debut, What Happened Was…

A spider’s web of incomplete moments, Tom Noonan’s What Happened Was… sees empty spaces and awkward pauses as a kind of connective tissue between lost souls. For proof, look no further than the title. It’s incomplete, open, yearning for an explanation that will never come. Still, hope resides in the ellipsis: the always-present possibility for personal understanding that drives us forward despite the rigors of daily life. Set entirely in a New York City apartment during a date between co-workers Jackie (Karen Sillas) and Michael (Noonan), two lonely professionals meeting on personal turf for the first and possibly only time, What Happened Was…examines the way tone and rhythm define a contained physical space.

Throughout the couple’s strange, tense, and illuminating conversation, covering everything from workplace gossip to gender politics, the room’s mood tips from one direction to the next like a woozy sailboat bumping up against jagged rocks. There’s an undeniable rhythm to the way Noonan’s film unfolds, slowly, deceptively. Clocks tick, televisions echo, and clothes ruffle, instilling a sense of monotony to the proceedings, but the intense focus on facial expressions, and the subtle and seamless dolly shots through Jackie’s living room, make this very theatrical set-up entirely cinematic. Layers of emotional artifice melt away and time becomes irrelevant, forcing two opposing human forces to confront what it truly means to occupy the same space.

Duration is everything in What Happened Was…, and ittakes time for Jackie and Michael to feel each other out in such a confined place. They figuratively dance around trivial subjects over wine and later, during the wonderfully tense dinner sequence. Yet as the film progresses, both characters open up, flirting with the possibility that someone new might embrace their private persona, even as they delve into some truly dark subject matter.

The brilliantly impressionistic sequence where Jackie reads aloud from her published children’s book in a cherry-red dressing room exemplifies the interpersonal evolution between the two characters. It’s a surprising narrative dip that explores themes of incest, manipulation, and murder, something closer to an operatic requiem than anything influenced by Grimm’s Fairytales. As Michael listens, confounded at Jackie’s violent and shocking reading, he begins to have visions of the fictional characters referenced in the book, hallucinations bridging her wacked-out prose with his overactive subconscious. While the experience is torment for him, it’s also intoxicating for us—Michael’s sweaty brow and shaken are nerves a direct result of Jackie’s honest artistic expression. One would expect such a pressure-cooker moment in a Polanski film, yetWhat Happened Was…is in some ways even more disturbing, stripping this horrific moment of all genre, denying easy aesthetic access.

After spending a lengthy amount of time in this sublime and menacing headspace, one can easily get caught in film’s vast subtext-driven world. As much as it is about language, What Happened Was… is also about architecture, the way Jackie’s wall of large windows hint at a more dynamic world beyond, creating a kind of reverse-Rear Window effect for the audience to consider. The fleeting amount of time Jackie and Michael spend together once again evokes that striking ellipsis in the title—the endless pursuit of interpersonal connection that feels akin to a life-long process, not a Hollywood ending. It’s as if one moment you’re talking and having a good time, then suddenly everything changes and…

11/03/11 10:37am

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Anthony Mann’s Man of the West screens tonight at 92YTribeca.

In 1958’s Man of the West, the past is a coiled rattlesnake waiting to strike, lurking in the shadowy rock faces and dancing on the howling prairie wind. From the very moment Link Jones (Gary Cooper) re-enters civilized society, the reformed gunslinger hears the threatening rattle of his former life in every casual conversation and inconspicuous glance with strangers. Link’s fears materialize almost immediately when he’s caught up in a botched train robbery perpetrated by a trio of outlaws. Knocked down and left on the side of the tracks, Link, saloon singer Billie (Julie London), and harmless card shark Sam (Arthur O’Connell) seek refuge hoping to find food and shelter. Instead, they stumble upon Link’s former mentor and uncle, the volatile murderer Doc Tobin (a sweltering Lee J. Cobb), whose disintegrating mental state is only protracted by his prodigal nephew’s return. In order to survive, Link must become the violent demon he has spent year’s successfully repressing.

Anthony Mann’s brilliant CinemaScope study in western angles and shapes situates archetypes like they were natural formations of the open landscape. Public displays of humiliation set each standoff in motion, and Mann’s wonderfully fluid camera paces around the action like a circling wolf waiting for the weakest prey to fall. Whether it’s Billie’s forced strip tease performed in front of Doc and his gang, or the knock-down drag-out fisticuffs between Link and his cousin Coaley (Jack Lord) through a small campsite, conflict unfolds as if it were a constant battle between past and present. Generational tension and guilt is personified in the way bodies surround a specific space, slowly close in, and taint what was once pure and innocent.

Whereas Mann defined heroism by his character’s compassion and restraint in The Naked Spur, Link’s survival (and the safety of his friends) is based on primitive aggression. This ideological push into the heart of darkness has its consequences, and Mann doesn’t shy away from the more disturbing elements of his character’s decisions. Man of the West ends in one of Mann’s vintage jagged-edge climaxes, a shootout that bridges the hollowed-out ghost town of Lasso with the steep cliffs surrounding what will become many character’s desert grave. By this point, Link’s emotional terrain is just as riddled with pockmarks as his physical surroundings. The deep wrinkles on his face are like weathered signposts, telling the story of the West in all its disturbing and vengeful glory.

11/02/11 4:00am

Dragonslayer
Directed by Tristan Patterson

Considering the disheveled hair, thickly matted beard, and thousand-yard stare, Josh “Skreech” Sandoval appears suspended in a permanent haze. The professional skateboarder sleepwalks through his daily routine of sporting competitions and drug-fueled house parties, equally drowsy during moments of joy and sadness alike. Early in Dragonslayer, Tristan Patterson’s straggly but earnest documentary on the Orange Country semi-legend, a friend even suggests Sandoval gleefully embraces his life of “random chaos.” Still, despite its masochistic tendencies, Sandoval’s troubled life is constantly punctuated by poetic motion. The film’s most resonant scenes find him gliding through empty swimming pools catching air and self-fulfillment at the same time.

This tonal dichotomy defines Dragonslayer, a story obsessed with the juxtaposition of Josh’s obvious physical talent and unflinching social apathy. Patterson captures Sandoval’s wild and woolly existence, following closely as he confronts new fatherhood and a quickly disintegrating professional sports career. So much of the film is dedicated to the quiet moments of sadness that endlessly dominates Josh’s tumble into adulthood, especially when Patterson pushes him about his young son or devoted girlfriend, Leslie Brown. Time slows down when these subjects are breached, as if the thought of pending responsibility was equivalent to a foreign language Josh is being forced to learn. Patterson’s attentive hand-held camera often lingers on his subject’s face, waiting and watching for some kind of clue to solve this human conundrum.

That a definitive explanation one way or another never comes makes Dragonslayer a very odd yet stirring bit of non-fiction tragedy. Josh embraces his slow motion dive into self-destruction and homelessness (he lives in a tent in a sponsor’s yard), but Patterson resists judgment, focusing on nuances of his life instead of the bitter foregone conclusion to come. Ultimately, one of Josh’s more contradictory quotes sums up his life and Dragonslayer perfectly: “I don’t know what I’m doing, but I totally realize I’m doing it.”

Opens November 4 at Cinema Village