ISSUE 14  WINTERLUDE 2002/2003
page 18 of 27



Movies I've Seen Lately
by Matt Silcock

John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars (John Carpenter, 2001) Wacky movie in which John Carpenter borrows major elements from several of his own movies (Assault on Precinct 13, The Thing, The Fog), slaps 'em all onto Mars, and throws in a bunch of judo battles (oh yeah, Big Trouble in Little China!) between the good guys (a combination of sexy babes and blaxploitation characters) and the bad guys (hordes of murderous 'indigenous peoples' who have a fashion sense somewhere between the Texas Chainsaw Massacre family and Marilyn Manson). With gratuitous battle scenes and its 'weird desert outpost' setting, Ghosts threatens to be another From Dusk 'Til Dawn, but, for all his gleeful B-movie aesthetics, Carpenter has more control than that. (There's also a subtext considering the rights of colonists vs. the colonized....and it's difficult to say which side the movie's on.)

Kwik Stop (Michael Gilio, 2001) In the opening scene, writer/director/lead actor Michael Gilio swaggers into a convenience store, shoplifts, and swaggers out again. He sports a pompadour, sideburns, and a leather jacket, like some young Travolta/Liotta hybrid. A cute girl in the parking lot calls him on his theft. He doesn’t give out too much information about himself and may in fact be up to more criminal things than shoplifting. She bums a ride. Perfect hipster noir fodder, but the movie simply refuses to take any generic turns, ending up somewhere much closer to John Cassavetes than to Doug Liman. As Didi, the girl in the parking lot, lead actress Lara Phillips sees to that. Her performance is goofy, sweet, and odd, and much like Gena Rowlands did during the Cassavetes heyday, she constantly keeps the movie on its toes. Gilio comes off as more of a straight man, but within minutes they’re romancing, exchanging lines like, Him: “You’re weird.” Her: “You’re intense.” “Really? Is that a good thing?” “It’s as good as being weird.” Their road trip may not get very far geographically, but it gets to plenty of places emotionally, involving two more characters wonderfully played by Rich Komenich and Karin Anglin. As a kooky love story, it's better than Minnie and Moskowitz, and as an independent movie (as of this writing, still without a distributor), it's as good as anything I've seen in years.

Bully (Larry Clark, 2001) In which Larry Clark tackles the same obsessions he did in Kids -- the beauty and horror of ill-advised teenage lust -- and this time gets it right. Kids certainly dove into its topic, but the storyline and much of the acting was just too contrived to allow me to forgive Clark his signature mix of honesty and dishonesty. Now Clark has some experience under his belt, and most importantly, he's telling a true crime story (real names be proof), so that all contrivances are the characters' own. The dishonesty is still there -- just ask lead actress Bijou Phillips, who Clark clearly has a leering interest in -- but the honesty is more effective than ever. One scene where two characters at a strip-mall play a violent video game while stoned on LSD is a hilarious and harsh depiction, better realism than anything in Kids. The true story in question is that of a brutal murder by suburban middle-class Florida teenagers. There were 7 accused and 1 victim in the Bobby Kent case, and in this film version every performance is heroic: Brad Renfro, who co-produced, Nick Stahl, who I didn't know about before this (having not seen In The Bedroom), Rachel Miner, in the Lady Macbeth role, Bijou Phillips, in an amazing vision of true-life jailbait, Michael Pitt and Daniel Franzese, who play the aforementioned videogame scene, Kelli Garner, in an amazing vision of true-life teenage death-glam, and Leo Fitzpatrick, who appears in the last third of the movie as "The Hitman," and shows that he has notably matured as an actor since his infamous lead role in Kids.

Fando Y Lis (Alejandro Jodorowsky, 1968) Now I can see why El Topo was such a slow, enervated, and symbolically vapid film; because its auteur, the almost tediously visionary film legend Alejandro Jodorowsky, had already made something of a masterpiece two years earlier, with Fando Y Lis, his very first feature-length film. In a Jodorowsky interview/filmography published in Forced Exposure magazine in 1991, Fando Y Lis was declared 'a lost film’, but it has recently been issued in a fine DVD version that also comes with a decent documentary. Fando Y Lis, like Jodorowsky’s post-Topo return-to-form The Holy Mountain, is more or less a riff on one filmic event: Bunuel & Dali's Un Chien Andalou and its chain of inspired theater-of-cruelty non-sequitirs. Jodorowsky's version is no less audaciously crafted, but there was a reason that An Andalusian Dog was only 14 minutes long -- stretched out to 90 or 120 minutes the Andalusian approach becomes numbing, which has always been a thorn in Jodorowsky's side. Another thing that’s always bothered me about Jodorowsky is that he seems to take his Artaud a little too literally. Here, these cruel tendencies culminate when Fando drags the crippled Lis down a rugged mountain path for a good 100 feet or so. In another scene, Fando y Lis meet a pair of guys who, in an uninterrupted take, use a syringe to draw blood from Lis, empty it into a wine glass, and drink it down. As for the included documentary, it could be better. You get a lot of Jodorowsky hanging out in his study, saying shit like, “I consider myself neither a mystic nor an artist. I am someone who is playing games.” (Got that right!) “All this Chinese, Japanese, and Tibetan stuff goes directly to my balls. Illumination doesn’t exist.” (You tell ‘em, Joddo!) However, making all this sort of stuff worthwhile is about 30 seconds of shocking footage of Jodorowsky’s pre-film career theater troupe, which he called Panique. If the mime sequence in El Topo and all the amazing sets in The Holy Mountain didn’t tell you, Jod’s real talent is the theater, and why someone could put 30 seconds of this amazing footage into a mundane documentary instead of just releasing the whole damn thing as a feature film of its own is beyond me. But either way, this is DEFINITELY a must-have DVD for Jodorowsky aficionados.

Our Lady of the Assassins (Barbet Schroeder, 2000) I've always kept up with the films of Barbet Schroeder, especially when he's not totally sucking Hollywood teat. For this, his latest, he certainly isn't; in fact, it's not even a film, it's a rather cheap looking video. I kept getting PBS Masterpiece Theater vibes from the way Assassins looks, which is strange considering its violence and sexual content. In this film a rather melancholy and apparently successful middle-aged writer named Fernando (played by Germàn Jaramillo, who gets the combination of bon vivant and misanthrope just right), returns to his hometown of Medellin, Colombia after years spent elsewhere. Upon arrival, he meets an angelic teenage boy named Alexis (played by the frankly luminous Anderson Ballesteros) who happens to be a cold-blooded gangland hit-man. Fernando tells him, without further explanation, that he has come back to Medellin to die, and they make love. They move in together and spend their days wandering the gun-ravaged streets. Fernando philosophizes and complains, but Alexis takes care of things in a much more conclusive manner. If you're ready, the result is kind of stunning, like some new cross-cultural city version of Badlands, a meditation on where misanthropy becomes violence, and a slow nightmare vision of how gangs and drugs and guns and poverty are taking over urban space.

Terminal U.S.A. (Jon Moritsugu, 1993) I've heard of and approved of Moritsugu for years, all without having ever seen anything by him. I finally caught up with this 55-minute short made for a public television series on the American family (!). For this production, he found his usual budget of $10,000 skyrocketing to $365,000. The result is a fabulous looking underground movie. Although Moritsugu's anarchic aesthetic easily overpowers any 'bourgeois' production values, the lurid soap opera color scheme is stunning, resulting in a 1993 film that looks like it could have just as easily been made in 1953, 1963, or 1973. As for characters and storyline, it really is what I expected: the tried-and-true post-punk pervo-suburban L.A.-deathride dysfunctional glam-rock family schtick, a whole heaping of Waters with a pint of Gregg Araki stirred in. One young brother is a spaced-out drug pusher menaced by the same ultra-violent thugs that the other young brother, a bookworm math-geek (both are played by Moritsugu), hopes can bring his gay skinhead masturbation fantasies to life. Their sister is horny and easy and is about to manipulated into a career as a sex slave porno actress. Dad is goofy, impotent, and wants to take his family to some sort of promised land (by killing them). Father-in-law is a vegetable, and mom, hooked on his pain medication, is an IV drug user. (Had to be IV drug use in there somewhere, right?) All that, I expected; what I didn't expect was it to be as well-done and outright hilarious as it is. The style of anti-acting that the cast takes and runs with is truly funny; some of the line readings in here have to be heard to be believed.

Rosemary's Baby (Roman Polanski, 1969) One of the reasons I married my wife, besides just loving her and all that, was that she always surprised me with her insights on books she’d read and movies she’d seen. No matter how much I had gotten out of the same book or movie, she had some simple statement that made me see it in a whole new light. Recently she really knocked me for a loop with a comment about Rosemary’s Baby. A horror movie about pregnancy, I considered it one of the most uncomfortable movies I’d ever seen – talk about hitting you where you live. We watched it together on video about 4 or 5 years ago and haven’t seen it since, but just a week or so ago Caryn, after thinking a bit, asked out of the blue, “What happens at the end of Rosemary’s Baby?” “All the satanists are gathered around celebrating the son of satan being born,” I answered. “Do we see the baby?” “No, we never see the baby. There’s a camera from the point of view of the baby, like from inside the carriage, and she just looks down at it and smiles and reaches out to it or whatever, showing that she’s part of the clan.” “Well, how do we know that they’re all satanists?” “Whuh???” “Maybe they’re not really satanists, and most of the movie is a fantasy sequence, like a metaphor for her paranoia and pregnancy weirdness, and then at the end she smiles because she realizes everything is okay and she’s had a normal child and all the people who were scaring her really are just her friends after all.” I mean, holy shit…she could be right!

Love Streams (John Cassavetes, 1984) What a fucking film. Somehow way overlong without having a single superfluous scene, this is Cassavetes at his most aggravating, achieving one of his grandest overall gestures: simply, a man saying goodbye to his loved ones and the rest of the world from inside his house. He’s holed himself up for good, physically and spiritually, and that's really all this epic is about. The house theory isn’t mine, I just read it a couple weeks ago at, in an essay by Adrian Martin called "John Cassavetes: Inventor of Forms," which says, "The house in Love all at once a home, a club, a menagerie, the set for Prospero's imaginings, and Noah's Ark during the great flood. The house is the film's generative space: the entire course of the story follows the uncertain lineaments of this architectural, habitable marvel into hallucination, reverie, madness." I think Love Streams is Cassavetes' best film. Until I saw this, my pick was Opening Night. The canonical choice would be probably be Faces....Okay, call Love Streams the third best Cassavetes film. With a bullet.

Atanarjuat, The Fast Runner (Zacharias Kunuk, 2001) Nice to have a three-hour long film about Native American (Canadian, to be exact) culture that doesn't have a Kevin Costner 'white guide' figure to lead the viewer through it. No, The Fast Runner puts you, not Kevin Costner, squarely inside the igloo, sitting next to these cold raw-meat eating peoples who've never seen a white man and never will and you've gotta get used to it. The experience is almost science fiction (those huge landscape shots straight outta 2001 help) except that everything, besides a pinch of folktale magic here and there, seems irrefutably like fact. I was thinking, "Yeah, this could be set in contemporary times," until I read that it was set at "the dawn of the first millenium." Oh well. When you live inside the Arctic Circle, I guess descriptors like 'contemporary' don't matter so much. This film puts you there.

Nude On The Moon (Doris Wishman, 1964) They certainly don't make 'em like this anymore. After seeing a couple vintage Doris Wishman flicks, you might confuse Ed Wood with Orson Welles. Two guys travel to the moon by putting on construction coveralls and getting into the cab of a semi truck. They shift a couple gears and flip a couple of switches on the air conditioning. When they run out of pseudo-astronaut things to do, Doris has 'em just fall asleep, then shakes the camera to signify the 'landing.' They wake up and go, "Well, we're here!" They get out and it's all sunny and green and filled with palm trees (not to mention plenty of oxygen) because it's actually Florida. That this isn't what the moon is really like isn't explained whatsoever, except by one of the astronauts saying, "Wow, it sure is nice here on the moon!" Jeez, I can't go on with the review, because it's just too brilliantly audacious for words. (Oh yeah, all this gloriously rushed exposition takes place because Wishman is in a hurry to get to the ticket-selling plot point: the moon is inhabited by a bunch of nude women.)

Possession (Andrzej Zurlawski, 1981) After going through a difficult divorce, visually brilliant and thematically stupid Polish director Andzrej Zulawksi pitched to some filthy rich investor a movie about “a woman who fucks with an octopus.” For some reason the investor went for it, and the result was this repulsive and obscenely over-budgeted movie, much worse than even the pitch makes it sound. A young Sam Neill plays the least likably estranged husband in history, and Isabelle Adjani plays his severely troubled wife. She really does fuck with an octopus, a tentacled Carlo “E.T.” Rambaldi-designed symbol of some kind that she keeps hidden away in a secret apartment. Oh yeah, it's also her child. Meanwhile, at her other apartment, she and Neill thrash around and scream in divorce fights that make the most histrionic family moments in a Cassavetes film seem like the Steve Martin remake of Father of the Bride. At every turn, in between all the stunning tracking shots of alienating post-modern interiors, Zurlawski gratuitously puts his characters through ridiculous and ultra-violent decisions and situations. For example, during one argument in a kitchen, Adjani’s clearly lunatic character frantically works away with a carving knife and a meat grinder; what happens next isn’t exactly a surprise. The acting in this movie is really obnoxious all around – only notable for its decadent extremity. Somehow Adjani won Best Actress awards at Cannes. They should’ve just given it to Georgina Spelvin or Linda Lovelace. Sure, there are images and sequences in here that are unforgettable, but I’m sure witnessing a murder or other shocking crime is unforgettable too, and if a viewer gets his kicks from merely collecting extreme images for his 21st-century mental rolodex, he probably shouldn’t miss Possession. After it’s over, Zulawski’s overblown vision of total marital breakdown does have some staying power, but that is no reason to sit through all 141 muddled minutes.

Eyes Without A Face (Georges Franju, 1959) I can’t imagine how downright creepy this must have been when it came out, because it’s still very unsettling. At first it seems possibly too low-key and slow-moving, but then the unforgettable central image of a disfigured young woman made to wear an eerie mask appears, and a disturbing story starts to take shape around it. Almost every moment that follows is a textbook of how to do perverse horror with class and calmness, a lesson that Hollywood simply can’t get right anymore. (BTW, I think that Georges Sluizer drew heavily on this film for his The Vanishing, right down to the character of the calm, intelligent, and bearded psychopath doctor that both movies share.)

Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001) I really don’t feel like interpreting the uninterpretable right now. I did enjoy the first hour and 45 minutes immensely, with a classic noir storyline (it's an amnesia picture!) given the most deadpan Lynchian treatment yet, but, just as in Lost Highway, at some point everything just changes. It’s like a bizarro-world mystery story; there are plenty of clues, but each one somehow leads the viewer further from the solution. I guess it’s simple, really: a film about how Hollywood kills naivete, but there's just so much to unpack. I really dug it, though; the sumptious/clinical L.A. setting, the hot lesbian love-making, and all the bizarrely Lynchian walk-on characters like Michael Des Barres as Cowboy Billy, Billy Ray Cyrus as the pool guy, somebody as the hipster director, and of course somebody as the monster-man who lives behind the Denny's. (Seemed to be a continuation of the "Man in the Planet" character from Eraserhead, but I'm not really a fully accredited student of Lynch or anything.)

L'Eau Froide/Cold Water (Olivier Assayas, 1994) Just a few weeks ago Newsweek had a cover story on depression among middle-class teenagers, but writer/director Olivier Assayas was already on the case with this devastating fiction film. It was set in 1972, and commissioned by French Public Television in 1994 as part of a series in which directors were asked to make a film set in the years of their youth. It seems strange to even say that this movie was made in 1994, because it feels so much like 1972 and 1982 and 2002 that I really had no idea when it was made. (That's what critics mean by the adjective "timeless.") In some ways this could be Assayas's tribute to Bresson's The Devil, Probably, which he wrote an essay about during his stint as a film critic. Certainly Gilles (Cyprien Fouquet), the young male lead who steals, gives explosives to little kids, fails in school, and yells at his father, is as tragic of a character as Bresson's Charles. But the main character is his girlfriend, Christine, played tragically and luminously by Virginie Ledoyen. Much has been said about this film's extended bonfire party sequence, and it is something, but not in any 'teen party' sense you may be accustomed to from American films. Mostly, it made me feel like crying, and after the end credits rolled and the house lights came up, I felt as sad as I've ever felt upon finishing a film. (At the same time, no other film I've seen captures the fleeting beauty of great rock music like Cold Water. Dylan's "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" sets a devastating tone during the party sequence, and there's a thrilling sequence when Gilles and his younger brother surreptitiously tune in Roxy Music's "Virginia Plain" on a transistor radio in their kitchen.)

CQ (Roman Coppola, 2001) Couldn't quite make it through this on DVD. It's supposed to be set in 1968 or 1969, but Austin Powers and Barbarella homages alone do not a period piece make. Maybe it's because Jeremy Davies plays exactly the kind of dishevelled, affectedly soft-spoken aspiring filmmaker I seem to meet once a week here in 2002. Oh, I guess it is 1969, though, because he wears a suit everywhere. Jason Schwartzmann is supposed to be intentionally annoying as a hot-shot wanna-be film director, but he's also unintentionally annoying. Just like this movie. As far as Coppola family nepotism goes, The Virgin Suicides was a lot better.

*Corpus Callosum (Michael Snow, 2001) I’ve never seen the famous Wavelength, or anything else by Snow, until this. It was shot on digital video, and lasts 90 minutes with a vertical (as opposed to the usual horizontal) storyline, features a lot of trickery and goofiness, and was called “the best feature film I’ve seen so far this year” by Jonathan Rosenbaum. Well, Johnny, I love your work, but I don’t know if I’d go that far. It is a pretty exhausting, disorienting experience, although a lot of that has to do with the rather harsh noise on the soundtrack, which sometimes gets so loud that several people in the audience I saw it with were holding their ears. There is a lot of dry wit and imaginative stuff going on, some of which I won’t soon forget, and it all has something to say about the way we pass the day in the so-called 'cubical culture,' without forgetting the cubicals we have at home. Technology and artifice in general are also heavily commented on, at first obliquely, but with a lot of staying power. I'm still thinking about this one almost every day -- maybe Rosenbaum was right.

Hugo Pool (Robert Downey, 1997) This is my first Downey film; I haven't even seen Putney Swope. I'm sure some will say that I shouldn't have started with this one, but I ended up really liking it a lot. Sure, it's 'flawed' -- in fact, it's deeply disturbed, and, at several moments during the elliptical narrative, characters seem to be stranded onscreen without dialogue, unable to ad lib. But I ended up liking almost every single member of the big, weird cast of characters. Maybe I was distracted by her beauty, but I thought Alyssa Milano's performance was excellent in the lead role, as a young woman named Hugo Dugay who runs her family pool-cleaning business. Malcom McDowell, adopting a not-all-there New York gangster accent, plays her ex-junkie father, and Cathy Moriarty plays her compulsive gambling mother, only about two steps from full-on floozy-hood. She has a love interest, Patrick Dempsey, looking very handsome as a client with Lou Gehrig's disease who speaks Stephen Hawking-style through a laptop computer. His performance is great too, radiating calmness and inner serenity. And Sean Penn, as a character who I believe to be a figment of McDowell's character's imagination, gives my favorite performance of his since Fast Times At Ridgemont High!

Blow (Ted Demme, 2001) The original Yo! MTV Raps is the late Ted Demme's greatest contribution to the culture. (Possibly MTV's too.) As for his movies, this may be his magnum opus, but it's still Scorcese Lite. I knew it was a true story, but during the first few scenes, set in Manhattan Beach, California, I started to wonder....when did this story take place? 1990? 1981? 1978? When the next title card read "1969" I was a bit taken aback. Johnny Depp is always good, and I mean ALWAYS. Here, he even shows an ability to act well while wearing an increasingly goofy series of long-hair wigs. (Don't miss the brief appearance of a handlebar moustache during a montage with the Allman Brothers on the soundtrack.) Dubious costuming aside, like any post-Goodfellas movie about the life of a drug dealer, Blow spends most of its running time showing how profitable, easy, and glamorous of a business it is, before tacking on the requisite ten-minute coda about why you should avoid these vast riches and pleasures at all costs. Actually, Blow's ten-minute coda was surprisingly moving. And props go to Max Perlich, in a smaller part.

Bowling For Columbine (Michael Moore, 2002) I've never even really been a Michael Moore fan, but I know a cry from the heart and soul when I see it and with this film essay Moore has done it. The tone -- rambling, usually entertaining, sometimes hilarious -- reminds me of Roger & Me, but this is a movie about gun violence, which means that it's also sometimes heartbreaking. Moore's discursiveness and digressiveness reminds me of another movie I just saw, Agnes Varda's The Gleaners and I, which I say just to point out that this is not some goofy 'let's take on those evil corporations' propaganda piece. This movie will make you sad, and, hopefully, pretty goddamn angry; after one clip of a smug and conniving George W. Bush I actually said "fuck you" out loud to the screen. Usually when filmmakers try to provoke me, I end up being mad at the filmmaker, but Moore does it correctly, so that I end up being mad at someone else. In this case, it's our thieving, conniving president of course, but also our entire fucking mass media. He asks a simple question: Why does America have 11,000 gun deaths a year while the second highest nation in the world is under 400? He rules out the usual liberal-arts apologies (Moore is a card-carrying member of the NRA); one, that we have more guns than any other country (Canada has more per capita), and two, that violence is part of our national history (Russia and Germany have both killed more people). Amazingly, Moore (with a lot of help from Marilyn Manson and South Park co-creator Matt Stone, who both offer some of the most reasonable cultural critique I've heard in a while), finds a new explanation: that we live in a culture of fear, created, simply, by American mass media, in which 'the national news' is in reality 'the national warnings,' whether of the West Nile Virus or of Weapons of Mass Destruction (all those except our own), or, for god's sake, "Africanized" killer bees. (The section where he demonstrates how rude our mass media is to the African-American is infuriating and thank god he did it.)


Cassavetes and Rowlands in Love Streams



next page: why not some book reviews?