RETRO REVIEW Still Trapped in the Overlook After All These Years: The Plaza Theatre Presents Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING and Documentary ROOM 237!

Posted on: Jun 6th, 2014 By:

THE SHINING (1980); Dir. Stanley Kubrick; Starring Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd and Scatman Crothers; Friday, June 6–Thursday, June 12 (see Plaza website for times and ticket prices); Plaza Theatre; Trailer here.

ROOM 237 (2012); Dir. Rodney Ascher; Starring Bill Blakemore, Geoffrey Cocks, Juli Kearns, John Fell Ryan and Jay Weidner; Friday, June 6–Thursday, June 12 (see Plaza website for times and ticket prices); Plaza Theatre; Trailer here.

By Aleck Bennett
Contributing Writer

The Plaza Theatre is presenting an intriguing pairing of films this month. Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece of horror, THE SHINING, is being coupled with Rodney Ascher’s documentary on that film’s obsessives, ROOM 237. See both: marvel at Kubrick’s handiwork and then marvel at the interpretations offered up by the movie’s most hardcore fans.

Recovering alcoholic Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) has just accepted a job as the winter caretaker of the Overlook Hotel. The hotel, which was built on an Indian burial ground, gets snowed in and inaccessible during the winter, and constant care must be taken to ensure that the elements don’t take a toll on the building during those harsh months. The Overlook also has a troubled history—the previous caretaker lost his mind and killed himself and his family, and other horrors are suggested to have occurred during its many years of operation. Jack sees this assignment as a perfect time to get some writing done, and to rebuild his relationship with his family: wife Wendy and son Danny (Shelley Duvall and Danny Lloyd). However, Danny has “the shining”—the power of telepathy, and the ability to see visions of past and future events…a power that the hotel itself seems to share, and which could bring down the already-unstable walls of sanity that Jack Torrance has tried so hard to build.

Okay, last time we spoke, I described MARK OF THE VAMPIRE as being one of the more controversial classic horror movies. Well, THE SHINING is probably the most controversial modern horror film. It seems that most folks find no middle ground when discussing this movie: it’s either one of the greatest horror films of all time, or it’s an overrated piece of tripe. Very few people come away from it thinking “meh, that was okay.”

Why is that? Well, there are a number of reasons.

Firstly, there’s the temperament of the viewer, and a lot depends on how they feel about the change in direction Stanley Kubrick’s films took with his 1968 science fiction epic 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. While his earlier films are certainly full of extended takes, deep focus and long tracking shots, those films are also more dynamic—typically full of emotionally-charged, dramatic moments. 2001 established that he was unafraid of presenting long takes in a quiet and lingering manner that seemed to examine the characters from a distance. The shots seem to emphasize the isolation of his movies’ central characters in an oppressive, surrounding environment. Paradoxically, the combination of deep focus and extended shot length creates an immersive experience: the viewer feels the same overwhelming subjective experience of the film’s characters, but the tone of Kubrick’s approach keeps the viewer knowingly at arm’s length from those characters. The viewer feels as if he or she is there, but still distanced from the action. Depending on your taste, you can find this compelling and suspenseful, or you can find it cold, detached and boring.

Secondly, there’s the question of fidelity to the film’s source. Stephen King has never cared for this adaptation of his novel (though his initial hatred of it has calmed over time). And that’s kind of understandable. The novel was written largely as a way of dealing with his own alcoholism and the anger issues he encountered as a husband and father, and to see his sympathetic stand-in Jack Torrance depicted as being pretty well off his nut right out of the gate…well, I might take it personally too. Beyond the treatment of Jack Torrance, King has been consistent in his criticism that the film abandons many of his own novel’s themes. King also felt that Kubrick (being a staunch atheist) tried to muddy the waters of the supposed reality of the ghosts that haunt the Overlook Hotel—that he shifted the balance too far in suggesting that the spirits seen are all products of the mind’s eye. So if you’re among those who feel that a filmed adaptation needs to remain as faithful to its source as possible (particularly if you’re also a fan of King’s novel), you may walk away disappointed.

Thirdly, there’s the question of the acting in the film. To be sure, everyone’s performances in the movie are pitched over the threshold of what is considered normal. Jack, Wendy and Danny are all higher-strung than your everyday family members. Jack isn’t just crazy, he’s berserk. Wendy’s not just growing more upset, she’s panic-stricken. Danny isn’t just frightened, he’s rendered wide-eyed and speechless. And it’s easy to get rubbed the wrong way by what can be seen as overacting.

But, man, I can’t get on board with any of those criticisms.

I’m a huge fan of Kubrick’s technique. His utilization of these long takes creates a tension that I find nearly unbearable. The viewer remains merely and consciously an observer to what’s going on. And as you witness the events of THE SHINING snowballing while the film progresses, it’s as if the film’s compositional structure itself is telling you that there’s not a single thing you can do to help these people. You can sympathize with them if you like, but you remain at a distance. It is a detached aesthetic, yes, but there is purpose behind it.

Also, when it comes to fidelity to source material, a filmmaker should not be forced into a promise to remain faithful to any work they’re adapting. Film and literature are two completely different animals; what works in one does not necessarily work in the other. And an adaptation is an interpretation by definition, not a direct copy of what is being referenced. Criticizing THE SHINING for straying from King’s novel is like criticizing Picasso for not painting a photorealistic depiction of the bombing of Guernica, or John Coltrane for recording a My Favorite Things that only glances occasionally at Rodgers and Hammerstein’s original composition. Kubrick has his own goals, and uses King’s source as a jumping-off point to achieve those goals. Judge his film on its own terms, not the terms King lays down in his novel. (If a close adaptation is what you seek, search out the 1997 TV mini-series. It’s remarkably close to its source novel, thanks to King adapting his own novel for the screen, while faithful King director Mick Garris helms the production. It’s also dreadful.)

(Side note and potential spoiler: Kubrick fully expects you to come away believing that the ghosts are real. His aim, stated in interviews at the time, was to have the viewer question whether the hotel is really haunted, or if the visions are the product of Jack and Danny’s haunted minds until the latter choice becomes impossible. Ask yourself this: if the ghosts aren’t real, who opens the supply room door?)

And then there’s the acting. I agree that it can be over-the-top. However, some things should be kept in mind: both Wendy and Danny are still traumatized by the abusive acts of Jack Torrance (which are only hinted at; one event of abuse is detailed, wherein Jack broke the young Danny’s arm, but the implication is that this is the only thing he did that left a physical mark and that Wendy is able to admit). So “naturalistic” acting is probably not something that would fit. Wendy is constantly in a nervous state of denial. Danny is withdrawn and in a constant state of unease. Additionally, everyone’s fragile state of mind is being affected by the presence of the power that permeates the very walls of the Overlook Hotel. And then there’s the technical issue that all of the actors simply must deliver large performances, lest they be completely overwhelmed by their surroundings. The Overlook is such a huge, overpowering presence, that meeker performances would be lost in competition.

And let’s not forget the set design of the Overlook itself. It doesn’t make any sense. Look at it. Windows to the outside are present in rooms nowhere near an outside wall. Paths taken through the hotel don’t add up. It is subconsciously upsetting because we constantly get a sense that something is wrong, but we can’t quite put our finger on why. The “why” is that we try to force a logical layout on the landscape that is rejected by the hotel itself. The Overlook is like some Escher-esque labyrinth of madness, waiting to ensnare anyone who wanders inside and who is sensitive to its forces. The repeated patterns of the hotel’s décor lull us into accepting that this is order. But these merely disguise the chaos that undulates underneath this superficial fabric.

(In case I’m not making myself clear here, I love this movie.)

In short, it’s a masterpiece of horror cinema, and one of Kubrick’s most towering achievements. And like all great works of art, it has inspired debate and subjective interpretation. This is where Rodney Ascher’s documentary ROOM 237 comes in. Told entirely in voiceover and using a brilliantly conceived montage of images from Kubrick’s filmography and sources as disparate as SCHINDLER’S LIST and Lamberto Bava’s DEMONS, the film details the many theories and interpretations of Kubrick’s movie. These theories range from the outlandish (THE SHINING is an apology for Kubrick’s alleged part in faking the moon landing) to the less-outlandish (THE SHINING is a metaphor for the constant recurrence of violence in America) to the “let’s sync up THE WIZARD OF OZ and DARK SIDE OF THE MOON, man!” level of stoned college student ingenuity (THE SHINING is meant to be played forward and backward at the same time).

Smartly, the documentary doesn’t take a stance; just presents each person’s take on the film without judgment and allows you to evaluate each wildly differing interpretation on your own. For my money, the structure of the documentary is a little haphazard, jumping around from viewpoint to viewpoint, but it’s hard to argue with the ultimate brunt of Ascher’s film. This isn’t really about THE SHINING. This is about obsessive fandom. This is about film geekery. And to the subjects of ROOM 237, THE SHINING is like that elusive monolith in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. It stands impenetrable, but if you could only touch it, it could unlock untold worlds. All of the narrators feel like they’ve touched it and come away with The Truth. But in reality, they’ve been sucked into the labyrinth that is the Overlook Hotel just like poor Jack Torrance. It’s just not quite as unsettling to see them navigate their way around it.

Aleck Bennett is a writer, blogger, pug warden, pop culture enthusiast, raconteur and bon vivant from the greater Atlanta area. Visit his blog at doctorsardonicus.wordpress.com

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RETRO REVIEW: CIAO BELA! Celebrate the Legacy of Lugosi With a Week of Rare Screenings at the Plaza Theatre!

Posted on: May 27th, 2014 By:

The Plaza Theatre presents the Bela Lugosi Film Festival; Starts Friday, May 30 @ 8:00 p.m., final show Thursday, June 5 @ 8:45 p.m.; Plaza Theatre; Schedule here; Tickets $5.00 per screening, available at Plaza box office.

By Aleck Bennett
Contributing Writer

The Plaza Theatre is taking a week to honor the legacy of one of the greatest icons of horror to ever grace the silver screen, Bela Lugosi. And in doing so, they’re avoiding the obvious choices of programming; there’s no DRACULA, nor any of the films he appeared in for Edward D. Wood, Jr. Instead, we’re getting treated to a wide variety of his lesser-seen films, ranging from major studio productions (MGM’s MARK OF THE VAMPIRE—see our Retro Review here—and 20th Century Fox’s THE GORILLA) to his most accomplished independent film (the brilliant WHITE ZOMBIE, which we’ve covered here), and the rest of the roster is filled with a sampling of the work he did for what was then known as Hollywood’s “Poverty Row” studios.

Born in Lugos, Hungary (previously part of Transylvania, now part of Romania) in 1882, Béla Ferenc Dezső Blaskó had aspirations to stardom. He found success on the local stage in his late teens, which prompted him to move to Budapest and join the National Theatre of Hungary, where he played numerous roles both before and after World War I, where he served on the Russian front. After his return, his political activism as part of organizing an actors’ union resulted in his fleeing the country after the Hungarian Revolution failure in 1919 made life difficult for those perceived to be leftist agitators. He made his way to New Orleans on a merchant ship, adopted the surname “Lugosi” to honor his birthplace, and began working the stage in New York, forming a stock company with fellow Hungarian actors and performing for immigrant audiences. Soon, Broadway beckoned, and Lugosi was quick to answer her call. After a series of successful parts in comedies and melodramas, he was approached with the role that would change the course of his life.

In 1927, he was cast in the title role of the smash Broadway adaptation of DRACULA. It ran for 261 performances before touring the country during 1928-29. Despite the play’s phenomenal success, when Universal optioned it for a motion picture, Lugosi was not their initial choice. But Lugosi lobbied hard for the part, accepting a smaller salary—only $500 a week—in return for having his acclaimed stage performance immortalized on the screen.

However, because Lugosi was so effective in his role, he quickly became typecast as a horror “heavy,” playing villains at nearly every turn, no matter how often he tried to demonstrate his versatility. And even though he proved a box-office draw during his time at Universal, he frequently found himself second-billed to co-stars like Boris Karloff, or cast in smaller roles. Sometimes those roles were instantly memorable—such as that of Ygor in Universal’s series of FRANKENSTEIN sequels—but other times, he found himself playing butlers or other domestics, most often as a red herring in some convoluted mystery plot. But a 1936 regime change in Universal, combined with a ban on horror films in the UK, led to Lugosi’s fall from favor with the studio and his decision to turn to the smaller studios of Poverty Row to supplement his income.

“Poverty Row” was an umbrella term for the plethora of smaller, independent studios that popped up in Hollywood’s golden age to capitalize on the need for cheap films to fill out the “B” slots of double-feature bills (hence, “B-movies”). Because the pictures were made quickly, even though they didn’t pay well, a featured player could get consistent work. Cast into Hollywood’s forsaken jungle hell, Lugosi could prove that he was all right. And it’s in these films, where we’re neither seeing the Universal “superstar” Lugosi, nor the Ed Wood films where he’s been unfairly regarded as an on-the-skids camp figure, where we can get a picture of Lugosi the working actor. Just an honest guy plying his trade. And while some of the films are more ludicrous than others, they’re all chances to witness that no matter how low the budget or how silly the concept, Bela Lugosi gave them his all. Frequently relegated to public domain home video releases, these movies are rarely shown in theaters, as they’re not instantly recognizable titles like DRACULA. So it’s a rare treat to see them once again where they belong.

THE CORPSE VANISHES (1942, Monogram Pictures) is one of the more lurid low-budget exploitationers of the 1940s. Here, Lugosi plays Dr. Lorenz, a horticulturist and mad scientist, who needs glandular excretions from virgin women to restore the youth and beauty of his octogenarian wife. He uses poisoned orchids to place young brides—at their weddings, yet—in suspended animation, and drags them back to his laboratory. Reporter Patricia Hunter (Luana Walters) is hot on his trail, however, and is determined to uncover the mystery of the orchid killer. Lugosi shows a great deal of restraint in his portrayal, which contrasts with the over-the-top aspect of the scenario, while the film displays tight pacing and a real sense of suspense. As a result, THE CORPSE VANISHES is one of Lugosi’s best Poverty Row horrors.

Keeping in tone with the “Lugosi distributes pleasant-smelling objects that wind up killing people” theme of the previous night, THE DEVIL BAT (1940, Producers Releasing Corporation) finds cosmetic chemist Dr. Paul Carruthers passing out “test samples” of his new after-shave lotion to those who have wronged him. Unbeknownst to his victims, Carruthers has been breeding giant bats, trained to attack those who wear the scent of doom. Here, Lugosi is deliciously over-the-top in his performance, relishing every bit of evil he sows forth. As the film takes a much more comic tone than THE CORPSE VANISHES, Lugosi’s portrayal supports the movie’s aims, establishing a kind of proto-ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES on the cheap. It was so successful, PRC made a sequel (without Lugosi), DEVIL BAT’S DAUGHTER.

INVISIBLE GHOST (1940, Monogram Pictures) finds Lugosi playing a Jekyll-and-Hyde role as Dr. Kessler, a normal family man who falls into a murderous trance-like state whenever he sees his wife, whom he believes to be dead, but is really just living in the gardener’s shed. The plot is absolutely ridiculous, but the film is salvaged by the inspired visual flair of celebrated B-movie auteur Joseph H. Lewis and Lugosi’s nuanced performance. The film is very nearly stolen, however, by Clarence Muse as Lugosi’s butler, Evans. While most roles for African-Americans in this era fell into broad caricature and stereotype, Muse remains intelligent, strong and dignified throughout.

In THE GORILLA (1939, 20th Century Fox), one of the rare non-Poverty Row productions on display here (yet one whose lapse into the public domain has placed it alongside them), Bela plays second fiddle to the Ritz Brothers, Fox’s answer to the Marx Brothers. Playing a butler, Lugosi is largely just there as sinister window dressing while the Ritz boys and Patsy Kelly (longtime star of stage and screen, she is, however, best known today as Laura-Louise in ROSEMARY’S BABY) clown around. It’s a spoof of the “old dark house” sub-genre, wherein the Ritzes are bumbling detectives protecting a wealthy attorney (Lionel Atwill) from a murderer known as “the Gorilla” while an actual escaped gorilla shows up at the estate. Everybody’s a suspect, and of course, all eyes are on Bela. It’s a shame he’s not given more to do, as Lugosi is in fine form, but the zany comedy keeps things moving along nicely.

We wrap things up by staying on the simian side of the street with one of Lugosi’s most insane, yet jaw-droppingly entertaining, motion pictures: BELA LUGOSI MEETS A BROOKLYN GORILLA (1952, Realart Pictures). What can I say about this movie? Where else can you see the musical comedy team of Duke Mitchell and Sammy Petrillo carry out the most blatant rip-off of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis ever committed to celluloid? (Paramount studio head Hal Wallis, who had Martin and Lewis under contract, tried to purchase the movie in order to have it destroyed. They just couldn’t settle on a price.) Where else can you see Bela Lugosi on a tropical island planning to turn a man into a monkey? Lugosi, as always, gives it his all against the wacky backdrop, despite the fact that he was in poor health and hadn’t worked since 1946. People like to say that Lugosi’s Ed Wood pictures were his nadir, but at least those were earnest pictures. They were sincerely done. With this movie, though…who the hell knows what was going on in the filmmakers’ minds other than “let’s cash in on Lugosi’s name by pairing him with low-rent Martin & Lewis imitators?” And even then, you have to wonder why they were thinking that in the first place. It’s not like some time-tested means of making a profit. It’s just so gob-smackingly weird that I find it completely enthralling. It’s got to be seen to be believed, and even then you might not believe it. And to see it on the big screen? You gotta be kidding me.

So, that’s it. It’s nearly a week’s worth of Lugosi the working man. Giving it his all in movies that, frankly, probably didn’t deserve him (aside from the amazing MARK OF THE VAMPIRE and WHITE ZOMBIE, of course). But in movies that are made all the more remarkable and entertaining by his presence. Movies that were enriched by his old world style and class. It’s a rare theatrical treat that should not be missed by anyone who considers themselves a fan of the man, a student of cinema history or a horror movie aficionado. Because while these movies have long been easy to overlook, they—and the history they represent—are a vital part of the legacy of Béla Ferenc Dezső Blaskó. May they live forever.

Aleck Bennett is a writer, blogger, pug warden, pop culture enthusiast, raconteur and bon vivant from the greater Atlanta area. Visit his blog at doctorsardonicus.wordpress.com

Category: Features, Retro Review | TAGS: None

RETRO REVIEW: MARK OF THE VAMPIRE! An Alluring But Controversial Lugosi/Browning Classic Haunts the Big Screen Once More the Plaza Theatre

Posted on: May 26th, 2014 By:

MARK OF THE VAMPIRE (1935); Dir. Tod Browning; Starring Bela Lugosi, Carroll Borland, Lionel Barrymore and Elizabeth Allan; Friday, May 30 (8:00 p.m., 9:45 p.m. and 11:00 p.m.), Saturday, May 31 (8:45 p.m.) and Sunday, June 1 (5:30 p.m. and 7:00 p.m.); Plaza Theatre; Tickets $5.00; Trailer here.

By Aleck Bennett
Contributing Writer

As part of the Plaza Theatre’s week-long celebration of Bela Lugosi starting Friday May 30 (full preview here), one of his greatest—and most controversial—motion pictures gets a rare screening: his final collaboration with director Tod Browning, 1935’s MARK OF THE VAMPIRE!

Prague, 1935. An aristocrat is found dead, drained of blood, with two puncture wounds on his neck. The locals believe that vampires—in the form of Count Mora (Bela Lugosi) and his daughter Luna (Carroll Borland), whom they believe haunt the nearby castle—are responsible for the murder. Police inspector Professor Zeren (Lionel Barrymore) is skeptical, however, and is determined to get to the bottom of the mystery behind the mark of the vampire.

Tod Browning was in need of some luck. He’d had a stellar career making deliciously twisted silent features, most notably starring the incredible Lon Chaney. He was hired by Universal Studios to direct 1931’s DRACULA starring Bela Lugosi (with whom he’d worked on 1929’s THE THIRTEENTH CHAIR). Despite the film’s success, Universal was unhappy with Browning’s work, and he moved to MGM to direct 1932’s FREAKS. That film proved so scandalous and controversial (and commercially unsuccessful) at the time that Browning’s career came to a screeching halt. So, when MGM accepted his proposal to helm a remake of his 1927 silent LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT (now considered a lost film, with the last known print destroyed in a 1967 fire), he was determined to make the most of it.

And he nearly pulled it off. Despite the film’s more unsavory aspects being removed (implications of incest between Mora and Luna, which resulted in Mora’s suicide and the pair condemned to an eternity of living death) and the film’s trimming from 75 to 61 minutes, the film works like gangbusters. Up to a point, that is.

You see, in the realm of classic horror, few films are as debated as hotly as MARK OF THE VAMPIRE. All of the ingredients of a Golden Age classic are there: a menacing, wordless performance by Bela Lugosi as Count Mora; Carroll Borland as his daughter, Luna, establishing a visual template followed by Maila “Vampira” Nurmi and Morticia Addams; and the deft, atmospheric direction of Tod Browning.

So, what’s the deal?

It’s the twist ending that provides the film’s payoff. It’s an ending that negates everything that came before. Things we have seen with our own eyes are now established as having been impossible. It’s a cheat. Even Bela thought it was ridiculous and pleaded with Tod Browning to change it. A much better ending (that even kept the light tone of the original’s) was suggested, and Browning refused to change course. I’m not going to spill the beans by detailing what happens, but it’s really impossible to talk about MARK OF THE VAMPIRE without bringing up the fact that many see the twist as a crushing disappointment.

And I’m right there with them. It’s such a blow to the film because the rest of it is so good. It’s largely the film that DRACULA could have been if Browning hadn’t been hamstrung by Universal’s budget-pinching measures. (The studio had recently sunk a lot of money into THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, and was facing financial difficulties due to the Great Depression. Unconvinced that the horror thing would pay off, DRACULA had many elaborate scenes scrapped and wound up hewing closely to the play in staging the film.) MARK OF THE VAMPIRE’s sets are sumptuous. The effects scenes are brilliantly pulled off, with Luna soaring on bat’s wings and Count Mora materializing out of mist. The photography by legendary cinematographer James Wong Howe is glorious. The performances of stage/screen legend Lionel Barrymore and Elizabeth Allan are rock-solid and ground the film firmly. The supporting cast (especially Lionel Atwill as Inspector Neumann and Donald Meek as the timid Dr. Doskil) is delightful. It all comes together so beautifully, only to be sold so short by an ending that aims for cleverness and lands in clunkiness.

If you can forgive the film its ending, there is so much there to enjoy. Just discount what you see happen on screen after the mystery has been solved, and imagine that Lionel Barrymore’s Professor Zelen receives a telegram saying something like “Sorry, can’t make it. Train held up at the station. Hope everything works out,” and you’ll walk out of the theater a happier person. But to miss the film on the big screen is to miss one of the best—yet one of the most unheralded—vampire pictures ever to come out of Hollywood’s classic era. Or at least 90 percent of one.

Aleck Bennett is a writer, blogger, pug warden, pop culture enthusiast, raconteur and bon vivant from the greater Atlanta area. Visit his blog at doctorsardonicus.wordpress.com

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RETRO REVIEW: Hanging Out With MOTHER, JUGS & SPEED at The Strand

Posted on: May 17th, 2014 By:

MOTHER, JUGS & SPEED (1976); Dir. Peter Yates; Starring Bill Cosby, Raquel Welch, Harvey Keitel, Larry Hagman;  May 18 at the Strand Theatre @ 3:00 PM.

By Andrew Kemp
Contributing Writer

One of the truest joys of watching retro movies is that so many of them could never, ever be made today. We like to think of culture as a steady march of progress, but it’s more like a cycle of tides, with some particular mood cresting before receding, like the way the risqué shocks of the 1920s eventually morphed into the repressed sexuality of the 1940s. Moments come and go all the time, and what made sense for one era and one particular group of people can seem like it was beamed in from another world just a few years down the line. It’s not that they “don’t make them like they used to.” It’s more of a question of how they were ever made that way to begin with.

For example, look at MOTHER, JUGS & SPEED, one of the strangest studio comedies produced during a very strange period of the mid-1970s when the rules about mainstream movies had shaken themselves apart and nobody quite knew how to put them back together. One part workplace comedy, another part slobs-versus-snobs, but also part serious social drama, MOTHER exists in a kind of weird pocket outside of genre. If you haven’t seen it, there’s no easy point of context to prepare you for what to expect.

Just going off the title, it’s easy to imagine MOTHER as a forerunner to the trucker-film craze kicked off by Burt Reynolds a year later in SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT (1977), but although the title characters are certainly drivers, their wheels are attached to Los Angeles ambulances instead of highway big rigs, and their antics are more in service of retaining their sanity over making a big score. Mother (Bill Cosby) is an irreverent veteran driver tasked with breaking in the rookie Speed (Harvey Keitel), so named because of his past selling drugs as an undercover cop. Mother and Speed encounter rival companies, tension with other drivers (including Larry Hagman in a pervy supporting role), and a loose collection of setups and punchlines, all the while hoping to make enough dollars to keep themselves and their business afloat. Meanwhile, the unfortunately-nicknamed Jugs (Raquel Welch) moves to escape her job as the dispatch and den mother for the boys and become the first female driver in her staunchly chauvinistic profession.

Welch’s plotline exemplifies the film’s jarring shifts in tone. Viewers are invited to laugh along with the drivers and the wacky ways in which they let off steam—Cosby, in particular, is at the peak of his talent and delivers plenty of laughs—but the film also aspires to blow the lid off of what was, at the time, a pretty scandalous industry. In an effort to maximize profits, drivers would sabotage rivals, bribe police officers, and invent phony fares to milk government kickbacks. Less the lifesavers that their marketing would have you believe, the ambulance business was more like a taxi service with steeper leverage over its customers. If you weren’t worth the driver’s time, then good luck finding another way to the emergency room.

MOTHER, JUGS & SPEED was the brainchild of animation giant Joseph Barbera (the latter half of the Hanna-Barbera empire) who enlisted Tom Mankiewicz to construct the screenplay. Mankiewicz was a veteran screenwriter who presided over the James Bond franchise during its transition from serious spy fare to pulpier, more audience-friendly material and his particular tastes are all over MOTHER, including pairing slapstick wit and sudden violence. Mankiewicz, in particular, knew how to construct a set piece, as did MOTHER’s director Peter Yates, who helmed the iconic Steve McQueen picture BULLITT (1968) and later the less-successful (but justly infamous) KRULL (1983). MOTHER is likewise stocked with big, high-concept moments that keep things from getting too limp or self-important, which would have been death for a movie that so desperately wants to be a good time.

Ultimately, the real appeal of the film is Cosby, Keitel, Welch, and the rest of the ragtag assembly of drivers. MOTHER, JUGS, AND SPEED is a “hangout movie,” one in which most of the fun comes from revisiting these characters like a group of old friends. That’s another appeal of retro cinema. For better or for worse, even as the world changes around us, our old friends remain exactly the same.

MOTHER, JUGS & SPEED plays @3:00 on May 18 at The Strand. Get tickets HERE.

Andrew Kemp is a screenwriter and game designer who started talking about movies in 1984 and got stuck that way. He can be seen around town wherever there are movies, cheap beer and little else.

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RETRO REVIEW: The PREDATOR Hunts Some Schwarzenegger Again at Splatter Cinema at the Plaza Theatre

Posted on: May 13th, 2014 By:

Splatter Cinema presents PREDATOR (1987); Dir. John McTiernan; Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Kevin Peter Hall, Carl Weathers and Jesse Ventura; Tuesday, May 13 @ 9:30 p.m. (photos and merch table open @ 9 p.m.); Plaza Theatre; Trailer here.

By Aleck Bennett
Contributing Writer

Splatter Cinema has partnered with the Plaza Theatre once again to take a rare field trip out of the horror landscape and into 1980s action cinema territory. This time, we’re treated to the sight of Arnold Schwarzenegger beating the holy hell out of an alien invader in PREDATOR!

For a movie that started out as a joke, it’s not half bad.

See, what with Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky Balboa having just taken down the Soviet Union in ROCKY IV, the joke started going around that Sly was going to have to take on an alien in his next picture. Hollywood being Hollywood, someone said “that’s not a bad idea!” and moved on it before Stallone could. Hollywood again being Hollywood, it was developed into an Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle, and its cast peppered with only-slightly-less-alpha personalities like Carl Weathers, Bill Duke and Jesse “The Body” Ventura. Mix well, and you’ve got yourself a 1980s action movie stew going.

And it’s really not much more complicated than “Rocky vs. Alien” when it comes to the plot, either. A paramilitary team is sent into the jungles of Central America, ostensibly to rescue a government official, and gets picked off—one at a time—by an interstellar hunter looking for human trophies.

What, you were looking for subtext and depth? C’mon, it’s a movie whose express purpose is to have a bunch of sweaty, muscle-bound goofballs throw one-liners at each other in between action movie setpieces. If you were to analyze the movie’s blood, the results would show that it’s made up of 50% testosterone and 50% adrenaline. Now, that’s far from a condemnation: when it comes to this kind of movie, PREDATOR does everything right. It may not transcend the sub-genre of “80s Action Movie” into mainstream consciousness quite like LETHAL WEAPON or DIE HARD does (indeed, unlike those films, it was widely panned upon release), but what does set it apart is its willingness to transcend its genre in other ways. Instead of aiming up like the other movies mentioned, it reaches out laterally into the other fields of science-fiction and horror to make its mark. And, like any good exploitation movie, it doesn’t waste any time letting you know why it’s reaching out laterally, it just does it. It steals whatever elements it wants to take and then rocks along at a million miles an hour before you can even think to question anything about why it’s doing what it’s doing. It ain’t got time to bleed.

And it’s got a metric ton of visceral thrills. The special effects are grisly and effective (the Predator does skin his victims, after all), but beyond that, the entire movie feels like these people are literally fighting to stay alive. Part of that may have been due to the absolutely abysmal filming conditions. First-time director John McTiernan helmed the picture (writer/director Shane Black was cast in the movie in order to keep an eye on him and to provide some last-minute rewrites), and the jungle locations proved difficult to shoot in. Heat lamps had to be used constantly because of the near-freezing temperatures of the season, the water filtration system broke down and everyone was suffering from explosive diarrhea, actor Kevin Peter Hall was blind inside the Predator suit and still had to pull off fight scenes, and everything and everyone was covered in mud and leeches.

Not that this was any APOCALYPSE NOW, mind you. Schwarzenegger did manage to fly off in his private Lear jet for three days to marry Maria Shriver in the middle of filming. But it also doesn’t sound like a lot of fun to work on, either.

The end result, however, is a lot of fun. And that’s all it’s really supposed to be, when you get down to it. It may sound like a near-insult to say that it’s among the best of a disreputable genre, but to paraphrase Joan Jett, who gives a damn about a bad reputation?

Not me.

Aleck Bennett is a writer, blogger, pug warden, pop culture enthusiast, raconteur and bon vivant from the greater Atlanta area. Visit his blog at doctorsardonicus.wordpress.com

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RETRO REVIEW: JODOROWSY’S DUNE Celebrates One Man’s Passion to Take Cinematic Audiences to Another Planet

Posted on: Apr 29th, 2014 By:

JODOROWSKY’S DUNE (2013); Dir. Frank Pavich; Starring Alejandro Jodorowsky, H.R. Giger, Michel Seydoux;  Now playing at UA Tara Cinemas @ 4:45pm and 7:15pm.

By Andrew Kemp
Contributing Writer

Frank Herbert’s DUNE is a paradox. It’s a novel of fantastic scope, high adventure and spirituality that hangs on a deeply personal space opera plot. In short, DUNE is everything a movie producer wants in a blockbuster film.

On the other hand, the same material that makes Herbert’s novel so appealing renders it a whopper to reel in. The story is dense and inaccessible, the setting weird and unwieldy, and everything that happens is in pursuit of a drug that alters your consciousness and expands your mind. That’s a hard sell in Peoria.

DUNE is like a siren sitting on an enormous safe full of cash, and great filmmakers have sunk to the depths trying to crack it. Perhaps the greatest is David Lynch, a true visionary of the art form, whose turgid, silly 1984 adaptation clearly got away from him. Rumors abound that prior to Lynch, names like Ridley Scott, David Lean and even Jack Nicholson all considered giving it a go. A 2000 Sci-Fi Channel miniseries had its merits but came woefully short. The fact is that the story of DUNE as a movie is written with the misfires.

Before all of these failures, there was Alejandro Jodorowsky. The Chilean-born surrealist behind art house smash EL TOPO (1970) and the breathtaking, bonkers THE HOLY MOUNTAIN (1973) [NSFW] built a team in the mid-70s—not of technicians, but of “spiritual warriors”—to bring DUNE to the screen for the first time. What he created was a landmark of cinema history, an impact crater that shook the industry and left a mark on pop culture that’s easy to identify even today. Not bad for a movie that wasn’t even made.

JODOROWSKY’S DUNE, a new oral history of the film that never was, begins with an interview from DRIVE (2011) director Nicolas Winding Refn in which he claims Jodorowsky once walked him through the screenplay and storyboards step-by-step, making Refn the only person who has actually seen his version of DUNE. The documentary tries to rectify that to an extent, filling the screen with storyboards and animated concept art that gives audiences a glimpse at what could have been a cinematic mind-trip to rival that of Stanley Kubrick‘s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968). Jodorowsky, you see, had no interest in the pop and whizz of traditional space opera. He believed that with DUNE he had a responsibility to change the world, to alter the minds of those in the audience and to provide the experience of tripping on LSD without the pesky need to actually take the drug.

And then he asked Hollywood studios for millions of dollars.

In the story between Jodorowsky’s inspiration and the inevitable collapse lies a truly inspired documentary, one that breathlessly fawns on the director and his vision, but still allows Jodorowsky (now in his 80s) to work himself into a puckish frenzy describing every wild shot or audacious casting choice or the moments where his artist’s indignation causes friction with his crew. (Evidently Pink Floyd was really into hamburgers, that most banal meal.) Watching Jodorowsky rant is almost a bigger draw than the fragments of his lost film. This is a man who once talked Salvador Dali into playing the crazed emperor of the universe, and his charm still shines through in his advanced age, even if he is prone to halting interviews to play with his cat or indulge in an inappropriate metaphor or two.

The story of his film, as painted by Jodorowsky and the others, is an unlikely “team on a mission” tale as the director assembles his collaborators, from the late Dan O’Bannon (DARK STAR, ALIEN) to comic artist Moebius, HR Giger and the French progressive rock band Magma. Every time the peak of the story is seemingly reached, it just gets bigger. By the time a burning giraffe gets a mention, it’s just another oddity to throw onto the pile.

Of course, Jodorowsky never misses an opportunity to find the metaphysical in the moment, and likewise the documentary becomes about something more than a lost artifact of cinema history, but also about life and loss and the very-human need to create. It’s a credit to Jodorowsky’s vision that shortly after his project fell apart, other science fiction films began to hire his team (O’Bannon, Moebius, and Giger were all hired by Ridley Scott for ALIEN) and gradually his failed effort flowed out and gave life to other projects, films and stories that would alter the course of the movies in a very real way. Although DUNE was never made, its influence is everywhere. The documentary makes a compelling argument that the lost DUNE is a keystone project. It’s death guided the subsequent four decades of genre cinema, but if it had lived. . . well, then maybe it would have changed the world.

Maybe the money guys were right. Maybe the film had no chance of achieving its ambitions, and there may have been little chance of making back its budget even if it did. But, then, one never knows. Jodorowsky still hopes for a DUNE animated film that incorporates his script, and now that you mention it, advances in special effects and a renewed interest in smart science fiction may have created an environment that’s ripe for a DUNE revisitation. An attempt led by Pierre Morel fell apart back in 2011, but maybe the right director can finally crack this nut.

What could go wrong?

JODOROWSKY’S DUNE is now playing at UA Tara Cinemas. Get tickets HERE.

Andrew Kemp is a screenwriter and game designer who started talking about movies in 1984 and got stuck that way. He can be seen around town wherever there are movies, cheap beer and little else.

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RETRO REVIEW: OBEY! Splatter Cinema and the Plaza Theatre Command You To Witness John Carpeneter’s THEY LIVE.

Posted on: Apr 7th, 2014 By:

Splatter Cinema presents THEY LIVE (1988); Dir. John Carpenter; Starring Roddy Piper, Keith David and Meg Foster; Tuesday, April 8 @ 9:30 p.m. (photos and merch table open @ 9:00 p.m.); Plaza Theatre; Trailer here.

By Aleck Bennett
Contributing Writer

Ah, THEY LIVE. It’s long been a slippery little beast. Much like 1982’s THE THING, it performed less-than-admirably at the box office when it opened. And, again like THE THING, while critical reception at the time was favorable, it has only recently come to be considered one of John Carpenter’s best films.

Me, I’ve been on board since I first saw it back in the waning days of the Reagan administration.

I mention the time frame because, by Carpenter’s own design, it’s practically impossible to look at the film outside of the realm of the political. Let’s not mince words here: for all the machismo, violence and existential horror John Carpenter’s films may tread in from time to time, the director is a hippie at heart. He took a minute to look around in the 1980s, saw the emphasis on crass commercialization and the worship of wealth encouraged by the Reagan Revolution and was pissed off. But by merging his anger and aggression with his borne-of-the-‘60s anti-right-wing politics, he created a movie that’s more of a piece with the radical political stances of hardcore punk acts like MDC, D.O.A. or the Dead Kennedys. For in this movie, it’s not just that the rich and powerful elite are evil; they are actually not even human.

The premise of the film is a simple one: a drifter named Nada (Roddy Piper) discovers that the oligarchs who rule planet Earth are in fact aliens in disguise, exploiting the planet’s resources for their own benefit before leaving it once they destroy the environment via global warming. They keep humanity in the dark, and their appearances obscured, through television signals that brainwash the public and transmit subliminal propaganda commanding the populace to “OBEY,” “SLEEP” and “CONSUME.” Faced with this knowledge (and able to see through the haze of brainwashing thanks to some specially-designed sunglasses), Nada has only one option: rip the system.

And like listening to, say, D.O.A.’s WAR ON 45 or the Dead Kennedys’ FRESH FRUIT FOR ROTTING VEGETABLES, once the movie gets going, it’s a shot of pure adrenaline. It’s fast, it’s funny, it’s violent (there’s an epic 5 ½ minute fist fight between Roddy Piper and Keith David that is both thrilling and hilarious), and its sardonic ridicule of the rich and powerful—and those who kowtow to them—as anti-human scumbags makes you wish that the Revolution would be something as easy as tearing down a TV broadcast antenna.

[Note: the utilization of a television station to promote things like a particular political ideology, rampant consumerism, stratification of the classes and glorification of material wealth should not be confused with any reality—past, present or future. OBEY.]

At the time, the casting of Roddy Piper as Nada was seen as an enormous misstep by Carpenter. This was just after the WWF (now WWE) became a pop culture phenomenon, and “Rowdy” Roddy was one of the federation’s most famous athletes. However, crossovers into mainstream media outside the ring (Hulk Hogan’s appearance in ROCKY III and his starring role in NO HOLDS BARRED, for instance) were seen as curiosities at best. So Piper’s role—which many saw as ideally meant for Carpenter’s most frequent leading man, Kurt Russell—was viewed with a jaundiced eye right from the start. But his performance is an able one. He brings a raw, brutal physicality to the part that wouldn’t suit Russell quite as well, and he comes across as a stoic “man out of place” in a way that would surprise anyone familiar only with his hyper-confident, loud-mouthed wrestling persona. He pulls this off in such a successful way that when he comes closest to the “Rowdy” attitude he was famous for—such as when he first puts on the sunglasses and sees people as they really are—it truly sells the shock his character is supposed to be feeling. His performance has simply aged well and holds up in a time where the wrestling-to-movie transition is more accepted (thanks, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson!).

Keith David, as Piper’s friend Frank Armitage (also the name Carpenter used for his writing credit; an allusion to Henry Armitage from H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Dunwich Horror”) is, as always, excellent. He brings a necessary gravitas to the film, keeping the satire and fantasy grounded in the real world. Meg Foster as Holly Thompson, Nada’s love interest, is mysterious and alluring; her motives constantly under question, her understated performance never telegraphs where her allegiances truly lie.

And, as to be expected, Carpenter’s classically-informed composition techniques further show him to be a master of the Cinemascope frame. For a meager $3,000,000 budget, Carpenter makes the most of his downtown Los Angeles locations and creates a series of visually striking setpieces and shots. Tightly edited and winningly scripted (it’s one of the best films Carpenter has ever written on his own), it never lets up.

So get your sunglasses on, stock up on bubble gum and get ready for some alien-elite-ass-kicking!

[Note: Just don’t get any fancy ideas, humans. OBEY.]

Aleck Bennett is a writer, blogger, pug warden, pop culture enthusiast, raconteur and bon vivant from the greater Atlanta area. Visit his blog at doctorsardonicus.wordpress.com

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RETRO REVIEW: LA BELLE ET LA BETE: Jean Cocteau’s Masterpiece of Gothic Fantasy Gets Rare Big Screen Treatment at Landmark Midtown Art Cinema

Posted on: Apr 7th, 2014 By:

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (LA BELLE ET LA BÊTE) (1946); Dir. Jean Cocteau; Starring Jean Marais and Josette Day; Tuesday, April 7 @ 7:00 p.m.; Landmark Midtown Art Cinema; Trailer here.

By Aleck Bennett
Contributing Writer

As part of their Midtown Cinema Classics series, the Landmark Midtown Art Cinema is bringing one of the greatest works of filmed fantasy to the big screen in a stunning new digital restoration: Jean Cocteau’s immortal BEAUTY AND THE BEAST.

“Children believe what we tell them. They have complete faith in us. They believe that a rose plucked from a garden can plunge a family into conflict. They believe that the hands of a human beast will smoke when he slays a victim, and that this will cause him shame when a young maiden takes up residence in his home. They believe a thousand other simple things.

“I ask of you a little of this childlike sympathy and, to bring us luck, let me speak four truly magic words, childhood’s ‘Open Sesame’:

“Once upon a time…”

Jean Cocteau

Painter, poet, novelist, designer, filmmaker: all these and more were the simultaneous identities of Jean Cocteau, an artist so brilliant that one medium could not contain the full range of his talent. And much like the man himself, the handful of films he created transcend any categorization or pigeonholing. They are poems written in light and shadow; full of visionary imagery and drawing from painterly influences to create moving works of art that continue to resonate through the years. His films are bountiful feasts that fill your plate every time you return to the table. And while this is particularly true of his Orphic trilogy (THE BLOOD OF A POET, ORPHEUS and TESTAMENT OF ORPHEUS), those films—as great as they are—stand in the shadow of his singular masterpiece, LA BELLE ET LA BÊTE, or BEAUTY AND THE BEAST.

I’ll spare you a detailed plot summary. It’s a tale that has been told and retold so often that it has become part of our collective genetic memory at this point. The lovely Belle is forced to live in the kingdom of the cursed Beast to repay the actions of her father (he steals a rose from Beast’s garden). Beast falls in love with Belle, and proposes to her on a nightly basis; each night, she refuses, though she becomes more and more drawn to him over time. Their growing feelings are tested when he allows her to return to her home for a week and informs her that if she doesn’t return after those seven days, he will die of grief. However, she is unaware of the plans her scheming siblings and her previously intended beau Avenant have drawn up to ensnare Beast’s fortune while Belle is away.

Cocteau implores us in the film’s opening to view his adaption of the classic fairy tale with the eyes of a child. To let ourselves be carried away by the irrational and the dreamlike, rather than impose the hard-and-fast logic of the adult workaday world onto our experience. And with those eyes open, we are treated to a darkly magical manifestation of the fantastic. An atmosphere of love and loss hangs over the film like an embrace both heartfelt and sorrowful. Living faces peer from mantelpieces, human arms bear the torches that light a hallway, food serves itself for dinner. Meanwhile, as in a dream, details are introduced and suddenly abandoned: Beast’s five items of power (a rose, a horse, the key to his pavilion, a glove and a mirror) are vital objects in the story, yet when they are lost or stolen after their purpose has been established, we do not revisit them.

And, much as in any fairy tale told to a child, the implications of sexual tension are sublimated and find abstract release in symbols. Belle indicates her growing acceptance of Beast by allowing him to sup water from her cupped hands. Beast’s source of power is tied inexorably to the feminine: his pavilion dedicated to the Greek goddess Diana. A strike from Diana’s arrow transforms the loutish Avenant into another Beast, revealing the savage nature that lies beneath the veneer of the handsome gentleman. And it’s another feminine power that redeems our Beast and turns him back into Prince Ardent: the transformative effects of Belle’s acceptance and love.

Speaking of that transformation, what is perhaps the most interesting move Cocteau took in adapting this story is in creating the disappointment many feel when Beast is ultimately metamorphosed into Prince Ardent (who happens to unfortunately look exactly like the rejected Avenant). We, along with Belle, spend the entire film falling more and more in love with Beast, so it’s natural that when he is revealed as the prince after the death of his feral countenance, we are left wanting. It’s said that screen legend Greta Garbo shouted “give me back my beautiful Beast!” at the screen when she first saw the film. Indeed, Belle herself is left with mixed feelings about the whole arrangement, as she informs him that “I shall have to get accustomed to you” after his transformation. Cocteau later revealed that this was his intent all along, writing:

“My story would concern itself mainly with the unconscious obstinacy with which women pursue the same type of man, and expose the naïveté of the old fairy tales that would have us believe that this type reaches its ideal in conventional good looks. My aim would be to make the Beast so human, so sympathetic, so superior to men, that his transformation into Prince Charming would come as a terrible blow to Beauty, condemning her to a humdrum marriage and a future that I summed up in that last sentence of all fairy tales: ‘And they had many children.’”

We can well imagine that Beauty may long miss—and may spend many days attempting to uncover remnants of—that beautiful Beast with whom she first fell in love.

Ultimately, what can I say about this movie? I could go on, lathering up further praise without ever coming close to expressing just how wonderful and magical LA BELLE ET LA BÊTE truly is. Suffice it to say that its wonders continue to reveal themselves nearly 70 years after it was released, and any chance to see this film should be leapt upon by any lover of cinema. What pushes its screening at Landmark Midtown Art Cinema into the realm of absolute necessity is the fact that they will be presenting the widely-hailed digital restoration which debuted last year to mark the 50th anniversary of Cocteau’s death. Years of print damage have been immaculately swept away to fully reveal the sumptuous detail of the film that Guillermo del Toro called “the most perfect cinematic fable ever told.”

Come. Accept the Beast’s invitation. Cast off the grind of the harsh realm of adult reality, look upon this film with the eyes of a child, and be swept away by the pure, dark, sublimely gothic bliss of the fantastique. There are few things in the world that compare.

Aleck Bennett is a writer, blogger, pug warden, pop culture enthusiast, raconteur and bon vivant from the greater Atlanta area. Visit his blog at doctorsardonicus.wordpress.com

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AFF REVIEW: A IS FOR ALEX Finds the Heart and Humor in Creation

Posted on: Apr 4th, 2014 By:

A IS FOR ALEX (2014); Dir. Alex Orr; Starring Katie Orr, Alex Orr and Daniel Kelly. Atlanta Film Festival.

By Andrew Kemp
Contributing Writer

Isn’t it about time somebody gave Fake Wood Wallpaper a blank check?

There’s some conflict of interest in that question, since the FWW team is based in Atlanta, and of course I, like most people, enjoy seeing a local team succeed. My support and praise, however, has more to do with access than homerism. To date, it’s simply been easier to see FWW’s films if you’re here in town, which is why I keep seeing them do more with less than just about anybody else in the indie scene. I’m ready to see them do more with more.

Last year, FWW and director Mike Brune hit the Atlanta Film Festival with CONGRATULATIONS!, a standout film due in large part to its aggressive strangeness. Fake Wood Wallpaper makes films as if allergic to cliché, and that remains true even as their newest film, A IS FOR ALEX, hikes into the most heavily-tread of indie premises, the disaffected man-child who needs to grow up. Director Alex Orr plays the man-child, a version of himself who doubles as an inventor when not bantering with his real-life wife (Katie Orr). Katie’s pregnant with the couple’s first child; he mopes in a corner, worried that he’ll suck as a father. For there the film unspools the usual scenes—the weeks progress and the baby grows, Alex doubts his ability to be a father, Katie tells him to stop crying in the bathtub. He can’t pull himself together. Is it true about those “brain chemicals” that make parents love their kids? Alex isn’t so sure.

And why would he be? Alex’s fears about impending procreation are justified by the world around him. The mechanical bees he’s invented to aid pollination wreak havoc across the city. A video of Alex’s early sex act lands his mother in jail. Every act of creation goes sour for Alex, like some mixed-up Midas with cursed genitalia. Meanwhile, Katie grows closer to the due date, carrying what could be Alex’s next big disaster.

This is deeply personal, even indulgent, material but A IS FOR ALEX is too self-aware to get lost in its own ennui. Orr is hyperaware of the traps this kind of movie can stumble into and bakes in some meta release valves to keep the shit from getting too real. Some scenes jump the fourth wall, pulling back to reveal the set and the actors on it, who usually discuss topics like the film’s sentimental tone or its planned artificial finale. Other scenes spiral into fantasy and elaborate computer effects. Other scenes appear to exist for no other reason than because they’re funny. A IS FOR ALEX takes great pains to engage its audience or at the very least apologize for dragging the viewers through Alex’s head. The film is indulgent—because of course it is—but the movie knows what it is and, most importantly, reminds the viewer that it knows this. I’m not sure the film could be even a moment longer than its 74 minutes, but its meta techniques carry it far while it’s here.

As the lead in his own film, Orr has a tough responsibility. It’s never easy to make a film so blatantly about yourself because if it sucks, audiences may get stuck in a negative feedback cycle: they hate the movie, so they blame the filmmaker, who sits there on the screen inviting that hatred, and so on and so on until somebody loses an eye. But Orr is pleasantly low-key, marked by such persistent self-deprecation that he’s easy to like. The tougher role belongs to Katie. While obviously very (for real) pregnant, she has to duck and weave through her performance, chafing at Alex’s aimlessness while never slipping all the way into the rote ‘disapproving wife.’ Katie’s breezy rapport with Alex (never a slam dunk with real-life film couples) grounds the film and elevates what could have been a thankless role into a highlight.

A IS FOR ALEX is an egotistical film by definition and yet it does almost nothing except take potshots at itself. As an act of creation, it’s as idiosyncratic as its creators. It invites you to laugh and enjoy the moment, and then prods you in the ribs for falling for it. Amidst all of the robot bees, jailhouse drama, and ads on the moon is a gently fretful movie about the anxiety of making anything—a person most of all, but anything, really, including movies. If the creator is flawed, as are we all, then what hope is there for the creation? A IS FOR ALEX suggests that these things, however stressful, tend to work themselves out along the road. I suspect the target audience for this one is small. Very small, in fact. As little as one tiny human being named Truman who will want one day to know how his parents prepared to meet him.

Andrew Kemp is a screenwriter and game designer who started talking about movies in 1984 and got stuck that way. He can be seen around town wherever there are movies, cheap beer and little else.

Category: Retro Review | TAGS: None

AFF Review: David Gordon Green Opens the Festival with Above-Average JOE

Posted on: Mar 29th, 2014 By:

JOE (2014); Dir. David Gordon Green; Starring Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan; Atlanta Film Festival.

By Andrew Kemp
Contributing Writer

Gary (Tye Sheridan) has two father figures to choose from in David Gordon Green’s new movie JOE, which opened the 2014 Atlanta Film Festival on Friday night. On one side is Gary’s father Wade (Gary Poulter), a man whose natural charisma has been shriveled to jerky by alcoholism. On the other is Gary’s new employer, Joe (Nicolas Cage), an ex-con whose own raging addiction to violence has closed off his past and stunted his future. Joe struggles every day to stay on his wagon. It’s not clear if Wade ever made it on in the first place.  Gary’s choices aren’t ideal, but that’s just his lot. He’s a hard luck kid; having a choice in anything at all represents a significant improvement in his quality of life.

It shouldn’t be a surprise which side Gary ultimately takes, but then that’s a matter of plot, and JOE isn’t all that concerned with those kinds of details. Oh, there’s a clear narrative, but JOE is so detached that it buries its own exposition in the dirt, leaving its title character a mostly unsolvable riddle. This isn’t to the film’s detriment—Joe’s single glance at a woman in traffic says more than a page of monologue ever would—but it makes Green’s intentions clear. Green and screenwriter Gary Hawkins, adapting from Larry Brown’s 1991 novel, devote their energies away from the mechanics of the story and toward building Joe’s dusty world, molding gritty authenticity from the clay of the movie’s East Texas locations and the people in them. The story chugs along a familiar path of gunfire and redemption, but it’s the scenery along the way that makes the trip worthwhile.

Green (PINEAPPLE EXPRESS, PRINCE AVALANCHE) is a longtime Austin native and has demonstrated a nagging irritation with falseness (YOUR HIGHNESS aside). He would be the first to notice a false note in his film’s environment, and so he eschews traditional casting and populates his movie with unknowns and non-actors. Poulter himself was a homeless street performer and breakdancer in Austin when Green cast him as Wade, effectively the film’s third lead. Rather than be overwhelmed by the sudden attention, Poulter instead steals the show, oozing a chewy realism in his performance that professional actors sweat blood trying to replicate. He’s magnetic to watch, precisely because you don’t know what he’s going to say or do next. There’s nothing premeditated or restrained about Poulter’s performance. He never once seems like he’s acting. In the Q&A after the screening, Green spoke of how he met Poulter on the streets, and then brought the crowd low by revealing that Poulter died shortly after filming completed, still on those very same streets.

Green likewise identified a group of workers who feature prominently in the film and admitted that he simply picked them up one morning at a spot for day laborers, giving them a day’s pay for their work on the film, and inviting the standouts to become a part of the cast. Those workers—as well as gas station attendants, barflys, and bums—contribute to JOE’s naturalism that brings its barren, cruel, arbitrary world to terrifying life. One might assume that placing Nicolas Cage—the actoriest actor who ever did act—in the midst of all of this cinema verite would result in a violent clash in tone, but as per usual, Cage refuses to be outdone by reality. In fact, his rare moments of exaggerated Cage-ness (such as a cringeworthy limp he adopts late in the film) serve to make him seem larger than life, bigger than this no-horse town, and barely in control of his temper. Cage always works best as a lead actor in those moments when his controlled lunacy serves the character rather than becomes the character. In the case of Joe, it’s a surprisingly easy fit.

Sheridan likewise continues to demonstrate a talent beyond his years, just as he did in last year’s AFF opening night film, MUD. Without his sincere and seemingly effortless performance, there would be no hook on which to hang the proceedings. As Gary, he plays one of those saintly children who haven’t yet figured out just how heavily the world is stacked against them, and would be too stubborn to give up if they did. His relationship with Joe is easy and believable, and you can understand why he’s the type of kid it might be worth going into battle for.

JOE is filled with atrocity—children and animals, in particular, have a bad time—but it’s a well-crafted and sometimes surprisingly-warm film. It’s also specifically Southern in a way that’s tough to find and impossible to fake. That makes JOE a particularly nice fit for the AFF, and it sets the tone, and raises the bar, for the festival still to come.

Andrew Kemp is a screenwriter and game designer who started talking about movies in 1984 and got stuck that way. He can be seen around town wherever there are movies, cheap beer and little else.

Category: Retro Review | TAGS: None

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