Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Stuff I've Written in April

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—Let's start from most recent first this time.

The Machine

New York's own Tribeca Film Festival came to an end on Sunday, and once again I was on the beat for Slant Magazine. I ended up writing four reviews:

Flex Is Kings (here)
Frankenstein's Army (here)
A Case of You (here)
The Machine (here)

As you can see, I was mostly underwhelmed by these four (The Machine was the best of the bunch, and even then I wouldn't make any grand claims for it as a great, visionary sci-fi achievement or anything); in fact, the only Tribeca Film Festival title that truly blew me away was Before Midnight, the latest in Richard Linklater's Before... series—and alas, I wasn't assigned to review that one (I did write this short Letterboxd entry, though). Actually, truth is, I didn't see a whole lot of films at Tribeca this year, so I'm sure I missed a lot of potentially good stuff (especially on the non-fiction front, as I kept hearing Tribeca had a lot of great documentaries to offer this year).

Otherwise, three more non-festival reviews: this of Terrence Malick's latest film, To the Wonder (I'm firmly in the "pro" camp); this of Shirley Clarke's recently restored 1967 documentary Portrait of Jason; and this of Unmade in China, a problematic but nevertheless compelling documentary about one filmmaker's increasingly nightmarish attempts to make a movie under the ultra-controlling grip of the Communist Chinese government.

Holy crap, did I write all that in April? I've sure kept myself busy this past month—and that also includes editing reviews for In Review Online and writing up shorter reviews at Letterboxd! And next month is looking to be about as productive...being that I'm going to the Cannes Film Festival for the first time!

Friday, April 05, 2013

RIP Roger Ebert (1942-2013)

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—A titan of film criticism has truly passed.

Roger Ebert's death was especially stunning a mere two days after he had announced, at his blog, that his cancer had returned and that he was cutting back on film reviewing. Even in the midst of such adversity, he was still writing, planning...living. (Fitting that he called his upcoming scale-down of activity a "leave of presence" rather than the standard "leave of absence.")

It is Ebert's thirst for life that I'll remember from reading his writing, whether related to film or not. At his best, his writing exuded an openness to fresh ideas, impressions, sensations—and really, shouldn't this be the mindset of all critic? What made Ebert arguably singular among film critics was that he was able to convey his vision of cinema and the world in prose that was both eloquent and accessible to the layperson, without the insular shackles of academic theories to constrain his reach. To him, cinema had the power to reflect and illuminate life; you don't have to go too far than his recent reviews of The Tree of Life (with this as an even more illuminating corollary) and especially Synecdoche, New York (here's an addendum to it that he wrote) to grasp this. But, of course, if all you know about Roger Ebert is his television show and his thumbs, then you owe it to yourself to read him in print, whether online or in his books, and really get to know the man—because at his best, he was able to merge the personal and cinematic in ways that most of us would envy.

I can't say I ever really knew the man personally; though I did get to meet him and shake his hand at Ebertfest two years ago, I was never bold enough to actually, you know, contact him and maintain a steady correspondence. (My heart now burns with regret for not reaching out. Missed opportunities? Story of my life.) And yet, last year, he was apparently so impressed with my hypothetical Sight and Sound list for The House Next Door that he especially highlighted it in this tweet. (My editor, Ed Gonzalez, told me that my list absolutely killed in web traffic as a result of this.) I have no idea if Ebert remembered me when he posted that or if he just really liked the list; I guess now I will never know, sadly.

There is now a huge hole left in the world of film criticism—and heck, the world in general, if the outpouring of fond remembrances when the news broke yesterday is any indication—as a result of Roger Ebert's passing. But if his writing over the years—especially his more personal essays during his cancer-ridden years in the '00s, which to my mind, constituted his best recent writing—suggests anything, it is that he would not have wanted us to dwell on the fact of his death and would instead have implored us to return to living our own lives. I will do that, Mr. Ebert, while drawing strength from the very full and rich life you led.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

A Self-Promotion Catch-Up of Epic Proportions

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—As many of you could tell, I indeed have been slacking mightily in keeping this blog active...but this week has been a bit of a lighter one than I expected—perhaps a welcome calm before the storm that is Tribeca Film Festival, which I'll be covering for Slant Magazine again this year—so now I have a bit of time to catch up on promoting things I've been writing in the past couple of months.

So let's go all the way back to January, when, over at In Review Online, I wrote this review of Hors Satan, the latest film from French filmmaker Bruno Dumont. Good movie—maybe not quite as good as I remembered it from Toronto International Film Festival back in 2011, but still a fascinating watch.

Then came three reviews for Slant Magazine. The "best" of the trio, relatively speaking, was The Sorcerer and the White Snake, a martial-arts spectacle that didn't entirely leave me unaffected—I admit, the romance aspects sort of got to me towards the end—but which can't help but pale by comparison to the splendors its director, Ching Siu-tung, once unleashed in films like A Chinese Ghost Story (1987) and Duel to the Death (1983). You call that CGI "state-of-the-art"???

But at least I found that more passably entertaining than either the egregiously hagiographic Mumia Abu-Jamal documentary Long Distance Revolutionary: A Journey With Mumia Abu-Jamal (reviewed here) or, worst of all, the insufferable glorified globalization sitcom Shanghai Calling (here).

Later in February, I gave a second look to Gebo and the Shadow, the latest film from that seemingly ageless Portuguese auteur Manoel de Oliveira (he's 104!), and wrote this up over at The House Next Door as part of its coverage of Film Comment Selects, a local festival hosted by the renowned film magazine. If nothing else, the film offers a master class in making something truly cinematic out of the theatrical.

Fast-forward to March. I went to South by Southwest for the third year in a row! I ended up filing these five dispatches from Austin, Texas:

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone and V/H/S/2 (here)
Prince Avalanche and Drinking Buddies (here)
Museum Hours and Spring Breakers (here)
Downloaded, Touba and Before You Know It (here)
Cheap Thrills (one of the worst of the festival) and Short Term 12 (one of the best) (here)

And finally, I reviewed Bob Byington's ne plus ultra of deadpan comedy Somebody Up There Likes Me (no relation to the Robert Wise boxing picture with Paul Newman)—a review that apparently so annoyed a certain well-known film critic with my suggestion that Byington might actually be doing something somewhat Robert Bresson-like with his style that he made an offhand dismissive comment about it in this comment thread at the film site Letterboxd. I'll, um, take it as a compliment that I engendered some kind of reaction, however contemptuous. (As for whether I'm just full of shit, well, you should just watch the film for yourselves and decide.)

Speaking of Letterboxd: In between not blogging here and handling all the other crap in my life (occasional existential crises included), I've become rather addicted to the site's capabilities of allowing one to keep track and log reviews of films you watch. So if you all want to know what I've been watching since the beginning of this year, check out my profile and explore...because who knows if I'm ever going to revive that consumption-log thing I used to do?

Monday, April 01, 2013

White Elephant Blogathon 2013: A Hidden Treasure in the (Avocado) Jungle

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—[This is my contribution to the White Elephant Blogathon. What is the White Elephant Blogathon, you may be wondering? Well, remember this from last year, on this same date? Hopefully you get the idea.]

A few weeks ago in Austin, Texas, during this year’s South by Southwest film festival, I saw a documentary called Rewind This!, a loving tribute to the VHS format especially during its prime in the 1980s. But wait, I said to myself going into the screening: VHS has been widely recognized to be an inferior format as far as visual quality goes. Why should we be nostalgic about it if DVDs and Blu-rays have been demonstrated to be superior home-video formats? But the film’s director, Josh Johnson, offered at least one persuasive reason for not completely tossing the medium overboard just yet: With major studios now exercising near-total control over what films make it to the new digital formats, there is the strong possibility that a lot of hidden treasures will get lost in the shuffle, maybe forever. After all, silent masterpieces like Erich von Stroheim’s Greed and King Vidor’s The Crowd still have yet to make it to standard-definition DVD, much less high-definition Blu-ray—but of course, there are far less widely celebrated films that are facing the threat of biting the dust with the end of the popularity of VHS.

I couldn’t help but think of Rewind This! as I watched my White Elephant blogathon assignment this year, Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death (1989). Here’s a direct-to-video item that one would expect to be little more than curiosity for VHS fetishists by now—so imagine my surprise when I finally sit down and watch it…and discover myself not only enjoying it immensely, but finding something legitimately worth talking about (and you bet I’ll be doing so below). Granted, this film, for some odd reason, actually did make it into the DVD ranks; that’s how I watched it, after all. But if this is an indication of the kind of sneakily intelligent visions that can exist even in direct-to-video material—well, one can only imagine the kinds of films of this sort that aren’t making it to digital formats.

And yes, I do mean “sneakily intelligent” when it comes to Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death, which credits a “J.D. Athens” as its writer/director, but which is in fact the writing/directing debut of J.F. Lawton, the man who would soon afterward be best known as the screenwriter of Hollywood hits like Pretty Woman(1990) and Under Siege(1992). In Cannibal Women, one can already see bits of the underlying social concerns of Lawton’s Pretty Woman script allied with the kind of refreshing sense of the absurd that made Under Siege far more entertaining than it had to be.

With the presence of former Playboy centerfold (and soon-to-be erotic thriller queen) Shannon Tweed in the cast, one would expect this film to feature all sorts of gratuitous female nudity…and Lawton obliges us in the film’s first five minutes, as two guys lost in the titular avocado jungle encounter, to the vocal delight of one of the guys, a bunch of scantily clad women—some of them more topless than others—washing themselves in a waterfall. But then, one of the women fires a couple of arrows and kills one of the men, and then the rest of the women pursue the other guy into one of their traps. Here, in miniature, is an encapsulation of the kind of purposeful overturning of viewer expectations, especially when it comes to the so-called “male gaze,” that Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death gleefully engages in throughout. Perhaps the biggest subversive element of all: Shannon Tweed never, ever gets naked in this film.

Instead, she plays, believe it or not, an academic: Dr. Margo Hunt, a women’s studies professor with a strong anti-male bent. She’s recruited by a couple of government officials, with the coercive help of her college dean, to track down a tribe of “piranha women”—a bunch of extreme feminists who capture, cook and eat men with guacamole dip—at the edge of the avocado jungles in San Bernardino, Calif. Dr. Hunt develops her own personal interest in the mission when she discovers that a celebrity feminist scholar named Dr. Kurtz (horror scream queen Adrienne Barbeau) recently disappeared, presumably at the hands of these piranha women. One of Dr. Hunt’s students, a ditz named Bunny (Karen Mistal) who says she wants to learn how to be an independent woman, accompanies her on this adventure…and later on, these two are joined by Jim (Bill Maher—yes, that Bill Maher, of Politically Incorrect and Real Time fame), an alpha male who was once Dr. Hunt’s boyfriend before she broke it off.

Reading that brief plot summary is bound to inspire lots of raised “are you kidding me with this movie?” eyebrows…but one of the more disarming things about Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death is the realization that Lawton knows how silly all of this is and proceeds to have fun with it. This film practically overflows with comic grace notes: the two government officials who go by the names “Ford Maddox” (as in writer Ford Madox Ford) and “Col. Mattel;” a tribe of emasculated men named Donahues (as in talk-show host Phil) whose vocabulary consists entirely of either “Alan Alda,” “Mark Harmon” or “Walter Mondale;” gender-war-inflected parodies of 2001: A Space Odyssey (to tie in with the Donahues triumphantly locating their inner macho men) and Apocalypse Now (this film’s version of Col. Kurtz’s “the horror” lies not in the atrocities of war, but in the prospect of facing David Letterman on the talk-show circuit with a book about male insensitivity). That’s really just the tip of iceberg.

Perhaps most surprising about Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death, however, is the realization that there is actually a vision underneath the breezy surface frivolity. Granted, Lawton presents a broadly cartoonish vision of the battle of the sexes here, with Shannon Tweed’s bespectacled ultra-feminist college professor pitted against a slew of macho caricatures—not just former boyfriend Jim (whose chauvinism is frequently subverted by his own slapstick pratfalls), but also Ford Maddox and Col. Mattel, both of whom want to relocate the piranha women to “reservations” in Malibu that will no doubt anesthetize their feminist leanings in a wave of numbing domesticity; and three brutish action-hero types—a crazed Vietnam vet, a samurai and a wrestler—she encounters at a bar, all of whom slink away in cowardly fashion when they realize she’s going after the piranha women. (This, Dr. Hunt concludes, is proof that the threat of a strong woman is the one thing that punctures their male machismo.)

But Lawton doesn’t just reserve his burlesques for those feverishly macho types; he’s a classic equal-opportunity offender, it turns out. The aptly named Bunny, for instance, is ridiculed for wholeheartedly embracing the objectifying male gaze, despite the lip service she offers about desiring feminist enlightenment. Later on, though, even the extreme feminists come in for comic ribbing, most notably in a late plot twist in which it is revealed that the piranha women are also engaged in a battle of their own—an ideological one with so-called “barracuda women,” who, Dr. Hunt discovers to her horror, aren’t so much against the more extreme feminism of the piranha women as they are against their choice of dip on the men they cook and eat (they prefer clam dip).

Throughout the film, Dr. Hunt stands as the voice of reason amidst a sea of gender-war insanity, the outspoken but level-headed academic who prefers consciousness-raising over radicalism—and Lawton seems to align with that mindset. It’s because of his commitment to a more moderate brand of feminism that he manages to get away with the most potentially problematic late development with her character: her love-at-first-sight attraction toward Jean-Pierre (Brett Stimely), a to-be-sacrificial lamb of the piranha women that she meets at their compound. In the context of a world in which men are either chauvinists or wimps, Jean-Pierre represents the “perfect” man: one who exudes a brand of masculinity that is tempered with sensitive and intelligent impulses (he learned a bit of English from listening to Dr. Kurtz and audibly laments about how the piranha women value men not for smarts but only for their muscle tone). Dr. Hunt—who earlier had been complaining to Bunny about how her feminist beliefs have had the unfortunate side effect of leaving her unable to make any romantic commitments—finds in Jean-Pierre the man she has perhaps been looking for all her life; naturally, her convictions are strengthened when he ends up being the one rescuing her from doom at the hands of the piranha women at a crucial juncture. By the end of the film, Jean-Pierre is now enrolled in Dr. Hunt’s class, and teacher and student appear to be carrying on an affair. Is the movie going a conservative route in suggesting that all Dr. Hunt needed was the right man after all? I’m more inclined to give Lawton the benefit of the doubt that perhaps this was his way of acknowledging that hardcore political ideology can’t always account for matters of the heart.

Who knew a film with a title like Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death could not only be often genuinely funny, but also somewhat politically intelligent as well? Who knew such a film would actually have thematic ideas worth grappling with? It’s heartening to know that the world of cinema can still offer up surprises, no matter how long one has been immersed in it.