Stories about filmmakers in their early days have become a part of Hollywood legend. Sam Raimi and his friends got lost in the woods on their first day of shooting The Evil Dead. Kevin Smith sold his comic books and maxed out ten credit cards to finance Clerks. Paul Thomas Anderson dropped out of NYU after only two days and used his college fund to film Cigarettes & Coffee. These stories are charming, funny, and encouraging for aspiring filmmakers. But for every apocryphal story about a celebrity’s climb to the top, there are hundreds of stories about those who didn’t make it. American Movie is one of those stories. Sort of.
In 1996, Mark Borchardt began production on his short film Coven in the working class town of Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin. The plan was to use Coven to inspire investors to fund Borchardt’s feature film, Northwestern. Documentarian Chris Smith, fresh out of film school, chronicled Mark’s year-long struggle to finish his short against all odds. With only friends, family, and townies to help him finish his film, Mark faced a stoned crew, a stubborn uncle, and stiff cabinetry in this hilarious, yet oddly inspirational documentary. Continue reading American Movie (1999)
Kevin: Gregg Araki’s mesmerizing White Bird in a Blizzard has all the initial trappings of a typical coming-of-age drama. Kat Connors (Shailene Woodley) longs to leave her idyllic hometown life, while her mother, Eva (Eva Green), feels overburdened by her role as a doting housewife. When Eva mysteriously disappears, Kat is haunted by persistent dreams of her, and reassesses their tumultuous relationship through therapy and an affair with a cop assigned to her missing person’s case. The premise is familiar, but the film draws upon the melodramas of Douglas Sirk to convey how Eva feels shackled by the hardships of marriage and motherhood. Aided by cinematographer Sandra Valde-Hansen and composer Robin Guthrie, Araki abstains from the histrionic tendencies of his earlier work, opting for an understated color scheme and score that firmly establishes the themes of alienation in 1980s suburban life. Following her widely praised turn in The Spectacular Now, Woodley demonstrates assertiveness in the lead role, but it’s Eva Green who leaves the greatest impression. Green’s steely flourishes invite comparisons to Joan Crawford, but feel closer to Barbara Stanwyck in their unrelenting swagger. Other notable performances include those of Gabourey Sidibe and Mark Indelicato, whose lively exchanges with Woodley provide a needed respite from the drama, and Shiloh Fernandez, who complements his character’s fetching looks with a charming half-witted persona as Kat’s boyfriend Phil. In a standout sequence that takes place in a local underground club, Kat and Phil seductively dance to Depeche Mode’s 1987 classic “Behind The Wheel”. Through a breathlessly shot and edited montage, Araki injects this scene with infectious spontaneity and groove. White Bird in a Blizzard is Gregg Araki’s most restrained directorial effort since Mysterious Skin, but is punctuated with many spirited moments that reaffirm his reputation as a genre-defying, risk-taking filmmaker.
Continue reading Netflix Picks #2
‘Tis the season! ‘Tis a time for merriment, gaiety, festivity, and a bunch of other synonyms! ‘Tis also a time in which box-office turnouts for fifth and sixth installments of Saw or Fast and Furious vastly outweigh those for fresh, original film — a time in which the popularity of one kind of movie seems almost contingent on the failure of the other. ‘Tis a good time for cynicism, evidently.
Batman Returns is a superhero sequel, obviously, but it’s not the kind of assembly-line movie that phrase conjures up today (it’s also a Christmas movie, hence my yuletide cheer). This isn’t an instantly forgettable Marvel sequel like Iron Man 2 or Thor: The Dark World, seemingly intent only on filling the space between Avengers team-ups. Returns, like Burton’s first Batman film, takes pride in originality even in the face of decades of established Bat-lore, flipping things upside down and ignoring long character histories and comic book arcs in favor of new things, for better or worse. So in Batman we discover that the Joker is the one who killed Thomas and Martha Wayne, not some nobody named Joe Chill; here in Returns, Penguin isn’t a respected sophisticate but instead a literal man-bird. Returns basically says f*ck you to so much of the Batman canon that it’s difficult to imagine it being released today without causing fanboydom to implode.
Continue reading Batman Returns (1992)