Thursday, October 27, 2011

THE REAL ROCKY: The Bleeder Gets His Due

Several years ago, the documentary filmmaker Jeff Feuerzeig came to PDX to promote The Devil and Daniel Johnston, for which he'd recently won best director at Sundance.  I had asked him what he was working on next during the post-screening Q&A.  Feuerzeig's face lit up as he proudly filled us in on his upcoming project: a documentary about Chuck "The Bayonne Bleeder" Wepner, one of the few men who went toe to toe with Muhammad Ali, knocking the heavyweight champ down during their remarkable 15-round bout.  Now, over five years later, Feuerzeig's project has finally seen the light of day with this past Tuesday night's premiere of The Real Rocky on ESPN.

Like Feuerzeig, Wepner's not exactly a household name to the uninitiated but this tale is a fascinating one, even for non-boxing fans.  In addition to his defining moment in the ring with Ali, he was purportedly the inspiration behind Sylvester Stallone's Academy-award winning Rocky franchise, something which the piece spends a lot of time substantiating via archival footage and much anecdotal evidence.  The reason for all the effort proving that link: Chuck never saw a dime of the billions of dollars raked in by the 1976 classic or its many sequels.  To that end, The Real Rocky chronicles Wepner's many ups and downs, including his lawsuit against Stallone for the use of his life story.

The entire film can be viewed in four parts on YouTube now.  Jump on it, 'cause you never know how long this will last before ESPN asks for its removal.  And this is really must-see stuff, folks...even if you actively dislike boxing.  It's a human story, humanely told by a real talent.

And, yeah, that is André the Giant in that last clip.  Are you curious now?

Those interested in seeing more of Feuerzeig's work should check out The Devil & Daniel Johnston, Half Japanese: The Band That Would Be King and The Dude; a short film about Jeff Dowd, the inspiration for Joel and Ethan Coen's 1998 comedy The Big Lebowski.

The Dude can be streamed HERE.

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Thursday, October 6, 2011

SUBMARINE -- It's sink or swim out there

There's an age at which the fantasies of youth drain away and what we're left with is cold, wet reality.  To a great extent, Richard Ayoade's directorial debut, Submarine is completely wrapped up in one person's struggle to hang onto the fantasy after having caught a glimpse of the dour reality.  That individual is Oliver (Craig Roberts), our protagonist in a film that often comes off like a thematic successor to Wes Anderson's Rushmore cross-pollinated with the love child of Hal Ashby and the French New Wave (imagine Truffaut's characterizations meshed with the editing strategies of Godard's first films).

What this looks like in practice is a film that shifts seamlessly from the whimsy-driven heights of Oliver's fertile imagination to the harsh truth of living with parents (Sally Hawkins and Noah Taylor) on the edge of separation.  Ayoade cleverly uses the parental strife as a comparative device held up against Oliver's own budding relationship with a classmate named Jordana (Yasmin Paige); the latter being the primary focus, while the former provides the context for our young hero's romantic missteps.

And Oliver makes mistakes aplenty...a refreshing amount of them, actually.  As a result, the plot line dodges becoming a completely standard exercise in boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back mechanics, precisely because of how realistic Oliver's missteps appear in a movie that repeatedly darts in and out of the actual.  This is one confused kid and the film's structural looseness ably reflects Oliver's shambolic thought process, both literally via voice over and in the busy flow of the onscreen action.

Given that this is his first feature, it's tempting to label Ayoade a neglected genius who has arrived fully-formed on the scene.  But, as an actor and writer, he's been kicking around the biz for some time now.  Fans of British tv have likely come across his work on The IT Crowd, The Mighty Boosh, Snuff Box, etc.  He's also racked up more than a handful of directing credits for television, including "Critical Film Studies," a strong candidate for the best episode of NBC's Community.

It doesn't take long to discern that Ayoade's been waiting to sink his teeth into something with a bit more scope than sitcoms can offer.  And stretch out, he does.  This is a mature work that still makes plenty of room for non sequiturs and a woozy imbalance, projecting the uncertainty of youth.

That's not to say that Submarine is a perfect film, mind you.  It's a coming of age story and we've seen a lot of these elements played out on screen before.  It's also yet another display of adolescent male psychology, which had me wondering how the film might play out if it were more invested in Jordana's point of view...or if it were her story altogether.  Gender-bias and familiarity aside, it is the spark with which these well-worn bits are assembled that make Submarine fresh and worth recommending.

I thought I'd go ahead and link a couple of clips from Ayoade's other work.   

Here's a bit from The IT Crowd:

Ayoade on The Mighty Boosh:

And, finally, Part 1 of 2 of Ayoade's episode of Community (fans of My Dinner With Andre and Pulp Fiction need to see this):


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Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Me & Cinema Project...we go waaaayy back

Okay, it turns out I lied...sorta.  I'd said in my earlier post today that I'd seen my first Cinema Project presentation back in 2008.  Not at all true.  Having mentioned Janie Geiser in that previous entry, I began thinking about a TBA (Portland's annual Time-Based Art festival) presentation of her work that I'd seen not long after returning to Oregon from Berkeley.  Turns out that event was co-curated by Cinema Project & PICA.  So a correction is in order.  Me and Cinema Project...we go waaaayy 2004.

Here's a link to the promotional page for The Emotional Lives of Inanimate Objects, Ms. Geiser's career-long retrospective program from '04.  She was in attendance at the event and what she had to say was greatly inspiring to my own process, even though my work shares little in common with hers.

And here's a couple samples of that work:

Remember, Cinema Project still needs help making their programming and operational budget for this and next season.  Anyone interested in kicking in some much needed funds should head here immediately.  These folks do great work and only have 8 days remaining in their online funding campaign.  With Kickstarter campaigns, it's all or nothing, so help out if you can!

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Cinema Project needs a boost from YOU!

Local non-profit Cinema Project is nearing the final week of a Kickstarter fundraising campaign that will help keep them operational all the way through next season.  As PDX's shining star of experimental and art film exhibition, the organization is absolutely worthy of your support.

My own first encounter with Cinema Project dates back to 2008 when they were able to secure the scarcely seen short films by Apichatpong Weerasethakul for a screening at the Whitsell Auditorium.  Other notable past presentations have included Jonas Mekas' mind-blowingly epic cinematic diary Walden, the most recent work by experimental puppet theater and film director Janie Geiser and far too many other rare gems to recount here.

An excerpt from Walden (1969) by Jonas Mekas:

An excerpt from Worldly Desires (2005) by Apichatpong Weerasethakul:

Even a quick perusal of this season's schedule reveals that Cinema Project's programming is unlike anything else on offer in Portland.  We're extremely fortunate to have these folks kicking around our town, especially when one considers how few organizations like this are available on the national scene.

Here's a link to their Kickstarter page, complete with a budgetary breakdown of what operations the funds will cover.  And as of this writing, they've got about 8 days left to raise just under $2K.  As with most Kickstarter campaigns, there are "prizes" associated with the various levels of support.  Lend them a hand, if you can.  And don't forget to check out one of their upcoming screenings...the next one's on October 11th at 6p.m.

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Tuesday, October 4, 2011

AMER - A Bitter Pill to Swallow

French film-collaborators Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani's supremely self-assured feature-length debut hits dvd and blu-ray this week.  Channeling the nervous energy and visual-style of the classic giallo, Amer lovingly remixes the elements of that Italian-horror sub-genre in a manner that brings to mind Quentin Tarantino's career-long use of grindhouse schlock to inspire and inform his work.  Cattet and Forzani, like Tarantino, have clearly absorbed their inspiration, even going so far as to construct an aural accompaniment to the film made up of music works from classic giallos.  The end result of their sampling from that very specific toolbox is a film that aesthetically pays tribute while intellectually interrogating the conceptual trappings of that original source.

Whereas, for instance, the films of Dario Argento openly accept and hyper-utilize the nearly standardized leering found within cinema (especially horror cinema) as it displays and thus mediates and broadcasts uniform (and, one should note, almost exclusively sexualized) notions of the female body, Cattet and Forzani adopt the gaze (a quick primer on feminist film theory and the male gaze here) as a means of challenging the presumptions inherent within both the form and the audience itself.

Constructed of vignette-like segments that chronicle the life of a woman named Ana, Amer follows her transformation from a curious child into the particular type of oversexed woman that typically populates trashy, b-grade European cinema.  The filmmakers exploit this (over)familiarity with lurid depictions of gender to steer us towards assuming that this will be just another giallo in the tradition of Argento, Bava, Fulci and their peers.  Yet the biggest surprise about Amer is its dogged resistance to being a by-the-numbers horror film.  If there are aspects of horror contained within this work, it is the horror of being both the unwilling victim and active manipulator of the gaze, constantly held fast within an atmosphere of potential violence predicated upon one's habitation of a gendered body and the expectations that are thrust upon it.

The result is a fairly confounding concoction of psychosexual titillation mixed with a rote ramping up of tension that tricks the viewer into expecting a violent release at the end of each sequence.  Instead, the filmmakers deny the audience the expected relief, extending the anxiety beyond each of the micro-narratives embedded within the larger piece.  To a certain extent, Cattet and Forzani have it both ways with Amer, exploiting the viewer's weakness for this particular flavor of naughty cinema while actively scolding them for being drawn in by its depictions of raw female sexuality.

And it's the straddling of that line that will lead many viewers to call out the film as being merely sexist pap.  More discerning viewers, especially those who have already digested a good deal of 60s and 70s Italian horror, will likely find themselves peering a bit deeper into what Amer has to offer.  Beyond its magnificent combination of visual and montage techniques, the film reaches beyond mere stylistic flair to grapple with some fairly heady and provocative content.  I, for one, cannot wait to see what these directors come up with next.

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Welcome's raining again in PDX

Hey, it's been a while.  This lil' experiment in blogging got put on the back burner for a number of reasons.  My wife and I are having a baby in less than a month.  I've been working on a really exciting non-fiction film project.  And there's the day job, of course.  I'm sure that anyone reading this can identify with how quickly time disappears if you let it.

My love of movies certainly hasn't diminished; just the amount of time I have to go out to see them.  To that end, when I do find the time to blog, the content that is discussed here is likely to include home video and television, as well as the occasional first-run theatrical stuff that had previously been the exclusive subject of this site.  I figured I'd open it up a bit and maybe that would make it easier to post more often.

So, um...welcome back:

This whole notion of "opening up" the style of the blog will likely include shorter, topical postings, as well as a few longer ones here and there.  If I encounter an online article about the decline of 3D cinema, for instance, I might post it, jot down a few thoughts of my own and invite others to comment on the topic.  As soon as this entry goes live, I'll go ahead and enable comments for all posts on the blog (a feature I'd previously kept disabled), so feel free to comment on this or any future (or past) posts.

As for the first regular review in many months, I'll be uploading a look at Amer, which is making its dvd and blu-ray debut this week.  It should be up within the hour, so keep an eye out for it.

And, finally, it'd feel weird to not at least mention a couple of pop culture crumbs that I've run into and enjoyed lately, so--briefly--here we go:

The NW Film Center recently hosted a four-night run of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's "lost" 1973 sci-fi epic, World on a Wire.  I happily rejected the opportunity to see (the seemingly ubiquitous) Drive in favor of the catching the limited run feature...and, MAN, was it worth it!  I'll probably post in more depth about World on a Wire in the future, either soon or when it hits blu-ray and dvd next year.

I also caught a mid-August showing of Andrei Tarkovsky's 1979 Stalker (also at the NWFC).  It's long been my favorite film by the Russian master but I'd never had the chance to see it theatrically.  All those beautiful textures blown up larger than can be sure that I was in heaven.

Last night, I streamed the first episode of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick's latest documentary project for public television, Prohibition.  While I completely get that many people aren't down with the very much defined style that Burns has employed in his decades long career, I was drawn in by Burns usual attention to detail and his ability to unearth lost kernels of our shared national history.  The take away from episode one?  That, as is still the case in modern American life, much of what the temperance movement of the 20s and 30s was about can be linked to entrenched ideologies about how others should conduct themselves in society.  If this doesn't sound familiar, you're probably not keeping up with the news of the day.

I've also been diggin' the hell outta the new Wilco album and this compilation of tunes by Malian singer Sorry Bamba.

A quick reminder:  we're still on Facebook and, every once in a while, an exclusive post will end up on that page, so hit us up there and be sure to "like" the page while you're at it.

And that's pretty much it for now.  Like I said, keep an eye out for that review of Amer.  It should be up within the hour.  And, since those of us living in the Pacific Northwest are currently welcoming the return of old friend "the rain," I'll leave you with this:

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