This Week's New Releases
Brand Upon the Brain!
dir. Guy Maddin
Cinerama, Oct 10—11
For a dire stretch of time this spring and summer, after the Seattle International Film Festival and the producers of Brand Upon the Brain! failed to agree on a price for a full staging of Guy Maddin's "one-of-a-kind cinematic spectacle," it looked like our city was going to get screwed. The "live" film screening, which includes an orchestra, a narrator, and a couple of Foley artists demonstrating their deceitful sound collage before your very eyes, was set to travel to New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles—but not Seattle, where the project was originally commissioned (by the formerly local outfit The Film Company, which has since decamped to Brooklyn) and filmed (using plenty of local talent, including cinematographer Ben Kasulke and the adorable offspring of some prominent figures in the Seattle film scene). I like to think Guy Maddin—the protagonist of the film, not the filmmaker, who shares his name—would have been horrified. Brand Upon the Brain! tells the story of Guy's return to an obscure island home and to the demented circumstances that stitched the fabric of his psyche. Might the movie not find some worthwhile psychological residue in its birthplace, too?
If that sounds inordinately fanciful, you've clearly never seen a Maddin film. From his fervid horror debut Tales from the Gimli Hospital to the stout Russian constructivist tribute The Heart of the World to the sweetly eccentric The Saddest Music in the World, Maddin is all about pushing fancy to its outlandish limits. And if that fancy involves prurient Freudian speculation about the circumstances of one's conception? So much the better. But back to the "live spectacle." Northwest Film Forum has come to the rescue, installing the live version of Brand Upon the Brain! as the finale of the Local Sightings festival, its annual showcase of local film. Musicians and silent-film boosters Aono Jikken Ensemble are doing the Foley, and Karen Black and Guy Maddin are narrating on October 10 and 11, respectively.
The plot of Brand Upon the Brain! is crowded with familiar, even kitschy elements. In flashback, Guy (Erik Steffen Maahs) remembers a childhood spent with his teenage sister, Sis (Maya Lawson), on an island occupied by his parents, their lighthouse, and their mom-and-pop orphanage. Something creepy is going on with their charges: The kids all have holes drilled into fleshy welts in the back of their heads and clomp in formation up the lighthouse stairs at night. One child (the adorable Kellan Larson) is frail and twitchy and suffers a full-on epileptic fit after being kissed during a game of spin the bottle.
But Guy (now played by Sullivan Brown and his serious, dark eyes) has other matters on his mind. From a crow's nest in her phallic tower, Guy's mother (Gretchen Krich) spies on her children—when she isn't entertaining them with the gruesome story of her birth. (She was, like Shakespeare's Macduff, "from her mother's womb untimely ripped.") And from the depths of an awfully vaginal "aerophone" (played by the horn of a phonograph) the voice of Guy's father issues commands and keeps them obedient. Things are looking bleak on the island, but then a pair of androgynous crime-solving twins come ashore to investigate. Crossdressing and confusing crushes ensue.
The kitsch would be unbearable if it weren't so pleasurably excessive, and that makes it a good match for Maddin's characteristically overheated filmmaking. Neither too coy (The Saddest Music in the World) nor too curdled (Cowards Bend the Knee), this post–Twelfth Night, post-Gothic, post–Hardy Boys mashup gets terrific mileage out of Maddin's pushy iris shots and fluttering images. And if you feel that narratives of sexual formation are a bit too cliché for exclamation-studded intertitles, the dastardly things the parents are doing to the orphans will set you straight. Brand Upon the Brain! is pure pastiche, but it's also brilliant. The live show should be great. ANNIE WAGNER
Also recommended at Northwest Film Forum's Local Sightings: The Church on Dauphine Street (a documentary about Hurricane Katrina) and the opening-night party, Thurs Oct 4 at 7 pm; Stumptown Sap (a shorts program featuring the work of Portland filmmakers including Gus Van Sant), Sat Oct 6 at 7 pm; The Bitter Ash (an archival film made in Vancouver, BC, in 1963), Mon Oct 8 at 7 pm; and Experimental Methods (an experimental shorts program including work by Matt McCormick), Mon Oct 8 at 9:15 pm.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
dir. Andrew Dominik
Pretension—to borrow/steal outright a line from Stranger contributor Michael Atkinson—is the wreckage created by artists who can't drive their own monster-truck ideas. The much-anticipated revisionist Western The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, as evidenced by its chewily purple title, has a lot on its plate—too much, possibly. The result is a film with sustained passages of eerie, Malickian beauty (an early sequence involving a train robbery feels like one of the reasons that film was invented), mixed with increasing stretches of self-conscious artiness. Whether you should see it or not may ultimately depend on your tolerance for shots of windswept wheat and time-lapse clouds. Still, when it works, it works absolutely.
Adapted from Ron Hansen's novel, director Andrew Dominik's (Chopper) script tells the tale of the declining, increasingly paranoid folk hero Jesse James (a very good Brad Pitt) and his volatile relationship with fawning hanger-on Robert Ford (Casey Affleck, sporting a creepy ventriloquist-dummy stare), culminating in the rather large spoiler of a title. Throughout, Dominik spends too much time dealing with the secondary members of James's gang (despite some fine performances by the likes of Sam Rockwell and Paul Schneider) and not enough exploring what makes the title characters kick. Nearly three hours later, James and Ford remain gorgeous, frightening ciphers. (Matters are not helped much by a broad voiceover of the tell, don't show variety.)
So is this a recommendation or not? I'm not sure, exactly. Hours after viewing, all I can say for certain is that the movie's combination of tedium and genuinely exquisite moments evokes the sort of frustration that can only be generated by a talented filmmaker who shoots ambitiously for the moon, and can't quite make it. It casts a spell, but only intermittently. ANDREW WRIGHT
Sweet Smell of Success
dir. Alexander Mackendrick
Approaching New York City for the first time in 1945, the European architect Le Corbusier declared: "It is hot jazz in stone and steel!" Watching the opening shots of the 1957 film noir Sweet Smell of Success for the first time, my mind couldn't help thinking: "Modern jazz in glass and steel." The music, the crowds, the aerodynamic automobiles, the newness of the towers, the concentration and extraordinary organization of human energy: What we are watching is not hot but modern jazz.
Even the cinematography, by the great James Wong Howe, has about it a modern or experimental edge. Though the characters often go out of focus, the lighting emphasizes the straightness of the suits worn by the men and the lines of the dresses worn by the women. Everyone in the world of Success throws a sharp shadow. People are fast becoming like the Miesian tower that looms in the corner of the frame near the movie's opening.
The jazz in Success is performed by the Chico Hamilton Quintet. When the quintet ends a set, the musicians are not confronted by drunks or easy women but by sober, educated women who want to discuss music theory. The tension of the main characters represents a tension between two periods: the modern age (1947 to 1968) and the jazz age (the 1920s). On the modern side is a young woman (Susan Harrison) and her lover, a jazz musician Martin Milner (who is famous for his role in the TV program Adam-12); on the jazz-age side is a sleazy columnist (Burt Lancaster) and his sleazy press agent (Tony Curtis). The jazz-age men have no respect for women. They either treat them like whores (Curtis), or want to completely control their lives (Lancaster).
The modern world, on the other hand, treats women like human beings. It also respects black men. Chico Hamilton (who plays himself) speaks like a person with a brain, wears handsome suits, and stands on the same social and class ground as other whites of the modern age. The struggle between the old and the new, the sleek modernism of the interiors and exteriors, the experimental cinematography—all of this places Success in the higher regions of post-WWII American cinema. CHARLES MUDEDE
dir. Tony Gilroy
In the same way it is easy to recognize a movie directed by someone with a background in theater, or a movie directed by a film actor, it is easy to recognize a film directed by a screenwriter. Such is the case with Michael Clayton, a movie that, coincidently, stars a Hollywood actor who has directed a couple of films, George Clooney. The reputation of Michael Clayton's director, Tony Gilroy, completely rests on the scripts he wrote for the Bourne trilogy. Outside of this trio of very successful, commercial scripts, Gilroy has written nothing of real value—only Bait, Armageddon, Proof of Life, and so on. The purpose of Michael Clayton, then, is to showcase Gilroy's hidden talents. This is the screenwriter's moment to shine; his moment to show us the stuff he is really made of; his moment to make it clear once and for all that he is more than a mere Hollywood machine.
Because Michael Clayton has this incredible task (to expose Gilroy's true greatness), the substance of its story is very weighty—corporate corruption. And because important, heavy scripts always involve a character who makes a psychological journey from a low to high moral position, the main character of the movie, Michael Clayton (Clooney), is a fixer, a fallen lawyer, a man who exists in the twilight between the complete darkness of the underworld and the light of the world of law and order. If you have a messy legal problem, you hire Clayton to fix (or clean) it. But then something really bad happens: Clayton's close friend (Tom Wilkinson) is murdered. The death presents the fixer with two big choices: either ignore the murder and continue his low and morally bankrupt life or rise to the occasion by risking his life and solving the murder. In general, Michael Clayton is slow and somber, with occasional flashes of brilliant writing. It isn't a movie that the world will remember, nor one that will prove that Gilroy is much more than a Hollywood screenwriter. It is, however, one that fans of Clooney's appearance and manner will enjoy. CHARLES MUDEDE
Ira & Abby
dir. Robert Cary
Even though he's been through 12 years of analysis, 32-year-old Ira Black (played by the handsome Chris Messina) remains a helpless, indecisive mess. He fails to follow through on anything. He's smart, but he's been working on his dissertation for years; he's young and attractive, but he's barely surviving the same on-then-off-then-on-again relationship with a semiattractive woman he doesn't love. Dude can't even order breakfast without having a mild meltdown ("Eggs... no pancakes... fuck it, just bring me coffee").
He's miserable, he makes everyone around him miserable, and if the movie were based solely on his character, it'd be the most insufferable piece of shit film in the world.
But then he meets Abby (writer Jennifer Westfeldt). When Ira meets Abby he becomes loveable. Abby loves his face, Abby loves his paunchy little tummy, and Abby asks him if he wants to get married within six hours of meeting him. He says yes, they have sex, they meet each other's parents, and then he goes home and dumps his girlfriend via voice mail.
It sounds a lot like that Dharma & Greg bullshit, right? Nah, Ira & Abby is funnier and smarter, and even though Abby is a quirky "free spirit" from a hippie household, she's not nearly as annoying as Jenna Elfman. Plus she has better hair.
After a few months of marriage, things stop being quite so cute. Ira finds out Abby has been married before (TWICE!) and he blows a gasket. And Ira's parents' miserable marriage starts to infect Abby's happy mom and dad. Everyone's relationships go to shit and they all begin to question monogamy, marriage, and what it really takes to be happy in love. Luckily, in the middle of all this stupidity, Chris Parnell (as one of the movie's many therapists) is being funny. MEGAN SELING
dir. Ang Lee
The WWII espionage thriller Lust, Caution is Ang Lee's follow-up to Brokeback Mountain, and at first they don't seem to have anything in common. The films strike opposite tones—where the 2005 film spilled over with sentiment (and featured the demurest suggestion of butt sex ever set to celluloid), Lust, Caution is bloodshot and sadistic (this is one NC-17 rating I have no quarrel with). But they both mess with genre conventions for political ends. Brokeback Mountain's gay humanism was achieved by combining the signifiers of a Western with the mechanics of a melodrama; Lust, Caution unites a perverse coming-of-age story with a spy thriller, and throws in a little film noir for good measure. But while the Western and the melodrama complemented one another (the one stereotypically masculine, the other conventionally feminine), the coming-of-age story and the thriller fit awkwardly. It seems a little silly to want to know everything about the psychology of a femme fatale.
Following a pitch-perfect prelude set in 1940s Shanghai, where the clink of lacquered nails against mah-jongg tiles can't drown out the hum of jealousy in a circle of privileged wives, the narrative scoots back to the late 1930s. One of the wives (Tang Wei)—now a college coed with a half-ponytail and the name Wong Chia Chi—is being persuaded to audition for a patriotic play. The girl falls in love first with acting and the rush of heartfelt applause, and only then with political action against China's Japanese occupiers.
Encouraged by her drama-group friends, the girl, now calling herself Mak Tai Tai, insinuates herself into the social circle of a collaborator (Tony Leung, brilliant) and his wife (Joan Chen, underused), intending to seduce the traitor so he can be isolated from his bodyguards and assassinated. Her lust for performance is absolute: The student idealist disappears completely beneath the powdered skin of the society lady she's imitating. More annoyingly, Tang the actor is careful not to let us see any cracks or communication between the two layers of character (until the script, belatedly and all at once, demands it). The press notes reveal the extent of the problem. Asked how she dealt with "playing a character who herself is playing a role for much of the movie," Tang responds: "It was very complicated. So I would not think about Wong Chia Chi but about Mak Tai Tai. I could not think, 'I am Wong Chia Chi as Mak Tai Tai,' I was just thinking 'I am Mak Tai Tai.'" We've seen Wong Chia Chi grow up and get herself into this mess, but she remains a total cipher.
So despite Ang Lee's insistence that Lust, Caution is told "from a woman's point of view," it's hard to understand her point of view—how Wong Chia Chi could fall in love with a man she'd prefer to murder than fuck, a man who basically rapes her the first time they have sex. The suggestion that she likes it rough is painfully insufficient; her weakness for pink diamonds is just insulting. The individual parts of the film—coming-of-age story, mah-jongg jousts, cuts to fierce-looking German shepherds at inappropriate moments, Tang Wei's two separate performances—are often quite interesting. And the film's basic outline isn't implausible. But, like its elegantly contorted sex scenes, it's unconvincing on screen. ANNIE WAGNER
Great World of Sound
dir. Craig Zobel
Great World of Sound tells the story of two would-be record company A&R men, Martin (sympathetically played by Pat Healy) and his cohort Clarence (caricatured by Kene Holliday), who find themselves "scouting talent" for the dubious Great World of Sound record label. Great World of Sound is actually a fly-by-night scam, a kind of pyramid scheme, and Martin and Clarence are both its unwitting con men and its marks. They travel from town to town doing their bosses' dirty work, auditioning aspiring musicians out of budget motel rooms and convincing them to part with a few thousand dollars for recording costs.
The scheme is two scams in one, and both are predicated on a distinctly American sense of entitlement: Martin and Clarence imagine themselves as music-industry executives, the people they audition fancy themselves stars, everyone dreams of quitting their day jobs, and only the scam's originators get rich. It's called "song sharking," and it was the occupation of director Craig Zobel's father for a time in the 1970s.
But this movie is neither a farce of the music industry nor a revealing examination of an old con. Rather, it's an unbearably plodding odd-couple comedy. Scene after tedious scene of bad auditions—using real-life respondents to newspaper ads placed by Zobel's production and improvisation from the actors—are meant to evoke the schadenfreude of watching American Idol rejects but have none of that show's slick car-wreck appeal. The film's half-narrative, half-verité style fails on both counts, lending the film neither the weight of a documentary nor the pace, arc, or quality of dialogue one expects from a fully scripted film.
At best, Great World of Sound is like its subjects—deluded, wishing to be something better and more artful than it is capable of. At worst, it's more like the film's song sharking—a rip-off. ERIC GRANDY
dir. Tom DiCillo
NYC indie auteur Tom DiCillo has amassed a humble but considerable body of work—Living in Oblivion, Box of Moonlight, The Real Blonde, and others—out of movies that are better than their premises would indicate. This is again true of his latest, Delirious, which pairs a hubristic paparazzo named Les (Steve Buscemi) with homeless naïf Toby (Michael Pitt), who starts as his errand boy, but soon becomes his subject matter.
It would take an overactive empathy gland for anyone to muster much compassion for a celebrity-ambush photographer, and DiCillo knows it. Buscemi and his fellow shutterbugs are shabby vampires, lurking on sidewalks, jostling for shots, backbiting all the way. Fortunately, the stars they shoot, like K'Harma, a Britneyesque pop star (Alison Lohman, inspired) and their handlers, aren't much better. The hierarchy is clear: As an ingenious Elvis Costello cameo illustrates, paparazzi invade the stars' lives; the stars treat the paparazzi like peons; and then the paparazzi resent the stars for thinking they're still important. DiCillo mines this irony for laughs and cringes alike.
At first, Les just hires Toby—the only person in New York worse off than he is—so he can feel like a big shot. But as the layers of pride and bravado peel away and a fraternal/paternal relationship emerges, DiCillo invests Les (even his name is a humiliation) with the pathos that comes not only from never making it, but being too scared to try.
By the time Toby is discovered by a reality TV producer (Gina Gershon) and becomes a star in his own right, the satire begins to overreach into total absurdity, and thus, the ending feels pat. But the job has already been done: DiCillo has again made a warm, smart, affecting movie out of elements that would've been cynical and dumb in another artist's hands. SEAN NELSON
David & Layla
dir. Jay Jonroy
This jaunty, low-budget romantic comedy is set in New York City and begins with a series of shots establishing just how Jewy the city is. This is soon followed with a bit scene in which a man in a yarmulke and a man in a Muslim prayer cap are walking in opposite directions and have to go around one another. As the Muslim man passes the Jewish man, he mutters to Allah.
That's when you realize the movie is a farce. The two main characters are a Jewish guy named David who has a TV show on a local cable channel called Sex and Happiness (and is—wait for it—unhappy in his own sex life) and an Iraqi Kurdish woman named Layla who dances in a Middle Eastern club and has overstayed her artist visa by a couple of weeks. She has no immediate family (they were gassed by Saddam Hussein) and is staying with wealthy, conservative relatives who have no idea she's a dancer and are contriving to arrange a marriage so she can stay in the country. David has seen her walking down the street and is infatuated with her, and so one night the cameraman from his TV show convinces him to climb a ladder to Layla's window with a bouquet of flowers. Layla shrieks and hits him on the head and the ladder falls backward, and then while giving him CPR she starts making out with him.
But he's Jewish! And she's Muslim! And neither one wants to convert! And their respective families are up in arms! And so on! The premise is pretty much the only thing here. The lead actors are fine, but the dialogue is predictable and the characters thin. It's just another movie that won't stand out in your mind. CHRISTOPHER FRIZZELLE