Wednesday April 13, 2011 at The Brattle Theater, Cambridge, MA.
Directed by Malcolm Venville, starring Keanu Reeves, Verga Farmiga, James Caan, Bill Duke and Peter Stormare.
HENRY’S CRIME is a happy little surprise. It’s not going to make you a better person. It’s not going to open your eyes to anything. It’s not trying to. It is trying to entertain you without insulting your intelligence. There will always be a contingent of people who see Keanu Reeves as little more than one half of Wyld Stallyns. You know if you’re one of them if you smirked or giggled at the thought of a Keanu Reeves movie not insulting your intelligence. More on that later. The beauty of this film is the simplicity of the story and the quiet grace of Malcolm Venville’s staging of it. As he’d done in the recent 44 INCH CHEST Venville shows a keen interest in the decision process of his characters. He also has a rare knack for bringing a melancholy note to comic moments and vice versa. One of Venville’s more evocative touches are moments when he films Henry Torne (Reeves) in confined spaces, or on the inside looking out, as he ponders how to get to that place he’d rather be.
The story opens with Henry working the graveyard shift as a toll booth operator in Buffalo, NY. Before his morning is over, Henry is tricked by friends into driving the getaway car for a bank heist, then abandoned to take the fall. Henry spends the next three years in prison, where his cellmate Max (James Caan, looking very Joe Biden these days) points out the inequity of Henry doing the time without having done the crime. Upon release Henry devises a deceptively simple plan to tunnel into the very same bank through an adjacent theater. You might expect I’d say “from here mayhem and hilarity ensue.” Not so much, and at least in this case, it makes for a better movie.
HENRY’S CRIME has a reasonable share of big laughs, but being in the company of screwball characters who felt like they would be at home in a 1970’s Peter Falk movie, I found myself smiling through nearly the entire film. There are added bonuses, including one of the more engaging opposites attract romantic relationships I’ve seen in quite a while, and a song score comprising tunes from the Daptone Records catalog. Henry inadvertently meets Julie (Vera Farmiga) twice as he plans his crime. First: she damn near runs him over with her car when he is observing the bank. Second: while casing the theater he discovers she is rehearsing Ranyevskaya for an impending production of THE CHERRY ORCHARD. Neither of them has any interest in the other. At Max’s urging Henry pursues the role of Lopahkin to gain access to the dressing room nearest the bank. This places Henry and Julie in close enough quarters that one of them is bound to step in a pile of love. Daptone funk & soul tunes lend a unique and comforting aura to every scene they grace. This music distinguishes the movie, and Henry and Julie’s relationship, from an endless list of films that recycle the same dozen or so Motown standards or nuggets from the Woodstock era. There is nothing about this film that would make you believe it could happen nor is there anything so ridiculous as to strain the suspension of disbelief. What ties together all the tiny gems, be they comedic or romantic or photographic or musical, is that they make the story fun enough that you will want to believe Henry’s scheme just might work.
HENRY’S CRIME is the the first film produced by Keanu Reeves and Stephen Hamel’s Company Films. Henry is more than a role Reeves took for a paycheck, this is a script he developed for a few years, brought to life by a crew he helped to hire. This is his best chance so far to showcase his strengths. Many critics and fans have said that his best roles, SPEED and THE MATRIX cited most frequently, are those that do not require him to speak too often. Some feel his dialog delivery is wooden but this ignores what separates Reeves from current acting styles. Tony Soprano once lamented the loss of “men like Gary Cooper, y’know, the strong silent type.” Keanu Reeves’ best roles are the strong, silent and smart type; men who observe and then do. Henry Torne uses clipped sentences if he speaks in full sentences at all, in contrast to his stage role as Lopahkin, a character who is far more certain about the damage he is willing to cause to get what he wants. If you pay attention to Reeves’ eyes and the way he carries himself (compare Henry withering in a corner in his jail cell to Jack Traven figuring out the bomb under the bus) you will see the dimensions he can bring that are not on the page. THE LAKE HOUSE would never have worked without an actor who could be simultaneously introspective and charming.
One final thought about the man who was Mnemonic. Reeves passed on millions for SPEED 2 because he’d promised to tour with his Dogstar band mates. Maybe he was preserving his artistic integrity, maybe he was showing loyalty to his friends, either way it was a smart move. Where some stars demand only lead roles regardless of how weak the film is, since I LOVE YOU TO DEATH and MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING through SOMETHING’S GOTTA GIVE to THE PRIVATE LIVES OF PIPPA LEE, Reeves has frequently taken supporting roles for the opportunity to work with strong casts. Scoff if you must, but few actors work harder to stretch their range, and give the audience our time and money’s worth more than the guy who is one half of Company Films.
Thursday, March 24 through Thursday March 31, 20011 at the Landmark Kendall Sq. Cinema, Cambridge, MA.
A week has passed since the conclusion of the 2011 Boston Underground Film Festival. That may be enough time to digest the weird wonders of their programming. During the 2010 BUFF the theory struck me that, if a filmmaker was uncertain about their work being accepted into this festival, they could stack the odds in their favor by including at least one scene wherein someone vomits. After the 2011 BUFF I am prepared to say that my theory has been confirmed. Bleeding is the most popular method by which BUFF characters emit fluid from their bodies but vomiting is a close second. MARTIAN PRECURSOR, a short film that preceded one of the features I saw, managed to fit vomiting into a one minute running time. There should be no mistaking the offensive, unnerving, titillating, ban-baiting nature of the films from a festival that bills itself as “The 13th Annual Bizarre and Insane Boston Underground Film Festival, An Adult Happening In Psychedelic Color.” The trailers alone are enough to require Disney-Pixar therapy lest one lose all hope of common decency. To some this is called Fun; to others … you have been Warned.
HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN, Directed by Jason Eisner, starring Rutger Hauer, Molly Dunsworth, and Brian Downey.
This year’s Opening Night feature began with a 2007 Grindhouse trailer contest sponsored by the SXSW Festival and Robert Rodriguez. A crew from Nova Scotia spent $150 on their entry, which not only won the contest but earned its own online following, culminating in the inclusion of the trailer in 186 prints of GRINDHOUSE in Canada. The feature version, following Rutger Hauer as an unnamed hobo who gets off the wrong freight train in the wrong town, is a strong reminder of something of which myself and every other nerd should be aware. I walked into HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN hoping for the same gonzo social satire that made MACHETE one of my favorite movies of last year. HOBO is not devoid of commentary, but it comes in small and sparse doses, and that is more my problem than the filmmakers. During the post-screening Q&A director Eisener explained that the ultimate aspiration of he and his crew was to create a lost 80’s action movie that one might find in a dust covered VHS. Then I understood. Then I let go of my own expectations. They were not trying to connect with the 42nd Street theaters of the 1960’s and 70’s that inspired GRINDHOUSE and MACHETE. I grew up on the same films these guys did: goofiness released by The Cannon Group and New World Pictures, starring Richard Lynch or Wings Hauser, and featuring songs by hair-metal bands no one outside of the Sunset Strip has ever heard of. HOBO may have lacked a specific type of humor I was hoping for, but it’s still damn funny, and exciting and gross. More importantly, it is a dead solid perfect match for the films its creators emulated, for the film they were aiming to make. Sometimes I need to surrender my nerdiness, and embrace the nerdiness of others, for my own nerd universe to expand. Well done HOBOs and congratulations on your Audience Award at BUFF’s 2011 Bacchus Awards! I’m looking forward to the DVD, hopefully loaded with Bonus Extras, since the story behind this film is as fun as the film itself.
MACHETE MAIDENS UNLEASHED, Directed by Mark Hartley, featuring Roger Corman, Eddie Romero, R. Lee Ermey, Jayne Kennedy, Colleen Camp, and John Landis.
I hope that MACHETE MAIDENS UNLEASHED coupled with 2010’s AMERICAN GRINDHOUSE spells the beginning of a BUFF tradition of offering at least one documentary with John Landis among the interviewees. This documentary focuses on exploitation horror and action films made in the Philippines between the late 1960’s and early ’80’s. I expected it to cover films being made by American crews looking to squeeze the most out of their budget, and it does that job thoroughly, but it also examines a good number of films made by Filipino filmmakers. Eddie Romero’s BLACK MAMA, WHITE MAMA is one of my all-time favorite sleaze-o-ramas. MACHETE MAIDENS not only covers Romero’s career, but other directors including Cirio Santiago and Bobby Suarez, as well as some cast and crew members. Sadly many of the Filipino crew have passed away. MACHETE MAIDENS makes excellent use of archival interviews and news footage to the explore the careers of these filmmakers as well as the political and social climates in which they were working. In terms of discussing both the position of these movies in the exploitation pantheon as well as in the overall zeitgiest, the interviewees offer contemporary analysis surpassing AMERICAN GRINDHOUSE, and approaching INSIDE DEEP THROAT. There is no one more fun than John Landis for that sort of perspective.
MACHETE MAIDENS UNLEASHED was preceded by a short called THY KILL BE DONE. Nuns wielding power tools avenge the murder of their priest by drug dealers. As a fallen Catholic I’m a sucker for good nunsploitation. The highlight of this one is an absurd Vietnam flashback that hits like a cut-away moment from THE FAMILY GUY. Who knows? In a few years maybe this could grow into a feature like HOBO did?
THE TWILIGHT PEOPLE, Directed by Eddie Romero, starring John Ashley, Pat Woodell, and Pam Grier.
THE TWILIGHT PEOPLE played as a companion feature to MACHETE MAIDENS UNLEASHED. It’s the kind of movie that would have been a blast in a Times Square theater with pot smoke hanging in the air and beer bottles clanging on the floor. It’s essentially a knock off of THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU. The downside is that it takes a while to get going, and you’ll sit through a fair amount of walking down long hallways and peeking around corners, but we can say that about many horror movies trying to pad the running time. When it finally does take off, we have Pam Grier stalking and snarling as Ayesa the Panther Woman, and another poor sap who’s been turned into a Bat Man but can’t figure out how to use his wings without falling. So yeah it’s ridiculous, but it’s also pretty damn funny especially when it’s trying not to be, and most of it is in focus!
An unsavory short called AMY’S IN THE ATTIC rolled before TWILIGHT PEOPLE. You know a director is trying to get under your skin when the end credits include an invitation for the audience to email him or contact him on Facebook if they want to complain about his film being racist or sexist. Since the film plays like a torture porn parody of Whit Stillman’s METROPOLITAN maybe he’ll get angry letters from the debutant set.
THE CORRIDOR, Directed by Evan Kelly, written by Josh MacDonald, starring Matthew Amyotte, Nigel Bennett, and Stephen Chambers.
THE CORRIDOR, as I told writer Josh MacDonald during the Q&A, is the kind of movie that makes me love this festival. I hope all of these movies will be entertaining, or at the very least bad enough to provide a few good laughs, but every now and then one emerges that is better written, shot and acted than many Hollywood studio films. (Happily, that just kept happening at this year’s BUFF!) MacDonald acknowledged that he and the rest of the filmmakers would prefer to hone the special effects a little more which reminds us that this entire film was probably made for the price of a few seconds of effects in a TRANSFORMERS movie. THE CORRIDOR follows five friends, all carrying their own weight of emotional and psychological baggage, as they attempt a weekend vacation at a cabin in the woods. Sounds like a movie we’ve seen before, but if we’ve learned anything from the better movies that have followed this blueprint, what separates a derivative wasted effort from a fun time being scared is how carefully the surprises are revealed and how believable the characters’ reactions are. THE CORRIDOR is not flawless but I’ll chalk it up beside EVIL DEAD and CABIN FEVER as being considerably more imaginative than the vast majority of cabin-in-the-woods thrillers.
The aforementioned MARTIAN PRECURSOR played before THE CORRIDOR. I have to admit, vomiting bum aside, I dug the aluminum foil Mars set. It reminded me of the cardboard cities my brother & I used to build and smash with my Shogun Warriors and Godzilla toys.
A HORRIBLE WAY TO DIE, Directed by Adam Wingard, starring Amy Seimetz, Joe Swanberg, and A.J. Bowen.
A HORRIBLE WAY TO DIE is as refreshing a take on a potentially tired format as THE CORRIDOR is within its genre. It’s another story we’ve seen, the serial killer who escapes from prison to track down a woman from his past, but time spent with Michael Meyers will not begin to prepare you for this film. It is not without violence, and the violence is visceral when it comes, but for the most part it plays like a straight forward family drama. With throat slashings. Once again strong writing and performances and a unique director’s eye make all the difference. A.J. Bowen as the murderous Garrett Turrell is probably the most chillingly realistic movie murderer I’ve seen since Michael Rooker in HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER. Turrell is not a misunderstood brilliant man toying with the cops, nor a tortured pervert with mommy-issues, he’s simply a guy who is better at eliminating problems than solving them. Films about serial killers are rarely believable enough to make me think of real serial killers. A HORRIBLE WAY TO DIE reminded me of Christopher Wilder‘s three month killing spree in 1984, particularly my wonder at the time how Wilder was able to approach so many victims, even as news coverage of his nationwide manhunt increased dramatically with each murder. Bowen plays Turrell with borderline normalcy that answers my question. A HORRIBLE WAY TO DIE quietly and unnervingly forges a new path over well-worn ground.
A HORRIBLE WAY TO DIE was the runner-up for the Best of Fest Bacchus Award. It was accompanied by BEATING HEARTS which won the Bacchus Award for Director’s Choice Short. BEATING HEARTS contained in its 11 minutes as much sorrow, rage, pathos and go for broke acting and writing as Todd Solondz’s HAPPINESS. I mean that as a compliment, but like HAPPINESS, there is a small number of people to whom I could recommend BEATING HEARTS.
COLD FISH, Directed & Co-Written by Sion Sono, starring Mitsuru Fukikoshi, Denden, Megumi Kagurazaka, and Asuka Kurosawa.
I’d like to resist the obviousness of a pun but COLD FISH truly is an acquired taste. Japanese director Sion Sono’s film LOVE EXPOSURE opened last year’s BUFF. Listen to the audience gathered in the lobby and you learn that this is a man who is adored and who’s work is respected around here. COLD FISH starts off mildly enough with a middle aged couple running a small pet store dedicated mostly to tropical fish. When their teenage daughter is rescued from a juvenile delinquency rap by the owner of a much larger pet store, who then hires the daughter, you can see the threads of family dysfunctionality begin to fray. It would be difficult to reveal spoilers, as so many varieties of physical and psychological manipulation and abuse follow, it’s damn near impossible to pick which moment to say “Wait ’til you see this!” This is an intricately plotted well made movie about very unlikeable people. I doubt there is a large audience eager to spend 145 minutes of screen time around vicious characters and subversive humor akin to THE COOK, THE THIEF, HIS WIFE & HER LOVER. There I said it, and if you know that title, then you know if you’re the type of person who can stomach COLD FISH. You also know if you should curl up in a ball and hug your knees and hope it passes by without noticing you.
PROFANE, Written & Directed by Usama Alshaibi, starring Manal Kara, Molly Plunk, and Dejan Mircea.
PROFANE beat A HORRIBLE WAY TO DIE for the Best of Fest Bacchus Award. Here’s one you won’t find in your shopping mall mutliplex anytime soon: an existential demonic possession story, created by a Muslim American documentary director, who was inspired by THE EXORCIST to explore the Muslim concept of the Jinn. Wait it gets more colorful: the character through whom we encounter the possibility of the Jinn is not an innocent child like Regan MacNeil, but a Chicago dominatrix named Muna, who hears voices whispering to her during her taxi rides home from her B&D sessions. I have a short list of films that I respect more than I enjoy which I imagine is exactly what Alshaibi was hoping for with PROFANE. If anything differentiates a Jinn from a Christian demon it escapes me, but Alshaibi’s camera work and the frequently stunning juxtapositions of his editing are intriguing as hell, suggesting that he answers some of my questions with images rather than dialog. Muna’s spiritual crisis was kinky and unsettling, but like the best documentaries, it left me wanting to research multiple topics to better understand the spiritual world illuminated by PROFANE.
Usama Alshaibi’s short GASH played before PROFANE. It’s a good film for anyone who thought Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Theo van Gogh’s SUBMISSION was too subtle. There was also a video introduction prepared by Usama Alshaibi. He is the victim of a recent hate crime, the bruises and scars from which were still evident, which prevented him from attending the festival. Since the crime is still under investigation he offered little by way of explanation, other than to say he had gone to a party that he shouldn’t have, and someone there heard his name. My immediate thought was to wonder if Adolphe Menjou ever encountered similar treatment in the 1930’s or ’40’s. It angers me (and many others at the festival) that some can be as ignorant as to blame a man for the name his parents gave him. It saddens me that Mr. Alshaibi would describe the party as somewhere he “shouldn’t have gone,” as if he should change his name or adopt a nickname, as a preemptive measure against the stupidity of others. His is the work of a brave and focused artist, and I hope he continues to explore his faith and identity through film, because his voice is unusual even by independent film standards. …And yes I would feel this way about his work even if the assault had not happened.
FAZE 7, Written & Directed by Nicolas Goldbart, starring Daniel Hendler, Jazmin Stuart, Federico Lupi, and Jose “Yayo” Guridi.
HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN provided an opportunity to discuss my need to let go of my own expectations in order to realize a filmmaker’s aspiration. The Argentinian viral outbreak thriller FAZE 7 offers a similar opportunity. As the end credits rolled I heard some exiting the theater denounce FAZE 7 it as a rip-off of QUARANTINE. Nerds love to do that: act like they alone spotted a precedent, and therefor they alone are better informed that the rest of the room. The trouble is that there is always a precedent for the precedent. If we are going to dismiss Bruce Springsteen as Bob Dylan-lite we also have to take into account that Dylan might never have been without Woody Guthrie. What matters is how well each new expression engages its audience. Sure THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT borrowed a framing device from CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST but everything else about both films is incongruous.
The first act of FAZE 7 bears some similarities to QUARANTINE, as well as [REC], the Spanish film from which QUARANTINE was remade. Precedent, baby! Beyond that, FAZE 7 is an intense thriller with believable character dynamics, and a mystery that is engrossing to watch unfold. The central conceit is ***semi-Spoiler alert: what might happen if the most paranoid and obsessively prepared person in a crisis is actually correct about the cause of said crisis? *** I almost did not come to this show. It started late on a Thursday night, it was the final film on the schedule, and the day’s rain had turned to slush falling from the sky after the sun went down. I’m so glad that FAZE 7 was my final screening for the 2011 BUFF. I found myself laughing with the film rather than at it, and genuinely intrigued and scared, precisely the way a new twist on an old theme should work.
For anyone curious about the BUFF’s Bacchus Award here he is. He’s a pink bunny. He’s flipping you off. And he vibrates. You know you want one!
AFTER THOUGHT from 4.9.11
If you look closely enough at the blue Sharpie schedule I wrote out for myself at the top of this article, you might notice one title that I missed, a Japanese zombie film called HELLDRIVER. This film lost a coin-toss to PROFANE. I was unable to see it when it screened again later in the week. If Japanese zombies weren’t enough to make me want to see HELLDRIVER then the presence of Eihi Shiina, from AUDITION and TOKYO GORE POLICE, would be enough to seal the deal. But don’t take my word for it — you tell me if this doesn’t look fun:
From Tuesday, February 12, 2008.
Directed by John Badham, starring Roy Scheider, Malcolm McDowell, Candy Clark, Daniel Stern & Warren Oates.
L.A.P.D. helicopter pilot Frank Murphy (Scheider) is chosen to participate in the testing of the technologically loaded super-chopper Blue Thunder. Blue Thunder was built for surveillance and anti-terrorism support. With the 1984 Summer Olympics approaching Los Angeles becomes the most viable testing ground. When Murphy realizes Blue Thunder is intended as more of an offensive than defensive weapon, he does what all good movie cops do – (ominous music cue) – he takes matters into his own hands.
From the 1970’s to … well, even now, anti-hero cops have been staple characters in a few great movies and a lot of bad ones. Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson, Burt Reynolds, Sylvester Stallone and many others made careers playing these guys. Roy Scheider was generally too quiet and reflective an actor to play catch-phrase characters. That’s what makes him so damn cool here. Rather than making Officer Murphy a one-note tough-guy fantasy Scheider plays him as a decent man who knowingly puts himself at risk for a greater good. The end credits include a dedication to a to another introspective tough-guy, Warren Oates, who died after filming but before BLUE THUNDER was released. Tomorrow, it’s also dedicated to our buddy Roy, whom we lost earlier this week.
I’ll finish Thursday.
AFTER THOUGHT from 4.3.11
Roy Scheider was represented by the agency I worked for when we used to watch movies in unused conference rooms. When he died I wanted to do something special. Yes I’ll admit it: there was often a sentimental angle behind the scheduling of Lunch Movie screenings. We commemorated historic and cultural milestones, recognized holidays with traditional movies, and observed the passing of filmmakers who inspired us to work in the entertainment industry.
I initially thought to run JAWS to remember Roy but I expected everyone had seen it already. THE SEVEN-UPS or STILL OF THE NIGHT would have great but I didn’t own either. I owned BLUE THUNDER but had forgotten what a solid example it was of Roy’s skill. Chaptering through it as I wrote the email announcement above, I was reminded of the Vietnam flashbacks, which were fast becoming an action movie cliché in the early ’80’s. That device is better used here than in most films, adding the standard past dimension to Officer Murphy, but also forwarding the mystery that he needs to solve. Roy Scheider handles both the mysteries of Murphy’s past and Blue Thunder’s future with a pensive sincerity that creates a sense that this could happen. At the very least he contributes heavily to the suspension of disbelief.
In the summer of 1983 I saw BLUE THUNDER at the Fine Arts Theater in Westport, CT and the Colony Theater in Cleveland, OH. In both places the roar of the chopper, plus the thump of Arthur B. Rubinstein’s electronic score, created a sonic rumble that put the structural soundness of the theater to the test. Happily the same nerdy joy can be experienced on DVD. Though it joined an elite rank of Lunch Movies, those where we were asked to turn down the volume by our coworkers outside the conference room, the DVD sounds crystal clear at any level. Cool tempered Roy Scheider versus scheming Malcolm McDowell, an urban helicopter battle, hot-heated Warren Oates and goofy Daniel Stern, a retro funky 80’s score, and a moment of voyeurism like nothing I’d seen before … there is a very short list of movies with this many layers of Cool.
In the spring of 1996, a few nerds working in a Los Angeles talent agency began spending our lunch hour watching movies. For the next 12 years we watched 1 or 2 movies per week, starting with the STAR WARS Trilogy, before that term required an "old or new" clarification. Thanks to imported DVDs, we watched Lars von Trier's DOGVILLE before it opened in the U.S. and Wong Kar Wai's 2046 the week before it secured U.S. distribution.
We watched old & new, black-n-white & color, documentaries & silents, epics & the occasional short, dubbed foreign & subtitled, high art, low art and no art. We watched everything we could get our hands on, looking for that spark that made some writer, some producer, some director, some performer say "I gotta make this movie."