Friday, September 19, 2014

LA SWISS FILM FESTIVAL 2014: SHORT FILMS

A scene from The Finger.
The Angelinos and the Alps

By Ed Rampell

From Heidi to Hollywood, Charlie Chaplin to Jean-Luc Godard to H.R. Giger, James Bond to the Pink Panther to Bollywood to the TV reality series The Bachelor and beyond, Swiss Cinema and television has a rich heritage. This motion picture plenitude was on full display at Hollywood’s Harmony Gold Theater on Sept. 7 during the 4th Edition of Short Films Long Night presented by the Los Angeles Swiss Film Festival.

This year 14 short films plus two Switzerland Tourism TV spots were screened at the filmfest. The “100% Swiss” category included six shorts made on location in Switzerland by and with mainly homegrown talents. Eight shorts were projected in the “Here & There” category, which included works made, in part, by Swiss talents and filmed outside of the Confederacion Helvetica.

The variety of films shown reveal the Alpine nation’s depth and breadth of talent. What was interesting is that all of the shorts could have been shot outside of Switzerland. For example, the urban setting of the 9:33 comedy drama directed by Rafael Kistler, The Kids Are Alright -- dealing with issues of crime, immigration and youth -- which was also screened at Basel’s Gassli Film Festival in August, might have been lensed during the night at any European urban area. Those attributes people typically think of as Swiss -- snow capped peaks, ski lifts, yodeling, alphorns, Saint Bernards and the like -- were, interestingly, only on display in the well-made Switzerland Tourism television commercials that also entertained the L.A. aud. One could say that these ads were “100% Swiss-plus.”

In any case, three of the shorts won awards -- one per category plus an audience award voted by members of the Harmony Gold’s packed auditorium. Winning in the “100% Swiss” division was the French-language, subtitled 14 minute black comedy The Finger, directed by Malika Pelliocioli. In this delicious farce, three siblings battle over the legacy of their dearly departed dad around the time of his funeral at home. In particular, the two brothers and one sister have their eye on the ring adorning the film’s eponymous digit. Sheer hilarity ensues as they attempt to retrieve the piece of jewelry before it, along with its bearer, goes on to meet its proverbial maker.

What is particularly droll is that the sister is identified as a socialist candidate for office -- who actually campaigns during the funeral! This reviewer is unsure what Pelliocioli had in mind, but perhaps the helmer is indicting Swiss socialists for being as greedy as the rest of their capitalist brethren. In any case, the short’s title -- The Finger -- may be a witty reference to what the deceased is giving, posthumously, to his avaricious children. Pascale Rey, president of Dreamago (a Swiss organization based in Sierre/Valais specializing in coaching screenwriters), received the award on behalf of Valais-based Pelliocioli.

The winner of the “Here & There” category was a real change in pace from The Finger’s naturalistic style. Elie Chapuis’ 6:32 animated Impostor depicted a cartoony deer attempting to rob a man’s identity by removing his head. Although a work of animation Chapius’ skillfully wrought short, like The Finger, dealt with infidelity and other all too human, if not too nice, baser desires and instincts. (One of this critic’s personal favorites among the shorts was another animation piece, Fabienne Giezendanner’s 12:00 Giant Dwarf, an imaginative, creatively rendered version of an Inuit legend.)

The knee-slapping Ruprecht likewise belies the stereotype some have of the Swiss as being a dour, humorless folk. It was easy to see why the L.A.-based filmgoers awarded Yangzom Brauen the Audience Award for the 10:00 and 48 second (mostly) English language comedy, as it deals with one of Los Angeles’ most irksome nuisances: Leaf blowers, and the ear piercing noises they make, especially during early morning hours. Ruprecht is having sex with what seems to be a prostitute when his passionate romp is ruined by pesky gardeners, prompting the European (perhaps Swiss) man into action by attempting to get the L.A. city bureaucracy to stop this chronic disturbing of the piece, which Ruprecht has been complaining about, with little effect, for ages. Sheer hilarity ensues with a series of cross-cultural collisions and encounters in L.A.’s multi-culti cauldron of disparate nationalities from around the world, as East meets Alp. Brauen received the well-deserved Audience Award in person from attorney Dennis Fredricks, who serves as a special counsel to Swiss and other consulates, and Swiss model Alizée Gaillard.

The Consulate General of Switzerland (Consul General Jean-François Lichtenstern is a huge movie buff) supported by Presence Switzerland presented the Los Angeles Swiss Film Festival. Along with recent works by Swiss filmmakers such as Germinal Roaux, Bettina Oberli, Marc Forster,veteran Xavier Koller, et al, the Festival’s shorts showed that this is a small nation with big screen big talents.

 

 

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Monday, September 15, 2014

AGLIFF 2014: BOY MEETS GIRL

Ricky (Michelle Hendley) in Boy Meets Girl. 
Gender fender 

By Don Simpson

Being born with male genitalia did not stop Ricky (Michelle Hendley) from evolving into a strong and beautiful young woman; but despite her courageousness, living a transgendered life in a quaint, backwoods Virginian town, Ricky still lacks the confidence to enter the dating scene as an unabashed woman. Ricky’s best friend, Robby (Michael Welch), remains faithfully at her side, as she flounders around aimlessly. Anyone who meets Ricky and Robby immediately suspects that Robby is just observing from the sidelines, in the hopes that Ricky will one day be ready to date him. Meanwhile, Ricky sees fashion school in New York City as her one key to escaping the mind-numbing monotony of small town life. At the very least, New York City is certain to have a more open-minded dating pool for Ricky to peruse.

Enter Francesca (Alexandra Turshen), the fiancé of a socially conservative Marine and daughter of wealthy Tea Partying parents. Ricky and Francesca are both taken aback by the magnetic chemistry they unexpectedly share. Since Ricky still has a functioning penis, they are able to enjoy heterosexual intercourse, but everything else about their relationship seems as if they are two women hopelessly smitten with each other. Needless to say, it is a confusing relationship for everyone — including Ricky and Francesca — to understand. When it comes down to it, their connection is in no way related to their respective genders. It might sound a bit cheesy, but Ricky and Francesca are trying to listen to their hearts and nothing else.

Writer-director Eric Schaeffer’s Boy Meets Girl is about developing enough self-confidence to not care about what anyone else thinks; to be one’s true self and not what everyone wants you to be; to feel accepted and loved despite any perceived eccentricities or warts. Eschewing the crippling term “normal” and admirably avoiding presenting Ricky as an “Other,” Schaeffer’s film speaks to the importance of tossing aside the labels that inherently alienate human beings.

A rare feat for an outsider, Schaeffer seems to capture the life of a transgender woman with profound authenticity and positivity. Hendley masters the role of Ricky as if it was her own story. One can only assume that Hendley and other transgender women collaborated in the development of the script, as many moments seem far too honest to have been penned by someone who did not experience these situations firsthand.

But Boy Meets Girl is not strictly a transgender or LGBTQA film, it is a film about understanding and acceptance, universal themes that clearly transcend gender and sexual orientation. Deeply exploring issues of shame, judgment and hatred in the context of the ever-blurring lines of gender, Schaeffer still finds a way to make a film that is significantly more lighthearted and funny than his films Fall and After Fall, Winter. Not to be confused with Leos Carax’s Boy Meets Girl, which operates in sharp tonal contrast to the lighthearted rom-com genre that the title suggests, Schaeffer fully embraces the tone and structure of the rom-com genre to make his intellectually intuitive plot all the more digestible. Essentially a teen chick flick with balls (mind the pun), Schaeffer’s film is infinitely more thoughtful than most (all) other films in the genre.

Friday, September 12, 2014

AGLIFF 2014: EVER

Ever (Wendy McColm) in Ever.

Life after death

By Don Simpson

Ever since the unexpected death of her fiancé, Ever (Wendy McColm) has lost her motivation to be happy. Even if Ever were to become happy, she would feel much too guilty to actually enjoy the moment. So, Ever opts to live a lonely existence, working in a quiet bookstore and returning to her sparsely decorated apartment.

Eventually, Ever concedes to go to a movie with a floppy-haired indie rock musician who is unwilling to take no for an answer; but when that date does not go very well, Ever all but gives up on humanity. That is until she meets Emily (Christina Elizabeth Smith), a kind and loving soul who sees the overwhelming goodness glimmering inside of Ever. Whereas Ever might find it difficult to be happy around a man, Ever feels comfortable enough around Emily to finally remove her protective shell. The two women form a bond that seems to transcend mere friendship, leading Ever to question her sexuality.

Anyone who has found it difficult to be happy again after the death of a significant other is sure to find a lot of authenticity in Josh Beck’s Ever, but this film’s real strength is in its depiction of sexuality. While it might be disconcerting to some that Ever’s recent history with male aggression and male stupidity is what triggers her explorations with lesbianism, Ever’s existential struggle is undeniably natural. Emily is probably the best possible person for Ever to explore her newly discovered feelings because she is so understanding of Ever’s hesitations. In Ever, sexuality is refreshingly not black and white. Ever and Emily were "not born" lesbians, they are both attracted to people’s personalities, not their gender. The most convincing aspect of Ever is the organic chemistry between McColm and Smith.


Respectfully toning down the quirky hipster undercurrent that could have easily undermined the film’s aspirations for realism, Beck and cinematographer Micah Van Hove cleverly balance visual style with stoic grace. Simple and sweet, Ever fits gracefully within the new trend of LGBTQA filmmaking, subtly approaching its subject, allowing it to pass as a “straight” film that can easily crossover into the LGBTQA market.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

AGLIFF 2014: APPROPRIATE BEHAVIOR

Shirin (Desiree Akhavan) in Appropriate Behavior.
Sex (I am)

By Don Simpson

When Shirin (Desiree Akhavan) is dumped by her girlfriend, Maxine (Rebecca Henderson), she finds herself lost and confused. In her own head, Shirin may have identified herself as Maxine’s partner, but she was never able to actually “come out” as a lesbian, especially not to her socially-conservative, Iranian-American family. Whether or not Shirin’s family were ever keen enough to catch on to the fact that Maxine was more than just her roommate is totally beside the point; they ignored the obvious signs and assumed that Shirin would eventually settle down and marry a man.


Now that she is single, Shirin has the opportunity to start anew by reevaluating her sexual and cultural identities in the hopes of coming up with a definition of herself with which she feels more comfortable. 

Taking a cue from Woody Allen's Annie Hall, Desiree Akhavan’s Appropriate Behavior utilizes flashbacks as Shirin contemplates the highs and lows of her relationship with Maxine. In the present, Shirin halfheartedly flounders away with her own life, moving into an artist loft in Bushwick and starting a new job teaching an after-school filmmaking program.

Channeling the simplicity of the post-Mumblecore set (which means this film will be probably compared to Lena Dunham’s work), Akhavan presents a very realistic portrayal of a young woman struggling to balance her sexuality with her ethnicity in the “anything goes” atmosphere of Brooklyn. In Appropriate Behavior, “coming out” is not as simple as just stating your sexuality; for people of some ethnic and religious backgrounds, it can be a much more complicated statement to make. 

Then again, the whole idea of people needing to proclaim their sexuality is sort of ridiculous. (Says the straight, white male.) I sense that could be why Appropriate Behavior focuses on the comedic absurdity of Shirin’s efforts to find herself. Not only is it ridiculous that Shirin thinks that she will have an answer by the end of the film’s timeline, but it is silly that she even has to go through this whole rigamarole. While it is understandable that a lack of sexual identity could be frustrating (and scary) for a romantic partner, why does it even matter otherwise, especially to her family? (That’s a rhetorical question, by the way.)

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

TRAVEL REVIEW: PARIS LAS VEGAS

Paris Las Vegas in Las Vegas, Nevada. Photo courtesy of Paris Las Vegas.
French faux blurred

By Ed Rampell

In Part I of my two-part travel series on Las Vegas I wrote about experiencing Cirque du Soleil’s fab Fab Four show LOVE The Beatles. Here I write about an enjoyable place to stay, a great restaurant, an amusing magic act and more.

Abracadabra!

I’m not an expert on magicians (although Houdini was my childhood hero), and Reynold Alexander’s show at the Clarion Hotel and Casino is one of the few I’ve ever seen in person. Much of the bearded Alexander’s act consisted of a variety of card tricks, levitations, disappearances and reappearances. Of course, there is the obligatory, always crowd pleasing (and mystifying) sawing of the attractive ladies in half, too. Most of the deftly executed procedures left members of the aud scratching their noggins and wondering; “Hmm, how the heck did he do that?” The show also included the use of shadows, which reminded me of Indonesian “Wayang Kulit," or shadow puppets, and taped music, including Scott Joplin pieces.

As Alexander the Great hails from Puerto Rico his performance has a Hispanic flair. In addition to his two attractive female assistants who happily submitted to being vanished, banished and sliced and diced in various boxes, Alexander’s ragtime band included lots of comic relief. This came in the form of the corpulent Hansel, who opened wearing a white jacket and bowtie and black shirt and slacks, and humorously explained his trickery, such as pouring milk into a rolled up newspaper. Throughout the hour-or-so-long performance, just for gags a clownish caricature of Latino dancers burst onstage to “disrupt” the proceedings with a rather droll spoof (or perhaps homage to?) the type of goofy hoofer one might see in Hispanic variety shows.

Alexander’s routine ended on a touching, personal note that I’ve not seen elsewhere, wherein to mark the time we’d spent together the illusionist used sand to illustrate the nature of the passage of time. It was well done and moving.

Paris Las Vegas: The City of Lights in Sin City

I just watched Diamonds Are Forever on cable TV, and this was the first time since this James Bond flick was released in 1971 that I had seen it since. An interesting aspect of Diamonds Are Forever is that much of this last installment of Sean Connery in the Broccoli-Saltzman 007 franchise is its location shooting in Las Vegas. This seemed to be shot before the construction of the Strip, and those themed resorts. I stayed in one of the latter, the Paris Las Vegas, which is, obviously, modeled on the fabled City of Lights.

The sprawling, labyrinthine, cobblestoned walkways, hallways and lobby have a faux French flair. For example, cafés offer baguettes and brioches, crystal chandeliers hang above the main lobby where guests check-in, plus the Baroque-style architecture all enhance the Gallic ambiance. As does the blue, yellow and red hot air balloon structure bearing the “Paris” sign facing the Strip, which is illumined at night and was inspired by the Aerostat Réveillon, the balloon used in a September 19, 1783 demonstration for King Louis XVI in Paris by the Montgolfier brothers, for the first lighter than air flight.

Of course, the hotel’s Francophile pièce de résistance is its reconstruction of Paris’ most famous landmark, the Eiffel Tower. At 460 feet tall, the Las Vegas replica is half the size of its Parisian counterpart. The reason for this half-size scale is that the Paris Las Vegas is located too close to McCarran International Airport, so zoning and safety issues forbade building a 986 foot structure. This despite the fact that it, too, is lit up at night, making it one of the Strip’s most recognizable sights since fireworks were shot from it on Sept. 1, 1999, when French actress Catherine Deneuve performed the honors and with the flip of a switch illuminated the imitation City of Lights.     

It’s well worth a visitor’s time and money to buy a ticket to ascend the Paris LV Eiffel Tower on a sunny day (of which there are beaucoup in the Nevada desert) and/or at night, when the Strip is ablaze with neon, offering an entirely different fiery vista. In daylight the sumptuous, resplendent views stretch beyond Sin City’s limits to the mountains and deserts afar. For newcomers to Las Vegas, these panoramic scenes can help orient tourists to a cityscape that is often ajar with a profusion of crowds on sidewalks and traffic clogging the Strip and other streets. The views from on high offer different perspectives from ground level perceptions, providing a visual sense of place.

My room at Paris Las Vegas was spacious and comfortable with a large window facing away from the Strip (a room with a view of this stretch of Las Vegas Boulevard is more expensive). Paris Las Vegas' two-acre, outdoor pool is gigantic, although there is little shade for much of the time during those long, sunny Nevada summer days. (Tip: It’s shadier if you take repose on a lounge chair near the base of the Eiffel Tower.) Nevertheless, I had fun frolicking and hanging out poolside with my longtime friend, comic Tamayo Otsuki, that delightfully kooky kabuki player. Like a desert oasis, the pool cooled things off, as did the liquid refreshment provided by a poolside bar and bikini-clad waitresses.

Le Burger Brasserie: Gourmet Gluttony on the Bounty

One of Paris Las Vegas’ various restaurants is the wood paneled Le Burger Brasserie, which its passionate General Manager Jason Rinta described to me as being where “food fanatic meets sports fanatic.” Indeed, in addition to its many flat screen TVs, where fans watched the World Cup live during the soccer championship matches, as well as other sporting events, such as good ol’ baseball games, the classy yet reasonably priced Le Burger Brasserie’s cuisine tickles and entices foodies’ taste buds.

Playing off of the triple seven combination that spells luck for gamblers (it is Vegas, after all!), at the high end of the sports grille’s menu is a $777 (per person) dining experience that includes a half pound Kobe steak, lobster tail, foie gras, Dom Pérignon champagne and more. Needless to say, your struggling scribe ordered other dishes. To drink I had a nonalcoholic Daryl Strawberry Mint Lemonade minus the vodka, consisting of minty, club soda, strawberry, lemonade and perhaps lime, which not only cooled me off like a dip in Paris Las Vegas' pool, but refreshed my palate. Guided by our knowledgeable, good-natured waitress, Allison, who was tattooed with a musical motif, we ordered a somewhat spicy, very creamy concoction, Buffalo chicken dip with Point Reyes cheese and pretzels for dipping and bread (baking is done daily on Paris Las Vegas' property) for swiping. This was followed by a Pazanella salad composed, like a salad symphony, with bibb lettuce, artichokes, fresh mozzarella, pesto, vinaigrette and toast.

To tell you the truth this would have sufficed for supper, but as it is Le Burger Brasserie -- and the eatery does boast that it serves Las Vegas’ best burgers -- for my entrée I devoured a delicious, gourmet veggie burger with Portobello mushrooms and French (well, it IS the Paris!) fries. To help wash all this down we ordered a cereal inspired drink, a Captain & Crunch milkshake, which combines the breakfast cereal with vanilla ice cream and Captain Morgan rum. It was an interesting mélange, but after a sip, let’s just say that just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.

As if all this wasn’t enough, for dessert we indulged in S’mores Cheesecake, with toasted marshmallow ice cream, graham crackers, and various chocolates. It was a fitting grand finale for our gluttony, a not-so-deadly sin in Sin City, which we thoroughly enjoyed, along with Allison’s always attentive service. GM Rinta, who has worked in Las Vegas for eight years, explained how he’s trying to put his stamp on Le Burger Brasserie: “I try to be innovative. I launched a new menu in March. Before then it was more French-themed; now it’s more a la carte and fresh.”

Aside from the throngs and traffic, I enjoyed visiting Las Vegas, with its shows ranging from Cirque du Soleil’s LOVE to the magical Reynold Alexander, and staying and dining at Paris Las Vegas and Le Burger Brasserie. However, if you really want to get a sense of what the real (and not the ersatz) Paris is like, the next time you hit the jackpot run straight down to McCarran International Airport and book a flight to alight at France’s exquisite City of Lights.         

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Thursday, August 28, 2014

FILM REVIEW: THE STRANGE COLOR OF YOUR BODY'S TEARS

A scene from in The Strange Color of Your Body's Tears.
The man and the menses 

By John Esther

Dan Kristensen (Klaus Tange) has just returned to Brussels from a business trip abroad. After leaving several messages for his wife, Edwige (Ursula Bedena), without receiving response, Dan comes home to find the door is chained from the inside. When Edwige still does not answer Dan through the ajar door, Dan breaks the chain and enters his home. 

Edwige is missing. Rather than immediately call the cops, Dan goes on a drinking binge and then rings up his neighbors to see if they have seen his wife. One of his neighbors lets him into her home. A strange woman whose face remains shadowed in darkness, Dora (Birgin Yew), relays a ghastly story about the day her husband went missing in the ceiling after he tied her up and sedated her. (She wakes up later to help him, somehow eschewing or forgetting or forgiving her husband's horrific behavior.)

After this bizarre encounter with the elderly lady in black, Dan's journey becomes increasingly strange -- while one's patience diminshes. People appear and disappear. There are displaced bodies in the forms of simulacra, split screens, broken glass and sliced flesh. Side stories are started and stopped. Snuff recordings are played over the phone. Nightmares repeat themselves. Carnage becomes fetish. Razors are the choice of weapon, but any piercing object will do. Law enforcement is ephemeral.

Oh, as The Strange Color of Your Body's Tears never lets us forget, the male gaze is at work. Eye see you. Does it want to see female flesh or blood or both? Well, it is certainly obvious what is more thrilling to the filmmakers; and they are not going to break down the patriarchal visual paradigm a la Marguerite Duras, Toril Moi, Toni Morrison, Jane Campion or Robert Altman. 

Written and directed by the husband and wife team behind Amer, Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani, The Strange Color of Your Body's Eyes is intended (Italian artists audibly participate throughout) and advertised as a "homage to the Masters of Italian Giallo horror" -- an aspiration about as admirable as a novelist writing a homage to the novels of Danielle Steel or a cinephile's homage to pulp fiction -- and almost as reactionary and illogical in execution.

Stuck in a beautiful-turned-nightmarish Art Nouveau building where people hide and emerge from the walls and ceilings (are they ghosts?), the directors, plus the director of photographer, Manu Dacosse, are obsessed with the image at the risk of plot or sign, which in many cases displays a pornographic fear of female sexuality. As if reworking the work of George Bataille inside out or Jacques Lacan upside down, the Belgium filmmaking duo (whether they are familiar with those French authors or not) see sexuality not as an extension of one's self, but the murder of one's self -- metaphorically and literally. Continuity is obliterated in the name of discontinuity. Here, sex is horror without any redeeming pleasures. Man has vagina on the mind -- a bloody nightmare triggering subconscious memories of lost innocence. All because a little boy saw a trickle of blood. Menophobia. It also turns out that, indeed, some women do fantasize about being stalked, raped and murdered. Or is that Dan's dream? Golly gee, even Ingmar Bergman had a better sense of humor when it came to sex than this couple.

The film rarely maintains an image for more than a few seconds. Everything must be rapid, colorful and artsy, but it is an intellectual sham. At least Marquis de Sade and Jean Genet knew how to play both filthy and sensitive while simultaneously addressing violent sexual practices within and between the realms of power and the powerless. In The Strange Colors of Your Body's Tears, nothing enlightening goes beyond one of those "horror" films where a bunch of teenagers are stuck in the woods, getting killed off one by one because of the big, bad, old monster known as sex is after them.



 

 
















 

Friday, August 15, 2014

FILM REVIEW: THE TRIP TO ITALY

Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan in The Trip to Italy.
To life 

By John Esther

With gourmet Italian cuisine, humorous banter, lush scenery, marvelous hotels, hilarious impersonations of such folks as Al Pacino, Marlon Brando, Truman Capote, Gore Vidal and characters in The Dark Knight Rises, plus discussions about Lord Byron and Percy Shelley, Roman Holiday, Godard's Contempt and a host of other issues a trip through Italy can offer, what is there not to like about The Trip to Italy? Very little. 


On another hand, our dynamic duo are stuck with one excruciating CD to listen to in their rented Mini: Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill, which they play too frequently, and seem to enjoy on occasion. And our protagonists discussion about Frankenstein is rather irksome to those who know the story of its origins, author, intent, censorship, distribution, reception and history. 


The follow up to writer-director Michael Winterbottom's 2010 film, The Trip, the sequel reunites Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan once again to travel in style, work their improvisational brilliance, and remind us that maybe the true test of any relationship is traveling together -- all the while making the viewer hungry. Only this time the film is set in Italy not England. 


A smart, funny film about friendship, film, culture, literature, history, art, and coming to terms with what it means to mature, manifestly speaking, in show business (pretty much everything The Expendables 3 is not), watching The Trip to Italy is probably the most fun I have had at the movies so far this year.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

FILM REVIEW: LIFE AFTER BETH

Zach (Dane Dehaan) and Beth (Aubrey Plaza) in Life After Beth.
The discreet disarm of the bourgeoisie 

By John Esther

Written and directed by Jeff Baena, Life After Beth tells the comedic-tragic teenage tale of a single child named Beth Slocum (Aubrey Plaza) who went hiking one day, was bitten by a snake and died. 

(Snakes and teenage girls is always a scary combination.) 

Naturally, at first, Beth's death causes great grief in her father, Maury (John C. Reily), her mother, Geenie (Molly Shannon) and her boyfriend, Zach Orfman (Dane DeHaan). Following the funeral, Zach begins to bond with Beth's parents, especially Maury. The two play chess together, talk about what they wished they had said to Beth when she was alive and they even share some wacky tobacky. Geenie gives Zach Beth's winter scarf, which he wears around his neck like a chain in the summertime. 

The bond with Maury seems to move Zach toward recovery more than the bond Zach shares with his lightheaded parents (Paul Reiser and Cheryl Hines) and dimwitted brother, Kyle (Matthew Gray Gubler). 

When the bond between Zach and Beth's parents soon fades, Zach becomes desperate. Zach cannot understand why the Slocums will not talk to him. So Zach does some, rather creepy, snooping around the Slocum house -- looking into their windows, banging on doors, yelling, etc. The Slocums are home but nobody answers. It seems they have a secret they do not want the neighbors to discover.

As it turns out, unnaturally, Beth has risen from the grave. Hooray for Mom, Dad and Zach! Or is it a cause for celebration? This seems inexplicable. Maybe Beth is a zombie? Oh well, Zach and Beth's parents now have a second chance with their beloved. 

Zach now says all the things he wished he had said to Beth and Beth responds the way teenage boys wished teenage girls responded to such sweet talk. But, like with most teenagers, the mind and body are constantly changing. For Beth they are changing in unimaginable ways...more so than the "normal" high school girl. As Beth becomes increasingly sweet, then aggressive (primarily with jealousy), Zach begins wondering if life would be better off if Beth were dead. The ideal girlfriend has become the psychotic bitc- ah, er, girlfriend.

To add to Zach's woes, suspicions and adolescent angst, it seems Beth is not the only one rising from the dead. Others around town have risen from the grave and they are hungry for some middle-class meat. 

A cheeky satire on numerous things, such as postmortem or eternal fairy tale romances, idealized teenage love, and the resilience of the bourgeoisie to overcome threats to its comforts and joys with very little awareness and effort, Baena (who co-wrote I Heart Huckabees) has a keen yet low-key observant eye and pen for suburbia. There is humor, dread, bitter love and lousy music in Baena's suburbia. Todd Solondz may have a cinematic comrade in Baena. 

(Writing of Solondz, Baena and Life After Beth, since the Slocums and Orfmans are Jewish, a look at this film through the prism of Jewish Studies may reveal another subtext to Life After Beth.)

With regard to the soundtrack used in Life After Beth, the film's metatrope that smooth jazz soothes zombies, in particular Chuck Mangione's "Feels So Good," is dead-on hilarious. Baena's potshots at the banal music of the Babbitt/Angstrom class rings true, soft and clear. Baena and music supervisor Bruce Gilbert (not the same Bruce Gilbert as the ex-member of Wire) have created one of the smartest soundtracks of the year. 

The film's one unfortunate soundtrack choice is the use of Brian Eno's politically charged, excellent song, "Needles in the Camel Eye" (which was better used in Todd Haynes' Velvet Goldmine) during Beth and Zach's sexual encounter in a public park. Although Eno's album, Here Come the Warm Jets, which is where "Needles in the Camel's Eye" hails from, has some sexually charged themes in it, "Needles in the Camel's Eye" could have been used elsewhere in the film to better effect. For the sex scene, if we are sticking to Eno, a more apropos choice would have been Eno's "Here He Comes," "Driving Me Backwards" or "Sky Saw."

The one other unsettling aspect of Life After Beth is the random violence of Kyle. His gunning down of two elderly people -- one alive and one undead (he kills many more offscreen) -- jolts the dark humor of the film into something far more sinister and very unfunny. Perhaps it is a musical narrative pivot to undermine, or underscore, the more dominant "smooth jazz" trope in the film?

At any rate, judging by the screening I saw with about 20 other critics, it seems I thought it was funnier than most, if not everyone else. Aye, the only thing more annoying at being at a film screening where there is just one person laughing is when you are that one person laughing. Jarring, subversive, and enjoyable, Life After Beth does not fit into easy categorization or consumption. The film will no doubt have many detractors in the mainstream press, but for those looking for something different -- a la Solondz, Robert Altman or Luis Bunuel -- Life After Beth rises above this somnambulistic summer of cinema.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

FILM REVIEW: A WILL FOR THE WOODS

Clark Wang in A Will for the Woods. 
Back to nature

By John Esther

Faced with a terminal illness, Clark Wang decides to eschew America's typical burial methods and take the green way out and under. 

At most a slight deviation from the way most humans have been buried since time memorial, and continue to do so in much of the world, a green burial is the eco-friendly, formalized ritual where the deceased is laid to rest in a natural setting using biodegradable materials. There is no embalming or concrete involved. Often a simple stone is used as the marking spot. 

Not only does this ritual allow one to "return to the earth" in an environmentally responsible way, it also allows natural land to remain free from development since the land is now a burial site. 

While the "green burial movement" does play a notable role in A Will for the Woods, the documentary's other strength is how it captures Clark and his partner, Jane Ezzard, coming to grips with his impending death. Clark may not be very old, but this psychiatrist, musician, dancer, and overall very nice guy has been very sick for many years. We are here to witness Clark's last days

Credited with four film directors -- Amy Browne, Jeremy Kaplan, Tony Hale and Brian Wilson -- A Will for the Woods offers a unique and unflinching examination of how Clark lost the ultimate battle (as we all will) yet in the process won over many hearts and minds of those who came to know him both off and on screen (as only some will). Writing of which, A Will for the Woods is a worthy companion to Life Itself, Steve James' recent documentary on the late film writer, Roger Ebert. 




SHORT FILM REVIEW: LAND OF ENCHANTMENT

Randy Vampotic (far right) directs Neal Polister (in truck)
​ on location near Indio, Ca., in Land of Enchantment.​
Short landing

By Ed Rampell

The 11-minute short, Land of Enchantment, is an enchanting period piece set in 1947 around the time of the famous purported Roswell Incident involving a supposedly downed UFO and space aliens. The two-hander features Andre Tenerelli as Jim, a hitchhiker in the middle of nowhere who is picked up in the New Mexico desert by Mac (Neal Polister), a rancher driving a vintage ’40s yellow truck, gun rack and all. Much of the action is inside the vehicle as it ambles along while the laconic Jim dodges and deflects the inquisitive Mac’s questions about, among other things, a futuristic gizmo which Jim claims is a Navy compass.

The well written, witty dialogue by Mike Sorrentino and Randy Vampotic, who also share producing credits, cleverly references Roswell. The first lines set the scene for the personality clash to come between the silent passenger and talkative driver; their chance meeting is a bit like when worlds collide. A copy of Popular Science magazine on the seat indicates that Mac is more than a mere sodbuster. His mention of Pat Garret, which flies over his passenger’s head, reveals Jim’s no Westerner -- although he may not exactly be a greenhorn from way back East, either...

After an object streaking across the sky crash lands in the desert hills the truck comes to a halt and the characters get out to investigate, although Jim manages to climb on a hilltop by himself to view the crash site. When Mac inquires whether it was an aircraft from a nearby military base, Jim replies that it was a “weather balloon” -- which will ring bells and raise smiles for those in the know about the Roswell Incident.   

The short is adeptly acted by Tenerelli, who is clad a bit like Indiana Jones, and the blond, grizzled Polister. His cowboy hat presumably hides the antennas which must be up due to his passenger’s evasive answers and the strange aerial crash. Jefferson Loftfield’s crisp, clear camerawork enhances the sense of place, although Land of Enchantment wasn’t actually shot in New Mexico but in Indio, located in California’s Inland Empire. (If you’ve seen one desert, you’ve seen them all!) The twangy original music by Lance Mugleston and Don Schiff likewise adds to the Southwestern atmospherics.

Sorrentino and Vampotic have been friends since attending Riverside High School in Buffalo, N.Y. The two relocated to the L.A.-area, where they’ve teamed up to co-write several screenplays, including 2002’s I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus, an enjoyable made-for-TV comedy co-starring L.A. Law’s Corbin Bernson and Connie Sellecca.

In his deft directorial debut Vampotic acquits himself well as a helmer able to direct both thesps and action scenes. This low budget short convincingly uses special effects to buttress the underlying science fiction vibe. The imagination of the co-creators succeeds in summoning up that which CGI and high tech FX often do for big budget studio productions. In that sense Land of Enchantment epitomizes the possibilities of indie shorts, and is for aficionados of that format, as well as fans of the sci-fi and fantasy genres.

Although Land of Enchantment is self contained in the short form format as a stand alone work, this reviewer was so enchanted by it he pondered what happened to the characters and where the rest of the story would take us? One imagines to “a galaxy far, far away”, and with their engrossing short the Sorrentino-Vampotic team leaves viewers with, in the very best sense, wanting more -- as a feature length production for the big screen. It is the desert dessert before the entrée.   

Land of Enchantment is in the process of making the film festival rounds. To request a link to view the short film, please contact: loe1947@earthlink.net.