Archive for April, 2011

Jane Eyre

Monday, April 25th, 2011

Movie review by Greg Carlson

The oft-filmed “Jane Eyre,” which has been treated cinematically since at least 1910, tells a tale so compelling and romantic that very little time passes between productions. It has been only five years since Susanna White’s four-episode Masterpiece Theater edition, but filmmaker Cary Fukunaga, whose Mara Salvatrucha-focused feature debut “Sin Nombre” seems as far away from 19th century England as possible, crafts a handsome and engaging version of Charlotte Bronte’s famous novel that should please “Eyre” enthusiasts and newcomers alike. Although Fukunaga’s rendering of “Jane Eyre” will not be the last, it has already taken its place as one of the best.

Mia Wasikowska deftly interprets the title character through Jane’s considerable intelligence, desire for knowledge, and the “direct gaze” that accompanies Ms. Eyre’s candid observations and brutal honesty – and so transfixes her employer. Michael Fassbender’s charisma threatens to get in the way of some of Edward Fairfax Rochester’s brooding introspection, but the talented performer discovers the necessary balance between kindness and entitlement as well as genuine remorse and self-pity. Of course, both actors are gorgeous creatures far lovelier than the Jane and Rochester of the novel, and despite visual evidence to the contrary, one really believes Wasikowska when she unloads the speech containing the line, “Do you think that because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little that I am soulless and heartless?”

The range, scope, and scale of ideological concerns and genre territory carved out by Bronte provide interpreters with seemingly endless possibilities, allowing moviemakers the luxury of choosing any number of themes to explore with each new screen iteration of “Jane Eyre.” Eroticism and piety, fidelity and duplicity, and discrimination and equality are but a trio of ingenious contrasts addressed in the book’s pages. Fukunaga and screenwriter Moira Buffini alight decisively on Ms. Eyre’s sexual awakening without shortchanging core aspects of the novel’s social agenda. The filmmakers recognize Jane’s emerging concupiscence with subtlety and care, although one bold addition shows the artistically minded Jane regarding a framed nude with curiosity.

The most passionate fans of the novel will lament the loss of so many of Bronte’s exquisitely rendered scenes (imagine what Fassbender might have done with Rochester-disguised-as-gypsy), and the movie’s breathless stride demonstrates a certain ruthlessness on the part of Buffini. By reconfiguring the order of some key events via flashback, the movie briskly manages Jane’s transition from childhood at the miserable Lowood Institution to her appointment as governess at Thornfield Hall. With the exception of the heartbreaking fate of Helen Burns and a few other fleeting details, most of Jane’s boarding school trials have been truncated or excised altogether.

Additionally, Buffini smartly streamlines the entire post-Bertha Mason revelation episode, racing past much of St. John’s pushy and presumptuous pursuit of Jane’s hand and snipping out the revelation of Jane’s actual familial relationship to the Rivers family. By managing the events following Jane’s flight from Thornfield as a framing device, Fukunaga is able to place the film’s resolution much closer to the explosive climax of the story, a tactic in keeping with the film’s efficient pacing. The structural alterations, along with evocative sound and production design, Adriano Goldman’s sumptuous photography and Fukunaga’s commanding visual style, enthusiastically recommend this “Jane Eyre.”

The Conspirator

Monday, April 18th, 2011

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Stiff, sober, and fastidious to the brink of suffocation, Robert Redford’s “The Conspirator” recounts the trial of accused Lincoln assassination abettor Mary Surratt, whose boarding house frequently entertained Confederate sympathizers. Presented as a grave and airless history lesson, far too much time is spent in the stifling makeshift courtroom where the wan accused faced a stacked-deck military tribunal of revenge-minded officers. Redford never gets outside the margins of our worst impressions of the dusty, distant past, and “The Conspirator” grinds methodically through its rigidly chronological, one-thing-at-a-time study of the shortsightedness of a system willing to violate its own principles.

As Michael Phillips has aptly pointed out, the movie filters its point of view through the “wrong character,” testy war hero and reluctant legal defender Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy). As a direct result, the film is misleadingly titled, for Robin Wright’s Mary Surratt remains distant and unknowable from first prison meeting to final gallows drop. Even as the accumulation of reasonable doubt begins to sway the opinion of Unionist Aiken, the audience is given no incentive to sympathize with Surratt. Only briefly, when the bonds of mother love are exploited through daughter Anna (Evan Rachel Wood) and fugitive son John (Johnny Simmons), does Redford graze an opportunity to capitalize on any viewer compassion.

Filmic and television dramatizations of the evening of Abraham Lincoln’s murder number in the dozens, and Redford’s brisk opening act rushes through the template made famous in 1915 by D.W. Griffith in “The Birth of a Nation.” It is the aftermath, and not the details of April 14, 1865 that concerns Redford’s production – a daunting prospect given that scenes of people asking and answering questions in a single room lack the cinematic intensity of images like Booth’s leap to the stage of Ford’s Theatre and his unbelievable horseback escape.

Screenwriter James Solomon has claimed that he wrote “The Conspirator” with no parallels to contemporary United States policy in mind, but this has not stopped critics from linking the film’s release to the government’s decision to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed by military tribunal. Spending any significant time mulling similarities is a fool’s errand, given the grueling task of slogging through Redford’s long-winded tale and its failure to generate excitement. With a handful of exceptions, including the Tom Robinson trial in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” the courtroom drama is among the least visually appealing genres in the movies. Thousands of hours of it floating by weekly on the small screen doesn’t help either.

Solomon, for reasons unknown, deletes several of the most culturally enshrined pronouncements and exclamations associated with the depicted events. Kevin Kline’s heavy, mean Edwin Stanton does not utter “Now he belongs to the ages/angels,” and virtually none of the execution site banter accompanies the climactic scene, including Surratt’s last words “Please don’t let me fall.” Even without the exacting detail demanded by some Lincoln fanatics, the hanging of the condemned shows off Redford’s finest instincts as a filmmaker, but the gripping sequence, like Aiken’s attempts to secure clemency for Surratt, proves too little, too late.

Jeff Krulik Interview

Monday, April 18th, 2011

Interview by Greg Carlson

Kicking off the April 25, 2011 screening of the Found Footage Festival is a special 25th anniversary showing of “Heavy Metal Parking Lot,” the much-bootlegged documentary short taped before a Judas Priest concert in Maryland in 1986. Co-director Jeff Krulik spoke to Greg Carlson about his best-known work.

What did you want to be when you grew up?

Jeff Krulik: At first, I wanted to be a veterinarian. That’s the earliest profession I was drawn to. Man, I love pets. Any kind of animal. But when I first saw blood at an animal hospital operation, forget it. Eventually, I found myself drawn to the arts and pop culture, college radio, record collecting and the music biz.

But it all gave way to the visual medium. Public access television was the vehicle where I first found myself behind a camera. And I was hooked. That was towards the end of college, after I soured on the music industry as a career. Now I’m soured on the film industry as a career, but I don’t know what else to do! Maybe I’ll give veterinary school a try again.

As a veteran of public access television during its “golden age,” what was the wildest or most memorable program you ever aired as a local origination coordinator?

JK: Hey, I like that. I like that there was a golden age of public access. I guess you could call it that. Thanks for acknowledging those years as such, since the moniker “public access” hasn’t exactly been gangbusters. Still, that’s where “Heavy Metal Parking Lot” emerged from, even though it never played on our station. I couldn’t risk management getting wind of it.

I used to host bands and dance parties in the studio, and the wildest was the first “Scott and Gary Show” we hosted. I had invited them down when I heard they had been kicked out of their studio in NYC, and we became fast friends. They invited DC bands the Rhomboids and Velvet Monkeys to perform for their inaugural taping, and they and the bands invited everyone they knew.

We must have had close to 100 persons running amuck through the offices of the cable company on that Saturday night, some even smoking pot in the bathroom, and this one guy, public access user Bob Leslie, thought it would be cute to punch the live button.

When I found out about halfway through the evening that we were going out live to the county, I just thought, what the heck, if we go down it’ll be in a blaze of glory. It was actually a blast and people I know who saw it said it was hilarious, clicking around the channels going from network show to cable show to Scott Lewis standing on the set stripped down to his underwear.

When you took a video camera to the Capital Centre parking lot in 1986, were you and John Heyn metalheads?

JK: John and I couldn’t have been farther from metalheads. We were into alternative rock, punk, new wave, roots music, whatever you want to call it, and we weren’t consumers or fans of heavy metal music or concerts. But we weren’t dismissive in the least, and we were curious. John pitched me the idea one day because I had the gear from my public access studio, and I immediately thought it was a great idea.

We lucked into an upcoming Judas Priest concert, and I guess you could say the rest is 25 years of remarkable and unbelievable shelf life. Who’d a thunk it? We certainly didn’t. We paid parking lot admission like any concertgoer, drove around the parking lot in my ‘78 Bonneville – in the outtakes you can see my cracked side view mirror so I know I was driving.

We spent two hours taping, came back with an hour of footage – a lot of which was the camera pointed at the ground – and when we got back to my studio and started screening the tapes, the title “Heavy Metal Parking Lot” just popped into my head. By the way, John and I didn’t see the concert. The footage of Judas Priest was taken from a concert video they had out at the time. A lot of people think we went to the concert and shot that, but we didn’t.

Did you know how long “Heavy Metal Parking Lot” was going to be prior to post-production?

JK: We had no plan or clue for shooting length. We probably only had four 20-minute tapes. Plus, we had dates that night with our girlfriends so we only had a short window to work. And a little known secret is that we were using surplus re-used tapes, a “Bozo no-no” these days. But that was common in public access, and we didn’t know any better.

Plus, it was expensive to use new tapes. I can’t tell you how many outtakes and how much raw footage from other projects back then I wish I still kept. Who knew? But John thankfully held on to all the tapes. He knew it was worth it, so I now thank him for having that foresight.

Over the years you have tracked down a number of the people who appeared in “Heavy Metal Parking Lot.” Who was the hardest to find and how did you manage it? Are there any others you would still like to contact?

JK: Believe it or not, we are still hearing from people. We even just made a connection from the cousin of the “We try to be civilized but we can’t” guy. The Internet has been fantastic for that. John manages the official HMPL site; email and the web is how our alumni list grows. Tracking down the fella known as Zebraman was a challenge, but you just follow search engine leads and use public records and ask around. John and I dream of having a bona fide reunion one day, and making a documentary, but that won’t happen unless there’s compensation for everyone involved.

You have most likely been asked this dozens of times, but who is your favorite “Heavy Metal Parking Lot” interview? Do you have a favorite line?

JK: So many of the lines have floated through my head over the years that it’s hard to pick a favorite. I’ve said before that the people on camera are like family to me, and it’s hard to pick a favorite. The funny thing is, I recently screened the film at a community center where there were some young kids, maybe 11 or 12 years old, in the audience.

I don’t even hear the language anymore; it feels like some sort of white noise to me. Hearing the line “Glenn Tipton, we want to f___ your brains out” at that screening was a wake-up call reminder. Apparently the programmers had announced a disclaimer, so I didn’t feel too bad.

Which Priest album is better, “British Steel” or “Screaming for Vengeance”?

JK: I confess to having no clue. I don’t have either one in my vinyl or CD collection. I told you I wasn’t a metalhead. What’s playing on my radio right now? Rosemary Clooney and Bing Crosby in a duet. No joke. I can’t even remember the last record I bought. I’m a total, total imposter.

Nick Prueher Interview

Monday, April 18th, 2011

Interview by Greg Carlson

A collection of weird and hilarious clips pulled from straight-to-video, cable access, thrift stores, garage sales and other unexpected VHS sources will be hosted in Fargo on April 25, 2011 by co-curators Nick Prueher and Joe Pickett, who are currently on a 75-city tour of the U.S., Canada, and the U.K.

Found Footage Festival co-curator Nick Prueher shares some thoughts on the found footage phenomenon.

You were a collector of this material before you took it to the public. What was the first “found” VHS tape that made you take notice?

Nick Prueher (co-curator, Found Footage Festival): This is our 20th year of video collection and the seven-year anniversary of our first live Found Footage Festival show. We trace it all back to this training video I found in the McDonald’s where I worked in high school. It was called “Inside and Outside Custodial” duties and out of boredom one day in the break room I decided to pop it in. My jaw just hit the floor when I saw how insultingly dumb this video was. It starred an overly perky crew trainer, a dopey trainee named Chris, and traced his quest to find something called “Mc C,” or McDonald’s clean.

I thought that the world needed to see this, so I smuggled it home in my backpack that night and showed it to Joe [Pickett, Found Footage Festival co-curator]. And that really began the quest to look in other out of the way places for more VHS gems to entertain ourselves and our friends. In 2004, we had collected enough great material to take this hobby out of our living room and into a movie theater.

You have said that 99 percent of the material you look at is garbage. How have you developed such a high tolerance level for sitting through so much junk to find the good stuff?

NP: Well, we’re a bit masochistic when it comes to subjecting ourselves to awful material. We’ve come to sort of perversely enjoy the pain. But what keeps you going while you’re watching some videotaped conference call that goes on for two hours is the hope that there just might be something extraordinary about to happen. And when you do find something that’s bad in just the right way, you cannot wait to show it to people. That said, I wouldn’t wish it upon anybody to have to sit through the kind of stuff we do in its raw, unedited form. We are trained professionals.

You don’t procure material from the Internet and rarely even use DVD. What is special about the VHS format? Is it linked to the time frame during which VHS was dominant?

NP: We have a real fondness for VHS because it’s the format we grew up with. The clunkiness, the bad tracking, the washed out colors – we’ve actually come to really appreciate these in the same way vinyl purists come to love the hisses and pops of records.

There’s an analog charm there that DVD and Blu-ray and online formats can’t replicate. But primarily, it’s because we find more VHS tapes than anything else at thrift stores. In the mid 80s and early 90s, everybody in America had a VCR, so it was a real gold rush for video producers. Anybody with a bad idea and a little money could produce a video, so you ended up with a lot of weird, esoteric stuff on tape. Thankfully for us.

You included Jack Rebney’s behind-the-scenes tirades before “Winnebago Man” was made and also appeared in the documentary.

NP: Joe and I were working in video production in Minneapolis in the late 90s and a fellow crew member told us about this disastrous shoot he was on in 1988 in Iowa. It was an industrial video for Winnebago RVs hosted by Jack Rebney, a guy who kept losing his cool during the shoot. The crew decided to keep the cameras rolling between takes and capture the craziness, and our pal gave us a bunch of original footage, which we cut together into our favorite obscenity-laced tirades.

That clip became a big hit at live shows and another version made its way online and got passed around. We tried to track down Jack Rebney to no avail, but then a filmmaker hired a private investigator and found him living in a remote area of Northern California. Apparently, he was none too happy that we were showing this video but he somehow agreed to appear at our show in San Francisco a couple of years ago.

It was pretty great to see Jack watch the video with an audience for the first time. When he saw how much joy it brought to people, he suddenly warmed up and gave us a hug. It was the like the Grinch Who Stole Christmas when he hears the Whos singing and his heart grows three times its size. Definitely a career highlight.

Do you and Joe Pickett have a method for deciding how long the clips should last before audience burnout sets in? Do you fight over which parts or how much of a given tape to include?

NP: We’re always very conscientious about an audience’s tolerance for this type of material, so we try to edit things together in an entertaining way and pare things down to just the highlights. Over the years, we’ve found that a 90-minute show is just about the limit for most people, but we still get into heated arguments over which parts of a video to include.

In the new show, there’s a medical video for something called Caverject, which is something men would use before Viagra. It very graphically shows a hypodermic needle injecting a very sensitive organ. Anyway, Joe though we should show the needle going all the way in; I thought we should get out right before that. I am happy to say that I won out, but I think it’s funny that it never occurred to us not to include that clip at all.

What do you think makes exercise and workout videos such a rich vein of content for the Found Footage Festival?

NP: We find more exercise videos at thrift stores across the country than anything else, so there’s a lot of content to choose from. Something about the hairstyles, the shiny Lycra outfits, the music, and the sight of B-list celebrities working out is just perfect material for our show.

One of my all-time favorites is a tape that Angela Lansbury put out in 1988. It’s called “Positive Moves” and it comes with a free poster, but my favorite part is how it’s less about exercising and more about Lansbury’s New Age-y ideas about health and well-being. At one point, she talks about her love of bubble baths and you see way more of the star of “Murder She Wrote” than you probably want to.

We very rarely exercise along with the videos. The exception is this video called “The Caveman Workout” where it shows you how to hit yourself really hard in the chest and stomach to build up muscle. I actually tried that but stopped because of all the bruising.

Have you ever run across something so graphic or gut-wrenching you thought, “there is no way I would ever show this”? Does your journey as a curator of the awful, the misguided, the miscalculated, and the amateurish ever make you question your faith in humanity?

NP: We have no qualms about showing nudity or swearing, as long as it makes us laugh. A long time ago we found a fan video that this woman sent to the guitar player Steve Vai. In it, she looks directly at the camera and says, “I love you, Steve, and I’m going to prove it,” and then she proceeds to demonstrate various odd stunts to show her affection. Stunts like blowing out candles with an orifice other than her mouth.

It’s pretty silly, but the woman clearly has a few screws loose, so it comes across as more disturbing than funny. That one has never made the cut. And yes, our faith in humanity is called into question every day, but we’ve chosen to celebrate its downfall rather than wallow in it.

The Found Footage Festival arrives in Fargo at the Aquarium on Monday, April 25th, 2011 beginning at 8:00 p.m. Tickets are ten dollars and will be available at the door.


Monday, April 11th, 2011

Movie review by Greg Carlson

To call “Hanna” superior to “Sucker Punch” is to damn it with faint praise, though both movies use young females as agents of death, and mean to thrill viewers at the sight of much onscreen mayhem and hand-to-hand combat. The otherwise innocent heroines who headline these features walk the tightrope between prurient eye candy and quasi-empowered changelings. To be sure, Saoirse Ronan is not sexualized with pigtails and schoolgirl uniforms, but “Hanna” acknowledges the child/adult edge – and the notion of a young girl tutored in the art of murder by a father or father figure – previously explored in “Leon: The Professional” and less successfully, “Kick-Ass.”

Growing up in a remote Finnish cabin with caring but haunted dad and CIA “rogue” Erik Heller (Eric Bana, who gets to wear animal skins and business suits, depending on the requirements of the scene), Hanna has been trained from birth in the practices of self-defense and survivalism. The onset of puberty triggers restlessness in the young woman, and papa digs up a signal transmission device that once activated will guide an army of assassins to the front door. The “why” and the “what” are mere prelude to the “how,” although one certainly marvels that any sane human being would flip a switch telling your enemies your exact whereabouts.

Throughout the movie, Wright struggles to find a consistent tone, bouncing between sober reminders that Hanna has been robbed of normal childhood development and tongue-in-cheek showdowns with skinhead goons that send up and celebrate the genre. The introduction of the permissive, vacationing family led by Olivia Williams milks all kinds of comic relief from the brash mouth of saucy daughter Jessica Barden, nearly reprising her role from “Tamara Drewe,” but Wright scarcely knows what to do when the nuclear unit is left to be tortured at the hands of vicious Eurotrash creep Isaacs (Tom Hollander).

Not that it matters much, but Isaacs is enlisted by the sinister Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett), the symbolic wicked stepmother to Hanna’s Cinderella/Little Mermaid/Gretel mash-up. Often happy to embrace the “more is more” school of character construction, Blanchett puts on Armani suits, a severe crimson coiffure, and a ridiculous drawl to complete the portrait of her evil CIA operative, whose desire to kill the Hellers is only matched by her gum-bloodying obsession with oral hygiene.

With its hipster-friendly title design and Chemical Brothers soundtrack, “Hanna” yearns to break its adolescent heroine out of the action movie’s traditional – maybe even old fashioned – constraints, but Wright heartily subscribes to the “Bourne” template established by Doug Liman’s 2002 Ludlum adaptation. Production designer Sarah Greenwood stuffs the frame with as many Brothers Grimm references as possible while Hanna catapults through the colorful international locations en route to learning her origin story.

Frustratingly, “Hanna” alludes to a richer inner life for its title character than the movie provides, and the flimsy soap opera turnabout that casts doubts on our girl’s paternity is disappointingly resolved with a stultifying and tedious computer search montage wholly unworthy of the protagonist. Only slightly better is the climactic derelict amusement park confrontation in which Wiegler emerges from the toothy maw of a fiberglass big bad wolf to do battle with Hanna.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 4/18/11.

Source Code

Monday, April 4th, 2011

Movie review by Greg Carlson

A thick slice of science fiction time loop ham, “Source Code” serves up a (moderately) thinking person’s action thriller superior to much of its competition. Sure to be embraced by the fanboys and fangirls taken with “Moon,” “Source Code” is the second feature to be capably helmed by Duncan Jones, a filmmaker whose interests in character and emotion appear to outweigh any pressure to depend solely on the mechanics of plot. Even so, both “Moon” and “Source Code” burrow deeply into rigidly machined “wrinkles” that govern narrative.

For gamers, much of the fun to be had in “Source Code” lies in the Sisyphean labor of U.S. Army Captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal), a helicopter pilot who awakes to find himself on a Chicago-bound commuter train in the body of another man. Inserted a mere eight minutes prior to a deadly explosion, Stevens must locate the source of the concealed bomb and uncover the identity of its architect, and then share that information with the big brains at the top-secret intelligence operation that provides the movie with its title. Easier said than done, and it is not even easily said.

The disoriented Stevens understandably fails the first eight minute pass of his new mission, but the nature of the brain-teasing plot device allows him to be reinserted as many times as it takes to satisfy (or exhaust, depending on your point of view) the gimmick. Doomed to literally relive the final moments of life, Stevens adapts to the environment, manipulating the variables to assemble more and more of the puzzle with each new trip through the impossible portal. Like the popular “Choose Your Own Adventure” series, or an energized Phil Connors, Stevens makes new choices that lead to new outcomes, not all of them favorable.

Stevens is assisted and abetted by two women. Trained in the Source Code program, Vera Farmiga is a fellow soldier who communicates with Stevens between each “insertion” into the repeated pattern. While these intervening conversations interrupt the possible monotony of the looping cycle, the physical distance between the two – they only interact via video conference – highlights the expositional function of Farmiga as guide and rudder. Michelle Monaghan, playing the supportive love interest/helper for what seems to be at least the tenth time, is Stevens’s seatmate, a passenger unaware of the imminent danger. Her optimistic mien is a welcome contrast to the panicked intensity of Stevens, and adds to the hero’s sense of urgency.

Most critics will not resist comparing “Source Code” to “Groundhog Day” – arguably the time loop movie nonpareil – coupling the reference with some other high concept rollercoaster ride (Jan de Bont’s “Speed” does nicely). When presented with smarts, wit, and attention to detail, the “snap back” structure can achieve a dazzling degree of viewer satisfaction. The Twilight Zone’s classic “Shadow Play” and “Run Lola Run” both make the cut. “Source Code,” however, flirts with but never embraces the fullness of the ethical dilemmas confronting the characters (Stevens inside the “source code” and Jeffrey Wright’s Dr. Rutledge in the “real world”), content to use the time loop as a set of jumper cables for the thrill ride that follows.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 4/11/11.