Archive for February, 2013

Interview with “Wild Bill’s Run” Director Mike Scholtz

Monday, February 25th, 2013

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Interview by Greg Carlson

Full disclosure: I have known filmmaker Mike Scholtz since I was in elementary school. His sister Ann spotted me reading X-Men comic books during milk break and figured Mike and I would hit it off. Not long after, Mike invited me to his birthday sleepover party, which happened during the time when people rented a VCR and three movies for a weekend. He selected “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Eraserhead,” and “The Making of Thriller.” To this day, we spend time discussing Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch, and Michael Jackson.

Mike’s first feature-length documentary, “Wild Bill’s Run,” has enjoyed a successful film festival run and will be shown on Thursday, March 7 during the Fargo Film Festival’s evening session. Mike will be in attendance to talk about the strange trip of Minnesota outlaw and adventurer Bill Cooper.    

 

If I remember correctly, you became acquainted with Bill Cooper’s story through a 2006 Minnesota Monthly article by Paul Lundgren that eventually led you to a treasure trove of 16mm film from the expeditions. Has Paul seen the movie and shared his reactions with you?

That’s true. Paul’s article dealt almost exclusively with the second act of Bill Cooper’s life, when he was accused of being Minnesota’s top drug smuggler and landed himself on the U.S. Marshal’s Ten Most Wanted List. But Paul was equally fascinated by the Arctic expedition that Cooper led before all the criminal allegations started piling up. Paul got me in touch with the expedition members—who had recently rediscovered a whole bunch of the 16mm footage they shot in the 70s—and we started making the film.

When Paul finally saw “Wild Bill’s Run,” he was delighted. He’d become seriously obsessed with Bill Cooper and I think he might’ve gone broke spending the rest of his life tracking down every angle of this story. It was fun for him to have someone else do a little bit of the dirty work. I guess that makes him sound like a puppet master. I know he’s already dreaming up other documentary ideas for me to adapt and/or adopt some day.

 

A question about questions. What is the best thing anyone has asked about “Wild Bill’s Run” at a post-screening Q & A?

Can I share the worst thing, instead? Although I guess it was kind of the best thing, too. Our screening at the Free Range Film Festival was one of my favorites. We had more than 300 people crammed into this old wooden barn outside of Duluth. But the Q & A after the film was bizarre. All of the questions were about snowmobile repair. I’m sorry, but I just don’t have any idea what a blower belt is.

Fortunately, some of the members of the expedition were on hand to answer those questions. It’s always fun when those guys can join me for a Q & A and to see them treated a bit like celebrities.

 

Have you ever ridden a snowmobile?

My dad took me for a snowmobile ride when I was 8 or 9 years old. It was dirty, smelly and loud. So I hated it. I realize that makes me a pretty lousy ambassador for my own film. But I absolutely love the design of vintage snowmobiles, if that’s any consolation.

 

What is the allure of the chinstrap beard?

Cooper was kind of a genius when it came to selling himself as a product. I don’t know how many Arctic expedition leaders think to hire two full-time photographers just to document their journey. But he did. And he also realized, pretty early on, that the only way to stand out from the rest of the identically-dressed expedition members would be to have some crazy facial hair. That chinstrap beard sets you apart from the crowd. I’d recommend it for anyone who wants to be remembered.

 

Short of discovering that Bill Cooper is alive, what is the one thing you did not or could not get that you wish you could have included in WBR?

I wish I could’ve returned to some of the Arctic locations that Bill Cooper’s expedition visited in the 1970s. I would’ve loved to talk to some of the people who might’ve remembered the sight of these dirty, lost Americans stumbling into their towns and villages. It just didn’t seem worth the expense, since I already had so much fantastic Arctic footage from the 70s. But it would’ve been fun.

 

Of all the festivals and places WBR has played, which has been the most exciting/rewarding for you?

I have to cheat and give two answers here.

The most exciting festival was the Banff Mountain Film Festival in Alberta, Canada. I think they must pump adrenaline through the HVAC system at the Banff Center. When I arrived for that festival, they told me straight up that my film was a weird and almost controversial pick for them. Banff specializes in adventure, but their programmers and audiences tend to steer clear of films that feature motorized sports (like snowmobiling).

I think they were actually a little nervous about running the film. But it played to a huge audience that really loved it. Shortly after that, they invited “Wild Bill’s Run” to play with some of their other favorites from the festival on the Banff World Tour. So, thanks to Banff, my film is playing all over the world.

The Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival was just as rewarding. They hold that festival now in a giant old art deco hotel. Your room and all the screenings are in one building. You can literally roll out of bed and head downstairs and see screenings all day long every day for 10 days. It was like summer camp for documentary filmmakers. I almost cried when I had to leave all my new friends behind there.

 

We are both devoted admirers of “The King of Kong.” What are some other non-fiction movies that inspire you?

I do love “The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters” very, very much. I think it’s a nearly perfect example of the kind of story you can only tell with a documentary, the kind of story that fits in the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction category. Had somebody written those characters and situations, it just wouldn’t have been believable.

Other films that have inspired me in one way or another include “F for Fake,” “Manda Bala,” “American Movie” and anything by Werner Herzog. He has a knack for uncovering deep wells of twisted weirdness inside even the most mundane interview subjects.

I’m also a huge fan of sports documentaries like “When We Were Kings” and “Dogtown and Z-Boys.” Since I don’t follow sports at all, I often have no idea how the films are going to end. It’s nice to be surprised.

As a kid, I loved the documentary TV series “In Search of…” hosted by Leonard Nimoy. So I really wanted “Wild Bill’s Run” to feel a little bit like a long-lost, extra-long episode of that show. That was the biggest inspiration for this particular film.

 

 A couple decades ago you worked at the Fargo Theatre and now you have a movie playing in the Fargo Film Festival. Congratulations.

I’m pretty excited to have “Wild Bill’s Run” play at the Fargo Film Festival because I practically grew up inside the Fargo Theatre. I live in Duluth now, but I still like to think of the Fargo Film Festival as my hometown festival. I try to come every single year, even if I don’t have a film playing.

Amour

Monday, February 18th, 2013

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

A measured memento mori coiled with the director’s signature refusal to indicate any absolute moral transparency, Michael Haneke’s “Amour” meticulously chronicles the physical decline of an octogenarian music teacher whose gradual slide into end-of-life helplessness is witnessed and attended to by her husband. Confining the action almost entirely to the Parisian apartment shared by Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva), Haneke frames the action – or lack thereof – in long takes of the quotidian repetitions (eating, using the bathroom, getting into or out of bed) that the able-bodied take for granted.

Until now, to American audiences Emmanuelle Riva was best known for her turn in Alain Resnais’ 1959 classic “Hiroshima mon amour,” even though the performer has appeared in movies directed by Gillo Pontecorvo, Jaco Van Dormael, Jean-Pierre Melville, Georges Franju, Krzysztof Kieslowski, and recently, Julie Delpy. Currently in her mid-eighties, Riva constructs a harrowing, immersive portrait of a woman who has lived a productive life. Sally Chivers writes that “silvering screen” movies commonly use disability narratives, so much so that old age and illness in film are more often then not co-located. Chivers’ observations do not diminish the poignancy of “Amour,” which can certainly take a position in the company of work like “Away from Her,” and perhaps one day “Ikiru”  “Wild Strawberries,” and “The Ballad of Narayama” (both Kinoshita and Imamura).

Arguably, “Amour” is Haneke’s most conventional and straightforward examination of the human psyche, outwardly exhibiting fewer signs of the twisty provocations and manipulations that mark the challenging experiences of “Code Unknown,” “The Piano Teacher,” “Cache,” “The White Ribbon,” and especially both versions of the disturbing “Funny Games.” The accessibility of “Amour,” however, should not be mistaken as an invitation for audience consensus – a characteristic Haneke deliberately avoids. Instead, the movie provides through Georges’ consciousness the ambiguity and mystery necessary for self-reflection.

While Riva has garnered more press attention than Trintignant thanks to her Academy Award nomination, the narrative of “Amour” is filtered through the point of view of husband, partner, and father Georges. The audience is invited to share his nightmares, and in an oddly moving and touching motif, we also see his reactions to the surprise appearance of a pigeon that gains access to the apartment. As Anna’s condition worsens, daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert) asks her father what happens next, and Georges answers by saying, in essence, “the same as what happened before, until it is over.”

Haneke has spoken of his disdain for what he described as the disempowerment of the spectator in American film, and even though watching his movies can result in feelings of dread, anxiety, and alarm, there is no question the auteur continually makes a conscious effort to achieve the kind of transcendence that Paul Schrader means when talking about the cinema of Robert Bresson. Like Bresson, Haneke is unrelenting in his quest to both understand and visualize the internal. In interviews regarding “Amour,” Haneke claims that it was not his intention to make a film about dying, but rather to examine the question of how we cope with the suffering of the ones we love. That is a fine line distinction, and there’s no question “Amour” is both.

Side Effects

Monday, February 11th, 2013

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

WARNING: The following review reveals key plot information. Read only if you have seen “Side Effects.”

The politics of Big Pharma front a wicked, sleazy homage to psychosexual thrillers in Steven Soderbergh’s smartypants divertissement “Side Effects,” an enjoyable genre workout that gleefully mashes up Alfred Hitchcock and Joe Eszterhas without batting an eye. Fooling the audience into believing the movie’s point-of-view will favor the mental health struggles of Rooney Mara’s Emily Taylor, Soderbergh cunningly reveals that Jude Law’s Dr. Jonathan Banks is the film’s real fulcrum. Working from a script by frequent collaborator Scott Z. Burns, Soderbergh, as usual, keeps the gears turning so efficiently it isn’t until the credits roll that you begin to wonder how badly you’ve been hoodwinked.

Emily’s husband Martin (Channing Tatum) emerges from a four-year prison sentence for insider trading anxious to reclaim his marriage and his career. Emily struggles with the changes, and soon after Martin’s release, steers her car into the wall of a parking garage in an apparent suicide attempt. Psychiatrist Banks begins seeing Emily, prescribing a series of ineffectual anti-depressants and consulting with Emily’s previous doctor, Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who suggestively says, “I think seeing a man will help her.” Banks’ interest in his new patient, complicated by suggestions both subtle and curious, raises the ire of Banks’ wife and the suspicions of the viewer.

Soderbergh’s best directorial instincts serve “Side Effects” in ways parallel to many of his recent titles, including “Contagion,” “Magic Mike,” and even “Haywire.” He never takes things too seriously, even when he is directing what is presumably drama. He never shows overt contempt for the characters – both decent and villainous – that work hard to attain their objectives. His sense of structure nearly always points toward a craftsman who values meticulous pacing and timing, and the division of “Side Effects,” marked by the surprise on-screen murder of an important character, echoes the gambit of “Psycho” with diabolical precision. Right in the middle of it all is Mara, effectively cast in the movie’s plummiest role. Is Emily unhinged or cagey? Both at once?

One does not even need to have read/seen “The Celluloid Closet” to recognize the “evil lesbian” rhetoric that (mis)informs characters in all kinds of films. Given Soderbergh’s tendency to mess with his audience, there is plenty of room for debate as to whether either Mara’s or Zeta-Jones’ characters are homosexual. Burns’ screenplay suggests the strong possibility that both women might be feigning same-sex attraction to manipulate the situation. Even so, this particular class of femme fatale stereotype, present in “Black Swan,” “Basic Instinct,” “Single White Female,” “Bound”  “Wild Things,” “Chloe,” and numerous others, may be the least imperative ruse in the movie’s playbook.

More fascinating than the sexual depravity and desperation is the movie’s incorporation of several classic bait-and-switch traps, including hidden recording devices, photo blackmail, double jeopardy escape plans, threats of electroshock, and one bizarre instance in which the reaction to a placebo is either a tour de force performance or an exhibition of the most disturbing psychopathy. The corporate drug industry milieu receives just the right dose of the filmmakers’ criticism, from the comical, bogus promotional Ablixa website (“Rare side effects may also include confusion…”) to the way in which the chemically altered state of the union attempts to solve every problem by developing a pill to pop.

Warm Bodies

Monday, February 4th, 2013

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

Jonathan Levine’s adaptation of Isaac Marion’s novel “Warm Bodies” endeavors to resurrect the durable zombie genre as a kinder, gentler post-apocalypse by injecting into the proceedings the seldom-used but not entirely novel device of romance. Pulse-crossed love hints at a sorta kinda “Romeo and Juliet” attraction between an undead flesh-eater known as R (Nicholas Hoult) and crush-object Julie (Teresa Palmer), a sympathetic human whose father runs the military defense protecting the surviving populace from the incursion of shambling corpses hungry for gray matter. Narrated by R via thoughts his rotting but lucid brain can still form even though his mouth cannot articulate the words, “Warm Bodies” manages to enter territory so few zombie properties even bother with these days: heartfelt earnestness.

Levine spends plenty of time establishing the yearning soulfulness of R, whose slim jeans and red hoodie mark him as something of an emo-cadaver. When not overwhelmed by the urge to dine on the bodies of the living, R resides in the cabin of a jetliner, where he spins records from his impressive collection of vinyl and scavenges abandoned treasures like a decaying WALL-E. One day, along with a pack of shambling ghouls, R encounters Julie’s patrol, and overwhelmed by something that transcends his flatlined state, refrains from killing the young woman. He protects her from the horde, and her presence sparks in R a gradual return to a condition of vitality.

Disappointingly, “Warm Bodies” does not fully commit to directly addressing what amounts to its elephant in the room: necrophilia. Hoult’s expressive eyes and tousled hair, which contrast with his ghastly pallor, are undoubtedly present to soften the “ick factor” that has never really been a significant problem for cinematic vampires. Even so, the “getting to know you” sections of the film in which R pines for Julie are restrained and chaste, even when some very taboo passion is needed. The most devoted genre fans may be vaguely reminded of Brian Yuzna’s 1993 “Return of the Living Dead 3,” in which screenwriter John Penney explored the relationship of a living boy and his reanimated girlfriend.

“Warm Bodies” could have used a rewrite on John Malkovich’s General Grigio, Julie’s grieving, vigilant father. Malkovich’s presence is welcome, but the black-and-white rigidity of his anti-zombie position demands greater nuance, particularly if the audience is going to believe any late occurring change of heart. The final sections of “Warm Bodies,” where Malkovich factors most, are the film’s least effective, driven by fights and chases involving the speedy, aggressive “Bonies,” dried-out zombies who have decayed past the point of rehabilitation. The film never really bothers to define its own spin on zombie mythology, and the audience is asked to accept the death-to-life reversal in other zombies that has been seemingly triggered by R’s affection for Julie.

The courtship of the Shakespeare-inspired pair is hampered by an issue just as thorny as R’s stiff, checked-out status: the disturbing reality that R dispatches Julie’s boyfriend, and by eating his brains can access the victim’s thoughts, visions, and experiences. Reminiscent of unethical Patrick’s voyeuristic manipulation of Clementine in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” this eerie story element may give some viewers pause no matter R’s otherworldly sweetness. Coupled with the suggestion that R deliberately delays helping Julie get home, (making him a kidnapper) these challenging plot threads need more sophisticated and thoughtful resolution than Levine can offer.