Guy Maddin’s “Brand Upon the Brain!”

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By R. Emmet Sweeney

IFC News

[Photo: The Film Company/Celluloid Dreams, 2006]

Guy Maddin’s latest fever dream of a film, “Brand Upon the Brain!,” descended upon the Walter Reade Theatre on October 15 to close out the Views From the Avant-Garde section of the New York Film Festival. In tow were an orchestra, a team of foley artists (for live sound effects), and Isabella Rossellini, who would perform the narration for the film, which was, as you may have guessed, silent. It went out with a bang, or to be more precise, a bang! No director today is as fond of the exclamation point as Maddin, the Canadian cinephile and creator of strange celluloid objects. His works are borne out of a mixture of silent movie melodrama and self-conscious camp — a mix of Frank Borzage and John Waters. The subjects range from incestuous psychodramas in the Alps (“Careful,” 1994) to Depression-era musicals starring beer-filled glass legs (attached to Rossellini in “The Saddest Music in the World,” 2003). The often outrageous material is played with absolute conviction, and is always tied to themes of family strife (recently it’s been missing fathers) and sexual repression, lending his films an unexpected emotional heft amid their giddy excesses.

His new film is no different. In the Fall issue of Cinema Scope, Maddin describes how the Seattle-based “The Film Company” offered him a budget to make a film before they even saw a script. They gave him complete freedom, the only restrictions being he had to shoot it in two weeks and use local actors. He had to scramble for a story, and earlier in the article he describes the image that spurred his imagination: “A lighthouse positively swollen with the unseemly sexual desires of children — and their parents!” From this charged thought a whole seamy narrative was woven, circling around the main character “Guy Maddin” (Eric Steffen Maahs) (after the screening the director claimed the film is autobiographical, like his hockey peep show “Cowards Bend the Knee” (2003)). The unseemly desires center around a teenage sleuth harpist, Wendy Hale (Katherine E. Scharhon), who’s investigating Guy’s overbearing mother for abusing the kids in her orphanage (and how!). Guy’s in love with Wendy, but she only has eyes for his Sis (Maya Lawson). Gender-bending, bosom-baring and slurpy sound effects filled the room until an orphan revolt, re-animation of the dead, and a barrel of brain nectar shuttled the film to its close. Maddin packs a whole serial’s worth of plot twists into its 95 minutes — and all of it is scored to the hypnotic tempo of Jason Staczek’s pulsing score and Rossellini’s formidable voice.

The actress, nattily decked out in a dark suit and red tie, deftly navigated the film’s hysteric rhythms without a wink of condescension while always returning to nail down its mournful refrain: “The past! The past!” (Rossellini has become a bit of a muse for Maddin, appearing in “Saddest Music” as well as the delightful short essay-film “My Dad is 100 Years Old,” which celebrates the work of her increasingly neglected father, Roberto). In the framing story Guy returns to the lighthouse after 30 years — and hallucinates visions of Wendy, including brief flashes of color (flowers! her lips!) in the midst of the grainy black and white Super-8 stock. Like Alain Resnais’ superb festival entry “Private Fears in Public Places,” which is diametrically opposite stylistically, it is an adult story about loneliness that leaves its characters adrift in the final scene, enclosed in Spartan spaces filled only with regret. Resnais opted out of the cannibalism scene, though. Both are without distributors as of this writing.


Face Melting Cameos

The 10 Most Metal Pop Culture Cameos

Glenn Danzig drops by Portlandia tonight at 10P on IFC.

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Glenn Danzig rocks harder than granite. In his 60 years, he’s mastered punk with The Misfits, slayed metal with the eponymous Danzig, and generally melted faces with the force of his voice. And thanks to Fred and Carrie, he’s now stopping by tonight’s brand new Portlandia so we can finally get to see what “Evil Elvis” is like when he hits the beach. To celebrate his appearance, we put together our favorite metal moments from pop culture, from the sublime to the absurd.

10. Cannibal Corpse meets Ace Ventura

Back in the ’90s,  Cannibal Corpse was just a small time band from Upstate New York, plying their death metal wares wherever they could find a crowd, when a call from Jim Carry transformed their lives. Turns out the actor was a fan, and wanted them for a cameo in his new movie, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. The band had a European tour coming up, and were wary of being made fun of, so they turned it down. Thankfully, the rubber-faced In Living Color vet wouldn’t take no for an answer, proving that you don’t need to have a lot of fans, just the right ones.

9. AC/DC in Private Parts

Howard Stern’s autobiographical film, based on his book of the same name, followed his rise in the world of radio and pop culture. For a man surrounded by naked ladies and adoring fans, it’s hard to track the exact moment he made it. But rocking out with AC/DC in the middle of Central Park, as throngs of fans clamor to get a piece of you, seems like it comes pretty close. You can actually see Stern go from hit host to radio god in this clip, as “You Shook Me All Night Long” blasts in the background.

8. Judas Priest meets The Simpsons

When you want to blast a bunch of peace-loving hippies out on their asses, you’re going to need some death metal. At least, that’s what the folks at The Simpsons thought when they set up this cameo from the metal gods. Unfortunately, thanks to a hearty online backlash, the writers of the classic series were soon informed that Judas Priest, while many things, are not in fact “death metal.” This led to the most Simpson-esque apology ever. Rock on, Bartman. Rock on.

7. Anthrax on Married…With Children

What do you get when Married…with Children spoofs My Dinner With Andre, substituting the erudite playwrights for a band so metal they piss rust? Well, for starters, a lot of headbanging, property destruction and blown eardrums. And much like everything else in life, Al seems to have missed the fun.

6. Motorhead rocks out on The Young Ones

The Young Ones didn’t just premiere on BBC2 in 1982 — it kicked the doors down to a new way of doing comedy. A full-on assault on the staid state of sitcoms, the show brought a punk rock vibe to the tired format, and in the process helped jumpstart a comedy revolution. For instance, where an old sitcom would just cut from one scene to the next, The Young Ones choose to have Lemmy and his crew deliver a raw version of “Ace of Spades.” The general attitude seemed to be, you don’t like this? Well, then F— you!

5. Red and Kitty Meet Kiss on That ’70s Show

Carsey-Werner Productions

Carsey-Werner Productions

Long before they were banished to playing arena football games, Kiss was the hottest ticket in rock. The gang from That ’70s Show got to live out every ’70s teen’s dream when they were set loose backstage at a Kiss concert, taking full advantage of groupies, ganja and hard rock.

4. Ronnie James Dio in Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny (NSFW, people!)

What does a young boy do when he was born to rock, and the world won’t let him? What tight compadre does he pray to for guidance and some sweet licks? If you’re a young Jables, half of “the world’s most awesome band,” you bow your head to Ronnie James Dio, aka the guy who freaking taught the world how to do the “Metal Horns.” Never before has a rock god been so literal than in this clip that turns it up to eleven.

3. Ozzy Osbourne in Trick or Treat

It’s hard to tell if Ozzy was trying his hardest here, or just didn’t give a flying f–k. What is clear is that, either way, it doesn’t really matter. Ozzy’s approach to acting seems to lean more heavily on Jack Daniels than sense memory, and yet seeing the slurry English rocker play a sex-obsessed televangelist is so ridiculous, he gets a free pass. Taking part in the cult horror Trick or Treat, Ozzy proves that he makes things better just by showing up. Because that’s exactly what he did here. Showed up. And it rocks.

2. Glenn Danzig on Portlandia

Danzig seems to be coming out of a self imposed exile these days. He just signed with a record company, and his appearance on Portlandia is reminding everyone how kick ass he truly is. Who else but “The Other Man in Black” could help Portland’s resident goths figure out what to wear to the beach? Carrie Brownstein called Danzig “amazing,” and he called Fred “a genius,” so this was a rare love fest for the progenitor of horror punk.

1. Alice Cooper in Wayne’s World

It’s surprising, sure, but for a scene that contains no music whatsoever, it’s probably the most famous metal moment in the history of film. When Alice Cooper informed Wayne and Garth that Milwaukee is actually pronounced “Milly-way-kay” back in 1992, he created one of the most famous scenes in comedy history. What’s more metal than that? Much like Wayne and Garth, we truly are not worthy.

“The Marine” vs. “Flags of Our Fathers”

“The Marine” vs. “Flags of Our Fathers” (photo)

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That there could be two movies in theaters simultaneously of such similar bases and such divergent content is a testament to cinema’s enduring versatility, and its capacity for both brilliance and stupidity. “Flags of our Fathers” and “The Marine” are so perfect in their symmetry, they seem designed to inform each other.

Both present dueling views of life as a member of the United States Marine Corps. Clint Eastwood’s “Flags of our Fathers,” about the impact of Joe Rosenthal’s photograph “Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima” on the war effort, contrasts the individual heroism of the men in the corps with the propaganda machine of the armed forces brass. It shows us the real men behind the carefully controlled images presented to the men and women on the home front in 1944. “The Marine,” on the other hand, is all image, of the sort of red-blooded, blue-eyed American machismo that hasn’t existed in action films since Reagan left office. Ironically, the film set in the past feels far more contemporary than the one set in the modern day.

It’s hard to even believe the real men portrayed by Ryan Phillippe, Adam Beach, and Jesse Bradford belong to the same species as John Cena, let alone the same organization. Cena, a popular professional wrestler is all beefy hands and tree-trunk neck; as WWE-icons-turned-movie-stars go, he fares a little better than Hulk Hogan but pales next to the versatility, wit and natural charisma of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. After receiving a discharge from the Marines for disobeying a direct order in order to single-handedly rescue P.O.W.s from an al-Qaeda stronghold in Iraq, Cena’s John Triton struggles to adapt to a life that doesn’t involve assault weaponry. Though he lives for nothing but the Marine life, he’s married to a Barbie doll made flesh (Kelly Carlson). “You married a Marine, Kate,” he tells her by way of apologizing for his behavior. Fortunately, Triton’s job search is interrupted by a gang of jewel robbers (led by Robert Patrick) who kidnap his wife at a gas station, and — at last! — Cena is thrust into action.

John Triton returns home from war and wants nothing more than to get back on the front lines. The soldiers of “Flags of our Fathers” get a free ticket back to the States for their appearance in Rosenthal’s photo, but find themselves trapped on the blackened beaches of Iwo Jima, if only in their minds. As they travel through the U.S. to encourage war bonds sales, Eastwood returns repeatedly to the hell in the Pacific. Surrounded by imagined images of triumph, they flashback to real moments of terror.

The movies don’t just come from different genres, they come from different worlds. In one explosion shells spread shrapnel and death. In another, they create super-cool explosions that present little danger to our nigh-impervious hero. Every time Triton took a gorgeous, slo-mo swan dive out of the teach of yet another fireball, I kept thinking of Phillippe’s Doc Bradley, a Navy Corpsman who survives a Japanese shell with shrapnel in his legs. Unable to walk, ordered to stay down until a stretcher can arrive, he crawls over to another injured serviceman, medicating him even while he himself continues to bleed.

As Eastwood’s narrator observes, we need heroes. But what kind of heroes do we need; ones imagined by screenwriters and PR men or ones lived by ordinary, selfless men and women? The WWE has one idea, Eastwood has another. Curiously, Eastwood’s studio, DreamWorks (now part of Paramount) sides with the wrestlers; their marketing campaign for “Flags,” replete with war drums and action shots while title cards hype the Battle of Iwo Jima’s Medal of Honor winners, essentially sells the movie as the sort of patriotic spectacle Eastwood spends two hours critiquing and “The Marine” spends 90 minutes being.

“Flags” is unquestionably the better film but “The Marine” may be, perversely, the more watchable. It’s an unabashed throwback to the elegantly dumb action movies of my youth; the knowing homages begin with a prologue straight out of “Rambo” and a storyline not far removed from Schwarzenegger’s symphony of cartoon violence, “Commando” (both share a villain named Bennett, too). It could have been a great guilty pleasure, if only Cena looked like he was having a bit more fun — granted, he’s trying to rescue his wife, but that never stopped Schwarzenegger from cracking lines like “Don’t wake my friend, he’s dead tired,” after snapping a dude’s neck. Even without the requisite jokes, the movie is utterly ridiculous (not to mention highly flammable). Wrestling is known as sports entertainment — not genuine sport, but rather a simulation. “The Marine” may be the first “movies entertainment” — false to its core, but damn fun to watch.

Eastwood doesn’t hit a false note, and he’s made a real movie. “The Marine” is required viewing too, for at least one reason: it makes Eastwood’s point for him.

“Imprint,” Takashi Miike’s snuff film “Rashomon”

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By R. Emmet Sweeney

IFC News

Of all the bloody stumps and bared bosoms of the “Masters of Horror” series on Showtime, those depicted in “Imprint” were a bit too bloody and bare even for indulgent cable execs (the discarded fetuses were rumored to have been the tipping point). Banned from airing during the series’ run in the U.S. (it aired on Bravo in the UK), Takashi Miike’s snuff film “Rashomon” finally hits our shores thanks to this week’s loaded DVD release. As with all of Miike’s voluminous output (he has three other ’06 films on his resume), it’s a mixed bag — with scenes of genuine terror, outrageous camp, and stomach-turning violence.

“Imprint” was adapted from the Japanese horror novel “Bokee Kyotee” by Shimako Iwai — a straightforward tale of past misdeeds haunting the present. American vagabond Christopher (Billy Drago) travels to a remote island/brothel to find the woman he loved and lost, Kimomo (Michie Ito). In her place he finds a nameless prostitute (Youki Kudoh) with a facial deformity who informs him how Kimomo died. She changes her story multiple times, with each alteration depicted in flashback. Soon both of their histories are excavated, and it’s a nasty, vicious, and viscous business.

The time period is strangely ahistorical, with Edo period architecture clashing with electric paper lamps. It feels like a whorehouse for the modern tourist, where one can get the kicks of old-time misogyny with the comforts of the industrial revolution. It is a bit of a dream world — an unreality the actors bring into their work. Drago (“The Untouchables”) has one of the great under-utilized faces in Hollywood. Cavernous, skeletal, and strikingly blank, his stare is its own slasher flick. Utilizing this strength, Drago’s performance is akin to pantomime, marking each emotion with wide loping gestures over his guttural drawl. It’s highly theatrical, and clashes with Kudoh’s more naturalistic approach (until her head is peeled back, of course).

Amazingly, Kudoh is the only actor in the film who could speak English (other than Drago). Everyone else learned their lines phonetically from a linguist. This lends a disembodied quality to their performance, and it’s either a brilliant reflection of their loss of humanity, or just an extremely cheap way to hire actors. Probably more of the latter, but selected moments pay off: especially with the repeated scenes of the Buddhist monk speaking to Kudoh’s character as a child in flashback. He unrolls a parchment depicting the tortures of hell, and says, “Pretty scary, huh”, stuttering over the “s” in scary. It’s funny but laced with menace — and during the second flashback the undertones in the scene become even more ambiguously evil.

Miike can’t abide ambiguity long, so there’s a torture set piece to put us cerebral folk in our place. It is epic cruelty, inflicted upon Kimomo by a jealous older prostitute (curiously, played by the book’s female author Iwai). It’s pulp exploitation that would fulfill any adolescent male’s fear and loathing of femininity (in an interview on the disc, he said only lonely rural kids in Japan watched his films before he became a cult star overseas), but one can’t deny that it’s bravura filmmaking — meticulous in its structure and its violence.

The DVD is packed with extras that are actually worth watching, including an hour-long interview with Miike (hilariously titled “I Am the Film Director of Love and Freedom”), where he talks about being pigeonholed as a horror director in the West, and his refusal to refuse any project offered to him. Also included is a making of doc, a feature on the makeup, and audio commentary by American Cinematheque programmer Chris D. and writer Wyatt Doyle.

NYFF: “Woman on the Beach.”

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"This is fun."
Joong-rae, an established (though not so well-off) director, corralls his weak-willed friend Chang-wook into taking him to the seaside for a few days so that he can work on his overdue script. Chang-wook agrees on the condition that he can bring his girlfriend along. The three set off in the morning in the friend’s car, listening to music written and performed by the girl, Moon-sook, who is a composer and clearly a big fan of
Joong-rae’s work. They have stilted getting-to-know-you conversations. They find a place to stay. And then, as they dawdle outside, Joong-rae tells Chang-wook that he likes him because he’s so trusting: "It’s hard for a married man to bring his girlfriend out with him so openly." "I’m not his girlfriend," retorts Moon-sook. "You have to have sex for that."

"This is fun," says Joong-rae.

And so begins another of Hong Sang-soo‘s adept, acid-laced explorations of relationships, the gender divide and Korean masculinity. We only get a vague sense of what Joong-rae’s films are like, arty and sensitive enough that the women in the film are googly eyed upon meeting him. Moon-sook is harboring a crush, though after the three have spent an evening together drinking she observes that he’s not like his films: "Sorry, but you’re actually just another Korean man." This doesn’t stop her from opening up to him as the night goes on, as they run and leave Chang-wook behind, walking the beach at night and ultimately trysting in an unlocked, empty hotel room. The next morning he’s distant, and she’s ready to let him off the hook, if a little hurt. She and Chang-wook return to Seoul, and Joong-rae stays, calls her to apologize, and in passing picks up another woman staying at a nearby hotel.

Hong’s characterizations are hard to take — they would be cruel if they weren’t so fully realized, and if he weren’t such a connoisseur of the acts of social sadism that pepper our interactions with others. Joong-rae is an epic disaster, the extent of which we realize alongside Moon-sook. He’s insecure and needy, defensive and manipulative, prone to strident rages and, in the truest detail of all, to using the ensuing emotional chaos as fodder for his film. Process is never pretty. Moon-sook is charming and charmingly direct, though at one point she reveals that she’s older than she appears; she acts and looks like a winsome girl. In fact, all of the characters seem in different degrees to be blustering children, until they suddenly reveal inscrutable back-stories littered with the wreckage of past relationships, romantic and otherwise.

"Woman on the Beach" is, if it’s not clear from the above, a comedy, and it is very funny, if also threaded with a sense of despair at the apparent futility of human connection. Shot almost entirely on the beach and in the buildings facing it, the film has a chilly air to it that’s partially the director’s world view, and partially just inherent to the setting: There are few things sadder than an empty, windswept resort town once the season has ended.

Screens September 30 and October 1 at Alice Tully Hall.

+ "Woman on the Beach" (NYFF)

NYFF: “Marie Antoinette.”

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"Dear God, guide and protect us. We are too young to reign."Marie Antoinette led a frivolous and extravagant (if sometimes unhappy) life before meeting up with the guillotine at age 37, and that seems to be why so many critics at Cannes were quick to assign the same qualities to Sofia Coppolla‘s film. Certainly "Marie Antoinette" doesn’t circumscribe any typical biopic arc — the once Queen of France’s defining duties were to exist as a political token, to be on constant display, to visit with other nobles to reassure them of their social status, and to produce an heir. Not particularly personal tasks, and, if the film has any argument, it’s that Marie’s triumph was actually managing to find joy in them. But even that argument is beside the point — the film’s main purpose to bringing a historical icon to glorious, imperfect life. Versailles may have been a gilded prison, but why be coy? It was also extraordinarily swank, and "Marie Antoinette" revels, with a wink, in the luxury. There are montages of shoe shopping and confectionery, there are fabulous outfits, there are whirlwinds of parties and just plain delightful moments like the scene in which Marie and company run down the steps in the garden in full finery and watch the sun rise by the water.

The film’s much-discussed anachronisms — the 80s New Wave soundtrack, the defiantly contemporary casting (particularly a licentious Rip Torn and a befuddled Jason Schwartzman
as the Louis XV and XVI) and dialogue — are stylistic choices, but they’re also
attempts at humanizing life at court. Marie, the film urges, was just your standard flighty, irrepressible
teenager when she took her place as a political chesspiece…and yes, this does comes across a bit apologist. After all, her mother, Austrian Empress Maria Theresa (played in the film by Marianne Faithfull), established herself as a formidable political figure — Marie choose to swaddle herself in gossip and excess, only to discover that the increasingly remote real world was turning against her for reasons she seems barely able to grasp. That the latter third of the film accelerates through the birth of one child and barely sketched-in loss of another, the "let them eat cake" line, the shift in public sentiment, and the American Revolution with scarcely a pause shows exactly how concerned it is with historical developments over grand gestures, which would be not at all. And the film has one more grand gesture to celebrate: When the palace is being stormed, Marie goes out onto the balcony to greet the angry mob calling for her blood. She gathers herself, and then gracefully sketches a bow, and despite their fury and disdain, everyone in the crowd falls silent.

There’s no way around it — it just looks so good.

Screens October 13 and 14 at Alice Tully Hall; opens in theaters October 20th.

+ "Marie Antoinette" (NYFF)
+ "Marie Antoinette" (Sony)

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