DID YOU READ

On DVD: “Times and Winds,” “Chop Shop”

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07142008_timesandwinds.jpgBy Michael Atkinson

It’s amazing to contemplate, but world cinema didn’t really make serious feature films about children until after WWII; Vittorio De Sica’s “Shoeshine” (1946) might’ve been the first. (You could stretch and consider Hal Roach’s vivid and roughhewn “Our Gang” shorts as qualifying, and I wouldn’t argue.) After the New Waves got rolling, of course, juveniles proliferated like rabbits on screen, but prior to that nearly the first half of cinema history had little or nothing to say about the bedeviled, often neglected, wide-eyed life of the pre-adult. Did cinema change with the war, or did we? Two new movies to DVD, Reha Erdem’s “Times and Winds” (2006) and Ramin Bahrani’s “Chop Shop” (2007), make their individual cases that little outside of the movie dynamic has changed at all, and that life as a 12-year-old in any corner of the globe is still subject to the grinding, merciless self-involvement of the adult world.

Erdem’s movie is a native Turkish art film, more elliptical and allusively observant even than the recent films of Nuri Bilge Ceylan. The setting is a remote Pontic Mountain village, the time is unspecified, the cultural climate is post-medieval and Muslim (the hamlet has little, but possesses its own minaret), the characters are two preteen boys who live out their lives in a state of embittered, anticipatory stasis. They watch animals copulate, they steal cigarettes, they work, but they also hate their parents: the sickly imam’s son relentlessly plots all manner of surreptitious patricide, while his friend, entranced by a crush on their young and serene schoolteacher, is revolted to find his righteous father spying on her. Other fathers beat and humiliate other sons and daughters and orphans; “shithead” is the label passed down from each generation to the next. But the action of Erdem’s film belongs to the quotidian, to the relationship between moon and clouds, to the unrolling of each day (and its prayer cycle) and of the seasonal process. Sure, there’s a coming-of-age primal scene, but the girl in question retreats to her bed and weeps after seeing her parents in flagrante. Aching with the Górecki-like symphonic throbs of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, the film suggests a version of Victor Erice’s “The Spirit of the Beehive” for the new millennium, even if its poetry outpaces Erice’s — Erdem punctuates his semi-narrative with surreal tableaux of his cast of children slumbering (or dead?) buried in pine needles, covered with the debris of a demolished house, in leaves, nearly subsumed by undergrowth, etc. You’re never sure what’s going on in these enigmatic images, or, really, between them (the characters do not express themselves openly), you’re just sure you’ve never quite seen this particular brand of mysterious poetry before.

07142008_chopshop.jpgBahrani’s “Chop Shop” takes place in the unmistakable present, but its setting exudes sociopolitical commentary without anyone saying a word: it’s the hunk of Flushing, Queens known as Willets Point, a resident-free neighborhood that floods routinely and is comprised entirely of auto repair shops, junk dealers and the titular stolen-car-processing outfits. Seen from the orphaned 12-year-old hero’s perspective, it’s a lawless frontier of make-it-on-your-own American Dreamism; for us, it’s the asshole of the global economy, a squalid proto-slum that’s indistinguishable from unremarkable slices of Bombay or Rio, thriving on manufactured leftovers and cannibalized industry. But there’s Shea Stadium looming in the near distance, and there are the airliners flying out of LaGuardia overhead — this is an America we don’t see in movies, and Bahrani, whose “Man Push Cart” (2005) had a similar torque to it, knows how to make his semi-doc ultra-realism jump out at you as neo-Kafka-esque metaphor.

We’re in the tradition of Satyajit Ray and Ken Loach, but we’re in New York, and for that overdue transplantation, we should be thankful. It’s unfortunate, then, that Alejandro (Alejandro Polanco) is a relatively simple character — bullet-headed and ambitious, but still only a kid, wrestling with his love and shame for his older sister (Isamar Gonzales), who moonlights blowjobbing at night, and becoming obsessive about his own get-rich schemes. (We never learn what became of their parents.) How could Alejandro’s dreams, and his coffee can of cash, end up except in anti-climactic disappointment? Chin-deep in convincing texture, Bahrani never takes the daring next step for which his symbolic realism cries out — into a realm (epic, absurdist, satiric, visionary, what have you) where the broader meaning of his narratives overtakes his oppressive everyday details. When he does, he might make a masterpiece.

[Photo: “Times and Winds,” Kino, 2007; “Chop Shop,” Koch Lorber, 2007]

“Times and Winds” (Kino Video) and “Chop Shop” (Koch Lorber Films) are now available on DVD.

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Southern Fried SNL

Watch Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein in SNL’s Southern Rock Supergroup

Fred and Carrie kept it mellow on the SNL season finale.

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Photo Credit: Saturday Night Live / NBC Universal

It was a veritable “band from comedy heaven” this weekend as a myriad of comedians assembled for a feel-good musical sketch in the Saturday Night Live season finale. Guest host Fred Armisen was joined by Portlandia cohort Carrie Brownstein as well as Maya Rudolph, Andy Samberg, Jason Sudeikis, Larry David, and members of the SNL cast to form faux-southern-rock supergroup The Harkin Brothers — a band whose members managed to outnumber its audience.

If The Harkin Brothers’ smooth vocal stylings remind you of The Blue Jean Committee from Documentary Now!, that’s probably not a coincidence. The BJC first appeared in a different, more regionally-specific form in a SNL sketch with Sudeikis on drums.

Watch an all-star SNL cast perform a mellow tribute to Arkansas called “Summertime in Fayetteville” in the video below.

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Farewell Mr. Fred

5 Funniest Sketches From Fred Armisen’s SNL Season Finale

Is "Farewell, Mr. Bunting" the best SNL sketch of the season?

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Photo Credit: Saturday Night Live / NBC Universal

The 41st season of Saturday Night Live drew to a close this past weekend, and star of Portlandia and Documentary Now! Fred Armisen hosted the occasion. A former SNL player himself, this homecoming allowed Fred to show off the comedy chops and character skills he’s honed since leaving Studio 8H.

Here are the 5 funniest sketches from the season finale of Saturday Night Live hosted by Fred Armisen.

1. Farewell, Mr. Bunting

What appears to be a straightforward take on the maudlin climax of the 1989 Robin Williams classic Dead Poets Society takes quite an unexpected turn. But if you’re really watching, you’ll realize it’s completely organic and integral to the plot.


2. Fred’s Monologue and One-Man Show

Actor, writer, producer, musician, impressionist — Fred can do it all. So tackling the many characters in the story of his life is a cakewalk for such a talent. Here, Fred takes us on the emotional journey through the day he got the job at SNL and luckily he leaves no detail, however minor or insignificant, out of the performance.


3. New Girlfriend

We were wondering what characters Fred would bring back, but we didn’t predict Regine. Fellow SNL alum Jason Sudeikis appears in this sketch as Regine’s new boyfriend, who introduces his pals to his snarky, raunchy lady. Watch Aidy Bryant try not to crack up at Fred/Regine’s joygasms.


4. Expedition

Three of the biggest stars in American colonialism are Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and Sacagawea. But what most history books choose to omit is the simmering sexual tension between the three explorers. Fortunately, a group of community players illustrate the historical figures’ lustful dynamic to a high school class in graphic detail.


5. Escape Pod

As an interstellar ship begins breaking apart, Fred plays the lucky member of the space crew who wins access to the last escape pod. But a heartfelt goodbye is mitigated by the pod’s virtual assistant ensuring all the luxuries and pampering are to the occupant’s liking.

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The Crying Game

10 Things You Didn’t Know About A League of Their Own

Batter up for A League of Their Own this month on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Columbia Pictures/Everett Collection

While there may be no crying in baseball, lots of blood, sweat, and tears went into the making of A League of Their Own. From sweltering July heat to concussions to the Material Girl causing trouble, making the hit film wasn’t exactly a homerun. Before you catch A League of Their Own on IFC, check out some dirt on the making of this sports movie classic. Hear that call! The time has come for one and all to play ball!

1. The cast really had to play baseball.

League of Their Own Quotes
Columbia Pictures

Director Penny Marshall was adamant that all of the actresses cast in the film could really play baseball. Prior to the start of filming, the cast (even Madonna!) trained eight hours a day, six days a week for over seven months to hone their skills and bond as a team. They initially practiced sliding using a Slip ‘N Slide, but that method was abandoned when both Tracy Reiner and Megan Cavanagh suffered concussions.


2. Geena Davis auditioned in Penny Marshall’s backyard.

Geena Davis
Columbia Pictures

The Fly and Beetlejuice star was the last person cast in the film after several other prominent actresses like Debra Winger, Laura Dern, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Demi Moore passed. Davis had never played baseball but won Marshall over through a game of catch in her backyard. A natural athlete, Davis was outplaying most of the other actresses on the film. (Though she did use a double for the sliding portion of her infamous catch in the splits.)


3. Tom Hanks entertained the extras with puppet shows.

Tom Hanks
Columbia Pictures

Over 1,700 extras were used throughout the shoot, enduring long hours and occasionally extreme 100+ degree summer heat while on location in Indiana. To keep them entertained in between shots and scenery changes, members of the cast performed. Tom Hanks did puppet shows behind the dugout while Rosie O’Donnell would perform stand-up. Madonna reportedly refused to perform (what a shocker!), leaving the rest of the cast to perform imitations of her. Geena Davis suggested they perform “Bohemian Rhapsody” and songs from the musical Jesus Christ Superstar, assigning Tom Hanks the role of Caiaphas.


4. Madonna wasn’t exactly a team player.

Madonna Bosoms
Columbia Pictures

To say the Material Girl was a bit of a handful during the shoot is an understatement. In addition to refusing to perform for the extras and ignoring requests for autographs, she often complained about coming into the film a star but being relegated to the background. According to costar and friend Rosie O’Donnell, Madonna brought a boombox to set the first day and warned everybody that if they broke it, they’d have to buy her another one. She also wrote a somewhat scathing letter about her experiences to a friend, calling Geena Davis a “Barbie Doll” and lamenting the lack of “beautiful men” in Chicago.


5. All of the injuries in the film were real.

Bruise League of their Own
Columbia Pictures

The real women of the All American Girls Pro Baseball League were tough, but their onscreen counterparts were equally as tenacious on the field. Penny Marshall had the actresses play a lot of real games with multiple cameras set up in order to get enough footage for montages, and they didn’t go easy on one another, jamming their shoulders, spraining fingers, and nearly breaking noses. The giant strawberry bruise Alice gets while sliding into base was a real injury actress Renee Coleman sustained during filming, and it lasted for well over a year.  Ouch.


6. Lori Petty and Rosie O’Donnell were the real most valuable players.

Rosie O'Donnell
Columbia Pictures

Though Geena Davis showed natural ability and was supposed to be the “best player in the league,” on-set coach William E. Hughes was most impressed by Lori Petty and Rosie O’Donnell. Petty could actually outrun Davis, so she was forced to slow her pace during the scene where the two race so as not to appear faster than Davis. She wound up throwing more pitches during filming than most Major League Baseball pitchers do in a full season. O’Donnell had actually played Little League baseball with her brothers growing up, so she excelled during training camp, learning how to throw two balls at once from one of the real AAGPBL players on set. O’Donnell and Petty often had hitting competitions and could hit the fences at Major League parks with little difficulty.


7. Even Tom Hanks didn’t know how long he would pee in the locker room scene.

One of the most memorable moments in A League of Their Own occurs when Jimmy Dugan introduces himself by bursting into the locker room in a drunken stupor and relieving himself in front of the rest of the Peaches while Mae times him. To keep both Hanks and the actresses on their toes, Penny Marshall stood in a stall off camera and made the noises with a hose and a bucket for maximum comedic effect. The actual length of Dugan’s epic #1 is an impressive 53 seconds!


8. Jimmy and Dottie had a romantic subplot that was cut from the film.

A League of Their Own Spit

The initial cut of the film clocked in around four hours before being cut down to its more slender two hours and eight minutes. Among the footage left on the cutting room floor were scenes depicting a growing romantic relationship between Dugan and star player Dottie. The conversation on the bus left in the final cut of the film hints at tension, but in a deleted scene the pair shared a passionate kiss late one night on the field which is what originally led to the scene with Dottie telling Lowenstein she was going home.


9. Jon Lovitz was almost upstaged by a cow.

In the scene where Lovitz’s character, baseball scout Ernie Capadino (a role specifically written for the SNL star), visits Dottie and Kit at their family dairy farm, the girls are seen milking cows. Unbeknownst to Lovitz, one of the cows off-screen was giving birth and mooing loudly, causing him to ad lib the line “WILL YOU SHUT UP?!” It was only after they finished filming that Lovitz found out a calf had been born, which the farm named Penny after director Penny Marshall.


10. Some of the cast reprised their roles on the A League of Their Own TV Show.

CBS aired a TV version of A League of Their Own for a brief period in 1993. Cast members Megan Cavanagh, Tracy Reiner and Jon Lovitz reprised their roles, with former “Bond Girl” Cary Lowell in the Dottie role and Sam McMurray channeling Hanks as Jimmy. As you can imagine, it only lasted five episodes.

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