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Tim Grierson on Director Andrea Arnold and Her Superb “Wuthering Heights”

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Breaking into Hollywood is never easy, but in the 21st century it’s still especially difficult if you’re a woman. A study produced earlier this year found that only 5% of 2011’s top 250 grossing movies were directed by women. (In case you’re wondering if that number is an anomaly, 7% of 2010’s top 250 had a female director.) There are plenty of reasons why that figure is alarming, but if you’re in need of a silver lining within that particularly gray cloud, it’s worth noting that we perhaps have more great female filmmakers right now than in any era of film history. Whether it’s a veteran like Chantal Akerman (whose “Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles” was the only movie made by a women to hit the Top 50 of the recent Sight & Sound critics poll) or vital independent voices such as Kelly Reichardt, Lynn Shelton, Lynne Ramsay, Debra Granik, Lisa Cholodenko and Nicole Holofcener, there are plenty of superb movies directed by women. (And this isn’t even mentioning Jane Campion or Kathryn Bigelow, who became the first woman to win a Best Director Oscar for “The Hurt Locker,” and whose “Zero Dark Thirty” is one of the most anticipated films of December.)

Another woman who deserves to be in this conversation is Andrea Arnold. Like several other names on the above list, she flies under the radar a bit: Her first two films combined grossed just over $500,000. Hopefully, her third (and best) feature will help raise her profile. It’s her first adaptation, but it contains all the qualities that distinguish her as one of our most exciting new filmmakers, which is an odd thing to say about someone who’s 51.

Her new movie is “Wuthering Heights,” based on the Emily Brontë novel, and it opens in New York on Friday. (It’ll be moving across the rest of the country soon after.) This is Arnold’s first period feature, but she makes the tragic love story between Heathcliff and Cathy feel bracingly contemporary.

For those unfamiliar with the book, “Wuthering Heights” tells the story of a young, penniless boy named Heathcliff (Solomon Glave) who is adopted by a kindhearted farmer (Paul Hilton) who lives in the foreboding, isolated English countryside. (Fans of the novel will note that Arnold has chosen to make Heathcliff black, a nod to modern-day interpretations of the possible racial background of this brooding, mysterious character.) Heathcliff instantly takes a shine to Cathy (Shannon Beer), the farmer’s sweet daughter, and a bond develops between them — despite the irritation of Cathy’s bigoted brother Hindley (Lee Shaw).

Even if you skipped over Brontë’s classic in school, watching “Wuthering Heights” you can sense in your bones that a happy ending seems unlikely for Heathcliff and Cathy. But the precise way in which Arnold tells her story provides so much sadness and passion to the familiar text — according to IMDb, this is the 15th version of the book made for film or television — that its romantic anguish is as bruising as the rain that pounds down on the characters.

In a sense, Arnold’s directing career has led to remaking “Wuthering Heights.” Failed love and disconnected souls have long been a hallmark of her work. After ending a career as an actress and television personality, Arnold started making short films in the late ‘90s, winning the Oscar for Best Live Action Short for 2003’s “Wasp,” which was about a beleaguered single mother who tries to get back with an old boyfriend by trying to convince the man that her four kids aren’t hers. The gritty handheld camerawork, the luckless characters, the examination of class, the refusal to go for the easy resolution: “Wasp” can be seen as an introduction to everything Arnold would explore when she turned to features.

Her first feature, “Red Road,” about a woman (Kate Dickie) who works as a surveillance camera operator, and her second, “Fish Tank,” about a teen (Katie Jarvis) who grows strangely close to her mother’s sexy boyfriend (Michael Fassbender), were unsparing portraits of life lived on the margins of society. Arnold could sometimes be faulted for indulging in a sort of “poverty porn” — letting her characters go down dark paths that feel contrived rather than organic — but her skill with emerging or first-time actors was remarkable, as was her ability to make you care for such unhappy people.

With “Wuthering Heights,” she takes her work to a new level, although she hasn’t veered dramatically from her usual milieu. Both actors who play Heathcliff — James Howson is the character as an adult — and Beer are making their screen debut, and there isn’t a false note in any of the performances. And while Arnold’s previous work has zeroed in on modern-day ills, she herself recognized the connective tissue between her previous films and Brontë’s novel. “Think about Heathcliff,” she said before filming began, “he’s an outsider, he’s a Gypsy boy. It’s a big class story. All my films have been about class, and ‘Wuthering Heights’ is more of the same.” Quite right, but never before has she made her underdog hero so monstrously empowered. Both Glave and Howson portray Heathcliff as a quiet, powerfully introspective soul whose burning desire for Cathy is immediate almost from the start. Denied his prize by fate and Hindley’s cruelty, Heathcliff may be Arnold’s most despondent protagonist, but she gives him a heroic resolve that’s new in her films. As a result, her “Wuthering Heights” is a tragedy that plays out with such fire that you’re never convinced that Heathcliff won’t end up with his beloved.

And then there’s the way Arnold has constructed her film’s strikingly atmospheric look. Working with her longtime cinematographer (Robbie Ryan), editor (Nicolas Chaudeurge) and production designer (Helen Scott), Arnold has envisioned the moors of Northern England as a perpetually damp, bleak enclave cut off from the rest of the world. The book’s gothic tone is captured on screen without music — all the better to hear the wind blow through the lonely trees — and framed in the old-fashioned, boxy 1.33 aspect ratio, which makes the characters feel even more trapped in their environment. (It also denies the viewer the widescreen pleasures of the beautiful locales. Arnold isn’t interested in making a travelogue.) As with her previous films, “Wuthering Heights” is a feast of intensely sensual and immediate encounters. “Red Road” and “Fish Tank” both featured powerfully carnal sex scenes, and although her new film doesn’t possess a similar moment, an exchange between Glave and Beer amidst the moors ripples with such awakening passion that it’s spellbinding. Few current filmmakers translate their characters’ desires into screen language as potently as Arnold does, and the longing in “Wuthering Heights” is so viscerally visual that it’s a small marvel.

Without any major stars, this “Wuthering Heights” won’t catapult Arnold into the realm of commercial blockbuster filmmakers, although with any luck it’ll be one of the year’s top 250 grossers. But although one wouldn’t want to dismiss the importance of box office to help make a director’s life easier when it comes to financing his or her next project, works like Arnold’s should remind us that grosses matter much less than artistry. Like many of Arnold’s female contemporaries, vision and talent are commodities she has in abundance. If audiences aren’t interested in noticing, it’s their loss, not hers.

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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.

Tim Grierson on the Inspiring AIDS Documentary “How to Survive a Plague”

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Recently, the media marked the one-year anniversary of Occupy Wall Street, the nascent political movement started to protest corporate influence on government. Of course, this country has had a long history of activism, whether it’s the women’s suffrage movement that began in the 19th century, the civil rights struggle of the 1950s and ’60s, or the rise of the Tea Party in 2009, and it’s a sign of a strong democracy that its citizens continually feel empowered to let their voices be heard.

Probably the most meaningful activist cause of the last 30 years — one that’s still ongoing — is the fight for equal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. That cause has suffered setbacks along the way, but as a moving new documentary, “How to Survive a Plague,” demonstrates, there has also been significant progress, most notably in the fight to curb the spread of AIDS in the gay community in the 1980s and ‘90s. The film opened in select cities over the weekend and will be arriving on VOD platforms starting on Friday. It’s a stirring reminder that activism can sometimes be a messy, difficult process but a necessary one in order to bring about change.

“How to Survive a Plague” is directed by David France, a journalist who has been writing about AIDS for 30 years, and the documentary tells the story of ACT UP, a New York group that was committed to raising awareness of the disease and advocating for extensive government research into finding a cure. One of the organization’s biggest hurdles at the time was a public perception that AIDS was a gay illness, and consequently there was reluctance among some to help people whose lifestyle they found immoral. This meant that ACT UP had to fight bigotry as much as they were fighting a disease.

Of the film’s many laudable qualities, “How to Survive a Plague” takes us back to the roughly 10-year period that began with ACT UP’s formation in 1987, providing us with a wealth of archival footage from the organization’s meetings and public protests. As a result, “How to Survive a Plague” feels less like a historical document — although it’s certainly a valuable one — than it does an urgent battle plan that’s unfolding as we watch. Even if you already know how instrumental ACT UP’s actions were in convincing government, scientists, and drug makers to speed up their work, “How to Survive a Plague” is undeniably tense and electric. By relying largely on the old footage shot by ACT UP members, the documentary serves as a year-by-year chronicle of the incremental progress made by the group in all its messy unpredictability.

That messiness is important because it shows that democracy doesn’t often flow smoothly, requiring activists to try all different tactics to achieve their goals. In “How to Survive a Plague,” we see ACT UP’s key figures — including charismatic spokesman Peter Staley and fiery PR pro Bob Rafsky — incorporate everything from sit-ins (which they called “kiss-ins”) to theatrical, highly orchestrated protests (such as dumping the ashes of loved ones on the White House lawn) to meeting with influential congressmen, moving on to new publicity strategies when old ones start to lose their potency. At the same time, the film shows how activist groups evolve over time, moving out of their idealistic early period and learning how to reconcile changing (sometimes competing) agendas within their membership. While “How to Survive a Plague” celebrates the perseverance of ACT UP, the documentary doesn’t shy away from acknowledging the group’s internal divisions after years of frustration. (Indeed, such a moment of frisson at an ACT UP meeting from the early ’90s leads to one of the film’s most cathartically beautiful scenes.)

When we think about renowned activists like Martin Luther King, Jr. who devoted their lives to changing the world, the word we often use to describe them is “courageous.” And while courage is certainly an important ingredient in challenging society’s preconceptions and biases, the men and women shown in “How to Survive a Plague” relied on anger and desperation as much as bravery. Typical Hollywood feature films would depict these people as tireless heroes, but as we see in the archival footage, they were actually quite human — articulate and smart and impassioned, but also enraged and scared about a disease that was killing their community while too much of the rest of the world looked the other way. That anger permeates “How to Survive a Plague,” which unapologetically presents ACT UP’s more combative protests and showy publicity stunts, including a confrontation with Bill Clinton while he was on the stump during the 1992 Democratic primaries. There will be those, myself included, who might become annoyed during parts of this film because it seems that ACT UP’s actions are childish or unproductive, but France makes a convincing argument that the net value of the group’s activities was resoundingly productive, kicking and screaming to bring exposure to AIDS. If nothing else, the film reminds the rest of us from the comfort of our safe remove that few things get done in a democracy by the mild and the polite.

Because it focuses on archival footage that’s supplemented by a smattering of present-day interviews, “How to Survive a Plague” is more a portrait of a cause than an in-depth examination of those involved, although we do learn enough about these individuals to deeply admire them. For an even more up-close-and-personal snapshot of how AIDS decimated communities, you should seek out last year’s “We Were Here,” a superb documentary that chronicles how San Francisco’s gay population combated the disease in the 1980s. In a sense, they’re companion pieces, offering a personal and political perspective on a scourge that claimed far too many lives. But as “How to Survive a Plague” demonstrates, though the terror of AIDS has subsided, it’s a disease that still persists. Meanwhile, the LGBT movement has made major inroads in convincing the rest of society to treat its community with the same respect and rights that all other groups receive. But that fight is not yet completed. When I was a kid learning about the civil rights movement, I wondered what it would be like to be alive during such a pivotal moment in American history. Only in my adult life have I realized that another such movement has been with us for quite some time. With its rage and tears, “How to Survive a Plague” has delivered an eloquent document of history as it happened — history that has yet to write its final chapter.

Season 6 Episode 2: Going Grey

Portlandia Free-View

Watch a Free Episode of Portlandia Right Now Before the Season Six Premiere

Watch a free full episode of Portlandia right now before the season premiere on January 21st at 10/9c.

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Grab your organic cacao and send Fred and Carrie emojis to all your friends, because Portlandia is coming back January 21st at 10/9c on IFC for its sixth season. But you don’t have to wait to watch a full episode from the new season for free.

Click here to watch a free full pre-premiere episode and find out what Fred is doing in that astronaut get-up. You can also watch the pre-premiere episode of Portlandia — plus lots of other great stuff like full episodes of Todd Margaret, Comedy Bang! Bang!, and more — right now on the IFC App.

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