Friday, February 29, 2008


Following up on his earlier review of Ossos, and anticipating Still Lives: The Films of Pedro Costa—a traveling retrospective organized by Lisbon's Ricardo Matos Cabo and launched at Toronto's Cinematheque Ontario—Girish Shambu compiled an incredibly resourceful "one-stop" entry on the critical response to Costa's ouevre to date. The retrospective—meant to be "both primer and corrective, introduction and redress" (James Quandt, Artforum)—has since traveled on to the Vancouver International Film Center, Manhattan's Anthology Film Archives, the REDCAT in Los Angeles, the Harvard Film Archive, the Cleveland Museum of Art, Chicago's Gene Siskel Film Center, Seattle's Northwest Film Forum, Rochester's George Eastman House, the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio, and will finally arrive tomorrow evening at Berkeley, California's Pacific Film Archive for a run from March 1 through April 12, 2008, beginning with Costa's "magisterial" Colossal Youth (Doug Cummings, Film Journey). As Pedro Costa will be in residency for the bulk of this retrospective, I consider this one of the main cinematic events of the season and follow Girish's lead with a "next stop" aggregate of criticism written to prepare Bay Area cineastes for the Costa retrospective at Pacific Film Archive. Unquestionably, as they say, mileage varies.

Although Girish had picked up Daniel Kasman's review of Colossal Youth, Kasman went on to log notes on the entire series when it hit Manhattan. Dennis Lim likewise previewed the series for The New York Times while Manohla Dargis focused in on Colossal Youth. The same one-two punch was delivered at the Village Voice, where Ed Halter previewed the series and his cohort Nathan Lee wrote up Colossal Youth. Scott Foundas previewed the series for L.A. Weekly when it played REDCAT, as did Peter Keough for the Harvard Film Archive. After watching the series at the Gene Siskel Film Center, Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote up his thoughts for The Chicago Reader.

Film-specific reviews have been more plentiful. Along with the clutch of Acquarello write-ups for Strictly Film School previously noted by Girish, Acquarello likewise reviewed Colossal Youth. Though nominated for the Golden Palm at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival, the film's critical response at that festival was near to hostile, as profiled by Dave Hudson at The Greencine Daily. Perhaps there's something to be said for seeing a film in proper context, which this retrospective admittedly redresses? Colossal Youth, along with the other films in the series, certainly seems to be picking up adherents as they travel across the U.S. Appreciative—if not wholly favorable—reviews have come in from (as noted) Acquarello, Scott Foundas, Neil Young, Kevin B. Lee, and Fernando Croce to name a few. With the films shown as a whole, and with Costa present to provide keys to doors previously perceived as shut, I'm hoping the series will advance my own understanding and appreciation.

03/05/08 UPDATE: Critical response to the PFA Costa retrospective has been swift and articulate, beginning with Rob Davis at Errata who has probably made Darren Hughes cry by observing five camera pans in Colossal Youth. "These pans are multiplying like loaves and fishes," Rob writes. How could he and Darren not have noticed them before? "I'm not sure if it's the film's somnolence, its rapturous compositions, its multiple axes—time, space, character, repetition, historical context, rhythm of cuts, near-narrative, fiction/non-fiction divide, trilogy completion, any one of which could be overlooked momentarily as the mind pursues a thread, limited by that old rule-of-psycho-thumb about the human brain's ability to keep only 5 or 6 items aloft simultaneously—but, whatever the reason, Colossal Youth, like most great films, releases its mysteries slowly even though it hides them in plain sight."

Meanwhile at The House Next Door, Ryland Walker Knight has relieved me of reportage duties by writing up evenings one and two at Still Lives.

Just today The San Francisco Bay Guardian scored a coup, inviting Mark Peranson to tease out even further insights from his already considerable knowledge of and familiarity with Costa's work. J. Hoberman's description of Costa as a "Straubian neorealist," is misleading, Peranson opines. "[I]f anything, his films, with their rejection of rational structures, are more neosurrealist. Rather, the progression in Costa's cinema has been to give voice to his subjects and to treat them as worthy of existing as fictional characters (Bones, 1997); then, to delve further into their world, their personalities, and their ways of living (In Vanda's Room, 2000); and most recently, with great success, to combine the two approaches (Colossal Youth, 2006)." Peranson describes Costa as a "Brechtian modernist"; but, more importantly, heralds his (almost provocative) humanism.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

CINEQUEST08—Around the Bay

I'm going to date myself. Back when I was a kid there was a popular TV commercial for homemade pizza. It mimicked the Listerine commercials of the period by starting out with a full frontal shot of a woman saying, "You have bad pizza, BAD pizza!" Then the camera pulled back to reveal two matrons sitting on a sofa. The one, critical of her friend's homemade pizza, reaches into her purse and pulls out a large box of some brand of homemade pizza which I can't remember the name of, even as I clearly remember the spoof.

To confirm how brain-damaged I am by childhood television, this is the first thing I thought of when I met Alejandro Adams at a YBCA screening of Carlos Reygadas' Silent Light and he mentioned to me that he was a filmmaker who had just completed his film Around the Bay and might I be interested in taking a look at it? I was just about to offer my mailing address when he quickly turned to his satchel with an "I just happen to have…."

You have to admire Alejandro Adams for knowing how to promote himself and his own work. Young DIY filmmakers should take note. Alejandro's film Around the Bay hasn't even had its world premiere at Cinequest yet and it's already been reviewed by the likes of Phillip Lopate (who describes the film as "a chamber drama in the sunshine"); Nick Rombes of Digital Poetics (who praises the film's stylistic "interplay of diegetic and non-diegetic sound" that serves "to deepen the mood and capture the fragmented relationships"); and Hell on Frisco Bay's Brian Darr (who takes note of the film's "delightful interplay between narrative clarity and ambiguity. It makes for very challenging, almost confrontational, viewing").

Gearing up for its Cinequest premiere, Around the Bay has generated further interest from local press, including a half-hour radio interview with Robert Emmett of KFJC and an in-depth discussion of Around the Bay by Cinema Scene critics Morton Marcus and Richard von Busack followed by an interview and further discussion. Von Busack has likewise reviewed the film for Metroactive, as has Lincoln Spector for Bayflicks and Sara Schieron for Rotten Tomatoes. And I'm aware that Alejandro has taped a segment for SF360 to be broadcast in the near future, as well as an interview with aforementioned Brian Darr.

There's hardly need for me to say anything more. Alejandro has covered his local bases quite consummately. And yet, I can't resist adding praise for Around the Bay, which is quite evocative and lovely. The way Alejandro has blended visual compression with sound design is thoroughly enthralling and technically masterful. There are moments of such spare beauty in this film that they register in the body like pebbles dropping into the deep waters of grief. Is there anything sadder than the fragmentation of the family? In plumbing its psychological depths, Around the Bay reaches the mythopoetic and reminds of the barren kingdoms where wounded monarchs can no longer feel and where a single tear—if it could be achieved—would restore the water of life. Steve Voldseth excels in his sympathetic portrayal of an unsympathetic character: a father who does not know how to communicate, let alone love, his children. As Darren Hughes at Long Pauses has commented, Katherine Celio is fully charismatic; you can't stop watching her. And Connor Maselli delivers one of the most nuanced and natural child performances in recent memory.

In an impressionistic narrative of assembled visual episodes Alejandro Adams articulates the dysfunction of a fractured family with eloquent precision and exact focus. The effect is polished and lapidary, but not without warmth and hope.

Around the Bay will be screening at Cinequest come Saturday evening, March 1, 7:45PM at the San Jose Repertory Theatre, followed by encore screenings on Tuesday, March 4, 4:15PM at Camera 12, and finally on Saturday, March 8, 7:45PM, again at the San Jose Repertory Theatre.

Cross-published on Twitch.

03/03/08 UPDATE: Brian Darr interviews Alejandro Adams for Hell On Frisco Bay.

03/10/08 UPDATE: More press for Around the Bay. Richard von Busack, who unabashedly has emerged as the film's main champion, follows up his review and TV spot with a print interview published in Metroactive. Equally significant, is Charlie Olsky's writeup for indieWIRE.

CINEQUEST08—La Antena / The Aerial (2007)

Argentine director Esteban Sapir's sophomore feature La Antena (The Aerial, 2007) is densely marbled with cinematic citation, juggling freely the silent film conventions gleefully mined by Guy Maddin, with clear tips of the hat to Georges Méliès' La Lune à un mètre (Man in the Moon, 1898) and Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927), and more veiled references to Alex Proyas's Dark City (1998), Higuchinsky's spiraling nightmare Uzumaki (2000), and the numerically confused plot contrivances of Pen-Ek Ratanaruang's 6ixtynin9 (1999). Its kinetic and innovative use of intertitles reminds of Timur Bekmambetov's Nochnoy dozor (Nightwatch, 2004) and its criticism of consumerist society and television brainwashing harbors a cautionary touch of John Carpenter's They Live (1988).

Which is not to say La Antena is derivative. It achieves a singularly unique and vibrant synergy through its rampant citations in what Hollywood Reporter's Gregory Valens describes as "a poetic attempt to recreate a world through the sole power of images" and what Gary Miraz at Cinema Without Borders calls "an amazing spectacle of sight and sound." I had as much fun recognizing and identifying these images as enjoying how Sapir has layered them together. Further fueled by an exhilarating tango score by Juan Aguirre and Federico Rotstein, La Antena should be one of the top ticket rides at the Cinequest carnival. It would certainly be a wonder to see on the big screen. Admittedly, I've only seen it on screener.

As Twitch teammate Royalstin synopsized earlier, La Antena shapes its narrative as a fairy tale, placing us in an indeterminate future in a wintry city whose inhabitants have all lost their voice due to the evil machinations of Mr. TV and his mobster henchmen. Having eliminated all competition, Mr. TV has enthralled the populace with his spiraling transmissions, which lull them into buying his TV products, manufactured from their stolen voices. Not content with that, Mr. TV seeks to expand his production line by likewise stealing what is left to them: their words.

The best synopsis and analysis of the film is at Nick's Flick Picks where Nick qualifies that La Antena's "jaunty errand into silent-era surrealism and anti-corporate allegory … should, by all rights, be too obvious in its points and too crammed with fancies to generate the level of charm and light-touch magic that it does." Balancing his enthusiasm for the film with well-argued reservations, Nick concludes: "Sapir also indulges in some appropriations of several sign systems—Communist, Nazi, Judaic, marital, domestic—that he cheekily but indubitably simplifies in pursuit of his homiletic agendas. But all of that said, The Aerial is patently an exercise in formal and stylistic brio, and in breathing witty, creative life into hard-leftist axioms."

La Antena has the added distinction of being the first Argentine film in 36 years chosen for the official competition and opening of last year's Rotterdam Film Festival. Admittedly not a box office success, La Antena will hopefully find a cult following for those who like to think their way through entertainment.

La Antena will be screening thrice at San Jose's Cinequest; first on Saturday, March 1, 9:30PM in the California Theatre; next on Monday, March 3, 5:00PM, and Saturday, March 8, 11:30PM at the Camera 12.

Cross-published on

Saturday, February 23, 2008

DIE FÄLSCHER / THE COUNTERFEITERS—The Greencine Interview With Stefan Ruzowitzky

As Dave Hudson has prefaced to my Greencine interview with Stefan Ruzowitzky, the director/screenwriter of The Counterfeiters (nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Foreign Language Film category), the film is based on true events: "the Nazis planned to destabilize the American and British economies by flooding the markets with fake dollars and pounds. And they enlisted prisoners in concentration camps to counterfeit the bills. This presents a dark dilemma to the prisoners: cooperate and survive—or sabotage the project and possibly pay with their lives."

I first reviewed this Mephistophelian dilemma at the Toronto International, skeptical that audiences would digest this bitter fare; but, I've been proven wrong. Dave Hudson has gathered the most recent reviews upon the film's theatrical release, most of which are thoughtfully argued.

Cross-published on Twitch.

SXSW08—Dreams With Sharp Teeth

Filmbud Alan Rode sent me this hilarious and spot-on rant by Harlan Ellison, subject of Erik Nelson's documentary portrait Dreams With Sharp Teeth, which is having its World Premiere at this year's SXSW. Dreams With Sharp Teeth profiles acclaimed author Harlan Ellison, as he looks back on his fabled and influential career as one of the world's top genre writers for television and print.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

SFIAAFF08—Pen choo kab pee (The Unseeable)

Effectively (intentionally?) playing the scares for laughs and eschewing the oversaturated confectionary palette of his two previous films—Tears of the Black Tiger and Citizen Dog—Thai director Wisit Sasanatieng's third feature The Unseeable maintains a menacing enough atmosphere, primarily through a fantastic haunted country house and its surrounding compound, the shift to a shadowy grey-green palette, and a cascading "wait there's more!" finale. It seems that every available ghost story trope has been enfolded into the script, written this time not by Sasanatieng himself but by Kongkait Komesiri (Art of the Devil 2).

What redeems what you see coming a mile away in The Unseeable (a title which is only partially apt) is its stylistic inflection through regional Thai folklore. In this, it is a commendable example of what Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien proposed in his 2002 Rouge seminar, which I've quoted before—in conjunction with (in fact) another Thai horror film The Ghost of Mae Nak—but, it bears repeating since Thai filmmakers seem to be paying skillful attention. The crucial element of the success of a horror genre piece like The Unseeable "lies in the use of local elements. The films," Hsiao-hsien argues, "are firmly rooted in local culture." This is confirmed in The Unseeable's attributed inspiration of famed Thai art master, Hem Vejakorn, whose published drawings capture the diversity of Thai culture. The film's lighting design especially was based on Master Hem's style, faithfully bridging canvas and film.

The Twitch team has been all over this one since inception. Todd Brown offered a series of teasing glimpses via a first and second trailer, production stills and posters in early October 2006. Stefan followed through with his own review in February 2007 and Todd announced the DVD release in April 2007.

My favorite character in The Unseeable is the haunted house, which reflects a blend between the popularity of the French Art Nouveau (i.e., the upper class) with the more traditional rural stilt houses of the countryside (i.e., the peasant class); a collision of architectural styles that exemplified the late 1920s-early '30s. The house, in worn disrepair surrounded by overgrown gardens, was found in Pakchong, Nakornratchasima and provides the atmospheric mise en scène for The Unseeable's unsettling weave of class conflict between Nualjan (Siraphan Wattanajinda)—a young pregnant girl from the country searching for her missing husband—and Ranjuan (Supornthip Choungrangsee), the exotically beautiful madam of the compound whose erotic moans at night underscore her mysterious allure. Tassawan Seneewongse does a camp turn as the Thai version of Rebecca's tortured Mrs. Danvers, up to her neck in ghostly goings-on, and Visa Konska as the talkative and superstitious boarder Choy chews up not only the scenery. And I may be mistaken but I believe that's Citizen Dog's Grandma Gekko clinging this time not to the overhead light but to the windowsill. Will someone please give her back her baby?

Final analysis? Not great, but a fun reminder of the greatness to come (hopefully) from the sensuous imagination of Wisit Sasanatieng.

Cross-published on Twitch.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

LA CORONA—A Few Questions for Amanda Micheli

Let it be known that I listen to my filmbuds. If Brian Darr—dispatching to The Greencine Daily from the Sundance Film Festival—says a documentary short is a "doozy", my antennae quiver. "Doozy" is not a word you hear levied about every day with regard to documentary shorts; but, La Corona—co-directed by Isabel Vega and Amanda Micheli—deserves that accolade, among many others.

As Brian explains: "Here's the only film I know where you'll see a would-be beauty queen with a disturbing gang tattoo at the base of her thumb. Or one who gives her lesbian lover a smooch just before being paroled."

So thanks to Brian's recommendation, and the generosity of the DOC Film Institute's free screenings of the Oscar-nominated documentaries and documentary shorts at the comfortably refurbished Sundance Kabuki, I've had the chance to watch this doozy of a documentary short. Not only an Academy Award nominee for Best Documentary Short, La Corona won an Honorable Mention in Short Filmmaking at last month's Sundance. It chronicles a beauty pageant held as part of the celebration of Saint Mercedes in the largest women's penitentiary in Bogota, Colombia. I had the opportunity to ask a question of Amanda Micheli (Double Dare) and to supplement it with a couple of follow-up questions from her Sundance Kabuki audience; this exchange is not for the spoiler-wary.

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Michael Guillén: Thank you for accompanying your film. La Corona has made me reconsider the value of beauty pageants in general; but, what is the value of this particular pageant for you in having filmed it?

Amanda Micheli: It's hard because I'm definitely a feminist. I've never been a fan of beauty pageants either and—especially in American culture—it's such an extreme sideshow to our reality. I've never known anyone who's been in a beauty pageant. I came in with my own preconceived ideas—which is important to try not to do as a filmmaker—but, I definitely saw that [for] these girls this was something to put their minds to and to apply themselves to. They have found their own identity and purpose in this. Now, I would love it if they could find other things to apply themselves to and actually learn skills and get trained so that they can go out into the world and have lives outside of a prison; but, this is the best they've got. So it's kind of hard to knock it when you see people really getting roused up for something and putting their minds to a task. It's complicated. That's one of the things I like about this topic and this film; it's just full of ironies. I don't really like films that are like: "Yay! This is good for women! Or, this is bad for women!" Life is frickin' complicated, y'know? These girls come from really tough backgrounds and they're in prison and this is something that gives them a sense of worth. Is this what I would choose for them? Probably not. But that's life.

Guillén: Have you followed up with Angela and what's happened with her since she won the pageant and was released from prison?

Micheli: That's the bad news. Angela was killed within a year of being released. It's actually weird because I got emotional watching [La Corona tonight]. It's hard to get emotional when you're working on a film and running around; but, tonight it actually struck me more than it has because I'm calmer than I've been. It happened after we were done with the film. No one knows exactly what happened. She got wrapped up with the wrong crowd and some guy shot her in the back of her head. So Angela's dead, [which] really hit home for us how hard it is for [these women] on the outside and how we really captured this brief moment of respite and joy for them.

Guillén: Will the film's ending be amended to reference Angela's death?

Micheli: Hopefully we will be able to add that to the film at some point, although there has been some debate about whether or not it's necessary. It feels a little too quick. I, personally, think it would be important to put it on there; but, the Academy rules forbid it. They don't allow you to change your film once it's been nominated.

My heartfelt thanks to Amanda Micheli and photographer Petr Stepanek for the images of Angela. My best wishes to her and her team in winning the Oscar! She's got my vote! Cross-published on Twitch.

Monday, February 18, 2008

SFIAAFF08—Michael Hawley Anticipates the Lineup

With his thorough insight, Evening Class contributing writer Michael Hawley reviews the lineup for this year's San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival ("SFIAAFF"). Along with Brian Darr's own anticipations over at Hell on Frisco Bay, local audiences should be primed for choice.

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For its 26th edition, SFIAAFF considered eliminating the "International" part of its unwieldy name—that is, until it became clear that this year's festival would be more "international" in scope than ever. At the press conference announcing the line-up, Festival Director Chi-hui Yang and Assistant Director Taro Goto stressed the current interconnectivity between Asian and Asian-American film communities. More Asian-American actors are seeking recognition outside the U.S. (such as Bay Area native/current Hong Kong superstar Daniel Wu), and more Asian-American independent films are securing financing from outside the U.S. (such as the South Korean-financed Never Forever). So for now, the full SFIAAFF acronym remains intact (and is now officially being pronounced "sfee-aahf" by festival staff). Here's a quick look at some of the programs that have me quite excited about this year's event, which takes place throughout the Bay Area from March 13 to 23.

The International Showcase has always been my favorite part of the festival, and it appears this year will be no exception. Of the 15 films selected for that section, nine are by directors whose work has been shown at previous SFIAAFFs. Perched at the top of my list is Hou Hsiao-hsien's Paris-set, Juliette Binoche-starring Flight of the Red Balloon, followed in short order by A Gentle Breeze in the Village (Nobuhiro Yamashita's follow-up to the ebullient Linda, Linda, Linda), Desert Dream (the latest from Grain in Ear director Zhang Lu) and The Unseeable (a ghost story from Wisit Sasanatieng, the visionary Thai director who gave us Tears of the Black Tiger and Citizen Dog).

Every year the festival screens a recent Bollywood movie at the Castro, and this year's selection is Om Shanti Om, a spoof/valentine to the Hindi extravaganzas of the 1970s, starring international demigod Shahrukh Khan. According to Taro Goto, the festival received numerous complaints when they dared to show Bollywood films that did not star Mr. Khan in 2006 and 2007, and have therefore rectified that grievous misstep. Another musical film in this year's International Showcase is Royston Tan's 881. SFIAAFF introduced Tan's work to Bay Area audiences in 2003 with his stunning short 15, and screened the feature-length version of that film a year later. (For whatever reason, the festival passed on Tan's 2006 film, 4:30). 881 is a vibrant, campy tribute to the world of Getai, and was Singapore's Oscar submission for 2007. I caught the film at Palm Springs and will write more about it in a forthcoming SFIAAFF08 preview.

There are several other International Showcase films I'm anticipating as well. I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK is Korean director Park Chan-wook's first feature since the completion of his "revenge trilogy" that included Old Boy, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance. The film has garnered very mixed reviews since its Berlin 2007 debut, but I'm grateful SFIAFF is giving me the opportunity to judge for myself. Buddha Collapsed Out of Shame looks at the lives of children living in Bamian, Afghanistan (where the Taliban blew up the giant Buddha statues in 2001), and is the directorial debut of Hana Makhmalbaf, the newest member of the prolific Iranian Makhmalbaf filmmaking dynasty. The film was written by mother Marzieh (a director in her own right) and produced by brother Maysam, but sister Samira and father Moshen (both directors) were apparently too busy with their own projects to get into the act. I'm also curious about Blood Brothers (a Daniel Wu-starring gangster flick set in 1930s Shanghai), Three Days to Forever (by Indonesian director Riri Riza, whose Eliana, Eliana was one of the highlights of SFIAAFF03), and a pair of Filipino features, Slingshot and Foster Child (both set in the slums of Manila and directed by Brillante Mendoza).

Looking closer to home, there are nine U.S. and Canadian features that will be contending for the festival's Narrative Competition prize this year (Amyn Kaderali's Kissing Cousins was a late entry and won't be found in the festival mini-guide or catalog). Highlights in this section include Ping Pong Playa, the feature directorial debut of Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Jessica Yu (Breathing Lessons, In the Realms of the Unreal, Protagonist), Gina Kim's Never Forever, which stars Vera Farmiga as a woman who takes a bold path to motherhood when it's discovered that her Korean-American husband is sterile, and Richard Wong's Option 3, a San Francisco-set thriller from the director of Colma: The Musical.

Speaking of which, Colma: The Musical gets the sing-along treatment in one of this year's Special Presentations. SFIAAFF hosted the world premiere of this local little-musical-that-could back in 2006. Buoyed by a rave review in the New York Times, the film went on to have a notable U.S. theatrical release, and this sing-along presentation is a way of celebrating that success. Another Special Presentation that should prove immensely popular is a sneak peak of Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay, which doesn't open in theaters until April 25. (Please note there's been a change in time and venue for this film since the mini-guide and catalog went to press). Harold & Kumar lead John Cho also stars in the festival's Centerpiece Presentation, West 32nd. Directed by Michael Kang (who won the festival's Narrative Competition in 2005 for The Motel), this is a contemporary film noir about a lawyer who becomes embroiled in the gangster underworld of New York City's Koreatown.

One of the films I'm most looking forward to is this year's Out of the Vaults screening of Denmei Suzuki's Whispering Sidewalks. This 1936 Japanese jazz musical stars Sacramento native Betty Inada as an American singer who comes to tour Japan. The film was recently restored and given English subtitles, in a collaboration between the National Film Center of Tokyo and our own Pacific Film Archive. Preceding the film, PFA curator Mona Nagai will speak on the film's preservation, and historian George Yoshida will give a presentation on Betty Inada (whose musical numbers in the film are said to include "Blue Moon" and "La Cucaracha").

The life and career of Anna May Wong (who starred in last year's Out of the Vaults presentation of Pavement Butterfly and received a SFIAAFF tribute in 2004) is the subject of Anna May Wong: Frosted Yellow Willows, one of a dozen feature documentaries being shown in the festival's Documentary Competition and Documentary Showcase sections. The film is being paired with Long Story Short, in which director Christine Choy (Who Killed Vincent Chin?) and actress Jodi Long tell the story of Long's parents, '40s and '50s nightclub act, The Leungs. There are also three documentaries which examine aspects of Japan's role in WWII and its aftermath: Anthony Gilmore's Behind Forgotten Eyes, which looks at the "comfort women" forced to serve Japanese soldiers as prostitutes, Wings of Defeat, Risa Morimoto's film about kamikaze pilots, and Li Yang's Yasukuni, which examines the controversial shrine honoring Japan's war dead and consequently, the country's militaristic past. Other documentaries in this year's festival focus on such far-ranging subjects as fortune cookies (The Killing of a Chinese Cookie), the 2004 tsunami (Serambi), Cambodian prostitutes (Paper Can Not Wrap Up Embers) and breakdancing (Planet B-Boy).

This year's opening night film is Wayne Wang's A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, which represents the director's return to Asian American storytelling after an eclectic 15 years spent directing everything from Hollywood star vehicles (Maid in Manhattan, Last Holiday, Anywhere But Here) to a wide assortment of American indies (Smoke, Blue in the Face, The Center of the World). The festival will also honor Wang with a Spotlight Series that will include screenings of 1993's The Joy Luck Club, 1989's brash and erratic Life is Cheap…but Toilet Paper is Expensive, and 2007's The Princess of Nebraska, which was originally conceived as a companion piece to A Thousand Years of Good Prayers. An Afternoon with Wayne Wang will find the director hosting a selection of clips and being interviewed onstage by New York Times/ex-Village Voice film critic Dennis Lim.

Rounding out this year's festival is a Tribute to Edward Yang and nine Shorts Programs. Acclaimed Taiwanese director Yang died last year at the age of 59, and the festival is screening three of his works—1986's The Terrorizer, his 1991 masterpiece A Brighter Summer Day (the original four-hour version) and the film for which he is probably best known, YiYi: A One and a Two, which earned Yang a Best Director prize at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival. Finally, this year's Closing Night film is Tony Ayres' The Home Song Stories, which was Australia's submission for the 2007 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar and stars Bay Area favorite Joan Chen.

Sunday, February 17, 2008


Stuck is a thrillingly outrageous howler. Its IndieFest audience was yelling at the screen even as they were laughing and shouting, "Bravo!" This under-the-radar thriller came highly recommended by David D'Arcy when we swapped tips at the Toronto International. D'Arcy wrote it up for The Greencine Daily as "a dark tale of an accident gone awry—if that's not a conceptual oxymoron." Twitch teammate Andrew Mack likewise praised how director, Stuart Gordon, took a "horrible story of inhumanity" and "turned it into an excruciatingly funny and dark film that surprises as much as it shocks." Mack concluded: "Car crashes should never be this entertaining but thank god this one was."

Blake Etheridge prefaced his Twitch interview with Gordon, scriptwriter John Strysik, and actress Mena Suvari with a detailed synopsis of the real-life atrocity on which Strysik based the film's script.

Variety's Joe Leydon likewise caught Stuck at Toronto's Midnight Madness and described it as "ingeniously nasty and often shockingly funny as it incrementally worsens a very bad situation, then provides a potent payoff with the forced feeding of just desserts." He characterized the film's violence as "more unsettling and most hilarious" precisely for being emotional, not physical, as Suvari's character Brandi "gradually reveals the full measure of her sociopathic selfishness." That reveal is an "excellent counterpoint" to Stephen Rea's "pitch perfect performance" as he gradually recognizes and faces the dark force of her selfish inhumanity. As Leydon writes, Rea's performance as Tom suggests "the best hope for a loser is to be placed in a situation where you have absolutely nothing left to lose." Being placed in that situation is exactly the horror in this piece where the monster, as Film Experience identifies, is "towering self-involvement."

The perfectly-pitched performances of the film's ensemble coupled with Gordon's astute choices of where to accent the inhumanity with humor secures Stuck's winning affront. It's a sleazy little gem with a B-flick kick. Mena Suvari—who boldly forsakes the rose petals of American Beauty for the sharpest of thorns while "donning cornrows for a certain white-trash edge" (Scott Tobias, The A.V. Club)—comes off as vulnerable, confused and frightened as this crisis begins and only gradually shatters the audience's trust as she reveals herself as a ruthless creature of self-interest.

Russell Hornsby, as her strutting dealer boyfriend Rashid, delivers a comic turn channeling—as Mack wryly observes—"the cowardly lion from The Wizard of Oz."

Stephen Rea is the woeful everyman in Gordon's cautionary tale of choice. Down on his luck, skirting the gravitational pull of homelessness, he is repeatedly offered dead-end options in the guise of choice. Throughout the film and within the subsidiary performances, each individual has the moment of choice when they can be humane or not—whether the landlord ransoming belongings for rent, the social service worker using a malfunctioning computer as an exclusionary fence, the policeman patrolling "public" space, Latino neighbors unwilling to help or become involved for fear of deportation, or Brandi and Rashid gripping a victim's life in their inept hands—Gordon etches the horror of the wrong choice or—as David D'arcy wraps it—"There are always plenty of reasons for doing the wrong thing, and the wrong thing drives this movie." But not only. Gordon balances his caution with the compassionate generosity of a homeless stranger and a small child offering his hand at film's end. This is a horrific film to watch; but, not necessarily a bleak one and that's the film's redeeming strength. As much as it details man's inhumanity to man, it reminds of the capacity to do the right thing.

If you missed its scheduled screenings, IndieFest has added one more at the Roxie Film Center on Thursday, February 21, 9:30PM and you would be woefully remiss to not catch it.

Cross-published at Twitch.

SXSW08—Medicine for Melancholy

The first thing you notice right off in Barry Jenkins' debut feature Medicine for Melancholy is its color palette, skillfully enunciated by cinematographer James Laxton. The film—part of the Emerging Visions lineup at this year's SXSW—looks like it was shot in black and white and tinted by hand. Whether or not Jenkins and Laxton intended this to parallel how the color can be taken out of a person of color through the compromise of assimilation and the coercion of gentrification is anyone's guess; but, that's how I read it. Once you've adjusted your eyes to the bright, leaching light, you're introduced to two Black characters—Micah (Wyatt Cenac) and Jo (Tracey Heggins)—who straightaway thwart preconceptions of how young urban African-Americans are supposed to both look and act. "Supposed to" is the qualifying determinant here in this desultory study of the desire for and the desire through identity.

The film borrows its title from Ray Bradbury's novel and its modus operandi from a Bradbury quote: "Find out what your hero or heroine wants, and when he or she wakes up in the morning—just follow him or her all day." Monitoring what two young Black people do on a Sunday afternoon/evening in San Francisco, California after a drunken one-night stand the night before is exactly the film's narrative trajectory. What you find is what Micah and Jo do on a Sunday afternoon as they warily approach a melancholy malaise within themselves not fully recognized nor articulated.

What remains to be understood is precisely the selfsame challenge posed to the film's audience. Whether the film's meandering mode will engage audiences enough to pay attention to the subtle thematic traction underscoring its casual demeanor is the crucial pivot; but, whether it succeeds or fails, I must commend those themes and hope audiences will take the time to feel them out and to think them through.

What is a "Black" person? What do they look like? What do they act like? What kind of music do you associate with them? What part of the city do they live in? What are your presumptions about them? What are your expectations? And why—if you are not Black—should it matter to you? Is it perhaps as Robert F. Reid-Pharr has written in his assessment of Cheryl Dunye's The Watermelon Woman that a predetermined conception of Blacks "has come to lend a certain type of ontological stability to all American identities"? And if two African-American characters are introduced who do not match stereotypes does it induce a kind of vertigo? If say, both are civilized young people compromised by a sense of social displacement, do the forces that create that social displacement appear less than civilized?

It's a good question, especially situated in San Francisco, where Jenkins has thoughtfully overlaid demographic pie charts on the spokes of bicycle wheels. He informs that urban African American populations in Atlanta total 59%; in Chicago 37%; in New York 28%; and in San Francisco a shrinking 7%. What is a young urban African American to do when they find themselves in a sea of white identities purposely forcing them out of a beautiful city like San Francisco? With the memory of what the Redevelopment Agency recently did to the Fillmore District barely mollified, current events in South Beach reveal the same forces at work, even as an initiative to make rent control illegal in California is being crafted for the next election. If rent control is repealed, what will happen to San Francisco's ethnic (and—by extension—creative) diversity? Good questions indeed. Rendered through the scale of a human interaction, Medicine for Melancholy reveals the potential collateral damage. Is there really an appropriate medicine for such melancholy?

Cross-published on Twitch.

03/10/08 UPDATE: The San Francisco Film Society recently announced that Medicine for Melancholy will be one of four films screened at the 51st San Francisco International Film Festival as part of their Spotlight: Cinema By the Bay program. Congratulations, Barry!

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

CHINESE CINEMA: Fujian Blue (Jin Bi Hui Huang)

This review was initially written for the catalog for the upcoming San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival. Due to censorship issues in China, the film was pulled from the festival line-up. Never one to waste a written word, however, I offer it here at The Evening Class.

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First-time director Robin Weng's Fujian Blue is an unflinching depiction of the effect of globalization on China's southeastern Fujian province, a departure point for Chinese seeking their fortune overseas, and consequently a notorious hub of illegal emigration and human trafficking. The film delivers an absorbing indictment of the lure of Western materialism on the current generation of Chinese youth and its corrosive impact on family cohesion.

Turning his lens on three cities in particular—Fuqing, Changle and Pintang—and casting non-actors, Weng achieves a naturalism in detail that borders on investigative documentary. The well-publicized deaths of illegal Fujianese workers in Morecambe adds haunting gravity to Weng's bifurcated but interwoven tales of young people from the embattled Fujian province pressured to come to terms with New World economics.

The first story "Neon Knights" details how fankepo—"remittance widows"—are preyed upon by a gang of kalu, local lovers who maneuver wealthy lonely women into cheating on their husbands working overseas. Once compromised, the women are blackmailed and extorted. The gang's pseudo-leader, aptly-named Amerika, turns his gang on his own philandering mother without realizing her connections to the Fujianese underworld. The second story "At home, At sea" follows the ill-gotten money to Pintang where Amerika's friend Dragon chooses to use it to save his family from debt incurred sending an older brother to England. The cycles of sacrifice become compounded, however, when Dragon's plans go awry.

Fujian Blue, a co-winner of the Vancouver International Film Festival's "Dragons and Tigers Award" for independent Asian cinema, marks a notable debut from one of China's new wave.

Can Paranormal Activity Be Seen?

The question entitling this entry is purposely loaded. Sure it could be approached ontologically; but, for my immediate purposes, it's simply pragmatic, if not litigious. Apparently, one of the first conditions of the deal director Oren Peli struck with DreamWorks—who purchased domestic and remake rights of Paranormal Activity at Slamdance—is that Peli's original is to have no further exhibition, including the two Bay Area festivals where it was scheduled to play: San Francisco's IndieFest and San Jose's Cinequest.

Jens Michael Hussey, Director of Public Relations for Cinequest comments: "It's always disappointing when a film gets pulled from the lineup for whatever reason, but that's part of being a festival and part of the process for films to come out of the gate and get noticed and purchased. Our mission is to get these films to their audience and sometimes that entails a scenario that's not a first choice for us but is good for the filmmaker. If the filmmakers felt this was the deal they wanted to sign then ultimately we understand that and we certainly abide by the legal restrictions that ensue. It's our policy to ONLY show films we have a legal right to exhibit."

Jeff Ross, Director of San Francisco's IndieFest, declined to comment.

DreamWorks representative Chip Sullivan offered: "It's not that we don't want anybody to see Paranormal Activity; but, the reason filmmakers go to film festivals is to sell their films. Once we bought it and now that we own it, we have to think of a strategy of what exactly we're doing about the remake and all that. We could keep showing it but we have no vested interest in having it be shown until we determine internally what we're doing with the movie. That's sort of typical of all films that go to film festivals; once it's sold, it's off. These films that don't have a distributor; once the distributor picks it up, the game's over." Though Sullivan couldn't confirm whether Peli would or would not be tapped to direct the remake or whether the original version would find its way to DVD, he stressed how excited Dreamworks is to have the property and that only time will tell the particulars of the distribution.

The Bay Area festival cancellations are only the most recent events of interest surrounding Israeli émigré Oren Peli's effectively creepy lo-fi supernatural thriller. Paranormal Activity screened at last October's Screamfest, where it won an award and received a rave review from Dread Central's Debi Moore who was impressed with the film's palpable sense of dread. "I'd bet cash money," Moore wrote, "nobody can watch the entire thing without saying at least three or four times, 'That's some fucked up shit.' Or, more accurately, 'That's some seriously fucked up shit.' " Though originally she was just about to write Paranormal Activity off as "another entry in the long line of pseudo cinéma vérité rubbish we've been subjected to during these last several post-Blair Witch years", Moore found herself drawn into the film's microbudgeted scare tactics.

It's true that since The Blair Witch Project, the "found footage" trope has been used almost to death. Though not quite a "fake documentary" and not humorous enough to be a "mockumentary", Paranormal Activity sifts what is frightening from ordinary events and effectively does so through documentary direct cinema strategies. The film starts out claiming that the footage has been obtained through surviving family members. Interestingly enough, in his interview with Dread Central, director Peli posed as if the footage—allegedly shot over the course of three weeks in September and October of 2006—was truly "found" and authentic and that the "record" of the paranormal activity was edited into his feature length presentation. Clearly this is a promotional ruse that Dreamworks will not be able to employ.

Where Paranormal Activity breaks out ahead of Sci Fi Channel's ubiquitously programmed Ghost Hunters and International Ghost Hunters is that it's paced naturalistically, the dread is timelapsed incrementally, and most of what happens occurs while the protagonists Kate and Micah are asleep. Whereas the handheld camera was used to question the ethics of media reportage and redaction in Brian dePalma's eponymous Redacted—as it was in George Romero's Diary of the Dead—and whereas along with those two films Cloverfield sought a sense of immediacy and presence through vérité effects (while sacrificing reality to its special effects), Paranormal Activity emphasizes naturalism, capturing when the natural shifts into the supernatural, and the ordinary into the extraordinary, cognizant that the anticipation of that moment is the gist of dread. All it takes is for a door to move or a blanket to shift or a shadow to cross a threshhold to make the hairs raise on your arms and neck.

Paranormal Activity approached Slamdance poised for purchase, having been trimmed and tightened by Paramount-based producers Jason Blum and Steven Jay Schneider, who caught Paranormal Activity on a screener and—as Variety's Anne Thompson details—responded to its "intimate fear." It's their success story that Paranormal Activity was seen and picked up by Dreamworks.

So where does that leave San Francisco's festival audiences? Disappointingly—other than for the trailer up (momentarily?) at the film's website—they won't be (legally) seeing Paranormal Activity anytime soon.

Cross-published on Twitch.

INDIEFEST08: POP SKULLThe Evening Class Interview With Producers Peter and E.L. Katz

I'm not sure which was more disturbing: catching Adam Wingard's Pop Skull at SF IndieFest or hooking up with the film's producers for a luncheon interview in San Francisco's notorious Tenderloin. I braced myself and hooked up with brothers Peter and Evan Katz at AR Roi Noodles where duck noodle soup calmed my fears. Peter produced, and Evan produced, co-wrote, and starred as one of the bloody ghosts in the film.

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Michael Guillén: My Twitch colleague Todd Brown caught Pop Skull at the 2007 AFI Fest and cited it as "a textbook example of what you can do on a budget if you're smart enough"; that "budget" being $2,000, which Todd likewise noted "wouldn't buy the coffee on a typical Hollywood movie." Did you tell yourselves, "Okay, we have $2,000. Let's make a movie!" Was that a budget you graphed out at the outset?

Evan L. Katz: We got our equipment rentals for free. We didn't expect to have anything. We weren't paying anybody. The $2,000 was just gas. We didn't break down, "This is how much we're going to spend." We were naïve. We thought, "We won't spend anything. We're just going to make this movie basically throwing a couple of bucks here and there." We wanted to make a go at that. $2,000—even that—was more than we thought we were going to spend.

Guillén: So you had free equipment, free labor….

Peter Katz: And our director's amazing. Adam Wingard knows how to do almost all the technical aspects of the shooting, the editing, the lighting; he's really talented. He's like a tech guy but he also directs it.

Guillén: So you saved costs because you had a director who knew what he was doing; you had unknown actors who delivered nuanced performances; and yet the movie looks like you've poured a lot more than $2,000 into it. The stroboscopic special effects alone are accomplished.

Evan L. Katz: All that stuff Adam did sitting at his laptop for months on end, piecing it together frame by frame. If we had hired an editor to do that in post and said, "This is what we want and this is what we're envisioning", to get that right we would have probably had to pay that guy a fortune. But Adam's a perfectionist and he would sit there and go through it. He labored through all this footage. We shot so many hours of footage, we could have made four movies. He really had to fashion it with some kind of cohesive narrative. There were a lot of options.

Peter Katz: Adam explores it. He keeps the camera rolling. He explores the scene from all the different possibilities. He says as a director shooting on video it's silly to cut cut cut; it's not like it's film that costs tons of money per minute. He shoots on video and he keeps it going and then—when he goes through the video tapes in the editing room—he has a million choices.

Guillén: In your role as producers, what was your strategic involvement? You got the film into AFI, which was a great move, and then you went to Rome with it?

Peter Katz: Yes, we went to Rome with it. It's in Berlin right now being marketed in their film market by Wild Bunch who is selling our movie.

Evan L. Katz: The strategy from the beginning was that we realized with a movie this small we needed to align ourselves with the right people. We knew we needed to get into the horror websites, even though this movie has a lot more crossover appeal to indie offbeat non-genre. We knew we needed to get the buzz out starting from the horror side of it and that other people would take notice of it if they wanted. We got it into Bloody Disgusting; Brad Miska there was the first person championing it. That was really cool. That really helped. Then other people started to take notice.

Peter Katz: Variety.

Guillén: Robert Koehler gave you a supportive review.

Evan L. Katz: Variety got involved after we actually played a festival.

Peter Katz: Through AFI.

Evan L. Katz: That was a really good review. We started off by having to get a couple of good reviews. Then we had to release a trailer online. Then we started having sales companies approaching us, like Wild Bunch, and we were like, "Okay, yeah." We got partnered up with them. Then we started getting more reviews.

Guillén: So Wild Bunch approached you based upon your festival screenings?

Evan L. Katz: Pre-festival screenings.

Peter Katz: Wild Bunch approached us about the trailer. Wild Bunch saw the really good review on Bloody Disgusting and then they saw the trailer. The trailer grabbed them. They had a positive response. From there they contacted us about possible representation in foreign territories.

Evan L. Katz: First we had to show them the screener.

Guillén: So if a young filmmaker with no budget reads this interview, would you recommend their placing the trailer as a first strategic move?

Evan L. Katz: Before we did the trailer, we waited to get a couple of reviews. We got Stephen Susco, the writer of The Grudge, to check it out so that we could have a quote for the trailer. You need to know who your audience is and which people they might respect and see if you can get them to align themselves with the movie. If you can get a good quote or a blurb, people will take extra notice. If you're going to pick up a horror paperback and if you see some of your other favorite authors at the top saying, "Check this out. It's the next Clive Barker or the next Stephen King!"—you'll give it a chance vs. the one that you don't know where it's coming from, there's no point of reference. Especially if you have something as weird as Pop Skull, you need to come at people with some things that people can recognize or else they'll just say, "What the hell is this?"

Peter Katz: It's about trust. People already trust Susco because he made The Grudge. They say, "I enjoyed that movie" and they have their trust in him; but, this is a new prize. You need to be able to latch this to some kind of foundation or else it's going to float in the abyss and no one's going to notice it.

Evan L. Katz: It's an experimental weird movie with no names and no car explosions….

Guillén: But with the possibility of an epileptic seizure at any moment! Susco wrote: "Unlike any horror film you've ever seen—and ever WILL see—Pop Skull is a must-see." That's a strong endorsement from the writer of The Grudge, which in itself is a story about a house, an environment, wherein something horrible happened in the past and a vengeful demonic spirit remains and gathers power at the site of the crime. Was the thematic similarity with Pop Skull why you approached Susco?

Evan L. Katz: There is definitely a certain J-horror style to the hauntings in Pop Skull—there's certainly that supernatural element—but we didn't really draw those comparisons; but, later we did. The movie even starts off with a mention of murder.

Guillén: Notwithstanding, it's a great feather in your cap to get Susco's endorsement. One of the disclaimers of the film is that Pop Skull is based on a true story. Is that so?

Evan L. Katz: It's loosely based on a true story.

Guillén: In what sense?

Peter Katz: The actor Lane Hughes, who is also one of the writers and producers on the project, originally met Adam when he was writing for his zine. The first film that we produced was Home Sick—a low budget slasher set in Alabama—and they were just talking about his zine and then Adam and Lane became friends. Lane had just gone through a terrible break-up with a girl he really liked and he was venting about it and was very passionate about it and Adam said, "Wow, this is a story right here. We've got to make this into some type of story. You've got a lot of demons here to exorcise." At that point Lane had a very loose story, a story for a book he wanted to create on it, and it just turned into a movie. Evan, who had collaborated with Adam in the past on the script for Home Sick, got involved and they started working on the script for Pop Skull.

Evan L. Katz: Lane was a kid who definitely had some problems with pills at some point in the past. He thought he lived in a haunted house. Some of the friends in Pop Skull were based on Lane's friends. But then the story shifted into this supernatural horror movie and we obviously fictionalized the ending.

Guillén: Neither of you have a Southern drawl. I assume you're not from Alabama?

Evan L. Katz: No. Me and my brother, we went to Alabama for about a year after I graduated from film school. And then I stayed there for about a year and a half producing the first movie Home Sick, which is a slasher we did with Adam. We went back home and then I [returned] to Alabama for another six months to work on Pop Skull. Adam and I went to film school together in Florida. He was pretty much the first person I worked with after graduating.

Guillén: The reason I ask is I have a college friend living in Louisiana who tells me he's having problems with his son and his son's friends because they're all hooked on pills. Whereas here in the Bay Area we're in the grip of a meth epidemic, in the South it's pharmaceuticals like OxyContin. Were you purposely commenting on that regional issue?

Evan L. Katz: I got interested in a website called It's like MySpace but—let's say I get hit by a car—they'll link my MySpace profile on this website, have an obituary, and people will comment. I went on this website and I was looking at all the entries and a lot of the entries were weird. They were of kids dying of these pills. They were all like these Emo-looking 15-17-year-old kids, some are older, but they're all dying from pharmaceuticals. There were also a lot of [stories] of guys murdering their ex-girlfriends and then killing themselves. That influenced a lot of the horror elements of Pop Skull; these weird teen homicides.

Guillén: I hear that. I used to work for the State Judiciary where at least half of the cases that crossed my desk were methamphetamine-related crimes: strange public behavior, robberies, assaults, murders, suicides. So I'm always intrigued when the link is made between drug abuse and horrific events. In the last year or so there have been a few films, Pop Skull included, that have been exploring that link between drug abuse and horror: Simon Rumley's The Living and the Dead; William Friedkin's Bug; Sean Abley's Socket. These films try to visualize and capture the drug experience. Pop Skull also captures "a" drug experience but I'm not quite sure which drug experience or whether the film references more a process whereby—if you become an addict, if you become too drug-affected—you thin the membrane and become susceptible to dark forces.

Evan L. Katz: With regard to those forces of darkness, if you get into those dark places you are more open to weird shit.

Guillén: You become paranoid delusional and suffer a schizoid break. People are following you. You hear things you can't quite make out. Pop Skull captures that perfectly, especially through its sound design. As the reviewer for Splash wrote: "The soundtrack occasionally spikes as images jump out at you. But mostly, it is a drone-filled stream of pulsing tangled melodies intertwined with hard sound effects and haunting voices. Sometimes shredding, sometimes simmering, the sound design of this film was great." Can you speak about Pop Skull's sound design?

Evan L. Katz: It's a combination of things. We always use an awesome composer named Kyle McKinnon. He's worked with us for about five years basically. At the same time Adam is pretty good composing his own noisy soundscapes as well; he's a big fan of noise music. He's always been able to find a good drop needle that's appropriate for a threatening atmosphere but also to create his own. He obsesses about it. He's a music fanatic. That stuff to him is one of the most important parts of the movie. The music, sound design, atmosphere, all that stuff is integral, especially when you have a film like Pop Skull that's so much through the perspective of one character. You need to really build that.

Peter Katz: A lot of times I'll see a movie and I'll think, "Yeah, this is a great scene" and then they just randomly and haphazardly throw a song down on the track and you listen to the music while you're watching the movie and it doesn't match. You want the music to blend in. Adam is so into music. He plays the keyboard and listens to soundtracks, CDs and scores. It's almost second nature to him. Lane, the actor, is also actually a musician. So when they combine forces, they create a unique sound.

Guillén: It's completely visceral. Between the visuals and the sound, watching Pop Skull is a visceral experience and that's why the film works.

Evan L. Katz: Thank you. I appreciate that.

Guillén: What I'm hearing from the both of you—without Adam here to defend himself—is that Adam's a good guy, a great talent.

Evan L. Katz: Definitely.

Guillén: And what I've been reading is that folks have their eye on him. Bloody Disgusting calls Adam's work "the beginning of something special", even as Todd Brown at Twitch claims Pop Skull "clearly marks Wingard as a significant talent to watch." You both concur?

Peter Katz: [Enthusiastically] Yeah! I remember a while back I was working on a music video and—at that time—Spielberg was doing a call for On the Lot, this ridiculous show where directors compete against each other; but, it was done in an asinine way where directors would compete against each other while being interrupted and distracted, like American Idol where they're on a rocking stage while they're trying to sing. I told Adam, "Adam, you're an amazing director. You should try to get on the show." He sent them one short film and immediately gets called back that they want him on the show. He's on the show for about a minute—which is good because the show is ridiculous—and then he gets off the show. But it was just something to show people [who want] to see his work. After Evan, Lane and Adam did such a great job [with] Pop Skull, it got out there. Their work had such a great response that agencies were interested in Adam and he got signed to Endeavor.

Guillén: Another aspect that interested me in Pop Skull is its William Castle riff. The epilepsy warning….

Evan L. Katz: [Chuckles] Oh yeah, I know, prepare yourself! The Tingler is waiting!

Guillén: Nurses are on standby in the theater lobby! So, I'm curious, was that merely a marketing device? Or was that something you were legally advised to do?

Evan L. Katz: Adam actually had a short film play in the Sidewalk Film Festival a while back that had flashing and someone had an epileptic seizure. Adam was like, "Well, this has more so let's [provide a warning]!" At the same time Adam does have that same kind of [showmanship].

Guillén: Didn't you likewise pass out collectible Pop Skull pills at your Winnepeg Short Film Massacre screening?

Evan L. Katz: Yeah, that was Kier-la Janisse at the Winnepeg Cinematheque. She's really cool. She helps program for the SF IndieFest. She's programmed for the Fantastic Film Fest. She really championed Pop Skull. She made these free pills that she was passing out. That was her! That wasn't even the filmmakers.

Guillén: But they had the skull on them, like on the poster?

Evan L. Katz: Yeah.

Guillén: That's too cool.

Peter Katz: She's a really good promoter. She did this cool festival where people were locked into a theater for 24 hours and they had to pay to leave. They didn't have to pay to get in.

Guillén: Pop Skull had its North American premiere at AFI. Where has it gone since then?

Evan L. Katz: It played in Rome. It played at the Winnepeg Cinematheque. It's going to be playing at the Boston Underground. It's waiting on Telluride and Cinevegas and Seattle. And it's playing at the Over the Top Festival in Toronto, which is a music/film festival.

Guillén: And what is your hope? As producers are you hoping that at one of the film's festival screenings it will be picked up for distribution?

Evan L. Katz: Right now our sales reps are trying to get North American distribution separately. These festivals aren't markets. Right now we have Wild Bunch [in Europe] and Glenn Reynolds and Endeavor is our North American sales rep. Hopefully they'll get an art house small run. That's what they're working on separately. [The festival screenings are] just to get Pop Skull out there, to have some kids see it, and visit different places.

Guillén: Another intriguing aspect of Pop Skull is that it's a genre hybrid. As you indicated, Evan, it's more than a horror movie, even though I understand why you've pitched it as horror first. Robert Koehler at Variety grouped Pop Skull into a subgenre he calls "acid horror"—which, I don't find an accurate term; but, I understand what he's saying—how would you classify it?

Evan L. Katz: I come from more a straight genre background. I work primarily in horror genre. If you look back at some of the '70s ghost movies, they were sometimes more minimalist character studies, psychedelic even, and I loved those—films like Let's Scare Jessica to Death—they were kind of arty and kind of out there. I love an indie approach or an arthouse approach to horror because you get less and less of that nowadays. There's still room to mess around in the genre. I like Larry Fessenden a lot. He's a great talent. Watching Habit influenced me a lot when I was younger. He's doing more of this low-key indie Brooklyn movie about an alcoholic; but, it's also a vampire story. It's really cool.

Peter Katz: It feels like Pi. I like what Evan says about Habit because it has that toned down lo-fi quality, very realistic in a Larry Clark way where you get to know these characters, you're not pushing anything in your face, there's no gimmicks here. Then you have a little bit of that Pi element; that stirring quality of editing where things are unsettling and in-your-face soundscapes.

Guillén: Todd Brown at Twitch likewise drew that analogy, describing Adam's work as "equal parts Aronofsky and Tsukamoto." So what's next for you two?

Evan L. Katz: There's a bunch of stuff. The Writers Strike's probably going to end tonight—which is a great thing—but we have a million things we're doing. Right now me and Peter are producing Adam's next film, which is a gritty, dark, pulpy werewolf horror film. [Evan is grinning from ear to ear describing the film and his eyes are gleaming, which makes me laugh.] I like it because it's different than Pop Skull but it still takes place in more of a real world. You have this dark creature feature but it's based in a small town like Flint, Michigan.

At the same time, Adam's working on a script. He's obsessed with Herzog's Nosferatu. He wants to do a white trash version of that. He's working on a draft of that and he'll send it to me to do a rewrite. We're going to try to do a druggie lo-fi [version].

Guillén: Which leads me to admit that—rather than thinking of Pop Skull as "acid horror" and despite my reservations about mumblecore films—I think of Pop Skull as "mumblecore horror".

Evan L. Katz: You're not the first person to say that.

Guillén: Good! Then I'm not totally off mark.

Evan L. Katz: One other person has said that he's surprised that Pop Skull hasn't been lumped into [the mumblecore movement]. I guess we just don't know the people in that scene; it's an insular group. A lot of it seems to be comedy relationship dramas.

Guillén: More how I look at mumblecore is that the protagonists tend to be irredeemable losers, usually lower class or—as you mentioned—white trash, caught in miserable scenarios. Myself, I have some issue with that, just because I like happy endings and want to think people can rise above their circumstances; but, realistically, I completely understand why mumblecore films are finding an audience. Lots of people do feel like chumps and don't see a way out of their circumstances. They can't get the girl and—if they do get the girl—they lose her fast.

Peter Katz: Especially young people because they haven't established themselves. All these people and their potential is the X factor because they don't know what the future holds. Mumblecore is embraced by those kids.

Guillén: That being said, that's why I would classify Pop Skull as mumblecore horror, which is possibly the only thing about mumblecore I find intriguing: the notion that someone from a lower class or working class environment might be more prone to becoming addicted to alcohol or drugs, which then leads into this field—as I mentioned earlier—where the membrane is thinned and the darkness crosses over.

Evan L. Katz: The potential for bad shit just expands. One thing I think is cool about Pop Skull is that you get a break-up story and then you take it as far as you can go but you need to start off at least in a place where the guy is not like Norman Bates, he's not an over-the-top character actor chewing scenery running around. He seems like a regular kid. And then to take him to such a dark place in the end is like the worst this could go, the worst way this could end up.

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You have one last chance to have an epileptic seizure at this year's IndieFest when Pop Skull screens at the Roxie this evening at 9:30PM.

Cross-published on Twitch.