Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Big Shots for Big Boys

Attempting to be something of a 'culture vulture' in San Francisco, one does necessarily need to embrace a wide spectrum of events, performances and media. San Francisco has perhaps the second finest opera in the nation and it has Folsom Street Fair. Though the San Francisco Opera has started its season, I don't begin attending for another two weeks. However, the Folsom Street Fair was only this past Sunday. Since 'the internet is for porn', I decided to post something for 'the boys' this time.

[In the spirit of full disclosure, yes, I have a friend in the following video and, yes, I have done some freelance writing for the production company. However, as I stated earlier, my 'critical sensibilities' have made and broken friends before.]

"COLT Minute Man 27: Big Shots" (dirs. Rip COLT, John Rutherford, Kristofer Weston, USA, 2006, 55 mins.) I decided to include this here because of how the video (unintentionally?) captures COLT Studio Group at a particular point in its production history. The "COLT Minute Man" series traditionally presents three segments, with a solo performer in each segment. In this collection, there are also three directors. Though I can not state it as a definitive fact, as the directors are not specifically credited with a segment, the three scenes and performers are so distinctively stylized that it is not hard to speculate who directed which scene.

Scene 1 features Antton Harri, perhaps the youngest of the three performers, performing his scene next to a campfire. There is no plot, per se, just Antton out in the night doing 'his business'. It is the most minimal of the three scenes, which leads me to believe it was directed by Kristofer Weston. Weston focuses primarily on the pure, sensual, physical act. In this case, setting it at night eliminates nearly any setting detail other than the fire in front of him. The videography and editing are as minimal as the setting. Harri's smooth, hunky body becomes the sole focus of the scene. By doing that, there is some added pressure on the performer to fulfill the fantasy aspects of the viewer. Harri handles most of this with aplomb, though there are a few close ups in which Harri looks directly into the camera and he seems awkward, if not almost embarrassed to be caught in the act. It's sort of endearing, yet startlingly real. However, he is handsome and able enough to pull the scene off.

Scene 2 features Billy Herrington, a classic COLT model in a classic COLT setting, which just screams "Rip COLT". Mr. COLT has created something of an homage to Kenneth Anger's "Scorpio Rising". The scene begins with Herrington hosing down his motorcycle (using the GARDEN HOSE, you dirty boys!). He rides it to a ranch house (which features a really amusing moment of chasing chickens off the road!). There, he talks to a friend on a phone on the front deck and eventually decides to leisurely masturbate. All of this is done without acknowledging the viewer, which is 'classic COLT'. The videography and editing are the most sophisticated and varied of the three scenes. In fact, during the final moments, the cutting to alternate angles is done with such speed and precision, that it becomes its own little drama. Harrington performs like a pro throughout. Though he is enacting a scene, his body language and expression are all aimed to please, even without letting on that he is being watched. It is not until the FINAL FRAME of the scene that he acknowledges the viewer, breaking the fourth wall. With that one look, he lets us know that he knows we've been watching all along, and that it has been all for us, which is a turn-on all of its own. It is a neat moment in which the voyeur is acknowledged and that makes it just as sexy.

Scene 3 is directed by John Rutherford and features Skye Woods in a garage office while taking a break 'with us', more or less. It is the most aggressive of the three scenes, as Woods nearly never takes his eyes off the camera as he poses for the viewer. Where Harri was required to concentrate on himself, and Herrington was asked to act out a scene, Woods is required to create a relationship with the viewer directly. He handles the intensity of focusing on the camera fairly well, with only a couple of lapses in concentration. He is only allowed to look away and acknowledge what (massive!) body part we are probably focused on at the time. It is a slow strip routine, clocking in as the longest of the three episodes. Rutherford really makes the guy work up a sweat! It is sort of Rutherford's style in which he makes an intimate connection with the performer through the camera.His p.o.v. is extremely up close and personal. The videography and editing are nearly locked on a full front, with some close ups cut in. That is, until the final few moments where we cut to over his shoulder, which seems to be a surprisingly neglected angle when I think about it.

The one element that ties the three scenes together is the atmospheric score by HARDROCK. I think it could have been a bit more serene for Scene 1 and harder for Scene 3, however that is just picking nits. The soundscape is pleasant enough and the editing and foley are well mixed and non-intrusive.

So, what I think makes this video so interesting is that it presents a past-present-future look for COLT Studio Group, as it features the styles of the three directors: Rip COLT is 'COLT Classic'; John Rutherford is the 'COLT Present'; and Kristofer Weston is sort of 'COLT Future', in that he appears to be grooming young men to become COLT Men through their work with his Buckshot Productions. I was not sure how the order of scenes worked until having thought about it here. Antton Harri's scene is a nice warm up (pun intended regarding the fire, I guess!) to what lay in store. Herrington's scene is a nearly nostalgic flashback to COLT videos of yore, and then Woods' scene snaps us into the present style the studio is pursuing.

(And, yes, there is more than just stroking involved in some porn, Virginia!)

The Extras: There is a 'slideshow' of stills. There are also previews of no less than TEN other COLT Studio Group productions, including other COLT Minute Man videos, Buckshot videos and COLT Studio videos.

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Monday, September 25, 2006

Renaissance Noir

Well, there are 'review holds' for the Mill Valley Film Festival press screenings, so I won't be able to babble on about a couple of GREAT PIECES I've seen until next week! Let's just say that I think I've seen Helen Mirren and Peter O'Toole win their well deserved Oscars! However, not part of MVFF and something that I was interested in, especially after reading Michael Guillen's 'Evening Class Interview' with director Christian Volckman:

"Renaissance" (dir. Christian Volckman, France, 2006, 105 mins.) This felt more like an experiment in technique than an attempt at entertainment. It is shot in 'motion capture' and animated in stark black and white. The result pushes the film noir aesthetic to its most extreme. There are times it is breathtaking and a true wonder to behold. There are other times where the 'cheat' to get the silhouette is a bit obvious, to the point of being out of continuity. The cityscapes and especially the car chases are thrilling to watch. The technology displayed is so complex though, that the 'souls' of the characters get lost in the highly stylized details.

This French production has been dubbed by actors from the U.K.: Jonathan Pryce, Craig Daniels, Ian Holm, et al. The dubbing might account for the quirky sound balance. The musical score by Nicholas Dodd, who has enormous conducting credits, never seemed to pause for a break and just blasted away. The sound effects are flat, coming out of the center without much surround differential.

The script itself (credited to no less than four writers) is sort of confusing, but it does sort itself out by the end. It thrusts the viewer into Paris in the later half of this century. There is no real explanation of the background of this situation, which appears to have evolved over many years. This is a pity. Even though narration is a pet peeve of mine, it could have been used here and been completely appropriate for the 'film noir' styling it was striking at so harshly.

Even with those hesitations, the time does fly! It is NOT a dull flick, by any means! However, I think it may be more trivial than landmark, as Rodrigues accomplished a much richer affect with "Sin City", using footage of the actors themselves and Peter Jackson's WETA perfected 3D facial expression motion capture. But I think the visual flatness of strict B&W here all but eliminates subtleties, so true involvement with the characters and their complicated plot was more difficult than necessary.

But it has moments of visual bliss....

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Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Shortbus... To Recognizing Your Saints

"ShortBus" (dir. John Cameron Mitchell, US, 2006, 101 mins.) This is the highly anticipated (in MY circles, anyway!) and discussed film that has been making quite a stir on the BIG festival circuit. It received a 'thunderous standing ovation' at Cannes, and prompted press walkouts at Toronto. Tonight, with Graham Leggett (Executive Director of the San Francisco Film Society) introducing director John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig and the Angry Inch), the room was pretty buzzed to see what all the commotion has been about. (They would both be available for a Q&A after the film, however I did not stay for that, as he began late and was rehashing most of what he has answered in interviews.) Leggett said that we would know what we were in for within the first 5 minutes.

He was mostly right.

Yes, the film is E X P L I C I T. If you are bothered by a penis, a close up of a penis, in a bathtub, buoyed by a fart-bubble, then you might as well walk out. That is at the 90 second mark. However, you would be missing out on something unique, ribald, touching and extraordinary. Mitchell and his company of actors (all of whom developed the script in workshops) have created what one might have hoped Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut" would have been. Its sensuality is driven by the characters' motivations.The company of players have obviously been living with these characters for a great deal of time, and watching Justin Bond (aka "Kiki" of Kiki and Herb)

is a no lose proposition! He lends a theatrical air that buffers us from the explicit realities that slam into the rest of the company. There is also a brilliantly performed monologue by a character who is the ex-mayor of New York. (Unfortunately, I did not catch the actor's name in the credits and he is not credited in any press online.) The monologue is a piece of poetry in the midst of the film's first, major orgy scene, which takes place at a 'salon' hosted by Justin Bond. The salon is called "Shortbus" which is where our diverse cast of characters cross paths.

Since this is 'art', it is not without flawed brushstrokes. The cathartic climax (as it were) is muddy, if not a bit forced. It is at that point that Mitchell takes the film into an expressionistic bent without having established the proper groundwork for it. The resolutions that follow also do not ring as true as the conflicts that led up to the 'happy ending' that the film provides. However, it was generous, if not necessary, to leave the film with a feeling of relief!

Of course, the BIG question is "Did he need to go to explicit extremes to accomplish this?" I think, yes, he did. Had he stopped short, it would have been titillating at best and distracting, at worst. By photographing the scenes of actual intercourse, the process of imagination of the act is removed and we are faced with the emotional nakedness of the characters as they relate to each other sexually. Yes, I know that sounds a bit trite, but it is the only way I can think of putting it. There is no 'guess work' left after the initial shock of watching penetration during those first few minutes of film. The sex that follows is truly part of the storyline and not at all distracting. Of course there is the soon-to-be-infamous "National Anthem" scene, however I found it to be hysterical, though probably extraneous to the plot. There is also an extended 'bit' with a vibrating egg that borders on 'schtick', but a little levity didn't harm the film, but provided some comic relief.

"A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints" (dir. Dito Montiel, US, 2006, 98 mins.) desperately NEEDED some comic relief! The performances are all outstanding! Chazz Palminteri gives an award worthy performance as the overly strict and possessive father of 'Dito' played by Shia LaBeouf (younger) and Robert Downey, Jr. (older). Dianne Weist also appears, playing Dito's mother. Channing Tatum also delivers a powerful performance as Dito's best friend, 'Antonio', who is played by Eric Roberts as an adult.

Given the exceptional group of performances, I found it sort of disappointing not to have enjoyed the film. Dito Montiel has crafted what is assumably an autobiographic record of his post-adolescence, which he had to face in dealing with the hospitalization of his father. He did not have a happy childhood. The film opens with Robert Downey, Jr. telling us that this is going to be a recollection of tragedies. Though there is humor within the script, I found it to be really harsh. These boys are basically thugs, living what appears to be a dead end life. So, whatever levity they find is tinged with the bitterness of their surroundings.

Beyond the bleak script, I found the editing to be over stylized. The cutting between present to past, and then the 'hip-hop cuts' within some of the scenes themselves was distracting. It did serve something of a dramatic purpose at the climax, however it was disengaging when used during the early part of the film. The cinematography is gritty, however a bit sloppy as the boom is caught in more than a few scenes.

Though wonderfully performed, I can only recommend this if you are in the mood for family drama along the lines of something by Arthur Miller.

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Saturday, September 16, 2006

De Palma's Dahlia DOA

"The Black Dahlia" (dir. Brian De Palma, 2006, US, 121 mins.) Such an odd career is Mr. De Palma's. He has created some of my FAVORITE films ("Carrie" "The Untouchables") and some of my LEAST favored films ("Casualties of War" "Bonfire of the Vanities"). Unlike fellow lensemen Paul Verhoeven or Ken Russell, whose worst work is always captivating in their outrageousness, De Palma can actually be DULL. With only a couple of exceptions, "The Black Dahlia" is dull. Deathly dull at points. Though it is beautifully designed by Dante Ferretti, and ably costumed by Jenny Beaven, it is photographed by Vilmos Zsigmond, whose previous work with De Palma includes "Bonfire..." and "Obsession". I would speculate that the two of them should avoid each other in the future, as "Dahlia" lacks that cinematic POP that De Palma can display.

Next, the screenplay by Josh Friedman. I can't speak to the adaptation of the book, since I have not read it, however, what I was expecting was a murder mystery and not a love triangle involving the two officers and a wife. Perhaps that is a subplot in the book, however 'we' are here to see a De Palma murder mystery. And considering his history of near misogynistic violence (just name ANY of his films) and his crowning achievement, "The Untouchables", I was expecting to see the murder itself and not just a passing glance at the results. Also, the 'film noir' aspect was completely missing. I do not know whether that was a fault of the script as much as the casting.

Josh Hartnett... His character is expected to carry this film. And though he showed some potential in his small roll in "Sin City", here he is just too contemporary and not deep enough, or at least unable to tap into that dark place that exists in any character involved in noir-ish spectacles. There must be a reason for him to be drawn to the situation and that is usually realized in a final catharsis. His 'catharsis' played out like a lovelorn teenager. Especially in comparison to the surrounding cast.

Aaron Eckhart is hot. And butch. And a GOOD actor who can play 'damaged'. His obsession with the murder would have made a much more interesting story, however, in this script he is just the foil in the triangle between Hartnett and Scarlett Johansson, who plays Echart's wife. Johansson is a bit young for the role, but she does deliver a world weary performance.

The real standouts are Hilary Swank's performance as Madeline Prescott, whose role in the film is way too complicated to briefly describe without giving away spoilers. However, it is an Oscar worthy turn! Her vocal work is superb! Then there is Fiona Shaw, playing her mother. I don't know exactly what it says for her performance or the film itself to say that Shaw is able to steal the ENTIRE FILM with just a sip of a martini! At first I thought she might be doing her 'Medea-schtick' but the woman takes the role to nearly "Baby Jane Hudson" levels! She and Swank are hysterical, but in a 'Thank god SOMEBODY knows what they're doing there!' way.

The next biggest laugh I, JimmyD and a half the audience had was the BIG MOMENT between Hartnett and Johannson, which was completely unintentional. At least it broke the monotony that this overly long 121 minutes maintained. Oh, and there are a couple of scenes with Mia Kirshner as 'The Black Dahlia', however she is unfortunately only a subplot, it seems.

(A shout-out to Chad: I liked the extras! hee hee)

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Tuesday, September 12, 2006

The Day After, Five Years After

I shy away from too much political commentary here, but I found this commentary (forwarded from JimmyD) by Mr. Olbermann akin to a classic Edward R. Murrow editorial. It is not short. It is not pleasant. You can either read it at this link or watch the video which accompanies it.

MSNBC: Ken Olbermann, "This Hole In The Ground", September 11, 2006, 8:32 p.m. ET.The Video

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Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Mothers and Sons and "Queens"! Oh my!

"Queens" ("Reinas") (dir. Manuel Gomez Pereira, Spain, 2005, 107 mins.) played at the SF International Lesbian/Gay Film Festival, however I missed it as I was 'pre-occupied' with Gay Day activities. So I was thrilled with the news that it has distribution and I got a chance to see it at a preview tonight. I do not want to reduce this fabulously written and performed piece to a derivative, but I could best describe it as an Almodovar-esque version of Robert Altman's "A Wedding".

There is to be a mass gay wedding in Madrid, and this nifty farce focusses not so much on three of the gay couples as it does on their mothers. It is a huge cast, featuring some of Spain's best actresses, including Almodovar regulars Carmen Maura, Marisa Paredes and Veronica Forque', and Mercedes Sampietro and Betiana Blum. Included as one of their paramours is Lluis Homar, another Almodovar star from "Bad Education". The six sons are all quite exceptionally attractive (Daniel Hendler, Unax Ugalda, Paco Leon, Gustavo Salmeron, Raul Jimenez and Hugo Silva) and handle their roles fairly well, especially Unax Ugalda as the platinum haired, spoiled son to Carmen Maura's hotel magnate mother.

However, or at least atypical of what we see in American cinema, 'the boys' are really the subplot to the women's efforts to understand and accept their sons, their soon to be sons-in-law as well as the upcoming nuptials. I can not recall a domestic film in which a company of middle aged actresses have been gathered together in such a production since "The Women". This exceptionally talented group of women take no prisoners in their ability to work the script and their scenes to their fullest ability. It is a shared tour de force, as they are never really an ensemble as much as they appear in a series of mini-farces that will all collide in one heart warming climax. Even the silliest of the characters, Veronica Forque's 'Nuria', is performed to the brink of cartoon, yet Forque' is able to ultimately enwrap the essence of the film in a moment of breathtaking sincerity at the end.

The emphasis on the feminine influence upon gay men, as well as the gorgeously, if not brilliantly character specific costume design, as well as an unusually witty title credit sequence and a wonderful soundtrack, will draw the director Pereira's comparisons to Almodovar, which is not totally fair to either of them. Pereira's film is blissfully free of the dark, sexual and nearly misogynistic world that Almodovar creates. "Queens" is actually a tribute to the love of this group of mothers, as they work through their confusion and conflicts with their sons, as well as their own lives.

If there is anything that holds the film back from being a 'blockbuster' or remembered as a contemporary classic, it would be some of the quirky edits. Also, the script is so complicated that it necessitates some awkward time shifting in order to keep all the concurrent plots moving to the eventual collision, i.e. we go back 4 hours, then pop forward a day, only to back up another 3 hours, etc. Also, a couple of the conflict resolutions between the gay couples themselves seem a bit contrived, but that could be due to the comparison of the outstanding performances given by the women in the cast.

Ironically, "Queens" opens on September 15, while the Almodovar retrospective is in full gear across town, and only two weeks before Carmen Maura's next film, Almodovar's "Volver" opens.

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