Saturday, May 24, 2008

Film Review #160: Miller’s Crossing
1990/ DVD 2003
Joel & Ethan Coen
Cast: Gabriel Byrne, Albert Finney, Marcia Gaye Harden, John Turturro

This year’s Oscar-winner, the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men, is a film some see as a parable of how little we know who we are as a nation since the rogue violence of some of our soldiers in the war in Iraq. Actually No Country is set earlier, in 1980, and Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) is a Vietnam vet, the little distance of that conflict allowing enough breathing room so that echoes of My Lai stand in for Abu Ghraib and Haditha. When the decent old-school Texas sheriff played by Tommy Lee Jones speaks of a “new” kind of criminal loose in the land, it’s dialogue lifted almost verbatim from Ed Tom Bell’s ruminations in Cormac McCarthy’s novel.

But it’s the filmmakers – Joel and Ethan Coen – who supply the repeated, haunting cinematic image of these male characters staring at blank TV screens, seeing not some foreign terrorist act there but only their own dark, reflected silhouettes. The criss-crossing, tantalizing, dissolving shadows of Sheriff Bell (Jones) and assassin Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) in the hotel room after Moss’ murder elaborate and extend this image, making of the murder scene a cave fraught with shadows in which we know not what’s true and what’s illusion.

The Coens have mined this shaft before. Their third feature, Miller’s Crossing (1990), also adapts the work of a novelist, Dashiell Hammett – two novels this time – plus echoes of the 1920s Prohibition-era turf war between Chicago’s Irish O’Banion gang and the Italians of Al Capone and Johnny Torrio. The film never specifies the city whose control see-saws between old boss Leo O’Bannon (Albert Finney) and usurper Johnny Casper (Jon Polito), though the Coens filmed in New Orleans for its working street-car system and whole neighborhoods of still-intact period architecture. The film’s title comes from a cold, bleak woods outside town where both gangs take men for execution. This might locate the story in New York or New Jersey (for example, think of the Pine Barrens episode from The Sopranos), but the Coens make the location cagily all-American.

Miller’s Crossing is really the story of Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne), a recent immigrant who’s first O’Bannon’s right-hand man and then – perhaps – Casper’s, see-sawing himself, working out just which hat he’ll wear. (In No Country, the Coens play similarly with images of boots and bare feet.) Reagan wants neither O’Bannon’s gifts of cash to cover his gambling debts nor, later, his forgiveness. Tom Reagan’s black fedora threads its way through the film, an arresting image for the selves we try on, that accumulates nuance along the way: thrown on the forest floor and gusted away by wind even before the opening titles, dreamed about, lost in a poker game, stolen by the two-timing Verna Bernbaum (Marcia Gay Harden) so that Reagan will come after it, tossed contemptuously in his face after O’Bannon publicly thrashes him for sleeping with Verna, pulled low over his eyes when his job as henchman demands tasks like executing Verna’s brother Bernie (John Turturro).

Contemptuously dubbed “the Schmata” by crooks on both sides, Bernie – along with the loan shark Lazar, whom we never see, though his thugs’ beatings are the worst of many that Reagan suffers – injects a third ethnic issue into this entrepreneurial mix. Casper, O’Bannon and Reagan wrestle with their versions of “friendship, character and ethics.” The film begins with Casper asking O’Bannon’s permission to kill Bernie, who’s been cashing in on fixed boxing matches, because, Casper says, “If you can’t trust a fix, what can you trust?”

Bernie is so thoroughly and comfortably corrupt that only Turturro’s bravura performance – set against the preternatural watchfulness and calculation of Byrne’s Reagan – distinguishes Bernie from the anti-Semitic stereotypes held by the other characters. Bernie’s “Look into your heart!” scene in the forest with Reagan is worth the rental price by itself.

“In the American melting pot,” wrote Richard Corliss for Time magazine in 1990, “gangsters were the indigestible pieces of ethnic gristle; country of origin was as crucial as turf.”

As Corliss observed, that decade began with a resurgent slew of gangster movies. Besides Miller’s Crossing, audiences that year were watching Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas and Herb Ross’ My Blue Heaven, two takes on mobster Henry Hill; Phil Joanou’s State of Grace, based on a Hell’s Kitchen Irish gang called the Westies and their friction with encroaching Italians; and Francis Ford Coppola’s final Corleone installment, Godfather III. Explaining these movies as one part nostalgia from directors who “love the form because its speed and anarchy spoke to them as young movie-goers,” Corliss added there was something more important: the gangster movie “allows them to confront, in code, the awful ethnic schisms of American life; Italian versus Wasp stands in for black versus white.”

That schism still runs deep.

This review appeared in the 5/22/08 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing recent movies that did not enjoy a theatrical opening in CNY & older films of enduring worth. Miller’s Crossing is still available on VHS & has had five DVD releases since 2003, most recently in February. See Nancy’s interview with filmmaker Larry Fessenden (The Last Winter, reviewed in last week’s column) at

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Film Review #159: The Last Winter
2006/DVD 2008
Director: Larry Fessenden
Cast: Ron Perlman, James LeGros, Connie Britton

My baby don’t care for shows,
My baby don’t care for clothes,
My baby just cares for me.

Nina Simone’s throaty, caressing ballad, with its soft percussion and piano back-up, belongs to some smoky jazz club. It’s startling in the vast, snowy Alaskan night, especially at a point where we expect something different – sound that will do the dramatic work that, say, the driving theme in Jaws did for that film’s first moonlight swim.

Exactly ten minutes into Larry Fessenden’s horror parable on global warming, The Last Winter, a sequence commences that lasts nearly two and a half patient minutes. Rooted in horror movie conventions, it produces a more complex, unsettling result.

North Oil’s advance team intends to re-open an old drilling site inside Alaska’s remote eastern wild-life refuge. Project boss Ed Pollack (Ron Perlman) has flown back to camp with orders to step up the pace. He clashes with Jim Hoffman (James Le Gros) and Elliot (Jamie Harrold), environmental scientists contracted by North Oil whom he expects to rubber-stamp his plans. Hoffman’s also romancing Pollack’s girl Abby (Connie Britton). The North Oil CEO’s son Maxwell (Zach Gilford), sent out here to “toughen up,” is acting strange. The weather’s fluctuating bizarrely and unaccountably. There’s a mechanic named Motor (Kevin Corrigan) who drinks too much and two Inuit - roustabout Lee (Pato Hoffman) and nurse-cook Dawn Russell (Joanne Shenandoah) - who may see significance in certain signs before the others.

The Last Winter opens with Pollack’s plane flying into camp over the tundra. Ten minutes in, we see the camp from above again through the eyes of something large, something able to sweep gracefully through the air at great heights yet spy in each window at the crew – as that Nina Simone track entwines with wind and snow. This long arcing shot ends up behind Maxwell, outside again, staring back at the night, then twists around to share his view. Here is where the piano flourish runs seamlessly into distant thundering, a ghostly caribou stampede across the black horizon. Here’s where we’re supposed to see monsters.

Instead, Fessenden has replaced that standard gambit with a longing and sadness familiar to anyone who’s ever looked into warmly-lit houses from a cold, dark street. The Manhattan-based filmmaker sees such disconnection at the heart of Earth’s ecological crisis. It’s an undertow that moves through every Fessenden movie since his first videos from the late 70s. Gruesome disaster ensues in The Last Winter – death by freezing, fiery plane crash and ravenous crows – but Fessenden’s interested in how a “reinvigorated” horror genre can serve environmental ends.

Though set in Alaska, The Last Winter was shot mostly in Iceland. Premiering at Toronto International Film Festival in September 2006, The Last Winter opened theatrically in New York City last September. Since then it’s continued to screen in limited release and at festivals. This February, the film came to Syracuse’s Palace Theater in Eastwood as part of a Native American film festival organized by Joanne Shenandoah, who plays Dawn Russell in the film.

The same day The Last Winter premiered in Toronto, Fessenden launched his extensive ecology-themed website,, a leap beyond Low Impact Filmmaking, his 1992 guide for filmmakers that details ecologically sound production and uses his film No Telling (1991) as a case example. Released abroad as The Frankenstein Complex, that film explored the arrogance of unchecked animal experimentation against a backdrop of toxic pesticide manufacturers’ profit-driven and equally arrogant contamination of upstate farmland. Fessenden also starred in Habit (1997), his riff on vampirism in society set largely in his own Lower East Side with forays to Long Island and Central Park. Wendigo (2001) completed the decade-long “horror trilogy” with another upstate tale, this one about an angry deer god that attacks a transgressing vacationer from the city but spares – for now – his artifact-carrying son.

This should be a good year for Fessenden. In late March Image Comics released The Last Winter as a graphic novel. Fessenden acts in several forthcoming films produced by Scareflix, the ultra low-budget division of his Glass Eye Pix, including Glenn McQuaid’s I Sell the Dead (with Ron Perlman and Dominic Monaghan) and Graham Reznick’s I Can See You. He’s a producer for, and has a part in, Kelly Reichardt’s new road trip movie, Wendy and Lucy, which premiers at Cannes this month. And he’s directing an episode of NBC’s summer anthology series, Fear Itself, which starts airing Thursdays at 10 PM on June 5th. He’s a taste worth acquiring.

This review appeared in the 5/15/08 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly & is a shorter version of the introduction to an interview with Larry Fessenden published on 5/18/08 at The Last Winter releases on rental DVD on May 20 as a Blockbuster Exclusive (for sale elsewhere, with many extras, on July 22). “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVDs of recent movies that did not have a CNY theatrical opening & older films of enduring worth.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Puerto Rican comedy hit worth staying up for
Maldeamores a late film fest entry on Friday night
(Syracuse City Eagle weekly, 5/1/2008)

Tere Paniagua, who manages Point of Contact Gallery and many of the details that make the Syracuse International Film Festival hum, said she and her sister, Rita, who directs the West Side’s La Liga, were “rolling on the floor.”

This was just a week ago, right after Puerto Rico’s official 2008 Oscar entry for best foreign language film, Maldeamores, skidded into town. The ensemble comedy, executive-produced by Benicio del Toro and featuring the great character actor Luis Guzman, wasn’t even on SIFF’s screening schedule. But a handful of festival folk plus one sister made room to watch the 85-minute screener in the hurried days just before Friday’s opening and – along with repeated outbursts of, “You gotta see this movie!” – quickly shoe-horned Maldeamores into a midnight screening slot Friday night at the Syracuse Center 4 the Arts on East Genesee Street, just a short walk across Foreman Park from the Renaissance Hotel, which lodges many filmmakers and other festival visitors.

Maldeamores is beautifully shot and edited, uniformly well-acted, and has a smart, witty, large-spirited script that turns on a dime. Like the Cuban cinema its makers admire, it combines tragedy and laughter in ways seemingly lost on Hollywood. It’s the first feature film from San Juan’s Pajaritos Peñaos Films, the indie production company of husband and wife team Carlitos Ruiz Ruiz and Mariem Pérez Riera. A four-year project shot in May 2006, it’s among early beneficiaries of Puerto Rico’s 2001 legislation to encourage the island’s film industry via tax credits, interest-free loans and other services to filmmakers. That environment plus the hands-on support of Puerto Rican native del Toro got Maldeamores made.

The film shuttles gracefully among three parallel stories about love’s troubles, framed by a hilarious young couple bickering in a car – uncredited and de-glamorized, these two suspiciously resemble Ruiz and Pérez – whose brief story runs before opening titles and again after closing credits. First, young Ismaelito (Fernando Tarrazo) is stuck tearfully in a car with his parents Lourdes (Teresa Hernandez) and Ismael (Luis Guzman), forced to leave what looked like the baseball championships by his great-grandmother’s sudden death. Although he gets his first kiss after the wake, his father’s dalliance with Lourdes’ cousin Tati (Eduali Figueroa) comes explosively to light. Meanwhile, forlorn Miguel (Luis Gonzaga), who’s been stalking bus-driver Marta (Dolores Pedro), proposes marriage and takes the bus hostage to provide incentive. Also meanwhile, 72-year-old Flora (Silvia Brito, who will be at Saturday’s screening) is already housing one ex-husband, Cirilo (Chavito Marrero), when she reluctantly takes in wayward first spouse Pellín (Miguel Alvarez) after 30 years’ absence. A rum-soaked birthday party, a rooster’s attack in the shower, and a big-hearted accommodation ensue.

Maldeamores premiered last April at Tribeca – all screenings sold out – and had a short San Juan theatrical release in September to qualify for the Oscars – also sold out. Limited theatrical release here in the States followed in March along with the festival circuit, where Brito has taken honors for her Flora and the film has been an audience favorite. Although there’s no US distributor yet for a wide release, the sound track is on CD and DVD follows in September.

Carlitos Ruiz spent last Friday at bread-and-butter work – shooting a commercial – but Saturday afternoon he spoke by phone from San Juan. Here’s part of our conversation:

How did you come to make this film?
Well Mariem, my wife, made the story. There is no film school here in Puerto Rico, though our parents are actors and musicians. I was raised in a theater and raised on Latin American film. The first time I saw Cuban films, I said, that’s what I want to do. Mariem studied film in Cuba and New York City and me, in Chicago. We realized we liked the same films. We had not known each other during film school, only afterward. We wanted to make a film about real love, about the claustrophobic journey. We Latin Americans enjoy suffering more than love itself! Actually we wrote the script with friends – the actor Israel Lugo and the writer Jorge Gonzalez – over four months together. We wanted several stories only united by the theme of love. Two weeks into the project, we weren’t finding the right stories, so we asked each other, how was your first kiss? We told each other stories. The grandmother with two lovers, the first kiss – these became stories about every stage of life. They were simple and tender and showed that even with the bad aspects of love, it doesn’t matter how hard it is to get there. We’re all film freaks and what we get the most satisfaction from is how audiences have connected with the film. We’ve just been invited to Bosnia. And it’s shown in many festivals since Tribeca – in Argentina, Spain, the US, Cairo, Israel, Italy, France.

The film had a limited theatrical release earlier this year too?
Yes. In Puerto Rico it’s broken all the records. It’s still in theaters here after two and a half months. Also it’s been in New York and Orlando. We opened last fall for one week in San Juan in time to qualify for Oscar entry and people stood in line for six hours.

Can you talk about Benicio del Toro's involvement?
Actually he commissioned the film. He’d seen my film school thesis – a short that played in a theater here. Then we developed a professional relationship. We developed a workshop on film for kids here and after two years he said, “You have to make your own film.” He was really the godfather – his name, he helped with casting, he and Mariem edited the film. At first we had three chronological stories – he suggested parallel stories. We didn’t want to be compared to Alejandro González Iñárritu [whose 2006 film Babel with Brad Pitt chopped up both chronology and multiple plots], but he said, “Hey, it’s your first feature! If you are compared to Iñárritu, that’s not so bad.” When Mariem started adapting the stories that way, the film started talking back to us. And I love the editing – it’s like a symphony the way it moves among the stories.

The cast are local actors?
Puerto Rican actors and two Cubans – one was Silvia Brito. Benicio found her in New York City. A lot of the actresses said no to that role – at her age, living with two men – because they were too conservative. The other Cuban actress plays the bus driver. We have great actors here, but one of the weaknesses of Puerto Rican films is sometimes the acting because of weak dialogue in our scripts. We wanted real acting. We did a lot of work-shopping and rehearsing. It’s not an improvised film – 95 % of the film is scripted. Then we shot the three stories separately over a total of 18 days.

Can you talk about the scene on the bus where Miguel takes Marta and the riders hostage? When I was watching the film I was immediately struck by how difficult that scene would be to shoot and how very well it flowed.
It’s a very claustrophobic scene. I believe the camera works for the actors, the actors don’t work for the camera. We shot that scene with a very small camera – a 16mm A-minima – so it’s not that intrusive. The whole film was story-boarded. Another thing, the actors in each story didn’t know the other stories – I only gave them their part of the script. So the first story – the kid’s story – is very laid back. When we had the wrap they all caught up on each other’s parts and they were amazed. I wanted the actors to feel closed in for eight hours. And we told the hostages in the bus scene not to talk to the main actor in that scene between takes.

Are you working on a next project?
Yes, we’ve started a comedy, set in America. In fact we have three projects in development. We are making the films we want to make. We’re here to make films. We are storytellers. It’s hard to distribute Spanish language films in the States, but we’re moving on. You know, the name of our company – Pajaritos Peñaos Films – in English that’s “pregnant birds,” and we have a saying that it stands for possibilities.