Monday, February 22, 2010

Film Review #221: Imbued
Director: Rob Nilsson
Cast: Stacy Keach, Liz Sklar, Michelle Anton Allen, Nancy Bower

San Francisco-based indie filmmaker Rob Nilsson has admired actor Stacy Keach since seeing him in John Huston’s classic 1972 film Fat City, where Keach played aging boxer Billy Tully, a washed-up boozer whose brush with a younger boxer (Jeff Bridges) prompts an ill-fated attempt at come-back in both the ring and the bedroom. As a story whose plotline is more valued for its enduring resonance than originality, the latest variation takes aim of this year’s Oscars – as it happens, with Jeff Bridges now in the senior role, this time engaging his demons on a slightly different stage with guitar and mic instead of gloves – as Crazy Heart. In another neat bit of irony, Keach – who remains one of our best actors – is about to start work on a forthcoming TV series, playing a boxer’s father.

The gambler and the showgirl-prostitute, plying their respective trades out on the wild edges of America’s unfinished frontier, is another familiar fable (though Imbued wears that cloak lightly and with some ambivalence – there’s one bit with the national anthem that steers us away from over-reliance on symbolism.) This time, Nilsson sets the action in today, from sunset to sunrise on the 32nd floor of a sleek and soaring but pointedly unfinished skyscraper, San Francisco’s Infinity Tower. We should not be too fooled by the modernity of this glass-walled apartment where a man and woman camp for the night – it’s still littered with step-ladders, paint trays, outsized unframed canvases on stretchers, a broken desk chair and a mattress on the floor, all of which Nilsson makes us notice right away. For all the distant sparkling lights of the city’s skyline, the balcony overlooks an exit ramp off a deserted stretch of freeway. Though wired to the ether of the outside world via cell phones and laptop – and via something more primitive too, in the form of a good-luck Mama Effa statue – Donatello and Lydia surely occupy as remote and isolated an outpost as any in American cinema.

For Imbued – there’s a dictionary definition of the word not long into the movie – Nilsson casts Stacy Keach as Donatello, a football bookie with a fear of heights, his own addiction to the ponies and his own set of ethics for “coming out clean.” Liz Sklar is Lydia, a high-end call-girl who apparently arrives at the wrong door. She’s looking for Brent – Donatello’s just had him on the phone but still playing close to the vest, doesn’t help her out with that – and she has a “problem,” a matter of $2500 she needs to repay by morning.

Donatello doesn’t want sex. “I’ve had sex,” he says. “What have you got that I haven’t had?” But he’s just won a bundle on a Cincinnati race and so offers her the money. We see later that such generosity on his part is usually his standard prelude to skipping out. And Lydia takes it, but not before a protracted kind of strip poker occurs between them, each seeking and offering something other than these encounters usually bring. And not before we see the failures that each can’t shake – Donatello’s fourth, much younger wife (Michelle Anton Allen), his quite lost daughter Tammy (Nancy Bower) and Lydia’s Greg. Donatello’s obsessive fear of heights keeps him from the horizon’s bigger picture – something Lydia introduces him to in a moment of wonderment the like of which I’ve rarely seen pulled off on any screen. These are brave performances – edgy, completely unsentimental and deeply affecting.

But don’t mistake Imbued for one of those emotively intense but formless psychodramas wandering the world. What Nilsson does here with his co-writer Denny Dey, frequent DP Mickey Freeman and cast regulars from previous Citizen Cinema productions – six besides Keach and Sklar, entering the story via phone conversations – is something else. After making primarily cast-workshopped movies for years that he shaped in post-production – early on, this Cassavetes fan found “excessive story” a barrier – Nilsson returns to a script this time. It’s more highly structured than you think, with the phone calls offering pacing and history that counter-weight its present-moment time frame and closed setting. For example, shortly after Lydia arrives she’s on the phone with the insistent madam who set up her date, while Donatello’s on another phone with a Mrs. Baker, an elderly novice bettor of whom he doesn’t wish to take advantage. You find you can attend to both at once, your own capacity for attention enlarged.

Nilsson visited Syracuse last spring as the guest of the Syracuse International Film Festival, which screened four of his films and had him on a couple panels. He’s had a busy eight months since then, with a trip to Trotsky’s birthplace in Eastern Europe for a film project, a first invitation-only screening in January of a new feature titled Sand, and the shopping of other projects. Last month Nilsson enjoyed recognition in New York City with a major retrospective at Anthology Film Archives of the 1970’s San Francisco film collective Cine Manifest, of which he was a founding member.

SYRFILM brings Nilsson back this week, along with Michelle Anton Allen, who's appeared in several of his films and is now producing for Citizen Cinema. There’s a visit to a class at LeMoyne College on Friday morning and then Friday evening Nilsson introduces the East Coast premiere of Imbued at the Palace Theatre. Nilsson also brings a taped interview with Sklar and Keach, and Stacy Keach – who also did the film's spare, surgically targeted jazz score – joins the event live by Skype onscreen for Q&A along with the filmmaker.

******* Nilsson’s “Imbued” screens at the Palace, 2384 James St. on Friday, Feb. 26th at 7:30 PM. Read more about the Cine Manifest retrospective at Anthology Fil Archives by scrolling down here or going to