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Movies are a sideline of the Austin Film Festival. After all, they're an end product. The Heart of Film Screenwriters' Conference honors the folks who make it all possible and gives novice writers a chance to discuss the craft with some of their idols.

Reviews:

Interviews:


Das Experiment

After watching this acclaimed thriller from Germany, it’s easy to see why director Oliver Hirschbiegel is rumored to be a strong contender to bring Blade III to franchise life, but it’s tougher to see why anyone believed him to be capable of more than that. Das Experiment is a movie that initially seems ambitious: (very) loosely based on the Stanford Prison Experiments of the ’70s, the set-up places 24 men into a controlled university study where half are prisoners and half guards, and watches the mayhem break. The situation is loaded with tensions—class, historical (with scenes intentionally recalling the naked huddling masses of concentration camps), between aloof academics and proles—but what they might add up to is beyond Hirschbiegel, and his obvious desire to make A Statement comes out muddled. The film’s needless sadism is a pure invention (no one died, to say the least), and the Aliens-inspired finale (a long, nasty series of chases and confrontations with knives that recall The Shining with more subdued lighting) finally reduces the film to its most absurd level.

It’s trashy and undeniably stupid, but as exploitation fare it’s compelling. Crisp crane shots, unerring devotion to the flashier possibilities of surround sound, and the suspenseful use of cross-cutting elevate this to a high action-melodrama plateau. The characters are all types, but as long as they can run fast, what’s it matter? The final product is rather vile, using its sociological gloss as an excuse for painful torture scenes that appeal to all the masochists in the crowd, and twisting a legitimate starting point into just another shocker. (Nor is it a subtle contrapuntal gesture to use the Beach Boys’ “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” as a backdrop for torture scenes.) Beyond the violence itself, there’s something disturbing about exploiting the situation for mere action kicks. But the kicks themselves are quite good, and Hirschbiegel will be worth watching when he learns to stop reaching for more than he can apparently grasp.

Das Experiment has already opened in New York and other major cities, and is currently making its way through America.

—Vadim Rizov


The Safety Of Objects

Rose Troche’s first film, Go Fish, was a lesbian comedy. Next, Bedrooms And Hallways explored the possibilities of a male homosexual farce. Now, having apparently exhausted the possibilities there, she turns to heterosexual drama. The Safety Of Objects is about as obvious and mild-mannered as its title, and the explanation can perhaps be found in the end credits: The film isn’t located in a specifically noted area, so the end credits thanking the Director’s Guild of Canada help do a good deal of explaining. With its largely subdued tone, a “quiet-is-the-new-loud” approach which resembles In The Bedroom without the gravitas, and its generous doses of anemic pop music (from an obscure outfit dubbed Bullet), The Safety Of Objects manages to puree a bunch of tonally different short stories by A.M. Homes into the same pasty emotional sludge. Though a good deal of ground is covered, from the relatively tragic story of a young man’s love affair with an older woman (which throws Joshua Jackson, “Dawson’s Creek” heartthrob, into a coma for the sake of a “serious acting” bid) to a spiky story which deals with pre-teen sexuality, the jokey semi-serious feel of the whole film reduces a bunch of different elements to the same emotionally mild feeling. And there’s something wrong when a scene where Glenn Close (in a part that practically screams “Oscar bait”; it’s the kind of role where a normally over-the-top actress subdues herself for the whole film for the sake of one big, emotional, and rather phony monologue) talks to her comatose son plays at the same entertainment level as a scene where a young boy attempts to get fellated by a Barbie doll.

Many accused American Beauty of being fundamentally dishonest, of privileging a vision of suburbia which allowed disaffected suburbanites to feel good about themselves while indulging in superficial criticisms. But at least American Beauty had the nerve to play for full-blown drama and comedy, and allow the purely entertaining aspects to take over. By pretending to sobriety, The Safety Of Objects seeks to fool you into thinking that it’s somehow more “genuine.” But what’s on sale (the possibility of a life of quiet despair with rare moments of grace) is the same damn thing. Just not as much fun.

The Safety Of Objects is scheduled for a spring 2003 release.

—Vadim Rizov


Lava

Lava (as yet without distribution in America) starts out by covering some very familiar ground: Poorly shaven lower-class types get loving close-ups of every ugly crevice of their faces, while colorful black gangsters roam London and shoot anyone who touches their car. Starting off like a queasy mix of technically sub-par Guy Ritchie ripoff and class-conscious unpleasantries, Lava becomes considerably more interesting once it stops trying to be flamboyant cinema and settles down to one set (an apartment) for a theatrical series of slaying and comic interludes. Philip (James Holmes) had his brother beaten to a comatose, drooling pulp several years ago, and now the man responsible is out of jail. With would-be-soldier-of-fortune friend Smiggy (writer/director Joe Tucker) motivating and controlling him every step of the way, they invade the culprit’s apartment to await his return and avenge Philip’s brother.

Early scenes, with their overheated (and reheated) lower-class tensions, muffed comic timing, and overly loud slam-cuts, are wearying and derivative. But once the film settles down in the apartment, as Philip and Smiggy wait for the right man and erroneously kill a number of unfortunate people who come to the apartment for all the wrong reasons, Lava settles down into a nice, nihilistic comic groove. It’s Tucker’s show all the way, as he expounds his theories on feminine behavior and pays homage to Robert De Niro, dominating the whole film with his blustering comic presence. As a neophyte director, he gets good help from a superb tech crew, and the film’s vibrant colors and surprisingly adept framing keeps the whole thing from feeling too bogged down. Initially starting off as either wanna-be Ritchie and/or wanna-be Mike Leigh, it ends up being something far funnier and original than a rip-off of either.

—Vadim Rizov


The Weight Of Water

How much, exactly, does water weigh? You won’t know the answer after watching this movie, but, judging by this film and her previous flop K-19: The Widowmaker, it’s too much for director Kathryn Bigelow. Anita Shreve writes that her novel, The Weight of Water, is about “the random act, the consequences of a second’s brief abandonment,” but it’s tough to tell what this mess is about (although it does seem like the consequences of a series of random thoughts and directorial tangents). It partly involves a story about a poet (Sean Penn) and his photographer wife (Catherine McCormack) investigating a murder which took place in 1873, and partly involves depicting the actual murder and context of the 1873 deaths. But what these stories really have to do with each other, and how they mirror each other, is nebulous, and only one comes to a satisfactory conclusion (or any conclusion at all). The opening credits feature slow-motion shots of an object plunging into water while a choir sings ominously, and this level of cheesiness is maintained over the course of the film.

Watching Sean Penn recite bad verse illuminated only by exhaled cigarette smoke which makes his sunglasses gleam does have some entertainment value, and so does watching a topless Liz Hurley rub an ice cube all over her body for no apparent reason. Meanwhile, in the parallel story-line, a number of superior actors, led by the stellar Sarah Polley and including the late Katrin Cartlidge, struggle through a turgid but decent period story which depends entirely on a last-minute revelation to have any impact whatsoever. The story recalls Carl Dreyer’s Day Of Wrath with its Nordic characters and ominous supernatural overtones, but to no avail. The overheated contemporary drama goes nowhere, the period story doesn’t have enough to justify its existence, and the results are every bit as cheesy as the beginning.

Understandably delayed from its original 2000 release date, The Weight Of Water makes its leaden way to theaters this fall.

—Vadim Rizov



Roger Dodger

Campbell Scott reaches deep down into his reliable bag of tricks and comes up with a winner in Roger Dodger, an entertaining look at the cynicism that envelops modern love.

Scott plays the titular character, a charming ad exec who is seemingly lucky in love—that is, until he meets Joyce (Isabella Rossellini), an older woman who breaks his heart (and his fragile male ego).

When Roger’s nephew Nick (Jesse Eisenberg) comes to New York in hopes that his uncle can give him advice about the fairer sex, Roger seizes the opportunity to infuse Nick with the same cynicism he himself possesses. However, Nick proves that his idealistic outlook is far more successful with the ladies, and a much better way to approach life. By the end, Roger is the one who walks away with a lesson he will never forget.

Roger Dodger could simply have been a retread of In The Company Of Men, but it is less about the competitiveness of the workplace, and more about the evolution of male attitudes toward love and sex. The film proves much more optimistic than Neil LaBute’s breakout modern-day masterpiece, which may not be true to life, but proves a charming cinematic experience nonetheless.

Much of the charm lies in the performances, especially by Scott and Eisenberg, whose polar opposite characters form a combative, though loving, relationship. Scott is always a reliable performer, and here he outdoes himself, rattling off lines at breakneck speed, while occasionally stopping to give a mournful stare—he reminds us that words are often the only things we have to mask our pain.

Roger Dodger is writer/director Dylan Kidd’s debut film, and he proves that he has the potential to be a major talent. Like LaBute, he has his finger on the pulse of modern day corporate relationships, as well as retaining a childlike sense of wonder about the world. This translates into the film itself, forcing it to fall in a rather awkward, but interesting, genre: dystopian idealism.

—Erin Steele



Lost In La Mancha

Louis Pepe and Keith Fulton had made a documentary about a Terry Gilliam movie before. The Hamster Factor chronicled the director during production of Twelve Monkeys. So it seemed they’d be a great pick to document the making of… excuse me, the events transpiring during the shoot of Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. Little did they know that they were about to witness the near-operatic unraveling of the production. Gilliam’s shoot, visited by every disaster short of Biblical plagues, makes compelling viewing. Torrential rains, floods, and actor’s illness take their toll, shutting down the production in a matter of days.

The technical aspects of Lost In La Mancha are nothing to write home about. Its watchability comes from the filmmakers’ access to pivotal moments, which in turn comes from their excellent prior relationship with Gilliam. His loss becomes their gain, but judging from the snippets of footage of Lost In La Mancha, it’s our loss too.

—Roxanne Bogucka



Standing In The Shadows Of Motown

Some movies leave you exhilirated and gasping for breath. This is often a highly subjective experience, leaving loved ones scratching their heads at films that moved you deeply, and vice versa. When I left the theater after seeing Standing In The Shadows Of Motown, I was thinking that anyone who isn’t moved by this film must not have a pulse. A few days’ reflection, and I still think it’s a wonderful movie, but I can see how some discerning viewers might not flip over it. Those would be 1) people who dislike documentaries on principle or 2) people who don’t like Motown music.

Guitar doctor Slutsky, a.k.a. Dr. Licks, wrote a book about James Jamerson, a Motown studio musician widely hailed as the best bass player there ever was, and about the other session musicians he worked with. These unsung heroes, Slutsky claimed, had played on more #1 hits than anyone else, ever. They called themselves the Funk Brothers. We never heard of them, and most of us, as the movie’s opening minutes reveal, never even paused to consider who was playing the instruments behind “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg,” “My Girl,” or “Heat Wave.” It took Slutsky several years to find partners and financing to rectify this crime against music.

Standing In The Shadows Of Motown interviews several surviving Funk Brothers, who describe their days at [motown address]. These recollections are intercut with archival footage, stills, a couple of re-enacted events, and electrifying performances of classic Motown tunes with the Funk Bros. playing behind the likes of Ben Harper, Joan Osborne, Me’Shell Ndege’Ocello, Bootsy Collins, Chaka Khan, and others.

Some of the reminiscences paint Motown management (read: Berry Gordy) as a less than benevolent employer. Gordy hired musicians to spy on other musicians and snitch on them if they worked gigs at other studios or clubs. He also was not the most sensitive communicator. The Funk Brothers learned of the closing of Motown’s Detroit operations when they reported for work and were greeted by a terse sign on the studio’s door. But the considerable cooperation needed from Motown for this film to see the light of day, not to mention the music rights, prevented too much slagging from going on. In fact, Motown, in time-honored tradition, is cashing in on the movie, issuing the soundtrack on Hip-O Records, and sponsoring the Standing In The Shadows Of Motown contest.

There’s frankly not a lot you could do to go wrong with this material. The movie is a revival meeting for fans of soul and R&B, and I got the spirit. The songs are instantly recognizable classics of what Keith Knight calls booty-higher-than-your-head funk, and the contemporary performers selected to participate are clearly wide-eyed fans of the Funk Brothers. While enjoyable for all, the movie is definitely send you if you’re a child of the ’60s and ’70s (or wish you were).

Thank you Dr. Slutsky. But most especially, thank you, Funk Brothers, for the soundtrack of our lives.

Includes performances of: “Reach Out, I’ll Be There,” “Heat Wave,” “You Really Got A Hold On Me,” “Do You Love Me?,” “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg,” “Shotgun,” “What Becomes Of The Brokenhearted?,” “I Heard It Through The Grapevine,” “Cool Jerk,” “Cloud Nine,” “What’s Going On,” “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”.

—Roxanne Bogucka


Mike Doughty



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