Wednesday, September 24, 2014


Insignificance (1985)
Dir. Nicolas Roeg
Written by Terry Johnson
Starring Michael Emil, Theresa Russell, Tony Curtis, Gary Busey, Will Sampson

Today’s entry into our continuing series “Hey, did you know Nicolas Roeg made other movies after the 70’s ended?” brings us to what I would consider one of his more approachable efforts, 1985’s INSIGNIFICANCE. It’s a movie about love and science and fame and sex and art and politics and baseball and Armageddon, which now that I think about it actually kind of describes every Nic Roeg film. Except the baseball part, I guess, that might be new to this one. But unlike most of his other movies, it approaches those topics with generally comprehensible conversation and likable characters, instead of a bunch of weird inscrutable plot points and slow-motion montages of things blowing up. Although it has those, too.

The hook here is an imaginary meeting of four luminaries of the 1950's in a New York City hotel room one very late night. They’re unnamed, but are clearly direct representations of Albert Einstein, Marilyn Monroe, Joe DiMaggio, and Joseph McCarthy, all drawn together for different reasons but all eventually refracting off each others’ own particular power and vulnerabilities. Their encounter is purely fictional, but the movie isn’t shy about using it to examine both the big issues of the day and the smaller, more intimate moments between these sometimes larger-than-life characters. These are the most significant figures of the day, but their ubiquitous fame in some ways that makes them even harder to really know, and the film delights in finding a balance between their monumental cultural status and their more nuanced inner lives.

Now that's what I call education.
The script --adapted from a stage play of the same name by its original author-- has a vague whiff of the sort of stagy chattiness that we watch movies instead of plays in order to studiously avoid, but for the most part it’s actually pretty charming. It’s ambiguous without being obtuse, funny without being jokey, and seems disarmingly effortless despite the ambitious contrivance of the plot. Something for everyone. The highlight, though, is the film’s long middle act, where Monroe (Theresa Russell, from most of Roeg’s films but most known to you, personally, as Sandman’s wife from SPIDER MAN 3) cheerfully imposes herself on a pensive Einstein for a long discussion of physics, fame, power and maybe a little sex.

Russell doesn’t look much like Monroe, but she captures something perfectly true about the actress, breathlessly matching Monroe’s own near-parody of bubbly sexpot effusiveness mixed with just the faintest hint of something genuinely ethereal and perhaps a little tragic. Einstein is played by Michael Emil, “an actor and production manager,” (says his IMBD) so insignificant he doesn’t even have his own wikipedia page. This seems to be his only major film,* but he’s fucking fantastic here, finding a perfect bemused tone for the iconic physicist, who claims not to know who his famous visitor is but may be in desperate need of a distraction from the more dire matters currently weighing on his mind.

You know that old rule of cinema: if you see a post-cubist Picasso painting in the first act, it's gonna be a metaphor by the last act.
One of those matters is the spectre of bitter nationalism, represented here by a gleefully loathsome Tony Curtis as Joe McCarthy, who wants Einstein to testify before his House of Unamerican Activities Committee… or else.** To McCarthy, Einstein simply represents a voice of recognized popular authority, but of course Einstein has his own memories of governments singling out minority groups for special scrutiny. And from there, it’s a terrifyingly short mental journey to Einstein’s own unwanted progeny, the spectre of nuclear war. Even as he meticulously works through equations and chats up busty blonde actresses, the Professor’s mind can’t help but flit back to images of devastated Japanese cities and dreams of Nazis showing up at his door. Plus, now he had to worry that the Actress’ doofus ballplayer husband (Gary Busey as Joe DiMaggio) thinks he’s a philandering shrink. It ain’t easy being genius.  

I haven't seen all his films, but I'd wager this is Tony Curtis' sweatiest role.

There’s a lightly magical quality here --as befits a movie about a fictional encounter between these iconic American figures-- but Roeg keeps these characters’ pain too close to the surface for this to sink into some kind of campy postmodern fairy tale. In a typically Roeg move, he frugally peppers the erudite talkiness of the present with silent glimmers of the past, flashbacks which draw interesting juxtapositions with the dialogue, suggesting layers of hidden meaning. In particular, we see heartbreaking flashes of Monroe’s lonely childhood and awkward coming to terms with her own sexual power.*** It skillfully --and with somewhat surprising sensitivity-- intimates both why Monroe is the way she is, and, curiously, what else she could have been had her life, perhaps, been different.

What’s cool about the whole enterprise is that every one of these people represents something abstract: Einstein, the capriciousness of science, DiMaggio, the deceptive simplicity of masculinity, McCarthy, the corruptive influence of Power, and, of course, Monroe, the feminine mystique. And the movie certainly traffics in these abstractions. But it never forgets that these are real people, too. Each of these characters is aware of their own legendary status, and to some degree both freed and held hostage by it. They’re the most well-known people in America, probably in the world, but to some extent they’re defined by the way a busy world sees them more than the way they really are. And who even knows what that would be? Like the collaged nude of his wife that DiMaggio sees in a bar, these people have all been broken into their individuals parts and reshaped into something superficially identical but fragmented, piecemeal. Relative.

Busey is skeptical about cubist pornography.

Relativity is key here, obviously; fame is all about perception, just like reality is, and just like reality, the most important thing is where you’re standing and how quickly you’re travelling. This is made explicit in the film’s best scene, where an energized Monroe uses toy trains and flashlights to correctly explain the theory of relativity back to Einstein. It’s a wonderful, unexpected moment for both characters, a great piece of energetic filmmaking, and a not-exactly-subtle but still appropriate metaphor for the whole experience of life and the universe. At its best, the movie embodies all these things, and balances them with an unusual grace.

Towards the end, things start to get a bit more melancholy and enigmatic, but by that time the film has earned it and it never feels like overreaching. In fact, it feels like a logical extension of these interactions between complex people, overwhelming abstractions, and a infinitely mysterious universe. Some things are too big and strange to be reduced to words, and fortunately this is where Roeg is able to step in and let his powerful style of impressionistic montage do the talking for him. Still, even here he never quite lets the film get completely away from his characters; even Marilyn Monroe may be insignificant before the totality of the cosmos and the grand laws which bind together (and can also rip apart) the universe… but that doesn’t mean that she’s not worth listening to, every once in a while. Physics, like fame itself, can be overwhelming and threaten to drown out the ever-so-significant minutiae of human experience. But at least in this film, Roeg manages to delicately --and even cheerfully-- balance the two of them with extraordinary verve. If you ask me, that’s an achievement impressive enough to earn him the right to be in my proposed 1980’s sequel, INSIGNIFICANCE II: INSIGNIFICANT OTHER, in which Nicolas Roeg, Madonna, Ted Kennedy, and the 1985 Chicago Bears have a fictional romance at Live Aid 1985. Featuring Sting as Ted Kennedy. Hollywood, you take it from here.

This is actually the perfect poster for this movie, although I can see why it would be kinda a hard sell.

*Looks like he was the lead in only two other movies, one of which was called “CAN SHE BAKE A CHERRY PIE?” so I don’t know what his deal is. IMDB claims that he is “ex-brother-in-law of Pete Townsend, so… good on him, I guess? He does play “Medical Examiner” in Larry Cohen’s Billy-Dee-Williams starring thriller DEADLY ILLUSION, so I better see that one, I guess. Oh, and he was sixth-billed in a bizarre-sounding G. Gordon Liddy-starring (?)  kiddie remake of REAR WINDOW (?!) called ADVENTURES IN SPYING in 1990. Jesus, was this guy born under a lucky sign or what?

**Apparently this never happened in real life, but one could easily imagine they would have come for him eventually.

***Wow, I just read up on this and I guess I didn’t know what a fucked up childhood Monroe had in real life. I kinda assumed some of this was fictionalized for the movie, I guess not.

Monday, September 15, 2014


Ultrasonic (2012)
Dir. Rohit Colin Rao
Written by Rohit Colin Rao, Mike Maguire
Starring Silas Gordon Brigham, Sam Repshas, Cate Buscher

An aspiring musician (Silas Gordon Brigham) with a pregnant wife and a lot of stress over his future suddenly discovers one day that he has something additional to worry about: There’s a mysterious high-frequency tone, fluctuating in intensity, which only he seems to be able to hear. At first he worries there’s something wrong with him, he sees a doctor, tries to figure out what’s wrong with his ears. But gradually, with some needling from his conspiracy theory-prone brother-in-law (Sam Repshas) he begins to suspect that there’s something more sinister going on, which only his uniquely fine-tuned hearing can detect.

This ambitious and thoughtful micro-budget take on a psychological thriller is perhaps a bit too uneventful and amateurish to be a dish for all tastes, but those willing to look beyond its rough edges will find plenty to like. The deliberate pace, ambiguous mystery and stark black-and-white photography add up to a confident, unusual vision and the soundtrack (though sometimes a little too assertive for such a quiet film) suits the hypnotic, paranoid mood very nicely. As a DC native, it's also nice to see a film set in the nation's capital which eschews the usual stock footage of the Capitol dome and Washington monument. We don't see much of the city beyond the metro (knowing DC's restrictive filming laws, even the few local shots we do see much have been a huge hassle to get) but the location work in grim, moldy-brick lower-class DC neighborhoods adds a strong sense of authenticity, and a good reminder to the rest of the world that there’s a whole diverse city here, not just a strip of senators and museums. Setting the story in the real world, with a cast of real people (mostly nonactors, I imagine) makes the whole thing more relatable than it would be with a bunch of 20something TV actors in some fake Hollywood set. Maybe not more believable, but at least a different vibe. I like it.

I'd know that wrought-iron fence anywhere!

Even at a slim 90 minutes, the film feels a little padded, and not every performance plays entirely convincingly (though leads Brigham and Repshas do nice work). As is often the case with these little independent films, there’s some awkwardness and perhaps a tendency to overexplain things somewhat, which doesn’t always feel very convincing (even though the conclusion is still appropriately ambiguous). But it’s a laudable effort, especially for a microbudget indie. If it lacks a certain amount of refinement, it makes up for it by getting right the most important thing in this sort of low-key thriller: tone. I’m not sure if the movie has as much to say about government overreach as it might think it does, but who cares when it has that elusive ability to lull you into that hypnotic state of low-key paranoia. If you're in the mood for an atmospheric, slow-burn mystery with a unique concept and ambitious execution, this one will deliver.

Surprising amount of crossover between Hipsters and mentally ill conspiracy theorists.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014


The Order vs The Order

The Order (2003) aka The Sin Eater
Dir and written by Brian Helgeland
Starring Heath Ledger, Mark Addy, Benno Fürmann, Shannyn Sossamon, Peter Weller

So Van Damme’s THE ORDER is more or less what you’d expect, plus split-kicking while dressed like a Rabbi. You’d think Heath Ledger’s THE ORDER would be pretty much like you’d expect it to be, too. I mean, early millennial studio B-movie with a rising star and an often-frustrated writer-director working in a mostly disreputable sub-genre. Should add up to something akin to UNDERWORLD, maybe like an EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING, right? Sort of dull, drab, uninspired, safe, crappy and predictable. You’d think. But you’d be wrong. This THE ORDER is a really fuckin’ weird movie, it almost doesn’t do anything you’d expect of it. I mean, it is crappy, I guess that part is pretty expected. But not in the usual, predictable way these things go. This is crappy in a weird, alien way, like it was made by someone whose only previous contact with humanity had been through Cinemax Softcore films and Catholic fan fiction.

Here’s the story, I think: Heath Ledger is Detective John Order, a Catholic priest who belongs to an obscure THE ORDER which is frowned upon by the church hierarchy for their delving into arcane knowledge re: demon fighting, etc. Mainstream Catholicism is really embarrassed by their old fashion exorcism-having ways,* which is a little perplexing because it seems like there’s a demon lurking around pretty much every corner here and also let’s face it, by the time you accept the idea of a God coming to Earth to sacrifice himself to himself so he can legally forgive an entire species for a sin committed by the first woman ever, I don’t know why demons are such a stretch. Might as well go whole hog at that point.

Nah I’m just playing, I kid Catholicism, we’re friends. But seriously, with a mainstream religion as wacky as that, you can hardly blame the movie for this shit not making any sense.

What's he buuuuilllllldding in there?

Anyway, point is that Heath discovers that his mentor/adopted father has died under mysterious demonic circumstances in Rome, and the extremely shady Peter-Weller-esque Cardinal Driscoll (Peter Weller) wants him to hoof it over there and check it out. For some reason he also takes along Mara (Shannyn Sossamon, 2002 Teen Choice Award for Choice Film Chemistry) a mentally ill young lady who has just escaped from a mental institution she was placed in after trying to kill our boy during a (botched?) exorcism, and who also wants to bone him but she can’t cuz he’s a priest. And because three’s a crowd, they also meet up with the other guy, Father Thomas (Mark Addy, JACK FROST**) who is allegedly some sort of charming Irishman, in the role of fat best friend. So off to the races they go!

Basically for awhile it’s just your standard detective story, our boys making the rounds, shaking down the local demonic forces for info, meeting unsympathetic figures of authority, visiting crime scenes and collecting forensic evidence, visiting the crime lab (in this case, arcane supernatural bookstore) and talking to the nerds about what it all means. So far so good, but here’s the thing: after some routine evil demon child fighting and shaking down the local nameless malevolent force, our primary suspect emerges, and things turn decidedly strange.

See, the prime suspect here is this guy with the stripper name of William Eden (Benno Fürmann, “Inspector Detector” from SPEED RACER), whose job is that he is a “Sin Eater,” i.e. the movie’s original, less generic title. Here’s what a Sin Eater does: he finds people who normally would be eternally damned by the Church (heretics, excommunicated former members, people who wear linen and wool together, anyone caught in white after labor day etc) and removes their sins, bringing them onto himself. The person is now free to go to Heaven, Sin Eater gets paid, and also it makes him more or less immortal, so he doesn’t have to worry about Hell either. Pretty sweet deal for the guy, pretty awkward situation for the Church, which really, really likes to have a monopoly on who does and who does not get into Heaven.

"Oh Heath, if only you hadn't chosen to forsake the ways of the flesh and devote yourself to God, I would surely make love to you." "Be quite, Shannyn, I'm way into this sunflower right now" 

Here’s what makes the movie so weird: I think this dude is supposed to be the villain here; he does all the usual villainous things, like make speeches about how we’re not so different you and I, murders someone important, associates with known demonic forces, etc. But the movie is surprisingly ambivalent about him. In fact, after seeing him work, Ledger actually seems more or less in agreement with his motives and methods. And of course, it makes sense, because any person with even the faintest hint of a human soul has to applaud anyone that would do whatever it took to prevent someone else from going to hell, especially if they’re doomed to that fate because some asshole church bureaucrat excommunicated them over a political dispute. To wit: Ledger’s own mentor and adoptive father had recently been excommunicated over his quest for knowledge; officially, without some last minute sin-eating, this poor old man was doomed to burn in hell for eternity. I mean, who could possibly support something so horrific? And let’s remember, this is a God of forgiveness; murder as many people as you want, and the Church will still absolve you from your death bed if you offer sincere contrition. The only thing they won’t forgive is you getting kicked out of their club. Fuck that. Suffering for eternity because you opened the wrong book? This Sin Eating business sounds like a real victory for simple human decency. Did you fuckers learn nothing from my takedown of DANTE’S PEAK INFERNO?

That’s all pretty interesting philosophically, but it makes for a weirdly unstructured genre movie. I mean, what exactly is the conflict here? There’s a big conspiracy, but if the conspiracy is all in service of something you more or less agree with, or at least have very mixed feelings about, there’s not a whole lot of tension about punishing the people responsible, right? I guess the Eden part was originally going to be played by Vincent Cassel, he might have been more able to seem sneaky and villainous even while doing arguably the right thing. But Benno Fürmann has a real earnest Jeremy Renner nice guy quality to him, it’s hard not to buy that he’s essentially right. There IS one unambiguously evil guy, but I’m not actually sure what his stake in any of this was, or how exactly he’s involved. It kinda seems like he was involved in this conspiracy part time as a hobby or something, he does have an evil plan but it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with Heath Ledger or Sin Eating, at least as far as I can tell; he’s kinda got his own thing going and then they randomly happen to learn about it, unrelated to their investigation. They (SPOILER) him in the end, though, so… yay?

Good name for a bakery renowned for their rich chocolate desserts, possibly not such a good name for a movie. 
Aside from its weird wandering ambiguous plot, the movie has the unusual distinction of having a script which appears to be composed of 100% clichéd philosophy quotes taken out of context. How else could you explain an incident where a minor character solemnly intones: “Knowledge is the Enemy of Faith. And sometimes when you look into the abyss... the abyss looks back into you.” That’s not a line of dialogue, that’s a fortune cookie put together by a google search algorithm. Apart from being dodgy paraphrases of famous quotes, I can’t help but notice that those sentences have nothing to do with each other. Is knowledge supposed to be the abyss? I don’t get it. Heath Ledger nods gravely, though. Guess it’s one of those little in-jokes between seekers of arcane knowledge.

Also: “Every life is a riddle. The answer to mine is knowledge, born of darkness.”

The movie is full of that kind of thing, just total howlers. Writer Helgeland (NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET IV: DREAM MASTER) would be nominated for an Academy award for his MYSTIC RIVER screenplay this same year; I’m not a huge fan of that one, either, but at least no one is throwing around Nietzsche quotes willy-nilly. I guess he was trying to match his characters’ diction to the big, gothic Catholic drama he’s trying to conjure here, but wow, does it not work. Even poor Heath Ledger gives a pretty embarrassing performance here. I think he’s going for naturalism, but given that dialogue you can imagine about how well it comes off. Mostly, he just seems kind of jet lagged and out of it, or maybe like he's trying to play off the fact that he doesn’t speak the language and can't understand a single thing anyone is saying to him. It’s weird, the whole main cast is more or less directly imported from Helgeland’s previous film, A KNIGHT’S TALE, where they’re all so charming and lively. Here, only Mark Addy comes off with any kind of dignity at all, and it’s really only because he’s the only cast member who occasionally smiles.

Bad Boys, Bad Boys, whatcha gonna do?

There’s not a whole lot of dignity to go around for anyone; the entire enterprise has an off-putting amateurishness to it, full of awkward edits, listless framing, the whole nine yards. In fact, for much of the runtime it looks like it must have been made for almost nothing, you might even think it was a no-budget indie effort from a few years earlier if you didn’t know better. Occasionally, you do see some money on-screen (sins represented by CGI transparent soul squids, for example. I don’t think I remember that part of the bible) but mostly even if it looks like it must have been expensive they don’t get their money’s worth here, it comes off looking cheap anyway. They do have two pretty nice sets, though. One is a big evil throne room kind of deal (see pic above), lots of good detail there and even a little atmosphere generated solely by the set itself. The other is a set which is supposed to be the inside of St. Peter’s Basilica. It’s pretty convincing, as are a couple other fancy Vatican sets you see from time to time. They couldn’t have actually got permission to shoot inside a real Vatican church, right? These have got to be sets, but they’re good ones, real impressive looking and details-rich. So good job, set designer of THE ORDER, even though they kinda squander it by shooting things to look as cramped and unimpressive is they can.

I dunno, man, it’s kinda hard to even criticize this one since I can’t even confidently say what they were even going for to begin with. Is this supposed to be some kind of twisty gothic mystery? Some sort of morose philosophical meditation? A doomed love story, perhaps? A horror movie? I honestly have no idea. For a movie about an Order, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of guiding intent here. Maybe should have stuck with that Sin Eating title, guys.

These are some nice ass stairs. Good job, organized religion.

* Guess the new Pope watched this movie and saw the error in their ways, because…

** The Michael Keaton one where the dead dad comes back as a snowman, not the 1997 one where the dead serial killer comes back as a snowman and rapes a chick with his carrot nose, although now that you mention it they sort of have the same plot except for the whole carrot rape thing. And I gotta admit it’s been awhile since I watched the Keaton version, maybe that’s in there too.


WINNER: Van Damme, by virtue of at least being cheerful about all this.
LOSER: Anyone who had to watch both films.
WHAT HAVE WE LEARNED? The early 2000’s were a rough time for movies.
WHO WORE IT BETTER? As much as I will always treasure my time with Rabbi Van Damme, you can't deny how fuckin' fly Heath be lookin' with those vestments. Insert applicable alter boy joke here.