When Drew DeNicola and Olivia Mori’s documentary Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me made its North Carolina premiere at Full Frame Documentary Film Festival last April, the Triangle area music scene was largely represented in the Carolina Theatre audience.
The N.C. connection—local pop artists/producers Chris Stamey and Mitch Easter are interviewed in the film—was an attracting factor, as was a performance preceding the screening by the Stamey-led band The Fellow Travelers, but the place was packed more because of the love of the original music itself. I certainly felt that love full force throughout the film as the infectious rifts of such should-be classics as “September Gurls,” “Ballad of El Goodo” and “In the Street” were received with enormous warmth, over and over.
The Memphis power pop combo consisted of Alex Chilton, Chris Bell, Andy Hummel and Jody Stephens. During their existence from the early- to mid-’70s, they never had a hit single or got much radio airplay—despite album titles such as #1 Record and Radio City. But their legend has grown substantially in rock circles over the last several decades.
DeNicola and Mori’s superb rock doc gets to the heart of how the players came together, and then fell apart just a few years later, but left behind music that R.E.M.’s Peter Buck said “served as a Rosetta Stone for a whole generation of musicians.”
Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me returns to the Carolina Theatre as part of Magnolia Pictures’ Summer Documentary Series, running Aug. 19 through Aug. 27, so curious folks and fans who missed it the first time around can now catch up with the story of the cult band.
We spoke with the film’s co-director, Brooklyn-based Drew DeNicola, about the filmmakers’ attempts to get Chilton on camera before his death from a heart attack in 2009, why the band’s 2005 attempt at a comeback album was not covered and what juicy bonus material will be included on the film’s DVD release later this year.
INDY WEEK: What documentaries, either about musical subjects or otherwise, influenced the making of this film?
DREW DENICOLA: I would say very few documentaries influenced me. I like to think of documentaries as I do narrative films. I often refer to Citizen Kane, though, mainly in the way that this documentary of Big Star is not a first-hand account. Instead, we go from person to person and get their perspective. The film is never really definitive. It's more that you get these impressions from the people we interview, and they become part of the story as well.
As it’s said in the movie that Alex Chilton could be prickly about the attention given to Big Star. Do you think, had he lived, he would’ve taken part in this film? I heard you were trying to get him involved—was he receptive to the idea, or do you think he would’ve opted not to participate in the end?
No, I don't think he would have. He said only, “It's not the sort of thing that I'm inclined to do.” But was always open to talking. It was sort of maddening, really. I think he got used being sort of an outsider over the years, and he had pretty much put the Big Star era behind him, I think, musically and personally.
I noticed that Big Star’s 2005 studio reunion album In Space was shown (in a montage made up mostly of Chilton solo album covers), but not discussed. Was this because of the mixed critical reaction to it, or was it because of time constraints?
More time constraints. We made a decision early on that this was not to be a definitive chronicle of the band but more like a primer. The great surprise as I got deeper into it was that the story of the band and that music had such universality to it that it became more of an essay on where art comes from and how it manifests or not in a commercial space. We sort of connect that idea back to much of the culture of Memphis, and I feel like finally reconcile this anglo-rock supergroup with their Memphis roots.
The 1978 album Third/Sister Lover was the first music of Big Star’s that you heard and got into. Any particular song, or songs, that are favorites from that?
“Kanga Roo,” “Take Care” “Dreamlover” were my faves. But I love the whole collection—must be careful not to call it an album! To me, the music of Big Star is so much a part of their story and lives that it's tough to pick favorites. I take it as a whole, now.
I’m working on bonus features right now. There’s a lot. We never covered Big Star's two shambolic tours, there's more info on the early days before the band was formed—Alex's life as a pop star in the Box Tops and Chris Bell’s various studio projects/bands, Rock City and Ice Water.
Lesa Aldridge, the muse of Sister Lovers might make an appearance—I think she said it would be OK. Also, Chris Bell’s two trips to Europe to work with Geoff Emerick are interesting. On one he met Jimmy Page, and another he met Paul McCartney. Also, the circumstances of Bell’s death and the many encounters people reported to have contact with him from beyond the grave are pretty interesting. Yeah, there’s a lot! The film could have easily been five hours long.
But few were prepared for Schrader's next venture,The Canyons, an erotic thriller from a script by Bret Easton Ellis and starring porn actor James Deen and uninsurable trainwreck Lindsay Lohan. The quarter-million dollar production was crowdfunded, and the entire guerrilla filmmaking ordeal was recounted in a memorable New York Times Magazine feature.
The Canyons has received poor reviews, but its notoriety seems to ensure that it will find an audience. The film is available on iTunes beginning today.
When INDY Week was offered a telephone interview with Schrader, we decided to ask Jay O'Berski, artistic director of Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern, to talk to him. O'Berski is a longtime Durham theater director and Duke University theater instructor who's no stranger to difficult working conditions and challenging subject matter. Here's their conversation, which occurred Thursday, Aug. 1.
JAY O'BERSKI: I know that you’ve traditionally worked with actors that might be considered difficult—and obviously most recently, Lindsay Lohan—but also including Richard Pryor in Blue Collar
PAUL SCHRADER: Well, he was also extremely angry.
[laughs] Yes, well that too. And George T. Scott on Hardcore, who was an alcoholic. I’m just wondering about your philosophy on dealing with difficult actors and how you can get a performance out of them.
Well, usually the reason you work with a difficult actor is because they’re worth it. You know, if you have a difficult actor who’s not worth it, you fire them. Or you decide not to hire them. So, you know going in that this person has a reputation, but you’ve decided that it’s going to be worth it, and you just try to be as tolerant and patient as—you know some days you have to be kind of stern, and some days you have to be devious, or some days you have to back down—you know, you just sort of smell your way through it. And sometimes you can help improve a performance, and sometimes you can’t. You know, directors don’t really make performances. You know, they watch, and they advise, and they reject. But you know, it’s the individual actor who’s going to bring it to the table.
Right, so when you have an actor like Lindsay Lohan, you know, who’s notoriously difficult, do you feel like audiences are watching this film like it’s a circus or a—
I would imagine that there is an element out there that can’t help but do that. You know I have to believe that if a movie has any... interest, once it gets going, you’re now into the characters and you’re not saying, "There’s Denzel Washington or Mark Wahlberg."
Now as far as large thematics in your work, a lot of your films, you speak of the fact that we are all actors, basically—that we wear masks, that we hustle all the time. That it’s really about, I believe the term you used was “fucking up” to get to the top.
You’re mixing some of my dialogue with some of Bret’s… You know, I personally think that the film is more Bret than me, and of course Bret says it’s more me than him. But, Bret’s world is a colder world than mine, but, you know, I was trying to be faithful to it.
What about the erotic nature of the film and some of your other work? Do you find that the marketplace accepts it? Do you find that the actors you work with are accepting?
Well, you don’t deceive anyone. Even though Lindsay started to get cold feet about doing the sex scene, it was something you had to discuss many, many times before, and had been agreed to many times before. But, you know, when it comes to the day, she kept trying to… dim the lighting. But you—you never deceive them. And you know, actors on the whole are a pretty brave lot. They’re used to embarrassing themselves and making fools of themselves for money, and when you have actors who are doing that, who are getting naked emotionally, you are going to have times when those emotions get out of control. Words are said, and doors are slammed, and tears are shed and you have to clear the set and pull everything back together again, but that’s part and parcel of doing this kind of work.
Did I hear that you got naked in order to coax her to, um…?
Did you find that that worked?
It was basically just to call her bluff, because she was saying that everybody had to get naked and we were running out of light and I just called her bluff and, you know, it ended up that 45 seconds later we were shooting.
THE TO DO LIST
At first, The To Do List seems another summer teen sex comedy, and it delivers—but with surprising poignancy, while also leaving the audience nostalgic for the early ’90s.
In the innocent summer of 1993, iPhone-less interactions drive the film as the era itself becomes a character with its own punch lines and personality. References to VCRs, an early "boo-ya" shaved into buzz-cut heads and the frequent interjection of "LOSER!" (complete with an L-shaped hand to the forehead) balance the grotesque and the raunchy.
We meet Brandy Klark at her high school graduation. She’s a Hillary enthusiast, president of the Mathletes and the creator of a recently published zine entitled "Womyn with a Y." Played by a believably naïve and callous Aubrey Plaza, Brandy’s drive to succeed in her summer quest to check things off a to-do list of sexual feats while working her first job as a lifeguard leads to a whirlwind of ridiculous situations.
Apart from the comedic bits, the film is noteworthy for its representation of young women taking complete control of their own sexuality, not necessarily for the sake of falling in love, but because they want to enjoy sex. Also, the film departs from convention in its representation of male sensitivity, displayed as Brandy breaks the heart of a boy who proceeds to fall apart, requiring the emotional support of his friends.
The majority of The To Do List chronicles Brandy’s pursuit of a one-dimensional approach to what “growing up” means. By the end, the movie pounds out a clear and under-enunciated theme: Having sex for the first time can be some gratifying magic moment, or it can suck. And more importantly, if it does suck, that’s completely fine.
As a filmmaker, Mel Brooks' brand of comedy is often broad, usually excessive and always delivered in the spirit of goofiness. In his best genre parodies — Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles, High Anxiety — no gag is too obvious, no joke is too dumb.
Brooks' first movie, though, was different. Released in 1968, Brooks' barbed satire The Producers was considered so edgy and radical that none of the major studios would touch it. The director eventually secured independent distribution, but the film opened in only a handful of theaters and quickly disappeared.
Reissued this week in a new Blu-ray/DVD "Collector's Edition," The Producers stars Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel as a pair of small time Broadway schemers. Mostel plays Max Bialystock, a washed out stage producer now reduced to seducing old ladies for patronage checks. Wilder is accountant Leo Bloom, a meek and anxious sort who dreams of escaping the sucker's life.
Looking over the books one night, the two discover that a large-scale theatrical flop can be just as profitable as a hit. They hatch a dubious scheme: Mount the worst Broadway musical in history, close the show after one night, and pocket the money from investors.
It's a funny thing about new releases in the digital and DVD business — some weeks you get nothing particularly interesting, and some weeks you get everything under the sun.
A recent flood of titles suggests the variety of options in that realm we can still call, with relative accuracy, home video. The landscape is changing rapidly these days. Popular Hollywood movies no longer just "come out on video." Instead, they're rolled out in waves, in various retail packages — single disc DVD, multi-disc DVD/Blu-ray combo packs — and digital formats. ("Digital" is the emerging catch-all term for titles you can get via online streaming or download, via your PC or mobile device, cable box or game console.)
Digital is the coming thing, certainly. As more and more people get comfortable with online distribution, movies are gradually going the way of music. But those shiny little discs will be around for a while. Studios and distributors have concluded that there's a market for both digital and disc (at least for now) — and they're angling their offerings accordingly.
Take, for instance, the recent teen-romance-meets-sci-fi movie The Host — a big wide-release title in March and a would-be franchise from the author of the Twilight books. For the discerning but impatient teenager who can't wait to see this one — or perhaps see it again after its theatrical run — Universal has arranged for an early digital release this week. So if you're in a hurry, you can go purchase and download the movie via iTunes or Amazon Instant Video, right now.
You won't get any extras or bonus materials, though. For those, you have to wait until July 9, when the DVD/Blu-ray combo pack hits retail shelves, for purchase or (less often) rental. By keeping the bonus materials exclusive to the retail package, the studios hope to attract a different stratum of buyer — those who want the deluxe treatment, with behind-the-scenes details and a permanent, physical copy of the movie on the shelf.
What's more, The Host — like most DVD/Blu-ray combo packs — also includes a digital copy of the film. This digital version isn't actually in the shrink-wrapped DVD case you just bought. Instead, it lives in the Cloud and you use a special promo code to stream it to your smart phone, tablet, etc. Forever and ever, ostensibly. Or until the Skynet android revolution.
British filmmaker Mike Leigh is known for his very particular way of making films. Rather than start with a script, Leigh works with his actors in a designated improvisation period before filming begins. The director provides sketched-out ideas and characters, but the actors become full collaborators in the creation of the story and the making of the film.
It's a model that's used by other filmmakers, often in comedies. Christopher Guest takes a similar approach in his mockumentaries, as does Larry David in the HBO series Curb Your Enthusiasm. But Leigh's technique is, by all reports, a very rigorous process with a different goal. The intent is to strip away intent — to capture on film the spontaneous comedy and tragedy of everyday life.
Among Leigh's gentlest and funniest films is the oddball 1990 family portrait, Life is Sweet. Reissued to Blu-ray by the Criterion Collection, the new edition features digitally remastered image and sound, a new audio commentary track with Leigh, and the usual complement of critical essays and archival documents.
Life is Sweet depicts a few weeks in the summer of a working-class family outside of London. It's an invitation, really. Leigh and his collaborators are cordially extending a proposal to the viewer to spend some time with these people, in this place and time.
Jim Broadbent plays family patriarch Andy, a catering chef who is long on big plans but short on the follow-through. Andy's wife Wendy (Alison Steadman) is the kind of loving but anxious sort who smooths everything over with a running patter of small talk and jokes.
Andy and Wendy's twin daughters, 22 years old, still live at home. Natalie (Claire Skinner) is sensible and still, with an androgynous style and an appreciation for the simple things in life, like a pint at the pub with her fellow plumbers. Her sister Nicola, on the other hand, is a mess. Played by Jane Horrocks, Nicola is a walking spasm of fear and self-loathing — feelings she directs outwards toward her exasperated but concerned family.
How to make a better Superman movie is the Sphinx’s riddle of superhero cinema. There’s nostalgia for Richard Donner’s soaring but cumbersome 1978 original and Richard Lester’s able but somewhat nutty sequel. Some critics have come around to a fondness for Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns, although I tell can’t wrap my arms around a movie about Superman returning after a five-year sabbatical to battle Lex Luthor—again—and Kryptonite—again (oh yeah, he has a kid).
So, the news that Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight) would produce a reboot of the Superman saga directed by Zack Snyder (300; Watchmen) was enough to catapult legions of Super-fanatics into delirium. The result, Man of Steel, isn’t the reimagined overhaul many anticipated. The origin myth remains intact, with some incremental but significant tweaking, chiefly an increased emphasis on the Krypton backstory. And anyone looking for Christopher Reeve’s smile or John Williams’ memorable score will come away empty-handed (although Hans Zimmer’s thundering soundtrack will reverberate in your head for days).
This isn’t your (grand)father’s man of steel; this one has only the slightest of smirks littering a fable that takes its reinvention deadly serious. And I’m fine with that.
Before he becomes Superman, immigrant-from- Krypton Kal-El (Henry Cavill) must discover himself and the reason he’s an all-powerful stranger in a strange world. The film only specifically references the lofty Superman moniker once, but the religious symbolism is unabashed. Kal-El is the son of two fathers. One is by birth, Jor-El (Russell Crowe), who jettisons his son from a dying planet to one where he knows his son will live as a god but hopefully serve as a savior. Jor-El’s consciousness joins Kal-El to Earth, an omnipotent presence guiding his son’s maturation, and anyone willing to believe.
The other earthly patriarch is Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner), a Kansas farmer without children of his own with wife Martha (Diane Lane), who shelters his adopted son and urges him to conceal his powers from a suspicious and fearful world, even at Jonathan’s own expense. It’s a reality Kal-El grapples with as kid Clark Kent growing up in Smallville, Kan., where he swallows his powers in the face of bullies and stifles any public display of those super-abilities, even if, according to Pa Kent, people die.
What Maisie Knew
Opens Friday (see times below)
Carefully written and beautifully photographed, the child custody drama What Maisie Knew is an undeniably moving film with strong performances from everyone involved.
It's also extremely hard to watch, and I don't know that I would recommend it. To parents, anyway. Maisie takes the idea that putting a child in peril is inherently dramatic, then stretches that notion to its breaking point.
Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan play Susanna and Beale, parents of the bright and good-hearted 6-year-old girl Maisie (Onata Aprile). Susanna is an aging rock star, Beale a British art dealer. They live in a high-end Manhattan apartment building, when they're not jetting around for the demanding business of Art. The film opens with Beale and Susanna in the final, terminal stages of splitting up and Maisie is witness to fights of astonishing emotional brutality. As played by the still, sad-eyed Oprile, Maisie doesn't react. She just absorbs it all.
Events progress and the custody battle grows bitter. Susanna changes the locks. Beale attempts to steal Maisie away from her grade school class. When Beale marries the family's live-in nanny Margo (Joanna Vanderham), Susanna fires back by marrying himbo bartender Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgard). Poor Maisie is batted around between households and left entirely abandoned on more than one occasion.
Standard operating procedure for a divorce drama, maybe, but this film is relentless. The entire first hour is scene after brutal scene of Beale and Susanna wielding Maisie as a weapon between them — when they remember she's there at all. The 6-year-old spends time where 6-year-olds ought not be: At smoke-filled parties, in lonely bars, on cramped tour coaches and in strangers' homes.
It's wrenching, and the story threatens constantly to plunge into emotionally manipulative melodrama. But directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel keep from going over the edge by telling the story from right behind Maisie's eyes. The camera lingers at curious heights and vantages, and observes carefully selected moments. Maisie sees more than the adults know. She's desperate for anyone solid to hold on to, and she navigates as best she can.
Lincoln and Margo, the new spouses, come into the story just as we (and Maisie) need them most. They're not perfect people, but they're sane and decent. The film offers up at least one moment of pure cinematic catharsis when Lincoln comes directly to Maisie's defense. "You don't deserve her," he tells Susanna, speaking directly for the audience. Whew. That needed to be said.
The film is an adaptation of the novel by Henry James, with many liberties taken by screenwriters Nancy Doyne and Carroll Cartwright. Maisie may flirt with melodrama, but it's not exploitative and the filmmakers have their reasons for putting Maisie through the wringer as they do. The film has something to say about family and children in this modern life. Watch how and when the characters use their cell phones. It's all of a piece, and the story ends well, with a certain rounded elegance.
But it sure is hard on the stomach. I admired What Maisie Knew, but I can't say that I enjoyed it.
I first saw Swimming to Cambodia — the film version of Spalding Gray's groundbreaking monologue — on VHS my senior year of high school, by way of my first serious girlfriend Courtney. A fellow theater nerd, Courtney was also a dedicated goth girl and introduced me to many new and exotic things, like Bauhaus records and the BBC punk comedy The Young Ones.
As cool girlfriends often do, Courtney improved my taste and expanded my horizons. Here was an entirely riveting performance that featured one man, sitting behind a desk, talking about war and art and sex and drugs. About Nixon and Kent State, secret bombings and Thai brothels. About "an invisible cloud of evil that circles the earth and lands at random at places. Like Iran. Beirut. Germany. Cambodia. America."
It rather blew my mind. I knew nothing about experimental theater or performance film — forget about Southeast Asia. But I knew this was something different from our after-school rehearsals of Brigadoon, and that it represented a different trajectory if I wanted to follow along.
Incredibly, Swimming to Cambodia has never had an official U.S. DVD release until now. New this week from the pop culture archivists at Shout! Factory, Swimming to Cambodia features the full-length 1987 film along with a new interview with director Jonathan Demme.
Swimming to Cambodia is structured around Gray's experience working on the Academy Award-winning 1984 film, The Killing Fields. Gray spent two months filming in Thailand and he tells of his adventures, during his copious downtime, with Bangkok nightlife and the local high-grade marijuana. These are the funny bits. But Gray also goes into great depth about what he learned there concerning the recent history of Southeast Asia, the rise of the Khmer Rouge, and the subsequent Cambodian Genocide. For props, he has a desk, a notebook, a microphone, two pull-down maps and a glass of water. Behind him is a backlit projection screen. He simply talks, and you can't take your eyes off him.