Category: American Indie

Mar 24 2014

Watching with Larry Fessenden, director of ‘Beneath’

Larry Fessenden Premier

Larry Fessenden

Larry Fessenden loves horror movies. As a director he has brought his own unique approach to the classic horror stories and conventions in such films as Habit, Wendigo, and his animist ghost story / environmental thriller The Last Winter. Through his production company Glass Eye Pix his has produced or co-produced dozens of films, including Kelly Reichert’s Wendy and Lucy and Night Moves, Ti West’s The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers, Jim Mickle’s Stake Land, and the recent documentary Birth of the Living Dead, a tribute to one of the holy grails of modern horror.

Apart from an episode of the horror TV series Fear Itself, Fessenden hasn’t directed a film since the 2004 The Last Winter, an eco-twist on the ghost story in the culture of big oil, so the arrival of Beneath, about a group of teenagers, a rowboat in the middle of a lake, and a giant, hungry, man-eating catfish looking for its next meal, is reason to celebrate. It begins as a classic tale of teens behaving badly, and more importantly stupidly, but what first appears to be a lazy set-up to stake out its victims for the movie menace turns out to be an insidious insight to the true nature of its characters and the basis for the real conflict of the film. It’s a smart, savage film that plays with the familiar conventions and then twists a knife in them, and it’s all done with a small cast, a confined space, and a script that reveals the worst in humanity.

While it received a brief theatrical release, Beneath was actually financed by and produced for Chiller, the cable horror channel sibling to SyFy. You say you’ve never heard of Chiller? Yeah, that’s the problem. The film just hasn’t been seen by many folks. Now that it is available on digital and VOD platforms and this week arrives on Blu-ray and DVD, I hope more people have an opportunity to discover one of the most surprising and insidiously clever monster movies of the last year. On the occasion of the disc release, I had a chance to speak with Fessenden about his career as a director, his love of old-school special effects, the real horror of Beneath, and of course what he’s been watching.

Beneath

I have a 14-year-old kid who loves movies so we watch a little of the old and a little of the new. We’ve seen all the Oscar stuff and we also watch movies from the seventies and I get him up to speed on Scorsese and Polanski and the heroes of my youth. Oddly enough he doesn’t care for horror so we don’t watch those except for the occasional time. Myself, there’s only so much time in the day so I’m more going on the journey with him. But recent films: Let the Right One In, District 9, The Mist. Those are all a little old but they are recent favorites.

And genre films too. When you are watching for yourself, are you going back to horror films?

Oh yeah, I’m pretty entrenched in genre movies. I grew up watching the old Universal films and it’s fun to watch some of these things again—and again and again—because they really are iconic. The imagery is truly… it’s what I grew up on and it’s interesting to watch them now as you’re older and try to understand what struck you, because of course we’ve become more sophisticated so the images don’t have the same impact, but they do have a strange quality. I love, for example, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, such a strange, beautiful creature design there. I like all kinds of movies.

What inspired you to take on the classic horror movie themes in a series of movies that turns the stories inside-out?

It’s exactly just what I was describing. I grew up on the old Universal films with Frankenstein played by Karloff or Dracula played by Lugosi and obviously then came the Hammer films and whatever, these were the movies you saw on TV when you were a kid in the seventies. But then I also became incredibly turned on by the cinema of Scorsese, these more realistic portraits of people’s psychology and the violence became more visceral and I wanted, in my own mind, to revisit the movies that I loved so much, like Dracula, and put this modern seventies spin on it.

Continue reading at Cinephiled

Jan 15 2014

How Steven Soderbergh’s ‘sex, lies and videotape’ Still Influences Sundance After 25 Years

“When I was coming up, making an independent film and trying to reach an audience was like, trying to hit a thrown baseball. This is like trying to hit a thrown baseball but with another thrown baseball.” – Steven Soderbergh at the San Francisco International Film Festival, 2013

'sex, lies and videotape'

Did the Sundance Film Festival make sex, lies and videotape or did sex, lies and videotape put Sundance on the festival map? The debut feature by Steven Soderbergh, modestly budgeted at $1.2 million and starring a cast of recognizable but hardly famous actors on the rise, lost the Grand Jury Prize to Nancy Savoca’s True Love (even as it eventually won the Palme d’Or at Cannes) but took home the Audience Award. More importantly, it landed a deal with Miramax, who broke the film out of the limited arthouse circuit and put it into suburban theaters. The confluence of Sundance and sex was a seismic shift in American independent film culture: the “big bang of the modern indie film movement,” in the words of industry historian Peter Biskind.

Soderbergh’s feature debut was a startling adult film about, yes, sex and lies, but also love, commitment, aggression, retreat, and the terror of true intimacy. The only nakedness on display is emotional, and Soderbergh, with the earnest seriousness of a passionate young filmmaker, confronts uncomfortable issues with frank talk and uncomfortable directness.

Continue reading at Indiewire

Dec 30 2009

Husbands on TCM

I explore the mid-life crisis of John Cassavetes’ Husbands (1971) for Turner Classic Movies online, for the film’s TCM showing on Saturday, January 2.

Husbands and friends

The term “midlife crisis” became a familiar phrase in the seventies—and in seventies cinema—but when John Cassavetes released Husbands (1970), the term was just being born and the concept just starting to make its way into the movies. Subtitled “A comedy about life death and freedom,” Husbands follows three middle-aged men (Ben Gazzara, Peter Falk and Cassavetes), long time friends and family men, in the wake or the sudden, premature death of the man who completed their fun-loving group. “I’m not going home,” proclaims one as the funeral ends. “I’m going to get very drunk.” Thus begins an epic bender, an attempt to drown their sorrows, escape their guilt and duck the disappointments of compromised lives.

This is a Cassavetes kind of mid-life crisis: they indulge their worst, most selfish instincts as they attempt to outrun the fear of mortality that has all but slapped them in the face. They carouse in all-night drinking binges, gang up on a poor old lush as they “judge” a singing contest among morning drunks, then abandon their families and rush off for a weekend of gambling and cheating in London. Only while safely hidden in a bar room toilet, where the non-stop drinking has comes back to haunt them with an epic round of vomiting (one of the film’s most controversial and divisive scenes) do they let their fears pour out. Yet these are inarticulate men, middle class husbands and fathers whose complacency has been shaken to the soul, and they slip into boyish giggling and sniggering whenever the conversation gets too personal. They can’t find the words to describe their feelings. Perhaps vomiting is the most honest expression of their condition.

Read the complete essay here.

Nov 11 2009

Ballast on TCM

I’ve already raved about Lance Hammer’s Ballast, a raw, powerful film from the real American indie scene (the one without stars, budgets or studio backing), in my DVD columns on MSN and on my blog here. A more in-depth review is now up on the Turner Classic Movies website here.

Michael J. Smith Sr. in "Ballast"

Michael J. Smith Sr. in "Ballast"

Ballast, the debut feature by Lance Hammer, is the kind of American independent feature that is becoming increasingly rare, at least outside of the festival circuit. Grounded in a specific place (a small Mississippi Delta town) and centered around the kind of lives that are so rarely seen on screen, this intimate drama is the cinematic equivalent of a miniature, a piece carved out of the stories of three troubled and damaged souls and the culture and poverty of their world. But it’s a highly charged miniature, roiling with rage and regret and sadness and desperation, and Hammer refuses to spell anything out for us. He simply throws us into the middle of their lives and expects us to piece their stories together along the way.

Hammer is a former special effects artist and art director (his filmography includes two of the Batman sequels of the nineties) but the only special effects in this low budget, regional indie drama are the expressive qualities of natural light 35mm film, the lonely atmosphere of the spare locations on the Mississippi Delta and the painful honesty of his non-actor stars. His camera is intimate but restrained, bringing us past their defenses and into their faces and their eyes. He’s attuned to the sounds of their world and there’s no musical score to get between the audience and the beautifully orchestrated soundtrack; every sound that splits the silence becomes music in itself, where it’s the sound of rain spattering into puddles in the yard or the crunch of gravel under Lawrence’s heavy feet as he marches between the homes. You can almost feel the chill of the winter air, or the warmth from the kitchen stove as the adults try to figure out how to turn a small neighborhood store into a shared business.

Read the complete feature here.

Jul 16 2009

My Dinner With Andre on TCM

My essay on the new Criterion released of My Dinner With Andre, one of the most unlikely American independent cinema success stories of all time, is now running on Turner Classic Movies Online. It’s a fiction based on autobiography, with theater director Andre Gregory and playwright (and sometime actor) Wallace Shawn portraying fictionalized versions of themselves, named Andre and Wally, in a staged conversation shot on the elaborate set of an expensive (but imaginary) restaurant in the manner of a documentary by French director Louis Malle.

Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory share a little dinner conversation

Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory share a little dinner conversation

It’s at once awesome and unreal. Gregory really did travel as a spiritual pilgrim seeking meaning in life and he recounts his tales with the dynamic intensity of a performing storyteller. His stories and philosophical musings can be compelling if you let yourself get carried away by Gregory’s passion, which is as genuine (if exaggerated for the film; Gregory credits Malle with bringing out a somewhat manic quality) as his adventures. But there’s also an element of the pretentious New York dilettante who escapes the yoke of work to indulge in the travel and cultural wanderlust out of the reach of the rest of us. Wally, meanwhile, is skeptical of the spiritual odyssey and defensive of his own modest experiences and his way of life. Perhaps he takes Andre’s critique of the modern life as an empty existence a personal criticism. Perhaps it’s a competitive streak that compels him to intellectually wrestle with Andre.

The result is an intellectual bull session as cinematic performance piece, a dynamic dinner conversation between active artists who have known each other long enough to let down a few defenses and let loose some wild ideas and confessions. It is also the pretentious proclamations and justifications of two privileged men who can afford a meal at an upscale New York eatery, batting around the meaning of life while working folk, more noticed by the audience than the characters themselves, modestly wait on them and then wait for them to finish: Andre and Wally are the last left in the restaurant at closing time. The dynamism of the film lies in the tension between these two poles – the passion of their positions and the abstraction of their dialogue, our ability to identify with them and our dislocation from their rarified position of Upper East Side New York artist/intellectuals – while the pleasures are in the company, the ideas and the intrigue of the conversation itself.

Read the complete essay on the TCM website here.

Jun 28 2009

Do the Right Thing – Fight the Power

[Originally published as part of the “MSN Cadillac” series.]

Spike Lee’s vibrant, vital, thoroughly accomplished third feature opens on a call to action — “Fight the power!” shouts Public Enemy in the credits — and ends with a call to “wake up!”

Rosie Perez pumps out an aggressive shout of a dance in the opening credits, staged in front of a tenement set bathed in fiery red light. Not merely an evocation of the heat wave (literal and figurative) on this scorcher of a summer day in New York’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood, it anticipates the incendiary drama to come: Confrontation will end in conflagration.

As a private citizen, Spike Lee is aggressively outspoken and provocative. As a filmmaker, he is remarkably inclusive and egalitarian. Do the Right Thing gives every character in the bustling ensemble a voice, a sensibility and a dignity, from ranting would-be activist Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito) to philosophical neighborhood drunk Da Mayor (Ossie Davis) to pizzeria proprietor Sal (Danny Aiello), who displays his American-Italian pride on his ethnic-exclusive “Wall of Fame.”

Da Mayor's advice to Mookie: Always do the right thing

Da Mayor's advice to Mookie: Always do the right thing

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May 04 2009

DVDs for 5/5/09 – Benjamin Button, Wendy and Lucy and Harvey

The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button (Paramount) comes out on DVD in a two-disc special edition DVD and Blu-ray with a Criterion logo and spine number, but Paramount release and distribution. I don’t know what the relationship between these two companies – the major American studio and the gold standard for definitive editions of classic (and some contemporary) movies on DVD – but it’s resulted in a magnificent production.

benjaminbuttonbrad

You're not getting any younger, but Benjamin Button is

The disc features the handsome, austere Criterion art and menu design, which loads right up and takes you to the movie and the supplements without having to wade through trailers. The transfer is sterling (taken directly from the digital master of the largely HD-shot film) and supplements are serious, in-depth productions for serious film folk. But the documentary producers are not Criterion veterans but professionals with credits on DVD special editions from Paramount and Fox (including the non-Criterion releases of Fincher’s Panic Room and Zodiac, which are excellent editions in their own right). Whatever the breakdown of responsibility and credit, this is an amazing DVD production anchored by a very serious and typically observant commentary by Fincher (who drops a few harmless F-bombs in his solo commentary tour of the movie) and the documentary/production study The Curious Birth of Benjamin Button. Hit the “Play all” function and you get an almost three-hour documentary featuring almost every major collaborator on either side of the camera, who take you on a tour of the film from its initial attempts at adaptation in 1990 through the technology harnessed to create a backwards-aging Benjamin in the screen to the release. It’s dense and interesting and entertaining, far more engaging and captivating than the majority of such supplements. But there are also featurettes not included in the “Play all” that you can access separately and galleries of storyboards, art direction and costume sketches, and production stills. It’s not for everyone, but this is the kind of epic production documentary that fascinates me, not just because of the detail of information but also for the insights it offers into the collaborative process of filmmaking and the marriage of creative decisions and practical solutions. Whether or not it was the Criterion logo that inspired the DVD producers to take such an exhaustive and intense approach to the supplements, it’s a production that does the logo proud.

For more on the film itself, see my review on the MSN DVD column here.

Wendy and Lucy (Oscilloscope)

Shot in Portland by New York-based filmmaker Kelly Reichardt, Wendy and Lucy is ostensibly about a young woman, Wendy (Michelle Williams), traveling to find work in Alaska, and her detour when her car breaks down and her traveling companion, a dog named Lucy, goes missing at a stop in Portland. But as Reichardt presents her story (from a script co-written with Oregon writer Jon Raymond), it becomes something much more: a down-to-earth portrait of single woman of limited resources on a road fraught with potential predators and random potholes. Wendy is like a lot of folks just scraping by, merely one disaster away from losing it all. It’s a tender, tough, uncompromising film, photographed with a disarming directness and seeming simplicity that reverberates with the precariousness of her situation.

I write about the film in more detail for Parallax View here.

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Apr 26 2009

Lynn Shelton’s “Humpday” chosen for Cannes 2009

My congratulation to local Seattle filmmaker (and Facebook buddy) Lynn Shelton. Her new film, “Humpday,” has been chosen to play in the exclusive Directors’ Fortnight section of the 2009 Cannes Film Festival.

The third feature from director Lynn Shelton made its world premiere at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, where it played in the Dramatic Competition and was the first film sale of the fest. Shelton also won the “Someone to Watch Award” at the 2009 Spirit Awards for her second feature, “My Effortless Brilliance.”

Seattle audiences will get a chance to see “Humpday” on Friday, June 5 at the 2009 Seattle International Film Festival, where it will play as a Centerpiece Gala for the Northwest Connections sidebar.

My report is running on the Seattle PostGlobe website here.

I will also begin reviewing films for the Seattle PostGlobe next week.

Apr 12 2009

Easy Rider – He Wasn’t Born to Follow

[Originally published as part of the “MSN Cadillac” series.]

Peter Fonda was already an icon of the counterculture when he suited up in black leather and a star-spangled helmet, mounted a Harley-Davidson chopper, tossed his watch to the desert floor and drove off with a shaggy Dennis Hopper in search of America.

The film was Easy Rider, an independent film produced by Fonda, directed by Hopper, largely scripted by cult author Terry Southern and shot on the road. The low-budget production became a countercultural shot across the bow of an out-of-touch Hollywood system. From the opening blast of the biker anthem “Born to Be Wild” to the grim disillusion of the climax, it tapped into the pulse of American youth, became a runaway hit and, for better or worse, was the defining film of a generation.

Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper looking for America

Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper looking for America

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