Category Archives: 2012

Vampira and Me (2012, Ray Greene)

For its protracted 106 minute runtime, Vampira and Me is a combination of tragic, frustrating, annoying, and enthralling. The problem with the whole project is writer, producer, editor, director, and narrator Greene. Well, okay, the problem with any project about Vampira (Maila Nurmi) is the lack of extant footage of her television show, “The Vampira Show,” which ran in the mid-fifties. Nurmi was an immediate hit—the first glamour ghoul—but broadcasts were live and no recordings were made. Watching Me, there’s just enough remaining footage to show Nurmi as an excellent early television comedian, who kept up and outpaced her costars, and it’s an exceptional bummer the footage just isn’t here.

Much of Vampira and Me is an at least hour-long interview Nurmi recorded with Greene when he was working on another project. Greene, as narrator, says Me is going to be all about how Nurmi isn’t “just” Vampira, so the Vampira in the title is a little weird… ditto the Me, actually, because Greene barely has any anecdotes about his friendship with Nurmi. Except one where he emphases her emotional problems. It’s a weird choice. But Vampira and Me is full of weird choices, like Greene using a bunch of unrelated but contemporary footage because none exists of Nurmi. So you’re watching some commercial from the fifties and supposed to pretend it’s Nurmi or something. Plus he then goes on to add sound effects to actual recordings of Nurmi monologuing. And there are sound effects all the time.

It’s annoying. Like I said, frustrating, tragic, enthralling, annoying.

Nurmi herself—based on the filmed interview material—is a natural raconteur. She knew Orson Welles back in the day and you can imagine they’d have done great banter if given the opportunity. She was also good friends with James Dean during his meteoric rise, which gets a lot of coverage in the film but very little insight. Nurmi was into New Age woo and Greene’s not a good enough interviewer to get through that murky pool to actual insight. The biggest bummer of the film itself is the interview, which a better filmmaker could’ve incorporated into a far better project. The lack of other interviewees is a big problem.

But then there’s Greene’s narrative construction. He jumps ahead to the sixties at one point, then pulls back to the fifties. The timeline wouldn’t be muddled if Greene just did a better job presenting it. He also doesn’t get anything out of the jump ahead and fall back. It also contributes greatly to the slog of the second half.

Then there’s Greene “killing off” his subject; at the beginning of the film, he implies this rare, exclusive interview is going to be the emphasis and everything else will serve to annotate it. Nope. Greene doesn’t cover a lot of Nurmi’s rougher days—she spent almost fifty years in abject poverty, screwed out of continuing popularity because of a dispute with the TV station (they wanted to syndicate with other Vampiras in local markets, she apparently wanted to be Vmapira in all of them—not clear because Greene didn’t think to ask, apparently). He’s got some line about how she went on to a somewhat happy ending at the end and then doesn’t show it or talk about it… she just dies and it’s funeral footage, which is weird.

Also weird is the clips of a dancing fifties girl who looks a lot like Carolyn Jones, who played Morticia Addams on “The Addams Family” TV show. Nurmi got her idea for the Vampira costume from the Addams Family cartoon strip. She was trying to get noticed by producers to do an Addams Family adaptation, not “The Vampira Show.” And given the Elvira vs. Vampira stuff, which barely gets covered—and Greene at one point makes it sound like Cassandra Peterson (Elvira) was a reluctant nemesis… you’d think he’d clarify. Nope.

But then it turns out Greene’s not a very honest documentarian.

He implies Nurmi’s “Vampira” show was up against “I Love Lucy” in the 1955 Emmy’s when Nurmi was actually nominated for a local Emmy. What makes that deception so galling is the James Dean friendship, which was in contention for years because of a Hedda Hopper book and Nurmi had to fight to be believed. Documentation backs Nurmi up, but it took decades.

Greene’s got a great chance to look at fifties Hollywood and the ephemera of television–the first viral sensations—and he has a handful of good observations, they just don’t go anywhere. And they’re really early in the film.

It’s a testament to Nurmi as a storyteller and personality she’s able to surmount this wanting “homage” just in the single camera interview and a few surviving clips.

1/4

CREDITS

Written, directed, produced, and edited by Ray Greene; directors of photography, Larry Herbst, Sean Peacock, and Greene.


Lockout (2012, Steve Saint Leger and James Mather), the unrated version

The funny thing about Luc Besson getting sued over lockout and losing—to John Carpenter, who sued based on the film’s similarities to Escape from New York and Escape from L.A.—is, yes, the film rips off Carpenter’s Snake Plissken duet, but it also rips off Die Hard and Die Hard 2 while seemingly reusing dialogue from Besson’s own Fifth Element. Every time action hero Guy Pearce drops a one-liner, you can tell they wish it could’ve been Bruce Willis, which just would’ve been creepier given the age difference with damsel in distress Maggie Grace. Pearce and Grace have a sixteen year age difference and zero chemistry and Pearce’s teasing never really comes across as flirting. Often because Grace responds with some flat rant about Pearce being sexist, even though you can tell he doesn’t mean it any more than he means anything else in his one dimensional performance. So she comes off like she’s exaggerating, which serves to de-power her. It’d be a lot more gross if Grace weren’t terrible. Since she’s terrible, it’s hard to take any of her performance seriously. She’s not bad at the terrified bit, but directors Saint Leger and Mather don’t utilize it, which is probably better anyway given she’s mostly just terrified of Joseph Gilgun’s rape threats.

Lockout is nothing if not efficient in its cheapness.

Grace is the president’s daughter, on a fact-finding mission to an orbital prison where all the inmates are cryogenically frozen. Lockout is a future movie, set almost a hundred years in the future but things mostly look the same because then the CGI animators can just reuse existing models. Lockout looks like an exceedingly competent sci-fi TV show, one where they cut corners by speeding through establishing shots instead of emphasizing the visuals. It’s not even until the end the significant cheapness catches up, when there’s a shot of a city skyline and it’s a static image more appropriate for computer wallpaper than trying to suspend disbelief.

But the technical competence works against—oh, right, they also rip off the Death Star run from Star Wars—the technical competence works against the film because then it never quite gets to be campy. And Pearce isn’t trying anything with his performance so he’s never amusing. Grace doesn’t even seem to be aware trying is a possibility, though maybe it’s not given the character. Again, she’s at least good at being terrified. Pearce isn’t good at anything. He doesn’t even fall right. Lockout has got some terrible stunt work and fight choreography. Saint Leger and Mather are real bad at their jobs. So bad. Watching them work makes you sympathetic not for Grace or Pearce, but the other actors who their managers represent because clearly they’re in need of better representation. No one should have done Lockout. Definitely not Peter Stormare, who’s the government heavy out to railroad Pearce. Lennie James is actually good as the fed who knows Pearce and defends him but he shouldn’t have done the movie. If you can be good in Lockout, you can be better in something else.

Further examples being Vincent Regan and Gilgun as the prisoners who take over when the opportunity presents itself. Gilgun’s good… enough you might want to see him in something else. Regan’s better in Lockout but less encouraging of other projects. He’s resigned to the role. He’s got more life in him than any of the good guys, but he’s still pretty resigned.

Peter Hudson’s not great as the President. Not sure how they didn’t think to get a name cameo for that part. Stormare, who’s terrible, would have at least given the casting some personality instead of generic Hudson.

I should probably just cut my loses and take it as a win the film didn’t continue identifying each location every third shot, which is always an establishing shot of a different location. Lockout’s very silly and very inept.

And plagiarism. It’s plagiarism. Lockout is pointlessly plagiarized from better source material.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Steve Saint Leger and James Mather; screenplay by Mather, Saint Leger, and Luc Besson, based on a story by Besson; director of photography, Mather; edited by Camille Delamarre and Eamonn Power; music by Alexandre Azaria; production designer, Romek Delmata; costume designer, Olivier Bériot; produced by Marc Libert and Leila Smith; released by FilmDistrict.

Starring Starring Guy Pearce (Snow), Maggie Grace (Emilie), Lennie James (Shaw), Peter Stormare (Langral), Vincent Regan (Alex), Joseph Gilgun (Hydell), Jacky Ido (Hock), Tim Plester (Mace), and Peter Hudson (The President).


Irreversible (2012, David Levinson)

Irreversible is blissfully unaware of itself. It’s the story of dude-bro Timothy Paul Driscoll breaking up with girlfriend Alice Hunter, then the story of their relationship in reverse. Get it, irreversible? Reversible? Get it?

How writer and director Levinson lifts the title and narrative device from another movie and not give it a nod is beyond me. Again, blissfully unaware of itself.

The short skips through various important events in the relationship, like the time after they had a pregnancy scare so Driscoll yells at Hunter to bring him more beer. Driscoll’s bro, Ryan Lagod, goes to help her, which eventually turns into them texting each other because they’re, you know, friends, which leads to Driscoll apparently having a call girl over right before Hunter gets there. The narrative gimmick isn’t particularly clear right off so it probably makes more sense on a second viewing.

Though a second viewing, even of the eight minute short, sounds like an irreversibly bad decision. Driscoll’s performance is real bad. It’s unclear if it’s Driscoll, Levinson’s direction, or Levinson’s script. Hunter’s fine, though she stumbles through some of the pat dialogue, and Lagod’s likable. Driscoll’s affectless and apathetic to everyone around him. There’s a particularly rough scene where he tries to charm Hunter with his game and he comes off like a bad guy in an early 1990s sexual harassment video. Again, the short’s blissfully unaware of itself.

There’s also this confusing scene where Driscoll’s snooping Hunter’s smartphone and she doesn’t have a passcode? I mean, it’s from 2012, sure, but it’s not from 1996 or something.

So with Driscoll it’s hard to say if it’s his fault or Levinson’s. Because Levinson’s got no idea how to execute his ideas, good or bad. Based on all available information, Driscoll’s obviously a shit stain of a human being yet the short demonizes Hunter?

Decent photography from David J. Markus. Collin Pittier’s editing can’t make the narrative structure make sense but who cares. It’s eight minutes you’re not getting back, not Time’s Arrow.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Written and directed by David Levinson; director of photography, David J. Markus; edited by Collin Pittier; production designer, Jonathan David; produced by Levinson and Jon Rosen.

Starring Timothy Paul Driscoll (Ray), Alice Hunter (Cassie), and Ryan Lagod (Sam).


RECENTLY

Frances Ha (2012, Noam Baumbach)

Frances Ha relies on exposition but depends on summary. Or it depends on exposition but relies on summary. One or the other. Director and co-writer Baumbach and star and co-writer Greta Gerwig move Frances in the summary. Even when the film slows down for a longer scene, the style and tone don’t really change, so it feels continuous. Time passes–the film takes place over a year or so–but is never particularly defined. Because Gerwig’s Frances doesn’t seem to particularly define time either.

The film’s a fractured character study. Baumbach and Gerwig’s script plays with the narrative distance a lot; they established Gerwig’s character as a somewhat unreliable narrator at the start–using comedic social awkwardness to call into question the degree of the unreliability–but as the film progresses, they further explore that unreliability. The film examines Gerwig, while–for the most part–she’s also the protagonist.

Though it’s not a traditional character study by any means. There’s a decided lack of melodrama, partially because Gerwig and her costars live in a carefree New York City, partially because Frances (film and character) willfully create that carefree New York City. There’s a varying narrative distance to the film’s four locations (New York, Sacramento, Paris, Vassar College) as well, as Gerwig experiences them. As the film moves along, more and more people come into it. Even if they’re background; New York, at the beginning, is entirely focused on Gerwig’s experience of it. In crowded rooms, for instance, the focus is all on Gerwig and the objects of her immediate attention. The film doesn’t show Gerwig around other people. Because she’s living in her head.

The film does have a structure, however. It has chapters with titles. Not the locations but Gerwig’s changing address. The first one doesn’t make much impression, but eventually they become a guide to the film. The narrative distance might be changing, time to adjust your attention. As a director, Baumbach is very intentional. He and cinematographer Sam Levy–shooting in black-and-white–keep a lot out of focus. They let shadows be too dark. They guide the viewer’s eyes, they cause them frustration. But that attention to detail might be surpassed by Jennifer Lame’s transcendent editing. Even when the film is at its most cloying–which isn’t bad, it’s just cute banter comedy, which is cloying for Frances–Lame is able to maintain that summary momentum. Not just the cuts in the actual montage sequences, but the cuts in expository scenes. Lame cuts for actors’ performances, whether they’re in the middle of a monologue or silent in a long shot. It’s a beautifully made film, as well as being utterly gorgeous to watch.

Gerwig’s performance is outstanding. And entirely overshadows the rest of the cast. The inciting action of the film is Gerwig’s best friend and roommate, Mickey Sumner, moving in with someone else. It sets things in motion, the things Gerwig’s aware of and navigating, the things she’s not.

Sumner’s okay. She gets a lot better in the third act, but she’s always okay. Adam Driver and Michael Zegen are Gerwig’s next set of roommates. Driver’s showy, but Zegen’s got a heart of gold. The performances are spot on. No one else really has much to do. Charlotte d’Amboise is the leader of Gerwig’s dance troupe, so she’s got scenes, but they’re all expository. Grace Gummer is another roommate and she’s around for a bit, but she doesn’t get anything significant.

And it’s fine. Because it’s Gerwig’s show. Both as actor and writer, she’s pacing out character development in an almost entirely passive character–in an almost entirely passive film. And she does it. And the filmmaking is there to meet her. Some aspects of Gerwig’s performance work apart from the filmmaking, just as some aspects of the filmmaking work apart from the script. Frances Ha perplexes, but in the best ways.

Truly awesome soundtrack too.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Noah Baumbach; written by Baumbach and Greta Gerwig; director of photography, Sam Levy; edited by Jennifer Lame; production designer, Sam Lisenco; produced by Baumbach, Scott Rudin, and Lila Yacoub; released by IFC Films.

Starring Greta Gerwig (Frances), Mickey Sumner (Sophie), Michael Zegen (Benji), Adam Driver (Lev), Grace Gummer (Rachel), Patrick Heusinger (Patch), and Charlotte d’Amboise (Colleen).


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