Silver screen secrets 

An antidote to the summer blockbuster busts

If you’re dreading the continuing onslaught of painful, CGI-engorged summer blockbusters with various regurgitated themes, well, there are options. For one, there are all those independent or small-budget films that regularly bypass Missoula and head silently to DVD. Here’s our look at some of those missed opportunities—for better, or worse.

Control

Anton Corbijn’s Joy Division movie is as different from 24 Hour Party People—Michael Winterbottom’s 2002 Manchester scene fantasia—as Joy Division is from New Order. Which is to say, as different as a punk show at a hostile workingman’s club is from a Spanish stadium brimming with Ecstasy-takers peaking to “Blue Monday.”

Odd, for a musical biopic, is the restraint that guides Control, modestly adapted from Deborah Curtis’s memoir Touching at a Distance. Even the subdued black and white cinematography seems to invite contemplation after rather than admiration during the movie. As a photographer, Corbijn took some of the earliest photos of Joy Division, but the look of Control is more a study of working class British living rooms than bleak band poses and pungent rock clubs. There’s nary a glimpse of the Sex Pistols during the reenactment of their first Manchester gig, only the rapt faces of audience members. Rather than showboat with his black and white virtuosity, Corbijn generously makes it look like anyone could film their own first Sex Pistols gig in Manchester after renting the local senior center.

I thought the actor playing Ian Curtis in 24 Hour Party People was great, but more of an Ian Curtis writ large than Control’s Sam Riley: the seizures and the suicide and the singer’s trademark St. Vitus stage frenzy. To reveal the workaday Ian Curtis of Control, Riley must also wear the hats of family man, solicitous civil servant, daydreamy poet and guilt-wracked adulterer. He deserves his accolades, and Control should satisfy Joy Division cultists and newcomers alike.

The Ten

Will Ferrell seems to be choosing his roles these days based on pre-production mock-ups of the movie posters. Ooh, Spandex! Ooh, funny hair! Just write me a check for $10 million and the movie’s in the can! If it weren’t for the occasional odd-duck recommendation from a knowledgeable friend, I wouldn’t tarry in the section of the video store marked “comedy” (which really should be in quotation marks) for another second.

The Ten was a good idea: ten mini-movies in one, each thematically related to one of the biblical Ten Commandments. American Summer’s David Wain directs, and State regulars Michael Showalter and Michael Ian Black are joined by Winona Ryder (for the “thou shalt not steal” segment, natch), Gretchen Mol, Oliver Platt, Liev Schreiber and other vaguely familiar faces.

The results are palatable, if not always inspired, and in any event short of humor by six or seven commandments. The “honor thy father” segment features two earnest African-American brothers in search of their biological father, whom their (white) mother tells them is Arnold Schwarzenegger. Ryder falls in love with a ventriloquist’s dummy. Ken Marino, playing a surgeon sentenced to prison for sewing up sharp metal instruments in his patients “as a goof,” finds himself in a prison love triangle enlivened by sweet nothings like “Sometimes I wonder what it would be like if I were the one ass-raping you every night.” The rest is amusing in fits and starts, but nothing to recommend the next time the topic of “comedy” comes up in air quotes.

Brand Upon the Brain!

Even for diehard fans of Winnipeg director Guy Maddin—and if I’m not one, then no one is—Brand Upon the Brain! might be a little too much of a good thing. Like his previous features, it’s packed with Freudian landmines wrapped in delirious, decayed images and melodrama pitched at a level unseen since the heyday of silent film. Unlike previous pictures, it was conceived as a vehicle for live orchestra and Foley artists, who graced the stage with their celery snapping and wind effects at the movie’s Toronto premiere and select screenings thereafter, joined by list of celebrity narrators that included Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson, Crispin Glover and, for Portland audiences, ex-Pavement singer Steve Malkmus. (The Criterion DVD has a canned narrative courtesy of frequent collaborator Isabella Rossellini.)

Brand’s plot is pure Maddin: an adult character named Guy Maddin (the second of three eponymous stand-ins in as many Maddin movies) returns to an abandoned lighthouse orphanage formerly run by his parents, who used it as a front to harvest youth-giving “brain nectar” from their youthful charges. Falling into a reverie, Guy reflects on the trauma of growing up with a domineering mother and a largely absent father, early cross-dressing crushes and childhood atrocities at the hands of the feral Savage Tom.

Brand Upon the Brain! is loopy enough to transcend callow cries of “Gimmick!” (a gimmick it may be, though who else would have thought of it?), but at 95 minutes of lightning-fast cutting, it’s also exhausting. John Gurdebeke’s frantic “neurological” editing never lets one image dissolve on the retinas before another burst of images from an arsenal of Super 8 cameras drives it away. As I reported to Maddin after seeing an early cut (yes, I’m kind of a big deal like that), Brand packs more matriarchal megatonnage than the rest of his filmography put together, but the rapidity of the cutting means doing without the customary pleasure of languidly frottering one’s eyeballs against his signature smeary, high-contrast black and white images. Can’t have it all, I guess.

The Business of Being Born

My experience with this movie was kind of the opposite of a silent movie, because while my wife was watching it on our rinky-dink portable DVD player, I was sitting on the opposite side of the room pretending to be engrossed in a seed catalogue or something. From what I could tell, it made a pretty good case for home birth but really wasn’t anything I hadn’t been exposed to through birthing classes and just listening to my wife and her friends talk about it.

I did have occasion to marvel, though, at director Rikki Lake’s 20-year transformation from zaftig star of the original Hairspray movie to natural birth doyenne by way of a couple failed talk shows. Ain’t that America, something to see, baby.
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