Monthly Archives: August 2011

He Said/She Said Review: Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark
dir: Troy Nixey (USA, 2011)
MGS rating: 5.5
JM rating: 5.8

This “dialogue review” of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is a joint-venture of White City Cinema and my wife Jillian’s feminist blog Exploring Feminisms. He Said/She Said will be a semi-regular feature on both our sites.

MGS: Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark was written and produced by our old buddy Guillermo del Toro but was directed by comic artist Troy Nixey. My first question to you is to what extent do you think it can be classified as a “Guillermo del Toro film”? In other words, where do you see GDT’s fingerprints on it and what do you think Nixey brings to the table? Also, how do you think the film might have been different had GDT actually directed it?

JM: Great question, and yes, I definitely do see GDT’s influence in this film, and that’s probably why I stuck it out for the while hour and a half. The first GDT calling card that stood out was featuring a child as the main character (Pan’s Labyrinth, The Devil’s Backbone and even possibly Geometria) and, further, telling the story through a child’s eyes. The difference between this film and his others is that with this film one of the adults begins to buy into the child’s fantastical story whereas in GDT’s own films the fantastical elements are usually exclusive to the child characters. A second aspect where I noticed GDT’s trademark – the creatures. The creature being a tooth fairy in Don’t be Afraid… is a direct throwback to the tooth fairies in Hellboy II. I know that we’ve talked about this many times, Mike, but to reiterate, GDT is in love with his monsters and makes them sympathetic (at least I know that we find them to be so), and in this film I don’t side with his monsters at all. One last GDT influence that I noticed was the blending of the child’s world (whether made up in his/her own mind or not) and the natural world. In this film, there’s a scene where Sally walks into a garden full of falling snow, but the snow almost seems to be floating around her. This is very reminiscent of the scene in Pan’s Labyrinth where Ofelia explores the labyrinth.

As for what Nixey brings, I think that answer can be summed up in one word: Hollywood. GDT brings in actors who are good for the part, not for their name (besides Ron Perlman). I am a fan of Guy Pearce but the film seemed beefed up with him and Holmes to make up for a bland and formulaic storyline, though I will say that the little girl who played Sally was great and I appreciated that she didn’t look like the typical American female child star. What kept me interested throughout the film was to seek out and identify those glimpses of GDT but having seen all of his movies, including Blade II, I feel that the overall direction of this film lacks the heart of a GDT project.

To answer your last question, I think that I’ve pretty much described what this film would be had he directed it but again there would have been more care paid to his creature-characters and more of a focus on quality as opposed to quantity – that is, the quantity of big name actors.

MGS: I agree that Guy Pearce was wasted. He should be getting the kind of roles that Brad Pitt, Viggo Mortenson and, now, Michael Fassbender are playing. He is just too good for this kind of thankless, one-note role. The Katie Holmes part had more substance but I couldn’t see past the “Katie Holmes-ness” of her performance, if you know what I mean.

You raise an excellent point about the creatures being more sympathetic in GDT’s own films. I suspect the fact that they aren’t depicted that way in this movie is one of the reasons he decided not to direct it himself and farmed it out to someone else instead. I don’t think he is capable of making a monster movie that doesn’t express a love of monsters! Also, it seems like GDT isn’t really interested in making “pure” horror films. The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth mix horror with the melodrama and war film genres and also have a lot of interesting things to say about history, politics, fascism and moral choices. Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark on the other hand is just a simple ghost story – a kind of Pan’s Labyritnth-lite.

Speaking of the differences between del Toro and Nixey, something that bothered me about the visual style of this movie was the extensive use of moving camera. GDT loves to have frequent but subtle camera movements in his own movies; I think this lends them a sense of creeping dread and the feeling that he’s depicting a world that’s unstable. But Nixey’s use of elaborate crane shots was overkill. The camera was constantly swooping around the rooms of that mansion in such dramatic fashion that the movement ended up quickly losing its effectiveness.

But I would also like to say a few words in favor of the movie (I do after all think it’s slightly above average for a contemporary Hollywood horror film.) As you mentioned, Bailee Madison gives an exceptionally good performance as Sally. She conjures up and sustains extreme emotional states, such as terror and depression (as opposed to merely looking sad or scared), which child actors aren’t often asked to do, and she’s always believable. I also found the set design of the house impressively spooky. Finally, I would argue the best way to measure the success of any horror movie is in the effectiveness of its scares. I counted two good ones here: the opening scene where Mr. Blackwell obtains the teeth and the scene where Sally finds the monster under the covers of her bed.

Anything else you’d like to add?

JM: If I were to say anything in this film’s favor, it would be that GDT worked on it. Haha, only semi-kidding. But seriously, I did like Guy Pearce, though he wasn’t as sexy as he was in Ravenous.

MGS: Since you write a feminist blog I would like to know if you think Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, which centers on the relationship between two female characters, lends itself in any way to a feminist reading.

JM: Well let me just remind you that there are many feminisms, and I don’t claim to have the definitive answer. I just have my answer. That being said, I do find it to be a little tiresome that the female adult character (played by Katie Holmes) is the one who begins to believe Sally and her character is emotional and nurturing, even though she doesn’t have a child of her own. The male adult character (Guy Pierce) is pragmatic and reasonable, and even though he is Sally’s father, he doesn’t believe her that there are little killer monsters in the basement. Though I hesitate to discuss too much about what this film isn’t, I will say that it would be refreshing to see the male character/father sensitive to his child’s needs. I think it plays too much off of the stereotype that the female characters are inherently mother-like and are more susceptible to accepting the world of the fantastic. In Devil’s Backbone, for example, GDT subverts this normative gender assumption by making Dr. Casares, the elderly male teacher, emotionally available to his students and he himself buys into magical theories.

MGS: Good point. You also just reminded me of the refreshingly original and touching relationship in Cronos between the little girl and her vampire grandfather. Del Toro’s own movies always have those unique touches that make them so endearing and put them in a league of their own.

I had a lot of fun doing this. We should do it again sometime with a movie we totally disagree on!

JM: Like the sex/rape scene in A History of Violence? We’ll keep those worms canned up for now.

Me, Guillermo del Toro and my wife Jillian at the 2010 Chicago International Film Festival

The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. City Lights (Chaplin)
2. In the City of Sylvia (Guerin)
3. Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (Nixey)
4. Basket Case 2 (Henenlotter)
5. Salem’s Lot (Hooper)
6. Sherlock Jr. (Keaton)
7. Save the Green Planet (Jang)
8. Cat People (Tourneur)
9. The House of the Devil (West)
10. Dead Snow (Wirkola)

CIFF 2011 – Twenty Two Most Wanted!

With the start of the Chicago International Film Festival only six weeks away, it’s time for my annual wish list of films I’d most like to see turn up there. This is a combination of movies that have generated buzz at other festivals throughout the year, movies by favorite directors whose production status I’ve been following in the press, recommendations from friends and even a title or two that may be nothing more than rumor. In alphabetical order:

Arirang (Kim, S. Korea)

South Korea’s Kim Ki-duk directed an astonishing 12 feature films between 2000 and 2008. The last of these, Breath, belatedly received its U.S. premiere at Facets Multimedia earlier this year and suggested that Kim’s wellspring of creativity had run dry, an impression seemingly verified by the 3 year silence that’s followed it. Arirang, Kim’s latest, is apparently a one man show/pseudo-documentary in which Kim himself examines this impasse a la 8 1/2. This premiered at Cannes where its supposed “navel gazing” quality drove many viewers up the wall. I say bring it on!

The Assassin (Hou, Taiwan)

When I put this on my wish list of films I hoped would turn up at CIFF last year it was nothing more than a pipe dream. Since then, Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s long rumored martial arts film actually did quietly begin production. Tadanobu Asano and Takeshi Kaneshiro have apparently joined a formidable cast that has long had Hou regulars Shu Qi and Chang Chen attached.

Bernie (Linklater, USA)

Richard Linklater has intriguingly described this as his version of Fargo – a quirky true crime tale set in his beloved native Texas. Jack Black (reuniting with Linklater for the first time since the excellent School of Rock), Shirley MacLaine and Matthew McConaughey star.

Carnage (Polanski, France/Germany)

Roman Polanski follows up his estimable The Ghost Writer with an adaptation of Yasmina Reza’s Tony award winning play about a long night of drinking and fighting between two married couples brought together after a playground fight between their children. Polanski’s talent for shooting in confined spaces and the sterling cast (Jodie Foster, Christoph Waltz, Kate Winslet and John C. Reilly) make this a mouth-watering prospect.

A Dangerous Method (Cronenberg, Germany/Canada)

David Cronenberg’s adaptation of Christopher Hampton’s play about the birth of psychoanalysis, which is depicted as stemming from an imagined rivalry between Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen). As someone who thinks Cronenberg’s recent Mortensen collaborations (A History of Violence, Eastern Promises) are his very best work, my expectations for this could not be higher.

The Day He Arrives (Hong, S. Korea)

Another character-driven Hong Sang-soo comedy/drama that premiered in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard sidebar where it was universally admired, begging the question of why it didn’t land in Official Competition. This one apparently deals with the relationship between a film professor and a film critic. Expect the usual witty merry-go-round of booze, sex and self-deceit.

The Devil’s Church (de Oliveira, Brazil/Portugal)

A year after working with CGI for the first time, the great Portugese director Manoel de Oliveira continues to stretch himself by travelling to Brazil to shoot his first film outside of Europe (and his 57th overall). The Devil’s Church is based on a Faustian-themed short story by Machado de Assis, widely considered Brazil’s greatest writer. Ricardo Trepa, Oliveira’s grandson and favorite leading man of late, stars. CIFF’s fondness for Oliveira makes this a good bet.

Faust (Sokurov, Germany/Russia)

Speaking of Faust . . . I’m on the fence about Russian miserabilist Aleksandr Sokurov whose films frequently astonish on a technical level but fail to stir the soul in the manner of his mentor Andrei Tarkovsky. But this Russian/German co-production looks promising – a new version of Faust with Fassbinder’s muse Hannah Schygulla in the Marguerite role.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Fincher, USA/Sweden)

English language remakes of recent foreign language films are almost always a bad idea but since the Hollywood version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is directed by David Fincher, we can assume it will be an exception. At the very least, Fincher, whose best work has featured dark, twisty narratives involving serial killings, expert use of CGI and Boolean logic that seemingly puts this project in his wheelhouse, can be counted on to push the material in an interesting direction.

Goodbye (Rasoulof, Iran)

According to reports out of Cannes Iranian director Mohammad Rasoulof made this film under “semi-clandestine conditions” while awaiting sentencing following his highly publicized arrest and trial for “anti-regime propaganda” in 2010. Goodbye uses the story of the disbarment of a female lawyer to allegedly tackle the repression of Ahmadinejad’s Iran head-on.

The Grandmaster (Wong, Hong Kong)

This made my wish list last year and, knowing Wong Kar-Wai’s glacial pace of shooting and editing (and re-shooting and re-editing), it could also make the list again next year. A film about the early years of Ip Man, best known as Bruce Lee’s kung-fu teacher, “built around one of the most exciting sets and fighting sequences that I have ever seen” according to Fortissimo Films chairman Michael Werner who came on board as associate producer earlier this year.

Hara Kiri: Death of a Samurai (Miike, Japan)

Takashi Miike continues his recent trend of remaking chambara classics, this time in 3D, by taking a stab at Masaki Kobayashi’s Harakiri from 1962. But with Miike, you can always expect the unexpected, and this project boasts surprising collaborators like veteran art house producer Jeremy Thomas and A-list actor Koji Yakusho (the favorite leading man of Miike’s mentor Shohei Imamura and the star of Miike’s superb 13 Assassins).

Le Havre (Kaurismaki, Finland/France)

I’ve never really warmed to the deadpan humor of Finnish writer/director Aki Kaurismaki whose “minimalist” films have always struck me as less than meets the eye. His latest, a supposedly sentimental tale of immigration politics centered on a French shoeshiner and an African refugee, was by far the most critically admired film at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. Color me interested.

Hugo (Scorsese, USA/France)

Martin Scorsese throws his hat into the 3D ring with this Johnny Depp/Jude Law-starring children’s film about a little boy who lives inside the walls of a Paris metro station in the 1930s. This will obviously receive a super-wide release; if it does turn up at CIFF it will be as a sneak preview “Gala Presentation” (hopefully with cast and/or crew present).

In the Qing Dynasty (Jia, China)

Another improbable but intriguing-sounding concoction is the latest from Jia Zhangke, the important, formidably arty chronicler of China’s tumultuous recent history, who appears to be making his first big budget film with this historical epic. Produced by none other than Hong Kong gangster movie specialist Johnnie To.

J. Edgar (Eastwood, USA)

Clint Eastwood’s critical stock is at the lowest its been in some time following his poorly received (but in my humble opinion misunderstood) melodramas Invictus and Hereafter. Stakes are therefore even higher than they otherwise would be for this J. Edgar Hoover biopic scripted by Dustin Lance Black and starring Leonardo di Caprio and Armie Hammer. As with Hugo Cabret, this will only make it in as a Gala Presentation (not out of the question since this happened with Hereafter last year). Sure to make my CIFF wish list next year is the prolific Eastwood’s next film – a remake of A Star is Born starring . . . Beyonce?

Life Without Principle (To, Hong Kong)

This began life as a project titled Death of a Hostage when it started shooting (without a script) in 2008. Three years later, it’s finally complete and it sounds like Johnnie To’s most exciting in some time: a bank heist thriller starring the charismatic, enormously talented Lau Ching-Wan; the last collaboration between these two, 2007’s ingenious Mad Detective, was one of my favorite films of the last decade. Will Life Without Principle stack up? Is the title a reference to Thoreau? Is the above movie poster the coolest ever?

Night Fishing (Park/Park, S. Korea)

Park Chan-wook, the reigning innovator of the South Korean New Wave, caused a stir on the festival circuit earlier this year with this 30 minute horror short shot entirely on an iphone. This alone would justify the purchase of a ticket to one of CIFF’s notoriously erratic “Shorts Programs.”

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Ceylan, Turkey)

Still photographer Nuri Bilge Ceylan made one of the great directorial debuts of the last decade with Distant, a deliberately paced, minimalist comedy about the growing estrangement between a professional photographer in Istanbul and his visiting country bumpkin cousin. If Ceylan’s subsequent films haven’t quite lived up to the promise of his debut, this film about a night in the life of a doctor living in the harsh title region (the gateway between Europe and Asia) should still be worth a look. Won the Grand Prix at Cannes.

A Separation (Farhadi, Iran)

Asghar Farhadi (Fireworks Wednesday, About Elly) is a CIFF veteran so one can only hope that this universally admired marital drama, which won three prizes in Berlin (including the Golden Bear), will turn up here – preferably as an in competition entry with multiple screenings.

This is Not a Film (Panahi/Mirtahmasb, Iran)

Like Mohammad Rasoulof, Jafar Panahi essentially made his latest film as a political prisoner in Iran. Co-directed by Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, this documentary-style “diary” about the great director’s inability to work was smuggled out of Iran on a USB stick buried inside of a cake. The more attention that’s brought to the tragic plight of Rasoulof and Panahi the better.

The Turin Horse (Tarr/Hranitzky, Hungary)

Hungary’s Bela Tarr took home the Best Director award in Berlin for this, his acclaimed final film. The premise is a fictionalized account of what happened to the horse Friedrich Nietzsche saw being whipped in Turin a month before the philosopher was diagnosed with the mental illness that left him bedridden for the rest of his life. Tarr himself has described this as his “most radical” work, a daunting claim from the uncompromising, austere maestro responsible for the seven and a half hour Satantango. I was fortunate to see Bela Tarr bring The Werckmeister Harmonies to CIFF in person in 2000. One can only hope he’ll see fit to do so again with this swan song.

The Official Website for The Catastrophe Has Launched

Production on my new short film The Catastrophe wrapped last Thursday morning. We are already deep into post-production in hopes of making the late deadline for the Sundance Film Festival next month. We have just launched an official website for the movie featuring a ton of content. New updates are being made daily so check back often:

The Catastrophe website

My Student Tomato-Meter

In the past three years that I’ve been teaching film history and aesthetics classes at the college level, I have typically given my students a survey on the last day of class asking them to rate each of the films they’ve seen on a scale of 1 to 10. I’ve done this out of curiosity more than anything; it can be maddeningly hard to predict how first and second year college students, most of whom haven’t seen movies made before they were born or outside of the United States, will respond to watching classic and important contemporary films. I tell them that signing the survey is optional and that giving a movie a low rating doesn’t necessarily mean that I won’t show it in future classes.

Here are the aggregated results of all the surveys I’ve given to all of my students. The fact that only one movie has been “certified rotten” (i.e., scored below a 5.0) is, I think, pretty astonishing and speaks to how open-minded and attentive young people can be when properly introduced to the history of cinema. (Having said all that, the fact that The Searchers only has a rating of 6.8 is like a knife in my heart – some of these kids have no taste!)

The results are presented in chronological order:

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Wiene, Germany, 1920) – 5.9
Nosferatu (Murnau, Germany, 1922) – 6.4
Our Hospitality (Keaton, USA, 1923) – 8.2
Sherlock Jr. (Keaton, USA, 1924) – 7.9
Battleship Potemkin (Eisenstein, Soviet Union, 1925) – 5.4
Metropolis (Lang, Germany, 1927) – 7.8
Sunrise (Murnau, USA, 1927) – 7.2
Man with the Movie Camera (Vertov, Soviet Union, 1929) – 5.5
The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer, France, 1929) – 7.4
L’age d’Or (Bunuel, France, 1930) – 6.2
Earth (Dovzhenko, Soviet Union, 1930) – 3.2
M (Lang, Germany, 1931) – 8.2
L’atalante (Vigo, France, 1934) – 6.2
The Awful Truth (McCarey, USA, 1937) – 8.4
Grand Illusion (Renoir, France, 1937) – 7.3
Bringing Up Baby (Hawks, USA, 1938) – 8.4
The Rules of the Game (Renoir, France, 1939) – 7.0
Citizen Kane (Welles, USA, 1941) – 8.2
How Green Was My Valley (Ford, USA, 1941) – 6.8
The Lady Eve (Sturges, USA, 1941) – 8.1
Casablanca (Curtiz, USA, 1942) – 7.6
Cat People (Tourneur, USA, 1942) – 5.5
Double Indemnity (Wilder, USA, 1944) – 8.0
To Have and Have Not (Hawks, USA, 1944) – 7.5
Brief Encounter (Lean, England, 1945) – 8.6
Detour (Ulmer, USA, 1945) – 7.2
Rome, Open City (Rossellini, Italy, 1945) – 6.8
The Big Sleep (Hawks, USA, 1946) – 7.0
My Darling Clementine (Ford, USA, 1946) – 7.3
The Lady from Shanghai (Welles, USA, 1947) – 8.0
Out of the Past (Tourneur, USA, 1947) – 7.4
Bicycle Thieves (de Sica, Italy 1948) – 7.8
Pursued (Walsh, USA, 1948) – 7.0
White Heat (Walsh, USA, 1949) – 8.3
Strangers on a Train (Hitchcock, USA, 1953) – 7.8
Tokyo Story (Ozu, Japan, 1953) – 6.7
Ugetsu (Mizoguchi, Japan, 1953) – 6.8
Rear Window (Hitchcock, USA, 1954) – 8.8
Sansho the Bailiff (Mizoguchi, Japan, 1954) – 6.0
Seven Samurai (Kurosawa, Japan, 1954) – 8.8
Pather Panchali (Ray, India, 1955) – 6.4
Aparajito (Ray, India, 1956) – 6.6
A Man Escaped (Bresson, France, 1956) – 8.0
The Searchers (Ford, USA, 1956) – 6.8
Touch of Evil (Welles, USA, 1958) – 8.0
Vertigo (Hitchcock, USA, 1958) – 9.2
Hiroshima Mon Amour (Resnais, France/Japan, 1959) – 6.8
North By Northwest (Hitchcock, USA, 1959) – 8.7
Pickpocket (Bresson, France, 1959) – 7.3
Rio Bravo (Hawks, USA, 1959) – 8.0
Some Like It Hot (Wilder, USA, 1959) – 9.2
Breathless (Godard, France, 1960) – 7.6
Psycho (Hitchcock, USA, 1960) – 8.8
Le Doulos (Melville, France, 1962) – 7.4
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (Ford, USA, 1962) – 8.5
8 1/2 (Fellini, Italy, 1963) – 6.5
Le Samourai (Melville, France, 1967) – 8.4
McCabe and Mrs. Miller (Altman, USA, 1971) – 7.0
Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Fassbinder, Germany, 1973) – 8.1
The Long Goodbye (Altman, USA, 1973) – 7.6
Chinatown (Polanski, USA, 1974) – 8.0
Annie Hall (Allen, USA, 1977) – 5.6
Days of Heaven (Malick, USA, 1978) – 7.1
Raging Bull (Scorsese, USA, 1980) – 8.8
The Thin Blue Line (Morris, USA, 1988) – 7.7
The Player (Altman, USA, 1992) – 7.5
Chungking Express (Wong, Hong Kong, 1994) – 7.8
The Bird People in China (Miike, Japan/China, 1998) – 6.6
Audition (Miike, Japan, 1999) – 7.9
Beau Travail (Denis, France/Djibouti, 1999) – 5.4
Ravenous (Bird, UK/USA, 1999) – 8.4
The Devil’s Backbone (del Toro, Spain/Mexico, 2001) – 8.7
The Tracker (de Heer, Australia, 2002) – 7.7
Save the Green Planet (Jang, S. Korea, 2003) – 7.5
Grizzly Man (Herzog, USA, 2004) – 8.1
Moolade (Sembene, Senegal/Burkina Faso, 2004) – 7.8
Offside (Panahi, Iran, 2006) – 7.4
Zodiac (Fincher, USA, 2007) – 9.0

And, in case you were wondering, here are the top ten highest rated films:

10. Brief Encounter (Lean, 1945) – 8.6
7. North By Northwest (Hitchcock, 1959) – 8.7
7. The Devil’s Backbone (del Toro, 2002) – 8.7
4. Raging Bull (Scorsese, 1980) 8.8
4. Rear Window (Hitchcock, 1954) – 8.8
4. Seven Samurai (Kurosawa, 1954) – 8.8
4. Psycho (Hitchcock, 1960) – 8.8
3. Zodiac (Fincher, 2007) – 9.0
1. Some Like It Hot (Wilder, 1959) – 9.2
1. Vertigo (Hitchcock, 1959) – 9.2

So, what, if anything, can be gleaned from these results? For one thing, I think the films with the highest ratings tend to be the ones that are most similar to the kinds of films with which the students are already familiar. For instance, plot-driven genre films (especially suspense/thrillers and comedies) tend to do particularly well. The Seven Samurai? Great action movie. Brief Encounter? Dude, it’s like The Notebook of the 1940s.

I hasten to add however that this doesn’t necessarily mean the highest rated movies were the individual favorites of most of the voters. All it really means is that the films rated 8.0 and above tend to be the ones that no one didn’t like. Conversely, a lot of films that have scored in the 5.5 to 6.9 range (L’age d’Or, Man with the Movie Camera, Tokyo Story, 8 1/2, Hiroshima Mon Amour, etc.) are movies that I have been specifically told were among the greatest movies ever seen by individual students. It’s just that their enthusiastic votes of 10 were frequently counterbalanced by an equal number of low votes. In the end, I’ve found that the films that produce these “mixed responses” tend to also be the ones that provoke the best class discussion.

As for Earth? I’m sorry, Mr. Dovzhenko, but I will try again someday . . .

Filmmaker Interview: Monte Hellman

2011 has already seen an intriguing share of idiosyncratic and highly personal American movies coming from all directions – from the made-for-television (Mildred Pierce) to the animated (Rango) to the experimental (Shoals) to the works of high profile Hollywood auteurs on scales both both large (The Tree of Life) and small (Midnight in Paris). However, no American film has impressed me as much as Road to Nowhere, the new mind-bending neo-noir from legendary director Monte Hellman (Two-Lane Blacktop, Cockfighter).

Road to Nowhere is Hellman’s welcome return to feature filmmaking after a 21-year hiatus. It tells the story of the making of a movie, a true crime thriller also called Road to Nowhere, in which multiple planes of reality continually intersect – an intellectually provocative “meta” conceit that is always perfectly balanced by Hellman’s overall mood of romantic longing and a cast of terrific, highly charged performers led by the soulful, exquisitely nuanced Shannyn Sossamon.

Road to Nowhere recently ended its theatrical run at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago but will be released next week on DVD and blu-ray. In many ways it is a film ideally suited for home video, where individual scenes and shots can be paused, studied and endlessly re-watched. And besides, it also cheekily begins with a character watching the movie-within-the-movie on a laptop computer, an image guaranteed to blow the mind of anyone who also first views it that way. For those who have not yet seen it, I can heartily recommend a “blind buy.”

I recently interviewed Hellman about his new film:

MGS: As someone born and raised in North Carolina, I’d like to start by saying I’ve never seen my home state look so beautiful in a movie. It was breathtaking to see the backdrops of those green mountains and low-hanging clouds on the big screen. How did you find the locations and how did you manage to capture them with such painterly beauty?

MH: We had a great local location manager, Michael Bigham, who led us to some amazing places, as well as secured permissions to shoot. The capturing was the work of our brilliant DP, Josep Civit.

MGS: Road to Nowhere has all of the elements that we associate with film noir – the archetypal characters, the mystery plot, the nocturnal settings, etc. – and yet I think the real pleasures of the film lie outside the realm of following a “story” in the traditional sense. Do you think it is possible to make a conventional movie mystery in the manner of, say, an Alfred Hitchcock or a Howard Hawks today?

MH: The only thing preventing it is the lack of a Cary Grant or James Stewart. (In Road to Nowhere Cliff De Young plays a movie star named “Cary Stewart”. – MGS)

MGS: When Mitch Haven, the director of the movie-within-the-movie, says that he won’t cast stars just in order to raise the budget, he seems very idealistic. How much do you identify with this point of view?

MH: I’ve said the same thing many times, but I’ve never had the chance to test my resolve.

MGS: Shannyn Sossamon’s dual performance as the actress in the movie and the woman her character is based on is phenomenal. I think she deserves to be a big star (and probably would already have been had she been born in an earlier era). How did you find her?

MH: Steve Gaydos saw her reading lines with another actor in a restaurant. He thought they were students, but that she looked the part. He asked her to call me, and was surprised when the call came from her manager. He had no idea she’d starred in so many movies.

MGS: I’ve read that the actors were responsible for coming up with a lot of their own dialogue in the film. How exactly did this process work?

MH: It wasn’t a lot of dialogue, but the few lines they did come up with were, to quote Jimmy Durante, “cherce.” They would sometimes vary a line or two after multiple takes, just to keep it fresh.

MGS: You shot this movie on the Canon 5D, an incredibly small and lightweight digital camera. How different would the film have been if you had shot it on 35mm?

MH: I don’t know that the finished product would have been different, just more difficult to obtain. The camera made it possible to shoot in tight quarters that would normally have involved shooting on a set, or knocking out a wall.

MGS: Thanks and best of luck with the film.

Road to Nowhere Rating: 8.4

The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. My Winnipeg (Maddin)
2. Roxie Hart (Wellman)
3. Intentions of Murder (Imamura)
4. Troll 2 (Fragasso)
5. Road to Nowhere (Hellman)
6. Deathdream (Clark)
7. 13 Assassins (Miike)
8. A Girl Cut in Two (Chabrol)
9. The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks (Kuleshov)
10. Boy (Oshima)

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