Dominic Ambrose Blogblot

of words: narrative, film and non-fiction

I Love You, Phillip Morris! But Middle America may hate you.

Will America hate I Love you, Phillip Morris? It premiered at Sundance in January, 2009.

Then nothing. An opening at Cannes, an LA screening in July.

Then, – (crickets, crickets).

More than one year later, it had it’s commercial premiere at the Cinémathèque Française in Paris, (the film was produced by the French production company, Europa Corp.). Jim Carrey, Ewan McGregor and director Glenn Ficara were in attendance, and the film went on to screens in Paris and elsewhere in Europe. But what’s the hold up in the US? Distributors. At Sundance and for months afterwards, Europa was unable to find a U.S. distributor for it. It was finally picked up by Consolidated Pictures Group. This independent company is a very small distributor for a film with A list talent, and it is possible that they are having difficulty getting it into cinemas. Is it really so hard to sell a movie starring Carrey and McGregor, or have they suddenly become box office poison… or is it… No, could it be that the film is just a tad too in your face for the multiplexes of ‘burbia? The marketing strategy seems to reflect a certain uneasiness about this oddball comedy. There have been several trailers created, and in one of them, you can barely tell that the Jim Carrey character is gay at all. The movie poster is decided closeted (see above).

Jim Carrey’s character is as brash and over the top as so many of his previous incarnations, this is Cable Guy and Ace Ventura material, but with a twist: something more complex, and something extremely Gay.

The billboard at Cannes. Something tells me they won't be using this image in Peoria.

That is, GAY with all the feathers. If Carrey’s comedic schtick is not usually to your taste, the idea may make you gringe, but Carrey pulls it off with consummate skill. He is not the Philip Morris of the title, however, That is Ewan McGregor, the object of Steven Russell’s (Jim Carrey) affection, and felonious obsession. The story is ragged and rambling, but the two stars, Carrey and McGregor have such great chemistry that they keep the audience with them throughout the 100 minutes of sometimes predictable mayhem. Even with its plot flaws, it was fascinating and fun. One of the truly wonderful results of the exponential growth of gay literature and filmmaking in recent years is the corresponding expansion of the terrain of human experience that are now being explored. Carrey blazes a trail with this character, (based on a real person named McVicker) and makes an unforgettable addition to the comedic rogue’s gallery that is our cinematic culture.

For a review in Digital Spy, click here.

So, what givcs, America? Are you going to show the film or what?


March 21, 2010 Posted by | cinema | , , | 1 Comment

The Last Pulcinella: watching Massimo Ranieri fall between two stools

The film L’Ultimo Pulcinella was screened at the Istituto Italiano di Cultura in Paris on February 8, 2010 and was heartily welcomed by the very indulgent audience of Italo-philes. However, if this film is going to make it outside of the most uncritically sympathetic audiences it will need a lot of luck. The director, Maurizio Scaparro, was at the screening and he said in the introductory remarks that the film is based on a scenario by Roberto Rossellini, a script that was unfilmable because of the odd juxtaposition of plot elements, one day in Naples, next day in Paris. He was determined to see Massimo Ranieri in the lead role, and he eventually decided to adapt the story to modern circumstances. It is an interesting and fruitful exercise, however, the problems with the script are still quite evident, and may have even been exacerbated by the adaptation. What results is a film that is not really neo-realism, nor is it musical theater, but rather something lost in between.

Massimo Ranieri

The Last Pulcinella stars Massimo Ranieri, the renowned Italian singer and actor. His early fame in the 1960s was with pop songs in the style of San Remo, where he twice won the top prize. In the 1970s he started in a new direction with his album entitled ‘O Surdato Nammurato” a live recording of one of his theatrical performances of Neapolitan sketches. This album, with its cover photo of him dressed in the white pajama costume of Pulcinella, has become a classic and it established the future trajectory of his career. Today he is best known as an interpreter the classic Neapolitan repertoire, and he has come out with several more collections of Neapolitan standards, the latest one in 2009. Many of these songs are over one hundred years old and they have been interpreted over and over again by innumerable singers from the most talented to the ridiculous. His renditions are superb, as he uses his clear and sharp voice to bring out the bel canto qualities of these songs, while at the same time making them enjoyable for the modern ear. In this film Ranieri plays a custom made role, as Michelangelo, a Neapolitan actor who performs Pulcinella. His voice and abilities are as breathtaking as ever, but alas, the years have erased Michelangelo’s youthful good looks. This does not stop him, though, and he continues to evolve and when he arrives in working class Paris in search of his missing son, he wants to bring the theatrical traditions to a new generation of performers. Ranieri’s Pulcinella performances in the film are wonderful. His ability to become the Commedia dell’Arte character has been perfected over a long career and this shows. Unfortunately, it is not enough to make the film palatable.

One glaring problem is the lack of veracity. There are plot twists and little conflict-resolutions throughout that conveniently fall from the sky without rhyme or reason. All of the points of tension: Michelangelo’s son’s escape from Naples, the suspicions of the elderly actress toward the immigrant neighbors, and especially the belligerence of the police force and the glimpses of police brutality, are dangled for a moment in front of our eyes, then blithely forgotten. The discovery of an empty theater just waiting for the protagonist to arrive, and the impressive artistic talent of all the neighborhood characters who just happen to saunter in, are elements that would work fine in a Broadway musical, where the audience doesn’t really care about all the niceties of logic – just get to the music, but they are absolutely insulting to the intelligence of someone watching a film that is supposed to be “realism.” This story calls on Deus ex Machina contrivances so often that it hardly seems worth it for Deus ever to climb back into his Machina, God might as well just hang around on the set so that he’ll be right there for his cue. Or better yet, cut out all the stillborn subplots and concentrate on the performers. The plot would be tolerable if it led to music, for instance, something for the Colombina character (Margot Dufrene) to sing in explanation of her sudden infatuation with Francesco, played by a severely underutilized Domenico Balsamo. The story is a variation of the old “Hey, kids, let’s put on a show!” formula from 1940s Hollywood, and as such calls out pitifully for big finale performance, which never materializes. How about letting Francesco or one of the other young males share the Pulcinella character with Ranieri to demonstrate how this tradition will be passed on to the next generation. Massimo Ranieri, also at the screening, said that he saw a bit of Pulcinella in all of the immigrant youths. Unfortunately, this never comes across in the film.

The Last Pulcinella needs to decide what it is: a story about the problems of multiethnic youths in the housing projects of the modern European metropolis, or a celebration of the blending of traditional European (here Neapolitan) art and the arts of the newcomers. I think it is clear that given the talent of Ranieri and all the young actors, the second option is the one that holds the most promise, and the scene in which Ranieri performs a classic song to African accompaniment should erase any doubts. And incidentally, there was no need to come all the way to Paris North to find racial intolerance, police brutality and frustrated, unemployed African youths with talent – they could have found all that by the truckloads right back home in Naples. Perhaps it is too late to save the film, but it is never too late for the stage. Could this someday make a successful stage musical? It is one that I would love to see.


February 9, 2010 Posted by | cinema, music, theater | , , , | 1 Comment

No One’s Son: the full impact of Post Traumatic Stress in Ostojic and Matisic’s film, Niciji sin

No one’s Son, (Niciji sin, in Croatian) is a powerful film that breaks new ground telling an old story. It is about the memory of war, and the bitter reality of post-war society. It was directed by Arsen Ostojic, with a screenplay by Mase Matisic, based on his play.

The director uses a dynamic, ticking clock style for his narrative that was perfected by masters like Hitchcock and Tarantino. Lately it has become a trademark of some very high quality films that have come out of Serbia: films like Klopka, directed by Srdan Golubovic and The Fourth Man, directed by Dejan Zecevic. Now perhaps it has become something of a regional style, with this Croatian film achieving the same level of excellence. It is a great change from the usual Croatian fare of nostalgic escapism to the land of Tito or to some Dalmatian village, on the one hand, or the nihilistic, gratuitous violence of films about skinheads and mafiosi on the other. Though at first it may look like the latter, the story quickly moves far deeper into the psychology of the characters, as the enigmatic and twisted story unravels.

It begins with a home video clip of a headbanger rock band rehearsing in the year preceding war. This is cut off abruptly by images of a soldier running away from exploding bombs. This soldier is the singer from that rock group, Ivan, played by Alen Liveric. He is next seen in the post-war present, a drunk veteran with manic eyes, singing a particularly hated Chetnik (Serbian warrior) song in a Croatian bar – an extremely provocative act. He refuses to stop, and the police are called in to take the cursing, abusive drunk to jail to sober up. Little by little the action reveals that he is in a wheelchair, that his father is a politician, that there is a dead body on the floor in his parent’s home, and that his parents drag the body out into the rain and bury it in the forest.

Then for the next hour, the story unfolds, shedding layer after layer of deception, revealing more and more of the animosity and greed that have poisoned even the best of intentions. The tension builds immediately, pushed on by the incessant droning soundtrack that has been used before so effectively in those Serbian films. It is compounded by the multiple lies that keep the story elements constantly out of sync: even the prostitutes are frauds. The tension doesn’t let up until the very last scene, when Ivan’s son opens a mysterious door, and the viewer wonders whether he will be spared the horror of war or be confronted by it in the most traumatic way.

One of the things that make this film special is the ingenious screenplay. The setting incorporates the cynicism of modern nationalistic politics with the insidious chronic infections of wartime hatreds and pre-war communist era corruption. There’s room for all kinds of villains here, Serbian and Croatian, who spread their evil with malicious vigor. Post Traumatic Stress is not only for war veterans, it is for the society as a whole, but the PSTD of the story’s protagonist, who has returned from a Serbian POW camp without legs, is especially gripping. Mate Matisic is one of the most successful playwrights in Croatia, and the depth of his writing is very evident in this work.

Arsen Ostojic

It took me over a year to see this film, so now I look forward to going even further back in time to 2004 to see Ostojic’s other film, Ta divna Splitska noc, A Wonderful Night in Split, which was written by the director. It seems that Arsen Ostojic enjoys upending the clichés of Croatian cinema, so if the title of this film makes one expect the usual bucolic escapism, this should not be taken for granted. People who have seen it have spoken of its innovative style and ironic, engaging storyline focusing on the dark side of the city’s nightlife. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been seen much outside of festivals. Hopefully, No one’s son will spark interest in this director’s work and give him the opportunity to display his talents for a wider audience.

January 10, 2010 Posted by | cinema | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Strella, by Panos Koutras, one of the stars of Cheries-Cheris

Cheries-Cheris, Paris, 2009

Strella, (Also called, “A Woman’s Way,”) is a delightful film by Greek cult director Panos Koutras. How do you top “The Attack of the Giant Moussaka,” his 1999 film about a giant slab of casserole that suddenly threatens the city of Athens? This problem may have been weighing on the director’s mind for much of the last decade heavier than greasy béchamel and eggplant could ever weigh on his stomach. He first went with a surrealistic melodrama with a wicked mother and a burning Acropolis, (“Real Life,” from 2004) but didn’t really hit his stride until now with this much more believable, yet still unusual story. He knew he had to forego the Moussaka’s bargain basement Almodovar kitsch, but it took him and his co-writer Panajotis Evangelidis this long to really master the element that makes the Spanish director’s films work: the subversive gay plot.

Strella is about a pre-op trans who meets a man just out of prison after doing 15 years for a crime of passion. Their relationship starts out very steamy, but hits a few obstacles as they come to terms with their respective pasts, and with Strella’s complicated social life. The film includes many “non-professional” actors in their first movie roles, most notably Mina Orfanou who plays the title role. Mina is first among a whole bevy of trans in this film, ranging from the young twinks to the older grande dames of the night, all natural actors who give the film great authenticity. In contrast to all of the wigs and hormone treatment, is the macho actor Yannis Kokiasmenos who gives a very sensual and sexy performance as Yiorgos, the older man whose release from prison not only means freedom, but also separation from his cellmate. To say that Yiorgos is emotionally torn by this new and uncomfortable situation is an understatement, considering the secrets he must come to terms with during the length of the film.

One of the most interesting and gratifying thing about this story is how well the problems are resolved by the end. Before this, the only gay themed Greek movie I had seen was the depressing story of murder and intrigue “Blackmail Boy” (2002). I somehow managed to miss Katakouzinos’ “Angel” from the 1970s, but I guess I’ll save that one for some suicidal rainy day. For now, I will savor the good feelings that I am left with from “Strella.”

Strella premiered at the Berlinale earlier this year, and in France at the Gay Film Festival Cheries-Cheris that took place in November, 2009 at the Forum des Images. Hopefully, it will soon have a commercial run in Paris so that those who missed it the first time around will get a chance to see it.

Oh, sorry, did the mention of moussaka make you hungry? Here is a small taste of that earlier film:

December 13, 2009 Posted by | cinema | , , | Leave a comment

Der Knochenmann – The Bone Man

More dead bodies from Austria. The Bone Man directed by Wolfgang Murnberger and based on the novel by Wolf Haas. Der Knochenmann (The Bone Man) is set in a town near the Slovak border, where the prejudices of East versus West, City versus Country and Man versus Woman all seem to find their justification. That sounds grim, and this is, after all, a thriller, but one with a wry ironic smirk on its face. Coming after last year’s gem, Revanche, it seems that the Austrians may have hit on


Brenner drowns his troubles as Berthi entertains a new conquest in the background

their perfect cinematic recipe: a pinch of lust, a teaspoon of Vienna versus the sticks, two cups of east-west human trafficking and a whole lot of the primordial evil lurking in man’s soul. A bit upside-down, a bit perverse, a bit Austrian. This is the third in a series of films about the hard-boiled private detective Brenner. First came Komm, süsser Tod, (2000), and then Silentium (2004) and now this, which many people are calling the best of the three.

There are some colorful characters that make it come alive: Berthi, (Simon Schwarz), Brenner’s foolish pal who doesn’t let his Vladimir Putin hangdog mug stop him from chasing every skirt that passes by, and then the restaurant owner’s son, Porsche Pauli (Christoph Luser) a whiny, fairly psychotic loser who manages to put everyone in danger. And some minor characters from across the border that add some ex-socialist charm: the dour waitress and the Slovak hood in a wheelchair, played by the veteran actor Ivan Shvedoff. This may not have the ethnographic depth of Revanche, but it does have a certain contemporary veracity that is very powerful and great fun to watch. Especially fun are the thick Austrian accents, notably on Brenner, Berthi and Birgit, all as thick and doughy as a Knodel dumpling – so avoid any dubbed versions of the film, and listen to some great vocal acting.

They have also given themselves an excellent script to work with. The screenplay was written by the novelist Wolf Haas, along with Murnberger and the two main actors Josef Hader (Brenner) and Birgit Minichmayr (Birgit). There are a few exaggerations that detract from the whole, though. I couldn’t help but wonder how a person could walk around for several hours after his finger has been chopped off, discussing every topic that comes up. I have the feeling that he would want to get to a hospital posthaste. And the great masked ball at the climax of the film was way over-the-top and totally unnecessary. The story builds to its own big scene through effective plot points, so it does not need the phony climax made out of costumes and props. The contrived festivities are a distraction and take us away from the real action happening one floor below. I would have much preferred a more subdued party in the restaurant that could distract the story’s characters without disorienting the viewer. And the ghoulish French title, “Bienvenu au Cadavres-les-Bains” (more or less: “Welcome to the Town of Dead Bodies”): this is a translation of a pun in the original German, in which the town’s name is transformed into “Leichenberg,” but it gives the wrong impression of a Halloweenish horror film. This is pure film noir, Twenty-first Century style.

Click on the trailer in the sidebar. It begins with some teaser shots from the first two films. In German.

November 2, 2009 Posted by | cinema | , , , , | Leave a comment

Bosnian war is the absurdist setting for The Tour, Markovic

Film review. The Tour (Turneja) is the latest film by the Serbian director Goran Markovic, and it has been selected as Serbia’s candidate for the Oscar Foreign Film category, 2009.turneja-v

It’s been fifteen years since the war in Bosnia, and no matter how much Serbians and everyone else in the region would like this particular chapter of history to disappear, it keeps popping up, bringing with it the ghosts of suffering and genocide. So, now that Radovan Karadzic is finally going on trial in the Hague, bringing even more shame on the Bosnian Serbs with his antics and resistance, is it really time for a Serbian comedy on the topic? Director Goran Markovic seemed to think so, and he came up with something unique and wise, and at times quite funny.

Turneja, (The Tour) is a very moving and successful film about the comic absurdity of human suffering. Markovic pulls it off by using as his main characters a troupe of clueless actors from Belgrade, so self absorbed and ego-driven that they allow themselves to be transported right to the front lines of the war in Serbian held Bosnia to perform for the troops. They have been lured by the prospect of making some scarce money, but they soon find that they are paid in insults, injury and fearsome misadventure. But in spite of the horror, they are troupers and they will survive. The absurdist theater of war turns out to be a fitting place for these over-the-top thespians, and they manage to bring poetry to the Serbian fighters, and then to the Croatians and Muslims, as well, when they find themselves bumbling about, criss-crossing the battle lines. This is not to say that they learn anything from this experience, or that the fighters have been instilled with the civilizing effects of high culture in any way. The fact is, that no one learns anything in this film, because there is nothing to be learned from the repulsive murderous dysfunction of that conflict. And that is, perhaps, Markovic’s point.

Goran Markovic is an experienced filmmaker whose work has been well-known but perhaps not so well-received critically over the years. With this film, however, he seems to have found his stride. He has found the perfect stand-in for the Serbian people in the street: the self indulgent but good hearted actors who suddenly find that while they had been busy emoting their bogus lines to the rafters the whole world outside their theater had gone mad. Markovic knows actors, he is the son of two of them, and he has spent his life in the world of theater and film. He makes these characters speak with great humanity, even as they are lying, preening and elbowing each other out of the frame. What they recite is perhaps not as important as the life that they breathe into their words. They are in contrast to the nationalist writer who has come to the front to sing the praises of Serbian revenge and terror. Whereas their words bring them freedom and gets the guns momentarily quiet, the writer’s words bring him food and privilege and sends people to their deaths.

The battlefields are the main theater of this story, but this reality is framed by the broken, empty theater in Belgrade where the film begins and ends. It is also an apt metaphor for the state of Serbian culture itself at the end of those years of conflict: terribly wounded, but still full of life and aching to rebuild.

October 31, 2009 Posted by | cinema | , , | 1 Comment