"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Here’s one way of dividing movie buffs into two groups: What’s your response to movies that make absolutely no effort to depict the real world? Rather than wander into an epistemological blackberry bush — what do I mean by “depict”? what sort of thing is the real world? — let’s cut to specifics and consider “The Brothers Bloom“ a hit-and-miss entertainment from 35-year-old Rian Johnson, writer and director of the 2005 indie hit “Brick.”
You could describe “The Brothers Bloom” in various ways: as a playful vehicle for Adrien Brody, Mark Ruffalo and Rachel Weisz, who are a lot of fun as a pair of con men and the eccentric heiress whom they ensnare (unless it’s vice versa); as an homage to caper films or grifter films or Fellini or Billy Wilder or Hitchcock. But it’s supremely uninterested in how con men and heiresses behave outside movieland. Johnson’s characters exist in some nebulous universe that isn’t exactly now and isn’t any other time either. They dress nattily, stay in grand hotels, and travel by steamer or improbably luxurious railway carriage, but they’ve also got cellphones and do business with sinister Russians driving armored BMWs.
This is either going to sound to you like a high old time or a teeth-grinding exercise in forced frivolity, and that might sum up the appropriate range of responses to “The Brothers Bloom.” Thing is, whether you liked “Brick” or not, its intentionally ludicrous, Hammett-goes-to-high-school SoCal noir was genuinely something you hadn’t seen before. I also think its artificiality captured something real, that being the way that teenage existence feels like life-and-death drama even when it’s not. “The Brothers Bloom” is plenty ambitious, but if you’ve ever seen any film about raffish international criminals and their dastardly but charming forms of derring-do, then you’ve seen parts of this one.
Ever since childhood, as we learn in an opening sequence narrated by Ricky Jay, Stephen (Ruffalo) has been the brains of the Bloom operation. His brother, who is irritatingly only called Bloom (Brody), is the soulful, ambivalent performer who makes it work. After Bloom retreats to Montenegro to soothe his angst in alcohol — this is the kind of movie where a scrawled on-screen title says “Montenegro” and then an airplane goes whooshing past, in near-comic-book style, to show someone arriving there — Stephen comes after him, assuring him their next big score will be their last.
That next score is of course the ravishing oddball Penelope (Weisz), who lives alone in a monstrous New Jersey mansion atop a trillion bucks. She has a lot of winsome but irritating hobbies — playing the harp, juggling chainsaws, making pinhole cameras out of watermelons — and a dearth of social skills that suggests she was raised by baboons. Weisz has a good time with the role, which involves dancing the bolero to an invisible shipboard orchestra, flashing her ass in a hospital gown and announcing loudly that thunderstorms make her “so horny.”
But the problem with Penelope is the problem with the whole movie: High-style goofballing and globetrotting can get you pretty far, but maybe not as far as Johnson wants us to go. We understand right away that Bloom, who yearns for authenticity but hasn’t found it at the bottom of a Montenegran highball glass, is going to flip for Penelope — not that anything about her could be deemed authentic — and that all sorts of ingenious complications will follow them from New Jersey to Greece to Prague to Mexico (and then back to Montenegro again). On the surface, Stephen’s greatest con calls for Bloom to fake a romance with Penelope. But who is hustling whom? After all, Stephen has spent his career hoping to create the “perfect con,” one where everyone involved gets what they want.
All this makes for a lively, “Pink Panther”-style entertainment, but Johnson wants something more. Ruffalo and Brody are fine actors and seem to be having a lark here, without ever quite becoming invested in the filmmaker’s overly complicated enterprise. At some point in the story, these three characters — I haven’t mentioned the female Asian sidekick (Rinko Kikuchi) who never speaks — are supposed to matter to us, to seem like emotionally recognizable humans with something to lose or gain besides a pile of money and the next ticket out to Whereveristan. They never really do, and I enjoyed watching almost all of “The Brothers Bloom” without ever feeling compelled by it. Johnson is a prodigal, daring filmmaking talent, but this one’s got a case of spotted-second-movie disease. (Now playing in New York and Los Angeles, with wider national release to begin May 29.)
Teutonic thrillers: “Jerichow” and “Revanche“ One could speculate about the roots of the recent genre-film renaissance in Europe. In fact, I will: Maybe it’s a way to escape from the arid, virtually viewer-proof prison of contemporary auteur cinema. Whatever the reason, we’re seeing horror films, actioners and thrillers bursting out all over the Old World, and two of the best German-language offerings have reached American shores almost simultaneously. Oddly, while Christian Petzold’s “Jerichow” and Götz Spielmann’s “Revanche” certainly aren’t the same movie or anything, they both involve urban criminals retreating to their rural hometowns, where they majorly violate that commandment relating to thy neighbor’s wife. Go figure! I guess life in the picturesque Euro countryside isn’t as sweet and dull as we thought.
The Cinema Guild
“Jerichow” is a slow-burning, suspenseful, tightly constructed variation on the theme of “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” in which a deadbeat ex-soldier named Thomas (Benno Fürmann), on the run from a thug friend he “borrowed” money from, washes up at his dead mother’s house. There he’s adopted by Ali (Hilmi Sözer), a shambling Turkish-born businessman with a load of money, a drinking problem, a bad heart and suicidal tendencies. Oh, and did I mention the blond bombshell wife with a colorful past (Nina Hoss), whose name is Trouble with a capital T?
OK, her name is really Laura, which might be a nod to another famous thriller, but you get the drift of things. As soon as Laura locks eyes with the muscular, laconic Thomas, we know the two of them will soon be having uncomfortable sex in areas of the house not intended for that activity. Mysteriously, despite his fits of drunken rage and jealousy, Ali seems to be encouraging them. As this peculiar triangle unfolds, Petzold keeps the tension high and delivers a few decent switchbacks. Told in lean, tense cinematic gestures, “Jerichow” also captures a social portrait of newly multicultural Germany, at least as it extends into the country’s forgotten rural interior. (Now playing at Film Forum in New York and the Monica 4 and Sunset 5 in Los Angeles. Opens May 22 in Seattle, June 26 in Chicago and Portland, Ore., July 3 in Boston, July 10 in Minneapolis, July 17 in San Francisco, July 24 in Detroit and Aug. 7 in Atlanta and Philadelphia, with more cities to follow.)
Austrian director Spielmann has long awaited discovery by a wider world, and for my money the gorgeous, brooding, unpredictable neo-noir “Revanche” is one of the year’s best films. Combining the gutter-level “dirty Europe” realism of the Dardenne brothers or Ulrich Seidl with the rootless aesthetic of a ’70s American thriller, Spielmann spins his yarn around monosyllabic Alex (Johannes Krisch), a protagonist so inscrutable he makes Thomas from “Jerichow” seem like Oscar Wilde. Alex works security in a Vienna brothel, where he’s having an illicit affair with one of the working girls, Russian transplant Tamara (Irina Potapenko). Of course their attempt to rob a bank and escape from Tamara’s pimp goes terribly awry — but that’s when “Revanche” really gets interesting.
Alex finds himself propelled into a strange new rural life, working on his grandfather’s farm and locked in a compulsive, adulterous relationship with the cop’s wife next door. Said cop, naturally enough, has a professional interest in Alex’s previous activities. I have a particular fondness for movies that hide their true identity, like “The Crying Game” or Kubrick’s “Lolita,” movies that seem to be taking you in one direction and then go in a stranger or darker one. If “Jerichow” is an art-house film disguised as a formula thriller, “Revanche” begins as a real thriller and gradually disassembles itself into something Wim Wenders might have made in 1972. Simply a film of terrific texture, emotional depth and cinematic accomplishment, by a master director who’s gone almost unnoticed outside the German-speaking countries. (Now playing at the IFC Center in New York, and also in Los Angeles and Wilmington, Del. Opens May 22 in Amherst, Mass., Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Lake Worth, Fla.; May 29 in Washington; June 5 in Minneapolis and San Francisco; June 12 in Coral Gables, Fla.; June 19 in Baltimore, Omaha, Neb., and San Diego; June 26 in Denver; July 3 in Dallas; July 10 in Grand Rapids, Mich., and Salt Lake City; and July 31 in Hartford, Conn., and St. Louis, with more cities to follow.)
A superhero without honor: “Big Man Japan“ The main problem with co-writer/director/star Hitoshi Matsumoto’s ultra-deadpan superhero mockumentary “Big Man Japan” (aka “Dai-Nipponjin,” its Japanese title) is that its core audience, that being Asian cult-film mavens, has already seen it but it’s way too weird to appeal far beyond that demographic. Sure, I can try to explain it and all, but if you aren’t at least somewhat familiar with the superhero-vs.-monster genre that dominated Japanese pop culture for much of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, then nothing about “Big Man Japan” will make sense.
At first, the film presents itself as a documentary about a divorced, underemployed, middle-aged loser named Masaru (Matsumoto himself), who lives with his cat in a ramshackle house that says “Department of Monster Protection” over the door. A deluded idiot living off his fantasies, it seems. But then a phone call comes in, Masaru reports to an electrical plant to be zapped, and suddenly our low-budget, sad-sack documentary becomes a special-effects movie. Masaru dons a vast pair of purple bikini trunks and becomes the 50-foot-tall Big Man Japan, protecting the homeland from a series of ridiculous monsters. There’s the one who uproots buildings with an elastic hoop, the one who hops around on one big foot, shouting joyously, and the one who emits enormous clouds of flatulence (“equal to 10,000 human feces!”) while searching for a mate.
Masaru’s problem is that the Japanese public no longer cares about Big Man Japan’s battles, which are broadcast at 2:40 a.m. and draw crap ratings. His agent wants him to put a sponsor logo across his impressively broad hips. His senile grandfather, who was once a vastly bigger celebrity in his day as the fourth Big Man Japan (it’s a family business), keeps electrocuting himself to enormous size and escaping from the nursing home. Matsumoto isn’t the first Japanese director to go all meta on the superhero tradition (consider also Takashi Miike’s 2004 “Zebraman”), but this work of improbable lunacy may well max out the genre. (Now playing at the Cinema Village in New York and the Nuart Theatre in Los Angeles. Opens May 29 in San Francisco and Seattle; June 12 in Denver and Rochester, N.Y.; and June 26 in Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit and Hilo, Hawaii, with more cities to follow.)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)
For the latest movie coverage from Andrew O'Hehir, see his author page.