Remember when movies were stories where people did stuff -- they drove to the lake house, they got eaten by zombies, they fell in love with totally the wrong person, they broke into the unbreakable bank vault -- and we didn't worry about the fact that none of it was "real"? These days it seems like, unless your movie is set on another planet or stars a guy in a uniform made out of stretchy underwear, you have to try to convince the audience that you're depicting real life.
Of course this is a gross exaggeration in search of a point (earlier this week, I reviewed Todd Solondz's bizarre head trip "Palindromes," and I surely wish that movie had borne some relationship to real life), but you get my drift. Maybe this cinematic micro-trend reflects the influence of reality TV, but then again, journalists are way too eager to blame everything on reality TV, which has apparently led to global warming, the second Bush term and the slump in the mutual-fund market, in addition to its greatest sin: the "career" of Paris Hilton.
In a recent column, I complained about directors who make mockumentaries and then expend useless energy on trying to convince people that they're the real thing. I was praising Andrew Gurland and Huck Botko's hilarious "Mail Order Wife," which doesn't do that -- but also hasn't found much of an audience. Right on cue, this week offers an elaborate biopic of a legendary deaf dance-music DJ, complete with a bewildering viral-marketing campaign that far outdoes last year's "Incident at Loch Ness." Since the movie actually pulls off a difficult combination of over-the-top satire and redemptive love story, I'm encouraging you to give it the benefit of the doubt.
Then there's the highly improbable tale about an ordinary couple who become accidental porn stars in the last years of the Franco dictatorship in Spain -- which appears to be true, at least in its general outlines. Lastly, this week also brings us the sweet (occasionally sticky-sweet) and sad memory film about growing up in the lost Manhattan of the early '70s, written and directed by a semi-major celebrity who knows whereof he speaks.
"It's All Gone Pete Tong": Last night a (deaf) DJ saved my life
In addition to possessing the most confusing title of the year, Canadian filmmaker Michael Dowse's high-energy dance-club saga "It's All Gone Pete Tong" arrives in an elaborate package of spoof and deception that should win the admiration of any practical-joke connoisseur. English comedian Paul Kaye has a star-making role as one Frankie Wilde, a deranged Cockney exile who's more or less the Keith Richards of the cocaine-drenched club scene on Ibiza, the über-trendy Spanish resort island. (The movie's title, by the way, derives from Cockney rhyming slang and also name-checks a different well-known DJ, and that's all the help you're getting from me.)
As other jet-setting DJs like Carl Cox and Paul van Dyk testify in the movie, Frankie's hard-driving dance mixes, hard-partying ways and maniacal stage antics revolutionized Ibiza nightlife in the late '90s, until the combination of a genetic eardrum issue and all those pumping beats rendered Frankie stone deaf. He then falls into the embrace of the Coke Badger, a fuzzy, demonic beast whose love requires you to shovel white powder up your nose by the kilo. (The Internet campaign for this movie is so extensive that even the Badger has his own Web site, complete with sinister purring noises.)
But thanks to a sexy Spanish lip-reading instructor named Penelope (Beatriz Batarda) and a pair of speakers with built-in flip-flops on top, Frankie learns to feel the beat he can't hear. He gets off the snow, if not the Scotch and ciggies, and rises again to the pinnacle of his profession -- before he and Penelope disappear from Ibiza for good. Is he now writing his memoirs (or, as Frankie himself observes, writing a pamphlet, since a book would take too long)? Running a record shop in Oxford? Busking for change on the streets of New York? Holed up in a tropical hideaway plotting his next comeback? Rumors fly, but nobody knows for sure.
Frankly, I think you'd have to be an idiot to watch 10 minutes of this movie -- what with Frankie's drunken monologue about the many uses of "spunk," or the pompous meanderings of Eric Banning (Dan Antopolski), a scholar who has supposedly written several books about Frankie's career -- without understanding that it's a full-on piss-take, as the Brits would say. But the packed houses of boogieing Ibiza nubiles are real enough, and trashily exciting, and indeed, if you start spelunking on the Web, you'll find all kinds of testimonials to the extraordinary career of Frankie Wilde.
Chat rooms about pop music, movies and dance culture are packed with Frankie questions (many of them strikingly similar in tone): Have you heard about the amazing deaf DJ? How can I find his records? Even Alfonse and Horst, the two clownish Austrians who serve as Frankie's chief musical assistants, have a Web site for their post-Frankie outfit Ladder Hause. No one ever went broke by overestimating public ignorance, it's said, and a surprising number of critics and real human beings have been taken in by "Pete Tong" already.
I have one word of advice for those marketing mavens who constructed this game: Amazon. If Frankie Wilde really had all these hit records, albeit quasi-obscure Euroclub mixes, wouldn't some of them be for sale somewhere? Anyway, Paul Kaye gives an amazing performance, the first half of the movie is crudely hilarious, and the love story with the lithe and lovely Batarda works surprisingly well. (Kate Magowan and Mike Wilmot get special props for their roles as Frankie's Dolce-and-Gabbana-laden trashbag wife and skeezeball, bottle-tanned manager, respectively.)
Director Michael Dowse (whose previous movie, "Fubar," took a similar approach to heavy metal) blew through New York this week, and I grabbed him for a few minutes. He insisted on staying on message, at least officially. When I asked him if he wanted to discuss the real deal behind "Pete Tong," he said, "You mean the fact that I'm not really Canadian? Go ahead. Say whatever you want to about that."
No, but really, Mike, what kind of movie is this?
It's a bio piece about an amazing DJ. It's a comedy, too, but I think comedy is a great way to treat it. Something as tragic as Frankie's story requires a sense of humor. I'm sick of movies that take a dour approach to tragic subject matter. I wanted to make a film that the guy himself would have appreciated.
Um, OK, let's move on. You shot in real Ibiza clubs with real crowds. That must have been an essential part of the production. Without that, the movie wouldn't have worked at all.
Yeah, that was the element I was most nervous about. We needed access to the clubs to make it feel authentic. Otherwise, we would have died. You know, our musical coordinator was Lol Hammond, who's a part of that club world. He was our shepherd, and people were like, "Well, if Lol's doing it, it must be all right."
My worst nightmare was having those club scenes look like a beer commercial. You know: "Now everybody have fun!" So the cast and crew had to be portable and adaptable, no big circus, no trailers. We had to shoot on the spot and we had to shoot fast. No way were we going to try to re-create an Ibiza nightclub on a set. I hate movies where they do that, like in "Go" or whatever, where they hire a warehouse and put 200 extras in it. It always looks so fake.
Tell us about the Coke Badger. He's the latest in a line of fuzzy, scary creatures in film.
Yes he is!
Yeah, but nobody uses them for comedy. I really wanted the beast to attack and kill, but also to be a comic character. I guess he's a gag: Cocaine is a very badgering drug. But we've all seen those preachy movies about drugs, where four addicts end up in the fetal position. Yes, drugs are bad, but I didn't want that to be the message of the film.
Obviously Paul Kaye is the heart and soul of this film, and it feels like a breakout performance. He's well known in Britain but not at all over here. How'd you find him?
Well, Paul came very well recommended, so we exchanged tapes and mutually disliked each other's work. [Laughter from Kaye, who is nearby.] Seriously, I love that he tends to "improvise toward the stupid," as he puts it, which was just perfect for the character of Frankie.
Isn't this movie a tough sell in the United States? In Britain and Europe, club music is huge and DJs are big stars. But it's still a small niche audience in America.
Yeah, well, it's harder in some ways. But you don't have to know anything about club music, or like it, to enjoy the film. The club kids are our core audience -- we just had a screening with BPM magazine, and they went nuts for it. But I also had a 70-year-old couple at the Aspen Film Festival tell me it was the perfect movie. They were like: "We don't listen to that kind of music, but there we were, tappin' our toes!"
"It's All Gone Pete Tong" opens April 15 in New York, April 29 in Los Angeles and May 13 in at least 24 other U.S. cities.
"Torremolinos 73": The softcore Ingmar Bergman of late-fascist Spain
This delicious little period piece from Spanish writer-director Pablo Berger is like one of those really expensive chocolates, where you start out expecting a brief sugar buzz and end up surprised by the sophistication and delicacy of the flavor. It begins as a sex farce set in the ultra-repressed atmosphere of early-'70s Spain, where people vaguely knew that a sexual revolution was taking place elsewhere, but they themselves were still trapped amid the nationalist-Catholic moralism of slowly dying dictator Francisco Franco.
In an early scene, a hefty client in for a leg-waxing at the salon where Carmen López (Candela Peña) works, explains that nothing as scandalous as the events in Bernardo Bertolucci's hit movie "Last Tango in Paris" could ever happen in Spain. The woman does seem to delight, however, in explaining to Carmen the infamous anal sex scene between Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider: "Then he butters her buttocks like French toast!"
Indeed, Carmen, a deeply religious young woman married to a downtrodden encyclopedia salesman named Alfredo (Javier Cámara), seems like the last person likely to engage in any form of public lasciviousness. But "Torremolinos 73" spins out the unlikely fable of how, in those unenlightened pre-Almodóvar days, Carmen became a porn star pursued on the street by Scandinavian tourists, and how the balding, poker-faced Alfredo came to film a softcore remake of Ingmar Bergman's "The Seventh Seal," set in the posh beach resort of Torremolinos.
The actual story behind Berger's film seems to lie somewhere between gospel truth and Spanish urban myth. He insists he met the real Alfredo López in the early '80s, and the "Seventh Seal" remake (originally called "Torremolinos 73" but a hit in Scandinavia as "The Adventures of a Horny Widow") genuinely existed. But it makes no difference; if the tale is pure invention it's still a delightful farce playing on the culture clash between the upright hypocrisy of Spaniards and the calculated lubricity of the Scandinavian sex industry.
More than that, it's a wistful domestic comedy about a couple whose love is completely genuine but whose ambitions are pulling them apart. Carmen wants to have a baby and Alfredo yearns to become an artist, and as in any true comedy, they will get what they want but only with a certain ironic asterisk attached. Cámara and Peña are wonderful actors who walk the taut wire between slapstick and pathos brilliantly, and the rest of Berger's cast is just as good, especially the pack of inscrutable, unsubtitled Danes who show up to "help" Alfredo direct his erotic masterwork. One of the year's serendipitous moments thus far.
"Torremolinos 73" opens April 15 in New York, with more cities to follow.
"House of D": David Duchovny time-travels to the Big Apple's past
Speaking of sweet 1973 nostalgia, I loved the portrayal of life in Greenwich Village during that tawdry year in "House of D," David Duchovny's debut as a writer-director. The movie itself is a mixed bag, and many viewers may feel it ultimately sinks under the waves of its oceanic sentimentality. But the former "X-Files" star is a genuine child of Manhattan who remembers what the city was like when ordinary folks, not possessed of bottomless piles of money, actually lived here.
Officially, at least, Duchovny stars in "House of D" as Tom Warshaw, a 40-something American painter living in Paris with his wife and kid. But he's not in the movie much. Adult Tom is just a conduit to take us back to 13-year-old Tommy (Anton Yelchin), who clings to the lower fringe of middle-class life with his widowed mom (real-life Duchovny spouse Téa Leoni) in a Village brownstone apartment.
Yelchin does look something like a baby Agent Mulder, but he seems even more like a junior version of Tim Robbins, shorn of 30 years and about 50 pounds. He's a wonderfully expressive young actor, and if Tommy's various dilemmas are standard coming-of-age fare, he makes you feel them acutely. Tommy must try to balance the demands of his pill-popping mom, his mentally retarded best friend, Pappas (Robin Williams), and the uptown rich girl (Zelda Williams) he yearns to know better, and we can figure out right away that it won't all end well.
There's a lot of corn to this urban fable, which is inevitable, I guess, if you're going to have Williams do his mentally-disabled-but-heart-of-pure-gold shtick one more time. And while Erykah Badu does her best with the role, I really found the imprisoned black chick who comes to serve as Tommy's life counselor an insufferable device. But the good news is that Duchovny (who's been blogging about the film religiously) has an undeniable feel for this medium, and a fine rapport with actors. His 1973 New York has a relaxed, downscale, slightly dingy feeling that'll seem dead-on to Gotham old-timers, and Duchovny understands that in the city's transformation into post-Giuliani money pit, something inexpressible was lost forever.
"House of D" opens April 15 in Los Angeles and New York, with many other cities to follow.