Beyond the Multiplex

An international hit about a steamy Brazilian three-way. How John Ashcroft tortured Tommy Chong. And Altman's dirty joke!

Published June 15, 2006 12:30PM (EDT)

We're very focused on the future here at Beyond the Multiplex world HQ -- last week's movies are old news! Cinema marches on! -- but when Robert Altman called last Friday, I picked up the phone. I had made a big deal in last week's column of the fact that the 81-year-old granddad of indie cinema was laid out with the flu, and had canceled all his interviews for his delightful and bittersweet new film "Prairie Home Companion" (which had a nice opening weekend at the box office).

Altman reports that he's feeling much better, and he sounded like his usual self, meaning that he was both cheerful and a little cryptic. Many directors will talk in endless detail about the process of making their films, and are less comfortable discussing larger themes or structural elements in their work. Altman is almost the opposite; questions about exactly how he makes his semi-improvised ensemble movies seem to bore him.

I asked how he and Garrison Keillor had come up with the imaginary world of "Prairie Home Companion," in which Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin, for example, play a singing-sister duo who've been performing on a (nonexistent) circuit of vaudeville houses and radio shows in the upper Midwest for many years. "Oh, I don't know," said Altman. "Garrison wrote it, the actors got up on stage and played it, and I shot it."

That clears that up! When I suggested that some viewers might be surprised by the downbeat trajectory of "Prairie Home Companion," given the whimsical and generally optimistic tone of Keillor's radio show, he was more forthcoming. "Well, it's a movie about death, if that's what you mean," Altman said. "Maybe that's downbeat, but that depends on whether you think death is a depressing subject."

Given that, people will inevitably wonder whether the still-vigorous Altman, who is the oldest working American director I can think of, is beginning to contemplate his own mortality. "I don't know if that's fair or not. It probably is," he mused. "But remember -- Garrison wrote the movie! It's probably more him thinking about mortality than me doing it. And he's a lot younger than I am."

For his part, Altman says he declines to think of death as a grave or even an especially serious subject. "If you can't laugh at death, you really have no right to be here," he says. He has no plans to retire or even to slow down; he's moving almost immediately into production on "Hands on a Hard Body," a fictional version of the 1998 documentary by the same name about an endurance contest staged by a Texas truck dealership. (Billy Bob Thornton will head an Altman-scale cast.)

If he gets carried off a movie set on a slab someday, Altman says, he'll be content. Then he amends that. "That's what I'm planning on. But I'll be sorry not to finish that particular film." Has advancing age changed his work habits in any way? "Of course it has," he says. "I spend a lot more time sitting in a chair now. I don't get up and run around the set the way I used to. I just focus on what I need to do. You know the joke about the young bull and the old bull on top of a hill? The young bull looks down in the valley and says, 'Let's run down there and fuck all those cows.' The old bull says, 'No. Let's walk down there and fuck all those cows.'"

"Lower City": Blood, sweat, tears and dirt. Oh, and hot naked people. And sunshine, and tourist landmarks. Bem vindos à Brasil!
While we're on the subject of hands on a hard body, Sérgio Machado's steamy Brazilian drama "Lower City" is this week's marquee offering, despite -- no, make that because of -- its near-porn sensibility and its slightly fake neo-noir realism. This international hit about a tantalizing three-way relationship between a leggy hooker and two roughnecks, staged in the spectacular surroundings of Salvador da Bahia, Brazil's oldest port city, lacks the fully convincing quality of, say, Fernando Meirelles' "City of God" or Walter Salles' "Behind the Sun." (Salles is an executive producer here.)

"Lower City" still has more than enough intensity, sizzle and visual allure to remind you why Brazilian cinema has become so hot lately. The three leads are undeniably eye candy, and so is the scenery, despite the narrative focus on life in the hardscrabble, semi-criminal underworld of Salvador's "cidade baixa," literally the city's geographical lower half. But Machado -- a relatively new figure in Brazil's film scene -- plays the sex, the crime drama and the subterranean homoeroticism of the story absolutely straight (if you will). Despite the lurid content, this is a beautifully made film that reaches for moral seriousness and resists facile judgments.

Alice Braga, niece of legendary Brazilian actress Sonia Braga, stars as the rarely clothed Karinna, the film's erotic totem. Braga doesn't do much and doesn't really have to; she's not the most beautiful woman you've ever seen, but Karinna broadcasts an aura of semi-conscious sexuality that nearly stops traffic. For Deco (Lázaro Ramos) and Naldinho (Wagner Moura), a couple of likable ruffians who scrape out a living on the rivers and bays around Salvador with their ramshackle boat (and other less legal activities), the day Karinna comes aboard in some backwater port is a life-changing event.

She's just looking for a ride to Salvador and some pocket money, and has sex with both guys to get it. Afterward, Deco and Naldinho stand at the wheel steaming into the night, listening to soccer on the transistor radio as usual. But you can feel it: Things are not quite the same between these two boyhood friends who call each other "brother," and they never will be again.

The bad girl (or the good-bad girl, or at least the irresistible girl) who comes between two pals is about as classic a noir setup as you can find, but Machado and co-writer Karim Ainouz handle it with considerable delicacy. Karinna quits charging Deco and Naldinho for sex, and seems disinclined to pick one of them over the other. They're desperately stuck on her, but won't admit it. And nobody ever comes out and says the obvious: She wouldn't mind if they all hopped in the sack together, and the two guys, at some conscious or unconscious level, have to figure out how they feel about that.

Although the intensifying erotic triangle lies at the heart of "Lower City," Machado keeps the plots and subplots clicking along. There's no mystery to the mini-vogue for Brazilian movies: At their best, they combine an art-film level of craftsmanship and a healthy appetite for trashy, eventful stories. Cinematographer Toca Seabra takes full advantage of Salvador's colorful colonial architecture and crowded cityscapes in his impressive traveling shots, while Deco, Naldinho and Karinna move through strip clubs and floating brothels, stickup jobs, cockfights and stabbings, and the neighborhood hangout, an open-air bar with a crotchety proprietor who knows everybody's name.

Both the male leads are sensational, especially Ramos. He's an imposing black man with a boxer's build, while Moura is a lanky white kid with a James Dean rebel affect. The racial dynamic in Deco and Naldinho's relationship -- always an important aspect of Brazilian society -- is barely mentioned, and the fraternal intimacy between them is easy and comfortable, in the Latin style, at least until it threatens to turn into something else. It's not easy to do sultry, tropical sex scenes without lapsing into exotic cliché, but Machado never seems to regard Karinna and her lovers from a distance, or through the prism of other movies. His best scenes, in many ways, consist of these primal elements: Eyes, mouths, bodies, night, water and music communicate the things these people can't or won't say.

"Lower City" opens June 16 at the Sunshine Cinema in New York and June 30 in Los Angeles, with other cities to follow.

"Only Human": A block of frozen soup, a horny sister and a blind grandpa. It's Israeli-Palestinian slapstick -- in Madrid
Americans don't get to see much of the commercial cinema that dominates European production, so it's easy to get the impression that people across the pond watch nothing except Adam Sandler movies and espresso-depresso art films. Dominic Harari and Teresa de Pelegri's lightning-paced Spanish farce "Only Human" ought to correct that impression, whatever else it accomplishes.

This is, after all, a film in which a saucy Jewish girl named Leni (Marián Aguilera) brings her professorial fiancé (Guillermo Toledo) home to meet her middle-class Madrid family, without telling them he's actually Palestinian. (He has an Israeli passport, after all.) During a slapstick routine of almost exquisite dumbness, he proceeds to fumble a large block of frozen soup out the window of their high-rise apartment building -- and apparently kills a passerby.

Throw in a nymphomaniacal sister (María Botto) who is studying belly dancing, a newly Orthodox brother (Fernando Ramallo) who is keeping a stray duckling in the bidet, and a blind grandpa (Max Berliner) armed with a shotgun and a few other things I'm not going to go into (a case of amnesia, a parking-lot hooker, a "pregnant" 6-year-old and an industrial cure for female sexual dysfunction) and you get ... well, what, exactly? You get a movie that is never elegant but is often hysterically funny, and maintains a rabbit-on-speed pace that Hollywood comedy long ago abandoned.

This kind of comedy doesn't work without total commitment from the cast, and Harari and Pelegri have the cream of Spanish comic talent to work with. A fireball redhead, Aguilera plays Leni with the blazing certainty of the last sane person on a planet of lunatics. She's nicely balanced by the shuffling, put-upon demeanor of Toledo as her fiancé, Rafi, who's doomed as much by his intellectual detachment as by the fact that he's apparently just committed manslaughter. (Toledo is barely plausible as an Arab, but never mind.)

Fans of Spanish-language cinema will especially relish seeing Argentine-born legend Norma Aleandro as Leni's long-suffering mother, who does one of the longest freeze-takes in cinema history upon finally learning the truth about her prospective son-in-law. Sure, it's a TV sitcom role -- Mom as an endless litany of raised eyebrows, repeated questions, meaningful silences and other expressions of exasperation and disbelief -- but you'll never see it done better. How do Rafi and Leni's grandpa end up in an alarming position in a darkened bathroom? Why do all the characters rush downtown to surprise adulterous businessmen in an empty office building at midnight? What becomes of the duckling? Well, I've seen the movie, but I still can't answer those questions.

"Only Human" opens June 16 in New York; June 22 in Boston; June 25 in Martha's Vineyard, Mass.; June 30 in Chicago; July 7 in Los Angeles, Miami and Minneapolis; July 21 in Austin, Denver, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Seattle; and July 28 in Portland, Ore., San Diego and Santa Fe, N.M., with more cities to follow.

"a/k/a Tommy Chong": Counterculture hero sent to prison by John Ashcroft -- who'd a thunk it?
You had to be even more profoundly baked than I was in the 1970s to be a real fan of Cheech & Chong, who are justifiably described in Josh Gilbert's new documentary as the Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis of pot culture. In retrospect, the humor of "Big Bambú," "Up in Smoke," "Nice Dreams," et al., still seems slow-witted and obvious (for, duh, obvious reasons), but I probably didn't appreciate at the time how much Tommy Chong and Richard "Cheech" Marin were actors playing cheerfully satirical characters. Yes, they were ambassadors for the excellence of fine herb -- they clearly smoked the stuff themselves in epic quantities -- but they were also poking fun at the excesses of their own subculture.

That's just one of the things that comes through clearly in Gilbert's wistful portrait "a/k/a Tommy Chong," which follows the aging hippie comic, and his equally eccentric wife, Shelby, through his 2003 federal prosecution for selling customized blown-glass water pipes over the Internet. As Bill Maher observed on television after Chong's conviction, Osama bin Laden might still be at large, and North Korea might be accumulating nukes, but at last the terror alert could go back to green -- America was safe from the threat of mail-order bongs.

Chong had never made any secret of his bong business, which operated openly in Southern California. (It is legal to sell such, er, "tobacco" implements in most states. In a complicated sting operation, his employees were eventually enticed to ship a load of bongs to Pennsylvania, where they're banned.) Yet he was apparently the object of a multimillion-dollar law enforcement campaign, and his factory was raided at dawn by a force of 45 armed officers from different agencies. What Gilbert eventually makes clear -- because federal officials essentially admit it -- is that the government wanted to make an example of a guy who had profited, in their eyes, from endorsing drug use.

Chong is a dignified, sweet and immensely likable figure, who comes to see that for the first time in a life of celebrity and comfort he has to suffer for his beliefs. Gilbert doesn't try to make more of this than what it is: Chong was certainly not tortured or sent to Guantánamo; he spent nine months (an unusually harsh sentence under a rarely enforced law) in a minimum-security federal prison and then resumed his life as a touring comedian, although not as a bong manufacturer. The notoriety associated with the case has almost certainly helped his career. But the fact that John Ashcroft and the Justice Department drove straight over the First and Fourth Amendments to put a famous pothead in jail because of his movies and comedy albums isn't funny at all.

There's a lot of classic footage of Cheech & Chong from their somewhat hazy golden years, and it's kind of amazing they were ever able to do their routines on TV at all. Gilbert also draws on Marin (who now has a career as a serious TV actor) and many other observers and friends, from Jay Leno, Peter Coyote and Maher to musician George Thorogood and journalist Eric Schlosser. This is a small film, but it moved me and made me angry. Both reactions, in this context, are worthwhile.

"a/k/a Tommy Chong" is now playing at Film Forum in New York. Other cities should follow.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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