Thursday, April 16, 2015

FLOATING ON THE OCEAN OF HELENA LEE




In writer-director Jim Akin’s The Ocean of Helena Lee, the first thing you may notice about 12-year-old Helena Lee (and the young actress, Moriah Blonna, who plays her) is the diverting mole on the left side of her chin, the sort of punctuation which amplifies the beauty of the face which it interrupts—a face which manages to playfully mix the openness of youth with a preternatural wariness. That wariness is best reflected in Helena’s eyes, forever darting, absorbing, reconsidering the characters that scurry and spin along the Venice Beach boardwalk where she will play out her summer, and a couple seasons beyond, trying to wrap her arms around a world whose conflicting influences and absence of empathy worries, confounds and compels her.
This young girl spends less time with others her own age than she does in the company of her dad Micky (Tom Dunne), an aimless, well-meaning surf-bum with a philosophical bent (“I recommend time slowing down”) and only a vaguely defined sense of parental responsibility. She sleeps in the sand-littered closet of his cluttered one-bedroom apartment, almost more a roommate than a daughter, assessing the constant parade of sunbathers, strippers and hookers that pass his way against the very interactive memory of her recently deceased mother, Luisa (Maria Mckee), who haunts Helena with maternal comfort and soothing lullabies (written by Mckee and Akin) from beneath a diaphanous, shroud-like veil. She’s a muse from the beyond the grave who connects Helena with a nascent sense of personal contemplation, life’s mysteries, disappointments and its inevitable end, and the combination of Mckee’s soulful voice and spectral beauty fill the demands of the role
nicely.

Helena, as you might guess, is precocious, but in a muted sort of way, stuck uncomfortably somewhere between the adventure of growing up and an oncoming weariness from having seen too much too soon. While most girls on the precipice of their teen years are more worried about social situations and having fun, Helena is soberly considering a life as a writer (“Everyone’s got a story. Thing is, sometimes it’s hard to stay tuned in. I always wonder, what does the storyteller want? What do I want?”) The movie is thusly imagined as a loosely constructed tour through her imagination, as the temperament of her grief over her mother and dissatisfaction with her father shapes her observations as raw material for a story waiting to be told.
Blonna has an easygoing, naturalistic quality to her performance that never spills over into a Hollywood sort of precocious, yet she has confidence and a welcome directness. She’s not quite up to the demands of the dramatic confrontation she has with Micky near the end, when Helena calls him on his lack of focus as a parent (“My stomach hurts. I feel lonely. If I get hurt, you can’t even drive me to the hospital. Do you see me?”). But Akin’s movie isn’t built on confrontation, and the rest of Helena happily remains Blonna’s movie-- we just live in it.
 
The only time the movie noticeably breaks with Helena’s point of view is during a scene in which Micky confesses his own emptiness in the wake of his wife’s death (“I’ve got a black seed in place of my heart”) to a prostitute played by Kristina Neykia, last seen as a hobbled succubus in Akin’s casually brilliant After the Triumph of Your Birth (2012). Akin intercuts that confession with shots of Helena on the Venice boardwalk, as if to confirm the unconscious connection with her dad, a way of acknowledging that she’s aware of the existence of that black seed. She’s part of the scene, yet she’s not, in a way similar to how, in The Long Goodbye, Robert Altman imposed a reflection of Marlowe on the beach into an argument between Eileen and Roger Wade taking place in their Malibu living room. Akin comes close to that movie’s overall gliding, ethereal vision of Los Angeles too, though for quite a dissimilar end.
At one point, Micky inquires to Helena in the innocuous way that parents sometimes do about how school is going. “You know,” Helena replies. “I like to learn. Don’t like to be taught.” That offhanded comment resonates not only with Helena’s summer of discovery, but also with the fresh, distinctive style Akin is developing as a filmmaker. Only his second feature, The Ocean of Helena Lee feels even more confident than its predecessor, which juggled a circus’s worth of impulses and stylistic conceits without betraying a bead of sweat. His sense of where to break from scenes (usually a beat before you think they should) and how to tender connections between individual moments (Helena’s unnamed friend pops up every so often to ground her, and us, in a more common variety of teenage experience) speaks to his own intangible impulses as a provocative conductor of moments.
 
But the director also manages to fuse what he’s learned from a diverse band of European and American filmmakers with those impulses to create something that feels new, freshly imagined. One can discern the spirit of Kings of the Road-era Wim Wenders flitting around the edges of TOOHL, as well as Fellini’s affinity for unusual human and environmental beauty, and the movie is attuned to Helena’s inner spirit in such a way that it feels at times like a Dardennes Brothers joint on rollerblades, gliding effortlessly down the boardwalk to the beach-friendly strains of Mckee and Akin’s propulsive pop score.
This being a movie at least in part about Los Angeles, it won’t be a surprise to learn that David Lynch comes up in Akin’s internal conversation as well. Here though the Lynchian influence is more tempered than it was in the previous film. In Helena there is no equivalent to the eerie bombast of ATTOYB’s Answer Man, a character who seemed directly attributable to Lost Highway, and the foreboding and tearful empathy that courses just beneath the breezy context of Helena’s imagery seems much more organic, a product of the girl’s fertile imagination and her anxieties, in a way that the previous movie’s musical demon never quite achieved. There’s real tension here between being set loose and aimless in a sun-splashed paradise to contemplate the world, the idle idyll of summer, and the vast indifference with which these days of heaven seem to be enveloped. In the end, the most remarkable thing is that the writer-director is aware of all these influences too, yet always manages to stay true to his own much more heartfelt muse.
Akin seems to function on the periphery of the American independent filmmaking scene, in terms of distribution and in terms of the fierce visual intelligence with which his movies are made, and hat leaves lots of room for the sort of truly independent development of artistic personality that often gets crushed in the stampede toward more mainstream success. But I can imagine a sort of cognitive dissonance for some viewers in encountering The Ocean of Helena Lee. This is a movie that is, at its heart, very European in its storytelling temperament—that is to say, it rather proudly stands outside the sort of narrative behavior one usually encounters in a movie populated with and made by native Southern Californians.
 
Some will listen to Micky’s philosophical musings, which sometimes land with a clunk when one is expecting less poetically inclined dialogue, and cry “Pretentious!” Which is neither an entirely unearned accusation nor one from which Akin or other similarly inclined filmmakers should necessarily flee. The sort of articulated contemplations that wouldn’t seem out of place in a black-and-white German movie (with subtitles) about angels in Berlin might indeed play a little strange coming out of the mouths of beach bums and bohemian hangers-on knocking sand from the bottom of their sandals. But is that Akin’s problem or ours? The difference between lofty and insufferable, it seems to me, can be measured in the perception of sincerity, and by its probing of a young girl’s development toward intellectual independence The Oceans of Helena Lee can hardly be cast as a cynical bid for artsy hipster cred.
 
There is one major disconnect between Helena’s life and that of her peers in the real world. Though the chronology is ostensibly present-day, at no time is she ever seen tweeting, texting, taking selfies or operating any sort of personal electronic device. Chroniclers of modern-day verisimilitude will have to take note (it’s what they do), but this 4G-free phenomenon will serve to remind viewers that what Akin has served up here is a long way from the up-to-the-minute snark of something like Glee. The absence of electronic intrusions into a teenager’s life may, on the face of it, be “unrealistic,” but it’s also perhaps more significant evidence than any that Helena’s story, her desire to seek out her own point of view, to reinvent the world, as she puts it, takes place in the rarified world of imagination, filtered through the lens of artistic license and/or wish fulfillment of a very personal nature. In After the Triumph of Your Birth, Akin alluded to the difficult relationship between his seeker protagonist, Eli, and that man’s demanding, long-dead father. After completing a 100-mile journey of his own Eli pulls out a picture of his old man, a faded, folded and creased mug shot, and pays tribute. And as a prelude to the end credits of The Ocean of Helena Lee, a picture of that same man shows up again-- this time he’s posed in a surf suit very much resembling one worn by Micky early on in the film. Beside the faded, slightly blurry image a title card reads simply, “Michael Lee Akin—‘A Day to Surf’—Summer ’73.”
It isn’t much of a stretch to connect the dots, but the grace of Akin’s film is rooted in the writer-director never pushing the point. Among many other things, The Ocean of Helena Lee is a look through the eyes of a girl who wants to learn to see life her own way, as well as a tribute to those who helped her adjust her focus. It’s a perspective we can indulge in even more vividly thanks to the marvelous empathy of this filmmaker’s very personal, independent vision.
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If you’re in Los Angeles next month, you can see the world premiere of The Ocean of Helena Lee Friday, May 8, at the Egyptian Theater as an exclusive presentation of the American Cinematheque. That night the movie will be followed by a discussion with Jim Akin, Maria Mckee, Tom Dunne and others moderated by screenwriter Josh Olson and director Allison Anders, and that panel with then be followed by a live concert performance by Mckee, backed by Akin and Tom Dunne, performing music from the movie and more. Acoustic performances from Mckee will accompany each subsequent screening of the movie, May 9-13, in the Spielberg Theater at the Egyptian.

Then, to finish off the week of screenings and performances, a double bill of The Ocean of Helena Lee and After the Triumph of Your Birth will screen at the Aero on Thursday, May 14, capped by yet another full-band live performance by Maria Mckee. If you’ve never seen Mckee perform live before, this should rate as a can’t-miss/won’t-miss/mark-your-calendar sort of event, especially in conjunction with a screening of the new movie. You can get your tickets for any of the seven scheduled performances
right here, and I suggest you do so right now, because this opportunity won’t come around again.

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This review also appeared today on my "Fear of the Velvet Curtain" page at Trailers from Hell.

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Thursday, April 09, 2015

ALL-NEW FEAR OF THE VELVET CURTAIN: GODARD, 3D, NOIR CITY, STAN FREBERG

 

If it's Thursday, it must be time for an all-new Fear of the Velvet Curtain over at Trailers from Hell, and this week we go all immersive in anticipation of the Blu-ray release this coming Tuesday of Jean-Luc Godard's magnificent Goodbye to Language:

"The movie is, of course, fundamentally experimental, and you can sense the sort of driving curiosity, and the irreverence with which Godard approaches dismantling the idea of 3D and reassembling it to his own purposes—it’s an approach which almost seems to be still being worked out in the finished film. I can’t think of another 3D movie that has been so consistently surprising in its use of the technology, or one in which the experience of seeing it in 3D actually lends meaning to that experience. (This will be a much different movie seen flat.)"

Godard's use of 3D is as unexpected as it is groundbreaking. And that got me thinking about other modern-era movies I felt were at the top of their game in the use of 3D, either as a true enhancement to the storytelling or as a glorious embrace of the format's down-and-dirty exploitation roots. So in addition to the Godard movie, you'll find a list of 10 movies I felt were memorable for their use of 3D, and no, none of them are named Avatar. 

Also, stay tuned for a look at Noir City 2015, which ramps up again tonight and continues at the American Cinematheque's Egyptian Theater in Hollywood, and a last goodbye to one of my personal heroes, the great American satirist Stan Freberg.

It's all in this week's unusually jam-packed edition of Fear of the Velvet Curtain now playing exclusively at Trailers from Hell.

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Saturday, April 04, 2015

TCMFF 2015 ALL-STAR WRAP-UP

 

And finally, you can read my full-scale coverage of the 2015 TCM Classic Film Festival posted this week at Slant magazine and their blog The House Next Door, which you may have heard something about occasionally around here over the last 10 years or so. Here's a taste:

"Even in the heart of Hollywood, where costumed hustlers and tourists daily trample over sidewalk stars dedicated to the memory of entertainment legends, few are likely to pause over names like Lloyd Bacon, Ralph Bellamy, Stanley Kramer, Gregory La Cava, or Una Merkel. Except, perhaps, during one long weekend near the end of March, when classic-film historians, scholars, and everyday movie buffs gather, as they have since 2010, for the TCM Classic Film Festival, where this year the work of each of these less-well-known actors and directors was greeted with wild enthusiasm. To crib the title of one of the fĂȘted films at this year's gathering, it may be true, especially in Los Angeles, that nothing lasts forever, but TCMFF seems dedicated to the perception that some things, some people, some films just might be able to buck the inevitable disappearing act into the mists of history."

I get to attend TCMFF each year not because I'm some sort of brilliant writer or extraordinary chronicler, but instead because of the good graces of my editor Ed Gonzalez, who works with me to get this piece in shape and vouches for me so I can get the press credential which allows me to hobnob in Hollywood every year for four days or so. I thank him for this opportunity to indulge my critical love for Hollywood's past. TCMFF is always one of the big highlights of my year, like Christmas in April (to evoke yet another great movie I saw here this year). I hope I've done my experience with it this year some sort of justice. Lights out!

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ALL-NEW FEAR OF THE VELVET CURTAIN: TCMFF SHORT ENDS

 

Now playing at Trailers from Hell, an all-new Fear of the Velvet Curtain column in which I wrap up my TCM Classic Film Festival coverage with some anecdotes and notes along the periphery of the actual movie-watching. It's called TCMFF Short Ends and it goes a little something like this:

Friday, March 27

There were a couple of women seated behind us during The Invisible Man who were in full Tom Servo/Crow T. Robot mode at first. Usually you don’t get this sort of nonsense with crowds here, but they annoyed enough people to get shushed pretty early. And the movie is so great, so absorbing that it finally defeated their instinct to laugh at absolutely everything. Yet another highlight. It’s thrilling to see it like this again. And it marks the second TCMFF 2015 appearance of Una O’Connor and Claude Rains, who both tore it up in The Sea Hawk last night. (Does Claude Rains’ involvement here count as an appearance though?)

Saturday, March 28

Keep seeing Edgar Wright motoring through the Hollywood & Highland complex. Did I ever pay him back that $20 I borrowed?

Find out the answer to that question, and perhaps come up with many more, in this week's  Fear of the Velvet Curtain!

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EXTRA! 2015 TCM FEST PHOTO GALLERY!

 

(Photo by Adam Rose)

I found that great photo when I was paging through the TCM Classic Film Festival Web site during my post-fest cool-down period last week-- that's me and my best pal Bruce silhouetted against the deep blue of the Roosevelt Hotel pool, watching Illeana Douglas interview Richard Roundtree before the screening of Earthquake on Saturday night-- and decided to post a few of my own photo highlights of this year's festival. You can read my "Fear of the Velvet Curtain" piece over at Trailers from Hell to get a better idea of what was going on around the edges of some of these photos.



Here's Bruce as we arrive at the Roosevelt on Thursday afternoon, ready to go.


 
Press credential obtained! Now we're really ready.



Film Forum programmer and Rialto Pictures exec Bruce Goldstein presides over the "So You Think You Know Movies" trivia contest at Club TCM.



On the wall at Club TCM.



The Roosevelt Hotel lobby, where much swag could be bought, drinks could be quaffed and many an interesting sight could be seen.



One of the stalwarts hoping to get in once all the pass-holders have been admitted.



Where our line begins for the first movie of the festival.




Though it may not look like it, we were rarin' to go at 10:15 for The Sea Hawk.



TCM programming exec Scott McGee interviews Errol Flynn's daughter, Rory Flynn.



First movie on Friday! A festival highlight!
 
 
Bruce meets Richard Harland Smith at the Reign of Terror screening.






Each year TCMFF employs hundreds of volunteers, most of them very friendly, some of them not so much, and some who seem like they're in a little over their head. But this woman I just had to get a picture with. She was extremely enthusiastic without seeming crazy, she was very helpful and she really seemed like she was enjoying herself. A real standout who made our festival experience just that much more enjoyable.



The "I Heart Movies" booth in the lobby of the Chinese multiplex, where you could give two-minute video testimonials to the origins of your love for the movies. Bruce did it twice. We had thought about doing one together, but never got around to it.







Illeana Douglas followed us throughout the festival. We'd just seen her being attacked by The Tingler during Bruce Goldstein's quiz. Now here she is introducing... something. Was it Don't Bet on Women?





Up early the next day, the girls drop us off in our line to see 42nd Street.



Seated for Busby Berkeley and Ruby Keeler, we look like we're holding up okay. But this day will be a long one.



Leonard Maltin, who also introduced our screening of Chimes at Midnight, does the same before John Ford's 1932 Air Mail starring Ralph Bellamy, Gloria Stuart and Pat O'Brien.





Phoning in the festival experience.

 
 
Sandwich break before hitting the line for entrance to the pool party!
 
 
 
What a set-up!
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
Energized by Earthquake, we're first in line for the midnight movie, Tom Schiller's Nothing Lasts Forever.



Helping us celebrate our #1 and #2 midnight status is TCM Underground programmer and all-around charmer, Millie De Chirico.
 
 

Nothing Lasts Forever star Zach Galligan pulls his director, Tom Schiller, out of the shadows before the film starts.
 
 
And the two of them hung around until 2:00 a.m. and still had the patience to pose with us. "The movie has been shelved for 30 years," Galligan said. "We can take the time to talk and take pictures!"

 
 
Edgar Wright speaking before Psycho, quite an experience in the cavernous TCL Chinese Theater.
 

Richard and I get our selfies on before Psycho and saying good-bye to TCMFF 2015.
 
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Friday, March 27, 2015

ALL-NEW FEAR OF THE VELVET CURTAIN: TCM FEST 2015 GO "BOOM!"

 

We're under way in Hollywood. The TCM Classic Film Festival has set sail, and we already have Lisabeth Scott, Dan Duryea, Don De Fore, Errol Flynn, Alan Hale, Brenda Marshall, Flora Robson, Claude Rains and Henry Daniell registered in the captain's log. This week's "Fear of the Velvet Curtain" column details what else may (or may not) be in store for us as we continue our journey through these not exactly uncharted waters:

"There’s a big push-pull in my head between the opportunity (tonight) to see Peter Watkins’ The War Game (1965), a documentary-style depiction of a nuclear attack on Great Britain which was banned by the BBC for 20 years, and one of my favorite James Bond movies, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), introduced by the one-off Bond himself, George Lazenby. Given our mutual, not-so-mysterious attraction to Diana Rigg, who plays Bond’s ill-fated paramour, I suspect that 007 is going to have the upper hand here, but I reserve the right to do a last-minute left-turn into auditorium #4 to check out the Watkins film. The ultimate goal of the day will be to be able to prop our eyes open by midnight, for at that hour comes the chance to catch Joseph Losey’s ill-regarded adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore, retitled the more marquee-friendly Boom! (1968), starring a post-Virginia Woolf Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor."

By midnight tonight, of course, it may be our heads that end up going "boom!" But endurance, and not cranial explosion, is our lofty goal! Stay tuned to see if we keep it together. Much more to come!

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