Sunday, April 15, 2012

BIFFF Day #7 (Thursday, 4/12)

Okay, time to get personal.

If I had a top 10 list of favorite movies (which I defiantly do not), The Exorcist would be on it. I’ve known and worshipped the film ever since I first encountered it – on television, no less – at the age of 13. I’ve seen it probably more times than any other movie, and have watched the final climactic 20 minutes exponentially more. In high school, against my coach’s well-intentioned protestations, I performed a 10-minute selection from William Peter Blatty’s source novel for our speech team and ended up attending the national finals in Dramatic Interpretation. Needless to say, I’ve been…wait for it…possessed by all things Exorcist for nearly three decades now, and even upon revisiting it last year, it still holds up. (The original cut, not the bloated and tricked up Version You’ve Never Seen, thank you very much.) As a result, I’ve known the name of director William Friedkin for a long time now, and while he hasn’t always hit the bull’s eye, he’ll go down in the history books thanks to the one-two punch of The French Connection and The Exorcist.

All this to preface the fact that when I saw Mr. Friedkin’s name (here as a special 2012 BIFFF guest) on the interview potentials, my heartbeat picked up a bit. Even though by all accounts he is a “difficult” person to work with (even before he had any legitimate success), there was no denying my excitement over meeting one of the creative minds behind this seminal, influential and deeply personal film. Couple this with the fact that he was promoting his latest effort, a screen version of Tracy Letts’ incredible white trash play Killer Joe, which I had seen in its 1992 world premiere in Chicago at Next Theatre. My viewing of the play, which starred a then 18-year-old Michael Shannon alongside one of my favorite undersung talents, Paul Dillon, in the title role, likewise burned itself into my brain. So, here we have the director of one of my all-time favorite films directing the screen adaptation of one of my Top Five theatrical experiences. You can see why I might be a little excited about chatting with the guy.

Then I start hearing the myriad stories and conditions and stipulations and misery that he has caused amongst the BIFFF personnel. How he refuses to do personal interviews like everyone else (such as Terry Giliam, arguably a more talented visionary). How he won’t do a Q&A following the Killer Joe screening because he doesn’t want to compete for attention between himself and the 10pm feature that follows. How he will not take photos with the public nor sign autographs. How he doesn’t want to talk about The Exorcist (at a fantastic film festival!) Add in a wealth of other unpleasantries that I can’t really go into in a public forum as they were revealed to me in confidence by press team members. Bottom line, this guy sounds like an enormous prick, or maybe an individual compensating for an extremely small one. Am I still going to meet with him? Of course. Am I prepared to be disappointed? Of course.

The morning’s press conference rolls around, and again we are warned not to talk about The Exorcist, not to ask him to take “fanboy” photos or sign autographs. Our hearts and tender egos now steeled against this ogre’s onslaught, we assemble in the near-empty Tour et Taxis pavilion at 10am (a time chosen, we assume, in order that he should not have to deal with unruly rabble) and wait. Friedkin appears right on time and, to make a long story short, proceeds to chat openly and freely about every aspect of his career – including The Film Which Must Not Be Named – in the most congenial fashion imaginable. Sitting in the front row as I am, we often make eye contact and share actual banter, bonding over our Chicago connection (he was born there), etc. He’s talking about not only his C.V., but films and artwork that inspired all of us assembled. Far from the monster we’ve been hearing about, the experience is not unlike “Billy Friedkin hanging out with a group of newfound friends.” Whereas we thought we would have him for maybe an hour, he gabs for nearly three hours, never giving the impression of wanting to wrap things up or cut things short. From a film fan’s perspective, it’s about as great an encounter as could be imagined.

But again, this is all a matter of perspective. Because the asshole that is William Friedkin tellingly reveals itself toward the end of the session. One of the journalists asked why he had elected not to have a Q&A following Killer Joe, and Billy Boy came unglued. He spoke about how he wanted to talk to ALL the people in the 1000+ theater as opposed to talking to a “few select people” who decided to stop by the Q&A area (a practice that was good enough for Terry Gilliam, Barbara Steele, etc., mind you). He thought it “unfair” to the other screening that followed that he would be talking out in the pavilion area while their movie was screening, not wanting to be a “distraction” (a comment which only pointed up the fact that he had not seen any of the festival offerings, since if he had, he would have known you cannot hear any incidental noise from the commons area). He out and out called the BIFFF staff “liars” for spreading the rumor that he didn’t want to meet with his public, something which no one had said. Yes, the Guest of the Festival was calling his hosts – who had brought him here, honored him, housed him, babied him, and bent over backwards to accommodate his many demands – LIARS. In front of the PRESS.

Then, he has the gall to say that, oh, he wanted to have a Q&A, but it needed to be somewhere off site that could accommodate many people, not just a select few. This couldn’t have been suggested earlier, say, in private? No, he does it in a last minute public forum to shame his hosts, putting them in a situation where they are forced to acquiesce to his desires. Jonathan, the unflappable head of the BIFFF press department, proceeds to take the stage with Friedkin and calmly states that they can arrange a Q&A session at the restaurant next door following the screening (something which he then had to clear with said restaurant, I was later informed), a decision which of course then necessitated the production of last-minute flyers and notices to promote the impromptu event. I sat there shaking my head, watching an 800 lb gorilla throw his weight around and my stomach soured a bit.

Whew. End of story: There was in fact an off-site Q&A, and apparently he was congenial and generous, even agreeing to signing autographs and posing for pictures. Nicely done, good sir. You look like the good guy, the BIFFF looks like the bad guy that you persuaded to give the adoring fans what they wanted. I’m glad I had “my” conversation with Friedkin, but there’s no doubt about it: This guy’s a certified, Grade A, bona-fide asshole, and I’m not one who uses such terms lightly. How much does a little graciousness cost? Nothing, that’s how much. Love (some of) your movies, Billy, but fuck you very much.

Ahem. So, there you go.

After the press conference, I turned around and there sat Jose Martinez Moreno, writer/director of Game of Werewolves, which I had seen and loved the night before. Turns out Sr. Moreno is planning to be in Chicago in two weeks for the Latino Film Festival, so I’m hoping to meet up with him there, as I think he and his film deserve all the success they can handle. He seems a genuinely enthusiastic and friendly sort, obviously a “fan first” type of artist, which are my favorite kind. After getting his contact info and wishing him the best of luck for GoW in competition, I headed into the theater to watch Takashi Miike’s latest, an entertaining adaptation of the videogame Ace Attorney (which apparently has quite a following, even as I was sitting there thinking, “They made a videogame about a lawyer?” According to several of my fellow press pals, it’s pretty great.)

I then headed out to the Jameson bus for a couple of filmmaker interviews. These included running camera for Gert as he interviewed Sulev Keedus, director of the dark, brooding Estonian existentialist drama Letters to Angel, then had my own with Japanese splatter master Yudai Yamaguchi, there to discuss his new bloody baseball horror/comedy, Deadball. The latter proved to be a most enthusiastic conversationalist, a situation made all the more absurd by the fact that he speaks about as much English as I do Japanese. (In case anyone was wondering, yes, there was an interpreter present.) I told him I was with HorrorHound magazine and showed him a copy of the issue with The Thing on the cover, and he excitedly grabbed it, saying, “Carpenter! Carpenter! Thing! Thing! My favorite!” We gabbed happily for our full 15 minute time slot, then, as I was the final interview of his day, we ended up hanging out for an additional half hour just geeking out in multilingual American/Asian fusion fashion. (As fate would have it, his interpreter was also a horror enthusiast, so there was much waving of hands and searching for words.)

We would have kept on going for another hour or two, but both of us were interested in seeing Killer Joe, so we parted company and headed in to watch Friedkin hold court like the pompous ass he is. KJ was okay (review below), but it paled beside the much more personal and crowd-pleasing Juan of the Dead that followed. Afterwards, I ran into emcee Stephane Everaert and in between his hosting duties for Mick Garris’ midnight screening of Bag of Bones (Seriously? Who screens a three hour miniseries at midnight, which technically had a 1am start time due to the inevitable delays that occur), we hung out with his fellow fiends in the VIP section, enjoying a glass of the official BIFFF beer, Cuvee des Trolls, and just generally having a high old time. Granted, this meant getting home late and in bed after 4am (again), but there’ll be time to sleep when I’m dead, right?

Ace Attorney (2012) (1st viewing) d. Miike, Takashi (Japan)
Zippy little adaptation of the Capcom videogame that also functions as Miike’s most mainstream effort to date, and the marriage proves to be a fruitful one. Ryuichi Naruhodo stars as Phoenix Wright, a struggling young defense attorney with a Woody Woodpecker hairstyle and sagging self image who takes on a big case against childhood friend and prosecuting prodigy Takumi Saito. Fun absurdist touches, futuristic set designs and enthusiastic performances, all supported by a clever mystery thriller script.

Killer Joe (2011) (1st viewing) d. Friedkin, William (USA)
When trailer park living nogoodnik Emile Hirsch decides to do away with his stash-stealing mom in the hopes of cashing in her insurance policy to pay off his debts, he seeks out the services of ice-cold lawman/hitman Matthew McConaughey to do the deed. Adapted by Tracy Letts from his own stage play, the story is opened up beyond the confines of the trailer home, which reduces some of the claustrophobia but one can understand why Letts and Friedkin might not want to repeat themselves having already covered similar geographic ground (Bug’s motel room). While the assembled cast are a worthy bunch (Thomas Haden Church, Gina Gershon, Juno Temple), the whiff of “Hollywood white trash” lingers over the proceedings in that these are clearly beautiful people trying to glam down for the project. Hirsch is the least successful of the bunch, never truly inhabiting his despicable character (a role originated 20 years ago by a pitch-perfect Michael Shannon). Letts stays fairly true to his original text, and the stylized dialogue – think Mamet in the trailer park – has an artifice that never allows it to be truly immersive, but it’s still fascinating early material from the future Tony Award winner (August Osage County). On the whole, there’s enough to recommend the film, though like Bug before, it will likely prove divisive among viewers.

Juan of the Dead (2011) (1st viewing) d. Brugues, Alejandro (Cuba/Spain)
Calling this a Latino Shaun of the Dead is both a spot-on assessment yet a dangerously reductive one, because in the same way that Edgar Wright’s capturing of the London suburban slacker culture proved to be Shaun’s secret weapon, so too does writer/director Brugues immerse the viewer in the pulsing poverty stricken Cuban streets, lending it an unexpected authenticity. Alexis Díaz de Villegas stars as the titular reluctant hero, and don’t be surprised if his superlative turn here – equal parts slapstick clown and noble patriarch – doesn’t launch him into the Hollywood stratosphere a la Simon Pegg. Brugues and cinematographer Carles Gusi paint a leached, anemic landscape, one already dead on the surface, but underneath there is a vibrant array of characters that choose life, whether it be in the face of slow economic death or staggering undead hordes. Packing a surprising emotional wallop, an apolitical viewpoint and side-splitting splatter, Juan is a worthy addition to any walking dead canon. A must see.

2012 Totals to date: 156 films, 135 1st time views, 81 horror, 40 cinema

Pick of the Day: Juan of the Dead

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