Short Takes

Short Reviews Of Christmas Caper, Happy Go Lucky, Role Models, And More

Christmas Caper

The Flaming Lips' whimsical film opens at the CinemathequeThe Flaming Lips began filming Christmas on Mars, their bizarre foray into the world of cinema, more than seven years ago. At the time, the group had yet to release Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, the album that would elevate the Lips beyond cult-band status. So the guys figured once they released Yoshimi, they'd tour a bit and then return to moviemaking. Things didn't quite work out so smoothly, though, since the band was on the road for the better part of three years and only recently got around to finishing its sci-fi caper about a group of astronauts stuck in a deteriorating space station.

"None of us could have anticipated [touring that extensively] or wanted to stop the kind of momentum that Yoshimi went into," says singer Wayne Coyne, via phone from his Oklahoma City home, when asked about the seven years it took to complete the film. "We call it being interrupted by success. All for the better. If we had to finish the film in 2002 or 2003, it wouldn't have been nearly as good or rich. Since it took so long, it felt like I made three or four films in the meantime. As a result [of the amount of time it's taken], the movie's built up some mythology."

The film, which didn't find a proper distributor and is only making a short repertory run before coming out on DVD later this month, might not live up to its mythology. It's a low-budget affair that features all the band members (whether they can act or not) having a role in the movie, which is about a guy (played by Lips' keyboardist Steven Drozd) who wants to have a pageant to celebrate the first child born on the space station. Shot in black and white with a limited budget for props, it's a bit like watching a home movie, albeit with a score of strange, ambient music that only the Lips could produce.

"To me, it was an elaborate home movie," admits Coyne, who filmed much of it in his backyard. "I didn't have the pressure of millions of dollars or even big-time movie stars. Everyone who was helping me were friends who were just having a laugh. That's a good way to work. It's a mountain of work to do, but when you can do it in an atmosphere where anything is possible, it's worth it."

Even if Christmas on Mars is an experiment that doesn't quite work, Coyne says he wouldn't rule out doing another movie sometime (seven years?) down the road.

"I think the way any dumb artist works is that you always have things cooking in your mind," he says. "I'm relieved I don't have to make a movie for a couple of years. Making this movie has showed me a lot about how I could do the next one and make it better and be more confident. We feel like we can take on anything. We like the idea that we're not just a band and can do other things. We go into whatever our minds are curious about, for better or worse." -Jeff Niesel

Christmas on Mars

Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque At 7 p.m. Sunday, November 9


Based on a true Depression-era story, Clint Eastwood's period thriller is a traditional-minded movie with solid, old-fashioned values: fine acting, an absorbing, suspenseful story with clear moral lines and a somber tone respectful of its sad, brave characters. (Somber seems to be Eastwood's favorite mood.) Written by veteran TV producer J. Michael Stracynski after a year of meticulous research, Changeling tells the story of Christine Collins, a single mother whose son, Walter, disappeared in 1928, setting off a bizarre series of events that exposes deep corruption in the L.A. Police Department. Angelina Jolie plays Collins, a phone-company supervisor who, in the mode of the day, glides across the switchboard floor in roller skates. When her beloved Walter (Gattlin Griffith) disappears, Collins tries to enlist the help of an indifferent LAPD. After five months, the police announce they have found the boy in Illinois, but when the child arrives, Collins knows he isn't her son. Unwilling to risk bad publicity, the police persuade her to take the boy home "on a trial basis." The boy is clearly an impostor, but when Christine continues to press police Capt. J.J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan, with a sinister Irish brogue) to find her son, Jones brands her a delusional, unfit mother.

Christine's case attracts the attention of a crusading preacher, the Rev. Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich, oddly reminiscent here of Vincent Price), who broadcasts a radio program targeting LAPD corruption. With Briegleb's help, Christine goes to the press, and Jones has her committed to a snake pit of an asylum. The story grows even grimmer with the discovery of a series of grisly child murders at a ranch in Wineville, California, and the arrest of their perpetrator, Gordon Stewart Northcott (the excellent Jason Butler Harner). The movie hews closely to the facts of the case, though mercifully doesn't dramatize the more sensational details of the "Wineville Chicken Coop Murders" - the flashes of implied violence are more than enough to haunt your dreams. Despite some minor anachronisms, the period detail is impressive, from furnishings and cars to cloche hats and dropped-waist dresses. Jolie is affecting in a performance much quieter than her excellent histrionics in A Mighty Heart, but she's so skinny, she looks, in some scenes, like a pair of tremulous red lips on a stick. Someone, please get this woman a sandwich. - Pamela Zoslov

Guest of Cindy Sherman

As the host of a mid-'90s public-access show called Gallery Beat, Paul H-O spent his free time hitting up gallery openings in New York asking whatever dumb questions come to mind. ("What do you eat for breakfast?" is one of his favorites.) After finding photographer and artist Cindy Sherman wasn't put off by his in-your-face approach, he befriends her and eventually gets to interview her during a work-in-progress. He ends up hanging out with her in her studio loft and telling her "you're the best-dressed person I know" and "you look really swell." Sherman eventually falls for him, and the two end up in love and living together. Paul is by her side as her career takes off, and the Museum of Modern Art buys a photo collection of hers for a reputed million dollars. A house in the Hamptons follows, and Paul continues to stand by his woman.

As the art world becomes more corporate, Gallery Beat gets shut out of many of the major galleries. When his attempts to create a new show called Art Like fail, it takes a toll on his relationship, since Sherman's star is rising and his is fading. One day, he ends up at a gala affair and his name card reads "guest of Cindy Sherman." It's at this moment that he realizes he's been "swallowed up by the giant Cindy Sherman thing," and the relationship deteriorates. Guest of Cindy Sherman is as much about the New York art scene (the film includes interviews with artists such as Robert Longo, Julian Schnabel and Sean Landers) as it is an interesting self-portrait. Paul (who directed the movie and will be at this screening to introduce it and answer questions) doesn't shy from discussing his battles with depression and feelings of inadequacy. You can't help but feel for the guy, even as exploration of his relationship with Sherman comes off as a bit exploitative. - Niesel Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque At 8 p.m. Friday, November 7

Happy Go Lucky

When Poppy (Sally Hawkins) has her bicycle nicked at the beginning of Mike Leigh's Happy Go Lucky, her only response is a melancholic "ahhhh; we didn't have the chance to say goodbye." Poppy (short for Pauline) is so exuberantly Pollyanna-ish, she even seems to enjoy being jostled about while riding mass transit, something she's forced to do after the theft of her bike. It's not surprising to learn that Polly is a primary-school teacher, since she has the same easy, unfiltered enthusiasm of a kid herself. How you respond to Polly - and Hawkins' performance - is a good litmus test for Happy Go Lucky. If you think Polly's got a screw (or two) loose, the film and the character can be endurance tests. But if you're tickled by her incessant joie de vivre, you'll probably love Polly and the movie.

Leigh has had such a brilliant career (Life Is Sweet, Topsy Turvy, Secrets and Lies, et al.) that it's easy to cut him the occasional slack. His unconventional filmmaking technique - basically "workshopping" his films for months before shooting begins, using improvisation with the actors to help fine-tune their characters and his script - can be akin to capturing lighting in a bottle. This time, I'm wondering how he didn't realize the error in building an entire movie around someone as fingernails-on-a-blackboard grating as Polly. As part of a typically busy Leigh ensemble piece, Polly/Hawkins might have been bearable; as basically the entire show, not so much. The only scenes that really work are the ones between Polly and Scott (the brilliant Eddie Marsan), her clearly-out-of-his-gourd driving instructor. Or maybe it's because Scott's seething exasperation with Polly mirrored my own. Like Scott, I wanted to wring her scrawny neck after spending two hours with the balmy bird. - Milan Paurich Opens Friday at the Cedar Lee Theatre

Role Models

Wheeler (Seann William Scott) and Danny (Paul Rudd) have got it made.

Wheeler is a ladies man who seems to hook up with someone different every night. Danny is living with his girlfriend Beth (Elizabeth Banks), a brainy beauty who's a practicing lawyer. But for whatever reason, Danny just isn't happy. So one day, while in the middle of telling a group of kids to stay away from drugs (one of his duties as the spokesperson for an energy drink called Minotaur), he loses it. As a result, he and Wheeler must do community service with a Big Brother-type organization called Sturdy Wings. That only leads to more trouble, as Wheeler is paired with a potty-mouthed African-American kid (Bobb'e J. Thompson) and Danny ends up with a Dungeons and Dragons-obsessed nerd (Christopher Mintz-Plasse).

While the story's trajectory is never completely unpredictable (even though Danny and Wheeler screw up their respective assignments, you just know they're going to get it right), the final scene, which the film sets up quite nicely, still comes as a bit of a surprise. A Shaker Heights native, director David Wain (The Ten, Wet Hot American Summer) doesn't settle for sentimentality and often errs on the side of obnoxious, as the frequent use of obscenities practically rivals Clerks. And hearing the f-word come from the mouth of a 10-year-old is a risky move (but it works, as Thompson is generally hilarious). At a time when Judd Apatow seems to have cornered the market on edgy comedy, it's good to see someone else take a worthwhile stab at it. - Niesel Opens Friday areawide

Scopitone-A-Go-Go: Take Two

Arguably the most spectacularly cool pop-culture artifact of the swingin' go-go 1960s, Scopitones sometimes elude even the most "with-it" retro hipsters. There are multiple reasons for the esoteric, forgotten status of Scopitones, which were outlandish, garishly Technicolor 16mm "music videos" that played in a rear-projection, coin-operated jukebox device from France. Mostly interested in big names like the Beatles or the Stones, rock fans have historically shown disdain toward the misfit Scopitone roster of second-string American and French pop stars.

Some Scopitones of relatively more famous songs (e.g., Nancy Sinatra's "These Boots Are Made For Walkin'") have occasionally turned up on VH1, but the wildest and most imaginative of these films mostly are willfully ignored by the media. With ambiguous rights ownership clouding official distribution, the only opportunity to witness these audiovisual rarities is on the internet, a bootleg DVD-R/VHS or if some private collector of rare and unusual film prints holds a public screening.

One such collector is Portland, Oregon's Dennis Nyback. Nyback has made two recent visits to the Cleveland Cinematheque to present various celluloid curiosities from his archives at Marylhurst University. A month ago, he brought 37 Scopitone prints to the Cinematheque's first-ever Scopitone showcase. Another liability for Scopitones' ongoing exposure is that they're struck on an arcane magnetic-sound 16mm format, which complicated October's screening. The Cinematheque took precautions to line up replacement bulbs and even a backup magnetic-sound projector - all of which unbelievably konked out, with the second and best half of the show going unseen. On Monday, Nyback's remaining Scopitones will finally hit the screen, along with an extra half hour of Scopitone prints supplied by a local film collector. Some of the songs visualized in Scopitones are actually so obscure that they were never pressed on vinyl. One such Scopitone-exclusive tune, "Web of Love" by Joi Lansing, is the soundtrack to one of the most revered Scopitones. In it, chesty B-movie starlet Lansing escapes both a cannibal stew and a slithering cobra man, only to get her golden-bikini-clad bod caught in a giant spider web, while jungle girls in red-fringe short-shorts execute logic-defying dance moves around her.

Nyback is particularly fascinated by Scopitones' strange sociological implications, which can get overshadowed by the films' over-the-top production designs. The conceptual sets and costumes and choreography resemble displaced dream fragments.

"They're nuts!" he says via phone. "In terms of design, it seemed like they were starting with color before anything else, with a very ad-hoc, stuck-together approach. Scopitones were meant to be seen on a screen about as big as a freezer door on the top of a refrigerator. And they were [designed] to catch the eye of someone 20 feet away around a bar, so that they'd want to come over and put money into the machine. When you actually blow them up to the big screen, they go beyond their normal garishness to become something in a completely different realm." - Michael David Toth Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque At 7 p.m. Monday, November 10

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