28 December 2008

R.I.P Eartha Kitt.

Politically active, sexually charged, distinctive in voice, and one of the most enduring and unique of icons. She will be missed.

22 December 2008

A holiday season thought.

Be more patient.
Use your turn signal.
Slow your roll by a good 15%, and you will find yourself much less angry and tense.

20 December 2008

Why I do not wrap gifts.

There's something dishonest and cruel about wrapping presents. It represents hierarchy and process, which seems to impede the receiver and add tantalization for the giver; this is all well and good if we're talking about a relationship built on power dynamics or some S&M thrills, but it complicates things with friends and those whom you love.

This is especially the case with children. Wrapped gifts are a useful device for keeping the youth in line. They're like brightly-wrapped time-delay explosive devices that turn children into agents of espionage.

Another reason why I don't wrap gifts is because I am terrible at it. Some people have a gift for aesthetics and design and they use it in the presentation of gifts and it's gorgeous and amazing, and I just feel like an oaf in the process.

There are people who derive a great deal of joy from wrapping gifts. There are people who earn a decent seasonal income from doing it. But not me.

So there you go.

"Radio, what's new? Radio, someone still loves you."

If you're one of the three people who regularly read my missives, then please be aware that I will be appearing in my monthly position as media prophet on DJ Ron Slomowicz's radio show on 91.1 FM WRVU here in the Nastyville area. I'll be going on from 3:30 PM until 4 today (Saturday, December 20th) and talking about film, music, politics, and all sorts of things.

If you're not in Middle Tennessee, you can listen at www.wrvu.org online.

19 December 2008

At the movies: A Christmas Tale (Un Conte de Noel).

This year, Christmas finds the Vuillard family in a state of flux; matriarch Junon (Catherine Deneuve, as radiant and lovely as ever) has been diagnosed with a particularly vicious form of bone cancer, and without a marrow transplant, her days are numbered. It seems, though, that the only suitable donor is her son Henri (Mathieu Amalric, fresh from Quantum of Solace), who was banished from the family six years prior by his elder sister.

So this Christmas at the Vuillard house, with its children, grandchildren, lovers, and friends all brought together by disease and circumstance, scores will be settled, loves rekindled, hearts broken, and everyone will need a drink before midnight Mass.

French director Arnaud Desplechin is known for complex and moving dramas that aren't afraid of getting a little weird around the edges. His and cowriter Emmanuel Boudrieu's characters are like no others, and he creates such a vivid group of characters that you can't help but find a bit of your own family and experiences within the multifaceted individuals of the Vuillard family and their associates. Desplechin isn't that well-known, but he's breaking through to the global big leagues with this effort.

Though its primary concerns are not forgiveness, catharsis, and healing, you can find a lot in A Christmas Tale to compare with Rachel Getting Married; a willingness to get down and dirty with family structure and ties, a warts-and-all approach to getting to know people, and a sense of the otherworldy force that holds people together even when they don't particularly like one another.

Most Christmas movies are empty and built on hollow iconography- this one is a gift that keeps unwrapping itself, never exactly what you thought, but a surprise each time nonetheless.

R.I.P. Majel Barrett-Roddenberry

Be sure and give your Trekkie friends warm and supportive hugs today.

At the movies: Slumdog Millionaire.

Jamal Malik (Dev Patel) is suspected of having cheated on India's version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire, and is being tortured by the police to confess having done so. Instead, we discover how each of the questions asked of him pertains to some anecdote or story from his life, springing from consuming poverty through countless picaresque adventures and horrors, only to find himself in the national limelight and on the verge of winning twenty million rupees (around $405,000).

The critical community is losing their mind with praise over this film, racking up countless critics' awards and a lot of Golden Globe nominations. There's talk of major Oscar contention, as well as a perceived increase in relevance following the horrifying terrorist attacks in Mumbai. The time seems to be right for this rags-to-riches-to-torture story, and it seems to be The Little Film That Could.

Sadly, Slumdog Millionaire is a dire piece of filmmaking. Directors Danny Boyle and Loveleen Tandan have an exceptional color palette, but they've used it in the service of a film that has no energy or spark. There's a lot of running and violence, but as both love story and social drama, nothing connects. The film fetishizes poverty even as it exploits its visual immediacy for gullible viewers, and its lazy and predictable script leaves no cliché unused even as it aims to be some sort of defining statement on the twenty-first century world.

16 December 2008

This is rumor control; here are the facts.

During the torrential rains last Tuesday, my house (actually, my basement apartment) flooded. For the past few days, I have been sifting through my stuff, figuring out what is still fine, what's trashed beyond repair, and what can be made better with a little bit of dehumidification.

It's a messed-up situation. I will keep you posted.

The big Year End-list is coming soon, as well as a whole bunch of reviews. You can also hear me on the radio this weekend.

13 December 2008

At the movies: The Day The Earth Stood Still 'O8

A new take on Robert Wise's 1951 Sci-Fi classic about extraterrestrial intervention in Earth's burgeoning nuclear arms race, The Day The Earth Stood Still has been reimagined for contemporary audiences and issues, with Keanu Reeves taking over for Michael Rennie as alien spokesbeing Klaatu and Jennifer Connelly in the Jennifer Connelly role of empathetic female presence.

Tackling a beloved classic is always a risky step; video store walls and Netflix queues are filled with the wreckage of contemporary remakes of Hollywood evergreens, most of which serve no real purpose other than cashing in on a well-known name or concept or piece of iconography. Director Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose) has some mighty big shoes to fill, as Wise's career covered everything from space opera (Star Trek: The Motion Picture) and ghost stories (The Haunting) to musical stalwarts like The Sound of Music and West Side Story. Granted, today's audiences expect different things from their mopvies than people did in 1951, but it's hard to retain any sincere optimism when one finds out that Fox (a studio who has a rather spotty record with genre material over the last few years- X-Men 3, Babylon A.D., Alien vs Predator 1 and 2, I'm talking to you, specifically) is involved.

But the big surprise is that The Day The Earth Stood Still isn't a big mess. It's got some very effective moments, a great central conceit (Keanu Reeves as alien spokesthing is inherently great), some decent effects, and a complete refutation of the Independence Day school of alien encounters. The most interesting thing that this new version brings to the table is in casting Will Smith's son as the pivotal human who must learn to evolve beyond xenophobic jingoism and become a truly civilized being.

I'm hoping that Derrickson has made a film that will change some minds and shake up some sensibilities, as the 1951 original did. It's certainly a step up from Emily Rose, and it's better as a remake than it has any right to be. Not essential viewing, by any stretch of the imagination, but it's trying...

12 December 2008

At the movies: JCVD.

Eking out a living as a has-been action hero battling his way through custody hearings and a check-to-check life lived on credit and the goodwill of strangers, it's been a trying decade for Jean-Claude Van Damme. Laying low in smalltown Belgium, our hero finds himself in the midst of a Post office hold-up which, unfortunately, the police believe him to be responsible for.

Breaking back out of straight-to-DVD limbo and back onto the big screen, JCVD has been helping its titular star in mounting up accolades from the world of art cinema as well as reestablishing some credentials in the world of global action cinema. Unfolding in desaturated sepiatone, we get a strange hybrid of several different
genres, and the end result is a film that earns its emotional payoffs just as easily as it lands its incapacitating kung fu blows.

You will respect Jean-Claude Van Damme by the time this film reaches its end. Calling JCVD an existential action film isn't quite fair, but there's a point, about sixty-eight minutes in, where he lays everything out; equally biography and philosophy, and heart-wrenching in its sincerity and surrounding artifice. It's the
scene of the year, to be sure, and a sign that Mickey Rourke isn't the only star of Double Team having an amazing comeback this year.

At the movies: Milk.

Dealing with the life and death of one of America's first openly gay public officials, Milk is the story of Harvey Milk, who helped to organize San Francisco's gay and lesbian community politically in the mid-seventies in a protracted battle against a Proposition which would make gays and lesbians into second class citizens (sound familiar?). Until his death at the hands of a former co-worker, he was the face of gay visibility and power in the country.

Gus Van Sant, fresh from his quirky quartet of moody and expressionist art films (Gerry, Elephant, Last Days, and Paranoid Park), makes a triumphant return to mainstream film with this effective and inspiring biopic of one of America's unsung heroes. A bawdy, outspoken charmer with a complicated love life and a gift for organizing, Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) doesn't seem like the kind of personality that would fit with Van Sant's current aesthetics. But in getting in touch with his narrative storytelling abilities, Van Sant has tapped into something palpable and electric, with audiences responding in kind.

Penn simply hasn't been this fun in decades; but in this funny, fierce performance, he really taps in to an essential humanity that too often he seems to shunt in delving into characters. The supporting cast (particularly James Franco, whose performance here complements his druggy/sexy Pineapple Express turn nicely, and Josh Brolin, who proves there's simply no one he can't play effectively) helps sustain the film's 'you are there' attitude toward 70s San Francisco, and the film's lessons are good ones, with a tone that manages to be both inspiring and mournful. But this is Penn's show, and he delivers.

R.I.P. Bettie Page

Eighty-five years of singular iconography.

07 December 2008

R.I.P. Odetta.

One of the most important voices in American history has died.

People often use the phrase 'voice of an angel' to descirbe whatever twee white woman is deploying some tasteful melisma over strings and dispassionate tunefulness.

I call bullshit.

There are several voices that I feel manage to encompass the breadth of divinity and still express what mortality means to us as human beings- Diamanda Galas, certainly. Antony Hegarty, pretty much. But there is no one who ever put the expanse of the human experience into song like Odetta James.

04 December 2008

"No dream is ever just a dream." Notes on Eyes Wide Shut.

I was fortunate enough to introduce a screening of Eyes Wide Shut as part of the Belcourt's Stanley Kubrick retrospective. I had a lot of people ask about several of the things I mentioned during my little talk, so I figured I would post the notes I used that Wedensday night.

I only got to cover about sixty or so percent of what all I had written, but it was such a thrill to see a 35mm print of the film (and to talk with people afterward) that I would put it all up here. Part sentence-outline, part flow-chart, I can't say that it works aas a logical piece of criticism, but it covers all the bases on the film that I wanted to get into.

I was also sent an article by one of last night's attendees about the film that is absolutely delicious analysis and criticism of the film. Many thanks to Richard K for hepping me to the Krieder piece.


1 Obligations.
For the story, of marriage.
For the audience in 1999, of sexual content and the ‘event’ of a Kubrick film, a posthumous one at that.
For the characters, of society. Drudgeries of work, the process of Christmas (presents, parties).

Temptation takes the Harfords for a dance

Made in the shadow of the Cruise/Kidman marriage, now a memorial of it.
Other marriages have crumbled in its wake. “Taking the day off to figure out who he was.”
At the beginning, Bill takes Alice’s body for granted. Literally or figuratively, this is his journey back.

‘the grass is always greener’ somewhere, it seems.
Rainbows recur (costume shop, two women at the Christmas party)

The Wizard of Oz as deconstructive journey home
Kidman’s current turn in the vastly underrated and utterly insane Australia.

Trust does not necessarily imply a common interest
Sex and its weird power- it binds them together, comically but firmly, in the final line.

2 What we see and what we do not.
Jennifer Jason Leigh, Harvey Keitel as well.
The women at the masked ball; the carpet doesn’t match.

We don’t know the real story behind Nick Nightingale and the multiple Mandies.

The Harfords’ NYC apartment, big enough for sinuous tracking shots-
Ths Shining’s steadicam shots and vast spaces of menace and portent are explicitly doubled with the slinky curves of Kidman’s body in a cocktail dress and the mystery ball Bill so desperately wants to experience. Kidman has a Steadicam spine, like a Modigliani painting. Compare the Zieglers’ Christmas party dance with the New Year’s Ball at the Overlook.

“Staged… charade… fake.”

Eyes Wide Shut, by virtue of its ethos of available light and the many scenes lit by Christmas trees, pushed two stops, represents a camera philosophy even more radical than Barry Lyndon.
The elimination of shadow detail means there is simply no place for anything to hide. Minority Report loved grain this much

Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle
Freudian, but not in terms of symbolism, more in terms of using dreams as deconstructive tool.

Dream logic – italo horror, Silent Hill film adaptation, eXistenZ

The backprojection work is stunning, especially 4th street as it crosses Sixth avenue.
Malik Hassan-Saeed (Lauryn Hill’s “Ex Factor” video)

The two party/ball sequences cut directly to the return to the Harford home.
There is no diegetic travel, merely a cut. Scenes of travel, therefore, are significant.

3 Fear and Desire.

If you came to this film for flesh, you have it before the title card is even revealed. So where do you go from there?

As an analysis of male sexual insecurity, this is up there with Lynch’s Lost Highway.

Fear of what you might find keeps sex at bay:
The cancer during the breast exam
The HIV (Domino), contrasted with Mizzi’s illness and Fridolin’s fear of diphtheria in the Schnitzler.
The abandonment

The whole stoned argument like a Bene Gesserit training exercise, feinting text and subtext.

Yet every step he takes questions Bill’s masculinity, except in the mirror with Alice and the flirtatious hotel clerk (there’s the Barry Lyndon comic queerness again)
Any attempt he makes to assert his sexuality leads to the abyss.
NY Post headline “Lucky to be alive.”

Kubrick the perfectionist did something in this film that we had never been allowed to see: he ground the movie star out of Tom Cruise. He seems out of place, never in control in any situation. When he tries to use what we perceive as his iconic charm, its effect is off-time. He tries to react like a movie star: money, baked goods, charm, everything- we seem him lose his edge in real-time. Cruise drained of star power; given his recent difficulties, imagine, then, how the hundreds of takes must have been.

This sexparty is very Prussian, a very ierarchical orgy at the masked ball- voyeurism as a thing of the upperclass?
The digital figures are emblematic of Bill’s own yoyeuristic tendencies. We want to see acrobatic sportfucking, too.
The vast majority of masked ballers are voyeurs, not participants

Bill throws $ around like candy
Commerce of desire; in this case, knowledge.

My, how Stanley loves bare breasts pressed against formalwear (cf Barry Lyndon)

Orgies we have known
Fellini, Cecil B DeMille (The Sign of The Cross)
Emanuelle in America introduces the spectre of death.

There is no definitive version of the film.
A) grainy initial international version, 35mm, no digital obstruction in orgy sequence, crew reflection present, unsynched Kidman line.
B) grainy US version, 35mm, with digital obstruction in orgy sequence, crew reflection present, unsynched Kidman line. This is what we’ll be seeing at the Belcourt.
C) smoothed international version, 4:3, no digital obstruction in orgy sequence, now out of print
D) smoothed international version, 4:3, no digital obstruction in orgy sequence, bhagavad-gita extracts removed (though actually Tamil love song)
E) smoothed US version, 4:3, with digital obstruction, Tamil extract removed
F) Hi-Def 16:9 master, smoothed international version, Tamil extract removed

R. Lee Ermey vs Todd Field

Ligeti’s Musica Ricercata and what it represents.

Mystikal – “Shake Ya Ass” much in the way of 2 Live Crew’s “Me So Horny” was for Full Metal Jacket.
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (The password is ‘ooooooor-gy’).
Season Two of True Blood (oops, I’ve said too much)
30 Rock joke about playing piano for those rich weird people

01 December 2008

My desperate quest for public recognition.

I'm getting attention in the press. Yay!

13. G.G.

Seconded, Mr. Ebert.

Astute, as he often can be, in a way that combines intelligence and populism. There isn't a day that goes by without me worrying that the shoe is going to drop and I find myself with no film writing gig whatsoever. I guess I'm fortunate, but I am so utterly freaked out by the way that modern journalism is tilting.

30 November 2008

Absolutely unbelievable.

This is simultaneously absurd and terrifying, and I can't for the life of me imagine the circumstances behind it. It makes me think about how I drive, to be sure, but you can damned well bet it makes me worried for the people of Nashville, both in terms of its bad drivers and its aggressive evangelicals.

At the movies: Transporter 3.

The Short Version: Could've used one less dialogue scene and one more car chase.

The Longer Version: Yes, thank Gawd, he takes his shirt off. Thrice. Once, it's even against his own druthers. Now I support consent in all naughty activities, but Jason Statham should just about always be shirtless, unless it's really cold out.

To snag some terminology from the great Joe Bob Briggs (one of the two biggest influences on my own critical self), there's far too much plot getting in the way of the story. And the higher-ups seem to have gotten freaked out by Louis Leterrier's whole deal about Frank Martin being the first big gay action hero, because he gives up the groceries to a pixie-ish red-headed Ukranian chick who looks eerily reminiscent of Fifth Element-era Milla Jovovich (which, considering this was co-written, produced, and released (through his EuropaCorp films) by Luc Besson, makes sense) because she says he's boring and takes ecstasy in his car.

But there's a great scene with a German associate of Frank's, and some excellent fleshy kung fu (including one fight where Statham has to shed his clothing and use it as weapons). Action films are the new dominant genre for Europudding productions (it's a delight seeing Paul Verhoeven alum Jeroen Krabbe as aforementioned Ukranian chick's minister father), and it's nice to blend cultures and languages for a while.

So Transporter 3 is enjoyable enough for a Thanksgiving matinee and for connoisseurs of flesh. The law of diminishing returns applies here, though.

12. AVT.

Nothing says ballin' like a snifter.

During my most recent sojourn up in the northeast, I found myself and some friends driven by the rain into the little bar in the Cloisters, up in the north ass-end of Manhattan Island. Feeling cavalier and with more cash than I should have been carrying or spending, I decided to start trying new drinks.

The winner of the evening was something called the Hudson Royale. I love it in a way I can't completely articulate, but I feel that the very least I can do is to share it with you, beloved reader. What follows is the recipe, as best I can depict it.

First up, you need a sugar cube. Not a brown sugar cube, and not a sugar cube that's been coated with any illicit substances (because that is not the kind of game you want to play if you're going to be drinking like this).

Congratulations. You've completed step one.

Next, you need to pick a glass. Technically, you should use a champagne flute, but the drink police have other shit to worry about. Personally, I go for the snifter nine times out of ten, because nothing says ballin' like a snifter.

Once you have your chosen glass, put the sugar cube in it.

A word of warning: be careful with the Angostura Bitters, because this stuff does not play; it is the real-real.

Very carefully, drop two (or, if you have a particularly wild hair up your ass to get all crazy) or three drops of the bitters into the glass and on to the sugar cube. This is important, so make sure you have the dexterity for such a project.

Next comes the colorful part. Get your pomegranate liqueur (it doesn't have to be Pama, that's just what I have for visual reference) and get ready for some madness, y'all.

So you pour your pomegranate liqueur of choice into the glass, letting it reach a level where it covers the sugar cube completely, then adding just a little bit more to make sure that we have completely enveloped the cube.

And then, of course, you need the finisher, the thing what holds the drink together.

It doesn't have to be Veuve-Cliquot (if only we lived in such a world); any champagne, chilled, will do. Just fill the glass the rest of the way up, then let it fizz for a minute or so, then drink and enjoy.

So, to reiterate: you need a sugar cube, a drinking vessel, some pomegranate liqueur, angostura bitters, and some chilled champagne. Congratulations, you've mastered the Hudson Royale.

29 November 2008

Putting a ring on history.

So everyone and their brother is making videos of their performance of the choreography to Beyonce's "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on it)." It's a catchy song and a good performance, but when someone busts out the Bob Fosse moves and the word doesn't spread, then I feel the need to step in.

This is the original footage of Gwen Verdon's dance to "Mexican Breakfast," synched to the Beyonce track. Dig on it.

Because of Beyonce's success with this routine, I find myself having a dream that Bob Fosse choreography will make a big comeback in unexpected places. Let's dream, then, shall we?

25 November 2008

11. Blue mood.

At the movies: Australia.

Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) must leave England to tend to her family's Australian cattle ranch. There, she encounters the half-caste mystical child Nullah, culture clash on several levels, and Hugh Jackman, done up right as The Drover- an independent businessman who handles business all over the Northern Australian frontier.

Sweeping plains, arid desert, cute animals, collective racial guilt, financial shenanigans, and the timeless power of "Over The Rainbow." Nobody blends disparate cultural touchstones together quite like Baz (Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge) Luhrmann, and Australia is a glorious mess of an acheivement.

Hugh Jackman gets to be Clint Eastwood (eye-lit man of mystery in bar fight), John Wayne (driving cattle across the plains), Cary Grant (when cleaned up for a society ball), and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (rescuing children) all in the same movie. Nicole Kidman gets to be all prim and stuffy, then beat a bad guy with a riding crop, herd cattle in the most dangerous part of the Aussie desert, preside over a fancy dance (where she gets to rock a cheongsam like Maggie Cheung in In the Mood for Love), breathe life into desolate nothingness, sing a little, and give up the goods in a rainstorm.

In the seven years since Moulin Rouge, director/cowriter Baz Luhrmann has remained an enthusiast of mash-up culture and timeless romanticism, and this film could have easily been released in the fifties, such is its sense of Cinemascope epic-ness. For anyone, then, who says they don't make them like they used to. You could almost call it South Pacific with kangaroos.

I spent the first ten minutes thinking I was in hell, then gradually warmed to its blend of frontier adventure, aboriginal magic, and romantic skirmishes. And by its final half hour, I was bawling my face off like a puppy had died right in front of me. If Australia, the film, is about thirty-five minutes too long for its own good, it still delivers everything one could want from an old-fashioned romantic epic. If Pearl Harbor hadn't been made by a sociopath, it might have had some of the emotional impact that this film wrings from its collision with WWII. As it stands, there's nothing else quite like this out there.

I am a hypocrite.

Because when I first heard about the mysterious 'elbowed squid' here, I was caught up in the staggering possibilities of the animal kingdom, and all the weirdness that has managed to survive in spite of all the foolishness we've unleashed upon the world.

I mean, look at it.

That's really something. I mean, you could give brilliant people millions of dollars and the most state-of-the-art computer imaging programs and still not get something as weird and majestic as that.

But that still doesn't stop me from eating squid. I love it; it's delicious.

So I'm a hypocrite.

But isn't that elbowed squid something?

Forgotten dance classics: Time Bandits - "Endless Road (And I Want You to know, my Love)."

19 November 2008

At the movies: Twilight.

Working from the first book in author Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Quartet, director Catherine Hardwicke (Lords of Dogtown, The Nativity Story) has crafted a moody and atmospheric tale of womanhood and burgeoning desire. Teenage Bella (Kristen Stewart, from Panic Room and The Safety of Objects), uprooted from Phoenix and spending the year with her father in the perpetually overcast Forks, Washington, finds herself drawn to the mysterious Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson, current subject of teenage girl riots throughout the country). Drawing on the universal themes of awakening desire, familial upheaval, and collective racial guilt, Meyer and Hardwicke present a new variation on the time-told legend of the blooddrinker. These vampires don’t avoid the sun because it brings death to them, but rather because it makes them glitter like Ziggy Stardust-era David Bowie; naturally, they’ve settled in the Pacific Northwest. As always, Hardwicke knows how to get mood exactly right, as always, her grasp on the story is a little bit tenuous. It’s still refreshing, though, to see a film that understands that a heartfelt statement of commitment during a slow dance at the Prom is just as (if not more) important than a climactic showdown with lots of special effects. Major points for a left-of-field use of Muse’s “Supermassive Black Hole,” the return of Sarah (24’s Nina Meyers) Clarke, and for Billy Burke’s turn as Bella’s father, who shows that all the puncture wounds and nonconsensual blood donations in the world aren’t nearly as painful as a cruel turn of phrase from the past.

At the movies: Synecdoche, NY (The Long Take)

Oscar-winning screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Being John Malkovich) makes his directorial debut with the story of Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a theatre director in the midst of personal crisis. After a head trauma starts short-circuiting his nervous system and his wife Adele (Catherine Keener) leaves him, he finds himself confronting both his own mortality and his lack of purpose. So when he is awarded a MacArthur Grant, he aims to create a mammoth work of ‘true’ art, turning a cavernous warehouse space into a miniature version of New York City, where hundreds of personal dramas can unfold in real time and space.

After a mixed-to-disastrous premiere at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Kaufman did some pruning and rearranging with the film, debuting this final version to an even more divided response. Kaufman’s material has always made room for playfulness and diving down tangential rabbit-holes, but with this film it feels like an exorcism. Starting out as a horror script written for Spike Jonze to direct, what emerges is an unblinking and emotionally moving stare into the life of an artist crippled by doubt. Something broken cannot be fixed to be like it was- it is something different, something made new out of that brokenness. And as Caden’s play begins to attain a life of its own, who can say which is truly life? And more importantly, who’s living it?

Synecdoche, NY, is an exhausting and transcendent experience. It’s certainly as demanding as moviegoing gets these days, but it comes with an emotional payoff on the level of, say, the Lord of the Rings films or 2001. There’s something about how the process of the film mimics the path of human life that had to be part of Kaufman’s ongoing attempts to get this story told visually, and yet it always feels like it’s an ongoing happy accident. Both in grandeur and emotional power, this is 2008’s There Will Be Blood.

At the movies: Dear Zachary.

When filmmaker Kurt Kuenne’s lifelong friend Andrew Bagby was horrifyingly murdered, he decided to try and assemble and curate a memorial to the man’s life; traveling all over the country, visiting past friends, relatives, lovers, and associates in order to try and find a way to preserve the memory of someone taken too soon. But then, in the midst of this, Bagby’s murderer, Dr. Shirley Turner, fled to Canada and announced she was pregnant with his child. So what began as a simple collection of reminisces became something to give the child a record of who his father was, what would become a chronicle of flight, cruelty, tragedy, and hope. This is as personal as documentary filmmaking can get.

This film is riding on some of the highest praise lavished on a documentary in years, with audiences throughout the world being overwhelmed by the time spent in its emotional whirlwind. Nonfiction films made about tragic miscarriages of justice are sadly commonplace in our world, but to be able to witness an ongoing trainwreck of governmental negligence as it happens is an opportunity that we don’t too often see. The process that David and Kate Bagby (Andrew’s parents) go through in order to claim custody of their grandson Zachary and to put Shirley Turner away for their son’s murder is exhausting and horrifying, and the strongest-willed of audiences have been taken down a peg by its detailed and mounting power.

Though not what you’d call a date movie, Dear Zachary is a must for anyone intrigued about the evolution of documentary films where the filmmaker is part of the action being witnessed. Law students, judicial reformers, and concerned parents could all find facets of Dear Zachary that allow them to expand their won experiences, and anyone suffering from overwhelming personal tragedy might, with this film, find some catharsis for the tragedies that linger in their own lives. It’s not an easy film to watch, and it’s a difficult one to recommend for the casual moviegoer. But it is near-impossible to forget the Bagby family, and this film has a raw power unequalled by anything else like it this year.

At the movies: Role Models.

Director/co-writer David Wain, responsible for Wet Hot American Summer, The Ten, and a founding member of sketch comedy godhead The State, has exactly the right approach for the material. The story outline of the film sounds like something we as the audience feel that we’ve already seen at some point, so he and the cast make a point of changing things up; going for character-based comedy rather than pratfalls and visual puns.

Paul Rudd has been the go-to guy for supporting greatness in comedies for several years now, and he steps up to the lead with a hard-won sense of timing. He could have vaulted up into superstardom after 1995’s Clueless, where he actually served as a funny romantic lead, but instead worked his way up through riff-y supporting roles over the intervening years in Wain’s previous two films and much of comedy multihyphenate Judd Apatow’s recent work. So he brings to the film an absolute absence of vanity and a willingness to shun traditional likability, and it pays up immensely. It’s rare that we get this kind of emotional complexity in a comic lead. Seann William Scott’s Wheeler could have easily been Stifler Part II, but instead we’re given a libidinous partyboy who has achieved an almost Zenlike state of being. All that jock/fratboy energy that poisoned his American Pie character here becomes liberatingly sleazy, and he rebounds from Southland Tales into something a bit different for him. I would never have said that KISS embodied a philosophy before, but now, after viewing this film, I’m not sure I can be so certain.

The two kids that Danny and Wheeler find themselves mentoring get huge laughs just through course of action. Augie (Christopher Mintz-Plasse a/k/a McLovin from Superbad) is a Live Action Role-Playing enthusiast who rejects much of the awkwardness in which he finds himself, and Ronnie (Bobb’e Johnson, finding new ground to explore in the ‘foul-mouthed child’ archetype) has abandonment issues and delights in burning through assigned mentors. The always-great Jane Lynch pops up periodically as the chief administrator of Sturdy Wings program, and most of the time she’s brilliant, though occasionally she’ll hammer away at a line for longer than necessary. Who would have thought that 2008 was going to be the year that Elizabeth Banks became gloriously inescapable? With this, she gives her third great performance of the year (complementing both Zack and Miri Make a Porno and her well-drawn Laura Bush in W.), taking a small character and making it feel like more.

Role Models is an exceptionally satisfying comedy, but one that does so in unexpected ways. Brazenly filthy but also disarmingly sweet, we have here the first date movie/dude movie hybrid of the season.

At the movies: Happy-Go-Lucky.

Poppy (Sally Hawkins) is a primary school teacher in South London possessed of a truly sunny disposition. A firm believer in looking on the bright side of life, this woman is, and she’s found a good network of friends that help her get along just fine. Her bike recently stolen, she decides to take driving lessons, and her instructor is a paranoid and racist conspiracy theorist (Eddie Marsan) who nevertheless seems to be looking for some kind of positivity in his life. So we have dueling ideologies in one corner, but Happy-Go-Lucky is really the kind of breath of fresh air that anyone tired of miserabilism or just looking for something frothy and fun should check out.

Mike Leigh, the man who specializes in journeys into the dark places of the human heart, has made a feel-good comedy? Absolutely. Without altering his methodology (extensive preparation and rehearsals, improvising the script over several weeks with the cast, evolving a complete universe for the characters), he’s decided to spend some time looking on the bright side of life. With Poppy and her friends, the film not only has a believable and interesting collective of characters, but an astonishing ensemble of meaty roles for women. Sex and the City be damned, here’s a group of women that actually seem fun to be around.

Director Mike Leigh has always had a gift for getting great performances, but Sally Hawkins’ Poppy is practically luminescent. It’s the kind of performance that wins awards and gets people’s attention, and thanks to her anchor, the film is as refreshing and nurturing as a homemade sandwich or a puppy that knows instinctively not to pee on the floor. Leigh has trod a vaguely similar path before, with 1999’s Gilbert and Sullivan history Topsy-Turvy, but here he’s in completely new territory, and the end result is winning acclaim all over the world, as well as a new accolade: accessible. With an effect undiminished by multiple viewings, Happy-Go-Lucky will fix whatever’s wrong for you for a little while, leaving you happy, hopeful, and regretting nothing.

At the movies: Quantum of Solace.

The latest James Bond film has three aces up its sleeve: Judi Dench, Jeffrey Wright, and Daniel Craig. That’s not to diminish the achievements of the director (Marc Forster, an inspired choice considering his body of work) or any other contributing artists, but it’s those three that make Quantum of Solace into such a satisfying experience. Dench, as MI6 head honcho M, continues to bring class and diamond-like resolve to everything she touches (let’s not forget, she even made The Chronicles of Riddick into something unique). Wright, continuing a moral throughline from his turn as Colin Powell in Oliver Stone’s fascinating W., pops up as America’s moral compass and steals all of his scenes. And Daniel Craig, as the blond, blunt force weapon of choice for a world in crisis, is an unrelenting badass with a heart as cold as his steely blue eyes. Though I had hoped for a bit more of Forster’s more artsier flourishes (see his tragically underseen Stay for an example of what I was hoping for), the only irredeemable aspect of the new Bond film is its utterly dire theme song, for which both Jack White and Alicia Keys should be ashamed. There’s so much intrigue and melancholy regret at play here, one can almost shirk off the burdens of enduring a blockbuster action film (and the entire first forty-five minutes is almost all action setpieces). Fatalism and fireballs, in equal amounts; though I would recommend rewatching (or at least familiarizing yourself with) Casino Royale beforehand.

At the movies: Let The Right One In.

Oskar is a young boy dealing with his parents’ separate lives and with an escalating problem with bullies at school. He doesn’t have too many friends, that is, until he meets Eli, who is everything Oskar could have wanted in a potential girlfriend. She’s smart, self-sufficient, and a vampire. And nothing helps nurture one’s first crush like an escalating body count…

Riding a rapturous wave of response from genre enthusiasts, gorehounds, hopeless romantics, foreign film junkies, and lovers of fairy tales, Let The Right One In is the real deal. It’s a perfectly-balanced thriller, equal parts sweet and merciless, as well as the kind of dark tale that, while dealing with a child’s milieu, understands and uses the tropes that can’t help but make adult audiences shiver as well. There also hasn’t been an iceskating scene this unnerving since The Dead Zone.

If Twilight is the sensitive middle sister and HBO’s True Blood is the wild bisexual oldest sibling who just moved out of the house, then Let The Right One In is the youngest child in the theoretical family of contemporary pop culture vampirism. All share elements that draw on our desires to truly know the dark, but this adopted Swedish child has gazed deeper into the heart of what lies beyond the pale, and it wins as both an object of beauty and an instrument of cruelty.

At the movies: Ashes of Time redux.

In this moody reconstruction of his 1994 wu xia (think Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, or Curse of the Golden Flower) epic, Wong Kar-Wai (In The Mood for Love, Chungking Express) brings us a series of interconnected tales of men and women, wounded by love and betrayal, enduring recursive patterns in their lives, waiting for another chance at happiness to find them.

After the mixed response to his 2007 English-language debut My Blueberry Nights, rightfully acclaimed director Wong Kar-Wai decided to undertake a restoration of this film, but when they tried to begin the process, they found the original negatives in horrible shape, and a more radical course of action was deemed necessary. So Wong re-edited the film, adjusting the colors and eliding some moments. The digital recoloration of Christopher Doyle’s remarkable cinematography and slight tweaks and edits here and there don’t diminish any of the film’s grandeur, though they do allow it to take its thematic place amongst Wong’s more recent work (especially 2046). And because of it, the mere sight of a wicker birdcage will fill you with an immense and timeless sadness

It’s mind-boggling to audiences today to look at the cast Wong has at his disposal here. The late Leslie Cheung, both Tony Leungs (Chiu-Wai and Ka-Fai), Brigitte Lin, Maggie Cheung, and even Sammo Hung handling the abstract and unusual action choreography... So much has happened since then, both globally and in the lives of those icons of Hong Kong cinema; that wu xia itself is now an exportable film genre couldn’t possibly have been predicted. But it is a testament to all involved that Ashes of Time has endured as a modern classic. As dizzyingly romantic a night at the movies as one could hope for.

06 November 2008

Something for all to keep in mind.

Do not think all is sunshine and roses. I am truthfully happy regarding Barack Obama's victory, but let's not have too much back-patting and 'haven't we come so far' discourse.

So I read these...

Now that I'm back from the NYC and re-enmeshed in the workday, I've been reading more, and I've finished quite a few in the past couple of weeks.

Paul of Dune by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson.
Pretty good, though since it's occuring in well laid-out time periods in the Dune-iverse, there aren't any big surprises. Still, I love spending time with the characters and the seventeen or so millenia in which the Dune-iverse unfolds.

The Haunted Smile: The Story of Jewish Comedians in America by Lawrence J. Epstein.
Interesting history of both the Jewish-American experience and the evolution of humor and stand-up comedy. A little dry for my taste, but still a brisk and fascinating read.

Silent Bob Speaks by Kevin Smith.
A collection of previously published pieces. Smith is a fun conversationalist and writer, but this collection feels like a cash-in. No offense to Smith, but his bloggery is more immediate and enveloping.

Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman.
A delightful little read, full of whimsy and deadpan humor. Sort of an Afro-Caribbean Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Light in tone, and, as always with Gaiman, witty and imaginative.

At the movies: Zack and Miri Make a Porno.

In a way, Zack and Miri Make a Porno is the perfect synthesis of what defines the cinema of writer/director Kevin Smith. Coarse and liberatingly filthy, it also wears its deeply-felt emotions emblazoned on its proverbial sleeve, and the two modes of thought actually combine rather nicely. It’s been a source of amusement to see the minor controversies that have risen up (from the film’s initial poster and now, its title) around the film, because it’s an American film with a truly liberated and responsible sensibility about sex, recognizing that the act of love is complex and can be recreational, nasty, liberating, profitable, or life-changing in its impact, and sometimes mixing those elements around beyond easy definition.

So why exactly do Zack and Miri make a porno? Mostly a combination of financial crisis and long-term comfortability. Bills have to get paid, and options are few and far between. So they take inspiration from what the world has given them (and an encounter with adult film star Brandon St. Randy, played here by comic treasure Justin Long) and decide to put themselves out there for the world to see. One can see many of the emotions that motivated Smith in the making of his first film, 1994’s Clerks, on display here in the ragtag “let’s put on a show” enthusiasm he gets from the cast (with special accolades due Craig Robinson, from Knocked Up and Pineapple Express, who steals every scene in the movie), and you also are allowed to see cult icon Traci Lords make peace with her past in the adult film industry. The balance between sleazy and sweet is maintained here much better than in any of Smith’s films since his 1997 masterpiece Chasing Amy, and it boggles the mind to think that a film this sweet and heartwarming can also feature one of the nastiest things I’ve ever seen in a mainstream comedy. I’m talking Salo filthy. I’m talking Jackass filthy. I’m talking Sweet Movie filthy.

The first ten minutes are a bit rough, and there are some emotional shifts that seem a bit abrupt in the latter third, but for the most part, Zack and Miri is a delight. There are countless scenes which on their own could have made the movie worth seeing (the Brandon Routh/Justin Long sequences, a surprise use of Bronski Beat, a discussion of Lost, unscrupulous realtor Tom Savini, the Jermaine Stewart-scored closing credits, boating equipment from the Netherlands, and a few others), but in conjunction with one another, you have the most satisfying film Smith has made this decade. *** ½

At the movies: Poultrygeist.

When it says Troma, you know what you’re getting: gore, breasts, monsters, mutants, a representation of national diversity that makes Hollywood product look insular and unadventurous, and at least one (but often more) moment where the only response you can have is to say “well, I’ve never seen that before.” The typical Troma film, if you can even define such a thing, is like a madcap collusion between Frank Tashlin and the Marquis de Sade that works on whichever level you want it to. No setpiece too gross, not pun too outrageous, and no patience for subtlety; but still the Troma brand remains absolutely true to itself, and its take-no-prisoners style of social splat-ire doubtless will offend a significant portion of the population.

What else could we expect from a film positively enraged by the course of human life at this point in the aughts, explicitly attacking the legacy of Native American disenfranchisement, the way that food has become a corporatized industry, the Abu Gharaib photographs, and the way that entropy brings down countless social movements from the inside. Which is a remarkable agenda for a film about chicken monsters and dismemberment. There is no bodily mutilation, desecration, or violation that one could conceive of that remains unexplored during the course of Poultrygeist, and its gleeful willingness to gore up the place a little bit is a welcome breath of fresh air when you look at the disturbing ideologies splatter fans are made to implicitly support, through efforts like the Saw series or something like Quarantine, just to get a little grue.

The former frustrates because of its cruel and faux-moralistic undertones (perfectly served up for the Dr. Phil/Sarah Palin side of America), the later disgusts because of its dumbing-down and eviscerating of a quality foreign film/classic that didn’t need to be remade in the first place. And that’s where most modern horror is stuck. So even if Poultrygeist’s tone never strays far from slapstick farce rather than exploring more serious responses to horror, it still slings righteous social anger like the finest of documentary offerings and splatters the walls in ways that make this year’s Inside and Mother of Tears look restrained and dainty. Director/cowriter Lloyd Kaufman once again manages to find the gorgeous within the gruesome, and there’s no other splatter musical willing to talk about issues and sever limbs with such wit. ***

At the movies: Changeling.

For years, the quintessential Angelina Jolie performance was in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow; an interesting but somewhat inert film that exploded into Technicolor life anytime her one-eyed military advisor popped up to unleash an amphibious squadron. With the exception of the tragically underseen A Mighty Heart, she’s been toiling away in character roles with nuclear star wattage ever since her Oscar. So now we get Angelina front-and-center in a hard-hitting melodrama about suffering and persistence, and she’s just marvelous. It’s just a pity that the surrounding film isn’t up to the standard she sets.

Changeling isn’t utterly reprehensible like Absolute Power or The Rookie, nor is it perfunctory like Blood Work. Certainly, in the Clint Eastwood oeuvre, it sits securely above those films. But it’s a mess that feels surprisingly impersonal and atypical, stymied by a script that either lapses all too often into the ridiculous or allows too much ridiculousness from historical record to remain. I have no doubt that there were actual shocking reversals, multiple court cases, mass axe murders, an operatic hanging, and a dramatic jailhouse confrontation. But what we see onscreen doesn’t feel like a movie based on a true story, but rather a true story that seems to be engineered out of the iconography and history of the movies.

The story of the vanished child Walter Collins is a dynamic frame on which to hang the story, but there’s so much else stuffed into the film that it tears itself asunder. Better would have been to focus on the scenes between Jolie’s Christine Collins and the false child foisted upon her by the police. It’s in these three scenes that Changeling achieves the greatness it oh-so-briefly shows, and a leaner, more focused film might have been an emotional juggernaut. But because Eastwood and writer J. Michael Straczynski want to expand the story into a comprehensive portrait of 20s Los Angeles, the focus shifts and falters, and by the time the forcible commitment and quasi-pedophilic ax murders start coming, it’s just simply too late. Fortunately, Eastwood has another film coming later this year, and I’m still more than willing to see anything he puts out. But this isn’t nearly what it could have been. ** ½

04 November 2008

A sign of the upcoming newer, awesome America.


This is encouraging, and much cooler than Busta Rhymes and Martha Stewart hanging out.

03 November 2008

And now, a glorious pop music break before the madness.

Election Day here in the U.S. I'm ready to be past it, and I'm cautiously optimistic. Eight years of subterfuge and shenanigans will do that to you.

Regardless, here's my current fave-rave pop song. Written by the Pet Shop Boys and produced by Xenomania. Simply magic.

30 October 2008

Something scary.

So here's one of my all-time favorite pieces. Done for the Nashville Scene's sorely-missed Late Edition, this is my take on the thirteen scariest movie moments of all time (up until October 2005, when the piece was initially written).

I've also posted the text of the article below (the actual Scene page has weird formatting from the last site redesign) for your viewing pleasure.

Scary can mean a lot of things to different people, though I maintain that anything can be scary with the right perspective. What about basset hounds, you may ask? Sure, a basset hound isn't intrinsically scary. But if you found yourself in a room full of about 60 basset hounds, and they were all completely quiet and staring right at you, you would be rightly creeped out. But I digress.

What follows is a little something for people who might be looking for something to view this Halloween weekend. You're not going to find the big daddies of the genre here, for the most part. Films like Halloween, The Shining, Psycho, and Jaws all have their devotees and their charms, and they can be readily had by anyone with a video-store membership or library card.

These are the 13 moments in all of movies that scare me most. Maybe some people will disagree, and that's fine. But maybe there's something in one of these films that'll make your heart quicken—or even better, make you think about what scares you and why. Beware of spoilers, and enjoy.

13. PET SEMATARY (1989) Mary Lambert's nasty, nihilistic take on Stephen King's dark-side-of-life-after-death novel has several particularly gruesome and creepy moments (Achilles tendon, anyone?). But is there anything that compares to wife and mother Rachel Creed's memories of her sister Zelda, confined by spinal meningitis to a dim room in the back of the house? It's a minor part of the plot, but Zelda is why this film remains as horrifyingly potent today as when it was first released.

12. MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS (1944) When it comes to the dark veneer of the traditionally staid community, David Lynch and John Carpenter have nothing on Vincente Minnelli. I'll never forget the Technicolor nightmare of Margaret O'Brien as little Tootie traversing her darkened neighborhood. It echoes in Carpenter's own Halloween, in the dark places on familiar streets. Children, you see, are allowed to be scared. Adults, however, with our jobs and obligations, are not. But a good scare reduces everyone to their childhood self again.

11. THE HAUNTING (1963) Robert Wise's take on Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House is one of the most graceful and elegant ghost stories ever made, and its enduring lesson to all future films of a dark and suspenseful nature is that implication really is much stronger than displaying something completely. In this black-and-white Cinemascope minefield of subconscious terror (G-rated, nonetheless), there's a moment of boundless horror when a shifting light source slowly turns a section of bric-a-brac next to the terrified Julie Harris into a monstrous, quasi-demonic face. It doesn't roar, it doesn't detach from the wall, and if you were of a completely assured countenance, you could say that it was still only a small fissure. But people of completely assured countenances don't understand the art of fear, even as the strange geometry of Wise's Hill House would doubtlessly frustrate their certainties. In the darkness, Harris grasps the hand of her roommate, Theo (Claire Bloom), only to be met with a cold, clutching grip. The house’s unseen terrors are finally too much, and she turns on the light—whereupon she learns Theo is on the other side of the room. "Oh God," she says, "what was holding my hand?" Delicious.

10. STAR TREK IV: THE VOYAGE HOME (1986) The things that scare us are deeply personal things. Granted, multitudes of differentiated fears can be reduced to anxiety about death— that's something universal. But the weird fears, the phobias, this is when you get into the uniquities of people. Me, I have personal issues with spiders, elevators, and whales. Thanks to our friendly local brown recluses and black widows, I maintain that it is not unreasonable to be afraid of spiders if you live in Tennessee. Likewise, people do die in elevator accidents all over the world (though thankfully not very often). But why whales? Especially living in Tennessee? All I can say is that whales best embody the creeping unease that keeps me from going in any body of water of which I can't see the bottom. The idea that below me an unseen something dwarfs me—it is nearly unbearable. The time travel sequence in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home illustrates this unnamable feeling. A featureless human body, suspended in space or underwater; behind/below/beyond it, coalescing into view, a giant cetacean. It speaks volumes without saying a word, the image forever burned into the hippocampus—the part of the brain where nightmares live.

9. FOUL PLAY (1978) Librarian Gloria Mundy (Goldie Hawn) sets about shelving some errant books after having closed the library she works at. Of course, she isn't alone, and the teasing quality of the pas de deux that she and a chloroform-wielding albino assassin are dancing through the shelves becomes almost maddening with tension. The grace note arrives when she removes a book from the shelf, revealing the killer's eye, staring back at her. Because of this scene, the two and a half years I spent working at a used bookstore were neverending exercises in the most cruel kind of fear; even today, every tome I take from a shelf is done so with a steady hand, for fear that there's someone right on the other side waiting, watching.

8. THE KEEP (1983) The horror of trespass is a particularly effective one when dealing with a sense of entitlement. The sudden or gradual realization that the terrain is unfamiliar, that one no longer holds the upper hand, or that not listening to a warning is going to reap a terrible price—all these are examples of the horror of trespass. A lot of times, it goes talon in talon with the Embrace of the Monstrous (see A Nightmare on Elm Street and Candyman below), not always consensually. Equally visionary and ridiculous, Michael Mann's adaptation of F. Paul Wilson's monsterpiece The Keep is a flawed gem that contains what may be my favorite single shot in all of film history. Some German soldiers, occupying a Romanian fort during World War II, have started investigating the hundreds of crosses that line the interior walls. "Never touch the crosses," the blind caretaker had warned them, but if they had listened to the caretaker, there wouldn't really be a movie, now would there? Hundreds of nickel crosses are embedded in stone blocks, except for one… this cross is silver. And this block moves. The soldiers explore where this newfound passage leads, and we find a cavernous space. The camera pulls back from the ever-smaller soldier and his flashlight, further and further away. At last his flashlight is but a tiny dot near the top of the frame, and we pull back further still, as gradually we can see walls around us. When the camera stops its movement, we are hundreds and hundreds of feet away, motionless in murky earth as something hideous arises. That shot is a masterful representation of one's sense of self, world, and physical space being challenged by something monstrously greater.

7. PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1987) "This is not a dream.” Now immortalized on DJ Shadow's Endtroducing… (as well as albums by Marilyn Manson and, ahem, DJ Nomi), the mysterious transmissions from the year 1999 in John Carpenter's Prince of Darkness never cease to send a chill up the spine. A tracking shot along the front gate of a church, which hides a cosmologically horrifying secret, ends with a mysterious dark figure emerging in triumph from the building's interiors. Like the phantom beacon on Alien's planet LV-426, the image beams, in this case back through time, in hopes that someone will understand its dire portent.

6. THE SENDER (1982) John Doe #83 (Zeljko Ivanek) is a young man admitted to a mental hospital with a severe case of amnesia and suicidal tendencies. Unbeknownst to the hospital staff, he is also capable of broadcasting his dreamlife directly into the minds of those around him. This means that reality becomes pretty much meaningless. Of course, think the higher-ups at the hospital, what John Doe #83 needs is a slight dose of electroconvulsive therapy. It's okay, you see, because he'll be sedated. He won't feel a thing. What happens when the hospital staff activates that ECT machine is something you can't easily describe. I'll say this: it is impossible to envision the world that Chris Cunningham creates in his art and film without this particular sequence. It is a graceful chaos of motion and raw physical power, and certainly one of the finest FX setpieces in the history of filmmaking. Like its younger brother in 1982 horror, The Thing (see below), The Sender does things that no computer could approximate. But great effects are not necessarily scary. What lingers about this sequence is the effortless shift from clinical reality to photovoltaic nightmare without tipping its hat once. It is simply masterful.

5. SUSPIRIA (1977) There is an instance of awareness for any animal in mortal danger—a specific point at which the phrase “life or death struggle” becomes an analysis, not a hypothetical. Dario Argento's mad fairy tale Suspiria serves up one of the finest, as ballet student Suzy Banyon (Jessica Harper) finds herself abandoned in her school’s sinister dormitory, as the whole school has gone to the theatre. She calls one of the few outsiders she can trust, only to lose the phone and the lights in a vicious storm. The lights return; the phone does not. And that's when Suzy realizes: "I'm next." She'll gear up and wage battle, to be sure, but the finest moment in this hallucinatory nightmare is Harper's when the phone fails—there for but a flash, and then gone.

4. THE THING (1982) At an Antarctic research lab, the crew is told they are going to explore a spooky building. "And why are we going there," the men ask— a good question when a shape-shifting monster is devouring anyone within reach. Research scientist Kurt Russell points to the remote shack, where a light burns from within. "Because," he says, "when I left there yesterday, I turned the lights out." The matter-of-factness is what sells it: he could just as easily have said, "Gentlemen, here comes the shit," or, "I know where some alien horror is…" It's a moment of visceral fear that nonetheless gives us a glimpse inside the character. Not with a bang, but with a whimper.

3. A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984) First we see that Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp) has been cut, badly, and her arm is bleeding. But with her other arm, from under the sheet she pulls a rumpled brown hat— the hat belonging to long-dead child-killer Freddy Krueger, burned alive by the neighborhood parents. Attention, both in the onscreen Katja Sleep Clinic and from the offscreen viewer, naturally fixes on Nancy, But watch her mother's reaction to that hat. Marge Thompson (Ronee Blakley) sees a real-life souvenir of the horror of trespass, while her daughter looks near-giddy with the possibility of what has just happened; she can bridge between the worlds of the conscious and the unconscious. This is the embrace of the monstrous.

2. ALIEN (1979) Yeah, I know: the monster bursts out of John Hurt's chest and people lose their fucking minds. It's a milestone of shock, but is it really scary? Sure, it encompasses cancer and anticipates HIV fears in a particularly visceral manner, but does that chest-bursting provoke intense dread? As if anticipating this, the film (in its original version, not the 2003 “director’s cut”) follows up that sequence with a one-two punch of abject terror, starting with the protracted sequence where Harry Dean Stanton's Brett searches for the ship's cat and finds only alien nastiness. But that's just the first part, because Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt— the biggest star at the time, and thus the least likely to die) has an engagement in the ship's air ducts. The sound is a mesh of Jerry Goldsmith's sinister strings for the movie Freud, the pulse of an agitated heart, and the beeping of his tracking device. The most chilling moment is folded into the other sounds, but when Veronica Cartwright as Lambert screams, "The other way! No, the other way!" just as the alien introduces itself to Dallas, it'll get to you. There isn't a single false moment in the whole sequence, a symphony of light, shadow, and propulsive fear.

1. CANDYMAN (1992) There's a very specific scene in Bernard Rose's Clive Barker adaptation that elevates it from exceptional to one of the finest horror films ever made. Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen) has been charged with the murder of her best friend, is under suspicion in the disappearance of a baby, has been forcibly committed by her louse of a cheating husband, and is now tormented by the affections of a supernatural death-dealer. She's just been shown video footage of herself in the midst of a horrifying confrontation with the legendary fiend known as Candyman, and only she can be seen. The doctor turns off the monitor and asks her what she really thinks about the whole situation. Helen then sloughs off all the things of this world by uttering a simple phrase: "I can call him." The bloodletting that follows is impressive, as is the story's action-packed and deliciously resonant resolution. But this is the moment that we never get to see at the movies. Time and time again, in many different genres, characters find themselves in the midst of the wild and weird and interesting and unreal, and they always scuttle back to the safety to their own planet, their own time, or their own narrow existence. Helen Lyle simply has nothing left to lose, so she decides to expand her horizons and ride the whirlwind. "I can call him," she says, and she does. The resulting chill makes you question your own philosophies. And that's the best kind of fear.

24 October 2008

Fred Jones Part II?

Uncertainty abounds. Apologies for my absence. There will be more.

10. Mr. America

16 October 2008

I have fulfilled as much civic obligation as one can.

I voted (love early voting, for real). And confirmed my HIV-negative status (as all sexually active adults should on an annual basis). And took some books to an old folks' home.

11 October 2008

So I read this: River of Gods by Ian McDonald.

Imagining India circa 2047, this is a rather remarkable SF novel. It has an expansive but not diluted collection of main characters, its technology is advanced but comprehensible, and its knowledge of human behavior is remarkably consistent with who we are and where we most likely are headed to.

There's a playful cleverness to McDonald's work, and his embrace of the complex sociopolitical forces at work in contemporary (and alternate future-contemporary) India is impressive. I'd love to see this in a cinematic context, but it would be hard to find a happy synthesis that can make allowancwes for some of the extremely nonvisual plot points. But this book is an utter delight, and I recommend it to anyone looking for an evocative SF experience.

At the movies flashback!

So today, I wanted to hype up some of my first net-published film criticism, for my friend Joe Robin's now-defunct Opposable Thumb Films site. These were written from 2001-2003, and while I find my sensibility pretty much the same, I'm glad that we finally have a DVD release for The Fog (and that the current Blue Underground disc of The Stendhal Syndrome ups the ante considerably in terms of visual presentation).

So here you have it, my reviews for Opposable Thumb films.

Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh Thi's Baise-Moi.

Gary Nelson's The Black Hole. This film needs some serious special edition love.

My double review of modern feminist horror classics: Bernard Rose's Candyman and Neil Jordan's In Dreams.

John Carpenter's The Fog. The screencaps were from a VHS dub of the laserdisc, at that time the only way to see the film in a home environment in a letterboxed fashion. And well before that abysmal remake...

Alexandre Aja's Haute Tension, which I still adore.

Michael Mann's The Keep, which needs to get some form of DVD or Blu-Ray or whatever release, because I worry my laserdisc is going to disintegrate and then what will be left?

Ah, Jack Sholder's A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge. This review actually achieved me a small bit of eFame, and it still periodically pops up on horror boards, which is fine by me. I'll grab ahold of any morsel of attention I can.

And finally, Dario Argento's The Stendhal Syndrome. I will not bash Troma (they certainly showed the film more love than Miramax did), but I'm glad that Blue Underground stepped up to the plate and showed what a kickass transfer can be like. If only they could do that with all the Argento films that have fucked up DVD presentations in the US that they're responsible for (Suspiria, Deep Red, I'm looking at you).


The time has come for you to get your Kubrick on.

And it looks like I will be introducing Eyes Wide Shut at some point during its three-day run. Mark my words, it will be worth it.

10 October 2008

At the movies, intermittency.

Since I staggered into Boston yesterday morning, I've seen:

CHOKE (d. Clark GREGG) ***
BODY OF LIES (d. Ridley SCOTT) ** 1/2
QUARANTINE (d. John Erick DOWDLE) 1/2

"You eat apples? I produce Entourage."

At the movies: The Duchess.

So my review of The Duchess got picked up by The Tennessean, so it will reach the public, somehow or another. I am glad of it, and I hope you're having a good day.

09 October 2008

At the movies: Synecdoche, New York.

The short version: unfinished pluperfect subjunctive, four stars.

The not-so-short version: ripples on the surface of a lake cannot be unmade. The point of injury/trauma can be mended, but any true healing will always continue on the heels of that which has already spread outward. Something broken cannot be fixed to be like it was- it is something different, something made new out of brokenness.

It angers me how playful the film plays at being, even as it wounds so very deliberately.

I am not a psychiatrist. I am not a surgeon. I cannot make this film better, despite the countless thousands of words I have written over the past ten years doing, or trying to do, exactly that for countless other films.

I do not fully comprehend aspects of this film.

Small acts of forgiveness, then. The absence of control. The body in revolt. There's something distinctly Cronenbergian afoot; perhaps this was the natural Brundlefly fruition of the Cronenbergian process given theatrical form, rather than the maligned opera of The Fly that I still desperately would love to see.

I will now never be able to meet Dianne Wiest without sobbing incoherently.

I've always said that part of me is still walking through the desert in Van Sant's Gerry. And as with that film, I feel I haunt this one.

08 October 2008

At the movies: The 46th Annual New York Film Festival.

Here's my handy-dandy overview of the 46th Annual New York Film Festival. As these films receive some form of Nashville (for All The Rage) or national (for Dish Magazine) release, I'll go in depth. But for now, here's the digest for all to luxuriate in regarding the thirty films and shorts that I saw. A ^ between the film's title and rating indicate that I have discussions with involved filmmakers coming as well.

It was a phenomenal year for both the NYFF, specifically, and film in general. There was not a single thing that I saw that I hated (like last year's Actrices/Actresses), and everything I saw offered up something unusual and interesting and worthy. As the number of distributors willing to take a chance on foreign and independent cinema dwindles with every day that passes, it gets harder and harder to experience film in its proper theatrical context. So for the meantime, places like the NYFF (and our own Nashville Film Festival) become more and more valuable.

ENTRE LES MURS (The Class) ***
It won the Palme d'Or at Cannes this year, and at first feels like a typical Dangerous Minds/Stand and Deliver type film en francais - the young teacher who cares, dealing with students who are stymied by varying levels of bureaucracy and indifference. But as it goes along, it gets weirder and more dialectical, and by the end I was pretty much won over. Sony Classics has it for the US, which means it'll get a week at Green Hills.

One of the two new films from Jia Zhang-ke at this year's NYFF, and this one is pretty much inert. Students in the 90s, currently adults adrift in their own lives, nobody's happy but they do soldier on. There's some nice tracking shots down a river, though.

WENDY & LUCY *** 1/2
Absolutely devastating portrait of isolation and life on the brink- harsh, elliptical, and filled with a pervasive sense of sadness and beauty. Michelle Williams is truly amazing here, and dog lovers, this is the movie for you. Oscilloscope Films (The Beastie Boys' film label) is handling this, so it will more than likely be coming to the Belcourt at some point.

Can you build a film around an extended sick joke? If it's as good and genuinely effective as this one, then yes.

Holy shit. An animated documentary with the urgency of an unquiet witness and the soul of the most imaginative of poets, and structured around the basics of psychic exploration in a way that will infuriate Scientologists, this may also be the film that pushes the evangelical Christian faction in this country into apoplexy. It's a remarkable film, funny and devastating, and featuring one of the most haunting sequences I've ever seen (three men emerging from the sea, to a cello lead that sounds slightly reminiscent of Vig Mihaly's score for Werckmeister Harmoniak- which is a good thing). Again, Sony Classics has it, so be on the lookout for its one-week run at Green Hills.

The best thing I saw during Press Week I, this short from British artist/Pet Shop Boys collaborator Sam Taylor-Wood (whose only other film I had seen was in a segment of the erotic anthology Destricted) is a short and sweet tale of High School lust played out to the sound of the Buzzcocks. With any luck, this might pop up at the '09 Nashville Film Festival in the shorts program.

Simulatneously about the casual violence and horror of life in Chile under the rule of Augusto Pinochet and one man's need to express himself through dance and wanting to be like John Travolta, this film is upsettingly violent, features hardcore sex, and at least one disco dancing sequence in every reel. How could I not love it?

UN CONTE DE NOEL (A Christmas Tale) *** 1/2
A colleague dismissively called this Kings and Queen 2, but I think it's weirder and a bit more incisive than that. Family dramas, insanity, cancer, sexual frustration, and the arduous process of forgiveness- yeah, it's like that. Highly recommended, though. IFC has it, and with any luck, it'll be this year's big Christmas arthouse hit.

A dark, dark French short that is ruthlessly pragmatic and full of the kind of wit that works beautifully here but leaves you wondering if the filmmaker will make the step up to feature-length material.

Kuorosawa Kiyoshi is back, and this time he's made a fairly conventional film- one that takes the issues that form the subtext of his genre material and works with them on the surface. It's a fascinating portrait of this moment in history, and the central cast is pretty damned great. It takes some wide turns in the last half hour, but is still a fascinating development in Kurosawa's body of work.

This film aims to be an expose of what life is really like in the age of voyeuristic video and violated civil liberties, while at the same time getting at what's really going on with these kids today. Every time I was ready to walk out, something amazing would happen, and every time I was ready to love this film, it did something incredibly stupid. Also, it's one of those films that seems to think that shock is a valuable tool when used without context. It's not. This si the kind of film that it's very easy to overrate. I'm interested in what director Antonio Campos comes up with next, and the frame composition is among the best I've ever seen. But still, it's just not all that.

DEMAIN PEUT-ETRE (Maybe Tomorrow) *** 1/2
An exceptional French short about identity, race, and observation. Haunting, and again, with any luck it may pop up in the shorts program at the '09 Nashville Film Festival.

SERBIS (Service) ** 1/2
Family travails, in and around a four-story moviehouse in Angeles City in the Philippines. Lots of betrayal, hardcore sex, transsexual gender shenanigans, and through it all, the inescapable sounds of the modern city. Oh, and an extended plot point about pus. Regent Releasing has this for the U.S., which means it will get a small-scale release in NYC, L.A., San Francisco, and possibly in cities with high Filipino populations and/or Tagalog speakers, then come out on DVD shortly thereafter. So much gets crammed into 93 minutes that you almost wish the director had made a miniseries out of it- the setting and characters are rich, but there's so much left unsaid or seen. But I would love to spend more time with this film's central family.

TIRO EN LA CABEZA (Bullet in the Head) **
This was the screening where a significant portion of the press corps lost their mind. The film is, for all intents and purposes, silent. We hear ambient sounds, consistent with the placement of the camera (almost always far away), but even when we're in the same room as the main characters, they speak but no sound comes out. It's meant to be an allegory about how hard it is to understand what motivates horrifying acts of violence, and it works- sort of. But people HATED this movie. Eh, it's interesting. But it would work better as a short.

HUNGER *** 1/2
Pretty damned amazing, this one. It's a great political film, a savage prison movie, an effective procedural, and rife full of possibilities for theological and political debate. There's a central reel-length conversation that easily ranks among the finest of the year, and it's always interesting to see what happens when artists from other media give film a try. The final half-hour, which depicts the hunger strike that lends the film its title, isn't quite as staggering and transcendent as the first hour, but the film is still a remarkable achievement. IFC Films has this for distribution, and they're aiming for March 09 for a release. I'm not sure when it'll play here, but I'll lay down dollars that it will play in Nashville at some point.

A delight. A frothy (but slightly edgy) comedy from Mike Leigh? Perish the thought. But this film is like a big goofy drunken British hug, and I can't wait to see how audiences take to it. This opens on Halloween at the Belcourt, and mark my words- this is the perfect date movie. If you bring a date/spouse/significant other with you to see this movie, dimes-to-dollars says you'll get some that evening.

THIS IS HER ** 1/2
A snarky but ultimately effective Kiwi short that aims to dig, laterally and figuratively, into women's issues. It gets derailed in its final third by a sappy Lilith-lite ballad, but there's still some interesting moments.

VOY A EXPLOTAR (I'm Gonna Explode) **
If you'd only ever watched Harold & Maude, Romeo and Juliet, and Y Tu Mama Tambien over and over again, then you too could have made this film. The leads are cute and the young-lovers-on-the-run trope never really gets old, but there just wasn't enough of a spark here to make the ingredients properly- explode. Maria Deschamps, the film's star, has a hell of a career ahead of her, making her motion picture debut in a part that feels like 60% Anna Karina, 25% Bjork, and 15% Linda Manz.

A/K/A Che Part I. We were shown what is being called The Roadshow Presentation, which has no credits or specific differentiation of title, so I'm going from the standard titling of the two. This was a cinemascope biopic on the rise of Che, with the occasional high-contrast black & white interlude from his speech before the UN in the early sixties. It jumps around in time a bit, but you're always kept at a distance from the material. It's well-acted, but it's not all that.

GUERILLA ^ *** 1/2
A/K/A Che Part II, when everything gets kind of nuts and handheld and 1.85 and visceral. Guerilla is not quite Tropical Malady, but it's damned close, and both as an extended thinkpiece and an emotionally draining experience, here's what makes it all worthwhile. It's good enough to make me realize and acknowledge that The Argentine is pretty good as well. But in the battle of the Ches, put me down solidly for Part II. IFC Films has this for the U.S., and in Nashville, that usually means Belcourt. So send in your eMails and bloggables if you want to show some Che pride, or are intrigued at exploring the fall of such an absolutist ideology. Either way, there's something here for you.

Cutesy short about love truly being a universal language. Not essential, but not unpleasant.

L'HEURE D'ETE (Summer Hours) ****
Following up his globalization trilogy (Demonlover, Clean, and Boarding Gate), Olivier Assayas turns his focus on the family and makes one of the most beautiful and restrained dramas of the year. One mother, three children, five grandchildren, two dogs, a housekeeper, and an exquisite country house. There are no big scenes, no flare-ups or crying jags, just a rapturous dive into the eddies and whorls of the time we spend as families. IFC has it for the US. Keep an eye out for this one, it will floor you. Bring Mom and Dad with you as well.

An interesting (and non-maliciously deeply misogynist) short from Germany about loneliness and store policies. It would seem to clever for its own good were it not so devastating.

THE WRESTLER ^ *** 1/2
And the Academy Award goes to... Mickey Rourke. The story is conventional, and it appears our boy Darren Aronofsky's been watching some Dardenne brothers films in the past few years. But it's edited like a normal movie, and Rourke (and Marisa Tomei) are just exceptional. The story is pretty conventional, so it plays against Aronfsky's arthouse instincts beautifully. And how can you not love a film whose soundtrack is half 80s hair metal and half trap-rap. The way that Guns 'n Roses's "Sweet Child O' Mine" is used in this movie made me tear up like a damned fool. Fox Searchlight is releasing this in NYC and L.A. on December 19th, with the rest of the country to follow soon after.

A three-minute documentary that is effective and scarring.

The good news is that Clint Eastwood is still an amazing director, Angelina Jolie knocks it out of the park, there are quite a few moments that are of unearthly power, and it starts with the old-school Universal logo from way back in the day. The bad news is that the script is a mess, it's way too long, and there are a few scenes (mostly involving a necessary subplot) that are just embarrassing to behold (though some are apparently taken from historical record). This one makes some of the same mistakes that Mystic River did, and it makes them bigger. Am I jaded because hyperstylized and violent representations of violence against children just don't affect me anymore? I should be horrified seeing axe murders and nonconsensual electroconvulsive therapy, but none of that holds a candle to some of Angelina's scenes with the child-who-is-not-hers. Worth seeing, absolutely. But one of Clint's best? No.

The latest evolution in Mafia movies. A colleague compared it to The Wire and found it wanting. There's some tense moments, and its indictment of blustery machismo is refreshing, but after two-plus hours, I just wanted everyone to get shot in a surprise fashion and for the thing to be over with. That said, a couple of connoisseurs of gangster films said it was a spectacular achievement, so go with that if you're so inclined. IFC has it for the US, so it'll be around. And it's nice, between this and Tropic Thunder, to see "Sadeness Pt 1" get some cinema love.

AHENDU NDE SAPUKAI (I Hear Your Scream) ****
A remarkable single-shot short about the process of loss, told completely in silhouette. Just remarkable.

LA MUJER SIN CABEZA (The Headless Woman) ****
Take the skeleton of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, then send it wandering off into the last half hour of Mulholland Drive but preparing for a Last Weekend at Marienbad, and you have the idea of where this remarkable mindmelter from Argentina's Lucrecia Martel will take you. It is so much subtler than any of those films, though, and filled with so much possibility and tinges of the most visceral dread. This and Synecdoche, NY are proving the films from this northward sojourn that I want to dwell in repeatedly, again and again. If there is any justice, this film will get some kind of further distribution.

C'EST DUR D'ETRE AIME PAR DES CONS (It's Hard Being Loved by Jerks) *** 1/2
A battering ram of a documentary that illustrates the trial of the publishers and editorial staff of French weekly Charlie Hebdo, which printed those infamous twelve cartoons which portrayed the prophet Mohammed. The film has countless things to say about the role of the press and the courts and religious authorities, and all of it is pretty fascinating even if lack of access to the actual courtroom proceedings lends a surreal air to the whole thing. Certainly worth seeing, and as provocative a way as any for me to finish up my time at the 46th Annual New York Film Festival.