Thursday, August 30, 2012

Prince: For You (1978)

Before Prince Rogers Nelson turned 20 years old, he cut his teeth in a funk group where he soon eclipsed peer and mentor alike, got himself an astonishingly generous record deal from a major label (including publishing rights for all his work), and released his solo debut with the proud boast of having been entirely "produced, arranged, composed and performed" by its maker. Never mind the misleading half-truths of that claim: For You's artistic credit sent a message of intent and announced a musician of ambition and creative drive. Indeed, Prince may well have been less satisfied with the impressiveness of his accomplishments at such a young age than he was irritated by the two interminable years it took to turn his demo into a full-fledged, official product.

Adding to the sense of For You as more an announcement of what was to come, the opening title track unfurls as a layered a cappella choir of Prince's cooing vocals soothingly telling the listener, "All of this and more is for you./With love, sincerity, and deepest care,/My life with you I share." To call this a precursor to Prince's musical openness would be inaccurate, as even at his most soulful and vulnerable, Prince throws up emotional walls to shield himself. Nevertheless, its quasi-spiritual overtones, especially when juxtaposed with the sex-drenched disco that dominates the rest of the record, offer an insight into dialectical forces that would soon propel Prince to superstardom.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

(ParaNorman, Sam Fell & Chris Butler, 2012)

The stop-motion animation studio Laika follows up their superlative work on Henry Selick's 2009 Coraline with another adventure-horror film that offers material challenging not merely for its emotional darkness but for its moral complexity. Certainly no other kids' film that comes to mind begins within a cheap zombie film in Academy ratio, complete with sight gags like the doomed woman finding sexual poses in which to scream in mortal terror and a boom mic that casually floats into frame. When the camera pulls out to show the young boy watching this flick, however, his banal choice of brain-draining entertainment soon reveals itself to be the least unorthodox aspect of ParaNorman.

Norman chats with his grandmother about the shoddy film he watches on an old TV, but when Norman goes to his dad to ask him to turn up the heat for her, the whole family's stunned, angry response reveals the grandmother to be dead for some time. But Norman can still see and communicate with her, just as he can see and converse with all the other incorporeal spirits of the dead who dwell in the town of Blithe Hollow. This leads to several intriguing setups and amusing gags in its own right—especially the sight of a ghost bird flapping around still gagging with a six-pack ring still 'round its spectral throat—but soon Norman finds himself thrust into a situation that forces the bullied, outcast child to reevaluate some of his own behavior toward others, all while genre tropes get a clever, but still family-friendly, tweak.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Through the Olive Trees (Abbas Kiarostami, 1994)

Life, and Nothing More... undercut Where Is the Friend's Home? by acknowledging the falseness of its diegetic reality as it added another layer of verisimilitudinous falsity to the narrative. Through the Olive Trees takes this simple elevation from one dimension of diegesis to another and fractures it into a thousand pieces; the film's opening image is of a man who introduces himself, "I'm Mohamed Ali Keshavarz, the actor who plays the director." With these 10 words, Kiarostami sets off the largest meditation on the thin line between reality and fiction of his self-reflexive career. That sentence serves as a warning shot for the rest of the movie, making it practically impossible to distinguish between what particular plane of "reality" the film is on at any one time. So perplexing is its Gordian knot that even cutting the thing by acknowledging the fictionality of the whole piece cannot successfully unravel its complexity.

But as with Close-Up, Certified Copy or any of the director's examinations of confused diegetic reality, Through the Olive Trees never loses its emotional resonance amidst its metatextual fun. The primary focus of the film is a pair of people who existed in the background of the previous movie. Late in Life, and Nothing More..., the lead actor (who is playing the director, but not the director who introduced himself at the start of this movie, because he is the "director" of Life) meets a young couple who elected to marry despite losing nearly all their family the earthquake that ravaged the region. Kiarostami aligns the focus of this film onto that couple. Well, the actors who played that couple, at least.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Side By Side (Christopher Kenneally, 2012)

Side By Side is, thankfully, not merely a mere account of aesthetic differences between film and digital. Instead, it asks serious questions about what technological change will mean for not only the process of filmmaking but a new rulebook for movies. Engagingly led along by Keanu Reeves, Side By Side lets directors and cinematographers draw battle lines and, occasionally, wade among the No Man's Land between them. Though there are some surprising omissions—it is almost silly to document the way digital is changing movies without talking to Michael Mann, who has done more than anyone in the American mainstream to stake a new digital style—but Side By Side is nevertheless a solid introduction into an issue that should concern, but also excite, cinephiles everywhere.

My full review is up at Spectrum Culture.

Friday, August 24, 2012

The Top 10 Steven Soderbergh Films

[This is my August entry in the Favorite Directors Blogathon.]

Steven Soderbergh operates so far under the radar that, for all his auteurist tics and varied filmography, I never thought to rate him among my favorite filmmakers until I took a step back one day and realized how many great films bore his credit. Sometimes it seems as if the film industry looks at him the same way. Soderbergh primarily operates as a workman, though he balances out commercial properties with a series of experimental works that often get folded back into his mainstream gigs, making him ever more idiosyncratic even as he gets trusted with bigger projects.

Soderbergh jump-started the Miramax era of the American indie with his Palme D’Or-winning feature debut sex, lies, and videotape, a film about a man who can only achieve any kind of arousal by watching recorded tapes of others detailing their own sexual desires and experiences. In a way, it is prophetic of his entire canon, in which action unfolds only through its own deconstruction and process becomes the driving force and the principal agent of subverted expectations. This fixation has made the director a member of the digital vanguard, the literal programming of visual information well-suited to his entire approach to storytelling.

Amazingly, he has applied this anti-narrative style to commercially successful properties. What other director in Hollywood today can so routinely boast massive casts populated entirely by A-listers without reducing them to wan rom-com drivel à la New Year’s Eve? And if anyone else could compare to Soderbergh in that respect, how many of them could turn around and make something like Bubble? A studio hand for the postmodern era, Soderbergh has made many fine works, but none better than these 10:

50 Book Pledge #16: Laurent Binet—HHhH: A Novel

If two things in this world have been done to death they are the WWII historical novel and glib, self-referential postmodernism that sidesteps narrative for telling the audience how hard it is to write a narrative. But by God, Laurent Binet managed to throw these things together and wind up with the best new book I've read in years. Binet's digressions, though routinely amusing and occasionally a bit grating, add to the overall effect of Binet's attempt to lionize the Czech and Slovak assassins who killed Reinhard Heydritch, possibly the most dangerous Nazi under Hitler and the true architect of the Holocaust. Binet manages to turn all of his story-interrupting tics into reflections of our continuing (possibly endless) quest to make sense of the horror of Nazi policy, and he also increases the tension of the stranger-than-fiction events he recounts with his interruptions and tics. Translated with terrific informality by Sam Taylor, HHhH is a fleet but unexpectedly powerful account of one of the few tales of WWII not covered to death, despite it being one of the most crucial events of the whole war.

My full review is up at Spectrum Culture.

50 Book Pledge #15: James Joyce—Finnegans Wake

Regular readers might remember my original plans to offer regular updates on my trek through Joyce's final and most abstruse work, Finnegans Wake. But as soon as I set to work on that, the book dove so deeply into incomprehensibility that to even attempt to summarize what I'd read would consist of nothing more than Skeleton Key summaries. Unlike Ulysses, with its connected but distinct chapters offering unique perspectives and pleasures at every turn, the Wake varied as its sections are, flow together with such abandon that I got nowhere trying to parse individual elements of the book/

It was only when I stopped trying to get a handle on the book, to even get a basic footing of where I was, that I even began to get into the Wake. Around that time, however, the book started to make some kind of sense. Based around Viconian cycles, the Wake is, narratively speaking, easy to figure out. After all, Joyce repeats the story ad nauseam, of the protagonist's social rise and subsequent fall from grace over a lewd encounter in a park and his irrepressible guilt. The same characters appear to reenact the basics over and over, each time as new figures with new, gnarlier paths to the same outlet. And in HCE's all-pervasive sense of guilt is the guilt of Ireland past and present, an anthropomorphic realization of the suffocating cloud of Catholicism that hovers over Joyce's ex-pat recreation of his homeland. The only deliverance comes through the water form of HCE's wife, ALP, whose mysterious letter has the power to wash away her husband's sins (or her husband entirely). But ALP, like Joyce's best women characters—Molly Bloom, Gretta Conroy—exists outside her husband's hopeless encasement in Ireland's moral carbon monoxide. ALP's chapter, filled with river names and the constant burbling of water imagery, is perhaps the most poetic, liberated passage Joyce ever wrote.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

4:44: The Last Day on Earth (Abel Ferrara, 2012)

The characters in Abel Ferrara's 4:44: The Last Day on Earth react to the world's impending doom with astonishing calm. Perhaps they, too, are burned out on all the apocalyptic fare at the cineplex, ranging from gargantuan, hollow spectacles like 2012 to arthouse features like The Turin Horse or Melancholia. Heck, even Terrence Malick's rapturous celebration of the humanity's connection to the universe in The Tree of Life featured a vision of its end, the sun expanding until scorching all life from the Earth before vaporizing the desiccated husk. As actor Cisco (Willem Dafoe) and painter Skye (Shanyn Leigh) go about their routines in their loft, initially displaying no indication that they are even upset, much less terrified with the prospect of a total extinction that has been calculated to the exact time (that of the film's title), one begins to wonder if Hollywood has managed to desensitize us not merely to intimate violence but our own doom.

But then, given how comfortable the couple's flat is, it is not such a stretch of the imagination that they should feel at least somewhat relaxed as they head to their deaths along with the rest of the human race. Production designer Frank De Curtis and composer Francis Kulpers previously teamed with Ferrara on his superb 2007 film Go-Go Tales, where they managed to make a wretched strip joint seem not claustrophobic and solipsistic but expansive and oddly warm. Their work here mirrors that incongruously big smallness, once again sidestepping the obvious aesthetic and tonal choice to allow Ferrara to take new directions with generic material. Indeed, 4:44, like Go-Go Tales, emerges as a film of unexpected gentleness and humanity, though perhaps this is all relative when speaking of a director who got his start with softcore porn and grisly exploitation fare.

Monday, August 20, 2012

R.I.P. Tony Scott, 1944-2012

I was devastated last night to read of Tony Scott's suicide in Los Angeles. One of the most exciting filmmakers working in Hollywood today, Scott had been on a hot streak of exquisitely stylish genre movies for years, from 2004's ideologically dubious but aesthetically revolutionary Man on Fire through 2010's exercise in pure cinema, Unstoppable. His late career works resemble abstract paintings, dotted with splotches of color laid over each other with frenetic abandon and interpretative elusiveness. Using handcranked cameras, superimpositions and other techniques nearly as old as the cinema itself, Scott set down a modern blueprint for filmmaking, one that has been imitated but never equalled for its cumulative technical and tonal effect. The Michael Bays of the world have since thrown all their coverage into one hulking mass in an attempt to match Scott's kinetic fury, but they wind up only with incomprehensible messes where he somehow emerges with some of the only auteurist statements of Hollywood blockbuster cinema.

I can think of no other mainstream director so readily capable of reconstructing the nature of memory. His finest two works of the Aughts, Déjà Vu and Domino, are both fractured narratives driven by the skewed perceptions of their leads. In these movies, the overlapping, conflicting, obscuring nature of their recollections ultimately set to work on the present itself, changing the couse of events through sheer force of aesthetic will. So outlandish is Domino that one almost believes it can alter the fate of the real Domino Harvey, who died a few months before the film's release.

To attribute a director's movies to their own mental state is a gross misapplication of auteurist criticism, but part of what makes this death so shocking is the indefatigable optimism of Scott's work. In an age dominated by lazy cynicism and irony, Scott would upend whole narratives to get a happy ending. Most famously, he altered Quentin Tarantino's intended, dark denouement for True Romance to one of hard-won joy, offering as justification only, "I wanted these characters to live." An almost childlike defense, but one also containing the innocence and blunt purity of a child. It is also, frankly, an improvement upon Tarantino's script, turning his hip, nonlinear exercise into something fluid and, as my good blogging friend Andreas (his superb site here) put it on Twitter, "surprisingly lyrical." In retrospect, it might have been Scott's treatment of Tarantino's screenplay, more so than Pulp Fiction, that really showed the power of Tarantino's writing.

So often criticized for favoring style over substance (I do not have the energy to combat that ridiculous uncritical phrase right now), Scott's overwhelming style has run through my thoughts all day. I think of the horrific crashes that dot the giddy cheese of Days of Thunder. The almost lilting approach to the ultraviolence of True Romance, turning its climactic shootout or Patricia Arquette's savage fight for survival against James Gandolfini into fairy tales without losing the repulsiveness of the carnage. The way that subtitles are transformed from a focus-absorbing block of text at the bottom of a screen into an interactive part of the full visual picture in Man on Fire. The breaking of a silo car in Unstoppable, making the frame literally grainy as the contents of the train compartment billow out in a blizzard. The lighting of Keira Knightley's face when she fires a machine gun in the climax of Domino, the bursts of muzzle flash illuminating her anguished, furious face in a series of stuttering freeze frames. The dark tunnel where Travolta's character strands his hostage train car in The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, inexplicably soaked in neon colors because why in God's name not. The time-bending car chase in Déjà Vu, almost prescient in anticipating a world of tablets and Google Glass with its multiple screens and images laid over each other in kinetic oblivion. Or, of course, the looming image of Paula Patton in the same film, haunting Denzel Washington's hero as much as Kim Novak torments Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo.

These flourishes, and so many more, continue to fly through my mind at the same speed with which Scott threw them on the screen. I still have so many of Scott's films to watch, pre-9/11 works I must see for the first time or revisit and reassess. I had looked forward to that for some time, the chance to catch up with the director I found more exhilarating and, yes, substantive than nearly anyone else operating in the American mainstream. But now each ticked off box on the checklist will bring a tinge of regret, the awareness that I am exhausting my supply of "fresh" Tony Scott experiences, which can never be replenished. I can take some comfort, though, in the knowledge that those same films will surely offset some of that sadness with their inevitable triumphs, of happy endings so shameless that gross implausibility could not dampen their spirit. I can only hope they continue to have that effect.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

$upercapitalist (Simon Yin, 2012)

An anti-hedge fund screed set to a screen saver slideshow of Hong Kong, $upercapitalist clumsily delivers its ideas in stilted chunks that lack the punchy force of even an Oliver Stone, let alone a Sam Fuller. Though we are still dealing with the effects of the financial failure, this movie feels almost like a period piece, a "would-a, could-a, should-a" account of how everyone should not have been so greedy and the financial collapse might not have happened. Oh, to have had such great minds at the time. When the film tries to become a thriller, it is far too late. A shame, too; had it pursued its literal take on corporate crime from the start, it might have worked as a belabored metaphor but an entertaining romp. Instead, we get a sermon, though once again it is the working public who has to bear the brunt of the lesson while those in need of lecturing can go about their business.

My full review is up now at Spectrum Culture.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Free Radicals: A Story of Experimental Film (Pip Chodorov, 2012)

The article of Free Radicals' title gives away its main strength and weakness: this is a story of experimental film, not the story. Filtered through the personal remembrances of a man who grew up around some of the greatest innovators of the cinematic avant-garde, Free Radicals often feels like the home movie that opens the documentary. Yet it also tries to be the story of experimental cinema, offering introductions of most major icons of the underground but leaving out numerous linchpins of the movement such as Hollis Frampton and Kenneth Anger. In fact, the whole sexual side of avant-garde film is elided entirely, omitting a significant motivation for the early underground and some of its most scandalous taboo-breaking. Still, I have a soft spot for the enthusiasm Chodorov has for the filmmakers he knows and loves, and helps demystify experimental film a bit by highlighting the curiosity rather than the heady intellectualism behind the underground. It's not a great introduction to its subject matter, but it'll do until a great one gets here, I suppose.

My full review is up now at Spectrum Culture.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Sign 'O' the Times (Prince, 1987)

Like Purple Rain, the film of Sign 'O' the Times matches the album it supports. The former visualizes the artist in ascendancy, matching the jubilant, youthful bravado of songs like "Let's Go Crazy" and, of course, "Baby I'm a Star." Its narrative progression is basic but executed with sufficient weirdness to allow for idiosyncrasy and the odd bit of emotional resonance (the belabored journey of the title song within the film, to say nothing of the track itself). And like the album to which it is linked, Purple Rain is at once dated and outside time, a relic of outlandish '80s pop culture and a refinement of that culture into an enduring piece of art.

Sign 'O' the Times has almost nothing in common with Albert Magnoli's film, but then Sign 'O' the Times the album so scarcely resembles the music of Purple Rain. Like the double LP, Sign 'O' the Times begins with what appears to be a story, the theatrical staging of the movie analogous to the lyrical collection of headlines that is the album's opening title track. But then, as quickly as a story emerges, it dissipates, giving way to a pure rush of eclectic songwriting and performance that shows off the best pop star of his time at the top of his talent. From the overbearing stage design to the colliding moods of the 13 songs chosen for the final cut, Sign 'O' the Times matches the unwieldiness of Prince's cobbled-together album (these two haphazard vinyl discs themselves the result of whittling down three separate abortive projects, two of them multi-LP themselves, into one release). Yet it also matches the music's sense of unexpected cohesion and its uncontainable skill and force. There are better directed concert films, and ones that feel more definitive, but no other live document so immaculately captures the filth and fantasy of rock's id.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Matinee (Joe Dante, 1993)

Matinee feels like a skeleton key for Joe Dante's entire career. It combines satirical targets and stylistic influences typically given their own feature. Sociopolitically, the film spoofs the influence of militarism on American society and how that militarism informs our consumerism and entertainment. Aesthetically, it blends the Corman-esque, effects-driven monster movie with a metacinematic, giddy humor that invokes early Warner's cartoons. At times it can be unwieldy, but Matinee bursts with such jubilant energy that its escalation of self-destructive mania is almost necessary just to keep the whole frame from catching fire. But then, it sort of does that in the end anyway.

Set in Key West during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Matinee plays on fears of nuclear annihilation, with an emphasis on "play." Instead of focusing on the threat of destruction, Dante tracks the release of a B-movie perfectly timed to capitalize on national anxiety. When Lawrence Woosley (John Goodman) learns of the build-up of ships and tension in international waters just south of Key West, he does not cancel a planned screening of his radiation-themed horror movie. Rather, he can barely contain his glee,  fully aware that terror over a launch will only make people want to see his picture more. In his shrewd calculation is an unexpectedly poignant point about the cultural necessity for the horror genre.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Life, and Nothing More... (Abbas Kiarostami, 1992)

Abbas Kiarostami's Where Is the Friend's Home? was a watershed release, exposing the director to the world and establishing him as a critical and festival favorite to this day. That film's simplicity and profundity, rooted in objective realism but also deepened by subjective camerawork, exists as if outside time. Not until I watched Life, and Nothing More... did I even realize that there are no cars in the 1987 film, no indication that the world in which the film unfolds has any trapping of modernity. This 1992 "sequel," on the other hand, opens with the grind of urban bustle. Kiarostami places his camera inside a toll booth in front of the operator so that the audience only sees the man's hand taking money and handing back tickets. The drivers all ask if the highway is open, and the loud din of emergency vehicles belies his calming assurances that it is. Compared to the muted bustle of children's voices that ushered in the tranquil fable of Where Is the Friend's Home?, Life, and Nothing More... feels harsh and grating.

When Kiarostami's camera jumps from the toll booth into the car of one of the drivers who passes through, the director soon clarifies this new sense of tension. The man driving the car (Farhad Kheradmand) is, effectively, Kiarostami himself, and he is returning to Koker in the wake of a devastating earthquake to try to find the local children who appeared in Where Is the Friend's Home? Accompanied by his young son, the director travels heavily damaged roads to reach the location of his breakthrough film, the beautiful, rustic buildings that made that movie such a gently labyrinthine journey now reduced to rubble. If Where is the Friend's Home? subsumed its conflicts of generations and duty into a benign, lilting trek, the cacophony of sirens, heavy-lifting equipment, and crying babies that drowns Life, and Nothing More...'s soundtrack reminds the viewer how real and mortal the setting for that film was.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

All About My Mother (Pedro Almodóvar, 1999)

Pedro Almodóvar's films are so stuffed with irony that even the sympathetic streak underneath his wild transgression can sometimes seem a front for even darker impulses underneath. In All About My Mother, the director so thoroughly blurs camp, tastelessness and wrenching drama that it should be the most insoluble of all his movies. On the contrary, however, this is by some measure his most openly loving film, a tribute to the roles women play in art and life that deepens and softens the black comic exaggeration of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. The women here are no less melodramatic or filled with presence, but Almodóvar's affection is plain even without the lovely dedication he makes at the end.

The opening shots, of tilts and tracks over medical equipment giving a few final, artificial breaths to the doomed, do not so much set a tone for the film as get Almodóvar's usual darkness out of his system. Whatever one might want to read into the machinery falsely keeping flesh alive or a broader cold machination underneath the red-blooded melodrama to come soon dissolves as nothing more than a setup for a swift emotional payoff: these shots merely establish the initial setting of Manuela (Cecilia Roth), a nurse in Madrid in charge of overseeing organ transplants. Almodóvar establishes her here so that when her teenage writer son, Esteban, dies on his birthday chasing an actress' autograph, he can immediately place her in the position she had to place so many others, of being sorry for he rloss but needing to act fast. I did say this wasn't the usual Almodóvar black comedy, right?

Monday, August 6, 2012

Where is the Friend's Home? (Abbas Kiarostami, 1987)

Where Is the Friend's Home? announces the intimacy of its focus from its opening shot, held on a door in close-up as the credits roll. The sound of children chattering and the unlatched door being blown ajar and closed again by the wind comprises all the action of the shot, until a shadow appears upon the door and footsteps near. The approaching person is the schoolteacher, reentering the classroom to scold his unruly wards. By focusing so intently on, effectively, nothing, Abbas Kiarostami makes the teacher's emergence that much more frightening, subtly aligning the audience's feelings toward the man with those of the children he harangues. One poor boy in particular, Mohammed Reza Nematzadeh, receives such a tongue-lashing for doing his homework on loose-leaf rather than in his assigned notebook that his thunderstruck terror filters through the camera and nearly turns the calmly filmed scene into a horror film.

Kiarostami stays in a childlike perspective for the remainder of the movie. Adults never appear in full close-up, the way a kid processes a grown-up, and the even larger world around them can be as scary as it is wondrous and inviting. The world takes on these contradictory properties to an even greater extent for Ahmad, a classmate of Nematzadeh's who discovers he accidentally took his friend's notebook home with him. Aware that his hapless buddy faces expulsion if he enters class the next day without that book, Ahmad decides to return it. But with Nematzadeh in the town of Poshteh and Ahmad stuck in Koker, he needs some help getting there, help almost always denied him.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Insomnia (1997) vs. Insomnia (2002)

With The Dark Knight Rises in theaters, what better time to examine the film that, after Memento, proved to Warner Bros thatChristopher Nolan could handle a larger budget and an A-list cast. In remaking a sly, subversive Norwegian neo-noir, Nolan offered a glimpse into the good and bad he would bring to spectacle cinema over the next decade. True to his hard-to-summarize nature, Nolan at once simplifies the psychological and moral miasma of the original while adding various touches that make his more streamlined, narrative-centric version more ambitious an overview of guilt. I know of no one else who can simplify his way into some form of depth, which may be why I cannot dismiss Nolan as I think I should. Nevertheless, I prefer the rawer, harsher original.

My full piece is up now at Spectrum Culture.

Runaway Slave (Pritchett Cotten, 2012)

I tried my best to actually address Runaway Slave, a loathsome new piece of sub-Michael Moore agitprop, rather than simply foam at the mouth. I cannot say to what degree I succeeded. To even list the logical fallacies present in this oversimplification of disproportionate poverty, crime, etc. among black Americans as a failure of the Democratic Party and welfare would stretch well beyond my 1,000-word limit. And for a movie that goes so far out of its way to assure conservatives that they are not racist, its techniques sure are offensive, from the way it sinisterly frames any leftists black speaker to the repeated refrain of black teenagers with their pants sagging (because that has what to do with anything?). Easily the most reprehensible film I've seen this year.

My full review is up now at Spectrum Culture.