Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Sean's 2008 Couchies - The Music

We don't delve too far into the music world here at RFC (Our Obligatory Music List is probably updated the least on this site, which is saying something), but it does play a significant part in our lives and if there were one area that's taken into consideration upon expansion, it would probably be music. 2008's year in music was cut short for me when my computer keeled over in November, taking my iTunes library with it. But thankfully I was lucky enough to have updated my iPod with 44 albums before the crash giving me more than enough to get me through to the day when that new Mac Mini comes out. Also, I corrected a wrong made many years ago and got that turntable at the yard sale this summer -- there's an ice cold cockle that is once again warm.

I can confidently say that 2008 was a solid year for my musical tastes. I'm still trying to decide if I can say the same for the year in film. It was a good year for new artists like Cut Copy and Lykke Li who made even crotchety old bastards like myself want to shake some ass. Mainstays like Bonnie "Prince" Billy, Silver Jews, Magnetic Fields, The Breeders, Spritualized, Stephen Malkmus and David Byrne released albums that while not quite reaching their greatest heights, were nonetheless excellent entries in some of the best ongoing catalogs of music. More recent discoveries over the past few years like M83, Okkervil River, The Walkmen, TV on the Radio and Deerhunter continued to make good memorable work, some better than others with the latter making an album that came damn close to being my favorite of the year. But that honor has to go to two (yeah two, what about it?) albums that came from nearly forgotten artists who both created unshakable achievements that instantly garnered a spot as the best in recent memory - not just this year. Both these albums not only improved upon subsequent listenings but practically demanded it and rewarded you with grand ambition that actually pays off.



Portishead's last album was their second (if you don't count that live one they released) and the self-titled, 11 year old release was a darker, even moodier set of songs than their first. Since both the albums came out in the mid-to-late 90's it's easy to blur the two together and think that they simply released two "trip-hop" albums. And since "tip-hop" was a dated term the second it escaped from some trend-spotters lips, there was certainly some question marks as to what Portishead would sound like in 2008 and certainly some backlash when the over-eager super-fan breathlessly listened to Third and was refused one of the swooning singles found on Dummy, their first and still most accessible album. But the truth is they've released three distinct and wholly beautiful, haunting albums. 2008's Third feels like such a natural, organic progression from 1997's Portishead that I was smiling from ear to ear through some seriously sad songs -- I couldn't help myself. Here was a band that didn't literally take 10 years off, I'm sure each member was working on something or other, but seemed to jump effortlessly right back to where they left off. Not only did they not miss a beat but changed the beat while keeping it unmistakably Portishead. Beth Gibbons voice is still worthy of devotion and even at it's most agressive, as with "Machine Gun" the album is so well produced that it never veers off from being beautifully hypnotic.



Effortless isn't what I would call Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds' Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! I mean, look at those exclamation points -- there's three of them!!! There's blood, sweat and tears in this music, man -- there's effort in every note. Now, I've by no means ever considered myself a Nick Cave fan in the past. I liked a few tracks on his "Best Of" album but for the most part felt he was way too preoccupied with a narrow selection of themes. While religion and death are certainly deep buckets to draw from, they can also be a bit of a drag and make your songs and albums indistinguishable from one another after a while. But for one reason or another I always give Cave another shot and with Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! I was rewarded with his strongest set of songs. No other album got me riled up quite like this one. The first two songs are a classic one-two punch that completely caught me off guard -- since when the fuck does Cave rock out like this? He's not crooning funeral hymns, sometimes ranting might be a better word and sometimes he's tossing out killer lyrics so quickly that you think he's coming up with this shit off the top of his head. While he's still in his usual concept album mode, it's just an extra bonus in this case. While we're following around a dazed and confused Lazarus (Larry), the songs stand perfectly strong on their own without any knowledge of the larger story -- which is pretty loose to begin with. And while there's a healthy dose of death and religion (um, it is about Lazarus after all) it manages to be something that hangs out in the background supporting the songs rather than standing front and center. The fact that the song "We Call Upon the Author" (to explain) is about The Bible and God isn't explicit, it just juices up what is already an explosively escalating song. It's a truly rockin' album, like I said it's the one that got me the most riled, fist-pumping and singing along to. And chances are, that album will always be tops for me.

Runner Up: Deerhunter - Microcastle; Spiritualized - Songs in A&E;

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Sean's 2008 Couchies - The Actors

Best Actress

Ellen Page

This year I saw three films featuring three wildly different Ellen Page performances. Last year's Juno we are all well aware of, perhaps even sick of due to an omnipresent soundtrack, oft repeated catchphrases and a polarizing celebrity screenwriter. But unlike the contrived quirk of Napoleon Dynamite or the insincerity of Little Miss Sunshine, at it's heart is an amazing performance of a teenager coming out of her shell, growing up and chipping away at the wall of cynicism and angst that all teenagers build and allowing herself to become vulnerable. It's a touching performance that carries the film and makes her awkward romance with Jason Bateman worthy of repeat viewings. But I'll move on to what really wins the Couchie.

In Hard Candy, a mind-boggingly twisted movie from a few years ago, Ellen Page and future Nite Owl Patrick Wilson go tete-a-tete for a blistering 100 minute study of moral ambiguity. The movie is built upon a series of plot twists and reveals so it's best to go into it with as little knowledge of the outcome as possible -- which is to say, here be spoilers. Page plays a 14 year old that meets Patrick Wilson's 32 year old in a chat room out in the wilds of the internets. They quickly set-up a meeting at a coffee shop where a brainy, articulate Page flirts her way into convincing Wilson to play his copy of a bootlegged Squarepusher concert at his secluded house in the hills. But before Wilson can do anything more than allow her to drink some of his booze, he finds himself drugged and strapped to a chair by Page and being accused of being a child molesting pedophile and worse. Wilson points out that Page made all the advances and he certainly seems like a nice enough guy -- but what was he doing chatting with and meeting up 14 year olds in coffee shops? Does she know something we don't or does she have the wrong guy? It's a brilliantly paced psychological nightmare of a movie. Every ten minutes your alliances are shifting -- is she a bonkers vigilante or a righteous crusader or a little of both? Is he just a lonely, confused sad sack or the worst kind of criminal? At 17 or 18 years old, Page gives a performance that's like her character, far wiser than her age should allow for. Both Wilson and Page are frighteningly convincing in what basically amounts to a one-room play, they're in every scene - practically every shot, and Page delivers a force-of-nature performance from her Tiny Canadian frame. To look in her eyes you're both fearful and worried for her at the same time. The movie left me slack-jawed for the duration and about 100 minutes afterward as well.

Another sledgehammer performance was given in this year's The Tracy Fragments. A film that could accurately be described as a dual performance piece. One from director Bruce McDonald's work in creating literally a moving collage of a film and the other being Page's haunted performance as a troubled, delusional, lost girl trying to run away from a big mistake -- a mistake any teenage girl could be caught making. This is not a Great Film. But even on its surface it is infinitely more interesting than the majority of the films that saw wide release in the theaters this year. Just because an experiment doesn't provide every result your looking for doesn't mean it's worthless. There's a lot to like about The Tracy Fragments and Page's performance is right there on the top of the list. For many obvious reasons she has the ability to exploit a viewer's natural instincts to want to take care and not see harm come to her, but the real work is in the commitment she gives to the role. There's a scene midway through where she completely breaks down in a phone booth, lashing out at reality -- kicking and punching the inside of the phonebooth with the intensity of a trapped wild animal. In the hands of a lesser talent it would come off like a desperate bid for attention. Look at me act! But it's pure character work here, even the worst lines of vioce-over narration she's given comes from such an honset place that Page makes it work. I honestly can't think of any other actors her age that disappear into their roles quite like she does and none of these three roles are anything like the other. What's even better is that none are attempting to be a cute, America's Sweetheart type of role. Even though due to her size, Page will probably be stuck with teenager roles for years to come, I hope she continues to leave the sweethearts for someone else.

Runner Up: Isabella Rossellini (Green Porno); Samantha Morton (Mister Lonely)


Best Actor

James Franco

Last year was owned by Casey Affleck. Similarly, this year, another actor who had a lot of question marks around him, stepped up and with two choice roles hit every note so gracefully it boggled the mind that there was ever any doubt. It all hinges on Pineapple Express for Franco. We knew he had some comedy chops from Freaks & Geeks, but all his roles since then have basically been playing off of that tortured, conflicted, deeply serious guy that may have been perfected in James Dean and was certainly getting old by the time Spider-Man 3 came to town. Knowing that David Gordon Green was directing didn't lessen the surprise that Franco gave a fully-formed, complex, fragile, sympathetic pot-dealing guy named Saul within the confines of an anarchic summer-time action flick. Watching Saul's reactions to being thrown into the middle of a drug war is some of the purest joy I've experienced this year. Saul is the heart and soul of the movie and what's unexpected is that Pineapple Express should have such a big heart. While this is a trait of the Team Apatow productions, doing it successfully and without it feeling phony or forced is still a noteworthy achievement, and surely Rogen and (especially) Green had a lot to do with it but the wild-card is the winner. Like Ellen Page's performances, you don't feel like you're getting a version of Saul -- Franco is Saul.

And in keeping with the theme of honoring an actor who diversifies, you don't get much different than going form Pineapple Express to Milk. Now Milk is an excellent movie for so many reasons that it's obscene and of course up there on that list is Sean Penn. But the reason Penn will probably win the Oscar over Mickey Rourke is that Penn is amazing at sharing the spotlight in this film. Everyone who shares a moment of screen time with Penn in Milk is catching a huge acting updraft and soaring right alongside him. From the moment we meet Franco's Scott Smith on the stairs of a NYC subway station, I'm basically sold on the movie. It's one of the first scenes -- Penn meets Franco, talks him into bed, soon their in a relationship and headed to San Francisco and setting up a camera store in the Castro. A lot happens in the first 15 or so minutes of the film and it's pretty important that you buy the Penn/Franco relationship if you're going to get invested in the story. And as unlikely as a believable romance between characters played by these two actors sounds, it works amazingly well. While the role of Scott Smith isn't a very unique one on film, he's treated with care by Van Sant and Franco. You can see through Scott's eyes what's special about Harvey just as you can see how much Scott means to him. Since we meet these two characters at the same time it's crucial that there's a connection and Franco rolls with Penn with such ease it's practically grace personified. While it's Sean Penn's show without doubt, and Diego Luna and Emile Hirsch turn in showier performances, James Franco does a fantastic job of creating the foundation on which the rest of the movie takes off.

Runner Up: Diego Luna (Mister Lonely, Milk); Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man, Tropic Thunder)

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

On Citing One's Sources

So one would think, working at the same paper and all, that Manohla Dargis could have at least acknowledged the intellectual debt she owed to A.O Scott in her recent review of The Reader.

Here's how that piece ends:

Although the commercial imperatives that drive a movie like this one are understandable — the novel was a best seller and an Oprah’s Book Club selection, for starters — you have to wonder who, exactly, wants or perhaps needs to see another movie about the Holocaust that embalms its horrors with artfully spilled tears and asks us to pity a death-camp guard. You could argue that the film isn’t really about the Holocaust, but about the generation that grew up in its shadow, which is what the book insists. But the film is neither about the Holocaust nor about those Germans who grappled with its legacy: it’s about making the audience feel good about a historical catastrophe that grows fainter with each new tasteful interpolation.

To anyone who read Scott's fine piece - Never Forget. You're Reminded - from November 21st, this would seem quite familiar.

“Schindler’s List” undoubtedly gave rise to a new pedagogical and commemorative impulse. It also, however, helped to domesticate the Holocaust by making it a fixture of American middlebrow popular culture. Which I don’t mean entirely as a criticism, since that culture is better than a lot of the alternatives. But Hollywood trades in optimism, redemption and healing, and its rendering of even the most appalling realities inevitably converts their dire facts into its own shiny currency.

...

More often the reality of mass death gives way to yet another affirmation of life, and even faithfully rendered true stories are bent into conformity with familiar patterns, themes and conventions: forbidden love; noble sacrifice; victory against the odds. The Holocaust is more accessible than ever, and more entertaining.


...

For American audiences a Holocaust movie is now more or less equivalent to a western or a combat picture or a sword-and-sandals epic — part of a genre that has less to do with history than with the perceived expectations of moviegoers. This may be the only, or at least the most widely available, way of keeping the past alive in memory, but it is also a kind of forgetting.

Dargis Review
Scott Piece

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Happy David Lynch Day

December 3rd is, of course, David Lynch Day in the people's republic of Cambridge. While this is a fairly new holiday, it is one that ought not be overlooked, but rather propagated to other cities and states so that we may continue to bring joy during this delightful holiday season. There are many ways to celebrate and share the Lynchian joys with those you love. Perhaps the most obvious is to enjoy the Twin Peaks Gold Box, a bountiful indulgence of gratuitous proportions that until it actually showed up on store shelves seemed impossible to achieve. (Speaking of which, if you want a free, unopened dvd set of the second season, drop me a line and I'll send it to you.)

There are of course his films... Eraserhead. Perhaps the most striking debut feature ever, made at exactly the right time. While we still have The Rocky Horror Picture Show kicking around in cities across the world, there was actually a midnight movie audience throughout the 70's, before the VCR become a household item, theaters had time and a place and an audience for oddities like Eraserhead and these movies would play for months. And believe it or not kids, there was a time called the 90's where finding a decent copy of the movie to put in your VCR wasn't an easy thing to come by. So now, on David Lynch Day, is a good time to count your blessings and watch that crisp digital 2000 DVD version and remember that you're one lucky bastard.

Elephant Man. To me it seems like it's his forgotten movie. But it's also his most beautiful. Let's set the stage... Mel Brooks has the rights to the story and needs to find a director (wisely enough he knows he's not the man). By some happenstance he ends up watching Eraserhead -- perhaps he heard it was a hit on the midnight movie circuit and it was in black and white. He knew from the get-go that Elephant Man was going to be a story told in black and white -- certainly the make-up would be a whole lot easier to deal with. With Eraserhead you have a movie that knows how to make a striking B&W image and knows how to create a palpable atmosphere. And hey, this David Lynch with his one feature will no doubt be inexpensive. Oh, to be able to hear that first conversation between Mel Brooks and David Lynch.

Dune. You know, this might be one of those movies where I've seen parts -- many parts -- I've probably seen the entire thing, just not in one sitting. It's a hell of a movie. A hell. Of a movie. That's not to say I don't enjoy it. Well, maybe enjoy is not the right word. I do find it fascinating. I also find it pretty fascinating that Alejandro Jodorowski was going to helm this beast before Lynch. Which is my segue into this little treat.





The combination of a David Lynch produced Alejandro Jodorowski directed movie featuring Nick Nolte can get me pretty excited even though I'm probably a luke warm Jodorowski fan at best. I mean, that interview gave me no misgivings about thinking the guy is a narcissistic, pretentious filmmaker but I can't be anything but happy to see that in this day and age he's able to make the uncompromised movies he wants to. That is what it's all about.

Blue Velvet. The Hardy Boys Nightmare. The movie that really set the tone for everything that would follow. As good as it gets? I could certainly see, and possibly agree with, that argument but I would postulate that his next work, the pilot episode of Twin Peaks, which aired before Wild at Heart, is the real masterpiece. Taking everything that has come -- Lost Highway, Straight Story, Mulhulland Drive, Inland Empire -- Twin Peaks, the television series, still serves as a beautiful Lynchian bouillabaisse.


Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. The film that followed the series is like the best punk rock kick to the teeth. It's a kick that you could see coming if you watched the last episode or read his daughter's book. But the film is Lynch at his most severe. Twin Peaks the series, at least during the first season, is him welcoming you into his world with only a few reservations. Fire Walk With Me is what the bouillabaisse looks like when it's been left on the stove for a week. It's an unfairly maligned film, something that couldn't possibly satisfy fans of the series looking for answers or Lynch fans looking for another Wild at Heart. But it is a wonderfully didactic tour through the land of Lynch.


As far as the rest of his filography goes, I think most of us are familiar enough. I leave this tribute with my Netflix summary of Inland Empire that I wrote some two years ago -- the movie that spawned Cambridge's dedication to this fine filmmaker...


"I'm not one to say that all movies should be considered art – but cinema should be considered an art form and there should be more people out there pushing the medium experimenting and testing its limits and doing this within the mainstream. No one out there does more to further the art of cinema while playing in the Hollywood swimming pool than Mr. Lynch. And just like other pieces you might find at gallery or museum – you don’t have to understand it to appreciate it. You might find the story interesting (as I did) or a bunch of nonsense, but cinema is a visual medium and this is how this story is being told. Sadly I don’t think this movie will work quite as well in a living room as it did in the theater but people’s living rooms are getting close to matching the quality so I hope for the best. Turn off the lights let it creep you out and think about the story afterwards (The rundown: There’s a dead actress watching INLAND EMPIRE on tv. There’s a living actress, Laura Dern, playing the dead actresses roll in this movie, a remake, that she just got the part for. Soon the roll she’s playing and her own life and the life of the dead actress start to blend. At the end of it – perhaps it’s just the process she went through in her head to nail the part? Maybe.) – or don’t think about it at all. It doesn’t really matter, it’s a wonderful experiment and it’s too bad there aren’t more people out there doing this type of exploration and pushing cinema forward. Oh, and Laura Dern is amazing."


But perhaps the most direct way to celebrate David Lynch Day is to spend some time with Mr. Lynch's own website where you can get possibly the coolest Lynchian product known to man: the Lime Green Collection, the most disturbing ringtones known to man and get to know the Rabbits... yes, the Rabbits.






It's all pretty darn swell.

On How Not To Be Inspired

From one Tim Carr, describing how he came to direct a film on former NFL quarterback Ryan Leaf:

Carr said what drew him to Leaf's story was the fact he was born just 10 days after Leaf in 1976, the newspaper reported.

"So I started to think, what would I do if I was in that situation?" Carr said, according to the report. "When he came out [for the NFL draft] he was 22, and when I was 22 I was a knucklehead, big time. So you've got to think, if I was a knucklehead and I had the keys to the kingdom, what would I do?

"Looking back, now that I'm 32, I can say, 'Well, I would have done this and this and this.' But that's a 32-year-old man talking about what I would do 10 years ago. You start to think about that and that's sort of what got me in that direction," Carr said, according to the report. "I was inspired [to] maybe tell that story like 'Husbands and Wives' but through the eyes and ears of fans and writers and players."

Story

Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Signing Detective - Parts 2 and 3 ("Heat" and "Lonely Days")

*This is part two of a series of reviews on the 1986 British mini-series written by Dennis Potter, directed by Jon Amiel, and starring Michael Gambon

After the first episode, I surmised that things could be heading in a bad direction for Mr. Marlow. But that may not be the case. After two more episodes, and now a full half-way through, it seems he may have a chance. But then again, it can't be doom and gloom the whole time. Who knows? I'm terrible at predicting what happens, so I'll likely be surprised no matter what happens.

"Heat" introduces us to two new elements of the story, broadening the scope from the already interesting play between Marlow's real experience and his imagination. To the fantastical world of Marlow's sophisticated detective and the grueling world of life in the patients' ward, Potter has introduced the more familiar device of childhood flashbacks. This world is less novel, and obviously less fun, then Marlow's alternate detective story, but as a path to recovery, I think it's a more helpful place for Marlow to dwell.

The other new piece of the story is the psychiatrist Dr. Gibbon (Bill Paterson), the likely impetus behind Marlow's reminiscences, but also the closest thing to a cliche character Potter has written so far. Maybe he only seems cliche in light of Good Will Hunting (the dynamics of the meetings resemble the Robin Williams Matt Damon tete-a-tetes), but it seems like I've seen scenes like their first encounter many times.

Though the show is still strong, I won't deny that I was a bit disappointed by the return to familiarity of the last two episodes. "Skin" was such an onslaught of original thought, speech, and staging, that it makes difficult demands on the rest of the show. I'm still highly moved and caught up in the drama, but it has moved out of the transcendent TV experience...for now.

All this to say however that the show retains many qualities, even if the musical numbers and detective world are beginning to seem more tame. One thing I appreciate about Potter's writing and Amiel's directing is just how much time and space they devote to every scene, like the story is just a beat or two off the normal pacing of TV life. Two examples should suffice, but almost every scene has moments when you can look and think without being distracted by some information meant to move the story along, or some novelty thrown in to make you laugh.

In "Heat," I'm thinking of the scene where Marlow's father is signing in the bar. It's a silly old maudlin song, obviously lip-synced, but the steady shot of the father cut with scenes of the young Marlow and the crowd (whose emotions aren't always easy to grasp) just grasp the melancholy and vagueness of nostalgia. In "Lonely Days," this scene returns, only it's now interlaced with another flashback of young Marlow riding the train after leaving his father. Staring out the window, he sees a scarecrow, while at the same time some army boys are eyeing his mom. This looping of scenes must take something like 15 minutes, and it keeps coming back to the scarecrow, sometimes waving like Phillip's father, but sometimes just there. And you keep wondering why, and if the army guys are going to do something nasty to his mom, and as it keeps looping the scene takes on even weirder and weirder elements - like the scarecrow turning into Hitler - and then you get it.

It's astonishing, really, how many times Potter and Amiel introduce the fantastical world into the mundane without anyone realizing it until the end. In "Lonely Days," the next of Marlow's tragically fated neighbors goes out in an astonishing scene, one cut with scenes of the young Marlow watching his mother sleep with a stranger - a stranger played, incidentally, by the same man who plays the possible bad character in Marlow's fictional story (Patrick Malahide), who himself is being stalked by a woman played by the same actress as Marlow's mom (Alison Steadman). It's mostly sickening, and it comes from almost out of nowhere, as it appears at the beginning to just be two men having a conversation.

This is the stuff that continues to make the show great. I'm still a little annoyed by the psychiatrist scenes (though Gibbon does do a good job of mocking the traditional psychological explanations, even as the show exploits them), and I share Marlow's fear of seeing more his ex-wife, though for different reasons (she simply looks out of place), but I'm definitely ready for a great final three hours.

Review - Part 1

Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Signing Detective - Part 1 ("Skin")

*As a result of a serious computer issue at chez Sean, yours truly will be in charge of the content for the foreseeable future. This of course means that no fun will be had, and that all the reviews will be serious discussions of capital-A Art. So, with that warning, let me begin with a 6-part review of a 22 year-old British mini-series.

I had a good feeling about The Singing Detective. Not sure why, but I just did. I first heard of it a few weeks ago while reading Anthony Lane's rather harsh review of Synecdoche, New York, where he mentioned the 1986 mini-series as a counterexample to Charlie Kauffman's apparently limp portrayal of a "fading man." The only comment about Dennis Potter's BBC classic was that it was "rendered with unstinting vigor." From Lane, I guess this was enough.

After the first Episode ("Skin"), hell, after the first scene, I can say I've been hooked. The opening shot is a classic noir overhead of a man outside a bar examining his hand. A monologue, one you can feel coming from the opening bars of the harmonica score, begins, "The doorman of a nightclub can always explain that it's lipstick on his hand and not blood, but how did it get there? Lets be economical, nothing fancy...if he smacked some dame across the mouth then he's got both answers in one."

After a few more cryptic comments and scenes we cut to a modern hospital for the terminally ill. As a contrast to the dark and hazy opening scenes it's jarring, all white and fluorescent lights, with everyone in the ward as ugly as the noir characters are attractive. What we learn soon enough - soon enough so that this isn't a spoiler - is that the opening scenes are all taken from the possibly insane mind of Phillip Marlow, a disagreeable patient in the ward suffering from a painful and disfiguring skin disease.

Marlow is played by the excellent Micheal Gambon, an actor I'm sorry to say I couldn't have named but who has appeared in at least a half-dozen fine films, most probably known for his work in Harry Potter, but whom I knew best as Oseary Drakoulis from The Life Aquatic. As a man who can hardly move or talk, it must have been a challenging role, but also a pleasure, as Potter gives Gambon some rants that would put Aaron Sorkin or David Mamet to shame. There are several great examples, but my favorite involves an internal monologue as Marlow tries to keep himself from having an erection while a nurse "greases" him. It's way too long to capture, but it includes references to Finnegan's Wake and Semiology.

As should be clear, Potter is unashamedly literate, naming his main character (short an "e") after Raymond Chandler's classic detective, and references to all things high and low abound, with Marlow joking to his doctors that he considers himself a Malthusian interspersed with elegies on the cigarette. Every conversation, in both worlds, crackles with wit and spontaneity in a way that makes you wonder why television writing is so boring (it does that in retrospect; at the time, you're just enjoying the show). Even shows I adore, from Northern Exposure to The Wire to Mad Men, simply don't have this high level of writing (though they all have their own qualities - I admit writing is not everything). And it's not all melodrama and the over-enunciation of the stage that drives the writing, but simple conversations, reflections, and straightforward rage.

Complementing Potter's writing is some nimble work by Jon Amiel, who directed all six episodes yet surprisingly isn't listed in the opening credits.* This is Potter's show, for sure, but Amiel does a fantastic job of capturing the world of Marlow's mind, setting up angles and lighting that are perfect copies of classic 50s-era of noir. If these weren't supposed to be fantasy, it would be too much, but for the drama of the mind, it's perfect. Amiel also gets to stage a few great musical set pieces (here's where the Singing part comes in), one of which rivals (in staging, if not in overall production values) the best work from All That Jazz.

*Amiel seems to have stuck out on his first shot at Hollywood, with forgettable works like The Core, Entrapment, and Copycat, but he returns in 2009 with Creation, a biopic of Darwin.

The Singing Detective is quite simply a revelation. And I mean that seriously, in that its methods of visual and aural story-telling open up ideas that I hadn't realized were available. It is at times heartbreakingly sad, painful, and funny. So far, we've seen the raging and bitter Marlow, the one who won't accept his disease and mocks his doctors, and we've seen that his hallucinations or imaginations (depending on your perspective) have begun to get more elaborate. I have no idea where the show will go from here; I'm assuming the rage will be tempered a bit, but we won't be heading for a happy ending. Marlow is in at least his early sixties, can no longer write because he cannot hold a pen, and has been suffering an untreatable disease for close to twenty years that is now at it's most painful point. Oh, and he may be losing his mind. If "unstinting vigor" means what I think it means, I'm preparing for the worst.

Links
Anthony Lane's review of Synecdoche, New York (and High School Musical 3!)
Chapter 1 Part 1 (I'm watching this from a Torrent, but it's all there on youtube) To find the rest, just change the 'CH' and 'PT' numbers in the search query.

Monday, November 17, 2008

The Brood

Dir. - David Cronenberg

Sean viewed this one From the Couch:

[The Brood is one of those films that really cannot be discussed without talking about what we learn in the final ten minutes of the film - so expect spoilers. Suffice to say, it is a great little psycho-horror film by David Cronenberg that any fan of his should not hesitate to see.]

To continue with our recent divergence into horror films, we'd like to draw your attention to David Cronenberg's 1979 feature The Brood. A film about one hell of a dysfunctional family featuring a mother that ranks up there with Lady Macbeth and Medea in the category of Worst Mom Ever. Nola, played an effectively spooky Samantha Egger, is receiving treatment by Hal Raglan (Oliver Reed), a doctor specializing in "psychoplasmics" -- which involves patients being isolated from the rest of the world in his compound while he treats them by taking on the roles of family members and working through their problems by bringing all their negative emotions to the surface. The ads for Psychoplasmics should warn patients of various side effects including the manifesting of multiple legions, sores, lymphatic cancer, and the production of homicidal mutant five year olds from an asexual sac. Some might say that Psychoplasmics is a bunch of new age hoo-ha, but you can't really argue with those kinds of results -- the parthenogenesis means it's working!

The movie begins as Nola's husband Frank (Art Hindle) picks up his daughter from a weekend visit at Dr. Raglan's and comes home to find scratches and bite marks on his five year old and begins to wonder what's going on at the mysterious facility. Frank immediately thinks his cuckoo wife has been abusing the child, refuses further weekend visits and shows this evidence to his lawyer. But soon Nola's parents start showing up beaten to death and Frank nearly gets a fancy paperweight driven into his head by a very angry little person without a belly button and soon enough Frank is drawing the connection between his wife's rage and the mutant killers.

Cronenberg had been through his own custody battle over his daughter before making this film and it's easy to look at The Brood as Kramer vs. Kramer with more bludgeoning and trauma. But just as present is Cronenberg's ongoing discussion of the limitless human. It's frightening enough that acne breakouts, eczema, ulcers and worse are linked to stress and a person's mental state, so to base a horror movie on the subject is perfect and it's a testament to his vision that he makes what could have been an unintentionally hilarious premise into something brilliantly disturbing. Having little people dressed up like Kenny from South Park jumping out of corners with hammer in hand should be knee slapping, funny stuff and while it is audacious enough to make the movie fun to watch it's a Cronenberg movie, and therefor has every second soaked in dread and unease even in the most mundane of moments.

It's worth noting that The Brood represents Cronenberg's first collaboration with Howard Shore, who went on to score all but one of his films since as well as many of the creepier Demme, Scorcese and Fincher movies of the past 25 years (as well as those hobbit movies). Unlike Spielberg's ongoing collaboration with John Williams, Shore has yet to become a liability. Shore compliments his movies with expert technique, sometimes playfully prodding as he does in The Brood but never as overbearingly abusive as Williams can get.

I'm almost ashamed to admit it's taken me this long to see The Brood. Maybe the lack of fun I had with Rabid scared me off of pre-Scanners Cronenberg. Whatever the reason, this is clearly his first great movie and if it weren't for the amazing performances in Scanners, I'd say it might even be better than that classic. While there's nothing bad about Hindle, Reed or Egger, there's nothing approaching the gonzo performance Powers Boothe gives in Scanners. Hindle was surprisingly good given I'd never really noticed him in any of the other work he's done, but like everyone else in The Brood, he doesn't do much to make Frank stand out from being a rather broad characterization.

Seeing The Brood now of course brings up the argument, or rather the complaint, about Cronenberg moving away from this sort of "body horror" that he became so closely associated with through the 80's and 90's. Films like Videodrome, The Fly, Crash, eXistenZ and terms like "the new flesh" and images like plugging a video game into a sphincter leading to your spinal cord are all deliriously rich and wondrously subversive, unique worlds to get lost in -- the kind of films that only a handful of people like David Lynch, Takashi Miike and Terry Gilliam have the wherewithal to achieve. So of course it can be disheartening to see Cronenberg move away from this sort of material -- it's like hearing George Lucas is going to do a personal, non-sci-fi movie. Oh wait, you know what, that would be fantastic. Truth is, I don't get people whining about this sort of nonsense. You'd think these directors are on their death bed and the next movie will be their last. Put yourself in their shoes -- would you be happy being stuck in one genre for your entire career? All these directors that people fret about are successful directors that have control over their own careers -- there are decisions that they are making because they want to make these films. Either you like a director or you don't or you have no opinion. Why wouldn't you just be happy that someone you like is making a new movie? I think it's completely rediculous to complain about the path someone wants to take. To think that a critic or a fanboy has a better sense of judgment than the person that's been making these great films is frighteningly pompous bullshit. David Lynch made one of the best film of his career about a guy riding a lawnmower for a few days and it was rated G. Here's to more directors shifting gears and doing projects outside their comfort zone. Even though I wasn't a big a fan of History of Violence as some people were, Eastern Promises is still my favorite movie of '07 on most days and I look forward to whatever Cronenberg has in store.

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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Veteran's Day Halloween Catch Up or, Body Snatching Fido Severance Vacancy Supernatural

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

Halloween exists in my world merely as a good excuse to watch scary movies. Usually I sync up the Netflix queue and program a little mini marathon, stay up too late, drink too much and generally have a good time with a mix of new and old movies. This year though, the drinks came early, the movie started late and I was asleep after only one film -- the 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It's a rare case where the remake outshines the original and a film that evokes, even better than All the President's Men or Parallax View, the wounded, paranoid post-Nixon American psyche. It certainly helps that the movie is filled with note-perfect Sutherland, Nimoy and Goldblum performances, and features a scene in a mud bathhouse that still is absolutely transfixing, but you had Philip Kaufman at the helm coming into realization of the great powers he had, just before the brilliant Wanderers and All the Right Stuff (what a great run of films). Perhaps the greatest, most effective tool in creating two hours of creeping dread is the wondrously deranged, atonal score from first-timer Denny Zeitlin -- a set of music so amazing that Zeitlin never made another score afterward. Or as IMDb puts it: "Was so worn out by the work he put into Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), on which he worked over four weeks worth of 20-hour days, that he vowed that he would never write another film score. Because of the accolades and praise that the highly unusual and innovative score received, he was given many offers to do many more film scores, but he refused them all." And so began the movie career of Phillip Glass.

I've seen the original a number of times and Abel Ferrara's oddly luke warm 1993 version more than once, but have not seen the recent Nicole Kidman vehicle. This story really works in the 50s and 70s due to the political climate of the US. Sci-fi and horror excel at taking a mirror to society and skewing their fears to create metaphors ripe for storytelling. Here you have the story of society being overtaken by pod people. You wake up one day to find your loved ones suddenly soulless -- they look the same but are now just cogs in the machine. For a story so rooted in paranoia, 1993 is quite possibly the worst year to remake Body Snatchers. But 2007, right smack in the middle of the second term of the Bush years, should have been the sweet spot for another updated winner. Yet I've heard nothing but mildly negative things, but I'm guessing this is the exact kind of movie that will show up on one of the Encore channels soon, so I'm sure I'll get a chance to check in on this missed opportunity soon.

In the meantime, I have a couple of Netflix rentals sitting next to the tv that have been waiting patiently for me, as well as some space on the DVR to free up, so let's pop open a breakfast beer, say a silent toast to John McCain and dig in. Updates will follow.

Fido

Fido was a film I'd first heard of back at the Boston Independent Film Fest a couple years back. And true to it's buzz at the time, it features a surprisingly effective performance from Billy Connolly as the titular zombie. It's the late 50's/early 60's and a radioactive fog has settled in which causes the dead to come back to life. Actually, the question of whether or not these zombies should be considered dead or alive is a central question to Fido. See, after the Zombie War, ZomCom, a corporation dedicated to controlling the zombie menace, has discovered a way to neutralize a zombies natural urges to eat people by attaching a collar around their necks. This of course leads to the rich buying zombies to be their servants and forcing them to performing manual labor jobs like being the door man, the milk man, the paper boy, etc.

So when a wealthy ZomCom security agent moves to town with his family, Mrs. Robinson (Carrie Anne Moss) decides to buy her family their first zombie so as to fit in with the rest of the neighborhood. Everyone else has one. But Mr. Robinson (Dylan Baker) had to kill his own father during the Zombie War, and when his son Timmy and Mrs. Robinson start to get a bit too attached to their charmingly faithful zombie (Timmy names him Fido before a game of fetch turns sour) an already dysfunctional family starts to break at the seams.

Fido isn't really a horror movie -- there certainly aren't any scares to be had. There is a bit of blood and severed body parts, which is standard with any movie featuring zombies, but it's a pretty straightforward satire and one that looses much of it's bite midway through. There's a lot of fun to be had as the movie sets up it's world a we see kids being taught about zombies and learning how to shoot for the brain, not the heart at their school shooting range; men with Zombie War PTSD; Tim Blake Nelson as a skeevy neighbor who uses his teenage girl zombie for unconventional purposes and how the elderly aren't to be trusted since they can drop dead at any moment and awaken zombified (or as one of the many funny commercials puts it, "Help my grandfather's fallen and he's gotten back up!"). But the story is essentially a very sweet one which both hurts it and helps it. Billy Connelly gives a remarkable performance almost entirely through his eyes and body language. He's always been a reliably good actor whenever he pops up, but here he's transcendent and really steals the movie by making such a warm and lovable zombie. If they could have left the rather dull plot of Fido being taken away from the family by ZomCom and the last third of the movie and found a better way to create drama rather than grinding away at the joke of having a zombie in the place of Lassie and aiming too squarely for the heartstrings, we could have had a much sharper satire about the evils and downfall of a society that only works to provide itself with more creature comforts.

Severance

Here we have your old fashioned running through the woods being chased by a guy with a flame thrower horror movie. And not a bad one at that. Being a modern horror film, a 2006 British one, it does have a health dose of humor in the mix. We have the sales team from a global weapons corporation going to the countryside in Hungary for a team building weekend only to end up in the laps of some pissed off ex-soldiers with a bad case of shell shock. Actually these two movies have had an unsuspected bit of irony for Veteran's Day viewing.

It's a well made movie, a bit of a shaky start but once it gets the characters to the main location -- a classic cabin in the woods scenario, it plays with conventions and expectations in refreshingly clever ways. There are enough twists and surprises, gore and laughs to keep fans of the genre entertained and even though there's some gruesome moments, it's handled with a pretty light touch so you don't feel like you're being subjected to Hostel 3. Which reminds me, what I did enjoy with Severance was that the filmmakers actually put some work into creating characters that you could like and not want to see offed. British actor Danny Dryer plays a lovable pot smoking, mushroom eating bloke who at first seems a bit forced into the movie (there always has to be the stoner dude, right?) but he, along with a few other characters, actually manage to grow on you and therefore give the movie the suspense it needs. the story is pretty tight too, with a lot of bait and switch and details laid down in the first half that really pay off in the second. It's not a new classic or anything but for a pretty tired genre it is a welcome entry.

I don't know if I'll get to the last movie today, Vacancy. I got some soup I gotta make and the day is passing by a lot quicker than expected. We'll see...

Supernatural

You know what, instead let's talk briefly about something of high quality that I'm familiar with, Supernatural. Now that Mad Men is over for the foreseeable future, Supernatural may indeed be my most anticipated weekly hour long show. If you've ever enjoyed Buffy or Angel, X-Files or Night Stalker or any variation on the monster of the week formula, you owe yourself a favor to watch Supernatural. The short summary of the show is two brother who've gotten the torch passed down by their father to travel the country in a badass black Chevy Impala and keep the things that go bump in the night from going bump in the night. Not only is it regularly pretty fuckin' freaky, it's also funny, absorbing and does a great job of working with and continuously developing it's main characters of Sam and Dean Winchester as well as the unique world in which they live in.

The strength of any good sci-fi show is how well the world it's presenting is crafted. There are legions of sci-fi fans out there that will reward your show if you can fully realized, rich world to get lost in on a weekly basis. Even if your show is as shitty as Heroes, kudos can come your way if you create an interesting mythology which is something Supernatural has expertly developed in it's 3+ seasons and it's why each season seems to get better and better. And unlike Heroes, Supernatural has some good writers/producers like Massachusetts own Ben Edlund creating suspenseful stories and offering smart, witty dialog rather than plodding plots and groan inducing exposition-only blather. Oh, and the show often has Kim Manners directing -- one of the best directors from the X-Files series.

My favorite thing about Supernatural may be it's ability to perfectly juggle the monster-of-the-week stories with the larger season-long story arcs and the character development. A common technique this season has been wrapping up the weekly monster story around the 45 minute mark and taking the last 5 or so minutes of air time to deliver a usually bittersweet coda (something that Fringe is using to good effect, though that show has yet to shake off its 1st season jitters) that touches upon Sam and Dean's role in the upcoming apocalypse and Dean's lingering side effects of spending a few months in hell. All these supernatural elements are treated with an amazingly balanced use of deadpan matter-of-factness and often hilarious what-the-fuckery -- equal parts seriousness and playfulness.

A large part of the shows success is due to the actor who plays Dean Winchester, Jensen Ackles (the shorter one). At first I thought he was simply another WB pretty boy, but I've found him to be one of the best actors on basic broadcast TV. He's funny as hell, has some of the best timing of any actor on TV, and did a pretty good job at convincing me that he'd just climbed out of his own grave at the beginning of this fourth season. Jared Padalecki as Sam Winchester isn't bad either, he's more the straight man in the Dean and Sam relationship, I've grown fond of him in a way, and he and Jensen have certainly gotten down some of the best chemistry of any show out there right now.

Or maybe I just have a thing for shows where the average guy or girl gets stuck with the burden of preventing the apocalypse. It's a juicy premise and it's a joy watching the Winchester brothers deal with this issue every week. At any rate, until Lost gets back, this is the place to be for smart, suspenseful, spooky television. So stop thinking the WB is a dead zone for entertainment already.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Beer of the Month - Special Belgian Edition

We arrived, unloaded and had calamari and Vedett at the Arcadi Cafe. Vedett was a true find -- it's everywhere around Brussels and yet this was the first I'd heard of it. It's crisp, refreshing and very blond -- or blonde, a word used to describe a style that you hear a lot about in the area. Most beers break down into Blondes, Dubbels, Tripels (which I'll call BDT) and Wittes (White/Wheat beer). So if you're looking for an easy going beer, say you're a Bud man and dipping your toe in the Belgian pool, Vedett is an excellent, solid beginning. There's a Vedett Extra White as well, but this was relatively unseen outside of the Duvel Brewery Depot -- which is a shame since it's also a great, tasty beer.

Yes, we did get a tour of the Duvel Brewery while in town. Which is kinda misleading because the Duvel brewery is pretty much in the middle of nowhere, or rather Breendonk, the small village town that surrounds it. Duvel is one of the beers that is everywhere in Belgium and really, it might be the easiest Belgian beer to get your hands on wherever you are in the world; and so the brewery was somehow surprisingly small. I wasn't expecting an Anheiser-Busch type operation, but the brewery had a very cool, personable feel to it. It's a big place, but if you work there, everybody knows your name. Of course the beer is fantastic. Duvel, Vedett and Maredsous (an abbey-style ale that is brewed BDT and is also prominent in the area) are all brewed here and there's not a bad apple in the bunch. The Maredsous Tripel is especially eye opening. Our tour guide mentioned that she highly prefers the Duvel aged at least one year but I have to say I don't think I've had a better Duvel or Maredsous than the one we had poured for us from the Depot.

At Cafe Bizon, decorated with much Americana, I had the best Westmalle I've ever had (a dubbel). It's the perfect representation of the dubbel style -- it's a rich golden color, it's not going to knock you on your ass but it isn't kdding around either. It's the beer you go for when the blonde has lost it's gentlemanly charm but you don't want to deal with the responsibilities of the tripel. Bizon is also where I discovered that there's more than one Hoegaarden. They're all still whitbiers (white/wheat beers) but America is missing out on the Grand Cru. It's like the darker, boozier, tastier papa of the easily accessible Hoegaarden you can find in the states. At Monk I think I had my first Blanche de Bruges, another witbier that is absent from my menus at beer bars around home. It's absolutely great and possibly because I had a couple more of these that I rate it higher than the Hoegaarden Grand Cru.

After our tour of the Duvel brewery, before venturing to our brief rendezvous with Antwerp, we took a side trip to Westvleteren. Home of the Trappist Abbey of Saint Sixtus of Westvleteren where they brew the holy BDT trinity. Their tripel is regarded in some circles as being the best beer in the world, but let me tell you the blonde is a strong contender for that throne as well. Of all the souvenirs we brought back -- getting the mixed six pack of Westvleteren beers safely back home is a treasured thing. It's no easy task getting to Westvleteren or even obtaining their prized libation. There is a cafe across the street from the monastery where they sell six packs and other hand made goods, but you get the impression that if you're not an early bird you may be out of luck. The only other way to obtain this precious beer is to make a deal with the monks that involves giving them your drivers license info and signing an oath that you won't resell their beer. In Antwerp we confirmed that there is a grey area where the monks may indeed strike deals with a choice few local bars to sell their beer.

We found this rumor to be true at the Antwerp destination of the Kulminator - possibly the best beer bar on the planet. The kind of place where you could drop 40+ euro on a finely aged bottle of Piraat. I came close to doing just that and am a little saddened that I didn't. Probably the gold star find of our time well spent at Kulminator was the beers from Abbaye des Rocs. We tried the brun (Dubbel) and the blonde and both were pretty amazing. Their beers were recommended to us by a mildly boisterous gentleman who had moved to the table next to us and took the term "beer geek" to a heretofore unknown level. I've been to plenty of beer fests so I suppose I've walked amongst the man with the Excel spreadsheet filled with the hundreds of beers they've sampled from around the world, their personal ratings and ABVs and so on... I've simply never witnessed their particular force of nature up close and personal. But without him I might have missed out on Abbaye des Rocs and Black Jack, a Swedish Imperial Porter from the Struise brewery that was pretty damn tasty as well. Also imbibed was the Moinette Biologique, an organic blonde from Dupont, and a couple beers from St. Feuillien (not St. Freulien as I liked to call it) including their memorable xmas beer which was on tap as was as an excellent blonde from Kasteel. Honestly there wasn't a bad beer to be had at Kulminator. If I ever make it back to the area, a trip to Kulminator will be considered a necessity.

Back in Brussels, we made a stop at Morte Subite after taking in the Comic Strip Museum. Morte Subite is a bit of a renowned place -- they've been in business since the 20's and brew their own beers as well as serving a good variety of other Belgians. This may have been the place that I had my first Dupont while in Belgium. Saison Dupont is certainly a contender for best Belgian beer. It's a beer I've had in the states but I think it's impossible to not have beers such as Dupont, Duvel and Hoegaarden taste infinitely better when had in Brussels.

At the legendary Delirium Tremens bar I finally had that first local, delicious Piraat as well as the Corsendonk Pater Dubbel and a Chimay Premiere. There was definitely a thrill in getting these rare-in-the-states variations on familiar brands. And of course some Delirium was had. The bar actually had the best list of American beers that I'd seen during the whole trip. The bar itself was pretty packed, not the most comfortable place to have a drink, but I enjoyed the experience -- be on the look out for some video footage of this place.

Soon after Delirium we were on to Amsterdam. The highlight of this excursion was Cafe Inde Wildeman. I sincerely was worth the rediculous amount of time it took to find the place -- nestled in a corner of the strip mall that is Nieuwendijk. Cafe Inde Wildeman is a soul warming place in the middle of the surrounding disillusionment. Many great beers to be had -- the best list of beers on tap I'd seen during the entire trip. Two beers under the name of Jopen (Koyt & Rock n' Roel) that were amazing; Budels Parel, Achel 8 Brun, La Trappe Dubbel & LT Bock, Texelse Hazeloth, Hemel Helse Engel... so many amazing beers that by the end of the trip it seemed not all that crazy to turn into the guy at Kulminator and end up carrying around your laptop with a spreadsheet to keep track of it all.

So what's the beer of the month? It's no easy choice. I haven't even mentioned the everyday beers like Jupiler and Maes or the taken for granted amazing beers like the St. Bernardus line or the Rocheforts. It being November already I'm tempted to call it the St. Feuillien Xmas beer. It's easily the best xmas beer I've ever had -- winter beers are generally pretty lousy in their use of spices in my opinion. But I'm going to give it to Vedette. It's an unassuming beer. One that I possibly would never of had unless I made the trip out there and the beer that I most likely would make a staple of my diet had I stayed there longer or if it made it's way out here. I think Vedett is primed to break into the states. It's one of the few beers from Belgium that has a bit of hoppiness to it (in this regard it might not be the best beer I could pick to represent Belgium but so be it) and I could easily picture it becoming a huge hit if it found its way into the tap rotation of Redbones, Bukowski's or the Publik House. Therefore it is the beer of the month.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

On Holiday

While Sean and I tour the Low Countries, the site will be on hold for a bit. Bad news is no movie reviews; good news is there is an early favorite for the next Beer of the Month.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Cronenberg Explained

I really didn't have the heart to tell RFC's other half about the lecture on David Cronenberg Wednesday night. Not just because Sean is a much bigger Cronenberg fan than I, but because it was one of the rare offerings at the Cinemateque Royal here in Brussels that was in English.

I'll start by saying I am in no position to argue the conclusions of Professor Ernest Mathijs, who is director of the Center for Cinema Studies at the University of British Columbia, and has been close to obsessed with Cronenberg films since he was 13. Apparently, his love affair began with seeing a poster for Scanners - exploding head and all - at his local video store and hasn't stopped since. In fact, not only have I not seen that movie, but I've never seen (or heard of?) a Cronenberg film until A History of Violence. So I'll cede to the authority on all points here and just offer a quick summary of what he said.

The lecture shared the title of his new book, The Cinema of David Cronenberg: From Baron of Blood to Cultural Hero. Mathijs's main point is that while it may appear that Cronenberg has developed from a schlock and gore director into a serious filmmaker, the change is really in our culture and not in the man himself. The argument is that Cronenberg from his early days of experimental horror flicks up until his recent work has consistently repeated the same themes - a terrifying and fluid 'reality,' the prison of the body, and the struggle and failure to overcome one's own demons; it just so happens that the world has come to look more like a Cronenberg film over the last twenty years. What seemed absurd and fantastic in the early 80's seems very real now. Mathijs even cites one of Cronenberg's cinematographers as saying that the man doesn't make different films, "he just makes the same film over and over again" in a different package.

The second argument is that Cronenberg is a revolutionary filmmaker because his involvement in the film doesn't stop at the final print; even after a film's release, Mathjis argues, Cronenberg insists on making sure that audiences get what he is trying to do. Indeed, unlike many other directors of similar stature, Cronenberg almost never turns down interviews or opportunities to tell people what he is doing, whether it's to an audience at Cannes or Fangoria magazine. In fact, Mathijs began his study after Cronenberg replied to a hand written letter asking the director where he could read more about him. This insistence on controlling not only the product, but the reception as well, leads Mathijs to call Cronenberg the "Active Auteur." In our postmodern times, this should not be surprising, I guess, since the wall between production and reception of culture was torn down a long time ago in literary theory. What's interesting however, is that Barthes's mort de l'auteur also entailed the 'author' losing control of his product. Basically, the theory goes, the worth and meaning of a movie is whatever the audience says it is; an interesting paradox for someone as insistent on his vision as Cronenberg, but one Mathijs doesn't take up.

While these were both interesting ideas, and add a lot to the experience of seeing a Cronenberg film (we watched The Brood afterwards, which I'll review soon), I wish there had been a little more depth to the presentation itself. I won't go into all the details here - lord knows academics can struggle with the presentation side - but the talk itself was rambling, consisting mostly of PowerPoint slides and a few stills of the movies. For reasons I'm still not sure of, Mathijs showed virtually every appearance of a Cronenberg acting cameo as well as every instance of a car that appeared in his movies. He seemed particularly excited that in one movie, there were only two exteriors...and one had a car! I think he may have been rushed, and I'm sure the book itself has more coherence, but given how interesting the ideas were, I really would have liked to see more examples of the films themselves.*

*Possible copywrite issues I guess, but at least do something other than PowerPoint.

There were some cool moments and anecdotes, however, and I should pass them along (links to some of this stuff at the bottom):

- Mathijs did show two clips, the first Cronenberg's 2007 short film for a Cannes retrospective called At the Suicide of the Last Jew in the World at the Last Cinema in the World, which featured 3 minutes of the director agonizing over whether or not to put a bullet in his brain while two inane announcers described the event. The second, which added literally nothing to the argument, but was still pretty cool, was a deleted scene from the little-known Fast Company, a PG effort meant for the mainstresm, where the protagonist pours motor oil over two naked girls. Pretty cool not just because of the girls, but because it came from a director's commentary version where Cronenberg apparently had thought the shot was lost forever. In the lead-up, he is bemoaning the fact that there is this great scene with motor oil and nude women, but that it was cut and he could never find it. Just as he is complaining about losing the rights, we get a quick cut to two gorgeous girls, and the oil begins to flow.

- Mathjis revealed his top 3 Cronenberg films: 1) Videodrome ("the best movie ever, by anyone"), 2) Eastern Promises, and 3) The Fly.

- Cronenberg's first two experimental shorts from the late 60s, Transfer and From the Drain - of which only a few prints in the world remain - are now available on Youtube (Note: I couldn't find Transfer but he said it's out there).

- Belgians were one of the first audiences to take Cronenberg seriously. The story goes that Cronenberg had come to screen another film at the 1984 Belgian Fantastic Film Festival, and while there, showed a copy of Videodrome to a few of the organizers. The movie had a terrible distribution in the states (see below), but after the side screening, all the critics and Festival members demanded it be released in Belgium. At the time, other than his home Canada, Belgium was the most successful market for Cronenberg releases.

- One (of many) things that caused problems for Videodrome was that the audience test screening took place in Boston during a traffic strike. Cronenberg usually liked to test his films in Toronto, where he knew the audience, but he figured Boston would be fine, given that he could pack the house with college kids from Harvard, MIT, and Emerson. Unfortunately, the screening happened during the strike, so the students couldn't attend. As Mathijs tells it, desperate organizers literally had to pull people of the streets, including women with children and other good folks from the city. Suffice it to say, neither the Boston Brahmins nor the Universal studio executives who saw the report were impressed.

Most of this cool stuff happened after the talk proper, and I wish it had been off-the-cuff the entire time. Mathijs showed his love and knowledge of Cronenberg better in an informal setting, and the combination of passion and intelligence for the director makes you want to be a fan too. Just leave the PowerPoint at home.

(From the Drain Part 1)
(From the Drain Part 2)
(Mathijs's Book, not yet released)

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

I'm Not There

Dir. Todd Haynes

Viewed: From the Couch

Sean:

I'm going to go on record here and say simply, I don't like Todd Haynes' films. Never have and, I'm pretty sure now, never will. In his most recent film, I'm Not There, he takes the life of Bob Dylan and separates it into five or six different characters that are meant to represent five or six different sides of the man -- different personae he's used during his career as arguably the most influential and groundbreaking singer/songwriter of all time. It's certainly a novel way to go about making a movie about Bob Dylan. Unfortunately it only manages to come off as a muddled experiment that does next to nothing to shed any light on a impenetrable and reclusive figure, and if I didn't already know better I'd come away from this film thinking the guy's somewhat of an ass. Basically, after spending 2+ hours rooting around in the head of Dylan we exit out the front door thinking, Wow, he sure is an impenetrable and reclusive figure, that guy.

One of the film's conceits is that as it jumps around from personality to personality we're also making stylistic jumps from black & white to mock-documentary to warm 70s tones to panoramic western, etc. This has been one of my problems with Todd Haynes pictures -- his films lack any personality. In a movie like his ode to 70s glam rock Velvet Goldmine, or Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette, this style over substance technique can be excusable but to go from project to project where the most important aspect becomes how to most accurately ape the style, often shot for shot, of another director, it can get downright boring and drain any real emotion from the film. He's answering the question of what would have become of Gus Van Sant if he never let go of the instincts that got him to do his Pyscho remake. The other problem is that he tends to be brutally on-the-nose and blunt with every note where, especially in a movie about Dylan, he really shouldn't be.

The movie spends the bulk of it's time with Cate Blanchett as the alter-ego named Jude Quinn (don't ask me why). It's perhaps the most widely recognized Dylan persona -- from the period forever immortalized in the great documentary Don't Look Back -- all tea shades, big curly hair and cigarettes. These scenes are shot in black & white and has Haynes in Fellini mode, sometimes lifting scenes wholesale from 8 1/2. How cute. Certainly there can be parallels to be made between the director seeking refuge in 8 1/2 and Dylan circa 1965, but does getting so damn meta really bring us any closer to the subject matter? No, actually it completely separates us even further from making inroads to a character that is already telling us that we'll never get to know what's going on in their head. So what's the point? Look at what I can do while we spin our wheels?

For a movie that seems to be trying to break down the usual conventions of a bio-pic (which were wonderfully dealt with in the much more enjoyable Walk Hard, by the way) these sections of the movie with Jude Quinn do nothing but go down the checklist of important moments and even go so far as to shoehorn song titles into the dialog, adding to my list of groan inducing moments. The movie doesn't fare much better in this regard while in the Jack Rollins moments of the film either. Played by Christian Bale, Jack is supposed to represent the idealistic, working class, Time's Are A' Changing persona. This character is tied to these redundant talking head pseudo-documentary interviews with people in his life that state obvious sound bites that segue us into hopefully better scenes. Thankfully our moments with Jack are few and far between. I'm not sure how you go about draining the charisma from Christian Bale, but this movie manages to do that quite well.

The only use I could find for the Jack character is as a way to introduce us to the best part of the movie with Heath Ledger as Robbie Clark (and yes it is odd to see Ledger and Bale once again playing two sides of the same coin), representing the private life, the relationships, the Visions of Johanna persona. Not only does Ledger's great performance give us a break from the Dylan impersonations, but the scenes actually resonate, create some inroads and make Dylan actually seem like a human being. Robbie falls in love with a french artist played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, an actress I enjoyed watching in The Science of Sleep and enjoyed even more here. She has a beautiful loneliness that is used well again here as her relationship with Robbie quickly moves from bliss to your typical rock star pitfalls -- long periods of separation, cheating with groupies and living under the scrutiny of the public eye. Add a bit of a misogynistic streak and the relationship is stretched to it's breaking point. Whenever the film returned to this couple my interest consistently returned. Ledger and Gainsbourg have great chemistry and even though their story is pretty much by the numbers it is a pleasure to watch them go about their business. Perhaps it's because there is little of the stylization that coats the other sections of the movie or perhaps it's because this is an aspect of our subject's life that isn't as widely known to a run of the mill Dylan fan but I found the boring, kitchen sink side of the story the most interesting.

The two more adventurous parts of the film have to do with Marcus Carl Franklin playing an 11 year old black vagabond troubadour character named Woody Guthrie and Richard Gere paying an aged Billy the Kid in exile. Both are pretty hit and miss in their efforts to convey Dylan's earliest inspired musical period in the Guthrie character and his imagination and desire for seclusion in Billy the Kid. The Guthrie scenes are effective despite Haynes continued desire to beat you over the head with every metaphor. They work when they do thanks to Franklin's surprising tenderness in the moments when he's confronted with reality. When his true past as a delinquent from the suburbs of Minnesota tries to catch up with him as he's playing for a living room full of enchanted upper crust and when a rural southern black family takes him in only to question his authenticity are two of the more memorable moments of the film. This Woody Guthrie character intersects with Billy the Kid in a later portion of the film (and in case you didn't realize what the moment represents, Haynes will of course take a moment to have a character spell it out for you) as Billy is forced to leave his cabin and finds out that a grizzled, wheelchair bound Pat Garrett is threatening to destroy his tiny old-west town to make way for the encroaching modern world. Gere gives a welcome, understated performance and the scenes have a gracefulness that's missing from the others even though like most of the threads in this movie, it ends up going absolutely nowhere.

I would have loved to seen a full movie of Bob Dylan as an old Billy the Kid trying to keep his community of misfits together. It's the kind of movie that befits Dylan, so I enjoyed the relatively small part this scenario played in the film. The kind of movie that does not befit Bob Dylan is a devoid of subtle (it's like they shot the audience with machine guns at the Newport Jazz Festival! "How does it feel? Rawr!") exercise in stylistic hopscotch like I'm Not There. It tries to build up the myth with one hand and take it down with the other. It's another movie that tries to have it both ways but unlike Funny Games it can't even succeed at one way. It is simply another one of these quasi-indie movies that can't look past the end of it's own nose. There's a good movie in there somewhere but it comes to you so in love with itself that you have to chisel through layers of useless artifice, applied so as to make itself look pretty but in the end makes it a needlessly heavy and dense mess.

Paddy, you're one of the biggest Dylan fans I know, what did you think of this one? After watching this mess I couldn't help but think of Masked & Anonymous; a much better, more enjoyable mess of a movie than this one that plays like you're watching an epic Dylan song. It's adventurous and captures the spirit of Dylan and isn't that the closest we should strive for? Do you think there's any use in even trying to make a movie about Bob Dylan?

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Padraic:

I wouldn't say Masked & Anonymous is like watching an epic Dylan song (Sad-eyed Lady, Desolation Row, Highlands)- those tend to be immaculately structured and logical, and Masked was a really loose and uneven, if still enjoyable, picture. Maybe more like watching an extended outtake from Dylan and The Band rehearsing for the Basement Tapes sessions.

I'm going back a few months to when I saw I'm Not There, but I definitely enjoyed it. I'll try to explain why, even if it might be a bit hazy. Oddly, I really thought it did give you a sense of Dylan - I mean the guy is inscrutable, and any bio pic that tried a more conventional narrative may have been more enjoyable, but would have been pure fiction. It was pretty clear in interviews from the time that Haynes really didn't like Ray and Walk the Line because they were false, just simply false accounts of how people's lives work.* We may convince ourselves of some personal narrative that involves suffering, redemption, and music montages, but life is much more like the grab bag of random personae that we see in I'm Not There.

*Walk Hard may have laughed at the conventions of the genre, but certainly didn't suggest anything different. The best a spoof can do is make people roll their eyes the next few times they see a bio pic, until they eventually forget and go back to falling for the same thing.

One reason why I like Dylan so much is that he refuses the near-universal assumption that each of us are some single, unique person, with fixed ideas, tastes and a thing called a personality. I tend to think this idea of fixity is horseshit - that we are capable of constantly reinventing who we are and what we want, so long as we have the courage to abandon the very comfortable trappings of the unique personality (after all, what's easier than saying "that's not me.") Dylan's embraced the American ideal that you can make yourself into anyone (though most in the Horatio Alger story only do it once!) so I give Haynes credit for trying to get this concept into a biography, which tends to favor smooth transitions in life over abrupt changes. I guess you could argue that Dylan is just so complex that you shouldn't even bother with a movie on his life, but that's a cop out. It was a ballsy movie to make - to try and capture what cannot be captured - and I like that.



Like you, I had different opinions of each of the personae, but I actually disliked the Robbie Clark character the most (or maybe second most, but Bale's character was hardly on the screen). I don't really remember why I didn't like it, but I think it's telling that you like the part of the movie that most resembled the standard melodrama of bio pics. It was clearly the most familiar character - a boozing, out of control musician arguing with his wife, life on the road, - but also, for me, the most forgettable. Instead I liked the Gere scenes the most, followed by Jude (assuming it's a reference to the fact that he was famously called "Judas" on that tour). I can't really remember the Billy the Kid stuff, aside from the fact that it was just great to look out, somehow incredibly moving but with a light touch.

I'm not really sure why you are so hostile to the Jude scenes. Not only are they like Fellini's portrayals of celebrity, but they mirror Don't Look Back, which itself was almost more Felliniesque than Fellini himself! I thought that was an inspired idea, and the Fellini 'lens' was the best way to capture what was going on at the time. You're just not going to know "what was going on in Dylan's head"; to ask that of Haynes is just to repeat the same reporter's questions to Dylan that he parried away with laughs and non-sequitors in Don't Look Back. It's the cinematic equivalent of asking what the lyrics mean. Who cares what's in his head? Show me his world.

I'm Not There is far from a masterpiece, but I think it's the most honest cinematic take were likely to get on Dylan. It was a lot to take at one time, because it was simply such a new kind of movie. Sure some of the symbolism may have been too literal or obvious, but I bet there was a lot more that wasn't, and it was probably no more obvious than a good Dylan song, where you get a few of the references but are baffled by most. Maybe Dylan really is impervious to such an imperfect medium - you're certainly never going to get a better understanding of the guy than by listening to his music - but if the choices are to make a false conventional film, make no film, or make an odd and ambitious film, I'll choose the last every time.

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Sean:

I'll refrain from calling it a gimmick but like I said, I do think it is a novel and ambitious way to get at Dylan (though I'm not completely convinced that it could ever work), but it's so badly executed that any merits I would give for this grand design is lost in the way it's handled. The transitions are so clumsy and obvious, the imagery and dialog so excruciatingly force fed to the audience that I spent the majority of the movie uncomfortable in my seat and cringing more than anything else. I came away from this film with nothing new about the subject matter (and I'm no Dylan expert) except for what was covered in the conventional melodrama part. I enjoyed this part of the film not because of its conventional nature but that it was showing me a Dylan that I haven't seen before and it was giving me something that actually held my interest albeit ever so slightly (I certainly wouldn't want the whole movie to be like this). I really don't need to see Cate Blanchett shuffling around, whining in a Fellini world about being misunderstood. I'm not getting anything from it besides this cutesy movie connection. Why bother? It's one thing to point out the parallels of Don't Look Back to 8 1/2 but it's another to create the bastard child of the two for half a movie. The two movies work on their own for the very same reason they don't work in this context. Don't Look Back is perfectly not staged, 8 1/2 is overtly staged. I don't need to see scenes lifted directly from Don't Look Back and filtered through 8 1/2 or vice versa and then propagated with the most obvious imagery possible. That strikes me as a thematically lazy, on-the-nose stylistic exercise that exists mostly to say, Hey didja see what I just did there?, and only serves to distance me from the subject by suddenly being a movie within a movie within a movie. As does the fakey interviews and the poet character (his name is Arthur Rimbaud... poet? get it? eh?) popping in from time to time for the sole purpose to deliver some stock Dylanism to beat us over the head with like some pissed off greek chorus.

And trust me when I say the reasons for my dislike has little to do with the structure of the film -- this could have been pulled off well (though the more I think about it the more I doubt it). I'm all for breaking the conventional rules of every genre out there, but like I said, looking at the results, this movie still adheres to most of those rules, by going down the list of important moments and replicating those iconic images, more than it breaks any new ground. It's not nearly as abstract as one might think it is and this certainly isn't the first time a character has been deconstructed on film. Scene after scene, right on down the line, the movie presents us with some drama and then cues a Dylan song that best represents what sort of mode of Bob we're supposed to be watching in the scene. Again, blunt and no subtlety. There's nothing in this movie that is left for interpretation. Everything is so pinned down which is the most typical attribute of the bio-film.

Haynes does excel at putting us into a world -- he's got a fabulous art and costume department and cinematographer working with him. But maybe I've seen enough movies that take us to the tumultuous 1960s that I found nothing rewarding about this trip. If I never see another montage set to stock footage of 1960s protesters I think I'd be just fine. At the same time, Haynes seems interested in reinforcing the superficiality and a whole lot less interested in finding any truths or discovering anything that isn't obvious. If we're really supposed to look at this movie as not trying to peer into Dylan's head but rather the world around him, there's an infinite amount of better ways to achieve that goal than the stylized to the max, faux meaningfulness on display here.

I'm a firm supporter of ambitious messes. Last year I glowed about Southland Tales largely for it's unwavering gonzo ambition -- and what a mess that movie is. So I can appreciate what Haynes went for here. But there's no doubt in my mind that it's misguided from the get go and executed with little success. Honestly, if you met someone who has never seen one but wanted to watch a movie about Dylan, would you recommend this? And if this movie is designed for people already seeped in the Dylan mythos, and with all its wink wink nudge nudges it probably is intended to be taken this way, than why is it so superficial? I'm Not There could have gone 100% allegorical with Billy the Kid and black 11 year old Woody Guthrie and created a unique yet familiar world around them and I would have probably applauded that ambition even if it didn't completely hit the mark. But as it is, all we have is some good performances and some amusing eye candy strung together with only the slightest thought put towards the most important point: What is the point?

[Now for the much more, likable, entertaining, real version:]



[And just because I find it kind of fascinating...]