Friday, December 06, 2013

I'm way behind #10: The Connection (Shirley Clarke)

If I were the religious type, I'd say that Milestone Films have been doing God's work for years. They restore and release great lost and/or previously unavailable films (Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep and My Brother's Wedding, Kent Mackenzie's The Exiles, Lionel Rogosin's On the Bowery, Samuel Beckett's Film, de Oliveira's I'm Going Home and Oporto of My Childhood) in theaters and on video, and they recently restored a trio of films (The Connection, Portrait of Jason, and Ornette: Made in America) by the overlooked and under-appreciated Shirley Clarke, a former dancer who transformed herself into a pioneering independent filmmaker in the boys club art scene of '50s and '60s New York. She also helped another great independent filmmaker get his start when she loaned her equipment to John Cassavetes so he could shoot his first film, Shadows.
Clarke had range. She made avant-garde shorts, fictional narrative features, and documentaries, but these weren't separate, static categories for her. Instead, each of her works contained elements of documentary, narrative, performance, and experimentation. The Connection is Clarke's 1961 adaptation of Jack Gelber's experimental theater piece about a group of junkies waiting in a loft for a member of their circle to come back with some heroin. The play was notable for having the actors break the fourth wall and confront audience members while still in character, and another actor portrayed the play's author who was forced into the action by his own creations. In Clarke's film, a two-person documentary crew (director and cameraman) films the junkies while they wait for their fix, but the addicts aren't the passive subjects the director expects them to be, and soon he, and to a lesser extent his cameraman, become part of the film.
Though Clarke sets the movie entirely in the confined space of the loft, The Connection never feels like a filmed play. This is a cinematic experience, and Clarke's camera moves constantly, gliding through the simultaneously spacious and claustrophobic loft, capturing faces and movement and lack of movement, sometimes aggressive, sometimes backing away in what feels like embarrassment or fear. The men who live in the loft never leave it and are there from the beginning, but other characters enter and leave, including a small jazz group with their instruments. The junk-sick musicians play compulsively while they wait, but each performance is a little different. Sometimes they're just killing time, sometimes a moment catches fire, sometimes they play because they're afraid to do anything else, sometimes the playing is a provocation, a way to interrupt conversation and close themselves off. A man who presumably lives in a different room in the building comes in twice to play a record, plugging the portable phonograph into an outlet on a light bulb fixture. The loft fills with sick junkies until the connection, Cowboy (Carl Lee), finally shows up with the drugs. One by one, the men enter the bathroom with Cowboy. The door closes, we wait outside the door with the relaxed, floaty faces of the newly high and the tight, nervous expressions of the sick men still tensely waiting their turn. An elderly crusader for Christ, Sister Salvation, follows Cowboy into the loft to preach the word of God, oblivious to why the men are there. She eventually gets the picture and leaves, and the other junkies slowly trickle out the door. The instruments are broken down, packed up, carried out. There's a strange camaraderie in the group misery and release of the waiting and the receiving, even when arguments break out and grudges are expressed, but as the high fades, the whole breaks down into scattered, individual parts. These are solitary, lonely people, going back out on the street to live desperate lives.

Monday, December 02, 2013

I'm way behind #9: Computer Chess (Andrew Bujalski)

"Mumblecore" is one of those words, like "grunge," that's slightly pejorative and entirely ridiculous, an umbrella term lazy journalists and marketing types use to group together superficially similar work under the guise of a movement that doesn't exist until the word's constant repetition puts a frame on it, but it's also one of those words, like "grunge," that seems to fit its subjects anyway. You know mumblecore when you see it, like you know grunge when you hear it, even though there's really no such thing as mumblecore and no such thing as grunge, even though there is, and you know it when you see it/hear it, even though there's no such thing. 
The group of films lumped into the mumblecore descriptor do share a lot of superficial qualities. They are primarily low-budget independent films with non-actors, made by and focusing on lazy, inarticulate twenty- and thirtysomething "hipsters" (another one of those meaningless but packed-with-meaning umbrella terms) as they experience relationship, career, and/or artistic problems that are too mild or poorly articulated to be considered crises. I dislike a lot of these films and have a guarded enjoyment of others that never quite manages to congeal into respect. Some of these films look like garbage, with not much thought given to shot composition. There are a few gems buried in this movement-that's-not-a-movement, though, and most of them are Bujalski's.
Bujalski's first two films, Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation, sound like nothing special on paper. The first is about inarticulate hipsters in Boston and their relationship problems. The second is about inarticulate hipsters in Brooklyn and their relationship problems. Bujalski, though, unlike contemporaries Joe Swanberg and the Duplass brothers, has a real filmmaker's eye for shot composition, a knack for capturing organic unforced weirdness, and a sense of offbeat narrative driven by the characters and the visuals and the rhythmic possibilities of film editing instead of mumblecore's usual aimless narcissism and "eh, it's good enough" camera placement. And when most of his peers were shooting on crappy digital cameras, Bujalski shot on 16mm film. By the time of his third film, Beeswax, he'd become a more relaxed, confident, and visually accomplished filmmaker, and his characters were smarter, more articulate, less smug, and more complex. Beeswax is Bujalski's warmest film, both narratively and visually, and a more successful piece of slice-of-life realism than most of American film's given us lately.
Computer Chess is something else entirely. This is a film that doesn't belong to any movement, media-created or otherwise. It's a weird, weird movie, so full of humor and life and ideas and digressions and moments of unexpected beauty. Set in the very early '80s in a nondescript motel that doubles as the site of a computer chess tournament and a New Age self-help guru's retreat, the film was shot on black-and-white analog video that looks like old security-camera footage. The images created by this camera are simultaneously ugly and beautiful, and they create an atmosphere and tone I've never seen before. This is one of the most convincing period films I've seen as well. It feels like the early '80s, not people pretending they're in the early '80s. Instead of nostalgia, though, Bujalski is creating something new, a hybrid of documentary-style cinema verite, comedy, drug trip, experimental film, science fiction, character study, and exploration of artificial intelligence. Computer Chess is Bujalski's funniest and most disturbing film, by a wide margin, and it's a real leap forward for him. He's way outside his comfort zone, but he's brought all his strengths to the party. This is an original work by a filmmaker I thought I had pinned down, but the way he balances and combines contradictory elements here has changed my estimation of what he can do. I'm excited to see where he goes from here as he continues to move away from the mumblecore ghetto.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

I'm way behind #8: Prince Avalanche (David Gordon Green)

I've been a David Gordon Green fan since I took a chance on his first film, George Washington, in 2000. I love the way he composes his shots, I like his offbeat sense of humor, and I like how he's used many of the same crew members on every project, particularly cinematographer Tim Orr. I love the way Orr photographs sunlight. He captures this kind of baked, melancholy, pre-sunset glow that just gets to me. I have a strong emotional response to the light in these films that I can't quite explain.
Green's career so far has been divided into two phases. His first four films (George Washington, All the Real Girls, Undertow, and Snow Angels) are arty, independently financed dramas taking place in the South (with the exception of Snow Angels' New England in winter setting). These films owe a debt to Terrence Malick, Charles Burnett, early Michael Ritchie, and the photographs of William Eggleston, but they also inhabit a space entirely Green's own. He followed these films with three mainstream Hollywood stoner comedies (Pineapple Express, Your Highness, and The Sitter) that changed perceptions and expectations of Green as a filmmaker. (He also directed several episodes of Eastbound & Down.) This second phase of his career has baffled and/or angered many critics and fans who used to be in Green's corner. While most of these same people enjoyed Pineapple Express (and only an inhuman monster could watch Eastbound & Down without pleasure), they turned on Green intensely when the other two comedies came out in 2011.The usual lines about selling out and tarnishing a legacy were trotted out.
I acknowledge that Your Highness and The Sitter aren't Green at his best, though I am one of the small group of people who enjoys both of them quite a bit, but I don't see evidence of a betrayal or a sellout here. While the genres, audiences, and marketing and distribution budgets have changed, Green's sensibility, Orr's cinematography, and an inventive, '70s-influenced framing of shots remains. Danny McBride, who attended film school with Green in North Carolina and appears in both his artier dramas and his silly comedies, says Green was interested in watching and making all kinds of different films, and that's what he's done. It shouldn't be inconceivable that humans have seemingly contradictory qualities and varied interests, and that the same guy who made a dark tragedy like Snow Angels or a strange, melancholy romance like All the Real Girls could also make a spoof of sword-and-sorcery films with a character wearing a giant minotaur penis around his neck for one-third of the running time. I love that about Green.
Prince Avalanche should go some way toward explaining Green's career to the baffled. I'm the 480th person to point this out, but Prince Avalanche is very much a marriage between the independent art films and the stoner comedies, a fusion of the two phases of Green's career. A loose remake of a recent Icelandic film called Either Way, Prince Avalanche takes place in 1988 in Bastrop, Texas and is about two lonely, lovably dim goofballs, Alvin and Lance, who are painting new lines on the freshly paved and reconstructed highways after a devastating wildfire. A title card at the beginning says the wildfires took place in the 1980s, but this is a convenient stretching of the truth. The wildfires actually happened in 2011, several short months before Prince Avalanche was filmed. The line painters are played by Paul Rudd (Alvin) and Emile Hirsch (Lance), with uniforms modeled after Mario and Luigi. Alvin is married to Lance's older sister. He helped the aimless, not very bright Lance get the job as a favor to his wife, but his marriage is coming apart, and Lance is not too happy about being out in the middle of nowhere with his nerdy brother-in-law. The only other major character is a nameless truck driver played, in his final performance, by the late character actor and stuntman Lance LeGault who lives nearby and shows up periodically to give advice, insult, reminisce, and share his homemade liquor with the men as well as offer up some hilariously bizarre non sequiturs. A fourth character played by Joyce Payne, a local non-actor who lost her home in the fires, was added during filming. She happened to be there looking through the rubble of her property, so Green wrote her into the film.
Prince Avalanche is spare, minimal, and gorgeous, but it's also goofy and playful, and Green finds a bizarre sweet spot between contemplative, meditative stillness and lowbrow comedy. It doesn't all come together. Some of the jokes just hang there, you never quite get a fix on Alvin and Lance, they're a little dumber than they need to be, and Green can sometimes strive a little too hard for pathos. Still, this is nothing like anything else out there right now, and my own puzzlement at how I should be responding to the film kept me engrossed in its strangeness and sweetness. I'm not entirely sure what to make of this movie, and that's usually a good sign for repeat viewings.
Green just finished making an adaptation of my favorite Larry Brown novel, Joe, with Nicolas Cage, Mud's Tye Sheridan, and several non-professional actors from Austin streets and homeless shelters, so my interest in him continues unabated. 

Monday, October 21, 2013

I'm way behind #7: Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me (Olivia Mori & Drew DeNicola)

Warning: There's a lot of personal reminiscence in this post. If that shit drives you nuts, you may want to skip this one.
I had the blessing/curse of growing up a music (and the arts in general) freak in a small, rural town in the pre-Internet days. Our local cable didn't even include MTV. I was, and still am, a curious fucker, and I wasn't going to let my sheltered lack of options and scarce availability of non-mainstream cultural artifacts stop me from finding cool stuff. I relied on late-night local TV, which was pretty strange and varied in the '70s, '80s, and early '90s, the library, mail-order, road trips to the record store 40 miles away, and magazines to expose me to the old, weird America. Now, any outcast kid can go to YouTube and check out a huge chunk of most underground artists' bodies of work when an unfamiliar name pops up, but in the late '80s and early '90s, when I was buying every music magazine that made its way to the two local supermarkets, I would read the names of canonical underground bands hundreds and maybe thousands of times before I ever got the chance to hear their music. You would create your own internal, private mythologies about what Can or Kraftwerk or The Raincoats or Flipper or Sebadoh or Jandek or Gang of Four or Roxy Music or The Slits or The Feelies sounded like based on descriptions by rock critics or pictures of the bands and their album covers. I'd pore over interviews with famous rock stars like Peter Buck, Kurt Cobain, and Flea because those guys would always mention tons of bands that were new to me.
Lincoln, Nebraska doesn't have a national reputation as a mecca of the arts, but it's an interesting place, and when I started college there in 1995, I was a pig in shit. There were tons of interesting local bands (Jesus Lizard and Fugazi were the big influences at the time), a few great bookstores, a few great video stores, and its large student population supported 10 or 11 record stores (almost all of them are closed now, sadly). I was able to load up on all the records I'd previously only been able to read about. I was blowing my own mind on a weekly basis. Thanks to mail order and a few lucky finds in western Nebraska Wal-Marts my senior year of high school, I'd added Minutemen, The Replacements, Black Flag, Bad Brains, Dead Kennedys, and the big indie-rock releases of the time into my collection, but now I could go wild. Besides the new stuff, I was getting my first aural taste of The Stooges, Hüsker Dü, Captain Beefheart, Patti Smith, Flying Burrito Bros., Michael Hurley, Tim Buckley, Robert Wyatt, Skip Spence, Pere Ubu, early Bowie, Buzzcocks, X-Ray Spex, Charles Mingus, R.L. Burnside, Sun Ra, Boredoms, and the non-hits and deep cuts of Devo, The B-52's, The Kinks, The Who, Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder, and The Beach Boys. I was in a receptive frame of mind, and great stuff was smooshing right into my still-developing frontal lobes.
Big Star was a band name I kept seeing in print without ever getting a chance to hear them. They were supposedly an influence on many of my favorite bands, and a song about one of the band members, Alex Chilton, was one of my two or three favorites on a Replacements CD I bought in a Denver mall a month before I graduated high school. I couldn't find their stuff anywhere, though. I was a fanatic Replacements and Guided By Voices fan by 16, still am, and Big Star's name kept popping up as an influence. They also got mentioned as a link between the '60s stuff I loved (Beatles, Kinks, Who, Byrds, Velvet Underground), some '70s stuff I loved (Cheap Trick, Flamin' Groovies) and some then-contemporary stuff I loved (Replacements, GBV, Sebadoh, Pavement, Teenage Fanclub, Nirvana). Who were these guys and why can't I find any of their stuff?
By my sophomore year of college, my geographical comfort zone around the campus area was slowly growing wider, and I decided to take an exploratory bicycle ride several miles past campus to hit up a record store I had yet to visit. (I would be working there within a year.) It was a longer ride than I'd anticipated and on busier streets, and when darkness fell as I arrived, I regretted my decision. I wandered around the store halfheartedly. It was mostly the same stock as the location near my dorm. My bad mood increased as I thought about the long, dark ride home. I decided to browse the used section to see if I could salvage the trip. My mood grew substantially better when I saw it. The #1 Record/Radio City twofer! There it was! Finally! I snatched it up, and also found a used copy of Cheap Trick's Heaven Tonight. Fuck the ride home. My future coworker who rang me up got a misty look in his eye and asked if I'd heard the Big Star records before. He grew very excited when I said I hadn't.
I pedaled uphill as fast as I could in the darkness, back to the dorm, and threw it on. I was a little confused by the first track, "Feel." It sounded like '70s cock-rock. Good '70s cock-rock, but still. "The Ballad of El Goodo" followed, and I remained confused. I liked the song, and it quickly grew on me, but it still sounded like mainstream classic rock. By the time it ended, I was starting to feel the stirrings of something special. By the first few seconds of "In the Street," they had me. I was drawn to this band with the fervor of a crazed missionary. Once Radio City started, forget about it, I was almost catatonic with pleasure. "O My Soul" and "Daisy Glaze." Holy shit. A few months later, I found a copy of Third/Sister Lovers, and a few years later, Chilton's Like Flies on Sherbet was my Thursday night alone in the basement drinking music. Ever since, Big Star has remained in regular rotation on whatever device technology provides for the playing of music, and I've got a lot of shit to rotate.
I soon found out that Chilton had been a part of my life for much longer than I'd realized. When I read that he'd been the singer for the Box Tops, my brain almost melted. My mother was a Box Tops fan and would often play a greatest hits tape of theirs while cooking or doing housework. Chilton had soundtracked a good part of my childhood and teen years, unbeknownst to me. These connections continued. My favorite photographer William Eggleston shot the cover of Radio City and Flies and played piano on the "Nature Boy" cover. Chilton worked with Tav Falco's Panther Burns and The Cramps. Chris Bell was a doomed genius with some beautiful solo stuff of his own. Jim Dickinson produced some of their stuff. He produced, engineered, or played on some of my favorite records by other people like Aretha Franklin, Sam & Dave, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, Green on Red, The Replacements, Tav Falco, Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Mudhoney, Flamin' Groovies, and The Cramps. There was so much great stuff spinning off of and intersecting with them. 
Big Star was long overdue for the documentary treatment, but I was a bit worried going in. Some rock docs are pretty cheap and shoddy-looking, and too many others are full of a nonstop parade of talking heads telling you how great the subject is, usually including one or all of the following: Bono, John Cusack, Henry Rollins, and Johnny Depp, for some reason. Also, hardly any footage of the band exists. What was this going to be?
Mori and DeNicola did a fantastic job. My heart sank initially when an opening scene featured a parade of talking heads singing Big Star's praises, but this scene was brief. What followed was a detailed, entertaining, heartbreaking, uplifting, visual treat full of fascinating people and great music. Mori and DeNicola did the big work, finding a trove of archival material and interviewing tons of important people. Their timing was fortunate, too, as they interviewed several people who passed away shortly thereafter. They talk to almost everybody. Chilton gave the project his blessing, but wouldn't sit down for an interview. There's great footage of him, though, and his presence fills the frame while his absence haunts it, especially when his death becomes a part of the story. Almost everyone else is here, though, including Andy Hummel, Jody Stephens, John Fry, Van Duren, Jim Dickinson, Rick Clark, Tav Falco, William Eggleston, The Cramps, Chris Stamey, Peter Holsapple, Jon Auer, Ken Stringfellow, and Chris Bell's brother and sister. I'm especially grateful for the public access footage of Tav Falco's Panther Burns with Chilton on guitar inciting a confrontation from a combative and grumpy morning show host just by being themselves and having a sense of humor about it.
This movie just pops off the screen with energy and life and creativity, but it's haunted by death and broken dreams, too. The movie runs for almost two hours and is pretty thorough, but it breezes by quickly, and I would have been happy with another two or three hours. Every damn person in this documentary could be the subject of a fascinating documentary of his or her own. I'd love to hear more about Chris Bell's life, for example. What a sad, fascinating, contradictory, tortured guy, torn apart by trying to reconcile his closeted homosexuality, devout Christianity in a band with guys who didn't have much use for religion, just as devout worship of rock and roll, intense desire to be famous butting heads with his shyness and insecurity, and struggles with drugs and depression. Meanwhile, Chilton, a more irreverent, cantankerous guy, had experienced fame as a teenager with the Box Tops and found it ridiculous. He had no interest in pursuing that particular dream and went down his own bizarre, singular, admirable road, deliberately sabotaging his own songs when they had a potential for mainstream acceptance.
Whether Big Star should have been huge is not something I'm that interested in chewing over. There's more to life than the big time. They had fantastically great songs and were all good-looking, charismatic guys, but their songs were out of step with the mid-'70s. Like most works of high quality that fail to achieve mainstream acceptance in their immediate present, Big Star slowly built a small but devoted following that gets a little bigger every day. Those songs will last until the sun burns out, and this documentary should bring some new people to those songs. Even if it doesn't, it's a good watch for the already converted.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

I'm way behind #6: Pacific Rim (Guillermo del Toro)

I'm still four months behind in my posts, so I'd better take a cue from Tom Waits and get behind the mule.
A handful of times a year, someone I don't know that well will ask me if I've seen some new Hollywood blockbuster or if I'm looking forward to seeing some new Hollywood blockbuster, and I usually give this person the polite but honest answer that Hollywood blockbusters aren't my thing. I don't go into my whole spiel about how the last 15 years of Hollywood product has been a dreary, depressing slog to sit through, how entertainment and craftsmanship have been replaced by CGI, homogeneity, noise, spatial incoherence, monochromatic color palettes, bloated running times, franchises, sequels, remakes, films that are nothing but bombastic climaxes, and motherfucking superheroes up the wazoo, how these films are empty, soul-deadening experiences that bludgeon their viewers into apathetic comas, how actual fun has been replaced by the idea of fun, a fun in quotes, a fun substitute made of thin colorless paste. I just smile politely and say, "Blockbusters aren't really my thing." Somehow, I get the same look I get when I tell people I don't like sports, that subtle look that says, "Oh, you're one of those guys. You hate fun, and I feel a little sorry for you." Sometimes, they even tell me I need to lighten up.
But I don't hate fun. Honest, I don't. I love many crowd-pleasing, mainstream Hollywood films, from '30s screwball comedies to '80s and early-'90s action movies. But I find the recent Hollywood blockbusters so depressing, so dreary, so not fun that I'm baffled and confused by their continuing popularity. For rare blockbusters like Iron Man or Spider-Man that actually capture some of that childlike wonder and light entertainment uplift, you get 40 billion depressing pieces of shit that make you want to hang yourself. You may want to check my math, but you get the idea.
I don't see many big Hollywood movies in the theater, especially tentpole summer action spectacular extravaganzas with kid's meal tie-ins, but there are some rare exceptions. Pacific Rim is one. (It probably underperformed in the United States because I was interested in seeing it. Sorry, everyone.) I'm a fan of Guillermo del Toro. I trust him. I love the way the creatures in his films look. I love the care he takes with the framing of his shots and the intricate design of his settings. His films are actually fun, and he's one of those rare guys who can bounce from small canvases to huge ones, from personal independent projects to big studio movies, with his talent and personality intact. We lost Peter Jackson down the hobbit-hole, but del Toro is still, mostly, here.
Much like the battles between the giant robots and giant monsters that make up the bulk of the film's running time, Pacific Rim sees the del Toro of old battling the form and structure of the modern blockbuster. It's an uneasy and not always successful marriage, but del Toro comes out ahead in the end. The film's weaknesses are very much a sign of the current blockbuster times. Unlike in his other films (I'm excepting his for-hire direction of Blade 2), del Toro's characters here are underdeveloped and thin, a few of the battle sequences have the cameras in so tight to the action that it's hard to tell what's going on, and it's a loud and noisy film full of climactic scenes. Nevertheless, there's a human heartbeat thumping underneath all the blockbuster trappings. The monsters are, once again, fantastic, as in every del Toro movie, and the robots are also meticulously designed to elicit childlike glee. Though I have quibbles with some of the camera placement during the big fights, each battle has moments of visceral, kinetic action that most blockbusters lack. Most of the jokes land where they're supposed to. The cast is unusual for a big sci-fi action movie, made up of cult TV actors Idris Elba, Charlie Day, and Charlie Hunnam, Japanese art-film star Rinko Kikuchi, and the mighty Ron Perlman, a del Toro regular. Perlman, in particular, gets some great moments, and his black market operation has some of the best set design in the whole film. The CGI actually looks good and is integrated pretty seamlessly into the frame, but I still would have loved to see an '80s-style foam and latex handmade edition of this thing. Still, you're left with the feeling that cast and director are having a great deal of fun, and that spirit is infectious.
I'm always going to prefer the Cronos/Devil's Backbone/Pan's Labyrinth del Toro to the Pacific Rim del Toro, and I think I prefer the first Hellboy as a better example of mainstream del Toro, but Pacific Rim gave me something the vast majority of recent Hollywood blockbusters haven't -- a good time, and that's worth something in this sour, divided, alienated present.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

I'm way behind #5: Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach)

This light, charming, black-and-white homage to the French New Wave films of the 1960s opens with a scene that made me immediately hostile to the film and its characters, even as I admired the shot composition and B&W cinematography. I braced myself for a grating, irritating 90 minutes, but I should have known better. I'm a fan of the three previous films I've seen by Frances Ha writer/director Noah Baumbach (Kicking and Screaming (not the Will Ferrell little league soccer movie), The Squid and the Whale, and Greenberg) and the two Wes Anderson films he cowrote (The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and the Roald Dahl adaptation Fantastic Mr. Fox), so I should have trusted his instincts. That "asshole" (according to the world's most insane film critic, Armond White) Baumbach took me from hating this movie to really liking it within 20 minutes. What sorcery is this?
To be fair, my initial hatred of the film may stem from my premature fogeyism and aversion to the stereotypical Williamsburg (or at least, the media-created fairytale version of "Williamsburg") hipster and all local and regional versions of this partially fabricated beast. The film opens with Frances (Greta Gerwig, also the film's cowriter) and her BFF and roommate Sophie (Mickey Sumner, fruit of the loins of the artist we all know and love as lute-playing boner-killer Sting) sharing Frances' bed as they peruse the Internet on a laptop and engage in too-clever banter these young women seem to have absorbed like water from the comments sections of Gawker, the AV Club, and Brooklyn Vegan. It's a more naturalistic but just as annoying post-collegiate version of Diablo Cody's Juno irritations. Good work on nailing the way these people talk, Baumbach and Gerwig, but why would I want to spend a movie with them?
Here's why. We've seen far too many movies about aimless, inarticulate young people wandering through bohemian urban milieus, but they've all been men (or man-boys really), their childish aimlessness is romanticized, and they are usually saved by a patient, kind woman who's got her shit together but wants to help because of aimless boy's sexily hip charisma. This time, the aimless slacker is a woman, her lack of motivation and direction is seen as a negative and is a constant source of anxiety for her, and the movie is about her growing up and pulling her own shit together. Also, she's actually likable when she's being herself. Baumbach and Gerwig have fun making fun of the hipster man-children whose parents pay for their spacious New York apartments and who Gerwig has to crash with after her BFF and roommate moves into a nicer place with a different roommate. There's some very funny stuff here about the cultural differences between the aimless-by-choice trust-fund early twentysomethings and the employed yet aimless-by-circumstance Frances, who is approaching thirty and is seen by these guys as some hilarious, hapless eccentric from an earlier generation.
Baumbach and Gerwig mildly and comedically subvert expectations for this type of story. I like how Sophie is a picture postcard Williamsburg hipster archetype, but her boyfriend is a fratty jock who works in business. He's also a nice, likable guy but is a little bit scared of her and does what she says. I've seen this kind of relationship in life but never in a movie before, this coldly intimidating hipster/kindly dude-bro couple. Also, through a Curb Your Enthusiasm-style comedic chain of uncomfortable events, Frances flies to Paris by herself for a very brief and very expensive two days, and spends a miserable weekend alone. Boy, I made that sound hilarious. It is, and it's the only time I've ever seen Paris represented on film as a cold, depressing, alienating, average metropolis, where magic does not appear on every corner, and where the atmosphere is unforgiving if you don't know anyone and don't have any plans.
I also like how Baumbach's take on New York in the present evokes moments from the '60s French New Wave films without explicitly referencing them, with the exception of the soundtrack, which features several excerpts from those films' scores. The black and white is gorgeous, and the cast is natural and sharp. The happy ending was too sugarcoated for my tastes, I don't understand friendships like Frances' and Sophie's, and that opening scene still bugs me, but everything else charmed me.  
 

Thursday, September 12, 2013

I'm way behind #4: Before Midnight (Richard Linklater)

Richard Linklater has a knack for using actors I normally dislike, find boring, or enjoy only in small doses (Matthew McConaughey, Ben Affleck, Adam Goldberg, Giovanni Ribisi, Steve Zahn, Jack Black, Marcia Gay Harden, Wilmer Valderrama, Bobby Cannavale, post-1991 Keanu Reeves, Woody Harrelson, post-1980s Winona Ryder, Zac Efron) in mysteriously pleasing ways that bypass my usual issues with them, but he had to put all his English on it to make me stomach Ethan Hawke, probably my least favorite of all the actors Linklater has used. I don't know how he did it, but he did it. Hawke, an actor I find unbearably smug in everything except Explorers (he was a little kid), Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (his character was too desperate to be smug), and the last two parts of Linklater's Before trilogy (the Linklater voodoo) and who seems like a smug, arrogant prick in every interview and talk show appearance I've had the misfortune to see (especially his thankfully brief moments in Abel Ferrara's Chelsea Hotel documentary Chelsea on the Rocks), has a genuine chemistry with Julie Delpy in these films and knows this guy he's playing inside and out. Something wonderful and a little bit scary is developing with this series, which started as a slight but enjoyable twentysomething romance and picturesque Europe-as-seen-by-an-American slideshow and has become a melancholy, funny, sad, and tough look at aging, relationships, love, and the passage of time. (The European backdrops are still ridiculously postcard pretty, though.)
Three films, three days, separated by nine years. The couple, in their early twenties and just out of college, meet and fall in love in Vienna in Before Sunrise but have to separate when Hawke's character returns to the United States after his vacation ends. They agree to meet again the following year. That meeting, we learn in Before Sunset, never happened, but the pair reconnect in France nine years later. Now in their mid-thirties, they find they still have the same chemistry. Again, we're left with an open ending. Will Hawke stay with Delpy or go back to his family in the States? Before Midnight is a darker and tougher film than its predecessors. Hawke's and Delpy's characters are now deep into a long relationship, with twin daughters, and some major tension is simmering over Hawke's desire to move the family to Chicago so he can be near his son from his failed marriage with Delpy wanting to stay in Europe.
It's impossible not to be charmed by Delpy, but I pushed back against Before Midnight at first. This is a film about good-looking people with great careers living and vacationing in the most beautiful parts of Europe, and so much of the first part of Before Midnight is a glimpse into a fabulous life I'll never have. It seemed like a softer, more domesticated retread of the great second film, and a few of the long conversations pushed the themes a little too neatly. (I also don't buy Hawke as a writer, even though he is a published author in what we call "real life." Reading three pages of one of his novels in a bookstore convinced me he would never have been published if he weren't a famous actor. Maybe the terribleness of his actual writing makes me doubt the veracity of his being a critically acclaimed author in these movies.) An easy film to enjoy at this early stage, but a hard one to admire or respect. That soon changed. Things start to get really interesting when an almost tossed-off line of dialogue reveals that Delpy's and Hawke's characters still haven't married. The tension about the proposed move slowly increases, and the film's final third is one of the rarest things in film, an explosively accurate and honest depiction of a major fight between a couple with a long history. They know just how to hurt each other with the most carefully placed insults, and the hotel room war of words is one of Linklater's greatest moments as a filmmaker. It's also the best thing I've seen Hawke do. Delpy nails it, but I never had any doubts about her. This scene hurts, it's so true. If you've ever had a long, brutal argument with your significant other (and I wouldn't trust anyone who hasn't), you will recognize parts of yourself here, and you will cringe, laugh, and take an emotional beating. It's a rough watch, but it's full of humor, too, and it ebbs and flows and stops and starts and quiets down and explodes again in noise like the real epic fights do. It's a scene that turns an almost good film into an almost great one. Where will they be nine years from now?

Monday, August 26, 2013

I'm way behind #3: At Any Price (Ramin Bahrani)

At Any Price is a disappointing stumble for New York-based, North Carolina-raised filmmaker Ramin Bahrani, especially after the leap forward that was his last film, 2008's Goodbye Solo. I hope it's a temporary aberration and not the first act of a sad decline. I'm keeping my fingers crossed.
Bahrani, the first-generation American son of Iranian immigrants, made three features of increasing excellence and the endearingly oddball comedic short Plastic Bag (with Werner Herzog as the voice of a plastic bag and music by a member of Sigur Ros) before the conventional, overheated At Any Price got the better of him, and it's been a pleasure to follow his career over the last eight years. His promising first two films, Man Push Cart, about a former Pakistani pop star struggling to make ends meet in Manhattan with his coffee and bagel cart, and the Italian neo-realist-inspired Chop Shop, about a couple of teenage orphans living above and working in the auto repair shops and scrapyards of the Willets Point area of Queens, made me take notice. They were good films with minor flaws, and they gave me the sense that Bahrani would have some great films ahead of him once he acquired a little age and experience.
The first (hopefully not the last) great Bahrani film appeared in 2008. The filmmaker returned to his home state of North Carolina for Goodbye Solo, a sad, funny, and visually beautiful story about a complex friendship between a Senegalese immigrant cab driver named Solo (Souleymane Sy Savane) and one of his fares in Winston-Salem, William (Red West, an actor, songwriter, and stuntman most famous for being an integral part of Elvis Presley's Memphis Mafia as a driver, bodyguard, songwriter, and close friend).
While that film ended with a hypnotic but emotionally intense, nearly dialogue-free, formally gorgeous long scene in North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains that relied on the composition of images, the landscape, the characters' faces, and meditative silence to tell the end of the story, At Any Price is full of long speeches, melodramatic outbursts, soapbox preaching, and a plot full of soap operatic twists and turns. The story of an Iowa farm family, the Whipples, and their ambitious patriarch Henry (Dennis Quaid), who has turned a small but successful family farm into a large agribusiness machine, the film is a confused mix of puffed-up melodrama and rural slice-of-life. Quaid's ready for his grown sons to enter the family business, but the unseen prodigal son is inexplicably climbing mountains in Argentina (his letters home, read in voice-over, provide some of the film's most ridiculous low points) and the younger son, Dean (Zac Efron) is more interested in breaking into NASCAR, getting into trouble with his redneck friends, taking his smart but younger girlfriend Cadence (the excellent Maika Monroe) for granted, and brooding and sulking in attempts to cultivate his sensitive bad-boy image. Meanwhile, Heather Graham has a thankless, one-note role as a former teen beauty stuck in her Iowa hometown who now sleeps with everyone, including Henry and Dean. Kim Dickens is the suffering, noble wife and mother. Clancy Brown is Henry's agribusiness competition, and Red West (thank god for Red West) is Henry's hard-assed, distant dad. We start at this fever-pitch of melodrama, and rev it up from there.
What happened? Look at how evocative the titles of Bahrani's previous films are. Then look at the flat, generic title of this one. Look at how Bahrani wrote his previous films either alone or with a friend and how he wrote this one with a professional writer. Look at how he swapped his casts of nonprofessionals and offbeat character actors for this cast of Hollywood pros. Look at how his previous films' visual palette gives way to the flat, anonymous look of this movie.
I will give Bahrani some credit. This is a disappointingly conventional film, but the conventions Bahrani follows here are currently unfashionable and unusual. The template for At Any Price is a combination of '50s melodrama and the late '70s/early '80s message movies about factories and farms like Norma Rae, The River, and Silkwood. At Any Price plays like a Joshua Logan period piece like Picnic or Bus Stop without the Technicolor, fun, and charisma or like a message movie with too much message. Still, it's an interesting choice of model in today's world of CGI action and rise-and-fall biopics in Hollywood and the inarticulate, distanced young urban bohemia in indie land. Bahrani gets the rural Midwestern landscape, speech patterns, and social life just right, and Clancy Brown, Red West, and Maika Monroe give better performances than the material deserves. The normally excellent Dennis Quaid (my wife is absolutely right when she says that every Kevin Costner movie would be substantially improved with Quaid in the Costner role) gives an oddly mannered performance, and Zac Efron can't do much with his silly character. I could get into the disastrous home movie montage that opens the film, but I don't have the heart. I'm guardedly optimistic for his next film, but any more like this one, and I may have to bow out. 

Monday, August 05, 2013

I'm way behind #2: A Woman Under the Influence & Husbands (John Cassavetes)

The Austin Film Society hosted a mini-retrospective of my favorite filmmaker, John Cassavetes, a few months ago, giving me a chance to see two of my favorite movies on the big screen for the first time. (I skipped the third film in the series, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, only because I caught that one on the big screen last year.) I almost talked myself out of going because of my temporarily shitty work schedule and because I've seen both films at least a dozen times, but Cassavetes' work has this insane hold on me that manages to blast through my strongest stores of inertia. If my arm was ripped off in a horrific industrial accident right before a Cassavetes screening, I would just slap a bunch of Band-Aids on it and head into the theater. I guess I'm saying I like these movies.
As much as I admire Cassavetes, I have a hard time understanding or agreeing with the ways his films, directorial style, screenplays, and methods have been described, praised, slammed, or represented by the media, fellow admirers, and irritated detractors alike. There are a lot of oft-repeated misconceptions about his work that have hardened into conventional wisdom. He has a reputation for being a sloppy technician and a maker of improvised, neo-realist films that are primarily actor-driven (acting exercises masquerading as narrative films to his non-fans). Many mediocre filmmakers claim they're making Cassavetes-inspired cinema when they throw some inexperienced actors into dialogue-driven, improvisation-heavy scenarios with manufactured revelations, framed in sloppy, stagy awkwardness. These films have about as much to do with Cassavetes as Cassavetes' films have to do with Star Wars.
Cassavetes' first two purely independent productions, Shadows and Faces (with two unhappy dalliances in Hollywood in between), do have some occasionally sloppy technical moments, due to the fact he and his collaborators were learning as they went with a nonprofessional crew, but Cassavetes became a graceful, accomplished visual stylist with an innate yet unconventional sense of composition and camera movement. He's partially responsible for the misunderstanding about his screenplays being mostly improvised on the set. Shadows ends with a title card reading, "The film you have just seen is an improvisation." That film was created from improvisations in an acting workshop Cassavetes ran with Burt Lane (Diane's dad) in the late 1950s, but the story and most of the dialogue was set in stone by the time the cameras rolled. Cassavetes' dialogue, with the exception of a handful of improvised lines, was scripted for the remainder of his career, and he instructed the actors not to deviate from the words on the page. What is improvised in Cassavetes' films is what makes them so peculiar and so emotionally affecting. The actors could move where they wanted and say the words in whatever cadence, volume, pace, and tone they wanted. Cassavetes avoided storyboards and marks. He lit and miked the entirety of the locations and sets so the actors were free to move around without worrying about having to stand in a particular spot or hit their marks. This freed them up to concentrate on the characters they were playing in more intuitive, experiential ways than the mainstream or independent filmmaking norm and to honestly and intuitively react to their fellow actors, but they still had to stick to the structure and words of the script. This was no sloppy acting exercise as movie. This was a carefully devised method, a serious approach to film form from a genuinely visually oriented filmmaker. He created a formal structure based on the movements and performances of his actors as well as the wonderful strangeness of his scripts, and he managed to do this without turning his movies into filmed plays. This was cinema, not theater. (To be clear, I'm not knocking theater here. I am knocking the unfair, inaccurate putdown of Cassavetes' work as uncinematic, theatrical exercises.)
I also take issue with the widespread characterization of Cassavetes' films as slices of life or documentary-like cinema verite. His films are far stranger than that. Though the emotions his films stir up in the empathetic viewer are visceral, real, and raw and some of his characters are everyday working people, his dialogue is a mixture of hysterical outbursts, tangents both mundane and bizarre, non sequiturs and jokes, singing, laughter, hairpin-turn shifts in tone, repetition, verbal tics, and naked emotion. He has a particular and stylized way of making his characters talk that is every bit as strange as any other unique writer of film dialogue. Beginning with The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Cassavetes' films become dreamier, more melancholy, even stranger. The Crazy Horse strip club and cabaret in that film is Fellini by way of Ed Wood by way of an idealized burlesque house from remembered history. Opening Night contains several scenes of Gena Rowlands' actress character talking to the ghost of a teenaged fan killed in an accident. Gloria is Hollywood fantasy and escapism colliding with the Cassavetes method. Love Streams features multiple hallucinatory fantasy sequences and a musical number. The man doesn't get enough credit for being a visual stylist and formal innovator.
I can blather on about Cassavetes, can't I? Time to move my blather to the particular films at hand.
A Woman Under the Influence is probably Cassavetes' best-known film, with Gena Rowlands' deservedly famous, very intense embodiment of Mabel Longhetti, a housewife whose eccentricities push at the constrictions placed on her by herself, her family, and 1974 American society until they burst. Peter Falk is just as good as her equally eccentric (though his eccentricities are more socially acceptable) city construction worker husband. These are inadequate descriptions, as almost every description is when attempting to write about a Cassavetes film. These films follow their own beats, their own rhythms. They don't work like other movies. They're all Mabels.
I was surprised at how much I'd absorbed A Woman Under the Influence while watching it for the first time on the big screen. I had it down. I had it memorized. I knew every beat, every line of dialogue, what was coming next, how many scenes were left. I'd seen it so many times before, on video or DVD. But it was still a new experience. I don't know how he did it. Each viewing is like a first viewing. I feel differently about the characters every time I watch. This time, I was more disturbed by and less sympathetic to Peter Falk, but I still felt so much love for his character, and for all the characters. I love the way they move through the house, up and down the stairs, into the kitchen, into the living room. That house is a character, too. The day trip to the beach after Mabel is committed. The young kids drinking beer with their dad in the back of the pickup. This is a film that exhausts you, but it recharges you, too. The construction crew scenes have a greater impact on a big screen. They don't have the same intensity on the television. I don't know why. There are so many mysteries here, so much worth going back to again and again, but most people would rather watch Transformers 4. I don't know what else to say. This movie is worth your fucking time.
Husbands was different. I didn't have it memorized. I mean, I did. But I didn't. It played so differently on a big screen. I don't know why. I'd always loved it from the first time I saw it, but I didn't think it was one of his masterpieces. It was almost there, but it fell a little short. I have to revise that now. I've bumped it up to masterpiece status. The humor played well with a Friday night crowd. So did the tough stuff, the ugly stuff. It had an electrical charge to it, seeing it with an audience. That extra juice, that jump from being with a crowd who's also affected by it. After seeing it, I felt lonely but also a part of something. Those guys in Husbands. So likable. So unlikable. Such a rhythm to that movie. You go with them until it's time to stop, and then it just stops, right where it's supposed to stop. The greatest bender in movie history. These movies resist analysis, summing up, description. Look at all the words I've just wasted trying to tell you about something that can only be seen. Stop reading this shit and go see them.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

I'm way behind #1: Post Tenebras Lux (Carlos Reygadas)

When I decided to start writing about every film I see in a theater, I thought I could stay on top of things. I didn't count on a temporarily inconvenient work schedule and my innate laziness, and now I'm almost three months behind. I plan to rectify the situation with a series I'm calling "I'm way behind."
I may be a misguided fool, but, to me, Mexican writer/director Carlos Reygadas is an anomaly. He makes films as if the last 35 years of prevailing trends in both mainstream and arthouse cinema never happened, but his films aren't retro-nostalgia throwbacks. They feel very contemporary, but you'd have to go back to people like Dreyer, Tarkovsky, Bresson, "trilogy of faith"-era Bergman, the Herzog of Aguirre, and the Erice of Spirit of the Beehive to find a similar ambition and tone. He makes visionary, emotional epics on an intimate scale with mixed casts of professional and nonprofessional actors in Mexican landscapes and communities free from the usual cinematic cliches of what that country looks like. His films are largely meditative and slowly paced, but they contain outrageous moments of apocalyptic/mystical provocation and psychedelic lunacy, and his approach to sexuality and nudity walks a thin line between matter-of-factness and titillation. His shot composition is remarkably beautiful, with a subtle undercurrent of menace. He's an artist, not an entertainer or commercial huckster, but there is just enough P.T. Barnum in him to make the viewing experience slightly unsettling. 
I have yet to catch up with his first film, Japon, but the two preceding Post Tenebras Lux, Battle in Heaven and his Dreyer homage Silent Light, may be two of my favorite films of the past decade. Silent Light, in particular, gave me a glimpse into a community I'd never known about previously, the white Mennonite settlements in Chihuahua that have existed since the 1920s. The film was the first made in Plautdietsch, the dialect spoken by low-German Mennonites. Those two films were well received by critics, but Post Tenebras Lux is a much more divisive animal. An abstract semi-autobiography of fragmented narrative, Post Tenebras Lux features Reygadas' children playing the lead characters' children, uses Reygadas' house as a primary location, and includes two scenes of English boys playing rugby, which initially baffled me until I read some biographical information about the director and discovered the rugby teams were affiliated with an English boarding school Reygadas attended as a boy. This impressionistic approach to narrative and form has made some critics pull out that old saw of an insult, "self-indulgent," but I think their problem is that Reygadas is not indulging or validating their own laziness, prejudice, and lack of engagement.
The film opens with a virtuosic piece of filmmaking; Reygadas' young daughter Rut wanders unsupervised in a rural, mountainous landscape at dusk while dogs and cattle move about her and a thunderstorm punctuates the enormous sky with yellows and purples and huge claps of percussive sound. The rest of the film can't quite live up to this visual embarrassment of riches (though it comes close), but what other film of the last thirty years could?
The rest of Post Tenebras Lux includes both quiet and fraught domestic moments, an animated devil wandering the home at night, a transformative sexual experience in a French bathhouse, a robbery gone bad, an off-key but emotionally affecting Neil Young cover, a meeting of recovering addicts in a reconfigured shack, reverently mystical shots of the landscape, and the most unexpected sacrificial atonement of sins you'll probably ever see. The film was shot in the rarely used 1:33 aspect ratio that is square instead of rectangular. Reygadas also shoots his exterior scenes with a distortion effect around the edges of the frame that makes the viewer feel as if he's staring through glass. Rather than the pretentious distraction this sounds like on paper, the lens distortion has the effect of making the film seem like a dream or hallucination, as well as setting it apart from conventional filmmaking technique and forcing the viewer to acknowledge it as a piece of art on its own terms, a personal expression from a man with a very particular way of looking at the world. I'm grateful to have had the opportunity to see it on a theater screen.

Friday, May 03, 2013

Malick, Gondry, Nichols


To the Wonder (Terrence Malick)
Though To the Wonder is very much a companion piece to Malick's previous film, The Tree of Life, in style, structure, and subject matter, it marks a couple unique firsts for the director. Excepting a few scenes of Sean Penn gazing pensively out of a Houston high-rise window in The Tree of Life, this is Malick's first film set in the present. Even more shockingly, To the Wonder arrived in theaters less than two years after The Tree of Life. This is unprecedented for a guy who took twenty years to follow up his second film and whose shortest previous gap between releases was five years. Malick, who is currently making two (possibly three) films simultaneously, is entering a prolific phase, though I'm not sure that's a good thing. I greatly admired The Tree of Life, and I like To the Wonder more than I dislike it, but I have some major reservations. If Malick continues in this vein, I'm worried the formal techniques he's grown fond of in his last three films will become crutches. He's coming dangerously close to self-parody, and though I admire anyone honest enough to get that close to ridiculousness, I can feel my tolerance for self-consciously poetic voice-over, Christian mysticism, ethereally floating camera movement, sunlight peeking through trees, and childlike women twirling their skirts stretching to the breaking point. Every Malick film has used poetic, impressionistic voice-over and placed even the strongest characters in a natural, beautiful landscape that puts the smallness of their individual egos and existences into perspective, and has used major Hollywood stars deeply against type as figures in a landscape instead of as bright, shining, charisma machines who are more special than their audiences. However, Malick's style changed beginning with 2005's The New World, though there were some hints of this direction in 1998's The Thin Red Line. His camera started floating above and below his actors and around the frame like a hovering spirit, the narrative became far more abstract, impressionistic, and plotless (shapeless and formless, if you're a detractor), and the voice-over became much more self-consciously poetic, philosophical, and overtly Christian (or pretentious and sometimes silly if this approach is not in your wheelhouse). Gone was the humor, strange improvisatory non-sequiturs, and matter-of-fact observation of mundane details in the voice-over work of Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek in Badlands and Linda Manz in Days of Heaven. I miss that Malick.
To the Wonder is Malick's most minimal and abstract narrative. Ben Affleck is billed as the lead, but he barely speaks and is almost always shown in side profile. I admire this unconventional use of a Hollywood star, though it drove the middle-aged women seated behind me crazy. (Their loud take on the film after it ended: "To the Wonder, huh? Well, I wonder what that was about." They then spent a few minutes loudly trying to piece together a plot like it was a generic Hollywood film.) Instead, the film is really about two women who try to maintain relationships with him (Olga Kurylenko and Rachel McAdams) and a depressed priest (Javier Bardem) trying to work through a crisis of faith. Bardem loves God but feels God is inaccessible and unavailable to his suffering followers, while Kurylenko and McAdams try to maintain their love for the emotionally distant Affleck. There are beautiful images throughout, and lots to chew over afterwards, but Kurylenko is frustratingly childish, constantly twirling, twirling, twirling her skirt, dancing, jumping on the bed, lying on the ground, rubbing her face on flowers, leaves, and rocks. No grown woman acts like this. Still, there's too much of value here to dismiss it for its substantial flaws. A frustrating, rewarding film.

The We and the I (Michel Gondry)
Far better, though far harder to see, is Michel Gondry's latest, which screened only one time in Austin. Gondry, inspired by a Paris bus ride that saw a group of teenagers board after the school day ended, wrote a brief scenario and approached several New York City schools about making a film with their students. The schools passed for insurance reasons, but an after-school program in the Bronx said yes. Gondry taught a workshop for the teenagers to create the characters and give them some acting experience, and enlisted two screenwriters, Jeffrey Grimshaw and Paul Proch, to help him turn the workshop and story idea into a feature. The film takes place on the last day of school, almost entirely on a city bus (though Gondry punctuates the narrative with comedic fantasy sequences and a documentary-style flashback to a traumatic event in one student's life). The students board, and we follow their shifting relationships, conversations, cruelties, kindnesses, and alliances as the number grows smaller at each stop. The kids are amazing, gifted, natural actors, the emotions are earned, not forced, and Gondry's camera catches it all. It's a funny, sad, sweet, tough, honest movie, and the fact that the film is not playing widely in every theater in the country is just one more sad indictment of our bullshit mainstream culture.

Mud (Jeff Nichols)
Mud is very good and is actually playing to wide audiences, but it stars Matthew McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon, so the odds are in its favor for adequate distribution. With Mud, Nichols continues the hot streak he began with his first two films, Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter. He builds unusual films from classic situations, is excellent with actors and landscapes, and creates movies that have the feel of a great Southern novel. Mud is more accessible and conventional than Nichols' first two films without sacrificing any of his strengths and could set him up for a long, successful career. A Huck Finn boys' adventure story married to a Southern noir crime thriller, Mud is primarily about the difficulties and joys of love and friendship. Nichols is a skilled storyteller with an innate understanding of character and pacing, and he pulls great performances out of the two child leads, The Tree of Life's Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland, the big movie stars, and the sharp assemblage of character actors rounding out the cast, including his go-to guy Michael Shannon, Sam Shepard, Sarah Paulson, Ray McKinnon, Paul Sparks, and Joe Don Baker. The McConaughey redemption continues! At this point, I'm just going to pretend he made Dazed and Confused and Lone Star and then retired for twenty years before coming back to movies last year. Fair enough?
P.S. Mud has my favorite line of dialogue of the year. Sheridan goes to the trailer of Lofland and his uncle (Michael Shannon). Lofland is sitting on the steps outside while the Beach Boys' "Help Me, Rhonda" blares from within. Lofland: "Hold on. We can't go inside yet. He's doin' it. That's his doin' it song."

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

R.I.P. Bigas Luna and Les Blank

This is a bad month for film. Directors Bigas Luna and Les Blank both died of cancer this past weekend. I have only seen two films each from Luna and Blank, but they were enough to make me a fan, and I'm looking forward to exploring the rest of what they had to offer.

Bigas Luna was sometimes called the Spanish Russ Meyer, which is unfairly reductive, but both men shared a lunatic visual invention, a great sense of humor, and an obsession with breasts. Luna was very much his own man, however, and I strongly recommend the two Luna films I've seen, Anguish and Jamon Jamon. Anguish, an English-language postmodern horror film from 1987, renders foolish anyone who holds up Wes Craven's Scream as an exemplar of meta-horror. Luna's film is a structurally ambitious commentary about how we watch horror films while never forgetting to be a great horror film (maybe even two great horror films), and it does it with more intelligence, humor, respect, excitement, visual invention, beauty, and affection than Craven's obvious, irritating smugfest. Jamon Jamon is an almost indescribable mix of dark comedy, light comedy, live-action cartoon, doomed romance, advertising satire, soap opera, tragedy, critique of Spanish machismo culture, and T&A sex comedy, with early roles for Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem. Luna films an epic fight scene in which both parties batter each other with generous cuts of pig meat, and another scene prominently features a parrot contributing to something I've definitely never seen in any other film. I'd also like to mention that both movies are massively entertaining and fun in addition to their artistic merits.
The two Les Blank films I've seen have Werner Herzog as their subject. The feature-length Burden of Dreams documents the tortuous making of Fitzcarraldo while the short film Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe shows Herzog making good on the bet he made with Errol Morris that Morris would never finish Gates of Heaven. It's a testament to Blank's skills that the films are admired by both Herzog fans and detractors. Burden of Dreams is a particularly strong look at the folly, hubris, passion, insanity, and drive needed to create art in difficult conditions and a critique of some negative consequences of that drive on the indigenous population and environment. Besides his work about Herzog, Blank made documentaries about garlic, buck-toothed women, Southern music, beer, Creole cooking, and Huey Lewis & The News, among many other subjects.

Saturday, April 06, 2013

Roger Ebert 1942-2013


I don't know how a guy like me from a town of 1,500 people in small-town Nebraska, four hours' drive from the nearest major city (Denver), became obsessed with music, movies, and literature when most of my peers were into sports, shopping, guns, sitcoms, blockbusters, racism, sexism, chewing tobacco, church, and top 40 radio (I'm being unfairly reductive here, but just a little unfairly reductive). I just don't know. I loved the arts from the second I could walk and talk, and this love was stronger than the pressure of a local environment that was either openly hostile or completely indifferent to anything diverting from my laundry list above.
I was fortunate growing up to have a mother and grandmother that actively encouraged my love of reading and curiosity about experiences outside myself. My father has never read anything voluntarily in his life, but he also never discouraged anything his kids loved. In one of Roger Ebert's best pieces of writing, an essay about his father called "My Old Man," he wrote beautifully about receiving that same encouragement from his father. I felt a kinship to Roger Ebert, besides our shared loves of books and movies. We both grew up in small Midwestern towns to working-class parents of German and Irish heritage. We were both raised Catholic, served as altar boys, and became agnostics. Ebert loved science fiction as a child, while I was obsessed with horror. We both received English and journalism degrees and wrote for our college newspapers. Ebert, of course, was professionally successful from a young age, while I have consistently failed in every professional endeavor I've tried, thwarted by unemployment, a bad economy, blown opportunities, my own depression and inertia, bitterness, inability to schmooze and network, and just plain bad luck (also maybe a lack of talent), but I've still got some living in me, and Ebert is a great role model for how to live well.
As a child in the 1980s, I became a regular viewer of Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert's television program. Pre-Internet, I had no idea they were newspaper reviewers. I just loved seeing two regular-looking guys debate movies on television. "These guys love movies the way I love music," I remember thinking. When I worked for my college newspaper as an Arts & Entertainment reporter and reviewer and copy desk chief, I would often hang out after my shift was done to surf the web and work on papers for my classes. It was there I started reading Ebert's reviews regularly. I never stopped. I enjoyed his unaffected, conversational style and his deep love of film. So many TV and newspaper film critics in this country approach film criticism with condescension, like the movies are a goof, a diversion, something to inspire pithy, dismissive one-liners or cliched superlatives. Siskel and Ebert were the only mainstream TV critics to regularly feature foreign films, lower profile independents, and classic Hollywood movies alongside the blockbusters, Oscar bait, and high-profile independents, and Ebert was one of the only mainstream newspaper critics to do the same.
Ebert was a gateway to wonderful things. His taste was populist enough to earn a large mainstream following, but open and curious enough to champion the likes of Werner Herzog, John Cassavetes, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Terrence Malick, Yasujiro Ozu, Eric Rohmer, Bela Tarr, Dusan Makevejev, and Carl Dreyer. Ebert was also the first American critic to review Martin Scorsese and Mike Leigh, and he became a lifelong supporter of both filmmakers. History has vindicated his loud support of Bonnie and Clyde and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia at a time when most critics were trashing these films. And he got Do the Right Thing in a way most white critics didn't. Also, he co-wrote three Russ Meyer films, four if you count the aborted Sex Pistols movie that didn't happen because Meyer and Malcolm McLaren didn't get along. (The film eventually morphed into Julien Temple's The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle, which is pretty great in its own right.) He's probably the only guy who wrote a book about rice cookers and collaborated with Russ Meyer.
He wasn't infallible. I can only shake my head sadly at his negative reviews of Raising Arizona, To Sleep with Anger, Dead Man, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Romero's Day of the Dead, Husbands, The Chelsea Girls (the only non-narrative/experimental film he reviewed), Cosmopolis, Full Metal Jacket, Blue Velvet, Rushmore, The Passenger, and Abbas Kiarostami's entire filmography. (To his credit, he changed his mind about The Passenger upon its rerelease. He also came around on Tarkovsky and Blade Runner.) He praised Christopher Nolan, Oliver Stone, and "serious" Steven Spielberg too highly, and I don't know what he saw in Paul Haggis' Crash, his favorite film of the year and one of my least favorite viewing experiences ever. But that was part of the fun of reading him. He made you see what he saw for a few minutes.
He went into every film hoping to like it, without prejudice. I loved that. He praised The Straight Story and Mulholland Drive after disliking every other David Lynch film when most other critics would have given up on a director who consistently disappointed them. He was criticized for giving too many three-star reviews and liking too many movies. (My favorite moment of Siskel and Ebert: After Ebert gave the Burt Reynolds/cute kid buddy cop fiasco Cop and a Half a thumbs up, a stunned Siskel replied, barely able to contain his laughter: "Where's your hat and beard, Santa? You just gave these filmmakers a gift.") Maybe he was too soft on too many movies, but that was part of his kindness and openness. I've been accused by several friends of liking everything when it comes to music, as if that's a negative. Maybe I am a little soft critically when it comes to music, but it's the only thing in life I can't be cynical about. I love every genre of music and I'm loyal to every band I love even when they put out a less than stellar album, and I refuse to feel bad about that. Ebert went into every screening with an open mind, not a superior one.
Ebert was also a consistent supporter of his fellow film critics, even those critics who consistently criticized his own work. He led me to great film writers like Jonathan Rosenbaum, Dave Kehr, J. Hoberman, Andrew Sarris, Manny Farber, Robert Warshow, James Agee, and his website editor, Jim Emerson. In many ways, these critics are closer to my aesthetic taste than Ebert, especially in the last years of his life, but Ebert was the one who led me to them, and I'm forever grateful. In the last few years, Ebert gave essay space on his site to many of his regular blog commenters from around the world. He was that rare breed of strongly opinionated man who was deeply interested in the differing opinions of others.
His series of essays about his personal canon of the best films ever made, "Great Movies," is a wonderful place to get the fundamentals of a film education. I made it a point to see every one I hadn't already seen. There's a real poignancy about his final Great Movie, posted two weeks ago. The 1958 Japanese film The Ballad of Narayama is a Kabuki-style color film about a small village that forces its elderly residents to go to a mountain on the occasion of their 70th birthdays and starve to death.
Ebert lost most of his lower jaw and his ability to speak and eat due to complications of reconstructive surgery after his third bout with cancer in 2006. For a man who loved conversation and food, this could have been a death sentence. Instead, Ebert threw himself even deeper into writing. The number of movie reviews increased, but he also joined Twitter and started a blog, where he wrote the best work of his life. The essay about his father I linked to above is such a wonderfully detailed piece of writing, but so many other essays were just as inspiring, including several about his struggles with poor health and the strength he drew from his wife Chaz.
I don't know when Ebert slept. He found time to personally respond to many emails and blog comments. Several friends and acquaintances of mine have received a message from Ebert. He emailed me once about a comment I left on his site and responded to another one on his blog. When he trashed Dogville and claimed that most critics and audiences hated it, I wrote him with a defense of it, mentioning that two of his favorite critics, Kehr and Sarris, had praised the film and also relaying that my mother loved it. He wrote me back to tell me that I should be glad I have such an unusual mother. I loved that. I can't be sure, but I think he may have read this very site once. When I left the Dogville comment, I linked to this blog. My most recent post was a rave for Luis Bunuel's final film, That Obscure Object of Desire. Shortly after he responded to my comment, he made That Obscure Object of Desire his Overlooked DVD of the Week pick. Coincidence? Maybe. For my own vanity, I'd like to think it wasn't.
Checking Ebert's site has been a daily habit for me. I'm glad Jim Emerson and Chaz Ebert have both mentioned maintaining the site. I'm sad about all the movies Ebert is going to miss, and I'm going to miss reading him. I'm only being partially hyperbolic when I say it feels like I lost a friend.

Friday, April 05, 2013

The return of the son of recent business

Like Someone In Love (Abbas Kiarostami)
Kiarostami, one of the greatest filmmakers of the last half-century, left his native country of Iran shortly before his good friend and fellow filmmaker, Jafar Panahi, was arrested, imprisoned, and banned from filmmaking for 20 years on a fabricated charge. Formerly content to ban or censor its best artists' work at home while allowing distribution and exhibition abroad, the Iranian government's suppression of its artists has become far more sinister in recent years. Having never made a bad film, Kiarostami was hardly in need of an artistic rejuvenation. Nevertheless, his two fiction features made outside of Iran have been career high points, despite the sad circumstances leading to their existence. Kiarostami filmed 2010's Certified Copy in Italy with French and British leads (Juliette Binoche and opera singer William Shimell) and dialogue in Italian, French, and English. His new film, shot in and around Tokyo with an all-Japanese cast, is objectively distanced from its characters yet empathetic, and both seductive and unsettling. Taking place over the course of one night and part of the following day, the film follows a college student moonlighting as an upscale call girl, her unstable ex-boyfriend, and an elderly retired sociology professor, most likely widowed, and the strange yet strangely ordinary set of circumstances that bring them into each other's orbit. Despite a landscape and culture, and exterior and interior spaces, quite different from the Iran of Kiarostami's earlier films, most of his trademarks are here. Kiarostami remains the best director of scenes shot inside cars we have, but he's also great at showing how people look (and look past) each other and how they organize, understand, and move through physical space. Kiarostami's endings are always open doors, never closed ones, but even by his standards, Like Someone in Love concludes with a sharp apathy-killing jolt that has kept the film turning in my mind since the second it ended. This is the film of a free man, and I don't mean his geographical location or the political constrictions or lack thereof of its government.

Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine)
Spring Breakers opens in a neon hell of interchangeable tanned bodies chugging beers, flashing body parts, and grinding and groping each other in a predetermined robotic debauch to Skrillex's "Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites" and ends in a hail of bullets. Korine, though his detractors will never admit it, is a skilled visual artist with a talent for creating images never before seen on a screen. Though Spring Break is well-trod territory, Korine manages to make it look as strange and ugly-beautiful as anything else in his filmography. With a color palette channeling Skittles and Starburst, Spring Breakers is a candy-neon incantatory art film with a beach party titties'n'guns exploitation veneer. Korine makes excellent use of repetition, as scenes are shown multiple times from different perspectives and dialogue is repeated and layered, chopped up and rearranged in different contexts. One particularly impressive piece of filmmaking captures a diner robbery in a single take from the perspective of the getaway car as the driver circles the building, but there are lots of other highlights. The ex-Disney girls in bikinis hook has already made Korine more money in one week than his four previous films combined, and he deserves it.

Stoker (Park Chan-Wook)
Park Chan-Wook ties everything in this post together. Harmony Korine has a cameo as a high school art teacher, and like Korine in Spring Breakers, Park in Stoker uses repetition of images and dialogue and the same events from different visual perspectives to create an incantatory effect. Like Kiarostami, Park is working in a country and a language he's never worked in before. The South Korean Park has made his first English-language, American film, and though he's working with a bit of an overheated screenplay by Prison Break actor Wentworth Miller, Park's stunning visual prowess elevates this one above its flaws. Besides the sheer virtuosity of many of its shots, Stoker contains several striking closeups of its actors' faces, with a particular emphasis on their sharp eyes. A Gothic thriller with nods to Hitchcock, Stoker takes place in an indeterminate time period that seems to exist in several decades at once, much like the otherwise very different films of Wes Anderson and Quentin Tarantino. Park has made the adjustment to American cinema without sacrificing too many of his strengths.

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Happy People: A Year in the Taiga (Dmitry Vasyukov & Werner Herzog)


Like his earlier Grizzly Man, Werner Herzog's latest documentary is carved from another filmmaker's work. Even placed in this context, however, Happy People stands apart from the rest of Herzog's filmography. Though the bulk of Grizzly Man consisted of Timothy Treadwell's footage, Herzog visited the same locations as Treadwell and filmed new interviews with the people who knew him. Happy People does not contain a single frame shot by Herzog, and the globetrotting director never visited the location. Instead, all footage comes from Russian documentarian Dmitry Vasyukov's four-part Russian television miniseries. Herzog watched the miniseries at a friend's home in Los Angeles, fell in love with it, and contacted Vasyukov with an idea. Herzog wanted to edit the 8-hour miniseries into a 90-minute feature, with his own new voiceover narration. Vasyukov gave Herzog his blessing, and this film is the result, with both men credited as directors, though Herzog is more of a remixer than director here.
The film spends a year in the remote Siberian Taiga, focusing on a handful of men carving out a mostly self-sufficient existence in some intensely rugged conditions. We see men building canoes and skis, hunting, fishing, trapping animals, training their dogs, making temporary but sturdy shacks to spend the isolated hunting pilgrimages during the winter months, creating mosquito repellent from the bark of a tree during the summer months. These are some of Herzog's pet subjects, these driven, determined men doing difficult things in hostile, strange, and beautiful landscapes. The cameras required to shoot in this inhospitable terrain produce images that are flatter and muddier than we are used to seeing in a film with Herzog's name on it, but they capture scenes that fit right in to his body of work. Some of the most beautiful images approach Herzog's talent for making natural landscapes and the people in them look mythic, mystical, and alien. I particularly loved the underwater camera following fish below the ice, a snowmobile gliding through a forest of white, and fishermen in canoes at night, lit torches attached to the front of their crafts to attract fish. And a moment when a campaigning politician pulls up to shore in a giant boat, women dressed in white behind him singing a schmaltzy ode to positivity while an indifferent, bemused crowd of Siberians goes about its business finds a place in Herzog's gallery of eccentric futility.
Herzog's narration and need to constantly mythologize can occasionally grate, as when he gives a speech a Tea Party member might love about the men needing no taxes or government. "No women, either," my wife turned to me to say near the conclusion of this speech. The film is surprisingly uninterested in the women and children who occasionally wander into frame. Maybe this was Vasyukov's failing, but another interesting film about them is buried here.
Still, this is a lovable little film well worth seeing.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Recent business

I've had the urge to get back into doing a little more writing on this blog, so I'm going to start posting about movies I watch in the theater. This is what I've seen so far this year.

Not Fade Away (David Chase)
The first film from the creator of The Sopranos, David Chase, has quickly come and gone without much media hubbub, hoopla, hyperbole, or ham giveaways (I ran out of alliterative descriptors before that last one, but I was on a roll. Forgive me.) This is a damn shame. The Sopranos is my favorite television drama, and though Chase's film doesn't come close to the formal beauty or emotional impact of that amazing show (how could it?), it does have a hell of a lot more ideas, earned emotion, and entertainment value than most recent American films. Like The Sopranos, Not Fade Away energizes and transforms a familiar story by telling it in a personal, unusual way. Chase's semi-autobiographical period piece is about a young rock band in suburban New Jersey in the early-to-mid 1960s, particularly drummer-turned-singer Douglas (John Magaro) and his family and friends. Despite a few embarrassing scenes and lines of dialogue, Chase largely succeeds in creating a world that feels almost as lived-in as his TV show. Chase's subject matter is familiar territory in terms of setting, period, and chain of events (suburban white America, the '60s, youth culture, coming of age, a rock band trying to make it, the generation gap), but he structures the film as a series of ellipses that skip events and chunks of time that have been belabored by earlier works. Cliches are avoided by simply skipping over any scene that would provide it. For example, Douglas and his girlfriend have a horrible fight and break up. The next scene takes place several months later, and they are once again together, but Chase doesn't bother showing how or why the two patched things up. And the band never makes it big, so we avoid the whole spectacular rise and fall and rise again nonsense American film is so damn obsessed with retelling. Instead, like most bands, they don't have what it takes and simply fizzle out. They're an above average suburban New Jersey bar band with a couple good originals, and that's it. Not Fade Away's final moments are as gorgeous and daring as the final Sopranos episode, and probably just as likely to piss off any viewer who needs every conclusion tidy and final so it can be safely tucked into bed in time for the next diversion.

Promised Land (Gus Van Sant)
Gus Van Sant alternates between highly personal independent projects he adapts, writes, or co-writes himself and director-for-hire projects offered to him by producers, studios, or actors. When he does his own thing, he's one of my favorite directors. When he's a hired gun, the results are often disappointing. There are exceptions (his remake of Psycho was a personal project he'd wanted to do years before, but is baffling to me; To Die For and Milk were for-hire films he was able to make his own), but I'm generally wary of Van Sant the hired gun. I had low expectations for this film. Written by Matt Damon and John Krasinski from a story idea by Dave Eggers, anti-frakking drama Promised Land was meant to be Damon's directorial debut. When Damon's acting schedule prevented him from doing the necessary prep work as director, he made a last-minute offer to Van Sant. So, Promised Land is basically Good Will Frakking with John Krasinski as Ben Affleck, right? Yes and no. It's far from Van Sant's best work, Krasinski's smug mug still drives me insane, and the surprise twist at the end is pretty abominably stupid, but the overall feel of this one is far less forced and hollow than Good Will Hunting, the performances are relaxed and natural, the small town is portrayed in a far more accurate light than Hollywood normally attempts, and Van Sant makes it look awful purty. The film also spends more time on the characters than on being a soapbox lecture about the perils of frakking (Frakaganda? Again, I apologize.) I really liked Frances McDormand's interactions with Damon and the way Van Sant shot the landscape. Still, it's nothing particularly special and is too often a reminder of what Van Sant can do with better material. This is the kind of movie made for forced family holiday viewing. It won't matter if you miss some of the dialogue when your loudest relative starts braying nonsense about his/her day or health woes or how much Obama sucks or what Charlie Sheen is up to, but it will be better than most Hollywood swill.

Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow)
First, the right wing nuts bashed this movie for being pro-Obama propaganda. Than the lefties bashed it for being pro-CIA, pro-torture propaganda. These two groups should get together and cuddle because most of them made these accusations without bothering to see the film. After seeing it for myself, I can't side with either group. Bigelow has made a dark, ambiguous film about the absence of humanity and the cold, single-minded devotion to duty in both Al-Qaeda's terrorism and the CIA's counterterrorism. She gives the audience enough room to make up their own minds about the ethical justifications or lack thereof in our country's response to the hunt for Bin Laden. Was it worth it? What did we gain from it? The questions are implied. Not answered. The film depicts torture, and even shows a sliver of usable information coming from the use of torture, but is hardly a flag-waving love letter to the CIA or an apology for "enhanced interrogation techniques," in language-molesting bullshitspeak. The film depressed me, but not because it was pro-torture or because it was bad. I admired it. Bigelow again proved herself to be one of the most talented directors of visceral action and kinetic movement. The final sequence, in which the SEALs storm Bin Laden's compound, is top-notch filmmaking. The film depressed me because the world is a pro-death, pro-revenge nuthouse. As the credits rolled, I sat still for a second thinking about how everything is fucked and the world is a dark, sad place. At the same time, the man behind me yelled, "Wooo! USA!" That the film could inspire both these immediate responses is a testament to its power and skill and its potential negative impact as a big-budget mainstream prestige picture. If the jingoistic war hawk fistpumpers are going to ignore the film's ambiguity and find their own fantasy America in it, maybe it will do more harm than good. Here's hoping Bigelow has another Near Dark or Point Break in her somewhere.
Interestingly, leftist political journalists tend to think this film is pro-torture propaganda, while leftist filmmakers and film critics have been largely supportive of the film. As my viewing experience shows, there are many ways to watch a movie. Filmmakers and serious film critics tend to focus on form, style, and structure and find their meanings there, while journalists more often focus on the film's screenplay, content, and statements made about the film by its makers. We could benefit from exchanging more ideas about this, but I'd just like to say that most journalists are missing a lot of what Bigelow is saying in terms of facial expressions, juxtaposition of scenes, and where she puts her camera at crucial moments in the film. Also, I'd like to say that artists are notoriously unreliable interview subjects about their own work, and journalists too often take artists' statements about the work as gospel when they should be looking for their answers in the work itself.

Amour (Michael Haneke)
I'm pretty shocked that this movie received several Oscar nominations. It's French. Strike one. Hollywood is completely uninterested in any other country, with the occasional exception of the UK and any movie it can remake shittily. It stars two actors in their eighties. Strike two. Hollywood pretends old people don't exist, and it also pretends any woman older than 34 doesn't exist unless she's a rapping granny. It's a film that doesn't try to tell you how to feel from a filmmaker who specializes in exceedingly dark films with open-ended conclusions. Strikes three through a million. Oh wait, the film is about physical disability. The Oscars eat disabilities with a spoon. Still, it's an odd choice, but I hope it makes more people seek it out. Haneke's film about aging, decline, and death is as formally beautiful as the rest of his work and contains a trio of incredible performances from three of my favorite actors: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva, and Isabelle Huppert.

The World's Greatest Sinner (Timothy Carey)
God and Satan bless the Alamo Drafthouse for presenting this super-rare 35mm screening of oddball genius actor Timothy Carey's beautifully strange 1962 labor of love. Carey wrote, edited, directed, and starred in this one-of-a-kind story of an insurance agent, Clarence Hilliard, who changes his name to God, quits the insurance game, gets into street preaching, becomes a rock star, and makes a deal with Satan to achieve political success until Satan comes back to collect. Sometimes infuriating, sometimes repetitive, sometimes transcendent, sometimes hilarious, always unique, this movie made me feel a little more alive. I can't imagine most people sitting through it, but those who do are my brothers and sisters.

Timothy Carey bonus track
Here's Carey with Seymour Cassel in one of my favorite scenes from John Cassavetes' Minnie & Moskowitz



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