Friday, March 13, 2015

Renoir Noir

6.5/10 – Jean Renoir fled France in 1940 and spent seven frustrating years in Hollywood making five American films. The Woman on the Beach was his final Hollywood project, usually classified as a film noir, though it feels more like a psychological drama with norish elements. It’s an interesting but flawed endeavor that struck me as being bizarrely edited or even unfinished. It’s only 71 minutes long, for one thing. I began to suspect that there must have been some longer original version that the studio chopped up over Renoir’s objections. Turns out that the story of its production was a little more complicated than that.

There was a lot riding on the project, as Renoir’s earlier Hollywood films hadn’t done that well by commercial standards. Though he had struggled within the confines of the studio system, he enjoyed being in Hollywood and wanted to stay, so he was determined to make a successful movie. The story had a lot of potential. Here’s Richard Brody’s description: “A Second World War veteran (Robert Ryan) who suffers from post-traumatic stress, including nightmares of a torpedoed and sinking ship and his own near-drowning, works as a Coast Guard officer in a small seaside community. In his lonely waterfront wanderings, he meets, amid ruins, a glossy and brooding woman (Joan Bennett). There’s an instant erotic spark between them, and she invites him to her cottage. There, he meets her husband (Charles Bickford), a formerly well-regarded painter who is now blind—and who possessively brings the young man into the household for company. But the brewing romance between the youngsters (not to spoil the plot) is troubled by an ugly element of backstory between husband and wife.”

Renoir got along well with Joan Bennett, who spoke fluent French, and enjoyed working on the film. He felt happy with the results. But in September 1946, the movie was given a preview at the University of Santa Barbra, and the crowd hated it. Evidently, Renoir hadn’t followed the conventions of the mystery genre to their liking. There’s conflicting information now about what happened next, whether studio bosses ordered extensive changes or Renoir himself was responsible. In a later interview with Francois Truffaut, he claimed, “I was the first to advise cut and changes.” Obviously, his previous experiences with producer Daryl Zanuck and Renoir’s own desire to succeed may have prompted him to revise the film in a way he thought would please the studio. In any case, he wound up re-shooting between one-third and one-half of the film and completely re-editing it. Nothing helped. It failed miserably at the box office and received harsh criticism when it was finally released a year later. Unfortunately, there is no known copy of his original version, nor any surviving footage of that attempt. So we are left to wonder what might have been.

Even in its “mutilated” form, the film still has fans. Some, like French director Jacques Rivette, consider it a masterpiece. And Brody calls it one of his favorite films. For him, The Woman on the Beach “has a dreadful, oneiric allure that bursts with a dark brilliance into an emotional and artistic apocalypse. It’s one of the great endings, one that foreshadows, remarkably, that of another noir classic, ‘Kiss Me Deadly,’ directed by Robert Aldrich, who was Renoir’s assistant director.” I thought it had some fascinating moments and some potential in the plot. The fact that the husband in this tense triangle is a famous painter is certainly interesting, considering Renoir’s own background. The acting is very good throughout, and some of the moody photography in the abandoned ship along the beach is wonderful. But the writing itself, at least in this version, feels clunky and somewhat predictable, despite whatever Freudian allusions may be offered. It’s worth watching, primarily because it’s Renoir. But it doesn’t come anywhere near his great masterpieces, or even excellent work like The River, which would turn out to be his next project and helped re-establish his reputation after his difficult Hollywood sojourn.

I’ll let Renoir have the last word on The Woman on the Beach:
“Although I don’t regret my American films, I know for a fact they don’t even come close to any ideal I have for my work . . . they represent seven years of unrealized works and unrealized hopes. And seven years of deceptions too . . .”

Monday, March 09, 2015

Concern - Misfortune

Drone music for a rainy, quiet Monday on a deserted campus during spring break. An interesting project I just discovered this morning, called Concern. This is from the most recent release, "Misfortune," which was created entirely with a box harp and field recordings.

"The fundamental link between all Concern releases is the strict use of acoustic instruments (and field recordings) as source sounds, meaning no electronic instruments or signal generators were used.... The initial box harp sounds on Misfortune were recorded in two house basements, then broadcast from car stereo speakers and re-recorded in several hospital parking garages in Portland, Oregon. There are also field recordings from public locations, specifically the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula in Brussels and an indoor public market in Hamburg. The intent of utilizing the hospital parking garages was to explore and document the reaction of the box harp tones in thematically relevant and acoustically unique spaces. These underground, concrete garages are not only ideal locations as guerrilla reverberation chambers, but also contain deep feelings of veiled emergency, quiet desperation, and anonymous suffering, especially late at night."

 The quote comes from Rick Moody's interview with Gordon Ashworth, the guy behind concern.

Saturday, March 07, 2015

Kill Your Darlings (2013)

6.5/10 – Kill Your Darlings is a coming of age story about a young, somewhat awkward kid from New Jersey in his first year at Columbia University and the circle of friends he becomes involved with. They get into mischief, they have intense discussions, they’re exploring boundaries, exploring their sexuality, exploring their own self-identity, not unlike many young people going off to college for the first time. It just happens that the Jersey kid is Allen Ginsberg, and his friends include Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs. Interestingly, though, they’re not really the center of the story. That would be Lucien Carr, who dazzles the young Ginsberg with his literary knowledge, vibrant energy and desire to live life big. But Lucien is involved in an unhealthy relationship with an older man who’s part mentor, part lover, and part stalker. Things deteriorate until there is a murder that winds up involving everyone in this happy-crazy little circle. Based on real events, Kill Your Darlings does a good job of showing Ginsberg’s transformation from a shy, somewhat innocent kid into the young, more experienced and interesting man who would go on to become one of the most important poets of the 20th century. Though there’s plenty of potential for joking about Harry Potter playing Allen Ginsberg (Columbia=Hogwarts, Burroughs=Weasley, etc.), I thought Daniel Radcliffe was actually very good. He certainly nails the look of young Ginsberg, and he brings an Everyman quality to the role which makes it easy to like and relate to the poet, which I think is important. Dane DeHaan is mesmerizing as Lucien Carr, looking like a young David Bowie and definitely conveying the kind of charismatic intensity that would attract young impressionable poets to him. Ben Foster has a fun turn as Burroughs. There are some amusing scenes with the three of them, especially one at a jazz club when Ginsberg is super-wired on one of the multitudinous drug offerings that Burroughs carries around in his suitcase. The film never reaches any great heights, especially considering the subject matter. It’s a rather traditional Hollywood movie about the Beats, and it has the feel at times of a young adult novel, but that didn’t seem to bother me very much for some reason. I thought it was an interesting story and that it was told well and with care. It’s fun seeing Ginsberg & Co. in their youth, but it also brought a wry smile to my face as I thought about the excitement of that time in my own life, when the world seemed so fascinating and it was possible to start a literary revolution. Those dopey college kids actually managed to do it.

Monday, March 02, 2015

American Sniper (2014)

7/10 - There's a lot one could write about in discussing American Sniper. It's a much more interesting and complex film than many have made it out to be. First of all, I would say that it’s not really about the war in Iraq or sniper Chris Kyle, on whose autobiography the story is based. Yes, Clint Eastwood uses those specific elements to tell his tale, but it’s clear that his real objective is tackling much broader themes, such as the nature of violence and the effects of war on those who wage it. Richard Brody, from The New Yorker, says the film is “political in the highest sense of the word. [Eastwood] dramatizes the use and abuse of state power in the light of great philosophical ideas.” I think that’s what led to Bradley Cooper’s clumsy statement that the film “wasn’t political.” It’s actually a very political film, and an intriguing one, but it’s not specifically about the political aspects of the invasion of Iraq or the cultural politics surrounding the figure of Chris Kyle. It’s a film that should probably leave people on either side of the liberal-conservative spectrum somewhat uneasy in the end. If someone believes it’s just a patriotic movie about Kyle and our invasion of Iraq, then I think they are only seeing what they want to see.

Alex Trimble Young, in an interesting analysis in Salon, calls American Sniper a “revisionist western,” and it’s clear that Eastwood structured the film along these lines. Kyle was a modern-day cowboy (rodeo rider) from Texas who goes off to “the Wild West in the Old Middle East” to fight the “savages.” He sees himself as a gun-slinging lawman out to protect his men (and women) and his ideal of civilization. He faces another “bad” gunslinger (a sniper from Syria fighting for Al-Qaeda), and the climax of the movie comes in the form of a long-distance showdown between the two. Eastwood even references a famous shot from The Searchers early on in the movie to let us know what he’s doing. Young writes, “In the tradition of the greatest westerns… ‘American Sniper’ offers up its familiar western narrative not as a triumphalist myth but as a disturbing object for contemplation and critique. The film’s point of view cleaves to Kyle’s in such a way that it both immerses its viewers in his Manichaean worldview and, at crucial moments, alienates us from it. From the violence that is visually foregrounded in the now infamous ‘sheepdog’ scene until the shot that foreshadows Kyle’s murder, ‘American Sniper’ tells a story of a man who is unable to insulate his family or his homeland from the violence of the war he is fighting. Like John Wayne’s character, Ethan, in ‘The Searchers,’ his own character is under threat of being overtaken by the very savage violence he set out to quell.”

Some have complained that Kyle was a more problematic figure than how he's portrayed, but I think that’s missing the entire point of the film. Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall have obviously created a character based on Kyle that is purposefully seen as a kind of perfect soldier who sees everything in black and white, believes fervently in his mission, strives to protects his buddies and his homeland and does an excellent job with his ability as a marksman. Yet, in the end, what happens to this person? He has becomes something less than human, as his wife struggles to make him realize thoughout the film, and despite all of his valiant efforts, his fellow soldiers are killed or return home disfigured, maimed and/or totally disturbed. Even the most fervent believer, Eastwood shows us, is ultimately destroyed by the war and undone by violence. In one of the most powerfully symbolic scenes in the film, U.S. forces are literally constructing a wall to try and “contain the violence” in Sadr City, but their engineers keep getting picked off by the Syrian sniper. Kyle finally kills the bad guy responsible, but just as soon as he does, he and his men have to abandon their position as they are swarmed by many other “savages” and overcome by the natural environment of the land they have invaded in the form of a giant sandstorm. Kyle’s most cherished personal belongings, those items which most give him his identity, his rifle and his pocket Bible, end up buried under the sand. In the end, Kyle can’t even prevent the violence against himself, as he is killed not by the enemy abroad but by a fellow solider, a U.S. Marine, also from Texas, suffering from PTSD.

American Sniper is expertly filmed and well-directed. Bradley Cooper gives a great performance as Kyle, much of it silently and through body language, transforming from easy-going cowboy to a man intensely hunkered down in himself and trying to remain human. In one of the best scenes of the movie, he’s approached in an auto repair shop by a Marine whose life he saved earlier, but he’s so uncomfortable that he can’t even look the man in the eye or deal with the man’s gratitude. I thought about Cooper’s performance here in comparison to his role as the coiffure-obsessed man living with his mother in American Hustle, and I have a greater appreciation for his range as an actor.
Despite its grand ambitions and high level of craftsmanship, though, American Sniper never becomes the kind of great film it could have been. There’s a hesitation at the heart of the film that keeps Eastwood from pursuing some of the harder themes to their full conclusion. He lets up at the end just enough to keep the film from reaching another level. That same hesitation may also be responsible for opening the door to various kinds of cultural criticism. And maybe it’s just too soon to create a larger, more mythic story from what has happened to us and to the Iraqis because of our misguided invasion. The horrors have been great and continue even now. But American Sniper is not just some jingoistic exercise. As Brody concludes his own article, “Far from patriotic pomp, it’s a vision that sees past the still eye of the American self-image to the whirlwind.”

Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014)

6/10 - I don’t know what to say about this one. Kingsman is a bizarre, over-the-top spoof on James Bond films that is very funny at times and fairly entertaining overall but not really my cup of tea. Colin Firth plays Harry Hart, a member of a super-secret spy organization that’s supposedly not associated with any nation but whose members are all British gentlemen. When one of their agents is killed, Harry recruits a disgruntled street kid who is the son of a former Kingman who died saving Harry’s life. Meanwhile, Samuel Jackson plays Valentine, a billionaire tech mogul who started out trying to stop climate change but has now decided that it’s too late and the only thing left to do is to kill most of humanity. I give the movie one star just for Jackson’s lisp. Colin Firth is surprisingly good in a tricky role, and I’m impressed to read that he did most of his own stunts, which is impressive given some of his action sequences. I wonder what distinguished one over-the-top film from another? I like some but don’t like others quite as much. This one just feels a little too oriented for 15-year old males - or females, who actually give it a higher rating on IMDB. It’s based on a comic book and feels like a video game at times, and I’m tired of both elements in cinema, so that may be part of why I couldn’t enjoy it fully, though I can still laugh at several of the scenes. Some will enjoy it much more than I did, I’m sure. If you liked the Kick Ass movies, this is the same director. For what it's worth, Alexandra gave it a 7. Bloody Colin Firth.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Mr. Turner (2014)

8/10 - One of the most beautifully filmed movies I’ve seen in a while and a thoughtful, searching portrayal of the artist J.M.W. Turner, thankfully free of the usual clichéd tropes of the Hollywood biopic. It also felt like the longest, slowest film I’ve seen in a long time, and after two and a half hours, I was grateful when it was over. I don’t recommend seeing this if you’re tired. But I wake up this morning realizing what a special film it was and how much I would like to experience it again on a big screen, to luxuriate in that lush, slow-moving world. Cinematographer Dick Pope has done a tremendous job of creating a film that looks and feels like a Turner painting at times yet also remains clearly and precisely etched when depicting the ordinary aspects of the artist’s life or his process of creating those amazing paintings. Pope's work on Mr. Turner has garnered him nominations from 12 different organizations and festivals, including an Oscar bid and a win at Cannes. Timothy Spall has also received numerous nominations and wins for his wonderful portrayal of Turner, though not from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, which is too bad. Spall’s work inhabiting a complex, difficult man and making him feel so vividly real and human seems at another level compared to some of the Oscar nominees. He spent two years learning how to paint for this role and did intensive biographical and historical research, along with director Mike Leigh, to flesh out this character who was the son of a middle-class barber who rose to great fame as an artist only to endure misunderstanding and ridicule towards the end of his life as his works became less representational and closer to what would later be called Impressionism. Leigh abandons the normal narrative structure of a biographical film, which means there’s not much “drama” in the movie, but he gives us something much richer instead – long, unhurried stretches with an artist at work, in the quotidian moments of his life, or having to deal with ridiculous social conveniences of Victorian England, such as an interminable discussion of gooseberries between critic John Ruskin, his parents, and several artists. As Andrew O’Hehir said in his review of the film, “Viewers expecting a Harvey Weinstein-style period drama, or who go in consciously or unconsciously yearning for a three-act structure, are likely to find themselves bored and frustrated…. This is a richly detailed, wrenching and often upsetting story about a man who may not have been especially satisfying to others as a human being, but who spent every day reaching for the ineffable and ungraspable meanings behind observable events – or at least trying to see them, which may come to the same thing.” All I know is that I wake up today wishing I lived near the Tate Gallery, so I could go see Turner’s work. I’ll have to make do with a book from the library, I suppose.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Where Danger Lives (1950)

8/10 - Continuing with a series of Robert Mitchum noirs. His biographer calls Where Danger Lives “one of the darkest and most unrelenting examples of the film noir genre.” In this one, Mitchum plays a young doctor on the verge of great success, beloved by children and a pretty, understanding nurse. One night, as he’s about to go off duty, a suicide attempt gets rolled into the emergency room. She’s beautiful and mysterious! You can see the good doctor becoming entranced as he saves her life - while his devoted girlfriend nurse watches him during the procedure. But, come on, Bob, this dark-haired beauty just tried to kill herself! You don’t want to get mixed up with that! She’s also rich. With an abusive father. So, naturally, Mitch gets more and more involved, and you can only shake your head and say, "Bob, Bob, Bob... What are you doing?!" Then it turns out that her “father” is actually her husband! (Great smaller role for Claude Rains – I love Claude Rains). He tries to warn the young doctor that she’s crazy, and it’s so clear that there’s some seriously messed up stuff going on between this married couple. But Bob gets drunk – so torn up is he by this femme tres fatale. There’s a violent fight with Claude. Bob gets hit on the head with a fireplace poker. When he wakes up, Claude is dead and Bob has a major concussion. The woman says they have to run away to Mexico, and Bob, being groggy and not thinking clearly, agrees! So they start off on their dark journey to the border. Bob, being a doctor, realizes that his head injury is serious and that he could die at any moment! And everything is totally foggy and he can't think straight. It's like being trapped in a nightmare and not being able to wake up. He’s being chased by the police, hounded by a psychotic woman and making lots of bad decisions - because, he’s literally out of his mind. And it only gets worse...

The cinematography is by the great Nicolas Musuraca, who did Out of the Past, and the visuals are great throughout. (Mitchum said it was one of his many films “lit by matches.”) Real noir. The set-up of the concussion allows the director and cinematographer to get in some wonderfully surreal scenes. Very efficient directing by John Farrow, who was, evidently, a sick tyrant on the set – Mitchum’s agent “ran screaming at his throat” at one point, because he kept making Bob fall down a dangerous set of stairs instead of using a stunt man, and after several of these takes, Mitchum finally told Farrow to be fruitful and multiply, but not in those words. The screenplay, piling up one outlandishly extreme scenario after another, is actually by Charles Bennett, Hitchcock’s old screenwriter, who did The 39 Steps, Secret Agent, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Foreign Correspondent, etc. The only real drawback to the film is Faith Domergue, who plays the femme fatale. She does pretty well as a crazy woman, but I would like to have seen another actress in the role. Jane Greer, perhaps, who worked with Mitch on Out of the Past and The Big Steal. Or Gloria Grahame – that would’ve been interesting. All in all, it’s a classic noir, not one of the greatest but interesting and worth watching, with Robert Mitchum out of his head. Relentless is a good word. It gets on a roll, heading downhill fast to “the border” – the mystical line between love and hate, sanity and madness, and darkness and its even darker shadow.

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Macao (1952)

8/10 - More Robert Mitchum noir. Mitch teams up again with Jane Russell in this 1952 film about American ex-pats who get entangled in a web of crime in Macao. Josef von Sternberg is credited as director, and it certainly bears some of his hallmark mysterious Asian exotica. I kept waiting (hoping) for Marlene Dietrich to show up, but no such luck. We do get Gloria Grahame, however, so at least there’s that. But Sternberg was fired by producer Howard Hughes during production and Nicholas Ray (Grahame’s husband at the time) finished directing the film, with Mitchum actually writing sections of the movie in an effort to string everything together. Despite some unevenness here and there, it’s a solid noir, with excellent camera work again by Harry J. Wild (who was also shot the previous Mitchum-Russell movie His Kind of Woman.) There’s a gorgeous chase scene at night through sampans docked in the harbor, so you have Mitchum and others maneuvering through lots of fishing nets while precariously balanced on dark water. Mitchum, Russell and the always reliable William Bendix disembark in Macao and immediately become involved with another American who runs the biggest casino on the island. As it turns out, someone’s a cop working undercover, and the plot twists around as different characters try to figure out who is who and who’s helping who and who’s going to wind up with who. (Okay, that last one is never really a mystery.) Mitchum and Russell once again have great chemistry – I wish they had done more films together. Macao was Sternberg’s first film since 1941’s interesting The Shanghai Gesture, and it would be his last Hollywood project. No one will mistake it for his early masterpieces with Marlene, nor will Macao ever be ranked among the greatest noirs, but it has a lot going for it.

Saturday, February 07, 2015

His Kind of Woman (1951)

8.5/10 - Currently enjoying a streak of great Robert Mitchum noirs from the late 40s / early 50s, and it started with this one. His Kind of a Woman somehow manages to combine classic film noir elements, action, psychotic violence, and a healthy dose of comedy (though not of the Monty Python variety, as the back of the DVD weirdly claimed). Mitchum plays Dan Milner, a down-on-his-luck gambler who’s set up by high-level mobsters who then “offer” him a large sum of money to go down to an isolated resort in Mexico and wait for instructions on the job they want done. On the flight down, he encounters Jane Russell, the girlfriend of a famous actor – played deliriously by Vincent Price – who’s on a hunting trip at the lodge. The first half of the film has a languid, mysterious atmosphere as Mitchum waits around at the lodge, encountering a strange array of characters, including a sexually predatory Jim Backus (!), and trying to figure out what’s going on. What he doesn’t know is that he’s become involved in a scheme to get a major gangster (Raymond Burr) that’s been deported to Italy back into the United States. Mitchum and Russell sizzle together (they would be re-matched a year later in another great noir, Macao, and, according to the bonus feature, became lifelong friends), but Vincent Price almost steals the show as a hammy, fed-up actor who finally finds himself when he’s actually shooting at bad guys, quoting bits of Shakespeare along the way. The story’s a little convoluted, the product of Howard Hughes re-doing much of the film after the initial version by John Farrow (Mia’s father). The last section alone includes a particularly brutal beating scene (for 1951), a terrifying Nazi serum(!), shootouts, and a swashbuckling fight aboard a yacht, but it’s ultimately quite entertaining. The cinematographer, Harry J. Wild, was a noir veteran (Murder My Sweet, Cornered, The Big Steal) and does a great job with the shadows and angles, making the most of the elaborate Mexican resort set. The casting is terrific. Russell is stunning looking (that according to Alexandra, and I would not disagree) and a lot of fun on screen. Robert Mitchum is, well, just his bad-ass self. His Kind of Woman is a bit of an odd duck as a film noir, with the comic elements and over-elaborate plot twists, but it conjures up just enough of the existential angst before turning into something of a romp. I saw it alone the first time and enjoyed it so much I made Alexandra watch it, and it only got better the second time. Very entertaining.

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Birdman (2014)

8/10 – Birdman begins with an epigraph by Raymond Carver set against a credit sequence taken from mid-1960s Jean-Luc Godard and a musical score that sounds like a Rashied Ali solo from late Coltrane (performed by a drummer who suddenly appears at times during the film), and then cuts to Michael Keaton meditating in his underwear while actually levitating in his dressing room, a washed-up actor who once played a superhero named Birdman (that regularly converses with him) and who is now trying to put on a Broadway version of Carver’s “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love” that includes a dream sequence with women wearing elk antlers and co-stars a snotty, preening method actor (Edward Norton) who demands to have a tanning bed in his dressing room because he’s "playing a redneck" and who reads Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges while sunning himself. And that’s the kind of film Birdman is. A frenetic mess of a movie. It veers wildly between dark humor, fantasy sequences, backstage Broadway dramedy, Hollywood satire, (interesting) commentary on social media, questions about the nature of art, and some good old fashioned, slightly twisted, existential crisis. It’s basically a Theatre of the Absurd piece about the conflicted mind of its protagonist as he faces life without meaning. The quick visual reference to Borges and Labyrinths is no accident. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki structured the film so that (in theory) it feels like one long take, and the camera’s multiple dizzying turns down the labyrinthine backstage hallways of the St. James Theatre replicate the complex, tortured mind of the protagonist as he tries to sort through his life as an actor, artist, celebrity, father, husband and overall human being. Luckily, it’s a crazy, often hilarious mental and spiritual crisis. I thought Birdman was one of the funniest films I’ve seen in a while, but it’s probably not for everyone. It’s a strange, gleefully over-the-top affair. Not perfect by any means, but crackling with energy. What seemed like a wild, sometimes bumpy roller-coaster ride for Alexandra and I will probably, for some, feel like a convoluted tale signifying nothing. Most likely you’ll know by the first scene which way it’s going to go for you. I hated Michael Keaton as Batman and never liked his other films (not that I bothered to watch many of them), but I thought he was very good in this. And the rest of the cast also excel. (The film just won the Screen Actors Guild’s highest award of Best Ensemble Acting.) Besides Norton’s terrific turn as the arrogant “pure” stage actor, Zack Galifianakis does great in a (thankfully) very different kind of role for him. I also liked Emma Stone as Keaton’s daughter. Some great writing throughout. Lubezki’s camera work is often beautiful, especially on the big screen. And the musical score – often just drums – is a refreshing change of pace from the Alexandre Desplat-ization of Hollywood. If you’re a Raymond Carver fan with a sense of humor, there’s the added pleasure of watching the frequently awful attempts to stage one of his greatest stories. (And a nice “Thank You” to Tess Gallagher at the end of the movie.) I should knock off a half-point for the disappointing ending, but I had such a fun time during the rest of the ride that I’ll cut it some slack. There’s an awful lot going on in Bridman, and not all of it works, but I look forward to re-watching it later to sift through the craziness. It was one of the most enjoyable cinematic experiences I’ve had in a while.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Secret Life of Arabia

Somehow, for almost 40 years, it escaped me that this was a straight-up disco song. Then, suddenly, listening to it in the car on the way to work this morning - on the "extra bass" setting - it seems so obvious. I guess I couldn't handle that knowledge at 16 and in a full-blown "Disco Sucks" phase, and then I suppose denial set in for the long haul, or I just didn't pay attention. But Carlos Alomar and George Murray could easily be Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards on this track. Why this should be a surprise after Bowie had already been fooling around with funk on Young Americans makes me realize that I had no real sense of context for the man's work when I was younger.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Boyhood (2014)

7/10 - Neither awe-struck nor terribly disappointed by Linklater’s Boyhood. I think of him as a maker of “small” films, ones that show little interest in dramatic structure (plot) but focus instead on gathering up the seemingly ordinary moments of life until they accumulate into a movie, sometimes with real emotional resonance. And Boyhood just seems like a bigger version of his “small” works. The technique of filming the same people over a period of 12 years may be ambitious, but the story itself and the way it plays out is very simple, in typical Linklater fashion. I wasn’t surprised to read that he conceived of Boyhood as a series of 10-15 minute short films done once a year for 12 years. That gives the movie some of its power, as we watch the four main characters literally transform over time, but it also accounts for Boyhood’s biggest shortcoming, since almost everyone else in the movie only appears in one “short film” and has no chance to develop. The most disappointing example comes in the story of the mother’s second marriage to a psychology professor who turns into an alcoholic. What should be a powerful episode in the film and in the lives of this family feels oddly distant and flat. This holds true for all of the relationships between the four members of the family with anyone outside of that core group. New husbands and wives, girlfriends, friends, colleagues, in-laws, they all seem like caricatures that the main characters play off of rather than real human beings, which makes the family we follow for almost three hours seem fairly narcissistic in the end. Of course, the movie centers on a boy’s life from age five to 18, and boys can be incredibly narcissistic at that age, but Boyhood ultimately feels like an emotionally colder film than it needs to be. A related problem is the length of the film. At 165 minutes, Boyhood is more than an hour longer than Linklater’s wonderful 1993 movie, Dazed and Confused, which was also a coming-of-age story, but one whose compressed time – the action takes place in a single day – benefits the director’s “small film” style more. Similarly, all of the movies in Linklater’s trilogy Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight were much shorter (Sunset clocks in at 80 minutes) and take place in a period of hours/days. I’m not sure the expansive nature of time – technical and narrative – in Boyhood serves Linklater’s style that well. Frankly, it just felt pretty slow at times. But the movie is interesting to watch for its technical feat (and some of its cinematography), there’s some good writing at times, and a few of the actors do quite well. Linklater was lucky to choose Ellar Coltrane to play his main character – how difficult to find someone at age 5 who will still be able to hold an audience’s attention at age 18. I liked the kid. And there are some beautiful and resonant “moments” that Linklater piles up in the course of the movie. One thing that did bother me about Boyhood is that it feels overly and inexplicably white. Having grown up in Texas in some of the same areas as this family, I found it bizarre that so few people of color appear in the film, especially since they are living in Houston and San Marcos most of the time. In my own boyhood, the classrooms, the school, the neighborhood, the church and the city I grew up in were quite mixed. It was infinitely more than a single scene of two Mexican-Americans working on a pipe outside of a house. That’s a strange portrayal of those parts of “Texas.” In the end, Boyhood is interesting for its cinematic achievement (though I don't know if it could or should be replicated), and a good film in many ways. But I prefer Dazed and Confused. I certainly prefer the music more. I’ll take the vapid rock and roll of Foghat over the precious and bland post-rock of Arcade Fire any day. But maybe that’s because Foghat was the music of my own boyhood.