Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Killer Joe

KILLER JOE (William Friedkin, 2011)

Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch) has little time remaining to repay six thousand bucks to some bad men or else he’ll be killed.  Desperate to remedy the matter, he approaches his similarly broke father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) with a solution.  His mother Adele, Ansel’s ex-wife, has a $50,000 life insurance policy to which Chris’ younger sister Dottie (Juno Temple) is the sole beneficiary.  All they need to do to set their personal finances straight is hire Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a Dallas Police Department detective who kills people on the side, to bump off Adele.

After agreeing to split the money four ways--Ansel insists his wife Sharla (Gina Gershon) gets a cut--they’re ready to put the plan in motion except for one minor problem.  They can’t pay Joe $25,000 for the service they want him to render until they get the claim check.  Joe is prepared to break off a business agreement with them, but he has his cold blue eyes fixed on Dottie and proposes they give her to him as a retainer.

The world according to KILLER JOE is a scuzzy Texas trailer park where the family plots to kill one member for a windfall and will pimp out another to make it possible.  The innocent in the middle is a weary girl already so jaded by what life’s dealt her that she signs off on her mother’s murder and embraces being sold to a contract killer because he shows interest in her.  The only person following a code is a moonlighting hit man. Say what you will about his ideas of right and wrong, but at least it’s an ethos.  
Transcending basic instincts is unimaginable when choices are guided entirely by the reptilian brain.  The stupid and venal characters in KILLER JOE cast fun house mirror reflections of a society seeking its best interests while excluding accepted principles. Director William Friedkin and screenwriter Tracy Letts, adapting his play, place the bad behavior in a dark comedy about the depths of depravity.  Like Wile E. Coyote assured that this time he’ll catch The Road Runner, Hirsch plays Chris as someone who thinks he’s smarter than he really is and has the bruises to show for his lack of good judgment. Church’s slack-jawed caricature of Ansel amuses as he serves as lunkheaded lackey to Chris’ would-be mastermind.  Gershon draws laughs with the brazen disrespect she shows her husband and stepson.

Temple interprets Dottie as a tarnished angel in seek of salvation however it may come. Acting younger and simpler than her character’s years would signify--her bed teems with stuffed animals, and the bedroom door is decorated with teen idol magazine headshots of Justin Bieber, 3RD ROCK FROM THE SUN-era Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and others--Temple reveals the glimmers of youthful goodness that, if permitted to flourish, might emerge from this hellhole.  There’s no tragedy in the other Smiths’ bumblings, but her light hasn’t been snuffed out entirely yet.

McConaughey is funny and fearsome in the title role, the devil holding the family accountable for their choices.  Despite Joe’s capacity for violence, McConaughey presents him as the pragmatic businessman and courtly gentleman.  When he drops the cool reserve and southern civility in the intense final act, KILLER JOE produces a reckoning to make the unbelieving wish for divine intervention.  Under the sun’s pounding rays and the night’s garish neon and fluorescent lights, there’s no hiding from one’s actions in this provocative and wickedly humorous film

Grade: B

Tuesday, January 29, 2013


MAMA (Andrés Muschietti, 2013)

A distraught father of two little girls comes home, kills their mother, and takes the kids with him before the authorities arrive in MAMA.  His reckless driving results in the car sliding off the icy country road and being totaled.  All three escape with just some scratches and bruises and make their way to a ramshackle cabin deep in the forest, but the one- and three-year-old sisters have not found safety.  Their tearful father still intends to murder them.  As he’s about to pull the trigger, a spectral figure comes to the rescue.

Regardless of the time and expense, their Uncle Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) pays men to search for the missing girls.  Five years later six-year-old Lilly (Isabelle Nélisse) and eight-year-old Victoria (Megan Charpentier) are found, but his nieces have turned feral in the intervening time.  While under psychiatric supervision, they draw pictures and speak of someone they call Mama.  Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash) wants to get to the bottom of this mystery, so he helps Lucas and his girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain) become their custodians on the condition that he will continue to have access to the troubled siblings.

Victoria and Lilly resist adapting to their new home environment.  The girls are still drawn to someone or something they know as Mama and often hostile to their caregivers, especially Annabel.  She wasn’t necessarily eager to become a mother and is put in the difficult position of watching them on her own when Lucas is hospitalized after nearly being killed by the jealous and protective entity that has followed his nieces to the house.  
Within the context of a modern Brothers Grimm fairy tale MAMA considers the range of maternal instincts from dutiful indifference to selfish sheltering.  Director and co-writer Andrés Muschietti lays out an ingenious comparison and contrast between Annabel and Mama in which more admirable qualities are associated with the antagonist.  Mama is a fierce guardian of the girls from the moment she encounters them whereas Annabel struggles with the role she’s forced to adopt.  Mama plays with Victoria and Lilly while Annabel prefers to bide her time sticking to her interests and relates to the kids as required in a legal capacity.    

Chastain has developed into one of today’s best actresses through more reputable fare than this horror film, yet she invests the role with the same commitment given to characters embodying eternal grace and searching for Osama bin Laden.  Under an unflattering black pixie wig, Chastain reveals rock band bassist Annabel as a reluctant mother torn between her inclinations and obligations.  In what becomes an affecting journey, Chastain gradually exposes her character’s evolving feelings for the girls as Annabel is able to step outside herself.

MAMA has its share of screenplay contrivances to be overlooked, which is often par for the course with genre films, but it succeeds where it matters most.  Muschietti utilizes screen space well, particularly in scenes in which Mama is present but unseen to Annabel.  He maintains a good balance of atmosphere to jump scares and enhances the former with sepia tone visuals suggestive of legend.  (The brown-tinted images pop the most in a haunting flashback/nightmare sequence.)  Thrillingly, MAMA builds to an ending that summarizes its theme in a beautiful and astonishing manner.  

Grade: B-

Friday, January 25, 2013

The Last Stand

THE LAST STAND (Kim Jee-woon, 2013)

Ray Owens (Arnold Schwarzenegger) experienced more than enough danger and action for a lifetime as a Los Angeles narcotics cop, which is why he gave it up to become sheriff of a sleepy southwest Arizona border town.  With its postcard-perfect Main Street, Sommerton Junction is the kind of place where a local farmer delivers fresh milk to the diner and strangers stopping for a bite to eat stand out.  As almost everyone has left town to watch the high school football team play in the state championship, it promises to be another quiet weekend for Ray and his three bored deputies in THE LAST STAND.  

Meanwhile, drug kingpin Gabriel Cortez (Eduardo Noriega) escapes from the FBI despite the high level of security and secrecy surrounding his prison transfer in Las Vegas.  Cortez’s subordinates supply him with a supercharged Corvette boosted from an auto show.  The one-time race car driver speeds toward Mexico with an agent (Genesis Rodriguez) as his hostage.  Agent John Bannister (Forest Whitaker) and his team eventually determine that Cortez plans to cross over in Sommerton but are incapable of catching up to him in time.  It falls upon Ray and his ragtag crew, which includes a prisoner (Rodrigo Santoro) and a local eccentric with an arsenal (Johnny Knoxville), to block Cortez’s road to freedom.

Schwarzenegger eases into his full-fledged return to the movies after his terms as California governor.  Like an athlete shaking the rust off after time away from his sport, he warms up with routine police work and self-effacing humor in THE LAST STAND’s table-setting first half.  When the film smoothly shifts into non-stop combat, Schwarzenegger turns on the charisma and brute force that made him one of the biggest action stars in the world.  His corny one-liners seem more obligatory than amusing, but despite getting up there in years, the star’s broad-shouldered brawn is still built for manhandling bad guys.  He may not be the superhuman he was in the ‘80s and ‘90s, but when Schwarzenegger is wearing a badge, he can credibly claim to be the roughest, toughest lawman on screen.   
To its detriment THE LAST STAND doesn’t provide Schwarzenegger with a worthy antagonist.  While the small scale of Cortez’s scheme is refreshing in an age of action films with outlandishly high stakes, he doesn’t do much, mainly because he’s isolated behind the wheel of a car most of the time.  Cortez is also less imposing or funny than his henchman Burrell (Peter Stormare), who wallows in his sleaziness and disregard for those who get in his way.

Once the bullets are flying director Kim Jee-woon shoots the barely contained chaos with a clear understanding of physical space often neglected in the hypercut, CGI-heavy spectacles of today.   At its core THE LAST STAND is a throwback film, an old-fashioned western updated with 20th and 21st century weaponry and vehicles. The lengthy gun battle in the middle of Sommerton delivers the simple pleasures of watching heroes and villains exchange fire and trying to outflank one another.  The subsequent car chase through a cornfield and hand-to-hand fight thrill with the one-on-one showdowns between machines and men.

The streamlined ticking clock plot pushes THE LAST STAND along during its pokier moments, and the supporting characters, like Luis Guzman as the comic relief deputy and Harry Dean Stanton as a crotchety farmer, liven up the wait for the face-off with the bad guys.  At a time when most cinematic action stars receive significant special effects enhancement, if not existing entirely in computers, it’s nice to have Schwarzenegger back and practical effects showcased.  THE LAST STAND doesn’t find him in peak form, but it’ll suffice as a sturdy exhibition of his talents.

Grade: B-

Friday, January 18, 2013

2013 Pop Culture Journal: Week 2

January 8-14, 2013

Second week in and already it’s a challenge to keep up with this.  I’ll blame it on coming down with the crud that’s going around, writing for the TV show, and consuming quite a bit.  Better late than never, right?


5. IT’S SUCH A BEAUTIFUL DAY (Don Hertzfeldt, 2012) (DVD) (January 8)

At the end of last year the champions of this animated feature came out of the woodwork and for good reason.  Don Hertzfeldt made a funny, achingly sad, and empathetic movie that defies expectations. (Review)

Grade: B+/75

6. GANGSTER SQUAD (Ruben Fleischer, 2013) (35mm) (Arena Grand) (January 11)

Everyone I’d tell that this was no good kept saying, “But that cast!”  True, an impressive cast is assembled, but they’re not credible because Ruben Fleischer applies the comic book team-up film aesthetic (ie., MARVEL’S THE AVENGERS) to a period gangster picture that provides scant characterization.  The tongue-in-cheek humor doesn’t mix well with the off-the-books (but totally OK because they’re cops) violence.  Ryan Gosling does something weird with his voice, at least in his first scene.  The Chinatown sequence is put together nicely enough--is this the replacement scene for the section removed after the Aurora, Colorado movie theater shootings--and the final stand-off isn’t too shabby either.  Ultimately, though, it feels like everyone’s playing dress-up as hard-boiled heroes and villains.

Grade: C-/45
7. BARBARA (Christian Petzold, 2012) (2K DCP) (Gateway Film Center) (January 11)

Although BARBARA is, in part, a thriller and a melodrama, it resists feeling anything at all until the protagonist must make a crucial decision.  Nina Hoss is inscrutable but intriguing as the title character, a doctor banished to the countryside in 1980 East Germany.  The film supplies few details about her and is all the better for it as the larger picture of who she is comes into focus.  BARBARA’s strength is not knowing which direction it may lead us at any moment.   

Grade: B/70

8. DJANGO UNCHAINED (Quentin Tarantino, 2012) (35mm) (AMC Dublin Village) (January 12)

The second time seeing DJANGO UNCHAINED was the charm for me.  I liked it during my first viewing but wasn’t entirely sure that it was complete.  It opened up on a repeat visit, proving to be much deeper and more controlled than I gave it credit.  My favorite films of 2012 tended to require being seen multiple times, which I’ll choose to characterize as a sign of their richness and not my deficiency as a viewer. (Review)

Grade: A/92

9. THE IMPOSSIBLE (Juan Antonio Bayona, 2012) (DVD) (January 13)

The tsunami sequence is suitably impressive, and the period in which mother and son, played by Naomi Watts and Tom Holland, must try to get to safety is ripe with drama. Then they receive some help, and all the air seems to go out of the film.  My NOW PLAYING co-host respectfully disagrees with that point, but the effort to reunite the family, if everyone survived, felt perfunctory to me more often than not. (Review)

Grade:  C+/58


AVANT-GARDE MASTERS: A DECADE OF PRESERVATION (Wexner Center for the Arts) (January 10)

I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t have much familiarity with experimental cinema, and sometimes what little I’ve seen completely baffles me as to its appeal.  Still, I try to remain open to appreciating the work being done off the beaten path.  I’m acquainted with the person who introduced this particular program, so I thought I’d show support and check it out.  I also feel it’s important to support the Wexner Center’s Film/Video department, as the folks there do an excellent job of providing chances to see films like these on celluloid.  As it turned out, I enjoyed this particular restored shorts program overall and noted how some of these have had clear influences on music videos.

For accounting purposes in this journal, I’m counting shorts separately from features.

1s. COSMIC RAY (Bruce Conner, 1961) (16mm)

Most of the energetic COSMIC RAY features a nude woman dancing to Ray Charles’s “What’d I Say”.  If this have never been projected in the background at a Flaming Lips concert, someone let Wayne Coyne know about it.  It’s exactly the sort of thing that I could see playing behind the band.

2s. RABBIT’S MOON (Kenneth Anger, 1950-70) (35mm)

The only other Kenneth Anger film I’ve seen is LUCIFER RISING, which played on a bill with Olivier Assayas’s DEMONLOVER and David Cronenberg’s VIDEODROME.  I found that Anger film to be pretty silly, although I did see it ten years ago, an eternity in cinema literacy terms.  Still...

RABBIT’S MOON, on the other hand, is a lovely tragedy about a clown’s romance with the moon.  There’s some revelatory matching of the doo-wop soundtrack with the images on screen.  The print shown was outstanding.  

3s. VELVET UNDERGROUND IN BOSTON (Andy Warhol, 1967) (16mm)

The longest short in the program was also the most trying.  Andy Warhol’s document of a Velvet Underground concert has its moments, mainly in revealing details with archival/historical interest, but at 33 minutes I found it to be a real slog.  It’s composed of whatever happened to interest Warhol during the show, making it kind of like his version of a Frederick Wiseman documentary.

4s. PIXILLATION (Lillian Schwartz, 1970) (16mm)
5s. OLYMPIAD (Lillian Schwartz, 1971) (16mm) (3D)
6s. ENIGMA (Lillian Schwartz, 1972) (16mm) (3D)

Sensory overload with colors and shapes rendered in early computer animation set to electronic music proved to be the program’s most visually stimulating segments.  My favorite was ENIGMA, the most aggressive of the three.  

7s. PREFACES (Abigail Child, 1981) (16mm)

The sound collage is impressive, even if I couldn’t always follow it very well.  Chalk this one up to appreciating the technique but not being grabbed by it much otherwise.

8s. AMERICA IS WAITING (Bruce Conner, 1981) (16mm)

Conner’s montage of what I presume is stock footage is set to the music of David Byrne and Brian Eno, again making his influence on music videos seem apparent to me.  I want to say something by Ministry resembles this short, but who knows if that’s right.  It feels like something I’ve seen mimicked a lot.




8. David Bowie STATION TO STATION (1976)

Not much to say other than what a weird, wonderful album.  I look forward to the new album he’ll be releasing this year.

Key tracks: “Golden Years”, “Word on a Wing”, and “TVC 15” (although I should just put the whole album here)

9. Kylie Minogue X (2007)
-Kylie Minogue FEVER

Kylie Minogue’s tenth studio album is more of the same.  No complaints here.  These two albums--I wrote a little about FEVER last week--kept me moving at the gym this week.

Key tracks: “2 Hearts”, “In My Arms”, “Speakerphone”, and “Sensitized”

Live music

1. Jeff Mangum (Opening acts: The Briars of North America and Tall Firs) (Southern Theatre - Columbus, Ohio) (January 14)

Because of the near-unanimous praise for Neutral Milk Hotel’s IN THE AEROPLANE OVER THE SEA on a Guided by Voices LISTSERV I was subscribed to in 1998, I bought the album unheard.  So what if the band’s name was weird and I had no idea what the album would sound like.  Once I got my hands on it, I thought it was as great as it had been touted.  Little did I expect this album to attain the modern classic status it enjoys.  It seemed more like an underground secret.  

Fifteen years later, including a period where it seemed like no one knew what Jeff Mangum was doing or what happened to him, I finally got to see him perform songs from IN THE AEROPLANE OVER THE SEA.  I didn’t really have any expectations.  Even if I had, they would have been exceeded.  I pretty much had the chills through his entire set. Except for when a member of The Briars of North America came out to add French horn or trumpet, it was just him on stage playing an acoustic guitar and belting out his songs with a voice like a brass instrument.  If I had a weaker constitution, I might have cried through the whole show.  From the opener “Oh Comely” to the encore “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea”, it was so painfully beautiful.

That reaction may sound like hyperbole, but this was a concert where the normal rules were thrown out.  After the first song Mangum invited people to come closer and sing along.  The Southern Theatre isn’t really set up for a standing room crowd, yet a good number of folks surged forward.  Fourteen rows back I could still see him and, like some other rear orchestra stragglers, had the row almost to myself.  The concert was still very intense and had a worshipful air.  (The discomfort I did feel was for Mangum when people would shout out extreme praise at him, which was fairly common between songs.  As I understand it, part of the reason he went “missing” was because he couldn’t handle his previous success.)

As for the opening acts, The Briars of North America played an enjoyable set of folk/chamber pop while the duo Tall Firs plodded through one mid-tempo song about death after another.  



File under Unfortunately Named Television Series.  It’s not in the top tier of current TV comedies, but it’s finding its legs during the second season and deserves a chance to develop.  Too bad the way it’s being aired--leftover season one episodes that break continuity scattered among season two shows--indicates it isn’t long for this world.

DON’T TRUST THE B---- IN APARTMENT 23 can push the limits on TV’s standards and practices--note the title--but the raunchy humor here has the cleverness that seems to be missing in pop culture free to be as nasty as it wants to be.  I’ll concede that I’m not crazy about excessively vulgar humor, so this show may hit the sweet spot for me of challenging boundaries but being restrained from obliterating them.  The obstructions require creativity to work around them.

The push and pull between Krysten Ritter’s cheerful wickedness and Dreama Walker’s idealistic stodginess is balanced quite nicely.  There’s room for both characters to be who they are without casting judgments on their opposite personalities and worldviews. I’ve grown weary of the washed-up celebrity playing himself/herself for easy laughs in movies and TV shows, but James Van Der Beek is very funny playing James Van Der Beek.  The series has given him something to do rather than just stand around debasing himself as has-been for our amusement.  Ray Ford steals scenes as JVDB’s loyal assistant.   


I couldn’t care less who wins the Golden Globes, but this year’s ceremony was entertaining by awards show standards.  Or it was worth paying attention to while following the comments of a significant portion of my Twitter stream.  It’s too bad that hosts Tina Fey and Amy Poehler didn’t get to do much beyond a solid opening monologue, but that’s how these programs usually go.  (Loved the DOG PRESIDENT nominees, though.)  Funny how there’s such a fuss about who’s hosting when they don’t get much time. 

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Django Unchained

DJANGO UNCHAINED (Quentin Tarantino, 2012)

Quentin Tarantino loves mixing low and high art in his films, but until DJANGO UNCHAINED he never combined disparate ingredients to make a cocktail of the Molotov variety.  Through exploitation film violence and articulate dialogue--fancypants talk, as the film’s villains might say--the writer-director creates a lurid, funny, and smart entertainment that sneaks in potent commentary on racism in America and the movies. DJANGO UNCHAINED can be enjoyed purely for its numerous surface pleasures--Robert Richardson’s widescreen cinematography, the screenplay structure mirroring Germanic legend, and the clever, unconventional soundtrack cues--but careful study reveals it also to be a work expressing historical and contemporary fury.  

The film opens in 1858, roughly two years before the start of the Civil War, with German bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) enlisting the help of slave Django (Jamie Foxx) in his pursuit of three brothers with nice prices on their heads.  Django is glad to cooperate, as the wanted men heaped abuse on him and Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), the wife he’s recently been separated from.  Schultz promises to pay Django and give him his freedom once they’ve found and killed the Brittle brothers, but rather than parting ways, they become partners in acquiring Broomhilda’s independence.

They learn that she was sold to Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), the Francophile owner of a notorious Mississippi plantation.  To make Candie’s acquaintance Schultz pretends to be interested in getting into the mandingo fight game, in which slaves spar to the death.  Django will pose as Schultz’s expert, a black slaver.  While their ruse might fool Candie, his head house slave Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) is more suspicious of their motives.

Playing a role is one of the recurring themes in DJANGO UNCHAINED, and it’s a sly way for Tarantino to discuss how African-Americans are often required to adapt to pass in what gets defined as mainstream culture.  Django must swallow his pride and put forth a different appearance to achieve what he desires.  In that manner he’s no different than Stephen, an Uncle Tom whose demeanor shifts enormously when addressing blacks or whites and within a group or in private.  (Even Schultz, who does not bear the burden of being a racial outsider but is a foreigner, must adopt an exaggerated appearance of propriety and intellect to be perceived as less threatening.)  Not breaking character is literally a matter of life and death.     
Tarantino also dissects politeness as a defensive weapon, with the artful in-joke that Waltz’s Dr. King is expertly practiced in it, and the dropping of formal civility as an offensive action.  After all, DJANGO UNCHAINED turns on the refusal to shake hands. Passive resistance and dampened emotions can’t help but be unleashed in a more explosive form after so long of a struggle to keep them in check.  It’s a neat trick that Tarantino evokes the volatility of the 1960s civil rights campaign and the Civil War battlefield with a bloody shootout inside a plantation house.     

Tarantino’s films have a complicated relationship with violence.  He enjoys bloody revenge fulfilled on screen yet can be repulsed by having the basest of impulses satisfied.  DJANGO UNCHAINED is no different.  Tarantino’s expert use of sound and suggestion convey the horrific treatment of slaves without lingering over it.  (His reputation for depicting violent acts is greater than what’s actually visible.)  The violence exacted upon the villains, almost all white, is more explicit visually, but in featuring blood geysers taken from the trashy movies that inspire him, it’s cartoonish too.  Somehow he finds a way to be responsible with on-screen violence and wallow in its disreputable appeal.

Django must hold his passion in reserve for much of the film, which makes it all the easier to overlook Foxx’s subdued performance.  The character mustn’t betray his feelings, so the power of Foxx’s work is found in his eyes and posture and how he withholds the anger burning inside him.  If ever an actor was born to deliver Tarantino’s words, it’s Waltz.  He savors the ornate sentences and brings lightness to the heavy narrative lifting he’s called upon to execute.  Waltz also displays crack comic timing that he shows off when he walks Django through his method of doing business.  DiCaprio relishes playing the self-regarding creep and does a dazzling flip from southern-fried hospitality to menace.  Jackson gets the difficult task of acting the part of a classic Hollywood stereotype, but he fleshes out his despicable character as Django’s opposite. A white man gave Stephen the opportunity to have some latitude too and he took it. Tarantino supports the fantastic performances by letting major conversation-driven scenes play out in wide shots and thus allows observing the dynamics between multiple characters at once.

DJANGO UNCHAINED presents Tarantino as a film critic and cultural analyst.  He’s a highly gifted filmmaker whose work is more thoughtful and nuanced than the statements he sometimes offers while playing the manic provocateur part in publicity appearances. This bloody, hilarious, shocking, and righteously angry film is the kind of great art and great trash he aspires to make.

Grade: A

It's Such a Beautiful Day

IT’S SUCH A BEAUTIFUL DAY (Don Hertzfeldt, 2012)

Basic techniques yield complex results in Don Hertzfeldt’s hand-drawn animated and mixed media epic IT’S SUCH A BEAUTIFUL DAY.  The feature film is comprised of three shorts (EVERYTHING WILL BE OK, I AM SO PROUD OF YOU, and IT’S SUCH A BEAUTIFUL DAY) in which Bill, a stick figure everyman, wrestles with existential despair, health problems, and a family history of mental illness.

Underneath IT’S SUCH A BEAUTIFUL DAY’s simple surface and droll humor is a philosophical core as dense as any film’s.  Hertzfeldt’s trenchant examination of the human condition cuts to the essence of what keeps people awake at nights and occupies our minds in those moments when the noise and distractions of everyday life are quieted.  Bill frets over germs in the produce aisle and awkward social interactions.  He also dwells on what could be a wasted life and the death that will all too quickly end it at some unknown point.

Although Bill expends untold neurotic energy on the things he can’t control, IT’S SUCH A BEAUTIFUL DAY also acknowledges the exquisite blessings surrounding us that often go unnoticed until circumstances force appreciation for even the tiniest marvel.  As the put-upon protagonist gains compassion for the people in his past and the answer to the meaning of life, Hertzfeldt transforms sorrow and existential agitation into triumphant acceptance of life in its entirety, including its culmination.  To put it in the film’s comedically askew terms, what’s the use in worrying about contracting a fatal disease when there’s always the chance of getting run over by a train.   

Rather than emphasizing a nihilistic streak, the bittersweet tone of IT’S SUCH A BEAUTIFUL DAY comforts with the assurance that everyone shares these fears and doubts.  The stripped-down style enhances identification with Bill and permits subtle expressiveness to be interpreted in his reactions.  Hertzfeldt’s acerbically funny and deeply moving experimental film does a lot with a little.  

Grade: B+

Monday, January 14, 2013

The Impossible

THE IMPOSSIBLE (Juan Antonio Bayona, 2012)

THE IMPOSSIBLE dramatizes one incredible true story to emerge from the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the deadliest natural disaster of its kind on record.  Like many others, Henry and Maria Bennett (Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts) and their three boys have come to Khao Lak, Thailand for Christmas vacation.  They’re relaxing by the resort’s pool when the tsunami hits the southeast Asian coast.

Maria and her oldest son Lucas (Tom Holland) surface from the floodwater near each other.  He’s scraped up but otherwise in good shape.  She’s received large wounds in her leg and side but, with her son’s assistance, is able to hobble to the safety of a tree. They suspect the rest of their family is dead.  Their own survival is also a question.

Some locals eventually discover them and provide help.  Maria is taken to the hospital, but her injuries and a staff overwhelmed by the number of patients mean that she’s far from being in the clear.

Director Juan Antonio Bayona stages the tsunami as though an enormous monster has risen from the ocean.  The birds are spooked, and in the distance trees in its path are toppled like blades of grass by a lawnmower.  Then the wave spills into the resort, casting people aside like rag dolls and smashing the buildings.  In the even more terrifying sequence that follows, survivors are desperate to keep their heads above water while being swept across the flooded landscape.  Potentially dangerous obstacles bob along the surface while even more hide below.  With heart-stopping immediacy, Bayona plunges into the midst of the disaster while making it seem unimaginable that anyone could make it out alive if near the shore when the giant wave first reaches land.

The challenges in the disaster’s aftermath are anything but minor, yet once the survivors reach safe ground, THE IMPOSSIBLE loses dramatic urgency.  For as tragic and horrific an event as this was, the Bennetts have a relatively easy time of it in retrospect. At least that’s how the screenplay frames their experiences, especially in comparison to the hardships of their fellow tourists and the mostly ignored Thai residents.  The post-tsunami period brings chaos of a different kind, but the protagonists manage to navigate it as though it’s but an inconvenience.

Few actresses suffer as expressively on screen as Watts.  In THE IMPOSSIBLE she beautifully conveys a mother’s will to endure her suffering for the sake of those she loves.  Holland does good work as a kid who is forced to be strong in an unthinkable situation.  THE IMPOSSIBLE doesn’t turn a blind eye to the physical and emotional devastation, but the comparatively uncomplicated path it follows to arrive at a reassuring conclusion minimizes the impact.

Grade: C+

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

2013 Pop Culture Journal: Week 1

By now I’m resigned to the fact that I simply won’t and can’t be able to write about everything in my pop culture diet.  Rather than letting some of my thoughts spin around my head and then disappear (or occasionally emerge on Twitter and slip away from memory), I’ve decided to follow the lead of Nick Hornby’s THE BELIEVER column about what he’s reading and a friend’s weekly log of artistic consumption.  This way there’s no pressure to write in full about these works, yet I can still scratch down a few things that might be of interest.  Maybe it will be of more value to you than to me, but I hope this will be a worthwhile read.

Tracking films watched and books read will be easy enough.  For the sake of practicality and keeping this log a reasonable length I won’t list every TV episode I watch or song I listen to.  (Note: this first entry turned out to be much longer than intended. So much for keeping it short.)  With TV I’ll write about whatever grabs me; with music I’ll indicate the albums I spun and the individual songs that stood out.

January 1-7, 2013


1. ROSETTA (Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne, 1999) (Blu-ray) (January 1)

I’m quite fond of the Dardenne brothers’ films and now only have LA PROMESSE to see of those that brought them international attention and acclaim.  (Never mind the nearly two decades of hard-to-see documentaries and narrative features preceding it.) ROSETTA won the 1999 Palme d’Or, so surely it’s another brilliant work on par with their other films, right?

ROSETTA provides a relentless and visually narrow look at the daily realities of poverty and trying to break free from it.  The camera’s point of view, the enveloping sound design, the charismatic but unsentimental lead performance (a feral Emilie Dequenne), and narrative urgency are equal to any of their films, yet this one didn’t grab me as much.  I suspect that seeing Gabriela Pichler’s excellent ROSETTA-influenced docudrama EAT SLEEP DIE (ÄTA SOVA DÖ) at TIFF 2012 took some of the shine off its inspiration for me.  ROSETTA is another good effort by the Belgian brothers and one that I hope to appreciate more whenever I watch it again.  

Grade: B/69

2. HEAVEN’S GATE (Michael Cimino, 1980) (2K DCP) (Wexner Center for the Arts) (January 4)

The critical reevaluation of this notorious flop has brought newfound and renewed appreciation for a film that’s been pop culture shorthand for Hollywood folly.  I tried watching it years ago on DVD and never finished it.  I think I bailed around the time Kris Kristofferson goes into the general store, so not even a third of the way into the running time of the director’s cut.  I’m glad I didn’t complete it then because seeing it in 4x3 letterbox would not have been the best introduction to a shaggy but stunning epic.

To a degree HEAVEN’S GATE is an ancestor of THERE WILL BE BLOOD in how it delineates business and government in America.  (I’m passingly familiar with the TV series DEADWOOD, which plays like another potential descendant.)  Thematically it feels as contemporary as anything being made now, and stylistically it’s just as fresh.  If this film marked the last hurrah of 1970s studio adventurousness, what a bold and lively way to go out.

The visual scope is enough to sell me on the film’s value.  Widescreen shots of location shoots with hundreds of extras are crammed with detail and natural beauty.  The clattering sound design, especially in the action-packed climax, builds the sense of bigness and chaos.  Sure, the energy flags at times, but Cimino fulfills his ambition. Although the violence isn’t particularly realistic to today’s eyes, it’s still as disturbing as the exaggerated bloodshed in DJANGO UNCHAINED.

Random observations: I was surprised to discover Terry O’Quinn in a small role delivering dialogue that would be comfortable coming from his LOST character.  And isn’t that Tom Noonan? (Yes.)  Mickey Rourke gets a funny lesson about biting from a trapper played by Geoffrey Lewis.  Jeff Bridges has to have one of the most interesting filmographies of actors in his generation.  It’s always great to see Kristofferson and Isabelle Huppert.  I feel like people tend to treat Christopher Walken as a caricature of the oddballs he’s played, but he’s quite good in this.  I’ve never seen Sam Waterston play a character as cold-blooded as he does here.

As for the 2K DCP presentation, HEAVEN’S GATE’s transfer is remarkably film-like most of the time.  I feel safe in saying that it doesn’t look as good as a 70mm print would, but since that is not an option, this was a worthy alternative.  Preserving the grain and softness goes a long way in making it look like celluloid.   

Grade: A-/82

3. OBSESSION (Brian De Palma, 1976) (DVD) (January 6)

De Palma’s VERTIGO homage pales in comparison to Hitchcock’s masterpiece--how could it not?--but he throws enough curves for it to be trashy fun anyway.  (Vague spoiler for a 37-year-old film follows.)  I guessed one of the major turns using the cinematic laws of economy of characters and the persistence of hairstyles, but other surprises were still in store.  OBSESSION overlaps nicely with the director’s PASSION, and an enterprising programmer would do well to pair them in a double feature when the latter is released this year.

Grade: B-/65

4. TEXAS CHAINSAW (John Luessenhop, 2013) (2K DCP in 3D) (Gateway Film Center) (January 7)

I strive to keep an open mind before whatever I’m seeing, but I’d be lying if I said I expected much from the seventh film in THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE series. I liked the 2003 remake, unpopular as that opinion may be, but I held little hope for this functional sequel to Tobe Hooper’s 1974 original.  TEXAS CHAINSAW isn’t good, but give it credit for trying to be a little substantive and not piling on the visual murk favored by many of today’s horror films.

In the new film’s prologue, which picks up where the original film ends, the angry townsfolk initiate a shootout with the warped Sawyer family and then burn the farmhouse to the ground, presumably killing everyone inside except for the baby girl one of the mob takes to raise as his own with his wife.  Twenty-odd years later the baby returns to Texas to claim the mansion from a grandmother she never knew and gets a hard lesson in her biological family’s history with the locals.

None of TEXAS CHAINSAW is particularly scary or disturbing.  Seeing it in 3D adds no benefit, although the shots expressly acknowledging the format are worth a laugh or two since they border on parody.  Still, the film can’t be dismissed entirely because of the thematic question that emerges.  Is it right to treat figurative monsters with monstrous behavior rather than letting the justice system handle them?  TEXAS CHAINSAW doesn’t aspire to be a political allegory like Hooper’s film, nor is it equipped to provide a thoughtful response to the question it poses.  Still, it deserves a few points for attempting to be about something.

Grade: D+/36  


1. Gillian Flynn GONE GIRL (2012)

I don’t read novels as often as I’d like, but December travel jumpstarted my desire to pick up books again.  I needed a physical book so I could keep reading when my flights required turning off my Kindle.  I selected GONE GIRL because praise for it popped up time and again in my Twitter feed.  I tore through the first hundred pages pretty quickly, but I’ll reserve comments for when I’ve finished it.


A few times I’ve made a New Year’s resolution to read the Bible in full but haven’t been able to keep up with the daily readings.  With the beginning of another year, here goes another attempt.


1. Kylie Minogue LIGHT YEARS (2000)
2. Kylie Minogue APHRODITE (2010)
3. Kylie Minogue KYLIE MINOGUE (1994)
4. Kylie Minogue FEVER (2002)

Never let it be said that a small role in an art film won’t sell albums.  After seeing Kylie Minogue in HOLY MOTORS and being reminded of her terrific 2002 single “Can’t Get You Out of My Head”, I decided to seek out some of her music.  I never expected to be quite so taken with what I’ve heard, especially since I don’t regularly listen to electronic dance pop.    

I started with FEVER and LIGHT YEARS and have been working through her catalog in both directions.  The disco-inflected LIGHT YEARS has provided the template for what’s followed: a seemingly endless supply of irresistible hooks and workout-maximized beats per minute.  (Her albums soundtracked most of my runs during my time out of town during the holidays.)  Considering how successful this formula has been almost everywhere, I’m amazed she’s struggled to make much of a dent in the United States.  Is her lack of popularity here the reason why she’s yet to record a James Bond theme song?  Otherwise she’d seem to be a shoo-in.

KYLIE MINOGUE reveals an artist trying to transition from teen sensation to serious artist.  At least on first listen the album seems more reliant on adult contemporary ballads and textures than I prefer (or than her subsequent albums feature), but it’s still a solid collection of songs.  With its seamless blend of styles LIGHT YEARS competes with FEVER’s all-out disco for the top spot among her albums that I’ve heard. APHRODITE is pretty much more of what you’d expect: lots of good melodies married to up-tempo rhythms.  

Key tracks: “Spinning Around”, “On a Night Like This”, and “Please Stay” (LIGHT YEARS); “Get Outta My Way” and “Aphrodite” (APHRODITE); “Confide in Me” (KYLIE MINOGUE), “Can’t Get You Out of My Head”, “Come Into My World”, and “In Your Eyes” (FEVER)

5. Paul McCartney RAM (1971)

Catching up with the Paul McCartney solo and Wings reissues and seeing him in concert in 2011 reminded me of how many great songs he’s written even if his whole time in The Beatles is ignored.  His early solo work is a lot weirder and rougher than I realized.

Key tracks: “Dear Boy”, “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey”, “Monkberry Moon Delight”

6. Kat Edmonson WAY DOWN LOW (2012)

I suppose WAY DOWN LOW should be classified as a vocal jazz album, although it’s what would have passed for a pop record until rock ‘n’ roll came onto the scene.  (The snarky might tag it as Starbucks/NPR music, even if such a classification is sort of spot on.)  Edmonson’s voice possesses that jazz chanteuse timbre familiar to the genre--you know it when you hear it--yet the quality isn’t so pronounced as to sound affected or precious.  

On this spotlessly recorded and performed set Edmonson demonstrates that she’s a talented singer and interpreter.  The slowed down cover of The Beach Boys’ “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” works beautifully.  Upbeat and downbeat versions of “I Don’t Know” bring out different shadings in her voice and the lyrics.  Lyle Lovett drops by for a playful duet.  This is nothing earth-shaking, but innovation for its own sake can overrated.  Plus, in the age of AutoTune it’s a pleasure to hear a talented singer doing her thing.

Key tracks: “I Don’t Know”, “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times”

7. Japandroids CELEBRATION ROCK (2012)

Front to back one of last year’s much-praised rock records still sounds samey to my ears, but then again, I had a similar issue with The Hold Steady until something clicked. Lots of energy here, no doubt, and I’m not immune to it.  Just waiting to be won over completely.

Key tracks: “Fire’s Highway” and “The House That Heaven Built”


-College and professional football (ABC, CBS, ESPN, FOX, NBC)

More women are involved in sports media than used to be, but isn’t there something kind of insulting to them and to the audience in literally putting them on the sidelines?  The woman in the booth for football games is rare--I vaguely recall coming across one calling a college game--yet you’ll see women reporting from the sidelines at most televised football games now.  Regardless of if it’s a man or woman on the field, the sideline reporter strikes me as one of the least essential parts of game productions, especially when he or she is sticking a mic in the face of a coach or player running to the locker room.  Is this progress when there’s a sense that having female sideline reporters is just a way for the producers to add pretty faces to telecasts?  The boys club atmosphere of televised sports exists and reared its ugly head when Brent Musberger ogled the Alabama quarterback’s girlfriend during the BCS Championship.    

Random observation: Is there a reason why the Pepsi commercial with Drew Brees and One Direction was produced in 4x3?

-666 PARK AVENUE (2012) (ABC)

The series has been canceled--the final four episodes are apparently airing in the summer--and the show never really worked.  So why did I watch the two post-Thanksgiving episodes on my DVR?  It’s likely I would have eventually bailed on 666 PARK AVENUE, even if it had been renewed.  At this point I feel like riding it out the rest of the way to see how they close it out and provide some answers that have been frustratingly absent..  

The supernatural, soapy fun hinted at in early episodes never amounted to much as the series delivered halfhearted stand-alone entries and mythology building.  Not all of the answers needed to be provided by episode #9, but a sense of the rules and a master plan would have helped immensely.  The series played okay when sticking to Rachael Taylor’s unsettling experiences in the hotel and Terry O’Quinn’s machinations to get her in his debt.  Instead it seemed like 666 PARK AVENUE was doing too much and not enough with subplots including the boyfriend’s unbelievably rapid ascent in New York City politics, the professional and personal pickles a Broadway writer got into, the psychic teenager, the mystery around the death of the hotel owners’ daughter, the red box, the basement.


I was curious for more information about the brouhaha around HEAVEN’S GATE and was pointed toward this documentary, which isn’t included in the Criterion Blu-ray/DVD set.

Friday, January 04, 2013

Promised Land

PROMISED LAND (Gus Van Sant, 2012)

Steve Butler (Matt Damon) knows firsthand how small towns can be ravaged in a down economy.  Born and raised in Iowa, he saw how the closure of a Caterpillar plant devastated the community.  Unlike many of those he grew up with, Steve got out and is enjoying success as a representative for a global natural gas company.  He travels to rural areas to persuade property owners to sell drilling rights on their land.  Steve isn’t ignorant of the risks involved with hydraulic fracturing, otherwise known as fracking, but he is convinced that what he does improves the lives of the struggling folks he encounters.  Any charity Steve feels for them doesn’t interfere with his knack for securing contracts for the lowest price possible, though.    

In PROMISED LAND Steve and co-worker Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand) expect a short stay for their assignment to close deals in a small Pennsylvania town, but gaining local approval is complicated when science teacher Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook) raises objections during a town hall meeting and the citizens postpone a vote on the matter for three weeks.  Then Dustin Noble (John Krasinski), an environmental activist from Nebraska, rolls into Miller Falls warning everyone that fracking can lead to dead livestock, land that can no longer be farmed, and contaminated ground water.  His message quickly gains traction and raises the pressure on Steve and Sue to deliver.

The makers of PROMISED LAND clearly object to fracking but attempt, not always successfully, to explore the issue without stacking the deck in favor of its viewpoint. Steve counters critics with the contention that natural gas is a clean, domestically plentiful alternative to coal and oil. Even if one doesn’t fully buy his argument, rejecting natural gas means implicitly accepting dirty energy sources and relying on overseas suppliers.  Fracking will bring an influx of money to the area and may restore a place and population that is economically disadvantaged.  In the end the situation boils down to which risks are the ones worth taking.
Damon and Krasinski, who co-wrote the screenplay, and director Gus Van Sant approach PROMISED LAND like a Frank Capra film.  The American people and process are trusted to arrive at the right decision, even if opposing forces are working to manipulate them.  The townsfolk are credibly portrayed as being aware of what’s at stake, if not fully informed, and susceptible to the lure of easy, much-needed money. Steve and Dustin are on different sides but generally seem sincere in their efforts.

PROMISED LAND is at its best when showcasing the details of life in a self-contained agricultural community and the strategies and affectations Steve, Sue, and Dustin employ to influence the people there.  For all of his good intentions, Steve is something of a huckster.  Damon plays him with genuine charm and strong compartmentalizing abilities.  Krasinski displays his everyman appeal as his character effortlessly ingratiates himself with the locals.  The film’s middle section amuses with the maneuvering and passive-aggressive interactions between Steve and Dustin.

PROMISED LAND is well-acted and observed, although two flaws emerge.  Steve and Sue are more flustered by the presence of a single environmentalist than a couple of old pros should be.  PROMISED LAND tends to be savvy about risks and rewards, but one turn of events is unearned.  The development doesn’t ruin the film but wipes out the balance it was striving for.  

Grade: B

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

The Deep Blue Sea

THE DEEP BLUE SEA (Terence Davies, 2011)

THE DEEP BLUE SEA opens with Hester Collyer (Rachel Weisz) reading the suicide note she’s left for her lover, Royal Air Force pilot Freddie Page (Tom Hiddleston).  While her passion for him is as intense as ever, she can no longer stand the imbalance in their feelings for one another.  Hester’s attempt is unsuccessful and does her no harm, but considering the place and time--London, around 1950--the act itself could get her in a great deal of trouble as attempted suicide is a crime.  Although Hester’s husband Sir William Collyer (Simon Russell Beale) was deeply hurt when she left him for his younger friend and refuses to grant her a divorce, he shows no indication of wishing to use her bid to end her life or his position as a judge to gain revenge.  

After being revived Hester lingers in a daze in her rented flat reflecting on the events that brought her to the point of preferring death to the pain of her unmatched fervency for Freddie.  She makes a desperate pitch to elicit the desired response she wants from him but is resigned to knowing she will always need him more.

As Hester tries to hold onto the ephemeral remains of what once existed in her relationships, THE DEEP BLUE SEA is lit so as to catch the dust in the air, the smoke from her cigarettes, and the breath on a chilly night.  While visible, those fleeting byproducts can never again return to what they were.  Florian Hoffmeister’s painterly cinematography wraps the film in a shroud.  What’s gone is gone, and Hester inhabits the wreckage of her choices just as Londoners get on with life among the destruction and ruins from World War II.  

Love becomes malignant when it is dampened or when it mutates into lust in writer-director Terence Davies’ adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s play.  Per William’s mother (Barbara Jefford) extolling the virtues of guarded enthusiasm over passion, his affection for Hester is kept at a polite remove.  Hester requires ardor in her relationships, even if it is not reciprocated, and is willing to chuck comfortable but cool certainty with William for the heat of carnal attraction to Freddie.  
Hester is trapped between a rock and a hard place.  Neither William nor Freddie can supply or share the acute emotion that sustains her.  Weisz’s sensitive and finely modulated embodiment of yearning and torment speaks of the internal decay that has taken root in Hester.  The character is a victim of her own decisions, but Weisz’s bruised performance in THE DEEP BLUE SEA yields empathy for being battered by doomed romanticism.

Grade: B+