Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Bright Wall/Dark Room: Musicians and Fans

The March issue of the wonderful film magazine Bright Wall/Dark Room is out. I'm pleased to have a piece of my own on Margaret Brown's great 2004 documentary about Townes Van Zandt, Be Here to Love Me, in the new edition. Subscribe today and enjoy! 

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Dave Carr and The Sweet Spot


A few weeks ago, Dave Carr's death left a giant gap in the world of journalism. Gone was this bony, scratchy-voiced, witty, no-nonsense media presence who made the cut-throat, often intimidating world of news production seem like a fun, delightful, and even comforting place. I call it a gap because while another may fill his position, the sheer aura of his presence is irreplaceable. 

His success at the New York Times, where he was employed from 2002 till his death, seemed almost inexplicable. How did this lovable goofball with a severe history of substance abuse suddenly find himself at one of the world's most prestigious news publications so late in the game (he was in his late forties when he joined the paper)? Having not worked at the Times (smile) or any newspaper publication for that matter, I can't quite say what made Carr's presence so invaluable in the newsroom. But I can guess. Besides the fact that he was a hard-nosed, intrepid reporter and a good writer, Carr seemed to exude-almost simultaneously-a causal, funny demeanor and a shrewd work ethic that would not tolerate negligence or laziness. He never seemed to take himself too seriously, but he took his work dead-seriously, and from my surmising this is what made him such a valuable and beloved member of the American media. 

Besides the written pieces available to us, as well as his 2008 memoir The Night of the Gun, perhaps the best access we have to Carr's enduring and endearing persona is a weekly series he did with the Times' film critic AO Scott called The Sweet Spot. It was a simple concept in which the two would meet during breaks or off hours in the Times' cafeteria and discuss aspects of American/world culture in both a light-hearted and serious-minded manner. In other words, they took topics worthy of discussion and presented them in ways that were casual enough to be wholly entertaining while also touching on the important ideas that made such topics worth discussing in the first place. In a way it was a perfect outlet for Carr in that it encapsulated that aforementioned twofold strategy with which he went about presenting himself. He wanted to find a place for serious contemplation while also acknowledging the utter joy of simply gathering and conveying information and communicating with another human being. Talking with others can be fun and informative, seemed to be almost a mantra Carr lived by. It sounds cliche, but, given his rough background and the wonderful redemptive aspect of his success, you can't help but take it seriously. 

Nearly all of the Sweet Spot videos I've watched have been entertaining and, usually, enlightening. They're the perfect videos to watch when you hit Starbucks for your morning coffee, have ten minutes to spare before you have to be at work, and feel you might as well spend that time doing something other than just sitting there. I'm the perfect case in point. My Friday 1PM class was canceled because my professor, who had been in New York the entire week, was delayed yet another day because of some fierce snowstorms. Normally when that class ends on Friday I rush off to the train and arrive in Dallas at 2:58 with only a few minutes before my 3:00 shift starts. But because the cancelation, I was able to leisurely head to the train and catch an early ride with a good hour to spend in the city before I had to commit to the drudges of the workday. So I hit up a coffee shop, got a drink, opened my laptop, and started watching Sweet Spot videos. This was the day after Carr died.

One of the best is their discussion of Lincoln. It begins with Carr and Scott sitting at a table and talking about how the hour grows late and soon the twinkling of city lights will be around them. Normally it's broad daylight when they record the videos, but this one must have been done at end of the workday. The late hour gives Carr a perfect segue into the discussion of Spielberg's 2012 historical drama of our 16th president: "speaking of dark, I spent a week last night watching Lincoln last night." Carr's central complaint about the film is that it's too slow. Criticizing Scott for naming it the second best movie ("not second best history lesson, second best attempt to codify an important epoch, but second best movie") of the year, he establishes that for him in a movie he wants a rollicking tale to unfold. He develops his argument by comparing the film's opening Civil War battle footage to the opening of Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, another movie, that to Carr, did a good job with the history but a bad job entertaining the viewer. Right away one gathers where Carr's priorities are with cinema: he recognizes when something is good, but if he's not having a fun time with it, he's not going to be happy. In many ways Carr is a representative of the common moviegoer, someone who doesn't mind if something is challenging or entertaining as long as they aren't checking their watches to see when they get to leave. Scott, on the other hand, is the antithesis, an highly academic film critic who called Amour, that interminable foreign movie about old people and death, an even better picture than Lincoln. 

This doesn't allow for too much deep analysis of the subject, but it does provide a very funny and entertaining dichotomy that ultimately seems to be one of main ideas behind The Sweet Spot. What also makes it such an enjoyable program is that these guys seem to just really enjoy talking to each other.

Carr goes on to call Spielberg a "bit of a gasbag," before offering one of his funniest complaints: "It ended five times, or four--I lost count. I don't know how many times I put on my coat to go and then had to take it back off." Asking for a defense of this problem, Scott says that he liked the multiple endings, and "if you keep going, you'll get to us." Not a terribly deep thought, and he doesn't expound on just what he means, but it's just interesting enough to give the viewer a little something to chew on. That's what The Sweet Spot is: it's like Scott and Carr are in that coffee shop and we're just eavesdropping on two friends having a friendly, casually intellectual discussion of the things they care about.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Fanboys

There's a good piece by Jesse Hassenger up at the AV Club that takes a skeptical look at the the news that Neil Blomkamp will be the next director to tackle the Alien franchise. There's all sorts of interesting points made (particularly the idea that internet fandom informs filmmakers what to make) that you can mull over all you want by reading it. What I really wish to get at here though is this: what do these die-hard fans really want? Why are they so disappointed by all these reboots and yet still keep asking for more? What role does nostalgia play into their love for these franchises to begin with? If these reboots/remakes had come out when they were young, would they cherish them as adults? And by the way, not to base this stuff on critical reaction, but Blomkamp's latest, Chappie, is getting meh reviews. Time to panic?

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Oscars 2015!

Don't be mislead by the title of this post. I've nothing really to say about this year's Oscars, for one, because I didn't watch them, and two, because, in spite of the fact that a few really great films were considered for awards, I just don't care. At this point it's almost more enjoyable to read the twitter posts of people poking fun at the show than actually watching it.

That said, I do have one thing to say concerning the broadcast: If you were disappointed that Eddie Redmayne took home the Best Actor award (I love, love Michael Keaton and would have been happier over his taking home the gold than any Oscar win ever), be glad that he improved massively on his fellow-nominee Benedict Cumberbatch's performance as Hawking from the 2004 BBC film. Out of curiosity, I watched snippets of it through the night, and, for those of you who think Cumberbatch can do no wrong, check this out. It's an awful pairing of subject and performer, partly because Cumberbatch's physical appearance is nothing like Hawking's, and also because his impression comes across as a bad imitation of Eddie Redmayne playing the famed physicist. I know that's impossible since this film came out ten years before, but that's how desperate and silly Cumberbatch is in this. All one needs to do is see the final scene of the film, which is so clumsy and stupid (not just in terms of the acting, but from the choices of uninspiring shots from director Philip Martin) it makes The Theory of Everything look like a masterpiece. This is not, however, to bash on either Cumberbatch or Redmayne. They're two of the coolest actors working in Britain today. I thought Redmayne was the highlight of Tom Hooper's Les Miserables, and Cumberbatch has simply been so entertaining in everything since Sherlock premiered in 2010 that an early mishap in his career ultimately matters little.

 (P.S., I actually did see live the back-to-back technical victories for The Grand Budapest Hotel. The reaction shots of Wes Anderson's lovable smile made me think that if this film actually took home all the top prizes then I would be genuinely happy just to see him smile more)

Prediction Oscars 2016: When the the show finally ends, we'll be stoked that James Gray's Lost City of Z is coming before long.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Thursday, February 5, 2015

A Walk Among the Tombstones. C+


It's a grim, dead-serious, and pleasantly low-key, adult-oriented thriller with Liam Neeson, yet that's not enough to make A Walk Among the Tombstones entirely satisfying. It needs more characters like the mysterious gardener who writes stories and keeps a bird coop atop a building (the Icelandic Olafur Darri Olafsson, who's been a character actor in a few Hollywood films and hopefully will be in many more in the future) in order to add flavor to what's a fairly ordinary (though admittedly at times pretty creepy) plot. Scott Frank, who's been a great genre screenwriter for a while, proves he's definitely capable in the director's chair (this is his second go round behind the camera, following The Lookout). The film is seeped in atmosphere (autumnal setting and all) and assured camera arrangements usually built around wide shots that give the film a really nice city-noir look. With the exception of one unexpected slow motion scene featuring a girl in a bright red coat, this is as no-nonsense as a movie can get. The film is set in 1999, just before Y2K (referenced several times) and the onslaught of technology in our everyday lives. The movie seems to relish the fact that it can operate in pre-cyber territory and simply deal with the reality of evil in a more primitive form. If only it had a little more sparks flying in the areas between Neeson and the bad guys to make this well-made, well-acted, and well-intentioned thriller just a little more interesting. 

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Scary Image of the Day

Willem Dafoe channels Steve Buscemi in Wild at Heart


Saturday, January 17, 2015

American Sniper: End Credits Song


(spoiler) One of my favorite parts about Clint Eastwood's American Sniper is that final shot, in which Sienna Miller's Taya Kyle watches her husband Chris Kyle go off in his truck with a veteran for an afternoon at a shooting range. Husband and wife exchange a parting glance, and her stare at Chris imparts a sense that she knows there's some sort of uncomfortable, eerie event soon occur. In no way could she have known that Chris Kyle was to be murdered that day, but one gathers she felt something wasn't quite right. Sienna Miller's gaze at her husband as she slowly closes the door is my favorite piece of acting from her in the film. It's the most subtle in a role that, while admirably played, is far too frequently overwrought for dramatic effect (it was also Eastwood's choice to end the film here, one of many examples in which he altered the written script, just for those who think he simply shoots the words on the page).

American Sniper has been breaking all kinds of box office records (being a Dallas native, it's particularly hitting home with my fellow Texans; I'm also just thrilled that it's getting people out to the theatre-since when have there been so many sold-out showings for such an extensive period of time?) and people are having an almost unreal emotional response to it. There's something about Kyle-his taciturn approach to life combined with his utterly committed sense of responsibility to his fellow men perhaps-that really strikes a chord with the steadfast American ethos of duty and love. 

Kyle, Cooper's performance, the action scenes, the PTSD sequences, and Eastwood's direction, have already been commented on extensively to the point where at this point I don't feel I've much to add (Ignatiy Vishnevetsky nailed the film in a few paragraphs; I'd also recommend Richard Brody's and Glenn Kenny's take on the movie, as well as What the Flick's review on Youtube). But I will say this: the choices made for the end credits sequence was utterly fantastic. As Eastwood did in his 2009 film Invictus, rather than employing extensive title cards that "wrap up" the story, we simply get images, in this case, the funeral procession for Kyle in 2013 around and in the Dallas Cowboys' stadium. Taken from stock video footage, the images function to remind viewers beyond info title sheets that this didn't just happen, but really happened. In many ways it provides a greater emotional pull, and yet I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of that had to do with the song choice that I imagine Eastwood picked for this sequence. It's a piece by Ennio Morricone--who Eastwood of course has massive ties to--called The Funeral, taken from the a little known Spaghetti Western called The Return of Ringo (released in 1965, the same year as Eastwood's own For a Few Dollars More). It combines a stirring, heroic, somber trumpet with Morricone's trademark choir sounds to create the sense of a funeral procession that is both solemn and transcendent. It's a beautifully written piece, clearly composed to honor the dead, and is the ideal choice for the conclusion of American Sniper. Not only does it offer emotional resonance for the viewer who has spent two intense hours witnessing Kyle's pursuits, but, in a grander sense, it makes one connect the film to Eastwood's entire filmography, particularly his early movies that of course featured Morricone's most enduring works. 

Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Drop (2014)

Besides being a really nice send-off for James Gandolfini, as well further affirmation that Tom Hardy's the real deal, there's really only one reason for The Drop to exist: to give somebody a film to see when they're just looking for something to watch at night, perhaps are too tired to engage in a challenging piece of cinema, but still want to see something well-made, well-acted, and worth their while. The Drop is the ideal film for such a night.

It's a really simple movie, and while the story contains a few secrets, it's never particularly difficult to follow. The film is low key and rife with quiet scenes of dialogue, yet it also moves well, with enough shady characters, occasional bits of violence, and threats to keep one easily engaged. As a whole though there's a relaxing simplicity to the film, which is largely due to the fact that Dennis Lehane's script is based off of his short story Animal Rescue. And the film really does feel like a short story stretched to feature length, especially when one considers that what seems like a cute little subplot involving a dog turns out to be the core element of the film. And even a little twist at the end serves more as closure and clarification than complication. In one sense there barely seems to be enough material in The Drop to sustain its running time of 106 minutes, and yet that's also why the movie is so easy to watch. One never feels overwhelmed by the story or the characters, and the smallness of the whole thing makes it ideal for those aforementioned middlebrow watching nights. It gives one the sense that they are seeing something worthwhile that's also easy to consume and that won't make them riled up afterwards and unable to sleep. When you wake up, chances are you'll have already started to forget about it.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Best of 2014!

Those who complain that all the good films of the year are backloaded until the november/december months have no argument for 2014. It's been a while since a year brought such a consistent crop of really good movies nearly every month. As I mentioned in a post earlier in the year, by April moviegoers had already been spoiled with new films from Wes Anderson, Darren Aronofsky, Jim Jarmusch, David Gordon Green, Lars Von Trier, and Jonathan Glazer. And it didn't stop there. Through the summer we got new ones from Richard Linklater, John Michael McDonagh, Bong Joon-Ho, Kelly Reichardt, Jim Mickle, and James Gray. Now, just because a director has a new movie doesn't mean it's going to be good. However, by and large the films released were spectacular, the kind of works that will probably be talked about years from now. And of course, the fall months proved to be outstanding as well, with nearly every week bringing something outstanding to the screen. Anyway, this is all to say that it was just another great year at the movies. When people talk about cinema being in trouble, at this point it mainly has to do with getting the mainstream excited and actually going out to the theatre consistently. Because as this year proved, the creative energy in this medium is at an exquisite high. And you know it has to be a good year when I'm this enthusiastic and the new films from Paul Thomas Anderson, Mike Leigh, and the Dardenne Brothers haven't even been released in Texas yet. Here's my 10 favorites:

10. Calvary. A fascinating and perplexing film, John Michael McDonagh's folllow-up to The Guard may seem important for the way it tackles its relevant topic of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, but to me its vitality comes more in how it plays around with tone--a la Alexander Payne--while also giving us one of the best movie characters in years in Brendan Gleeson's Father James.

9. Listen Up, Phillip. Alex Ross Perry's ambitious follow-up to The Color Wheel in which we're asked to follow repellent characters not to be rewarded with their positive transformations but to be terribly amused and enlightened as to the ways narcissism reaches such extremes as to almost work as an addiction. The movie also looks amazing and features Jason Schwartzman's best performance. 

8. Snowpiercer. Bong Joon Ho has created one of the great train movies of all time, and mind you there have been plenty of good ones. Just when you feel the film is getting a little obvious and worn down it takes fascinating narrative and visual turns. Always entertaining, and at the end something quite more than that. 

7. Boyhood. This movie is so good Linklater could sit on its success and take a little step into the shadows, and yet I think we're all quite eager for That's What I'm Taking About, coming out sometime in 2015. We could have said the same thing last year when everyone was putting Before Midnight on their top-10 lists. It's just what Linklater does.

6. Interstellar. It took two viewings of this for me to buy into it, and now two months after it's release I'm still thinking about it and also feeling its emotional power. If you think of it like a giant, geeky sci-fi novel, then all the physics jargon the characters incessantly spout suddenly seems okay. And if you're not wowed by the rest of it-the visual spectacle, the soundtrack, the performances, and the way it converges ideas and emotion, then there's no talking to you. 

5. The Grand Budapest Hotel. Wes Anderson's pastry cake with a haunted soul. 

4. Ida. Pawel Pawlikowski's nearly indescribable little drama about history, grief, family, and how to live. That it tackles so much in only 80 minutes and has time for some really good old school jazz makes it one of the truly amazing achievements of the year. 

3. Foxcatcher. Masterful in every possible way, but I think what I liked best was the autumnal setting and the way Bennett Miller insists on long wide shots and then lets them simply breathe and be still, letting the viewer simply absorb the environment. 

2. A Most Violent Year. The same could be said for A Most Violent Year, another wonderfully controlled drama from J.C. Chandor that also features my favorite performance of the year from Oscar Isaac. Such a finely calculated film in every sense, can't wait to see it again. 

1. The Immigrant. 

I'd almost like to just keep this list going, because I also loved Whiplash, Fury, Birdman, Nightcrawler, American Sniper, Joe, Cold in July, Gone Girl, and The Babadook, The Raid 2, The Rover. 

Also, there were, as usual, lots of older movies I saw this year that blew me away. My favorites:

Raw Deal
4 Months 3 Weeks 2 Days
Johnny Guitar
Deep Red
The Hunt
Wagon Master
Sherlock Jr.
Mother of George
Modern Romance
The Big Easy
Christine
Ace in the Hole
The Rock
Sorcerer 
The Leopard
Jubal
Something Wild
Master of the House
Letter From An Unknown Woman
Monsieur Verdoux
To Be or Not to Be