Thursday, December 30, 2010

Film 2010 : Some Final Thoughts

Exclusive to The Secret Child (Ha!)

Much Better than I Had Any Reason to Expect it To Be Given the Track Record(s) of Those InvolvedUnstoppable, Enter the Void, Greenberg, Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World, 127 Hours

Truly Welcome ComebacksShutter Island, White Material

Solid, Ripping Fun, Entertainment with a capital ‘E’ (Live Action Division) – The Ghost Writer, True Grit,The Town, The Social Network (but God, I wish it was more) 

Solid, Ripping Fun, Entertainment with a capital ‘E’
(Animated Division)Toy Story 3, Tangled, Megamind, Despicable Me 

American Indie Cinema Done Right Night Catches Us, Please Give, The Kids Are All Right, Cold Weather 

Best Documentary That Probably Wasn’t Much of a Documentary at All Exit Through the Gift Shop

Not Nearly as Smart as They Thought They Were
Inception, Black Swan, Red Riding Trilogy 

UnderwhelmedBlue Valentine, Tamara Drewe, A Kind of a Funny Story, I Love You Phillip Morris, Hot Tub Time Machine (yes, I expected more)

Out and Out DogsHeartbreaker, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Kick-Ass, Human Centipede, Gulliver’s Travels, Love and Other Drugs, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger 

Terrific Production Design and Visual Style in an Otherwise Ho-hum FilmThe Runaways

Special Honors for Continuing to Do That Voodoo that He Do So Well – Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers (May his freak flag always fly)    

   Freak Flag, Honorable Mention – Philippe Garrel’s Frontier of Dawn

Movies I Saw and Loved but Will Have to Wait to Discuss in More Detail in 2011Certified Copy, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall Past Lives, The Company Men 

Best Film of the YearCarlos. Forget that the director is French, that it is in (at least) three different languages and that it is 5 ½ hours long. No film better blurred the line between art and entertainment this year. A meditation on terrorism and ego wrapped up in a thrilling, suspenseful story. And a great rock’n’roll soundtrack to boot.


Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Favorite Records of 2010

Initially Published Here

1. SuperchunkMajesty Shredding - Hard rocking indie-pop legends come back from a nine year hiatus with arguably their best record yet.

2. Neil YoungLe Noise - Veteran iconoclast starts his 6th decade as a recording artist with his most committed batch of songs in a very long time.

3. Hold SteadyHeaven is Whenever - Their 5th full-length finds this Brooklyn band more powerful than ever and Craig Finn continuing to evolve as both a singer and lyricist.

4. TorcheSongs for Singles EP - Heavy Metal with hooks and brains and heart.

5. HotratsTurn Ons - A throwaway covers record by two thirds of now defunct Supergrass that is as pleasurable a listen as any record this year.

6. FiggsThe Man Who Fights Himself - What I initially suspected to be a stop-gap measure by these veteran rockers has grown in my estimation to be one of their most accomplished and mature (in a good way) records yet.

7. Ted Leo & the PharmacistsThe Brutalist Bricks - Like the Hold Steady, Ted Leo has reached a point in his career where he can stop worrying about defining himself and concentrate on perfecting his craft. Artful, bittersweet pop-punk.

8. MaseratiPyramid of the Sun - Instrumental rock as hypnotic and mesmerizing as anything I heard all year.

9. SpoonTransference - Only songs this solid can hold up to the type of bare bones arrangements Spoon continues to perfect.

10. Ryan AdamsOrion - Hyperactive multi-hyphenate songwriter composes his ‘Sci-Fi Metal Rock Opera’ and stumbles upon his best batch of songs in many a year. A damn fine joke

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Gulliver's Travels

Initially Published Here

The success of Ben Stiller’s Museum movies has brought its share of like-minded attempts to fuse family comedy fare with fantastical elements. Adam Sandler didn’t have any luck when he attempted to do the same with 2008’s Bedtime Stories. I don’t imagine Jack Black is going to do much better with this weak attempt.

Black’s Gulliver is a weak-willed schlep from the mail room of an unnamed magazine who is reminded repeatedly that he’s never going to amount to much due to his lack of drive and confidence. He can’t even bring himself to ask out the hottie travel editor that he’s had a crush on for years (played by Amanda Peet in a thankless, but luckily for her, almost non-existent role). A failed attempt to express his feelings leads to a writing assignment chasing down the Bermuda Triangle which leads to a tsunami of some sort which leads to Gulliver washing up on the shores of Lilliput.

What follows are a by-committee series of escapades -- some gross (a Lilliputian gets lost in a butt crack, Gulliver puts out a fire with his pee), some romantic (we get not one, but two equally uninteresting love stories), but mostly just unfunny bits of … stuff. And hey, I like Jack Black at a time when most people have grown tiresome of his shucking and jiving routine. But he seems lost and floundering here. So does Jason Segal who, as Gulliver’s best buddy amongst the Lilliputians, is asked to do nothing more than the play the straightest of straight men to Black and pine over Emily Blunt’s Princess Mary. Poor Ms. Blunt has got even less to do. As a result, I spent most of her time on screen contemplating her eerie resemblance to Katy Perry. The only who seems to be having any fun whatsoever is Chris O’Dowd (from beloved BBC comedy The IT Crowd). He spends the movie chewing up the furniture as bad guy General Edward and gets just about the only genuine laugh in the film, chewing out his brethren for buying into Gulliver’s increasing incredulous stories of glory on the Island of Manhattan.

Naturally, the film is being released in 3D for no apparent reason than to get poor susceptible parents to shell out an extra $6 bucks a ticket in an attempt to entertain their kids during their week home from school. This is the kind of movie people don’t expect critics to like, but I swear I went in with an open mind as did my five-year-old. But when he turned to me an hour in and said he was ready to leave it was only my journalistic integrity that kept us sitting there. But dear Milo, I felt your pain.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

OFF! : First Four EP's

Initially Published Here


It's difficult to presume that anyone would pay much attention to these songs if they wound up composing a new Circle Jerks record. That was the original intention. Keith Morris got together with ex-Burning Brides guitarist, Dimitri Coats, to concoct new tunes for the next Circle Jerks record. But when Keith’s old band mates balked at bringing an outsider into the process, Morris took his ball and went elsewhere (perhaps an oversimplification, but you can easily scope out a dozen recent interviews with Morris where he goes into greater detail). He and Coats recruited Redd Kross bassist, Steve McDonald, and ex-Hot Snakes/Rocket from the Crypt drummer, Mario Rubalcaba, and started recording songs this past January. Keith and Dimitri would write a few, book a day in a studio, and bang out three or four songs (not takes, but completed tracks), and then repeat the process.

In a few months, they had the 16 tunes that comprise their debut, First Four EP’s. Clocking in at around 18 minutes, these songs are strongly reminiscent of what Black Flag sounded like when Morris was their frontman. The tracks are raw and brutal, but not without hooks, and the performances are pure, adrenalized energy. It’s funny, people who don’t “get” this stuff will claim that anyone can do it, but you can tell from the first few bars that these guys have a level of commitment, expertise, and skill that separates them from 90% of what passes for punk or hardcore in 2010. McDonald’s bass playing is supple and melodic, without ever calling attention to itself, and the same could be said for Rubalcaba’s drumming. Morris’s performance is a marvel; his remarkable bark manages to convey passion first and anger second, something lost on most H/C vocalists (it’s the same reason he was the best singer Black Flag ever had). This goes for his lyrics as well, which are informed by every one of his 55 years. Call this the most pleasant surprise of the year and one hell of a punk rock record.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010


Initially Published Here

In 1983 David Cronenberg was known as a genre director. A respected one, but a genre director nonetheless, and a horror one to boot. If he was lucky he’d get a feature in Phangoria one day, but there was no reason to expect High Art from the guy. But with the release of Videodrome that year things started to change. A seriously deranged confluence of biological gore and media theory, it certainly wasn’t the first ‘smart’ horror film, but it made explicit (in every sense of the word) the intellectual rigor behind it’s queasy intersection of S&M, porn, and horror. If Tobe Hooper and Wes Craven’s early films play as drive-in ‘art brut’, Cronenberg’s cool visual style and detached perspective were downright clinical by comparison and, perhaps, all the scarier for it. And while the movie’s emphasis on now antiquated video technology may seem quaint to younger viewers, there is nothing dated about its obsession with the intersection of the virtual and the real. In fact, swap out the internet for the film’s clandestine pirate satellite broadcasts and the story would work just as well (damn, I hope I haven’t given some vacuous producer the idea to remake the damn thing).

Criterion has upgraded their already stellar DVD set to Blu-ray with a pronounced improvement in color accuracy and much more film-like look overall. While the extras are more or less the same as the prior edition, they are copious and well-done; two commentary tracks (one by Cronenberg and his cinematographer Mark Irwin, the other by stars James Woods and Deborah Harry), as well as a documentary on the film’s video and make-up effects and a filmed roundtable discussion on horror films from 1982 with John Carpenter, John Landis and Mick Garris joining Cronenberg. And most intriguing of all is the complete, unedited footage that comprises the “Videodrome Transmissions” from the film. Prepare to be freaked out for some time.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Mutiny on the Bounty

Initially Published Here

The very definition of what Manny Farber termed “White Elephant Art,” Mutiny on the Bounty was the prestige film of 1935 and won the Academy Award for Best Picture. It stars Clark Gable, one year after his breakthrough leading man role in It Happened One Night, as Fletcher Christian and Charles Laughton, at his scenery chewing best, as the villainous Captain Bligh. Also along for the voyage is Franchot Tone as Midshipmen Byam who gets to play the middle against Gable’s “gone native” Christian and Laughton’s cruel Captain. Interesting footnote -- all three actors received Best Actor nominations for their performances. It wasn’t until the following year that the “Supporting Actor” category was created to avoid just such problematic issues.

As directed by journeyman Frank Lloyd, the film holds up well as a ripping yarn filled with high seas adventure. It’s considerably less interesting as an examination of the treatment of sailors by His Royal Majesty’s Navy. Tone is given a painfully earnest speech towards the end of the film imploring that men be motivated by kindness and reward rather than punishment and how the Navy could “sweep the seas for England” if only they could all be a little more like Mr. Christian and a little less like Captain Bligh. But from a dramatic perspective it is Laughton’s Bligh that is by far the most entertaining character on screen.

The Blu-ray edition of this 75-year-old film is a bit of a mixed bag. For the most part, it looks excellent with only a few brief scenes showing any signs of significant damage. But it is fairly skimpy on the extras with only a one-minute Academy Awards newsreel, a trailer and a superfluous short film on Pitcairn Island (where Christian and his fellow mutineers ultimately landed). The disc is packaged with a 34-page booklet with many nice publicity stills but precious little additional information on the shooting.

Friday, December 10, 2010

I Love You Phillip Morris

Initially Published Here

I’d like to think that when I’m watching a film all I consider is the material up on the screen in front of me. But when a film comes with as much baggage as I Love You Phillip Morris, it is difficult to ignore the backstage drama and seemingly endless string of scratched and rescheduled release dates since it first premiered at Sundance in January 2009. Sure, there has been talk of bankrupt production companies and gun-shy distributors, but none of that is as interesting as speculation that the viewing public was just not ready for a hot and heavy gay love story starring Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor.

For all the talk of the film virtually dripping with raunchy man-love, in reality it is no more explicit than your average Apatow or Farrelly Brothers comedy. In fact, once it settles in, the romance between con-man/escape artist Steven Russell (Carrey) and his sweet but slightly dim cellmate Phillip (McGregor) is portrayed quite compassionately.

The film actually saves most of its outrageousness for Steven’s antics outside of the bedroom. Based on a true story, Russell is a brilliant and compulsive liar who faked his way into high level financial jobs and when inevitably caught, was able to break out of prison repeatedly, with each new endeavor more elaborate than the one before it (he’s currently serving a 144-year sentence he received in 1998). Filmmakers Glenn Ficarra and John Requa keep the tone light and the pace swift which is perfectly in step with the Russell’s outlandish behavior and oversized personality. Carrey is the perfect candidate to bring this type-A character to life. You could argue that his career has been built on playing characters not dissimilar to Russell. But here the material hints at the pathology laying beneath the actions, something that is rarely touched on in his other roles (In The Cable Guy and and Me, Myself and Irene? Sure; but in Yes Man and Liar Liar? Not so much). Unfortunately, McGregor doesn’t have much to do other than bat his doe-like eyes and throw the occasional fit. But he and Carrey manage to make their love feel genuine despite all the craziness surrounding it.

We can't know how much the film has been tinkered with in the almost two years since its festival premiere, but I suspect the use of a needless voice-over by Carrey was one of the studio's 'innovations.' As with nearly all voice-overs, it spells out far too explicitly what’s already right there on the screen. But, fortunately, it remains but a small misstep in an otherwise suitably outrageous and provocative comedy that deserves to find an audience after all its time spent on the shelf.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Elvis Costello : National Ransom

Initially Published Here

Ever since announcing several years ago that he was going to stop releasing new music, Elvis Costello has been on a bit of tear. Hot on the heels of 2009’s Secret, Profane & Sugarcane, comes this year’s model, National Ransom. Recorded with many of the same musicians, the records also share many stylistic similarities. The songs are primarily acoustic, with a strong country/bluegrass/Americana vibe. That doesn’t mean that he doesn’t occasionally kick up some dust – the title track bumps and grinds along with a nicely tortured guitar solo by on-and-off collaborator, Marc Ribot. But for the most part, Elvis sounds comfortably settled into these shuffling tempos and jazzy chordings.

Perhaps comfortable is the operative word here. At the age of 56, Elvis has seemingly settled into that “mature” period of his career – the tempos have slowed down, the hooks are less immediate, and the anger is now tempered with resignation. He puts out his records with little fanfare and zero effort to appease any sort of “youth” market. He plays festivals all over the world, does his TV show, and is always, it seems, writing, writing new songs.

Perhaps an editor could be in order. At 16 songs and over 62 minutes, National Ransom would be better served pruned down to a more manageable length. Some of its smaller pleasures (like the jaunty “A Slow Drag with Josephine” and the rollicking throwaway “The Spell That You Cast”) tend to get lost amidst the album’s more portentous numbers. And Elvis can still wring his hands with the best of them as he does on the title track, as well as “Bullets for the New-Born King,” which announces its significance with its simple, winding melody, and avalanche of words. Forgive me if I prefer him when he doesn’t show his work so obviously. I prefer my rock’n’roll a little more off the cuff. There are moments of casual brilliance sprinkled throughout, but overall it would be better served with a little more levity dropped into the mix. (Hear Music/Universal)

Monday, December 6, 2010

Night Catches Us

Initially Published Here

Writer/director Tanya Hamilton’s remarkably assured first feature checks in at a brisk 88 minutes, but it still has a contemplative quality sadly missing from most contemporary cinema, independent or otherwise: It trusts the audience to make connections rather than spelling everything out in bold capital letters, and it never loses track of the personal issues that inform our political beliefs.

The story, which takes place in 1976, concerns Marcus (Anthony Mackie of Hurt Locker fame), an ex-Black Panther who returns to his Philadelphia neighborhood after a mysterious four year absence upon news of his father’s death. He longs to reconnect with Patricia (Kerry Washington), the wife of a good friend and fellow Panther who was killed by the police. Many neighbors, including his former comrades, suspect that Marcus is responsible for the husband’s death by informing the police of his whereabouts. Marcus’ feelings for Patricia are well known by all, Patricia included. She struggles to maintain ties to her old life while taking small steps to move her and her family forward.

Hamilton does a superb job at juggling several stories. Along with Marcus and Patricia, there is Patricia’s cousin Jimmy (Amari Cheatom) whose rage and anger at the police finds misguided focus in Black Panther lore. Then there are Dwayne and David (played by Jamie Hector and Wendell Pierce, both alums of HBO’s The Wire). Two sides of the same coin, Dwayne wants Marcus to pay for his supposed betrayal of the Panther cause while David is a cop willing to do anything to get Marcus to implicate his old friends. The story slowly and quietly ratchets up the stakes for all these characters such that the film’s inevitable moments of violence and revelation feel hard-won and honest.

Night Catches Us is blessedly free of the trappings we’ve come to expect from a film set in the ‘70s -- the clothes aren’t outlandish (in fact, Marcus’ collection of velour shirts struck me as perfectly of the time without once calling attention to themselves) and the soundtrack is free of the Top 40 cheese typically slathered over films set during the period. There are some relatively obscure soul and R&B songs as well as a score by The Roots which seamlessly blends with the tunes of the era. The film never feels like an agitprop piece despite its subject matter and the use of occasional archival footage and animation.

It also features some surprisingly lyrical imagery. A long shot of Jimmy target shooting in an abandoned lot tells us everything we need to know by allowing us to see his whole body in relation to his environment; how his arm shakes as he raises the gun, how hollow and tiny the bullets sound as they disappear into the debris. Towards the end of the film, the police are looking for a suspect in the woods and everything is of a piece -- the light at dusk filled with fireflies, the soft grass, the methodical movement of the cops through the trees. It’s as perfect a sequence as I’ve seen in a film this year. Let’s hope the film gets the attention it deserves. It is a small, exquisitely drawn picture of a time and a place that never feels less than true.

Interview : Tanya Hamilton

Initially Published Here

Night Catches Us is a remarkably assured first feature for director and writer Tanya Hamilton. The story of men and women coming to grips with the aftermath of the Black Panther Party’s disintegration in ‘70s Philadelphia, the film is refreshingly contemplative and never feels less than true to its characters or setting. We recently had the chance to spend some time with Ms. Hamilton, who described her decision-making process and how she channeled her background as a painter into her first film.

I was impressed with how you managed to make a film set in the ‘70s while avoiding all of the clichés associated with the period (costume design, hair, soundtrack, etc.). What were some of the challenges? 
I think money, really, to be crass. There are things I wanted to do that I couldn’t because I just didn’t have enough. Like shooting at night, or having a bunch of cops on the street. We had to be creative about these things, which I think worked. I have a great dislike for the garishness of the ‘70s. I love the aesthetic in a way but I think it’s so over-the-top. I knew that I didn’t want to have anything to do with that. I think I treasure subtlety pretty much in every way, sometimes too much.

I was curious how the film came to be set in Philadelphia. Is this a story you could have adapted to Black Panther history in another U.S. city?
Sure, there’s no doubt I could have adapted it in many ways to anywhere. I think I try to write what I know … cuz I’m not good at writing what I don’t know. Some people are good at making it up. I’m not one of those people. So I knew Philly by the time I wrote it in ’99. It was always set here just because it felt like the South. I was so heavily influenced by To Kill a Mockingbird, and by that idea of the neighborhood. I was so influenced by the South that New York made no sense and Philly was the only other place I knew besides D.C.

You've talked about bringing concepts like deconstruction and reconstruction to your filmmaking. A couple of scenes that really stuck with me were the sequences composed in extreme long shot. Did you shoot lots of coverage and then in the editing room decide, “All the scene needs is this.” Or did you know on location?
Again, that’s where I got into some trouble. Marcus under the bridge for instance, the scene was written to kind of show his isolation. I knew that I needed a visual transition to take me from that scene into the house and I knew that I ultimately needed to speak in subtext to what I wanted, which was that [isolation]. And similarly with Jimmy, I knew that the further I got away from his family, the more the landscape had to change and become more apocalyptic and also the shots had to be wider. So yeah, you want to see that building. Not only was it falling down and decaying, but when you look through those windows it looks like the seaside. It doesn’t look like there’s anything beyond it. That metaphor was important to me. He progressively moves so far away from his family and therefore so far away from reason and sanity and everything keeping him grounded, and that building spoke to us.

Knowing your background as a painter, I thought about the scene towards the end of the film where the police are going through the woods looking for the suspect. I started to think about that in terms of light and perspective, the fireflies--
Yeah, that was an accident -- the fireflies.

That’s a Philly thing in the summertime.
It’s really great. What can I say? It was a stressful day. I was like, “The light is fading! The light is fading!” I think that there’s a visual collaboration between myself, the D.P. and the editor and I think we all spoke the same language, were all interested in how do you tell the story visually, how do you tell it slowly? And not slow just to be slow but a respect for the period this comes from which is the ‘70s. I think people took their time a little more. We also wanted to find ways to give breaths throughout the film and to tell it as much in metaphor as we could. Part of that is frankly because of money. It’s the language I spoke no matter how much I tried to run away from it. We wanted to have that shot of the policeman’s feet. In part, we just couldn’t afford more policemen so the question was how do we recycle these guys without sort of tipping our hand? But also there was a real desire to abstract them. It’s not about police who kill people, it’s about this guy and so we thought a lot about it.

I thought about the fact that the film is 88 minutes but you still take your time with things. Did you cut out large chunks of exposition and narrative?
There was a ton of exposition. Really, as a writer, I don’t focus a lot on the ‘math’ stuff. It’s really something I struggle with. I’m just more interested in people and how they relate to one another and how they’re dealing with their stuff and so consequently, I think I’m not necessarily the best person at setup. So those first 20 minutes we struggled until the last breath before we had to let it go for Sundance and it was hard. There were fundamental things that I look back on that I purposefully said, “I don’t want that,” but you need them because you have to tell the story in this very specific way for people to find their way in. I still think there are some things we couldn’t do because we didn’t have the footage but I think we made the absolute best that we could.

And you can make yourself crazy trying to chase down what everyone wants.
It’s true. I let go which was nice. That panic that sets in of “I’m not telling the story in a way that people can understand” – and then sort of looking through all your footage and realizing you have to throw a ton of stuff out because creatively it doesn’t make sense. And then, in throwing it out, it brings up new problems. I needed to place Jimmy in the world of this family and I hadn’t shot it and I was like,”How did I miss this important thread?” And Jimmy is my favorite character and his arc was the one that I just spent so much time thinking about, but I think you can get into your head and sort of leave a little of the math behind.

I’m wondering how much time and effort you are going to spend for the 10 percent of the audience that might question how the policemen find Jimmy.
Yeah, none. As an audience member, I’m happy to be led. I’m happy to make the leaps I need to make. That’s quite different than how I establish my characters in the world that they’re going to live in versus a piece of math – “I need A, B and C.” – I’m cool with just going from A to C because my mind can say “They found him. It doesn’t matter how.”

At the beginning, when I mentioned some of the tropes of ‘70s movies, I said that your soundtrack didn’t fall into those usual traps. How did The Roots come to be involved? At what point in the process?
There were on pretty early. I knew their agent and she thought they’d be really great and I was like “Yeah” because I love them and they’re amazing and they are Philly and they’re very blackety-black which I love and it just sort of made sense. We looked to the Roots to be our bridge between the past and this present.

What have the past 11 months been like for you?
It’s been a great experience, actually. I’m not a fan of the growing exponential world that film is: I’d rather spend time with my child and my husband. But the part I really love is showing the film to audiences and then having this conversation with them. The biggest surprise is how many people can connect to the film. It’s so unlike what I thought. I’m very interested in the working class and the working poor and how do you ultimately speak to those audiences. How do you tell people’s stories with dignity? Frankly, I don’t think I ever thought (about) if I had achieved it and now I go around and all different kinds of people connect to it and that I find extremely lovely.

The film struck me as incredibly truthful regardless of whether or not I was ever in those circumstances or people that I know were. 
Yeah, that’s really flattering. I think that there are these elements, these themes, that connect to all these different people which I think is great. That’s why I think it’s a film that can reach a lot of different audiences.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Modern Times

Initially Published Here

Charles Chaplin is one of cinema’s great humanists and perhaps none of his features is more empathetic (and none more relevant to today’s economic crisis) than Modern Times. Released almost a decade after the Jazz Singer had ushered in the ‘Talking Motion Picture,' the film is still largely silent, that is if you don’t count music and sound effects. When his Tramp character speaks on screen for the first time ever in the film’s penultimate scene, it is to sing a song of gibberish made-up sounds and syllables, a comment on Chaplin’s belief that words only got in way of being truly funny (his art was first and foremost about pantomime, and it is no coincidence that he retired the Little Tramp character with this film).

The film’s vignettes make well-drawn, still relevant observations on the role of work in everyday life without being didactic. And while the film may be light on guffaws, it has more than its share of exquisitely choreographed set-pieces that are still a marvel to behold almost 80 years later. Chaplin never had a more well-matched female lead than Paulette Goddard. Unlike the many films which end with Charlie walking away alone, here the Factory Worker and the Gamine walk together arm in arm into an uncertain but hopeful future. It’s damn near a happy ending.

Criterion’s Blu-ray edition may lack that ‘wow’ factor so many people look for in the new format, but it is truly a marvel given the age of the materials involved. The film’s look is clean, with even grain throughout and rich contrast. Extras are considerable -- a terrific commentary track by Chaplin biographer David Robinson, two new visual essays, detailed looks at the film’s soundtrack as well as its visual and sound effects, and the classic Chaplin two-reeler The Rink, where he first showed off the roller skating skills he puts to such good use in Modern Times.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Love and Other Drugs

Initially Published Here

Buried somewhere in this mushy, formulaic mess of a movie is a half-way interesting story. The film is ostensibly based on a non-fiction bestseller about a young, hot-shot pharmaceutical rep who starts work for Pfizer shortly before the drug giant unleashes Viagra on an unsuspecting and eternally grateful world. But the film quickly loses interest in this thread and instead turns into a generic modern day romance where two seemingly disparate souls find true love, lose it, then find it again.

Let’s pause here, as to take a few minutes to discuss a relatively new Hollywood trend – I’m talking about these romantic comedies that feel the need to stretch out to nearly two hours or more to tell their tired, clichéd stories. MSN film critic (and former Premiere magazine editor) Glenn Kenney hit the nail on the head in a recent review of the latest Katherine Heigel perpetrated injustice (aka, Life as We Know It). In rom-coms of yore, our two lovers would spend most of their time coming to the conclusion that they were meant to be together and the film would end with their pairing. But today they couple needs to pair up, then breakup over some contrived conflict, and then spend another 15 or 20 minutes realizing that they really should be together after all.

In the case of Love and Other Drugs, we are talking about Jamie (Jake Gyllenhaal), the ‘Type A’ salesman extraordinaire and Maggie (Anne Hathaway), the free spirit whose cynical world view is a result of suffering from Parkinson’s at the age of 26. The two are determined to keep things fast and loose as per their usual M.O.’s, but quickly find themselves falling for one another. Fine. I’m not a cold-hearted jerk. I can go along with these machinations when the actors as charming as Gylenhaal and Hathaway are involved. And the film is refreshingly adult in its acknowledgment of the significant role sex plays in their relationship (although I could have done without Jamie’s painfully unfunny horn-dog brother played by Josh Gad in a role that even Jonah Hill would have passed on). But then the filmmakers feel the need to break them apart despite the fact that everyone in the audience knows damn well that they will be back together before the credits start. And that’s when it's time to start checking out; the unreturned messages, the bad dates, the pursuit that entails when one partner, typically the guy, realizes his mistake (this one involves a busload of adorable seniors). Enough already! Get them together again and get me out of here. Would I have loved this film if had ended 20 minutes sooner? Probably not, to be fair. But I woudn't be this choked with bile and anger, either.

The High Dials : Anthems for Doomed Youth

Initially Published Here

“Power Pop” is a musical ghetto into which few bands would want to be relegated. It conjures up images of Beatle boots and paisley shirts, big record collections and precious little real-life experience. Most depressingly, it’s often about trying to meticulously recreate a sound instead of creating something fresh. Sometimes it’s difficult explaining the difference between the good, the bad, and the lame when it comes to this stuff, but to paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart - I know it when I hear it.

The new High Dials album is definitely on the right side of the equation. Sure, it has its share of jangly guitars and sweet melodies. And “Uruguay” bows a little too reverentially towards the Beach Boys circa Pet Sounds, something that’s all but a requirement amongst indie-pop bands. But elsewhere these guys shake things up just enough to keep their songs from falling into the obvious traps. The album is sequenced very much like an LP, with the fast ones loaded on Side A. This includes “Teenage Love Made Me Insane,” a perfectly propulsive single from an era long-gone. Songwriter Trevor Anderson’s vocals are high in the mix, and cushioned with lots of dreamy reverb but there is some real bite to the performances. Drummer Max Herbert, in particular, comes to life on Side B, where the band stretches things out a bit (the lengthy coda on “Mysterio” sees him conjuring Keith Moon in his flailing).

In general, I imagine the group’s sound truly igniting in a live setting. Bands like these frequently blow me away when stumbled upon in a small, crowded club. For 30 minutes or so, they can convince you they are the greatest thing in the world. Then you play the CD you bought at the merch stand and realize it is nowhere near as powerful as the show you just witnessed. Happens all the time. But with Anthems for Doomed Youth , the High Dials have crafted an excellent collection of melodic songs with palpable energy and drive. To say that I can’t wait for the chance to see them live is the highest compliment I can offer (Rainbow Quartz International).

Friday, November 19, 2010

Please Give

Initially Published Here

Nicole Holofcener’s latest dramedy centers on a NYC couple (Catherine Keener and Oliver Platt) who make their living buying estate sale furniture and selling it at exorbitant mark-ups out of their chi-chi boutique. They do well enough to have purchased the apartment adjacent to their own which is currently occupied by nonagenarian Andra (Ann Guilbert), who is cared for by her granddaughters (Rebecca Hall and Amanda Peet). Everyone involved tries hard not to think about the reality of waiting for poor Andra to die so that they can all get on with their lives in one way or another.

If that makes them sound like bad people … well, that’s the point that Holofcener’s film is struggling with. In fact, they’re not bad people, but that doesn’t keep them from doing bad things. The film’s pleasure is in watching these characters come to grips with their behavior and navigate towards some balance. It’s an honest and painfully funny depiction of human nature, perfectly cast and scripted. There’s nary a false note here.

This Blu-ray edition does an excellent job of making the best of the film’s obviously meager production values. And rather than the obligatory commentary track, the disc includes an insightful Q&A with the writer/director where she sheds additional light on the film.

Forbidden Lie$

Initially Published Here

The true life story of author Norma Khouri is almost too loopy to believe. Khouri wrote the hugely successful Forbidden Love, a supposed memoir of her life growing up in Jordan and the murder (‘honor killing’) of her best friend who made the mistake of dating a Christian man. A few years after the book was published, an Australian investigative journalist uncovered ample evidence that not only was the book largely a work of fiction, but that Khouri may had been involved in many more run of the mill scams and cons over the years.

At first, the preponderance of silly, ham fisted reenactments of scenes from the book distract rather than embellish the film. But the jocular tone makes more sense as the story unfolds and more and more outrageous accusations come to light. Made with the author’s explicit involvement, she seems to have no clue as to how disturbed a picture the film paints of her. You can be certain it’s the attention alone that she craves, regardless of whether or not she comes off as simply misunderstood or truly sociopathic.

The film does what it needs to do in bringing to light a literary hoax right up there with JT Leroy and Clifford Irving. That it lacks subtlety or nuance hardly seems to matter in the scheme of things. The DVD even includes a commentary track where Khouri and director Anna Broinowski continue to hash out their respective arguments. The woman really doesn’t know when to quit.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Maserati : Live at Kung Fu Necktie

Initially Published Here

Maserati brought their Giorgio Moroder/Jan Hammer influenced brand of hard rock to Kung Fu Necktie with like minded souls Steve Moore, and Psychic Paramount, also on the bill. But this line-up of three instrumental “rock” acts was a true study in contrasts despite the complete absence of vocal mics all evening (Well, almost complete - does that Talk Box count?).

New York’s Psychic Paramount shares a classic guitar/bass/drums line-up with Maserati (as well as a love for looped keyboards) but their sound is decidedly more noisy and aggressive. Bassist Ben Armstrong seemed to be wrestling with his instrument at times, and I swear, in the end, the bass won. Guitarist Drew St. Ivany stuck to high frequencies, spraying out an array of squeals and scratches in order to be heard over the bottom-end din. And just when I thought neither band, nor audience, could withstand the sonic onslaught much longer, it was over.

Maserati, however, were never in danger of overheating. Their sound is carefully controlled and measured. Often described as evocative of a late night drive on an empty highway, it is easy to succumb to its hypnotic power when in the right frame of mind. This was just the second show of their tour in support of their new album, Pyramid of the Sun, and their first shows with new drummer A.E. Paterra (one half of Pittsburgh-based duo Zombi). Paterra was front and center on stage, and in the soundscape. He was spot on all night, even if he occasionally had that ‘new guy’, deer-in-the-headlights look on his face. Guitarists Matt Cherry and Coley Dennis rely on their delay boxes like metal bands rely on their distortion pedals; they are an integral part of the Maserati sound. Between Paterra’s powerful attack, the incessant interlocking guitar lines, and bassist Chris McNeal's propulsive riffs, this was rock n’ roll with considerable booty-shaking appeal. It’s a shame so few attendees at Kung Fu felt the urge to dance to the grooves being laid down. 

Steve Moore, the other half of Zombi, started the evening with 30 minutes of pulsing mood music played on vintage wood-paneled synths. Sounding like nothing less than the soundtrack to a long lost Dario Argento film, it was equal parts pretty and haunting, but not something you really need to experience live to enjoy to the fullest.

Jukebox Zeros : City of Bother and Loathe

Initially Published Here

Philly’s own Jukebox Zeros play a decidedly unfashionable brand of rock’n’roll, circa 2010. I’m talking about a lineage that can be traced back to Chuck Berry, who begat the Rolling Stones, who begat the New York Dolls, who begat the Replacements and so on and so on. There’s precious little irony in their tunes, or anything whimsical or child-like. It’s all pounding drums and screaming guitars, simple progressions and simpler sentiments. But what they lack in originality they make up for in enthusiasm and conviction.

Their new EP, City of Bother and Loathe, comes hot on the heels of last year’s Rock’n’Roll Ronin CD. Vinyl only this time out (with a download card, natch), the new record delivers 3 new tunes and a Testors cover in just a little over 11 minutes. Despite all the aggression in these grooves the sound is surprisingly concise and uncluttered. The sonic palette doesn’t vary much from song to song so you take the little touches as they come; the piercing one-note piano solo on the title track, the tempo shifts on “Cop Shop,” the poppier-than-usual chorus on “Secret Streets.” Their take on the Testors’ “Let’s Get Zooed Out” is a little too reverential, but I suppose there isn’t a heck of a lot you can do with one minute and 40 seconds worth of grimy gutter punk except hold on tight and hope it doesn’t derail. And derail it doesn’t. Cuz despite the lip service paid to all things sloppy and loose, the thing I like the most about Jukebox Zeros is their tight attack and streamlined sound. This is punk rock played with a respect for pop sensibilities and an explosiveness that never quite falls into chaos. (Rankoutsider Records).

Friday, November 12, 2010


Initially Published Here

Complaining about a lack of character development or understanding of social context in a Hollywood action movie is akin to being upset that your pet turtle can’t outrun the neighbor’s greyhound. It’s just not what they are built to do, correct? Not all movies can or should be judged by the same criteria. That’s not to imply some sort of sliding scale, but an acknowledgement that you can enjoy an action picture on its own merits while ignoring shortfalls that might otherwise be inexcusable in other types of films.

Unstoppable, the latest juggernaut from Tony Scott, involves an unmanned, out of control freight train barreling through the western Pennsylvania countryside carrying some highly toxic chemicals. The only men with a chance of bringing the train to a halt are “Hot Headed Rookie” Will Colson (Chris Pine, aka James T. Kirk 2.0) and “Grizzled Veteran” Frank Barnes (Denzel Washington, who’s gotten quite comfortable playing the same sort of role in several Tony Scott films as of late). Along for the ride are Rosario Dawson as the “Sharp-witted, Take No BS Dispatcher” who talks Will and Frank through their mission, and the sorely underutilized character actor Kevin Corrigan as the “Egghead from the Home Office” who proves himself by coming through with some sage advice when needed.

The film operates somewhere in between your standard high speed action movie and a disaster film right out of Irwin Allen’s wheelhouse. Where it excels is in its relentlessness. The movie opens with no more than a few a minutes of cursory back story before the train is loose and the chase is on. Scott is an expert at keeping things fast and furious while never losing track of spatial relationships. This is a skill lost on many current directors (Michael Bay, I’m looking in your general direction). They hope to generate excitement by piling on quick and jarring edits from one action to the next. But what they ultimately do is lose the thread that ties the actions together. And when that’s gone there’s no fluidity, no sense of cause and effect. You spend your time trying to make sense of the action instead of getting engulfed in it.

And there were moments in Unstoppable where I found myself completely caught up in its momentum despite my own best judgment. I could care less about Will’s estranged wife or Frank’s daughters (nice product placement for Hooters, BTW). I could also care less about how closely it adheres to the “true story” it is supposedly based on-- does the phrase “Based on a True Story” really help sell these movies? Reagardless, I was still able to lose myself in this slight but expertly filmed little action picture.

Client 9 - The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer

Initially Published Here

Was Eliot Spitzer a crusader for the common man against the seemingly limitless greed of corporate America, or was he an opportunistic egomaniac motivated by self-interests? More interestingly, is it possible to be both at the same time? These are the key questions raised by this new documentary.

Full disclosure -- I was an employee of AIG working in their New York home office at the time that Spitzer, then the state’s Attorney General, first leveled accusations of criminal activity at the insurance giant and, more specifically, it’s long-time CEO and Chairman Maurice ‘Hank’ Greenberg. On the inside looking out, it struck me that Spitzer was simply trying to raise his public profile in a bid to secure the governorship and going after big business was the easiest way to get voters on his side. The fact that he ultimately never brought any charges whatsoever against the company or Greenberg seemed to bear this out. But the film makes a rather strong case that it was (Republican) federal prosecutors who stepped in and tied the hands of Spitzer and his team.

In fact, the film’s greatest strength is its accumulation of shitty behavior on the part of everyone involved to the point where you are left rooting for Spitzer as, perhaps, the least big asshole in this particular room. The filmmakers trot out a veritable Teddy Bear’s Picnic of wizened old money faces: disgraced N.Y. State Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, investment banker Kenneth Langone, political fixer Roger Stone, the aforementioned Hammerin’ Hank. Each is more despicable than the next. I wouldn’t go so far as to call Spitzer likeable but compared to this rogue’s gallery he comes off as just some poor schlub who got caught cheating on his wife and was punished all out of proportion with the sin committed.

As compellingly awful as each of these talking heads are, director Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Casino Jack and the United States of Money) would have been better off just letting them pontificate for his camera. Instead he frequently cuts to basic-cable style reenactments and clichéd shots of rainy city streets in an effort to establish mood and/or suspense. They’re unnecessary and take time away from the compelling parade of amoral conduct he’s put together. At a time when it's much easier (and healthier) to be amused rather than disgusted by the behavior of public figures, Client 9 still manages to rankle. Mission accomplished.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Maserati : Pyramid of the Sun

Initially Published Here

Maserati are a fascinating hybrid. They play instrumental hard rock in the vein of bands like Explosions in the Sky and Trans Am, but with frequent stops on the dance floor courtesy of Giorgio Moroder-style synthesizers and motorik drum beats. There are elements of Krautrock hidden away in the multiple layers working here, but frequently they sound like nothing less than a deep cut from the American Gigolo soundtrack.

This is a good thing. Hard rock bands frequently improve their hit ratio with the liberal addition of hip-swaying beats. In fact, a good argument can be made that the primary distinction between “Hard Rock” and “Heavy Metal” are those very beats. Call it the difference between Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin (or say, Metallica and Guns n' Roses). 'Cuz what the boys in the pit don’t get the girls understand. Maserati understands this, too. There is a swagger to these songs that fits hand-in-glove with their relentless forward momentum, and incrementally building arrangements. And the constant shifting and reshuffling frequently fills the role that is typically filled by vocal melodies.

Pyramid of the Sun is the band’s third full-length release and their first since drummer Jerry Fuchs died in a tragic accident last year (he fell down an open elevator shaft during a party in Brooklyn, NY). The band has referred to the record as a tribute to Fuchs (most of the drumming is his), and I doubt it’s a coincidence that “Bye M’Friend, Goodbye” is the best thing on here. Closing the album with a blast of pure bliss, it builds on pulsing synths and what sound sounds like chanting monks to an explosion of melodic, intertwining riffage and crashing drums. It fades out at 6:37, but it could have gone for twice as long and I doubt I’d have been bored for a second. It remains to be seen how the new drummer, Steve Moore, will sustain the high note that Fuchs has left his band on, but this is a great salute. (Temporary Residence Ltd.)

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Interview : Danny Boyle

Initially Published Here

Director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire) loves extremes. His films are filled with people doing extraordinary things under extraordinary circumstances. And his is a case of style following content -- breathless movement, jarring close-ups, split screens, rapid cutting. Affectations in the hands of a lesser artist, for Boyle, the go-for-broke imagery is perfectly in keeping with the stories he’s telling. On the surface, that wouldn’t seem to be the case with his new film, 127 Hours, essentially, the true life single protagonist survival story of Aron Ralston, the hiker who amputated his own arm after being pinned by a boulder in a secluded canyon in the Utah desert. But Boyle manages to jam as much action into the piece as your typical Hollywood blockbuster, aided by a bravura performance by James Franco who’s on screen by himself for most of the film’s taut 90 minutes. We had the opportunity to speak with Mr. Boyle briefly while he was in town promoting the film’s appearance at the Philadelphia Film Festival. Here, he discusses his efforts to remain truthful to Aron’s story and the difficulties of getting the film made, even for an Academy Award winning director.

At what point in the process did you have a vision of how you were going to depict the big moment?

Well, it’s in the book. The writing of that sequence where he describes doing it, I remember thinking that whatever I do, I’m gonna be honest to that and if they cut it, I’ll walk away from the film because you have to do that honestly. It took him 44 minutes. I don’t think Aron was a natural writer before this happened but there certainly are other people. He’s one. Joe Simpson [author of Touching the Void] is another. Primo Levy is another. Where writers are made by experience and the gift is bestowed upon them by the extreme experience they go through.

Was there any concern on your part or on the producers’ part about turning off potential viewers?
Yes. The studio was terrified of that, still, even though its getting good buzz, they’re still obviously scared.

But ultimately, what’s there is what you wanted?
Sure. It’s very honest and truthful. And then, to be fair to them, they haven’t suggested changing it. They realize that what we presented to them with the first cut, that sequence was accurate and it wasn’t exploitative. It was troubling, but faithful to the experience because, of course, you can’t change the ending.

Certain filmmakers in the position of critical and financial success such as what you had with your last movie, use that opportunity to make a difficult project or something extremely personal that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to do. Is this film something that couldn’t have been done without the success that you had?
It would never have been made.

I mean, Spielberg could have made it, but most filmmakers would never be allowed to in the current climate. They’re so nervous about the market, you know, just what people want to go and see and stuff like that. So yes, we did take advantage of the success we had with Slumdog.

Is this something you had in mind while doing promotion for Slumdog?

Well, funny enough, I approached Aron about it, [but] he wanted to make it as more of a documentary then and it was his story, you know, so you back away and then when it came back again, it was sort of after the promotional tour, sort of obvious that we could take advantage of the hullabaloo and the financial climate that Slumdoghad had. You know, we have a few credits in the bank with the studio so we used the same studio. We morally embarrassed them into agreeing to let us make the film. No, I’m kidding.

I understand the actual video that Aron makes where he’s saying goodbye is something only certain family and friends had seen but you and James Franco had been granted access. Was Aron involved in that discussion of how to use it for the film? Is it closer to the spirit of what was on the tapes?

Aron was involved in a lot of this. A lot of it’s in the book, so he did reveal that. What he doesn’t like is showing the tape but he did show it to us eventually. And we made departures. One was the girls in the beginning with the swimming and the second one was actually his talk show host – James’ talk show host, you know, when he does the multiple characters. That isn’t on the tape but the bit that follows is when he gives up trying to entertain everyone and says, “Mom, Dad, I don’t appreciate you half as much as I know I could” – that’s all verbatim. The reason for the talk show host thing and what was extraordinary about the tapes, was that he is very composed, very controlled. And of course, you realize that what he was trying to do was leave a dignified impression of himself for his parents to see after he died because he did think he was going to die and he thought “I don’t want them to see me going ‘Please help me somebody.’” He wanted to look noble and dignified like he was trying his best and he loved them all. He said if he did crack and feel sorry for himself, he went back over the message [and] erased [it] in the place and rerecorded a dignified message. That gave us the idea of him performing in order to cheer himself up, to kind of persuade himself and others who might watch them that he’s coping with this, you know, and so that led to the talk show host. Those are the two major changes we made to the story. The rest of it is verbatim.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Philadelphia Film Festival - Part Three

The festival is now over. My remaining capsule reviews are below. The final published piece can be seen here.
Overall I was very impressed with the scope and planning of this year's festival and look forward to the next one.



A 5 ½ hour long miniseries commissioned for French TV, Carlos will see theatrical release in the states primarily in dramatically edited form. But audiences owe it to themselves to seek out the uncut version, for Olivier Assayas has fashioned an honest-to-goodness epic with a scope and scale unlike anything I can think of in recent years. The story of the rise and fall of terrorist Ilich ‘Carlos’ Ramirez, it is a gangster film on par with the first two Godfather films and similarly, it finds money and ego at the dark heart of its tale of corruption and violence. Edgar Ramirez is remarkable in the title role. His Carlos is magnetic and attractive without once pandering to audiences’ sympathies. Fast paced and directed with a remarkably assured hand, there isn’t a dull moment in all 330 minutes. This is a film unlike anything you’re likely to see again soon.

Cold Weather

Aaron Katz is one of the more accomplished directors to emerge from the micro-budgeted Mumblecore scene. His third feature starts out like much of the genre; mid 20-somethings, overeducated and underachieving, work at shitty jobs and spend their free time drinking and talking around their ambivalence towards just about everything other than pop culture. But then Cold Weather stumbles its way into a decidedly unexpected and involving mystery as one of their crew goes missing. Impressively shot on DV with lots of beautifully composed images of an always rainy Portland, the movie gathers genuine intrigue as Doug (Cris Lankenau) starts to put together the pieces surrounding the disappearance. It’s a shame that Katz seems to lose the thread (or perhaps his interest) in the mystery plot as the film comes to an abrupt and unsatisfying end. But beforehand there is plenty to enjoy about this well-made and smartly acted mash-up of seemingly disparate elements.

Machete Maidens Unleashed!

Recently, there has been a deluge of DV documentaries on seemingly every subject under the sun, but the best you can hope for is that they hold your interest on a subject you otherwise couldn’t care less about. Based on that criteria, this doc is a definite winner. Commissioned for Australian TV, Mark Hartley’s film takes an affectionate but critical look at the onslaught of exploitation movies produced in the Philippines starting in the late ‘60s through to the early ‘80s. Cheap labor, non-existent health and safety concerns, and the grateful assistance of the Marcos regime lead to hundreds of trashy films being made in the swamps outside Manila for hungry U.S. drive-in audiences. Roger Corman, Joe Dante and an especially forthright John Landis provide illuminating and often hilarious observations. While I can’t say that the sundry clips on display had me clamoring to discover any overlooked gems, the film manages to thoroughly document a forgotten corner of cinematic history without making any great claims for its significance.

The Housemaid

Considered one of the greatest Korean films of all-time, this 1960 melodrama mixes noir and horror elements to tell the story of a household destroyed when the husband makes the mistake of sleeping with family’s live-in maid. The film flirts dangerously close to camp for contemporary audiences but is saved but the savagery of both its images and performances. It is unlikely that an American film made at the same time could have dealt so bluntly with many of the same issues (I don’t want to spoil the impact by going into too much detail here). And just when I thought the film was straining under the weight of one too many emotional crescendos, it ends with a ‘twist’ so incredulous that I couldn’t help but laugh at its sheer audacity.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

The latest from Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand’s most acclaimed filmmaker, comes with the blessing/curse of having won this year’s top prize at Cannes. That sets art-house expectations awfully high for a film as inscrutable at times as this meditation on death and reincarnation. It’s best to take all the ghosts and monkey-men at face value. The story is, in fact, easy to assimilate -- Boonmee is very sick and his sister and nephew come to his farm to help take care of him. There they are visited by the ghost of Boonmee’s wife as well as an ape claiming to be his long-lost son. Then there is an interlude involving a princess, a waterfall and a talking catfish that is easily the most beautiful 20 minutes I’ve seen on screen all year. Audiences would be best served by not agonizing over meaning: At its heart, the film is as simple and sincere as they come.

White Material

It’s easy for audiences to feel momentarily lost when it comes to Claire Denis’ elliptical story telling style: Character motivation is often not readily apparent and places and faces appear without a great deal of foreshadowing or explanation. Her genius lies in tying together all these elements in a way that lends unexpected gravity and poignancy to the events unfolding. White Material is her latest exercise in carefully controlled chaos. Isabelle Huppert and Christopher Lambert are Maria and Andre Vial, the white owners of a coffee plantation in an unspecified African nation. Their presence is deeply resented by both the rebels and the local government and from the moment we’re dropped into the story we know everything is destined to end very, very badly. This is a revolution with no center, no purpose. Denis sees nothing but a vicious cycle of violence that will ultimately destroy everything and everyone it touches. Powerful stuff.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Tamara Drewe

Initially Published Here

Unlike damn near any other graphic novel adaptation that comes to mind, director Stephen Frears’ latest is a bittersweet comedy of manners centered on a writer’s retreat in the English countryside that is thrown into turmoil upon the return of one Ms. Drewe (Gemma Arterton). Tamara grew up the daughter of well-to-do parents resented by the locals. Possessing a beak of frightening proportions, all it took was some remarkably skilled rhinoplasty to turn her ugly duckling into a beautiful swan desired by every man who crosses her path. Will she find love with her old boyfriend, the handsome farm hand Andy (Luke Evans), whose ancestral home the Drewe’s took possession of when he was a teenager, or perhaps with Ben (Dominic Cooper), her dim-bulb rock star lover? Certainly she won’t fall for the serial philanderer Nicholas (Roger Allam), the successful author of trashy mystery novels who hosts the retreat on the farm he shares with his all too forgiving wife Beth.

Throw into this mix a pair of local teenage girls starved for any sort of excitement, a local bar maid who operates as a voice of reason (as well as fuck buddy) for Andy, and Glen (Bill Camp), an American academic trying to finish a critical analysis of Thomas Hardy (the graphic novel was greatly influenced by Far From the Madding Crowd), and you have a film damn near bursting at the seams with characters constantly intertwining in various pairings and assignations. Frears manages to balance it all remarkably well, although we could have done with a little less Jody (Jessica Barden), the more precocious of the two adolescents and whose access to Tamara’s e-mail account is used once too often as a device for moving things forward.

At the center of it all is the beautiful Arterton, who pulls off the difficult trick of allowing us to see the inner sadness of this girl who seemingly has all she could want. In fact, most of the characters are equally well-drawn so that no one is in fact always a heel or always saintly. Even poor Glen, who seems throughout to be the most truthful and perceptive of them all, resorts to a bit of dishonesty when it serves his purpose. And the womanizing Nicholas is more of a buffoon than outright evil and as a result his ultimate comeuppance still has the ability to evoke both shock and laughter.

Tamara Drewe occasionally feels as if it’s checking off necessary exposition as it goes and it rarely feels as though the scenes are flowing seamlessly into one another. The occasional clunkiness aside, however, it is a modest charmer with a cast of characters one can enjoy spending time with.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Belle and Sebastian : Write about Love

Initially Published Here

Belle and Sebastian have changed their sound incrementally over the eight albums they’ve released since 1996. They’ve shifted from the pastoral and twee to a rougher hewn but decidedly sophisticated brand of pop music. Many long time fans were put off by the comparatively muscular sound of their last album, The Life Pursuit. ‘Comparatively’ is the key word there – no one was going to confuse them with Mastodon or anything. But there were definite flashes of ‘70s era Glam and Classic Rock mixed in and I for one immensely enjoyed their new found r’n’r moves.

Their latest, Belle and Sebastian Write about Love, pitches its sound somewhere between the etherealness of their earlier records and the earthiness of their latter material. “I’m Not Living in the Real World” sounds like nothing less than Tommy-era Who with its furiously strummed acoustic guitars, rolling drums, and Beach Boy harmonies. “I Want the World to Stop” is the Cure minus the gothic affectations and “I Can See Your Future” is textbook B&S complete with Eurovision horns and shuffling beat. In general they’ve retained a tighter rhythm section and more focused songcraft while keeping things on the light and sweet side.

If anything is absent, it’s Stuart Murdoch’s penchant for the cutting, witty couplet. While perfectly accomplished, upon initial listens there was no single quip that made me smile quite like the bon mots he tossed out with alarming regularity on prior releases. The one stand out track for me, lyrically, is probably the most straight-forward song he’s ever written. “Read the Blessed Pages” seems to be about nothing less than the band itself. “Love was playing music. It was all we wanted, making plastic records of our history” is as touchingly sincere as they’ve ever gotten. There is a resignation in the song and the record as a whole, and I don’t mean that pejoratively. 14 years on, Belle and Sebastian are not about to reinvent themselves. They’ve forged a sound uniquely their own and should be proud to continue to plow that field as long as the crops continue to grow.

Philadelphia Film Festival - Part Two

Some additional capsule reviews:

Certified Copy

The films of Abbas Kiarostami have only become more austere and cerebral since his brush with art-house success over a decade ago with Taste of Cherry and The Wind Will Carry Us. Who thought he had something like this in him? Funny, sexy, intellectually rigorous but full of simple pleasures and captivating from its first frame. British opera singer William Shimell is James, an author giving a lecture in Italy on the subject of his new book, a meditation on the relationship of copies vis-a-vis originals in art. Juliette Binoche is Elle, a fan who offers to take James on a car ride through the Italian countryside before he departs. What follows is nothing more or less than two beautiful people talking about art and love and life. Never for a moment boring and with more than its share of subtle surprises, Kiarostami’s script asks us to examine love as something that seems unique to each of us and yet is felt the same by everyone.


Joseph Gordon-Levitt is the eponymous Hesher, a beyond-delinquent headbanger who worms his way into the lives of a father and his 13-year-old son who have suffered a recent tragedy. All matted hair and crazed eyes, Gordon-Levitt makes Hesher into a remarkable real life cartoon -- he is nothing but raw id seething with uncontrolled rage. It’s a shame, then, that the film feels the need to neuter him so that he may impart a lesson on the importance of letting go of the past and moving on with life. The film could have said much the same without resorting to sentimentality and cheap scare tactics (there is an especially gratuitous reenactment of the tragic moment in question, so late in the film and so long after the audience knows what has happened, that it's truly insulting). The film would have been much more effective if it had played for laughs straight through instead of trying so hard to pull at the audience’s heart strings. With a nice turn by Piper Laurie as the boy’s grandmother.


Ah, the French and their L’amour Fou. Kristin Scott Thomas is a housewife in the south of France who falls deeply, madly in love with the Spanish laborer who comes to work on her home office. Her well-connected doctor husband (Yvan Attal) is devastated and plots to make life impossible for the two doomed lovers. At an economical 85 minutes, the story moves briskly and yet rings true thanks to impassioned performances by Thomas and Sergi Lopez as her lover. There’s just enough of a hint of madness in Thomas’ Suzanne that the melodramatic ending winds up seeming earned rather than exploitive. And unlike most love stories, the film doesn’t shy away from the economic factors that often come to bear on a relationship. By no means revelatory, Leaving is nonetheless a sharp, well-drawn study of what happens when love is destined to fail for reasons outside our control.

A Buddy Story

I really wish I could find something pleasant to say about Philadelphia native Marc Erlbaum’s film. But this slight, dull and contrived feature is a compendium of damn near everything that’s insufferable about indie film today. Characters don’t so much talk to one another as tell each other enigmatic stories filled with quirky details you then sit and wait to reappear (she loves marshmallows and Doctor Seuss! His turtle has a shell protecting him from the harsh world!). Buddy (Gavin Bellour) is a singer-songwriter who takes his shy-bordering-on-asperger’s neighbor on one of his sad little road trips where he plays a cute array of the worst shows imaginable all so they can find love in the end. Elizabeth Moss (of "Mad Men" fame) tries hard, but the roles are so poorly written there’s little she can do to save this. On the bright side, there is some lovely fall foliage to look at as they two cruise through eastern PA. But not enough to make it worth watching when it eventually shows up on the Sundance channel on a Sunday afternoon.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Philadelphia Film Festival - Part One

I will be completing capsule reviews of many of the films playing this year's festival.  I will add more as they are published.  The article (which will be continuously updated) can be found here

127 Hours

Danny Boyle brings his visceral, kinetic visual style to a seemingly unlikely story. 127 Hours concerns the real life ordeal of Aron Ralston, the young hiker who escaped certain death by amputating his own arm after being pinned by a boulder in a secluded Utah canyon. A life-time of desert films has lead to expectations of slow, contemplative movement and long shots of harsh, unyielding nature. As such I was first put off by Boyle's hyperactive camera and the constant shuffling of visual motifs. But it is in fact perfectly in keeping with Aron's amped, go for broke, X-Gamer personality. The film slows down just long enough to contemplate how Aron's adrenalized lone-wolf attitude may have impacted the circumstances he finds himself in. On screen for virtually all of the film's 90 minutes, James Franco's performance is never less than compelling. Perceptive in ways not immediately apparent and never showy despite the role's inherent 'Oscar Bait' attributes, it's impossible to picture the film without him.

Black Swan

Darren Aronofsky is back in the land of the loopy after the comparative neo-realism of The Wrestler. Perhaps not loopy enough. For while Black Swan has its share of striking imagery as well as some exhilarating dance sequences, it ultimately suffers from too many ‘theatrical’ clichés and a story that tries too hard to say too little. Nina (played gamely by Natalie Portman) has landed the lead role in Swan Lake, but her director (Vincent Cassel) has doubts about her ability to convey the necessary passion to embody the role of the Black Swan. Into this tenuous relationship walks Lily (Mila Kunis), a vibrant young dancer who may have what it takes to steal the role away. What follows is all manner of melodrama as Nina struggles with her insecurities and tries to summon the requisite intensity. But all this sturm and drang ultimately seems nothing more than an extended metaphor for the Tortured Artist. Add to that the Frigid Perfectionist, Passionate Ingénue, Lascivious Director and Domineering Stage Mother and you’ve got a film of tired types desperately trying to spin something new out of a story we’ve heard many times before.

A Film Unfinished

Initially Published Here

Holocaust documentaries make up a sub-genre all their own, and a potentially treacherous one at that. These are difficult films to critique. On one side there is the danger of fawning over a film based solely on the import of its subject matter. But on the other side there is the fear of seeming crass or insensitive should you come down hard on a film dealing with such sensitive material.

A Film Unfinished is primarily concerned with a Nazi propaganda film about the Warsaw Ghetto made in 1942 and discovered after the war was over. The film, unfinished and without a soundtrack, was for decades considered to be one of the few visual documents available of what life was like for the Jews living there during the war. While still obviously propaganda, it at least offered a glimpse into the daily life of those living in the Ghetto. Or did it? In 1998 a British film maker discovered a missing reel of outtakes from the film which makes explicit how much of the film was actually staged by its makers and how the Jews on screen were frequently unwilling participants in a fiction staged for the cameras. They essentially became actors for what purported to be a glimpse into their real lives. This new evidence is supported by diary entries written by a Jewish community leader at the time as well as testimony by Willy Wist, one of the Nazi cameramen responsible for shooting the film.

Filmmaker Yael Hersonski (the granddaughter of a Warsaw Ghetto survivor) builds her story on some tried and true conventions. Interspersed with footage from both the original film and the unearthed “outtakes” are voice over readings from not only the diaries of Jews but also the written reports of the Ghetto’s Nazi commandant. Wist’s testimony has been dramatized with reenactments which lend, for better or worse, a weight that might otherwise be missing. There is more to read into an actor’ pauses, expressions and emphasis, but it also takes things out of the realm of true documentary. More interesting is the decision to film the responses of several survivors of the Ghetto as they are seen watching the footage. They search the screen for signs of loved ones long gone and provide their own memories of the film crew’s presence in their daily lives.

The documentary ends as the propaganda film does, with scenes of a mass grave being filled with emaciated bodies. The impact is visceral -- you can’t help but be shocked and moved by the images. We see the survivors covering their eyes; more than half a century later they cannot bring themselves to watch. But one woman sees this in a positive light. When she was living through these events she became callous to the suffering around her; it was her only way to survive. To be moved by these images, to be able to feel the pain and anguish once more, is to be human again.