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.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Hard Candy

Initially Published Here

You’d be hard pressed to find a touchier subject than adolescent sexuality. 14-year-olds are going to be exploring their sexuality whether by themselves or with others, but the prospect becomes much thornier when one of the participants is “of age” and the other isn’t. Is it rape? Can it ever be considered truly consensual? Is there ever the possibility of a positive experience for everyone involved?

These are some of the interesting questions briefly considered by Hard Candy until they are summarily dropped and replaced by a sadistic little revenge story. Hayley (played by a 15-year-old Ellen Page) is 14 and flirting online with Jeff (Patrick Wilson), a 32-year-old photographer. Both are clear on each other’s age but nonetheless agree to meet at a coffee shop. Further flirtation leads to a drive to Jeff’s art deco home. Soon the vodka bottle is out, as is the camera. And right when you think you know what’s going on Jeff wakes up from a drug induced blackout and finds himself tied to a chair. See, Hayley is not your average nerdy-cute bookworm. Her talents extend to stalking, knot tying, and crime scenes. And then there are her knife skills.

Hard Candy becomes a two-person ‘play’ of sorts where Hayley confronts Jeff with accusations of everything from kiddie pornography to molestation to murder while Jeff desperately pleads his innocence and begs for mercy. Director David Slade manages to keep things moving expertly despite the one set, two character set up and the HD photography makes stylish work of the candy-colored walls and fashion prints that decorate the space. Page and Wilson both manage to acquit themselves well despite a script that frequently lapses into dialectics. As the action becomes more and more visceral I was less forgiving of the clumsy speechifying placed in Hayley’s mouth. By the end she’s nothing less (or more) than a precocious teenage version of Hannibal Lecter. Unfortunately, the more Haley becomes a true ‘monster’ the less interesting the film ultimately is.


Initially Published Here

Secretary is that special rarity -- an American indie that manages to be genuinely erotic in addition to being both funny and touching. Its tone is just off-balance enough that we never quite get comfortable. That we are capable of feeling deeply in the end for its more-than-slightly bent protagonists is a testament to the skills of everyone involved.

Based on a short story by Mary Gaitskill (who has gone on a record as calling the adaptation “a little too nice” for her tastes), the film stars Maggie Gyllenhaal in her breakout role as Lee, a quiet, anxious young women who returns to her parents’ home after a brief stay at a mental health facility. In an effort to ground herself again she starts dating Peter, an old high school friend (played by Jeremy Davis) and takes a job at a law firm headed up by Mr. Grey (James Spader, doing that slick but creepy thing that he’s always done better than just about anyone else).

The sado-masochistic relationship that develops between Lee and Mr. Grey is at the heart of the film and it is precisely where things could have gone horribly wrong. But director Steven Shainberg treats his characters affectionately and finds the humor in the inherent absurdity of their behavior (come to think of it, this may be exactly what Gaitskill didn’t care for). They are broken people in some ways, but they also fulfill very real needs for each other and come to an understanding that’s … well, if it’s not love it’s within shouting distance

A low budget film like Secretary isn’t exactly a film crying out for Blu-ray treatment, but the new format does an excellent job of reproducing the film’s soft, candy-colored palette. The color scheme does have a great deal to do with the film’s overall mood and any improvements are most welcome.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

High Tension

Initially Published Here

During the first decade of the 21st century, some misguided film theorists and critics decided to try and lump together an otherwise disparate collection of movies and filmmakers under the heading of “New French Extremism.” Included in this genre were films as wildly different in style and sensibility as Demonlover, Pola X, and Baise-moi as well as the careers of directors such as Gasper Noe, Catherine Breillat and Philippe Grandrieux. To be sure, these folks all share an interest in unsettling subject matter. But their approaches and sensibilities vary wildly from the visceral to the intellectual to the pornographic and everything in between.

By far the most populist in intention of all the films considered was Alexandre Aja’s High Tension (made in 2003, the director has gone on to direct several Hollywood horror films including this summer’s Piranha 3D). A straight-up throwback to the horror/slasher films of the ’70s and ‘80s, High Tension showed the world that the French were just as capable of producing a first-rate scare film as anyone. The story is as basic as they come -- two girls return to one’s country home to study for upcoming exams when all hell breaks loose. They are pursued by the proverbial unstoppable killing machine until one of the girl’s (Cecile De France’s Marie) manages to turn the tables. Or does she … ?

Let me get this out of the way upfront: I found De France’s Marie to be one of the sexiest screen presences I’ve encountered in a long time. With her large, expressive eyes and crew cut she comes across like Falconetti with a body by Nautilus. The film itself is quite beautiful at times, with corn gently swaying in a midnight breeze and blood dripping down a white closet door getting equal attention. Action sequences are fluid and exacting without any of the frantic camerawork that stands in for genuine suspense in a lot of horror films. However, the movie completely lost me during the big “reveal.” It has a truly awful twist ending that felt not only gratuitous but insulting. It makes very little sense in the context of everything that’s gone before. It’s a real shame. If the filmmaker had just stuck to the straight and narrow this could have been the perfect little horror movie instead of the dopey genre exercise it turns into.

Friday, October 8, 2010

The Human Centipede

Initially Published Here

So yeah ... where to begin, where to begin? The film prides itself on being “100% Medically Accurate” (it’s the tagline for chrissakes). I’d love to be the doctor who sat down with writer/director Tom Six to confirm the veracity of his story about a crazed surgeon who creates the aforementioned monster by connecting three hapless human beings ass-to-mouth. He seems to feel that the possibility that something like might actually work is all that it takes to ratchet up the scare factor.

So we get the requisite mad German doctor, played by Dieter Laser (what, Udo Kier wasn’t available?), and a pair of the most annoying U.S. tourists outside of … well, the last Hostel film. The only remotely interesting choice thrown into the mix is the Japanese man who is made to be the front end of the doctor’s experiment. Played by director/actor Akihiro Kitamura, his refusal to turn into a simpering victim is refreshing. He has a little speech where he professes a belief that he is being punished for not being a better person that I found almost touching. Well, maybe the girls would have said something equally thoughtful if their mouths weren’t otherwise occupied.

Sure, there is plenty of grotesque business here, but nothing that actually qualifies as scary. And even the ‘yuck’ factor is less than what I expected given the hype -- when Eli Roth claims to have gotten sick watching a film I expect more than a few scenes of surgical mayhem and implied coprophagia. So ultimately we’ve got a horror film that isn’t scary and a gore film that isn’t really that disgusting (comparatively speaking, of course). And when that’s all you’ve got to hang your film on that’s not much at all.

It's Kind of a Funny Story

Initially Published Here

The film has many things working against it, not the least of which is that awkward, meaningless anything title, which sounds a lot more like a CBS sitcom than any kind of movie. The story of a suicidal 16-year-old that checks himself in to a hospital psych ward features a collection of disturbed, but not too disturbed, patients, a slew of saintly doctors and nurses, an exceedingly cute fellow patient for our hero to fall for, and an all too neat and tidy ending. That it manages to work at all is a testament to its uniformly charming cast and a directorial team that knows enough to stay out of their way most of the time.

Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck co-directed the film as well as co-writing the screenplay (based on a Young Adult novel by Ned Vizzini). Their prior film (also co-directed and written) was the unassuming and modest baseball film, Sugar. Funny Story shares many of the traits that made Sugar such a breath of fresh air: It moves at a measured, unhurried pace, for one thing, and there is a sense of breath and space unusual for a film that is predominantly confined to one floor of a hospital. In fact, its tone is in many ways the opposite of the claustrophobic, ‘on edge’ feeling one would expect given the subject matter.

This tone is also a reflection of the uniformly low-key performances of its leads. Keir Gilchrist strikes just the right balance of angst and sweetness as Craig, the neurotic, suicidal over-achieving teen. It’s a role that could have been unsympathetic in the wrong hands -- he is, after all, an extremely bright, fairly privileged young man with just about everything going for him (at least on the surface). But Gilchrist manages to help us sense his character’s very real anxiety without over-selling it. He doesn’t truly belong with the schizophrenics and genuinely disturbed, but he also doesn’t come off as a spoiled brat wallowing in petty concerns. And Zach Galifianakis tones down his usual unhinged behavior to play (off all things) a truly unhinged character. Bobby is a long-term patient who takes Craig under his wing while wrestling with the very real possibility of being homeless when his hospital stay is terminated. Bobby is not quite right somehow, but Galifianakis plays him just close enough to sane that when he does lash out it has a significant impact.

It’s a shame, then, that the filmmakers occasionally muddy up these clear waters with some rather unnecessary devices. The occasional voice-overs and freeze-frames (even animation) are fairly unobtrusive, but a fantasy sequence involving the patients performing the Bowie/Queen classic “Under Pressure” in full-on glam-by-way-of-the-Muppet-Show attire almost derails it. The song choice itself is way too on the nose for comfort. Do we really need our tortured teenage lead singing “Under pressure we’re cracking!” and “why can’t we give ourselves one more chance?” while his fellow patients make like Doctor Teeth and the Electric Mayhem? Luckily, one (seriously) false move is not enough to ruin film’s otherwise low-key charms

You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger

Initially Published Here

No filmmaker has fallen further out of my favor over the years than Woody Allen. As an adolescent there was precious little that was funnier to me than the string of movies he directed in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. And when I went to college and started to think about “film” as opposed to “movies,” I thought Hannah and Her Sisters and Crimes and Misdemeanors were the height of sophistication. When I look back now, I wonder what on earth an 18-year-old kid from Staten Island saw in the romantic entanglements and philosophical quandaries of a bunch of pretentious, middle-aged Manhattanites (I don’t dare call them simply ‘New Yorkers’ as they existed in a world far outside the New York City I knew and loved). Perhaps I yearned to be like them; so witty and educated and gosh darn adult with their affairs and crises of faith and mortality.

But as I grew older they spoke to me less and less. The movies struck me as condescending and hermetic. They appealed to the tastes of small group of people who considered themselves intellectuals because they dropped poetry quotes in casual conversation and spun bad puns out of the names of philosophers. His films were the epitome of middlebrow art and I had no use for them. Aim high or aim low, but the middle of the road is nowhere to be.

I was curious to see what if anything had changed in the decade or so since I stopped caring. I knew that he had moved many of his films overseas as that was where his funding was coming from nowadays. But had the move away from New York City had an impact on the films themselves? At first glance it seemed not so much. Tall Dark Stranger has the same tasteful but unremarkable look of all of his ‘chamber’ pieces that take place in a series of carefully cluttered apartments and fussy looking restaurants. The story hasn’t changed much either -- unhappy couples bicker in circles while longing for what they envision to be a simple, pure love with their boss, neighbor, etc. Early on during a fight with her struggling novelist husband, Roy, (Josh Brolin), Sally (Naomi Watts) blurts out “Are we going to fight about this again?” and my immediate thought was “Am I going to have to listen to this scene again?” So when Roy starts to fall for the absurdly beautiful classical guitarist across the courtyard, Dia (Freida Pinto) while Sally develops a crush on gallery owner Greg (Antonio Banderas), I damn near checked out.

And then I started to think about Philippe Garrel, a French filmmaker I greatly admire who also tells essentially the same story over and over again in most of his films. Why was I willing to accept and even revel in the subtle tweaking Garrel makes from film to film, while I shut down as soon as I realized that Allen was going back down his same well-worn path? Perhaps because there is little else to consider in Allen’s films: there is no lyrical imagery, no graceful editing, and no matter how talented the actors, the writing is such that they all speak with essentially one voice, the voice of Woody Allen.

No, whatever pleasure I was to derive here came from the surprising dénouement of each of its main characters. Perhaps this is what has happened in the intervening years. Always a bit of a crank, here Allen refuses to let any of these people off the hook. Sally, Roy and Sally's narcissistic father (Anthony Hopkins) all get their comeuppance in ways both unexpected and satisfying (deeply satisfying in the case of ultra boor Roy). The only one who seemingly gets what she desires is Watts’ mother, Helena (Gemma Jones) and that is only because she is willing to delude herself so deeply via the manipulations of a Psychic. So, there you have it -- a small, hard candy with a pleasantly bitter aftertaste.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Hold Steady : Live at the Trocadero

Initially Published Here

The Hold Steady played their first headlining gig in Philadelphia in quite awhile at the Trocadero. Recent trips through the city saw them opening for Sonic Youth and Drive-By Truckers as well as a terrific bill with Devo at Festival Pier. It was also their first show in Philly since the departure of long-term keyboardist Franz Nicolay. I for one didn’t miss him all that much. They’ve got Dan Nuestadt of the World Inferno Society playing keyboards on this tour and he fills out their sound just fine without resorting to any of Nicolay’s hammy stage moves. Also on board for the first time is former Lucero guitarist Steve Selvidge. I can see why the band decided to beef up their guitar sound – Tad Kubler is a terrific musician, but Craig Finn’s guitar hangs from his neck untouched more than it is actually played. Selvidge enables them to bring the more anthemic sound of their latter records to the stage in all their widescreen, guitar-god glory.

And bring it they did in a 100-minute set that was a study in passion, intensity and the power of a great riff. The band has released five albums over the last seven years and they have built a catalog of insanely catchy songs all tied to Finn’s clever but emotionally direct lyrics. It’s been some time since I’ve seen a band shotgun great song after great song like the Hold Steady did for their first 45 minutes on stage. It’s a testament to just how solid their records are that there was never that inevitable “bathroom break” moment that many band’s seem to drop in their sets. Neither band nor audience got a breather.

Somewhere along the Finn started taking singing lessons and it shows. His delivery is smoother and just plain more musical than it’s ever been before. And while he still looks the part of a computer programmer dropped in front a rock band, his actual stage presence has developed as well. He works the crowd more assuredly than he has in the past and they ate it up. These are songs built for singing and clapping along and the sold out crowd was in the palm of his hand all night.

There was, however, an extremely awkward moment towards the end of the show. While the band went into an extended guitar break during “Your Little Hoodrat Friend” a seemingly inebriated and way too over zealous fan managed to crawl on stage. Rather than allow the bouncers to escort him off he fought vehemently not to leave, eventually pulling at the band’s equipment before getting cold-cocked and dragged from the stage. I was disappointed in the band’s obliviousness to what was going on right in front of them. The three guitarists were huddled together and never once looked up. Finn sheepishly acknowledged that he wasn’t sure what had happened before returning to their “regularly scheduled program.” The situation probably could have been suffused without the violence if the band had stepped in rather than remain aloof. It was an ugly moment on an otherwise joyous night.

Monday, October 4, 2010


Initially published here

The tragic life of porn legend John Holmes (and the series of brutal drug murders he was associated with in the early ‘80s) has fascinated Hollywood for several decades. Director Paul Thomas Anderson borrowed many of the details of Holmes’ story for his career-making film Boogie Nights(1997), and Christopher Walken was rumored for years to be working on a Holmes related project with director Abel Ferrara and screenwriter/actress Zoe Lund. In 2003 director James Cox got the chance to make a film detailing Holmes’ involvement in the murders that took place on Wonderland Ave. in Los Angeles in 1981.

That film, Wonderland (2003) stars Val Kilmer as Holmes and a cast of terrific supporting actors including Lisa Kudrow, Eric Bogosian, Dylan McDermott and Ted Levine. Unfortunately, their talents are wasted in support of an undernourished story and lame directorial choices. There isn’t a single shot, angle, edit, or music cue that hasn’t been done before (and better). Split screens, rapid tracking shots, a pounding K-Tel Sounds of the Seventies-approved soundtrack; Cox throws everything but the kitchen sink at the story, but leaves us with thin characters and little reason to care about what happens to any of them. At a minimum Wonderland should be able to carry the audience forward on the sheer momentum of its terrifically lurid true-life crime tale. But the film is clumsy and trips over itself whenever things start to move forward. It ultimately plays like a very expensive episode of 48 Hours Mystery.

Much better is Wadd: The Life & Times of John C. Holmes, a full-length documentary included in its entirety as a bonus on this Blu-ray disc. Not even listed on the disc packaging and, I suspect, edited of any explicit pornographic imagery, it at least features interviews with many of Holmes’ contemporaries who provide a much more well-rounded and interesting look at the man and the circumstances surrounding the murders.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Jenny and Johnny : I'm Having Fun Now

Initially published here

Jenny (Lewis, of Rilo Kiley) and Johnny (Rice, of…well, Johnathan Rice) are pop singer-songwriters. They are also in love. They’ve written some songs together, 11 of which are on their new ‘duo’ album, I’m Having Fun Now. For the most part they are simple melodies sung over modest instrumentation. They sound comfy and contented which would seem in keeping with their status as a couple. Not that the songs make any mention of moons, Junes or spoons. It just feels unrushed, uncomplicated.

Jenny Lewis is in command of one of the most amazing voices in music today. It’s sweet and sincere and as big and open as the great outdoors. Her lyrics are literate and clever without succumbing to cheap irony or affectation. She sounds equally comfortable with folk, c&w and rock styles, but truth be told none of these tunes dig that deep into any of these genres. They all kind of glide by with the hint of each buried beneath the surface. Maybe they’d stick around in your head a little longer if they were more focused and driven. For a record with a tune called “Committed” they can come off as dilettantes at times.

The other big problem is that Jenny’s presence is so strong that it often over powers Johnny’s contributions. Maybe that’s not fair – no reason to expect things to be 50/50 here (what relationships truly are?), but after a few spins I still don’t have much of a sense of who Johnathan Rice is. His voice is pleasant but unremarkable and the same applies to the songs. Only “Big Wave” with its longing chorus and crashing chords really makes much of a fuss. Which may be why it’s difficult to get really worked up about the record; it is casual in a way that makes it easy to like but difficult to love. (Warner Bros.)

Paul Collins : King of Power Pop!

Initially published here

Paul Collins’ new record, The King of Power Pop!, is better than any Paul Collins record circa 2010 has a right to be. That is not to say it is an excellent record. His choice of cover tunes is tired (both the Box Tops hit “The Letter” and the Flamin’ Groovies “You Tore Me Down” have been done countless times by others). And his own songs rarely, if ever, stray outside of the generic power-pop codes that Collins himself helped establish in the late 70’s with his bands The Nerves (“Hangin’ on the Telephone”) and The Beat (“Rock’n’Roll Girl”). But Jim Diamond’s production serves the songs extremely well. The sound is focused and uncluttered with just the right touches of percussion and acoustic guitar added to the standard mix of electric guitar, bass and drums. Collins’ voice has held up well and he has new found gruff edge that is charming – no point in a middle aged man trying to sound like a hormonally challenged adolescent.

The 13 tunes zip by in just over a half hour with only one making even the three minute mark. The economy is refreshing. Every song has its hook, but the before they can grow tiresome he’s wrapped things up and moved on to the next one. And while much of the subject matter is fairly trite he has some moments of hard won clarity, whether it’s the self-effacing title track (“Sometimes people, they remember me and tell me how great they thought I used to be”) or the anthemic “This is America” which counts Trans Ams, Burger Kings and “The Kids” amongst our nation’s finest achievements. No point arguing with that. Or this record, for that matter. It is what it is and it is a very good power-pop record by an often overlooked originator. (Alive Records)

Superchunk : Majesty Shredding

Initially published here

It has been almost nine years to the day since Superchunk last released a full-length album. Their prior record, Here’s to Shutting Up, received a lukewarm response from many diehard fans and the band embarked on an arduous world tour just as the events of 9/11 took place. No wonder that when the dust settled they decided to take a break from a near continuous 12 year pattern of album/tour/album/tour.

In the interim they’ve played a handful of shows each year for a variety of causes, although possibly not for strictly altruistic reasons (when two band members wanted to quit, leader Mac McCaughan convinced them not to announce a formal break-up as officially kaput bands don’t continue to sell their back catalog as well as bands that still play sporadically). However, they’ve been gradually ramping up the activity as of late. There was a single in 2007, then an EP in spring 2009, followed quickly by another 7” and now Majesty Shredding.

My first response was that the album was somehow reactionary; that the band was trying to appease those fans who were disappointed with the more adventurous paths taken on later recordings (falsetto singing, keyboards, the occasional small string section). These songs are as straight-forward and hard rocking as anything they’ve done since their third LP, On the Mouth. But the Superchunk of On the Mouth could not have written songs as melodically and structurally satisfying as the best moments here. They’re fast and catchy without ever falling into the genre trappings of either power-pop (on one end) or pop-punk (on the other).

Theirs is a unique sound that many emulate and very, very few pull off. It’s romantic and expansive and yearning without ever forgetting the value of hooks and aggression. Much of the credit for retaining that hard ‘edge’ must go to drummer Jon Wurster whose playing manages to be remarkably supple while still kicking like a mule at a stall. Maybe the highest compliment I can offer is that as they embark on their first proper tour in eight years (they play the Trocodero on 9/22), I am just as excited by the prospect of hearing “Learn to Surf," “Digging for Something” and “My Gap Feels Weird” as by anything else in their catalog. Let’s hope it’s not another decade before we get the next one. (Merge Records)

Shellac : Live at the Bell House

Initially published here

When I told a friend I was leaving to go see Shellac play in Brooklyn, he rolled his eyes and said “Have fun. Cuz you know Shellac is all about fun!” Now, I appreciate why he would say this. Shellac plays an extremely aggressive, challenging brand of rock ’n’ roll. You’d be excused for thinking that their live show would amount to a test of wills between band and audience. How much pummeling could you take before yelling “Uncle!” and retiring to the bar?

In reality, Shellac’s live show is decidedly more user friendly than their albums. Dare I say they are … even … maybe … kinda fun? Maybe it was everything coming into alignment. Despite being sold out, the venue was not uncomfortably crowded. The crowd was attentive and enthusiastic but never crossed over into obnoxiousness, despite many opportunities during the band’s infamous Q&A sessions (Shellac takes questions from the audience several times during their set and the band’s rejoinders to even the most dopey comments were almost always witty, on point and remarkably quick).

It didn't hurt that the sound at the Bell House was excellent, with every instrument in sharp focus. I marveled at how clean Steve Albini’s guitar sound actually is. As “heavy” as it can be perceived in the context of the band’s songs, his actual set-up was shockingly devoid of distortion most of the time. So much so that when he did stomp on a pedal or two the impact was exhilarating. Bob Weston’s bass carries much of the melodic load leaving Steve to fill-in the picture with bursts of noise or quick flurries of simple, melodic riffing (they often sound like nothing more, or less, than ZZ Top re-imagined by MIT scientists). And Todd Trainer … well, there is a reason his drum kit is situated front and center. He is a marvel to watch; his body a mass of sinew and twitching muscle. He has an explosive power unmatched by just about any other drummer working today, but his real skill lies in his ability to show restraint. Like Albini, his impact is felt much harder by knowing just when and how much to pull in on the reins.

We got some of the “hits” and we got some new tunes, which was encouraging. This is a band that has put out a paltry four full-lengths in 16 years. Instead of touring, they do small clusters of shows, usually centered around a festival or event (in this case, they had just played the All Tomorrow’s Parties fest in upstate NY). They’ve made it clear that they consider their band a passion, not a career. And as such, I feel like I can’t waste any future opportunity that arises to see this rare bird.

Superchunk : Live at the Trocadero

Initially published here

I don’t know how many Superchunk shows I’ve seen over the years (a dozen? twenty? more?), but their recent performance at the Trocadero may have been the best one yet. On tour for the first time in eight years promoting their first new album in nine years, there was reason enough to expect little more than an exercise in '90s nostalgia. But said new album (Majesty Shredding) is on par with anything in their catalog and the six new tunes they sprinkled throughout their 90-minute set were greeted just as enthusiastically as their classics.

You could sense that the band was truly appreciative of the warm response to the new material. Frontman Mac McCaughan’s frequent gratitude never seemed less than genuine and hard-won. Alluding to a slightly less-than-excited Boston crowd the night prior, he suggested that perhaps drummer Jon Wurster was just a little goosed to be playing in front of his hometown crowd (Wurster is in fact from Bucks County, but we’ll let that slide). Whatever it was, his propulsive playing pushed every song just a little bit harder and his bandmates responded in kind. My initial disappointment at getting “only” 90 minutes was quickly forgotten as I acknowledged that it would have been damn near impossible to sustain such a high level of intensity for much longer. Even the handful of slower tempo songs (“Like a Fool," “Fractures in Plaster," “Kicked In”) were played with a rigor and forcefulness rivaling the most manic moments in the set.

And there were many manic moments -- “I Guess I Remembered it Wrong," “Hyper Enough," “Slack Motherfucker” and “Precision Auto," all rivaling any prior performance I’ve ever seen. In the eight years since the band last played Philly they have done sporadic one-off shows, several of which I’ve caught (two South by Southwest showcases and "The Daily Show"’s 10th Anniversary party come to mind). But I suspect that playing night after night, even if just for the two weeks of this relatively short jaunt, has brought them back to the peak of their powers. Let’s hope that more shows like this one at the Troc will encourage them to keep Superchunk going as something a little more than just the part-time endeavor it has become.

Neil Young : Le Noise

Initially published here

Neil Young never stops working. While many artists of his age and stature still tour regularly, new studio albums are few and far between. Maybe they’ve grown tired of the lukewarm response their new material receives when they attempt to wedge it into a standard greatest hits set. Or perhaps they have truly lost the drive and energy to write and record new songs. But here he is about to embark on his sixth (!) decade as a recording artist and he’s never slowed down. He released seven albums of new material in the ‘00s. By comparison Bob Dylan released three, the Rolling Stones and The Who one each and … hell, I guess you run out of contemporaries pretty quickly (recently, Eric Clapton and Van Morrison are just as likely to cover other writers’ material than compose their own).

This is not to suggest that quantity somehow trumps quality. You’d be hard pressed to find a bigger fan (and I’d bet my Archives Vol. 1 Blu-ray collection on that), but when push comes to shove, I’ll admit that he hasn’t released a truly great record since Sleeps with Angels in 1994. Now, there’s only one out-and-out dud in the ten he’s released since then (2002’s well-intentioned but musically lame Are You Passionate?). But by and large, each new LP features a small handful of gems surrounded by a lot of half baked ideas and ill conceived concepts. You sense his excitement behind each new idea, whether it be melding a choir to a collection of grungy protest songs (Living with War) or writing an environmental rock opera (Greendale), or several odes to his electric Lincoln Continental (Fork in the Road), but often the ideas are less than worked through and he loses steam well before the end.

Which brings us to Le Noise, or “What’s Going On in Neil’s Head Circa 2010.” Much has been made of Daniel Lanois presence as producer. I’ve never been much of a fan -- his ‘atmospherics’ or ‘sonics,’ or whatever the hell he wants to call them, frequently obfuscate the material he’s working on (Bob Dylan and U2 are both better off without him). But here, his touches seem to be limited to the copious addition of reverb and the occasional looped sample. Maybe it’s because he has physically less to work with; these songs feature Neil and his guitar and nothing more. Not to say that this is an acoustic record. Some of these songs rage as good as anything he’s done since Crazy Horse’s last truly raucous moments on Ragged Glory. I can’t help but hear a thundering rhythm section in my head on tracks like “Walk with Me” and “Hitchhiker," but I appreciate his desire to leave these songs room to breathe.

The sparse arrangements leave us with the songs themselves and Le Noise, simply put, has a better batting average than any Neil record in a long stretch. The melodies stick around a little longer, the lyrics are more focused, and his singing is passionate and nuanced. There’s a lot of reflection on age and loss. Neil lost two dear friends and collaborators this year with the passing of Larry Johnson and Ben Keith, and their memory haunts the record, as well as Neil’s subtle acknowledgement that his time is growing shorter as well. And then there’s the aforementioned “Hitchhiker.” Originally performed on tour in 1992 and sporadically ever since, this is the first time it has appeared on record. It is a frank and honest accounting of Neil’s history with drugs, from hash to speed to pot to coke. But it’s a catalog, not an apology. He ties them to moments in his life -- moving to America, divorcing Carrie Snodgrass, incessant touring in the mid-‘70s. You sense he’s trying to work through the attraction and the song is better for leaving the question unanswered.

At 64, he’s older but he’s not conceding any wisdom. This is a man still working things out, still questioning his actions, and still reaching for something just outside his grasp. May he never get where he’s trying to go. The trip itself is much more interesting for the rest of us. (Reprise Records)

Temple Grandin

Initially published here

This made-for-HBO movie seemingly offers the superficial trappings of the standard three-hanky biopic, including a plucky, misunderstood heroine who overcomes a tremendous physical/mental handicap to achieve personal greatness while teaching us all to be better people. That it manages to avoid almost all of the clichéd trappings of the genre is a testament to the talents of its creators as well as the bona fide remarkable story it tells.?

Diagnosed at an early age with autism, Ms. Grandin was fortunate to be surrounded by a loving (and financially well-off) family that were able to provide her access to teachers and mentors able to bring out her remarkable abilities by recognizing how her brain operates differently from most (she talks of being a primarily “visual thinker” and has the ability to recall incredible amounts of detail from images seen for even the briefest of moments). After attending a boarding school for gifted children she went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in psychology and ultimately a doctorate in animal science. An aside: Her interest in animals (specifically cattle) is handled extremely well here. This is a woman whose life work has centered on the design and operation of slaughterhouses, a potentially explosive subject when dealing with someone as otherwise sympathetic as Ms. Grandin. But the film does an excellent job conveying Grandin's notion that respect for animals and their quality of life does not and should not to be anathema to the meat industry (As per Ms. Grandin, “Nature is cruel, but we don’t have to be.”)?

Director Mick Jackson uses playful visual and auditory cues to bring us inside Temple’s world. The film is never heavy-handed and even in its darkest moments finds an unusual, quirky way to cut the tension inherent in the subject matter. It keeps you just slightly off-balance at all times, well in keeping with its main subject. The same can be said of Claire Danes’ performance as Grandin. She manages to be both likable and emotionally resonant, quite the achievement when playing a woman who readily acknowledges that emotional issues and personal relationships are not a primary concern of hers. If, on occasion, the film falls back on some standard generic tropes -- when we see her wince at the touch of her mother, for example -- we wait in anticipation for her to overcome these “challenges." To the film’s credit, when she finally does, it is dramatized in ways that are more subtle than expected. And that’s true of the film as a whole: It has every opportunity to hit us over the head with the power of its story -- and it is a remarkably powerful one -- but it never does.

Jacob's Ladder

Initially published here

Since its release in 1990, the film has been known, first and foremost, as a “Gotcha!” movie. “Gotcha!” movies invariably feature an out-of-left-field twist, typically right near the end, which triggers a desire to reevaluate everything you thought the film was about right up until that moment. Because of this, many “Gotcha” films tend to be either loved (“My God, I never saw that coming!”) or loathed (“My God, I saw that coming from a mile away!”) strictly on the strength of their twist.

Jacob Singer (played by Tim Robbins fresh off his breakthrough role in Bull Durham) is a Vietnam veteran trying to make sense of his new life stateside when he finds himself plagued with nightmarish visions of demons trying to kill him. When he finds out that other members of his platoon are suffering the same harrowing thoughts, he attempts to find out if the Army is somehow responsible. And then … jeez, I guess journalistic decorum obliges me to not give away the twist to a 20-year-old movie. Does anyone out there who doesn’t already know going to have any interest in watching the film now? How about this -- I’ll just reference “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” and leave it at that.

The problem with most of these films is that they typically don’t hold up well to the reverse scrutiny that they seem to demand. Much of the film’s plot, character development, heck, even individual shots and sounds, don’t make any sense when considered in light of the “Gotcha” moment. Jacob’s Ladder is truly pretentious in its pretending to be much smarter and intellectually rigorous than it actually is. As a horror film, however, it holds up surprisingly well and much of its more frightening imagery is still capable of instilling dread during a quiet, late night viewing.

This Blu-ray edition is short on the “Wow” factor that many people have come to demand from the new format. What we get instead is simply the best looking and sounding version of the film ever on home video. There seems to be a significant amount of grain in the imagery which is in keeping with many of the film’s grim locales (subways, VA hospitals, some decidedly un-gentrified NYC neighborhoods). I suspect this is as good as the film has looked since its premiere.

Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence

Initially published here

I had avoided
Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence for years on the assumption that it was a Bridge on the River Kwai-style war film -- all khaki and olive green, stiff upper lips and inscrutable ‘others.' Quality cinema to be sure, just not my cup of tea. Instead, I discover this hothouse melodrama of unspoken lust and unrequited love between the obsessed Captain Yonoi (played by Japanese pop star Ryuichi Sakamoto) and Major Jack Celliers (played by rock icon David Bowie).

The film was directed by Nagisa Oshima, whose remarkable career stretches back to the late ‘50s and includes such legendary work as
Cruel Story of Youth, Death by Hanging, and the equally florid In the Realm of the Senses. He brings his intense, passionate sensibilities to the story of a Japanese POW camp where British soldiers are being held towards the end of WWII. The camp is running relatively smoothly thanks to a begrudging understanding between Colonel John Lawrence (Tom Conti) and Sergeant Hara (Takeshi Kitano, back when he was primarily known as a TV comedian and long before he made a name for himself as a director). But into the relative calm comes Major Selliers and Captain Yonoi, the camp’s director, is smitten. The tension mounts as both the Japanese and British soldiers begin to understand the Captain’s unspoken feelings. Emotions reach a fever pitch when Selliers kisses Yonoi (formally, on both cheeks) in an effort to keep him from killing a British soldier. The camera begins to literally shake as if the Captain’s passions can no longer be restrained.

It’s a simple and literal expression of his longing and an amazing moment to witness. Unfortunately, we know things are now destined to end in disaster for both men.

Criterion’s Blu-ray edition of the film captures those khakis and greens with an intensity missing in prior home video versions. The disc is loaded with extras including new interviews with Conti and Sakamoto (who also composed the film’s pulsing electronic score). The disc’s only short fall is that while it includes English subtitles for Japanese dialogue, there are no optional English subtitles for the entire film. These would have been helpful as Captain Yonoi often speaks to the British soldiers in broken English that is difficult to understand. Still, a small quibble with what amounts to another remarkable Criterion release.


Initially published here

I suspect the vast majority of American movie-goers equate foreign language films with a certain level of quality. Maybe ‘art’ isn’t the word that crosses their minds, but the assumption is that in other countries movies are taken more seriously and the people who make them have concerns that go beyond entertainment and diversion. This is understandable when you consider the preposterously narrow access to foreign language films afforded the U.S. film audience. We just don’t get to see the … um … let’s say, the dozens of highly contrived and formulaic romantic comedies the average Parisian is subjected to every year, for example.

Which bring us to 
Heartbreaker, a French rom-com as stultifying as anything churned out by modern Hollywood. The plot revolves around Alex (Romian Duris), a professional destroyer of romantic bonds. He and his team are hired to break up bad relationships where the woman just can’t see for herself what a mistake she is making. The film goes to great lengths to explain that Alex doesn’t split up happy couples (he wouldn’t be very likable if he did that, right?). No, he only takes on assignments when his ‘team’ is confident that it is for the best of the woman involved. But, of course, they are desperate for cash and Alex is desperate to prove old daddy wrong (he says Alex always chickens out when things get tough) so they take an assignment where it’s not quite clear what’s wrong with the soon-to-be-married couple. The fact that the movie never really makes it clear what is wrong the groom in question, other than the fact that he is not as desperately charming as Alex, is only one of its innumerable problems.

Then there’s the film’s reliance on lame pop culture references as a sort of shorthand for why two people should be together. Alex finds out that Juliette (Vanessa Paradis) is a George Michael fan and a 
Dirty Dancing buff and uses this to win her heart. Are we really to believe that people only need to share tastes for trashy '80s icons to fall in love? And when it’s all thrown aside in the end (please don’t tell me I’m spoiling this for anyone) you never feel that there was anything much else to bring these two people together. Duris is pleasant enough (if a little vacant), but Paradis is a complete bore and, sadly, cadaverous in her wedding gown.

Very quickly I found myself watching the film with only one thought on my mind -- how long before it is remade with Bradley Cooper and Blake Lively as the leads. Throw in Joan Cusack and maybe Zach Galifianakis as the wacky secondary characters and you're set. Just make the potential groom just a little more of a dick (so no one gets upset when they split) and you’ve got an easy $20M opening weekend.

My Dog Tulip

Initially published here

Paul Fierlinger has been animating film for over half a century (he was an original animator on "Sesame Street" in 1969), but this is the first feature film that he and his wife Sandra have completed. It is a faithful adaption of J.R. Ackerley’s memoir of his life in the company of a beloved German Shepherd, Queenie, in London in the ‘40s and ‘50s (publishers changed the name of the dog over concern that the dog’s real name would lead to people mocking the author’s homosexuality).
Despite the subject matter and playful visual style, I would be hard pressed to say that the film is truly family fare. It devotes a great deal of time to the more earthy concerns of dog ownership (I speak of defecation, urination and copulation). But to make a film about one’s relationship with a pet without covering these matters would be dishonest, and in detailing how Ackerley deals with these things, you ultimately appreciate his unconditional love for the dog: He gets from Queenie/Tulip what he never managed to find in human companionship. From the memoir -- “She offered me what I had never found in my life with humans: constant, single-hearted, incorruptible, uncritical devotion, which it is in the nature of dogs to offer.” Whether or not this is something we should want or expect from another human being is a question not raised, sadly.
You would hardly be blamed for assuming that My Dog Tulip is a lovingly hand-crafted animated film steeped in traditions rendered extinct in the wake of digital technology. It has the look of detailed book illustrations. There’s little effort expended trying to make motion seem fluid or realistic -- objects appear to be pushed across the screen by an unseen hand. Most dialogue is spoken in voice-over (primarily by Christopher Plummer, with smaller roles played by Isabella Rossellini and the late Lynn Redgrave) and not tied to mouth movement. And, frequently, the water color imagery gives way to simple pencil drawings as if they were pages torn out of an illustrator’s sketch book. Lovingly hand-crafted it may appear, but the reality is that the film was made utilizing the same advanced technology to which it would seem to exist in defiant opposition. The filmmakers drew every frame at their home (in Wynnewood, PA) using a digital pen and a computer tablet over the course of two-and-a-half years. The film includes a credit explaining that not a single piece of paper was used during its creation. I found this declaration almost as charming as the film itself, a clear-eyed, adult look at a relationship rarely explored so honestly on the screen.

What This Is About

I've started doing quite a bit of freelance writing, primarily for a cultural website centered right here in Philly called 215 Magazine.  I decided to create a blog in order to collect these pieces in one place.  I may eventually use it for other purposes, but that is my decidedly mundane goal for the time being.
Oh, the blog name?  A simple reference to one of my favorite films by one of my favorite directors.