Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Nowhere Boy

Initially Published Here

Bio pics seem to work in indirect relation to one’s prior knowledge of the subject at hand. The more you know about the person(s) in question, the more likely you are to scoff at the necessary simplifications required to tell a life story in 98 minutes of screen time. In the case of Nowhere Boy we’re not even talking about a whole life -- just a few years of John Lennon’s late adolescence. The film centers on Lennon’s unique upbringing. Raised by an aunt and kept in the dark regarding his birth mother’s whereabouts, the film focuses on the bizarre love triangle that occurs when John (Aaron Johnson) begins to develop a relationship with his mother Julia (Anne-Marie Duff) to the growing concern and annoyance of his aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas at her most matronly).

The film relies all too readily on the type of shorthand tricks that define the genre. The film is filled with moments meant to foreshadow a history most of us know all too well, whether its the song Julia teaches John to play (“Maggie Mae,” which the Beatles eventually covered on their last album) or the cartoon walrus that John doodles in class instead of studying. Thomas and Duff both have the advantage of playing characters whose stories haven’t been told to death, but Johnson is in the helpless position of standing in for an icon. There’s not much he can do but go through the motions of being “John.” And the film resolves its dramatic tension by giving Thomas a maddeningly neat and tidy speech that’s meant to explain Julia’s behavior in the broadest of strokes. Much more interesting is Duff’s actual performance. There is a sexual undercurrent to Julia’s relationship with John that is unsettling and the film comes alive when it explores this deeply confused mother-son relationship. It’s a shame the film feels the need to resolve things so neatly.

Directed by first-timer Sam-Taylor Wood, the DVD does a nice job of duplicating the film’s clean, elegant and veddy, veddy British look. Extras are the standard issue featurettes and a few deleted scenes.

Friday, January 21, 2011

The Company Men

Initially Published Here

It’s all comes down to perspective.

I’ve been catching bits and pieces of the Meryl Streep/Alec Baldwin Rom-Com It’s Complicated on cable lately and about the only thing that stays with me afterwards is the preponderance of beautifully lit, artfully composed shots of high end kitchen appliances and California-casual furniture. Turn off the sound and the film plays like porn for the HGTV set.

The Company Men begins with many similar shots of manicured lawns and glistening countertops, but what follows throws it all in a very different light. This film takes place in the immediate aftermath of the financial market free-fall that came to a head in September 2008. Bobby (Ben Affleck), Phil (Chris Cooper) and Gene (Tommy Lee Jones) are all executives at a large corporation that demands unreasonable growth levels despite the changing economic climate. This means cutting expenses and the quickest way to do this is by laying-off mid to high-level executives. The film then follows these three men, all in different stages of their careers with different familial obligations and demands, as they attempt to navigate their way through a very, very different world. And all of a sudden a brief shot of a gleaming stainless steel panini press takes on a weight and significance that speaks volumes.

As written and directed by TV veteran John Wells (ER, West Wing), The Company Men is as smart and thoughtful a movie about the current economic climate as I’ve seen. Unlike 99% of film and television, it doesn’t shy away from the real numbers behind the lives lead by its men and woman. Tommy Lee Jones’ presence comes with a certain built-in gravitas, but the look on his face when he eyes the $15,000 price tag on the end table his wife has just purchased says everything that needs to be said. Wells wisely allows his characters' actions to speak louder than their words and speechifying is kept to a pleasant minimum. Bobby’s blue-collar brother-in-law Jack (Kevin Costner) has a few all-too-obvious comments early on about jobs being shipped overseas, but even he’s allowed to settle in and his relationship with Bobby changes and grows in ways that are both true to the men and their situations. And each time I expected the film to take a turn towards an easy, neat resolution it veered just a little more off its expected course. Perhaps that course is a bit too melodramatic when it comes to the ultimate fate of Chris Cooper’s Phil, but the film’s ‘happy’ ending feels honest and earned. We could do with a few more films that deal so honestly and intelligently with such grown-up subject matter

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Shock Corridor

First Published Here

Samuel Fuller, considered in certain circles the patron saint of American independent cinema was, in fact, a studio man for much of his career. It wasn’t until the early '60s when those relationships had run their course that Fuller turned to less conventional means to finance his pictures. The ‘indie’ film that cemented his reputation was 1963’s Shock Corridor. As subtle as a kick to the head and just as unnerving, the film concerns a reporter who feigns mental illness to gain admittance to an institution where a patient’s murder goes unsolved. But the murder mystery is an afterthought, an excuse for Fuller to expose and espouse on a variety of societal ills. Racism, communism, nuclear war all come under attack in a ceaseless torrent of invective perfectly matched to the flat staging, cheap sets and Stanley Cortez’s harsh, elemental lighting. You might shake your head at the film’s sheer brazenness, but you can’t help but marvel at Fuller’s primal audacity.

I imagine that Criterion’s new Blu-ray edition looks and sounds just as good if not better than the film did when it got its initial b-movie theatrical run. The disc also includes a terrific hour long documentary shot for IFC the year before Fuller passed away in 1997 as well as an interview with star Constance Towers and some neat new artwork by cartoonist Daniel Clowes.

Monday, January 17, 2011


Initially Published Here

The films of director Jean-Pierre Jeunet are an acquired taste. Actually, that’s wrong: “acquired taste” implies that with time their charms are likely to grow on you. For this particular critic, that moment has never happened and probably never will. Perhaps “not for everyone” is a more apt description. Stuffed to the brim with whimsy and wonder regardless of the subject matter, his films are as visually distinct and conceptually idiosyncratic as any filmmaker working today.

is his latest delivery system for Rube-Goldberg-inspired mayhem. Bazil (Dany Boon) loses his father to a landmine and years later finds himself with a bullet lodged precariously in his skull. He takes up with a group of lovable misfits (each with their own distinctly loony skill) who help him exact revenge on the weapons manufacturers responsible for both incidents. Perhaps there is a bigger point to be made regarding arms dealing and the futility of violence, but I suspect that isn’t really what’s on Jeunet’s mind. Levers are turned, buttons are pushed, traps are sprung and in the end you either find it all remarkably clever or ... you simply don’t.

This Blu-ray edition does justice to some truly stunning photography (despite working with a new DP, Micmas has the same burnished copper and lush green look of most of Jeunet’s films) and the obligatory “Making-Of” featurette is certainly more interesting than most as long as you don’t mind the magician revealing some of his secrets.

Bitter Feast

Initially Published Here

Writer/director Joe Maggio is trying for something a little subtler than your standard straight-to-video slasher flick. He’s created a quiet, contemplative feel for Bitter Feast, a horror film centered on an unstable chef sent over the edge by a contemptuous food blogger. Reading that sentence should give you some sense of why “quiet and contemplative” isn’t exactly going to cut it here. He’s wound up fashioning a film that’s neither scary nor gory enough for horror fans, but with precious little depth and substance for the rest of us. I’d say the acting is thin, but Maggio’s script doesn’t give the performers much to work with in the first place. Motivations are sketched out clumsily and ultimately abandoned to a silly chase through the woods we’ve all seen one too many times. There are some interesting ideas about trying to teach the critic some empathy for his subjects, but these are then weakly resolved: something to do with cooking the perfect over easy egg with your hands tied together.

The DVD does a nice job of conveying some conventially pretty DV photography. The disc includes the ubiquitous commentary track as well as the “alternate ending” which is more traditionally happy than the one included in the film. Guess we’re supposed to find the director’s choice more gutsy, but neither could have saved this rather dull exercise.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

New Stuff 2011 - Pt. 2

I type this with my wizened 18 year old cat wedged in next to me on the recliner. I am 24 hours into my recovery from some minor surgery (a turbinectomy - but please don't bother to Google it as the first article that comes up makes it sound like some awful procedure that no one does anymore). I actually feel OK - not a lot of pain, just a terrible amount of congestion exacerbated by an inability to blow my nose.
But enough of that.
My friends at 215 Magazine have set me up with some DVDs, reviews of which you'll see here and on their website shortly.  In the meantime I have been catching up on my X-Mas reading:

 I read the first part of Guralnick's Elvis bio when it was published in 1995.  Don't know why it took me so long to get to part two (first published in 1999, it covers Elvis' life from when he entered the army until the end).  Just as detailed and meticulously researched, it feels unfair to criticize the book for lacking the passion and joy of part one for there were only fleeting moments of that joy at the end of Elvis' life.  Instead we get a weary litany of pills, shitty movies, young girls (most of their time spent as a cross between nurse and surrogate mama), and diminishing musical returns.  You can't help but think how things might have turned out.  He was surrounded by two types of people: those who loved and cared for him but weren't smart enough to see how troubled he was, or by people bright enough to do something to help but who ultimately cared about little more than their meal ticket.  A true American tragedy

 A slight, but fun and informative book on the creation of what is arguably the funniest film of all time.  I'm hard pressed to think of one better.  Blount is better served by his research than his own attempts to inject jocularity.  We're talking about some of the funniest folks to ever walk the planet.  Best to stay out of their way.
 Fantastically readable with tons of material I had never encountered before (and I've read damn near everything on the Stones, especially that remarkable time between 1968 and 1972).  Provides further documentation that just about all my idols are assholes, but hey nothing says that I need to able to sit at a bar and chat with you in order to appreciate your genius.
Further proof that I would rather read about than listen to 90% of hardcore music.  Tesco and Dave write with a passion and wit that frequently outshines their subject matter.  Gotta love all the old ads too.  Time to send in my $2.49 for that new Misfits single!

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

New Stuff 2011 - Pt.1

New year, time to try something new.  I'm going to attempt to use this blog to not just to collect my reviews, but also detail my consumption of music, films, books, etc.  I'll shoot to update this once a week or so.

First up, some new music purchased at Long in the Tooth
Soul Asylum - And the Horse They Rode In On (A&M CD)
Jim Sullivan - U.F.O (Light in the Attic CD)

The Band - Rock of Ages (Capitol CD - 2 disc re-issue)
Leatherface - The Stormy Petrel (No Idea CD)

Notes : I bought the Soul Asylum and Band CDs used in an effort to fill in some holes in my collection (I have pretty beat up vinyl copies of both records).  I never got around to buying the new Leatherface CD after seeing the band live last year, but they were terrific and so is the record.  The Jim Sullivan was a shot-in-the-dark based on a recommendation from a friend.  His sad, bizarre story can be read here.  Initial listen reminds me a bit of Rodriguez, another early '70s artifact dug up by the fine folks at Light in the Attic. Perhaps a bit more Easy Listening, but in the right frame of mind I can get behind that.  A.M. Gold, so to speak.

Give a listen to the title track:
 Jim Sullivan - U.F.O. by scanny

Monday, January 3, 2011

Exit Through the Gift Shop

Initially Published Here

Street Artist Banksy has created the great cinematic 'Whatsit?' of 2010. Ostensibly a documentary about street artists as captured by an amateur filmmaker, Exit Through the Gift Shop becomes increasingly more convoluted as its tale unwinds. Thierry Guetta is a Frenchman living in Los Angeles who obsessively documents his every waking moment with a video camera. This leads to him filming his cousin, a street artist who goes by the name Invader. Invader puts his cousin in touch with other artists who tag public spaces in an effort to create ephemeral, populist art. This leads to the legendary British tagger Banksy who allows Thierry to film his clandestine art attacks across Britain and the US. But when it becomes apparent that Theirry doesn’t have the first idea how to compile his footage into a film, Banksy encourages him to make his own street art instead. And that’s when you begin to question whether or not everything you are watching is a put-on.

My two cents? Yeah, it is a put-on (for the most part), but a brilliant one at that. And if Banksy manages to garner a Best Documentary award for his elaborate fiction, more power to him. The film is as compulsively watchable and fun as the art scene that it illuminates. And like the art itself, the film leaves you with much to think about after you’ve glided over its smooth, neon-colored surfaces. And while the film is your standard issue shot-on-video release, Oscilloscope has done a nice job with its inventive packaging (postcards, paper sunglasses, etc.). It only seems fitting given the subject matter.