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Archive for September, 2011

The American (2010)

“You cannot deny the existence of hell. You live in it. It is a place without love.” – Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli)

 

 

Anton Corbijn is a man well acquainted with the power of silence. As one of the preeminent photographers of the 1980s (and the man who captured one of my favorite bands, Joy Division, through the immortal camera lens) he’s now taken on the difficult task of transitioning to film. In homage to spaghetti westerns and influenced by Jim Jarmusch or Nicholas Roeg, this is dense, often difficult filmmaking. While a Clooney vehicle might seem like the perfect dish to serve up to American audiences, it’s the haunting, atmospheric nature of the European thriller that rules this trip into the troubled psyche of a conflicted murderer.

That’s Clooney. Working from an adaptation of the 1990 novel A Very Private Gentleman by Martin Booth the story is one of bitter disillusionment and the overwhelming power of loneliness to destroy. This is a movie of minutiae, as hard and uncompromising as the icy forests of Sweden or the precision weapon Clooney, as the warped and disillusioned Jack/Edward, spends the length of the film constructing. There’s relatively little backstory, few exterior details, and a terrific emphasis on atmosphere and style. That’s not to say it’s shapeless – Clooney spends the length of the film (rather like A Single Man) rattling between a life of utter sin and the death which may finally give him some peace. It is, as Corbijn notes in a featurette about the film, an examination of how the violence in Jack’s life keeps him from the peace he seeks. And Clooney, grizzled and strung out in terrificly compelling fashion, manages to nail the vehicle with sniper-like precision.

This is a deliberately anti-action movie. And while it shares roots with westerns (Leone is name-checked appropriately) it’s all about the chilly European countryside in this one. Scenes of rolling hills, the long, knotted nature of the Italian town, the topography is as twisted and broken as Jack’s ailing spirit. Not only is this an exceptionally pretty movie, imbued with Corbijn’s distinctive eye for layered shots and distinctive colors, it walks the line between understated and pretentious as well as could be hoped. There are those curious touches – dabs of symbolism, frank sexuality, broad strokes of religion and lust. It’s something like a William Blake poem crossed with the post-trauma of a war film. When Jake enters the town his major two connections are a priest and a prostitute, but it’s no surprise to find that all three are flawed and searching. While the film makes a mountain out of small nuances, there’s something to be said for the anti-action current, for the delirious effect it creates when violence suddenly, and irrevocably, erupts.

For me, though, the best relationship was between Clooney and Thekla Reuten as Mathilde. Both bring an incredibly charged energy to an often gauzy film. Especially in their scenes testing the rifle or near the close of the film as the story pushes to a grim climax, she’s the austere match to his frigid cool. Violante Placido may be the woman who finally calms his soul, but I have to give it to Reuten for exuding the strangest, most intoxicating mix of innocence and bloodlust. That sort of mix cloaks the film, building the paranoia to a steady frenzy before milking the emotional interior. Stunning, tense, glacial.

And that icy tone, crystalized by the early scenes in Sweden, will be a stumbling block for many. Corbijn’s attachment to photography means there are plenty of scenes where relatively little happens. I’d argue that this actually enhances the film in two key ways. First, it makes the actual action far more interesting. As contrary as that seems, the inundation of action causes a sort of audience paralysis. No such concern here. More importantly, it’s not an action movie per-se. To refer to it as a “spy” or “espionage” film does little service (and, I think, misses the more intimate point) that the movie is about a broken man attempting to live again. The rejection of violence is not a rejection of action-oriented filmmaking or even an art-house gimmick, it’s the literal representation of a killer struggling with the question of whether to pick up his gun again. To Clooney’s credit he’s taken an un-glamorous role and embraced his age, his brokenness, and done away with his pretty-boy image in favor of a slow-burning, paranoid, sexually starved murderer. To make us feel for that man, a man who can no longer even sleep without his gun, says something particularly affecting about the story. And oh, those scenes of Clooney building the rifle… seldom has anything been so sexual, symbolic, or disarmingly alluring.

Yet, by no means an easy watch. There’s a reason this wasn’t much talked about in America (or received much more than lukewarm reviews). It’s weighty, moody, and rides that line between entertainment and art pretty relentlessly. Still, there’s a beautifully photographed film and a surprisingly affective story in Clooney’s desperate search for redemption. The film, much like the sniping it discusses, requires patience. But then there’s that beautiful moment of revelation, that cathartic kill to make the waiting worthwhile.

 

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“The judges are looking for flawless technique, innovative choreography, perfect precision and fabulous costumes.” – Abby Lee Miller

Oh, dear… This can’t end well.

Let’s just say that this was far more entertaining, far less socially acceptable, and roughly as controversial as I expected it to be. It’s immediately reminiscent of the horrifying third act in Little Miss Sunshine or that disturbing, iconic Toddlers & Tiaras. Stylistically, we’re talking America’s Next Top Model vis-a-vis The Real World and So You Think You Can Dance.

That’s a lot of materials in that blender, but don’t expect anything too revolutionary. What’s novel about the concept is, sadly, its flaunting of a highly competitive atmosphere for highly vulnerable children. By virtue of this blog I may be encouraging Lifetime to continue this programming. For that – let me reiterate. I find the combative, frequently abusive tone of this show abhorrent. Particularly show leader Abby Lee Miller, pompous and down-right threatening as she is, manages to mix complete ignorance with boorish egotism. It doesn’t end there, though, as the mothers themselves not only fight, patronize, and imbibe – they make the case that the parents are often the real children.

And yet, this is oddly compelling stuff. Compelling to the point that it’s absolutely fair-game to wonder if the atrocious concept doesn’t tap into some trash-nexus, some secret yearning of the American public to watch terrible things happen to small children.  The show capitalizes on that chaos, mixing squeaky clean production values (and a derivative reality-TV score) and a jumpy, fast-paced cutting style that abandons strict linear storytelling to highlight the fights. In a move away from the highly structured fights (full of smaller cues) usually seen in MTV style reality shows, the fights in this show seem to spring from nothing. They’re as much a part of the studio as the dancers, blowing over and developing with eerie rigidity. And, as the disturbing final twenty minutes point out, many of the mothers aren’t just living vicariously – they’re masking hefty personal problems.

All of this is not to say that it’s not fun. In fact, I think its overblown nature is one of the most entertaining things I’ve seen in some time. Often, I found myself laughing at the bizarre commentary (Miller describing a horrific death to one of the children, for instance) – perhaps out of my preference to keep the show in the world of fiction. The “reality” is that this is real, or as real as these things can be, and these young children are forced into a body-mutilating, unhealthily competitive atmosphere with domineering chaperones. From that misguided premise, and in spite of my own personal objections, it’s terrific fun. But I wonder, and worry too, about our tendency to doll these young women. I am on a competitive Speech Team, and a lot of what I immediately empathize with in the show is the competitive, tense atmosphere. But as a 19 year old young-adult, and one who has chosen this path for myself, I think the context is different. I have to think there’s an age that’s too young for this sort of competition, a better way to achieve greatness than a corrosive atmosphere like that dance studio.

Am I wrong in assuming Lifetime should feel more responsible for this? I’m not an expert on these sort of issues, but I always assumed that amongst all of the adapted Jodi Picoult novels they were at least tentatively in favor of programs that promote and deeply concern women. Is this their statement about the nature of motherhood and competition? Some ugly benchmark for young girls to reach? I probably sound like the grump in the muck, and if you’d seen me watch the show last night you’d be shocked at the utter dichotomy between my laughs there and my stern, conflicted criticism here. That is, perhaps, my own failing. Dance Moms is good, very good indeed. But for all the wrong reasons.

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“I am ready to reap the whirlwind.” – Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins)

So, there it goes. All finished with season one. And truthfully, I’m pretty pleased. Things finally bubbled over in this one, and the creators managed to solve a few problems and create some in the process. The show finally embraced its long-form nature and turned in an episode wholly grounded in the relationships developed throughout the season. There’s lots of bloodshed, but also a surprisingly warm camaraderie between Raylan and Boyd. In fact, it manages to make good on nearly every important relationship in the program.

There’s the terrific, low-key interaction between Boyd and Ava at the beginning to cap things off. Not to mention the great action-piece directed around Raylan and Arlo in their hide-out. The shoot-out near the end not only leaves things in limbo for the next episode, it does the terrific job of forcing Raylan to further consider the ethical implications of his job. Anger has been his calling card since the shoot-out that launched the first episode, and I’ll be interested to see how Raylan pays for his personal actions.

On the whole, Justified manages more than a few of its conceits in terrific fashion. Cable (and even the best network) succeeds on the strength of a vivid world. There’s plenty of life to Harlan and a superb job of letting things loose on the last go. Now, personally I’d have preferred more wrap-up with the Crowder/Miami situations, but I can see that they’re really making an effort to set things up for season two. To that end, the three-way triangle of Raylan/Winona/Ava is really in good shape to sprawl out in the next season.

To truly succeed (and of course, these observations are knowingly late) I think it’ll benefit from a move towards the long-form (and they have the backstory and means now) as well as a more ensemble cast. If I have one dead-eye criticism it’s that the two helper characters (Gutterson and Brooks) are absolutely side-lined. When Gutterson appears to get them into the veterans bar… oh, it was painful. I’ll be interested to see how they manage to either do away with or resurrect them, but it’s a real detractor at the moment. Same with the character of Rick Vasquez, the show does itself in by choosing to avoid rich, powerfully drawn characters with motivation beyond the “major secret” or “fish out of water” scenario.

All in all, I enjoyed Justified plenty. It’s a high-brow cable show, and minus some of the sloppy episode by episode touches I think it managed to bring a fascinating part of the country to life. And it’s at its best when they play up the mysterious, ethereal quality of Kentucky. When, as in the moment where Boyd confronts the hangings in his own camp, the world takes on an otherworldly and timeless feel. It’s beautiful and ugly, like the mix of nobility and grime that permeates the story.  If they can capitalize on this half-start, really emphasize the haunting beauty of its locale and source material, I think the show has every opportunity to turn its moniker “post-modern western” into more than a cheeky label.

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“The truth is written on all our faces.” – Cal Lightman [Tim Roth]

I promise now, this isn’t a thing. But I like to write about programs after I watch them, even if I think they’re terribly derivative. Lie to Me is one of those shows. I don’t want to turn this into a referendum on the shortcomings of network television (partly because it’s futile and partly because it makes me seem snobby) but I do think this acutely elucidates a host of brushstrokes that come together in the creation of a (relatively non-descript) network pilot.

To its credit – Tim Roth. I’m a big fan of the cagey English actor and his penchant for unlikable roles. This show, in a rather knowing cop from House, follows the format of the top-heavy star vehicle almost to a tee. It was Hugh Laurie (or Damian Lewis/Idris Elba/Dominic West) and here it’s TIm Roth. Fair enough – I’ll watch him for forty minutes. But the show manages to ape the concept even further with the addition of quirky, unhelpful sidekicks (a truth-telling horndog and an assertive former TSA agent)  and a sexual/intellectual foil for Roth’s ego. Essentially he’s a morally questionable, hyper-talented, asshole. Dr. Gregory House  – meet Dr. Cal Lightman.

The arc of the episode comprises a mix of minor long-form threads and a dual-plot concerning the activities of the private group the show revolves around. There’s the suggestion that Kelli Williams (of The Practice fame) will face some sort of infidelity, that she and Tim Roth were once ousted from the FBI, and that the two side-characters might have some interesting backstories. Beyond that, though, it’s tried and true episodic stuff. A young Jehovah’s Witness accused of murder and a senator embroiled in a sex scandal are the primary targets, but things never move the way you might hope.  The primary plot line of religious temptation and depravity is an awkward mix of home-spun stereotypes – an examination of the culture with virtually no real substantive commentary. Everything is in very broad strokes, particularly the beliefs of the parents, to the point that I found myself repelled rather than enlightened. Likewise, they removed Tim Roth from the secondary plot-line and as a result the ultimate pay-off missed me entirely. In shows such as this, particularly ones where the characters can’t carry as an ensemble, you really can’t afford to sideline the driver of the vehicle.

We watched Lie to Me in my Interpersonal Communication class. And while you might expect it to be complete malarky, I was surprised at how much of the show stems from real social study. Much of it is exaggerated, but it’s presented in convincing enough fashion you’re relatively unlikely to pick out the fluff from the fact. And it is an interesting premise, if only for a single episode. It manages to graft the character-driven egoist paradigm onto a procedural drama – sadly neither medium is particularly enhanced. With average production (minus the cool title design and a few interesting [albeit hardly revolutionary] instances of camera work) and a sub-standard supporting cast, there’s no reason for me to revisit this 2009 drama. But for those hoping to get a sense for how large a role nature can play in our physical relationships, or hoping to get more of the USA flavored series, I won’t lie. You’ve seen this story before – pick a new model instead of this tune-up.

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“My son’s been fighting wars since the day he was born.” – Arlo Givens (Raymond J. Barry)

The penultimate episode of the first season. I’m so excited to actually have one done!

I’d like to think of episodes 11 – 13 as a sort of arc. Obviously it’s the culmination of the season, but it’s especially true of the late season developments. Not a whole lot happens here, but it’s the greater context of the actions that really places the episode in a positive light.

I dig the Breaking Bad angle with all this meth cooking (although I guess that’s as much Winter’s Bone). For that matter, I’m intrigued by the propensity for meth labs to blow up. The sex sequence between Raylan and Winona was… oddly shot? It was much less stage-y than usual. Also, it was so long it felt more like an HBO sequence. I’m still kind of meh about both ladies at this point, as Ava is a trifle too melodramatic and Winona’s assertive nature has been missing up to this point. Kudos to her, too, for finally acting on all that sexual tension. And if it’s too formulaic, at least they managed to convincingly portray Ava and Winona in the same location (so catty).

Elsewhere, there was a terrific scene with Boyd in a church. He’s really burning all the bridges at this point, but the physical acting was very strong. The introduction of a war-veteran plot-line was clunky (it felt like a long-form episode with a sub-plot jammed in) although it did produce a nice moment of storytelling for Arlo. The relationships are finally coming to a head, and there are plenty of parallels set to the tune of the episode title. Ali in all, I’ll be excited to put this one down sometime this week.

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Scott Walker: 30 Century Man (2006)

“I will starve to get something across, I mean that. I’ve never settled for second-best in my life. If it doesn’t work, I’ll give it all up.” – Noel Scott Engel (Scott Walker)

 

 

Influences are a curious thing. For every incredibly prolific and critically acclaimed artist there seems to be some shadowy figure lurking in the dark, criminally under-heard and perennially shying away from the limelight. While these artists can usually claim some sort of mythic quality there’s a special beauty to a glimpse into the heart of a true maverick. At ends brilliant and indulgent, aggrandizing and deliberately affronting, Scott Walker makes the case for a man your favorite band probably listens to in their free time.

Walker’s journey through the realms of popular music is a precarious one. He begins with The Walker Brothers and manages to parlay backing vocals into his own showcase for his unique baritone. Following some sporadic episodes he quickly launches his own solo career, a string of self-titled albums, and moves from chart-topping heart throb to inspired songwriter. It’s by no means a simple journey, but how things change next takes the documentary from amusing feature to avant-garde exploration. Walker goes off the deep end after recording a string of mediocre albums and re-forms The Walker Brothers to record Nite Flights – one of the pioneering albums of the late 1970s. It’s an even stranger course from there, a stretch of six years until the follow-up album and a good deal of attention given to Walker’s 2006 project, The Drift.

While the film follows the conventional documentary/music-doc style, the small deviations give it a lot of life. I won’t dwell too long on the opening safe to say the whole Orpheus mythos is terribly over-blown. Things perk up, though, when the film moves to memorabilia of Walker’s past. It’s traditionally talking-heads, but the special treats are hearing just how many people respect Walker’s unique journey to fame and the interviews with the reclusive artist himself. The other highlight being the curious process of watching members of Walker’s groups and his contemporaries listen to the music – a surprisingly effective trick. Bowie executive produced the film and his curious influence is all over it, as much as Radiohead, Johnny Marr, even early greats like Lulu. Walker, for all his fame-shunning darkness, is a sort of consumate every-man. He’s in fine form during the interviews, oddly normal in his baseball-cap, and surprisingly clear-headed given the nature of his art. Even if things often have a Ken Burnsian feel, it gives things a wonderful, attic-trawling perspective of the not-so distant past.

Even more-so than most music documentaries this one has a tendency towards the esoteric. Things begin rather simply, mapping with a trajectory feel before settling into the grit of Walker’s dark periods. It’s intriguing how little we truly find out about his bad habits – the occasional reference to the Playboy Club in London or some “heavy imbibing” have to suffice. It’s a story about stories, and if you’re not game to hear Bowie anecdotes about dating Walker’s girlfriend, Radiohead’s desire to replicate his sound on “Creep”, and any number of composers, journalists, and poets muse about his peculiar genius… well, you should quickly look elsewhere.

When the film does focus on music things get decidedly odd. There are lots of little musical sequences that unfold in psychedelic fashion (I’d be interested to know if they constructed these for the film) but they’re frequently less interesting than the commentators. That said, the insider music footage of Walker constructing his newest album is terrific – scenes of percussionists beating pork-bags and box smashing are a fascinating venture into the creation of outsider art. And the late introduction of Walker’s fascination with Mussolini is not only harrowing, it’s one of the most musically, textually rewarding experiences in the entire process.

This is not your average documentary (standard style and initially formulaic style aside). It’s a music documentary, and I have to wonder how much interest it can have to anyone who hasn’t already fallen in love with the artists Walker inspired. For his part, Walker is an amiable interviewee who reveals a haunting, dedication to his own art. Things veer towards the absolutely absurdnear the close, but the point I want to stress is something I think Walker illustrates beautifully. His music is bold, oftenugly, and deliberately beguiling. It also provokes reaction, it elicits a response. Walker emerges as a pioneer of soundscapes, a man illuminated by his own nightmares casting off shades of his own genius for mass consumption. Get loud. Get weird. Find out why Scott Walker might just be the most important musician you’ve never heard.

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“You can lie to yourself all you want, Raylan. You can put on that hat and that badge and pretend you’re someone else just so you can accept every crazy notion you hear about your father.” – Helen Givens (Linda Gehringer)

We’re almost home! Thank goodness, and terrific for the finally developing storyline regarding the feud between the Givens family and the Crowder clan. It’s a pretty centralized episode focusing on the implications of the meth-lab that blew up last time. Most of this installment is spent cracking the case on the Crowder family, studying the tension between Bo and Boyd (not to mention finding out a bit about Boyd’s deceased brother) and Raylan’s own confrontations with his family.

The return of Arlo Givens really speeds things along. There’s something about his mix of youthful vigor and wizened screw-up that’s actually pretty compelling. The stand-offs aren’t terribly tense, although there’s some nice moments of contention between Boyd and one of his henchman. There’s a lot to be said for Boyd’s character as an excellent example of how a minor role (even if he is fairly central to the first episode) can really be effectively expanded once the actor is given a bit of license to really work it. Boyd has a flair all his own, and the swaggering machismo of Raylan Givens makes a nice counterpoint to the humble, sinister faith espoused by Boyd. With a cliff-hanger built into the episode is should be no surprise I’m eager to finish season one off.

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