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Archive for November, 2011

I’d probably produce more concise stuff like this ~

 Ultra-Condensed Kanye Albums:

College Dropout – Soul beats and polos.
Late Registration – In which Kanye plays conductor.
Graduation – Money, hoes, and rims again.

 808’s and Heartbreak – Way too much to drink.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy – No one man should have all that power.
Watch the Throne – But I guess it’s cool if two men do.

Maybe it’ll end up on a tumbr…

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You said “I love you,” I said “Wait.” – Catherine (Jeanne Moreau)

I’ve become a curious devotee of French film. Contemporary stuff, sure (Jeunet, Richet), but also this curious thing called new-wave. It starts simply, with the style and panache of a director like Godard, before simmering into something more intoxicating like Truffaut. Eventually it melds into Melville. Perhaps it will become Vargas or Rivette – for now I’m wonderfully enamored with the New Wave. And it’s got a lot to do with Love and Experimentation.

Melville may have crafted the distinctive style of the New Wave, but Truffaut and Godard advanced it brilliantly. Both men incorporate a combination of inventive, playful filmmaking and a method which suggests the true artistry of film. It’s daring, and the films largely live on today as a by-product of their risk-taking and the hand-me-down effect they’ve had on movies today. And believe it or not, I think it’s because they were unafraid to interject themselves directly into the creative process.

First, the creativity. Well, Melville is obviously a reference point. The handi-cam nature of Bob le flambeur (1956) means it still feels relevant today (perhaps more-so than a decade ago, given the proliferation of guerilla filmmaking techniques into the mainstream via filmmakers like Paul Greengrass (United 93, Greenzone) the old is en vogue. Yet, as our fascination with the decade through driven period pieces like Mad Men and Taking Woodstock proves, the 60’s were the moment where all hell tangibly broke loose. And nowhere more clearly than in the wild, seemingly effortless French style.

1961 – Une Femme est une femme

Really a marvel. Godard’s exploration of the female psyche through the lovely Anna Karina. She falls in Love, falls out, and embraces the kinetic energy of Paris.

1962 – Jules et Jim

This Truffaut gem explores the complex love-triangle between three young people as they move through marriage, loss, and infidelity. Quirky and inventive, with a subtle approach to the complications of age and lust.

Note Une Femme – where the plot is a caterwauling, fragmented thing. From the coy, flirtatious meanderings of Anna Karina to the play-fights, prevalence of audience interaction, even a surprising intertexuality (Jeanne Moreau appears, tongue in cheek, in Une Femme – a reference to the friendship between Godard and Truffaut) that suggests an inter-connected, study-worthy nature of cinema. The movie theatre was now a place of discourse, response, and tremendous change. Truffaut, for his part, was unafraid to incorporate music, narration, and a photographic style which ran through both stories. These are films where nearly every panel could be a still, high-points of cinematography and style that retain their cool today.

But then there’s Love. And I must confess that watching these suave, gentle essays on the curious and often fickle nature of the heart is a source of comfort to a young man in the throes of romance. It’s the way of things. Rather than turn away, though, Truffaut and Godard used the medium to serve their feelings. Both films are really, truly love-notes to their leading ladies (Karina and Godard married, Moreau and Truffaut were lovers) and are unabashed in their affection. Note the freeze-frames of Moreau which splinter Jules – Truffaut is clearly enamored with looking at her. And Godard, directing the breath-taking dance sequence with Karina, crafts a remarkable wink from one lover to another.

They were young man, filled up with the too-bigness of love and life, utilizing their hearts to augment their craft. Could it be more beautiful? And watching the films, entangled as they are with the complexity of the heart, the ambivalence hardly overshadows the atmosphere. Sure, Karina is a waif and a muse and a scourge. But Godard comes to that conclusion just as we do, and his film reveals the peculiar hint of the female mood with grace and abandon. Truffaut is more nuanced, painting men as curiously aloof as to the tempestuous nature of female desire. They love, laugh, and cry over a quarter of a century. Three people, hanging onto a Love far after it is gone. What could be more pertinent, relevant, and bluntly honest? They’re not perfect of course, but the point is that they could hardly exist at any other time. Nowhere else (that I’ve seen, of course) has the personal and eternal ever flirted so closely, dissecting deeper truths through the pure charm of filmmaking. And really, the magic of romance filtered through the camera.

You should fall in Love. You should make something about it.

“We should boycott women who don’t cry.” – Angela (Anna Karina)

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“When you live in hell, escape is a right.” – Jacques Mesrine (Vincent Cassel)

Wooh. Lots to discuss. I’ve gone into film-mode again, and I simultaneously relish and despise these moments. Artistically, it’s such a blooming period.

The Story of Us – 1999

Bleh. Rob Reiner re-fits his older (more interesting) concepts to this schlocky vehicle for Bruce Willis and Michelle Pfeiffer. We’ve seen the therapy sequences, nosy best friends, and even the sentimental conclusion. What really drags it down is, unfortunately, the kids. Panning to a family friendly ending tanks things rather quickly. Insulting, really. Boorish and sentimental.

Irreversible – 2002

Rather brutal. An exploration of sexual violence told backwards through long, flowing camera takes. Bizarre cinematography, particularly the nearly unwatchable opening sequence and the infamous 9 minute rape scene in the middle. Vincent Cassel (who we’ll see later) turns in a dynamic performance loaded with angst and vigor. Strange, aggressive, European filmmaking. Not for the faint of heart.

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance – 2002

An export from South Korea. Visually stunning, beguiling take on the revenge narrative. Helmed by a deaf, dumb worker named Ryu (Ha-Kyun Shin) the story explores the ripple effect of the kidnapping he leads, as well as its effect on the family of the victim. Strong directorial style, unafraid to tackle very confrontational or exploitative elements. Also relatively light on dialogue, utilizes a few interesting techniques to overcome the deafness barrier. While less narrative-driven than Oldboy, it’s not quite as gloomy looking.

Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1 – 2008

Terrific. Vincent Cassel performs the role of a lifetime in the shoes of Jacques Mesrine, infamous bank-robber and occasional revolutionary. Part one is all macho mayhem, with the young Mesrine beating his way to stardom. The second half allows him to settle into an intense sort of madness, torn apart as the proto-celebrity flares out. Great visual style, good support and multi-cultural cast. Energetic, globe-trotting stuff.

Bill Cunningham New York – 2010

A real gem. Explores the life and career of famed “street” photographer Bill Cunningham. As much a biography of Cunningham (a consumate, tender lover of photography) as an amusing exploration of eccentric NY artists. Lots of fun listening to folks like Tom Wolfe and Anna Wintour chat up the tender genius. Watching him run through the streets is a joy, not to mention ought to inspire artists a quarter his age.

Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff – 2010

An examination of the history of cinema through the life of one of its earliest participants. Follows the life and work of Jack Cardiff, two time Oscar winner (five time nominee) through silent film, technicolor, and even the first inklings of digital. Best is Cardiff’s penchant for anecdote, the result of a strong work ethic and loving attention to detail. Terrific commentary from Scorsese and others, it’s as much a joy to watch the clips as it is to hear Cardiff reminisce over the (usually) enjoyable time he had filming them. Also fun are his mini-lessons on filmmaking, a rare chance to learn from a master.

“You know the point is… Fashion is the armor to survive the wear and tear of everyday life.” – Bill Cunningham

 

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A Screaming Man (2010)

“It’s not me. It’s the world that’s changed.” – Adam (Youssouf Djaoro)

Fathers and sons. The tidal wash of war. Generational conflict. Simple human duty. Any one of these would make a terrific crux for an art-house film. Each one could become a block-buster, power-budget story pushed through with the help of some suave American actors and trained ethnic stand-ins. Anyone could make a film about Chad (or Africa) [or plight] and load the whole thing with so much death and suffering it turns ugly saccharine. Anyone could, and all too often we do. There’s no simple way to address issues of Africa, or even it would seem, to tell the story with both eyes open and both feet planted on the ground.

The answer, suggested by Mahamet Haroun in this French-Chadian drama about the plight of family in war-time, is a retreat from the visceral. Not an escape, but a tactical embrace of the familial, personal, and independent. Our protagonist is Adam (better known as Champ) and the story follows his waning relationship with his son (Abdel – Diouc Koma) and the other workers at the local restort he staffs. It’s the twin demon of outside corporation and legitimate political discord that first signals things will be difficult. And it only continues, reaching a crescendo as the looming threat of Abdel’s punishment (to save Adam) is finally made good. What transpires tests the family wholly, deftly navigating the balance between the dreams of the young and the ambition of the old.

It’s a slow film. Very art-house, truthfully, and that will inevitably piss many off. As (something) of a film geek, I felt I was fairly well equipped for a venture into African cinema. Much like Kurosawa era Noh-influenced films there’s not a ton of movement. Or dialogue. Or even traditional action. And while the pace may have been two crawl-y (and I think I’m fairly patient, for the record) for some, I certainly see Haroun’s angle. It’s war-time immersed in the daily and mundane activities of the calm before the storm. More importantly, it’s at great pains to establish a connection between audience, family, and strangers. Slow and methodical we wind our way around their tiny village, become a part of their lives, and cherish their group success. It’s a builder, but only to the power that often surges forth when violence, war, and brutality erupt. Like actual war – there’s a realism expressed here that borders on pathological. The actors all turn in fine, down-turned performances (minus Abdel, a bright spot) which suit the sombre tone and ultimately add to the conclusion. Heartbreaking as it was, and painted with real sensitivity, Haroun is quite capable of directing the truest emotions out of these strong, brave actors.

It’s powerful stuff. Worth the wait, too, as the first half slogs pretty hard. But again, that’s part of the connection. We can’t grieve the loss without the investment, and here the investment is the chance to watch a family torn apart by singular ambition, levied by self-interest, and most hauntingly transformed into a story of love through generations, a sad realization of the pressing reality which binds all members of the family together. I can’t speak highly enough of the final twenty minutes of the film – if you have the patience to make it to the end you’ll be floored and overwhelmed. Beauty lurks in the craggy, overgrown memories of the past. A Screaming Man proves the Chadian voice is a mighty one – a whisper of the determined hearts torn apart by senseless slaughter.

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Black Jack [Vol. 1] (1973)

“For us humans to crave control over life and death is sheer arrogance, don’t you think?” – Jotaro Honma

Ah, how exciting! The oft-emulated doctor for hire series which helped make Tezuka’s name finally makes its way to my apartment. And while the entire conceit isn’t quite there in this first volume, Tezuka remains as inventive as ever.

Collected as a series of episodic chapters, we’re introduced to Dr. Black Jack in flash. He’s Golgo, or James Bond, but with a scalpel. And though the love/hate relationship he shares with attention and affection may seem tritely predictable today, the subject matter of the stories is endlessly fascinating.

Tezuka was, himself, a doctor. And a real medical knowledge is fused with an adventurous sense of storytelling to create a compellingly dark character who could channel some of that post-war angst and fuse it with the wonders or life and rebirth. In fact, owing to the occasional mention of radiation poisoning (or polio) there’s a real dialogue at work about the nature of disability and life outside traditional norms. There’s also some hokey faux-romantic stuff… but it’s not all bad. Best is when Tezuka effortlessly transports us back in time to work his storytelling wizardry, fusing bits and pieces (much like Koike and Kojima) to fashion a pretty rewarding narrative.

Elsewhere, there’s plenty of ethical quandry. Not to mention the sketchy computer-gone-wrong plot of “U-18 Knew”. In that regard, Black Jack holds up so well because it pre-dates an awful lot of plot-devices we might see today. And on some of the weirder ones (“The Face Sore” or “The First Storm of Spring”) he manages to at once take medicine deadly serious and slip in echoes of the paranormal or supernatural. The more grounded tales, a mix of intrigue and vague morals, often remind us of Tezuka the humanist – prizing virtues like Love, Empathy, and Humility while exploring the brutally clinical world of medicine.

Black Jack is fairly episodic at this point, and with just the vaguest hints about his past (a young lover he operated on, an accident he was in as a child that left him nearly destroyed, the curious influence of Dr. Honma) but the bones are all there for a terrific series. Weird, kooky, and an adept mix of serious and fun. Tezuka can’t help but amaze.

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Say Mermaid…


As I see it, there are two types of girls. 80’s girls and 90’s girls (and a sub-section of 90’s girls who want to be 60’s girls). For folks such as these certain benchmark films come to mind. Pretty in Pink, Clueless, Billboard Dad. And Disney. Indeed, I’ve met two types of girls (lots of types) when it comes to Disney. Belle Girls and Ariel Girls. Believe me, they don’t get along. Allow me to explain.

During the late 90’s feminist backlash towards misogynistic (or at the very least gender-ignorant) Disney films, Ariel was perhaps the most castigated for her seeming lack of purpose (and the gross oversimplification of the original Anderson story). Invariably, the Disney Princess perceived as most capable (owing to her own strong-willed nature and the underlying motif of self expression inherent in Beast) is Belle. Thus, and from my own experience, the two don’t mix. Girls who like Ariel tend to be less concerned with Ariel’s systematic deconstruction (spiritually/physically/emotionally) while girls who like Belle are usually hyper-aware of their choice to favor her and admire her gender-busting tendencies.

So there’s that. But what about Girl Type 2?

She likes Say Anything... Yes, the (admittedly charming) movie with baby-face Cusack and the Peter Gabriel scene. And believe me, I had as much of a crush on Ione Skye (as Diane Court) as the next guy. But something has always bothered me about the movie, and the neo-spanglers who flock to it…

It’s kind of a crazy conceit.

Hear me out, Cusackites! I’m just applying the same logic the majority of folks have used to denounce Mermaid. And it makes me wonder, did John Cusack get a “relationship on crack” pass because he’s a guy?

Let me elcuidate some of my issues with the film before we examine some troubling similarities. My biggest issue with the character of Lloyd Dobler (and I say this as a marked romantic myself) is that he’d be an absolute fuck-wit if he tried any of it in the real world. No really, though. Let’s remove the pokey, melodramatic John Mahoney plot for a second. John Cusack charms Ione Skye through a combination of dumb sensitivity and good-natured courage. Fine, that’s fair. But what’s always bothered me is that the film is predicated on Lloyd giving up what little stability he has to be with her.

You might be saying at this point – Andrew, you’re being a little cynical. Surely your love-deprived nature is just reading your own anti-romantic inclinations into another, otherwise fantastic romantic escapade. Well, perhaps. And perhaps Mahoney’s character addresses this by acting as the safety net (crudely done in by his own greed, naturally) who constantly rails against Lloyd’s free-spirited nature. But you know, Lloyd isn’t really all that free-spirited. He’s just kind of drifting. Not to wage war against the proto-slacker (I’ve been there, man) but his quickness to sacrifice for Skye still irks me. What’s it grounded in? Nearest I can tell is a teenager in a trenchcoat with a moderately stable future who decides to drop his tiny everything (and be battered around the emotional bush) for an entitled girl who drags him through the ringer and then lets him play sidekick on her grand European adventure.

Does that strike anyone as the least bit horseshit?

To my reading, it’s virtually identical to the sacrificial Ariel of Mermaid. A girl who famously gives up everything for the emotional madlib that is Prince Eric. She loses her voice (what the 2005 Handbook of Speech Perception referred to as “the most important tool for identity development”) just to be with him. As the sea-witch Ursula puts it – “It’s she who holds her tongue who gets her man”. And certainly, Ariel’s subjugation through committed romance (to a man she hardly knows) is further expressed through Eric’s fighting prowess against Ursula. Ariel, tragically, is not even made hero in her own quest.

The ideal female in Mermaid: A silent, obedient partner.

The ideal male in Say Anything: A self-sacrificial, ambivalent, doter.

Lloyd may defeat the bad guy (Mahoney) in this one, but he also strips agency from Skye’s character. He becomes, ultimately, the messenger for her personal desires. And the monster that he slays, as new-comer into her family life, isn’t really his to kill. What does Lloyd like besides Diane Court and kickboxing? Music, vaguely. His little brother? He likes helping her help old people. In the same way that Ariel’s voice (initially her own tool) ultimately becomes actualized as a trade-off for Eric. Both characters are, mechanically speaking, way-stations for dominant partners. The question becomes – where is the line drawn between nobly sacrificial and offensively subservient? I guess it depends on how it strikes you.

But the everyman quality of Lloyd was never all that remarkable to me. The romantics I like generally follow two classes, both relient on personal action, and it’s for that reason he’s continued to baffle. My favorite romances stem (as you may have seen me write before) from relationships that fall into being naturally. Groundhog Day remains a superlative example, and you can see smaller hints in the magical endings of movies like 500 Days of Summer or Forgetting Sarah Marshall. In recognizing romantic change overtime, and due to its natural occurrence, there’s no force or pretense.  Love as a natural consequence of forthrightness.

Then there’s the Love we respond to – a Love of moments. Much is made in our culture of carpe diem – and it’s true here too. Sometimes we get defining moments (think the New Years party scene in When Harry Met Sally or Amélie’s decision to confront Nino in Amélie) that allow the greatness of romance to transcend our otherwise mundane lives. The partners, in acknowledging their feelings together, become equals.

Not so for Ariel and Lloyd. The love, much like Romeo’s haphazard affections for Rosaline and Juliet, is a propulsive one. One that says “I Love you, and I’m going to make this work whether you’re onboard or not”. For Lloyd that means stubbornness (masked as perseverance) and for Ariel it implies sacrifice (treated as otherworldly incident). Neither of these is firm footing, although I suppose their appropriation is as much a matter of experience as it is belief and willpower.

So maybe it’s a me-thing. Maybe I’ve just never felt that re-wiring love which defies a logic of time or consistency. But I think you need to know someone to love them. And I think you need to have your own needs to support them. Perhaps that sort of pragmatism runs counter-current to the inspired status of cinema, but then it shouldn’t be so hard to think of better-earned romances or more dynamic relationships. Lloyd Dobler may stand as the bastion of male sensitivity and determined bravado, but I’ve never been able to shake the feeling he’s just another voiceless schmuck.

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“And then after she died… we just stayed hunkered down. Guess we just froze in place.” – Morgan (Lennie James)

The remarkable thing, I suppose, is that I’m halfway through the first season.

And color me impressed (for the most part). The next big thing in AMC television (a network now firmly establishing itself as the alternative to PPV networks for viewers seeking high-end storytelling) took a big risk by adapting a comic book. About zombies. Yeah, I didn’t think it’d catch on either…

But it’s actually part of this rapidly developing movement where directors seem to be searching out more alternative source material to create new and engaging stories. Adaptation is nothing new, but source material like the Game of Thrones novels, The Walking Dead comics, and even more experimental literature like the forthcoming HBO adaptation of Jennifer Egan’s novel A Visit From the Goon Squad suggest things are hardly so straightforward. The rule, then, seems to be that there are no rules. Anything is fair game.

And that certainly works for The Walking Dead. While it’s safe to say that zombies and horror are a kind of cultural phenomena in America (just look at the massive outpouring of support for a series like Paranormal Activity) it tends to be for a showier, more theatrical ghoul. Rarely, too, are zombies made up for TV. It’s too hard to maintain the suspense, too vaudevillian to maintain interest, and too marginalized to pull network dollars.

Until now.  With a short six episode season AMC thrusts audiences into a post-apocalyptic world with definite western overtones, fantastic makeup and costumes, and a pretty gritty moral center. It’s Lord of the Flies via Lost with hints of George A. Romero. Though things take on a Zombielandish hint initially, this is a pretty forthright adaptation. It focuses on the erosion of moral values, the principles of justice, and the extinguishing of humanity in comprising moral situations. And occasionally, in the way great horror narratives do, it raises pertinent questions about the nexus of the human and monstrous in crisis.

Episode 1: Days Gone By

Kudos to the creators for the near-wordless opening sequence. And for deftly integrating the zombies (not to mention the fluid morality) without too much pomp. I felt this was a stunning pilot. The production values are high, the characters are at the very least engaging (and in the case of Rick Grimes rather compelling). Music was a bit obtrusive at times (I’m thinking of the hokey montage with Morgan – who I also liked) and lent things a sort-of hammy feel (part of the reason I usually defer to diegetic music when possible).

Other than that, though, I thought it accomplished a lot. I was initially hesitant, as the suggestion seemed to be that we might take a while to really run into zombies, but in reality they took advantage of the extra twenty minutes (extended pilot) and thrust us into a believable setting which is propulsive in nature. Atlanta looked great zombie-ridden, and the recurring scenes with the zombies (where one reaches out to Rick, for instance) were really compelling. As I said, very impressed. A fun, frenetic, smartly written pilot.

Episode Two: Guts

For the most part, they managed to top that bar with episode two. Trapped in Atlanta, things shift to a containment narrative with the major factor being just how the group will escape a surrounded superstore. Clever maneuvering (and the addition of a side-plotline with Rick’s family) lend things a bit of punch, and the conflicting personalities for the first time suggest the desperation of a post-zombie setting mixed with personal egos and desires. Steven Yeun as Glenn adds nice support, and the community missing from episode one really fills in.

As do some of the cliches. While I found the move to use zombie scent for cloaking bold (and inventive) the rain seemed to appear haphazardly to create drama. To that, the dropped key created a convenient moral complex. It felt like amateur plotting, unfortunately, and detracted from the increasingly realistic world established by the creators.

Episode 3: Tell it to the Frogs

In which I’m underwhelmed. I mean, I like relationships. Really, I do. But this one just slogged through the first 25 minutes on the most pedantic “getting to know you” exposition. Yuck. I liked the western theme of justice and lawmaking in a lawless land, as well as the implication that the father and son from episode one might reappear, but spare me the marital woes and the red-neck husband. I think we need a little more investment before the teleplay authors can pull that (maybe it’d be different if I established them over a monthly comic series) and here it felt totally unearned. Nice cliffhanger, though. I do wonder about that hand…

Summation:

It’s a strong series and I’m eager to finish season one (and check out season two along the way). It’s nice to see the zombie mythos given a mildly believable setting, especially one replete with so many post-apocalyptic touches. More than that, though, it’s the curious dehumanization which accompanies tragedy that really grabbed me. Rick Grimes is an engaging protagonist, smartly written and just for a world crumbling at the seams. I’m eagerly waiting for the chance to follow the rest of his journey and optimistic that the writers will find ways to keep the narrative moving towards larger and more satisfying goals.

If you’re not watching, now you know.

“There’s us – and the dead.” – Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln)

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