Friday, September 15, 2017

Stan Brakhage's DOG STAR MAN - an experimental epic




(I actually watched and reviewed these last year on Letterboxd, but as I discovered there is a "Complete" Dog Star Man film and not just in parts, I compiled them together into one review here - you can find the complete Dog Star Man on YouTube or through the Criterion Collection release of 'By Brakhage Vol 1'):



(Prelude):

I should note right at the top that it seems unfair to give this a rating or a vote based on anything to do with story. My praise for this piece of art film - and that is what it is, no ifs ands or buts about that - comes from the cinematography, the special lighting effects, and naturally the editing. This is so far beyond the scope of what many in the world seek out to watch as this is the definition of 'experimental' in cinema, and yet for those who find it or somehow it comes to them (via a small revival house or from the Criterion collection set) it's a wonder to behold.

Funny though to think that, not intentionally I assume, when the "MTV Generation" of directors would make their videos (and still do, but I mean when they were regularly shown on TV) they were decried by critics for being cut too fast. This really goes back to Brakhage here, though of course his intentions were not to promote some band with the rapid-fire cuts and the stream-of-consciousness flow of images and colors and warped contours folding into one another. That's why it's kind of hard to write any kind of appraisal of this aside from 'well, watch it for yourself, and if you make it past the first few minutes there's... more of these wonders to behold!'

I think because of the way my mind works I watch something like the Prelude to Dog Star Man (the whole "film" is in four parts), and I do try to find some semblance of a story. My mind is still on the experimental, transgression and consciousness-expanding wavelength, but I think that if you look for at least some kind of scenario there's the slightest, most subtle touches going on. You can see the shots of the sun, which are shot via help from an observatory, and also a naked woman (her breasts and public hair are there to see), but unlike Brakhage's Window Water Baby Moving you don't get a clear sense of a woman giving birth.

There IS a sexual component, however, something to do with the flesh and lots of moving parts with it and blood that flows underneath - red is always a potent color, the kind that vibrates and you (or I at least) can feel something that has to do with blood, life force, something that goes back to a time before we can remember. Or... maybe it's all simply a bunch of images meant to conjure in the viewer anything he or she is looking for or identifies with. It's an adventure in... stuff, in colors, in mountains, in driving on a road, in a bearded guy playing with a kid, with things that are happening and in motion (and, at times, kind of akin to what we see if we close our eyes in dreams).

No other filmmaker has made or will make a work quite like this, and even at 25 minutes it feels like an epic and so 'out there' in a pre-psychedelic sense that it makes the Jupiter & the Beyond the Infinite in 2001 look like a conventional effects trail.



(Part 1):

With this 'first' part of Dog Star Man (I'd say you should watch the Prelude before this, but I don't buy that there's exactly a strong 'continuity' here, this isn't the Marvel universe or something), we get more of a narrative this time. By 'more' I mean that there is at least a character of a sort - a rugged man (Brakhage himself) climbing up a mountain. Ala that song by Chumbawumba (remember that one, yes I went there), he gets knocked down and then he gets back up again, and his visions won't keep him down. That is, if they are visions.

This time there are more steady shots that last longer than the half a second or less that we got in the Prelude section, and yet in a strange way I wish it was *more* abstract. Because of there being "character" or a person or whatever, there's some expectation set up, at least for me, for more to go on. What we get is the furious, rapid-fire and stream of consciousness approach to imagery, where things go by so far I visage about 100 images in 20 seconds, and then it goes back briefly to slow-motion shots of the man climbing ever so slowly up the mountainside. Sometimes the dog is there and sometimes not.

Maybe it makes the most sense as this section being like some abstract documentary of what it takes to climb up a mountain, and if you're in a mood that is rather infuriating your mind will go at a very fast clip across images and sights and things that may be unspeakable. That's what this series is strongest as it approaching things like red membranes where cells and tiny organs pulsate, and the sun, shot with a lens that makes it look up close and personal, is imposing in some way that is far off but close at the same time.

And yet for all of the strong passages, I think having the man going up the hill, for as long as this movie is (30 minutes), makes it more monotonous. At least with the Prelude you didn't know what to expect, and it's more of a journey through someone's subconscious or unconscious. Here it's a mix of both this less-than-bare-bones scenario of a man on the mountain (albeit personal to Brakhage, who was out of work at the time with kids and one on the way, and this feels like a battle to persevere), and the abstract stream. It works, but not to where it's as outstanding as the Prelude.



(Part 2):

Somehow the 2nd part of the Dog Star Man film "epic" is about a 6th of the length of the first part (5 minutes instead of 30), and yet it's a lot more powerful because of what Brakhage does in the condensed time. There's a little of the mountain climber at the start, and while he's down or not climbing we see a baby.

At first it's not opening its eyes, and then it is. Then there's a whole s***load of images the flash by with a quickness that is staggering. There's a snowflake. There's the red-membrane color that comes by again, and of course a lot of scratched film, and even times where the film comes apart with jagged edges separating the frames into three parts.

I don't know what to tell you if you came this far watching it, you either dig this kind of experimental filmmaking or you don't. I find it hypnotic and unlike anything else out there, but there's also an aspect that I have to be in a certain mood for it too. It's sitting down to engage your senses, not really your emotions exactly (though perhaps you'll feel for the baby in some abstract way that is just down to whether or not it'll open its eyes, which is perhaps conflict enough).

It may be pretentious to use this term but it really functions as a tone poem, giving you a series of things to look at that take you to a steady flow from one thing to the next (and in this case one is more like a hundred).



(Part 3):

If one pictures the act of sex happening, one may think about a person's face during the act or their breasts or their hair. And of course when it comes to pornography in cinema you get many close-up shots of genitalia connecting and going in-out and so on, and other times if it's only one genitalia or another then it's simply seeing the man's or the woman's.

For Dog Star Man Part III, which is supposed to be from what Brakhage said in some interview somewhere the part of the protagonist's (mountain climber?) sexuality flourishing, this can mean different things to different people. But what that means for Brakhage is that his own "porno" is most graphic in the interior-biological sense and, as one may happen when sex occurs, things fly by so quick as to barely be able to think straight.

This is my favorite part of the series, I think in large part because the focus is around a key subject - human sexuality and the process of copulation - but the abstractness of the images, how fast everything goes by and yet how I can discern and recognize so many things makes it intimate in ways that are hard to describe. This is where I can *feel* the imagery, more than just an intellectual escapade like some of the other parts or where things simply flow over me. And in its own way it's paradoxically extremely sensual and coarse in how its produced.

Here I felt engaged with the art that speaks to something that is essential and primordial. Human beings need to have sex in order to procreate, but the key thing is that sex is... messy, for lack of a better word. This is a messy movie that moves fast and feels rough and raw and the scratches on the film obscure just enough so that we know what's going on and yet it all culminates in... a heart-beat, whether it's the man's or the woman's or, maybe, the life that's just created, who knows? I loved every second.



(Part 4):

If there's any theme to this final part of the Dog Star Man saga or epic or Tone Poem to the Nature and Human Body itself, it's birth and rebirth. We see a baby being born in very quick fragments - it's clear it is a baby, the amniotic fluid can't be obscured no matter how many super-impositions there are - and then the man on the mountain needs to be reborn as well into... something more, I suppose(?)

Whatever it is, this is a fine culmination of what Brakhage had on his mind at the time. According to other people online, at the time the filmmaker was in trouble as he was out of work and had kids before and another on the way. Sometimes if you're living in that part of the country of Colorado and the mountains it's more than likely to have that Sysyphus feeling of continually rolling the rock up the hill with little result except the continuation of that.

It may be hard to discern any 'theme' from this for some who are only in it for the visual pleasures and mind-f***ery. For the latter part that's certainly still here and in a fairly awesome way that's consistent through the other parts (and clearly if you made it this far you've at least been able to tolerate the other four parts, I include the prelude with that).

But I could see it as being about what it means to be a... human being, in essence: to create life, to witness life, to grow, to copulate, to climb a goddamn mountain and chop some wood.

Oh, and to have Man's Best Friend at your side guiding you (or trying to lick your face until you get up again) certainly helps.




Friday, August 4, 2017

THE DARK TOWER is a generic lobstrosity of moviemaking


This poster is the most creative thing about the movie.
 So, here's the thing: I do like the books.  I'm not one of those die-hard fans that probably wrote nasty letters to the author when they heard about the changes that would happen (good ol "Uncle Stevie" King, who, by the way, gave his OK on this movie, probably a business/marketing decision one hopes during this Year of the King in pop culture), but I have read the first four and have found such rich world building, full of weird and truly outrageous decision, wonderfully hard-"R"-rated violence (if you ever get to book two, my lobstrosity reference will make sense), and characters that King gives the same time he does in his other books the depth and motivations that get us to care about them. 

But at the same time I'm also someone that not only recognizes his works will sometimes (maybe usually) have to undergo changes when going to the screen, it can sometimes be to a benefit... but it's under certain circumstances, which are this: there needs to be a strong script, and there needs to be a modicum, if not a wealth, of vision.  King can complain all he wants about the changes Kubrick made to The Shining, but it's a film overflowing with vigorous, original vision, leaping off from King's text into a work of art.  Shawshank Redemption, Stand By Me, Green Mile, Carrie, they all start off doing the things a movie should do, regardless of where they come from: give us actors who have personality, charisma, chemistry or some kind of presence that makes them stand out, a way to get us invested in the worlds its set in, despite/because of the fantastical elements, and, yes, that word again, a sense of making a movie POP and shake us and move us.  The Dark Tower does none of those things, and more sinful than that, as Capra would say, it's boring as an IRS clerk.

In a way I'm disappointed more as a fan of... movies than I am as a fan of the books.  Certainly this is not to say I didn't find some issue with things that were changed - aside from this being a bloodless, PG-13 affair (which, I'm sorry, if you adapt the books, you should *try* to get that part of it right at the least), from my recollection (and it's been a while), Walter (McConaughey) was more of a lone-wolf character, this supernatural presence as a wizard who worked, I believe, alone, and instead here runs like some kind of fortress facility where he hooks up kids to a thing so it can do another thing to a tower and I'm dozing off typing about this - but the whole thing comes off like it was directed by some hack who was aiming for it to be a 2-hour TV pilot (minus commercials) for TNT or some other bland cable network.  No one has personality, the plot is rushing along as characters explain some things and not others (because, y'know, other episodes to come), and it doesn't do the *work* that should be put in for a singular cinematic effort.




Aw, where's Logan to criticize an illustration/reinterpretation when you really need him?


I actually was mildly amused by a couple of moments, and had some hope, when Jake and Roland go midway through the movie through the portal from the Mid-World to New York City.  As they are after the Man in Black, they have to go back to Jake's home-world (this after, as the set-up for the film, Jake keeps having visions of this place - just because, it's explained so briefly he and lots of other kids have the "Shine", ho-ho), and there's some culture clash here and there.  It's not an accident that in a way Roland in this reminded me a little of Captain America and in that way of the first Cap movie being also largely dull, it's a matter of, well, perhaps the other characters around this heroic piece of hero-sauce will elevate the material.  But these moments in New York (i.e. seeing talking animals on screen, encountering a hot dog) are brief, and it returns to the generic action-movie scenario much too quickly.

Even things like production design are awful; you can't get invested in the Mid-World - to go back to it again, sorry, but the books are bubbling up in my brain like opening up a can of soda and unlike there, where part of King's idea was to have traces of what used to be our world in there, like Hey Jude playing as an old-time standard - since everything feels so safe and bland in that way of rocks and gray and earth tones and nothing standing out.  But that comes back to the director, who maybe was in over his head (I haven't seen much if anything he's done before), and a script that, aside from calculating things for future movies or shows or whatever, gives no one a character.  Even Jake, who at first I thought had promise in the first ten minutes (actor too), has the same serious expression on his face, as does Roland (to be expected), and, most unfortunate of all, McConaughey as Walter.

With a villain, or an actor going for it, that might be chewing the scenery or really playing up the evil of it - think about it, Walter has to be egocentric as hell, a guy who gets to play God AND the Devil and control people at will - and he never looks like he *enjoys* his villainy, like it's a chore.  The book made me picture Willem Dafoe; here, McConaughey has flickers of doing something with the role, but it never comes through, or perhaps better/more unusual stuff was left on the cutting room floor.  And meanwhile Elba, who, if you saw this as your first exposure to him might wonder what he's doing as an action hero, is also left with a character that has no dimension outside of his father complex and gunslinger mantra.  The problem isn't that Roland is black - the problem is that Roland is surrounded by a shitty script and a shitty director and a studio that doesn't believe in its own property to let it go uncanny and bizarre and a little demented around the edges. 

I went into this with as open a mind as I could, despite all the reviews (or, in a way, because of them, expecting perhaps to be let down so trying to adjust expectations).  I think it's the medium part of it that bugs me the most, that as a movie in and of itself it falters on the basic levels of getting me to care about what's going on and trying to do something just a teency-weency bit different with the form.  The only wildness about it is its mediocrity, the post-apocalyptic equivalent of SPAM.  A world established here that has such potential shouldn't be putting one to sleep, but it does, and that's something King's books rarely did.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Papa Mike's Video #18: Bob Fosse's STAR 80

(This is technically an "archive" review, one that I wrote back in 2010, and this was on a copy I didn't get from "Papa Mike's Video" but just one I got somewhere else, I don't remember where.  But I rewatched it for the first time in seven years last night from a copy at the fake-video store of the title, and my reaction to that is... this is Bob Fosse's Raging Bull.  A masterpiece that makes you feel really awful and unclean and sad for the state of what men and women are in society, particularly when men are at their fucking worst.)

Review may contain spoilers below 



Bob Fosse somehow is attracted to stories about people who have inner demons, be it Lenny Bruce or a version of himself in All That Jazz or here with Paul Snider. It's interesting to note that Fosse saw himself in Snider (that is if he didn't become successful), who was on first sight a smooth-talking dude in a mustache and expensive suits who is one step away from being a full-blown pimp.

As it was, Snider thought of himself too classy of a kind of sleaze to do anything too illegal, but it didn't stop him from courting a girl much younger than him, Dorothy Stratten, plucking her from a Dairy Queen, sweeping her off her feet to the prom, and then amping up her self-esteem to become a Playboy playmate. But as it turns out- and whose to say how much of this really is the real Snider or, horrific as it is to contemplate, Fosse- his insecurities became projected tenfold onto Stratten's success.

It's a study in jealousy and a volatile mindset that may make one think back to Raging Bull for comparison. But in the case of Star 80, we don't get even much of the eventual sliver of redemption from Jake LaMotta. Here, the story of (spoiler) Dorothy Stratten's murder by Snider is put up right at the start, as Fosse keeps cutting back to Snider, blood dripping from his face, ranting and raving to himself about her making him do it, surrounded by her photographs on the wall.

It's a disturbing movie that is most successful at what it does because of Fosse's interesting approach to non-linear storytelling (as with Lenny it cuts back and forth in time, between interview and dramatization, always with actors playing the character), and the acting. It's not necessarily a film that leaves you with feeling anything except the cold and harsh side of a romance in Hollywood gone bad, but Fosse makes it tougher, more complex to take, than your average bio-pic.


Arguably, Eric Roberts steals the show, but then he's playing a character who does that by necessity. At one point Snider is trying to get permission from Dorothy's mother for Dorothy to get the Playboy pictures, and she's hesitant. He says, "I love (her)". She asks what he said as he was muffled and he says, "I love her." "Oh, I thought you said you "love *it*". That's a key to the character; he doesn't love Dorothy so much- it's more like an obsessive's manic-depressive reaction to love- as he does the idea of fame and glamour, of getting an all-access pass to Hugh Hefner and the Playboy mansion, and possibly setting up a health spa named after his suffering wife.

By the token of how fascinatingly rotten Snider is, Roberts knocks it out of the park. But Hemingway, as Stratten, is also very good, showing a further level of emotional depth she can reach after her debut in Manhattan. Here she's wise but vulnerable, a small town girl pushed into stardom and bewildered by a smooth-talking guy with a nice car (it's also good to note the lack of a father figure, one Snider uncannily fills in).

Fosse tells the story in a way that is always engaging, keeping the audience on its toes for what part of the story might come next. But it's also his knack at evoking a side of life that is a little more crude- the strip clubs (for men AND women respectively), the trashy girls Snider has on the side, the flashy suits, Rod Stewart's disco song on the radio- and making the period rich, even as it was just a few years before the film was made.

It might be a time capsule, but it's a story that Fosse knows holds true: sometimes men can be bad news, especially when infidelity (whether real or not, another parallel with Raging Bull) comes into play. It's sad and tense, hard to watch near the end but an important little movie, sadly as well Fosse's last.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Mike Nichols' film of Tony Kusner's ANGELS IN AMERICA




Angels in America isn't perfect, but I'm still giving it this rating anyway because it is a major achievement across the board, from the Kushner script (which only sometimes feels like a play but very so rarely) to the direction by Mike Nichols (that's part of the reason why), and of course the performances (holy crap, for the most part), it's a fantasy epic, a tragedy of the AIDS crisis in New York city, it's a relationship drama on multiple fronts, and the story of how Roy Cohn (Al Pacino being at his very most Pacinoist), who was one of the more despicable people in modern American history, found himself part of it and a victim, though he didn't see himself that way. 

What I loved a lot here is that Nichols finds ways to make this cinematic almost by just virtue of how he loves his actors and makes sure to have the camera on them when Kushner's dialog is in over-drive.  A key distinction between the difference of what a play and what a film/TV/etc thing is can be seen, just as a microcosm example, not counting when Nichols goes into full fantasy special-effects mode (which is not rare here), is in a scene in a diner between Ben Shenkman's character Louis and Jeffrey Wright's (main) character Belize. 

Louis is going on and on, one of those rants about politics and identity and left/right and Jews and blacks and so on, and on the stage one might feel the mood of Belize as he is only just barely listening, his mind on other things but more-so just not having the energy to listen to Louis in this moment, but that's all we could see.  But Nichols cuts from this to show Prior (Justin Kirk), Louis's (recent) ex boyfriend, stripping down in a doctor's office for a medical exam.  Aside from this visual to cut away to, we have Wright's face, and Shenkmanm continuing to talk on and on, until finally Belize stops him and a rather tense, sort of antagonistic conversation happens.  This doesn't last maybe two minutes before the real meat of the dialog goes on between the two guys in the diner, but up until then we can see how this filmmaker is making a fully interesting FILM of these events, getting us engrossed in what to take from Belize's emotions, but also the contrast of Louis's ranting voice over this medical exam, which is unsettling and for a good reason.

There is a LOT that can be dissected here, but what impressed me was that Kushner uses religion as something that has two sides to it, but it can work both ways here: God and angels and heaven (which exists in a fog-covered San Francisco, by the way) can be used as fantasy iconography, much in the same way that, say, Neil Gaiman does with American Gods or Good Omens, only here it's much more explicit.  At the same time, faith and belief is taken seriously, if only on the personal level.  We know Meryl Streep can sell us anything as an actress, and she does here as both a Mormon mother *and* as the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg who visits Roy Cohn like a much more crueler (yet rightfully so) ghost of brutality-past.  But seeing her as the mother of Patrick Wilson's Joe is fascinating because she does kind of develop in front of us over these hours, or at least she is not just the simplistic type that one might expect regarding a totally pure Mormon Conservative presence.  Indeed a very intense phone call Joe makes to his mother in the second part, which sets off her getting on a plane to come to New York from Utah, seems as though this is precisely who she is.

But Kushner, and by proxy Nichols, are brilliant in getting us to see characters in such rich and full dimensions that we have to throw away assumptions about them, that empathy conquers over all.  Take Joe, by the way, a devout, practicing Mormon (he's got the underwear), and is closeted.  His wife (Parker) knows, but what can she do exactly?  I wasn't sure at first if she converted for him or was a Mormon herself, but whatever the case he isn't sure what to do with her anymore.  Over the course of this long story, Joe becomes more attracted to another man at his job in another department, the very un-Joe like Louis (in brief: one voted for Reagan, one did not, that clear enough?) and this becomes a thing that has its own complexity due to how we already feel about Louis (a gay man who leaves his gay boyfriend to fend against AIDS by himself). 

But do we feel more sympathetic to Joe as the story goes along, despite all of his lying and how he's treated Harper?  It'd be hard for me the guess for others out there watching, and I still feel unsure after the end, yet what kept me so engaged with him - and this, I realized, was Wilson's break-out role as an actor, not Little Children, in retrospect, he's fantastic here, especially at what is a lot of acting that is essentially his bottled-up nature - is that *he* is so unsure, and he is deep down a moral man, who refuses a request from Roy Cohn to do a clearly illegal act (the point about it being 'unethical' becomes another matter, one of those volcanic acting scenes from Pacino among many here). 



Meet Donald Trump's mentor. 


Let's talk about Cohn for a moment; here's a man who on the one hand is very clear about who he is and doesn't hide who he is as far as how he presents himself as a lawyer and mover/shaker and man of POWER in his decades-long position (it's not mentioned in the script, but Cohn was Trump's lawyer for many years and a close advisor, to give an idea of what he could do and did for those, also like Joseph McCarthy, a highly questionable public figure).  At the same time he's so denied who he really is - the scene with James Cromwell, Cohn's doctor, where he explains that is *not* a homosexual and does *not* have AIDS because that's, in essence, what weak people who have not risen to his position and have not gained in things like legislation and so on have gotten to, is one for the record books - to the point where he can easily lie to himself to the point where he actually, you know, believes it himself.  Even by the time he's in the hospital, spending the episodes in the second half of the running time dying, is in major denial.  He may be true to himself, but in a crucial way he doesn't have it in him to be when it comes to that empathy that crushed any hopes for progress with AIDS in the 1980's (Reagan never mentioned it for years). 

And... f*** does Pacino knock it out of the park here.  I think this is one of his major three or four great performances, or at least it should be one of those that gets more attention after the ones that everyone takes note on.  On the one hand, certainly in his scenes in the first three parts, he is that kind of Pacino we've seen in something BIG-TIME-AL like Devil's Advocate (and I mean, oddly enough for someone as scum as Cohn was, fun to watch), and then in the second half as he gets sicker... his performance, though with some major bursts of energy, like when he confronts Joe after being told who he really is gender-preference speaking, gets more intimate, more controlled, softer-voiced.  He's now the subtler Al that we've also seen in other films, mostly as he speaks with his darn ghost Ethel, who is there even when he doesn't want her (especially when he doesn't want her there).  I'd say you have to see it if nothing else for him, though in truth he's like Brando in the Godfather, not in it quite as much as you'd expect.

So if Angels in America has such rich and vital things to say about AIDS and gays in America, not just New York city but that's the jumping off point, whether closeted or with other major issues, and about religion and faith and how we reconcile God's absence in the face of horrors and death and what's the point of praying or believing and what Angels have to do with things... why do I say there's messy parts?  Well, for one thing, Parker is one of those actresses I've just never taken a liking to.  I recognize some modicum of talent there, but she's always bugged me, something about an affected delivery or how she looks or acts in a scene (largely I got this from The West Wing, but also in other things I've seen her in). 

In this she is *better*, but not by much, and there's one sequence in Antarctica (yeah, long story, not really) that felt kind of painful to watch.  And there are the scenes with the main Angel herself - this is aside from other dream sequences featuring people like Michael Gambon, which are at least entertaining in a detached-from-reality perspective - played by Emma Thompson in one of her several roles here.  She is so BIG in this acting that she probably could go head to head with Pacino, but, and this sounds strange considering she's supposed to be playing a fantasy character, it's *too* big, the kind of wild acting where she throws her LOUD voice and BIG physical gestures into a character that that becomes all that I can see when it's going on.  Not to mention the CGI hasn't held up altogether well; some of it has, perhaps the subtler things I didn't notice, but other times, and God bless Richard Edlund's work here, it took me out of even the intentionally remarkable fantasy scenes. 

At the same time as I have these things I can point to as "ehh", it doesn't detract from the HUGE nature of this entire work.  There's so much to break down here that I can't sum it all up in one review or in one viewing.  I'm sure Kushner and Nichols meant it that way, and is why the play was such a monumental feat unto itself at the time.  Fiction like this is meant to take what is so painful and hard and complicated about real life, what was a devastating *plague* for an entire community and them some of many, many people who were innocent beings and elevate it through the commentary, satire but also just spiritual nature of fantasy.  We can view this time period via these angels and God and whatever that Heaven is in San Francisco and the commentary enhances what was so tragic and horrible but also that, deep down, people are good generally speaking (except for Cohn, and in which case it's a blast to watch him as long as you don't have to be in the room with the prick).  Even the end of the millennium is a part of the *plot*, to give an idea of the ambition here. 

Wow.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Edgar Wright's BABY DRIVER


 

.... Damn.  Now *that* is a motherfucking EXHILARATING movie experience. 

I should mention two things up front: 1) I came in hoping to like this as I have enjoyed or loved Wright's previous work (whether it's Spaced or the movies), and 2) I'm a... sucker isn't the right word, I've got a soft spot for a damn-good heist movie (i.e. you plant me in front of something whether it's from the French like Rififi or Melville, or something... else from the past thirty years, I'm sure I'll have liked it at least if not loved it), since I like a good hard-boiled crime story and a heist is something that involves so many moving parts in the plot, yet it all comes down to character.

We all know the shoe will drop when seeing The Killing, it can't all go so right even when the characters have their s*** together.  Wright knows this, but he's not out to only make a heist movie, dear God he wouldn't do something as pedestrian as a conventional genre movie.  No, what he does is give his genre the full SOUND - in this case more literally than figurative - as a man who loves cinema.



This is the kind of exhilaration that I felt seeing, as an example not quite like this but in the same 'OMG' ballpark, as Tarantino with Kill Bill Vol. 1; you can feel the filmmaker brimming with excitement as being able to give the audience something that they can see so clearly in their heads (or have for years, as I believe both filmmakers had such a passion for their projects), but it's also not something that's obtuse or so wrapped up in something that we can't get. Baby Driver works for your regular (i.e. not-super-usual-movie-goer) couple for a date night as well as your group of guys sick and tired of Transformers garbage or other blockbusters, or, of course, those movie freaks who haven't seen something getting well over two thousand (or three?) screens in multiplexes that has a vision.  Baby Driver is a pulse-pounding thriller, a film-noir, a heist movie, and also, of course, a musical, a love story, and a tale of tragedy buried underneath.




If you've seen Scott Pilgrim or World's End, you'll get what I mean by this; what I love so much about Wright, and not to mention the cast assembled that gets to have the TIME OF THEIR LIVES in these parts - Hamm and Foxx especially - is that he has kind of a light touch to things on one hand, or at least a sense of play.  Notice the opening scene where Baby (Elgort) is in the car while the crew is robbing the bank; he's got his song on and he's doing a little dance for himself in the car.  Does one think this would be realistic?  I don't know, I've never been part of a bank robbery, who cares?  It tells us right away the sensibility of the character, but also what this movie will be: a character who lets himself, or tries to, have those moments of levity wedged between those times when things have to get hardcore, pedal goes metal, and we get the high-octane action cinematography and editing of a Hollywood movie (though here with the plus of Bill Pope once again as cinematographer). 

Did I mention this is a musical too?  Yes it is and no it isn't; the same was with Scott Pilgrim, where the fights were staged and choreographed as if they were musical numbers.  It can't be helped here with the soundtrack Baby provides himself - there is a story reason for it too, as he was in a car crash as a kid, killing his parents, and he has tinitus, drowns out the buzz - but Wright makes sure everything is fully percussive, even down to when Kevin Spacey counts his stacks of money.


It's all there in the script, but there's not a moment where you don't feel Wright in control of how the marriage of music has to go with the movement of the film, AND the emotional components.  Sure, sometimes you'll notice a song matches up neatly with the song - when there's a tense scene with Baby being forced basically to be in the diner where his girlfriend Debora works by co-horts Foxx and Hamm (mostly Foxx), a song about 'Baby' being in trouble plays, and it fits without a hitch - but that's part of the point, isn't it?  Like Scorsese, or even to a degree Tarantino, Wright's soundtrack IS Baby's soundtrack, and it makes psychological sense as much as tonal, and it's not a put-on or something that calls attention to itself in a poor way.

And as a film-noir, you can take it seriously.  Wright's background with Simon Pegg and others has been in comedy, and there's laughs to be had through much of Baby Driver, but it's kind of the opposite of Tarantino in that regard: where one might be tempted to put Reservoir Dogs on the comedy shelf of the video store, this does belong on the thriller/action shelf.  But at the same time another movie I couldn't help but think of, Drive, or even Michael Mann stuff, takes itself more seriously than this - it's a very fine line that the filmmaker is walking, and the cast too, which is a distinction to make - and in a way makes me question what I even saw in something like Drive, another story about a guy who works with criminals but is a perpetual outsider, and we connect with him.  That felt colder than this; while Elgort is detached at points, he's not when it matters, when he connects with Debora, and that doesn't feel false at all.  Among the other traits that one might take for granted, the dialog here is sharp as a tack, and it goes well with how the images evoke neo-noir - it IS existential to the degree the best of them are, it's all about the personal responsibility of our hero... and, again to a degree, musicals.  




That ain't no 9mm automatic, Austin!

There's a video on youtube I love by a critic, Tony Zhou, where he examines Wright's sense of visual comedy, how he's able to use many tricks that help to tell the story visually, but also to find ways to tell jokes.  What's doubly impressive about Baby Driver is that Wright decides to deny himself some of those tricks this time, or at least that I could spot on a first viewing (so so SO much to process so soon after) for purely comedic effect - if the tricks are there, it's done for both comedy AND the psychology of the character and the world he inhabits.  Yet he still pulls out on top in making a film that has true visual panache, nothing that is trying too hard (take a good look, Guy Ritchie, just LOOK man) except that it is part of the DNA of what the film *is*, if that makes sense.  Wright as well as the actors have their influences, whether it's in the attitude or the wardrobe or just the setting of this city, but it all feels original somehow, something that feels true to itself. 

This is violent, fun, whimsical, daring, bloody, funny, and a piece of pure ROCK AND ROLL.  Go see it, damn you!


PS: Did the actress who played Debora... was she cast or was she made up to look like Shelly Johnson from (original) Twin Peaks or am I just Twin Peaks crazy right now?

PPS: That *is* Bud Cort Paul Williams in that scene at the warehouse with the guns, right?  Fuck yeah, Phantom of the Paradise!




PPPS: One tiny flaw for me, sort of a spoiler.




His name really had to be *Miles*?

Sunday, June 18, 2017

THE BOOK OF HENRY (2017)

Even the poster looks like it's about to Magic-Pretension all over the sheets.
 Where to start....

On occasion (and it seems as if the last time this happened was a mere six months ago with Collateral Beauty), Hollywood gives us a 'WHAT THE S***, HOLLYWOOD?' product.  And it doesn't have to be something that is some mega-budget thing, though that can happen and one can see why something that costs over a hundred (maybe two hundred) million dollars that has a laughably terrible script has to keep rumbling along to completion and release.

What becomes mind-boggling and unbelievable is when it's at the mid-budget level - and, invariably, I'll see a mid-budget movie now almost on principle, to do what I can to keep this dying breed of movie-budgeted film going on.  Actually, less than two months ago we got The Circle, which was its own stock of stupid, but The Book of Henry is one of those astonishing embarrassments that I want to apologize to the makers of that movie for my hasty review.  At least that had some good scenes; Book of Henry is obnoxious and sounds off its sense of itself, like an intellectual proudly squeezing off a fart (y'know, for existentialism!) from nearly the beginning.

The movie is sort of in two halves; the first gets us to see the World According to Henry, an 11 year old Boy Genius (Lieberher) who knows everything - including how to get mucho bank with the stock market (!) seemed to go to the school of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close as far as children in movies who don't talk like actual children except this is how screenwriters think "different" children sound (and at least, and I can't believe I have to defend EL&IC in my comparison, that kid was on the spectrum, this kid is just... uh, one of those Boy Geniuses movies come up with to be "twee").

He runs everything in the house - where's dad? who knows, who cares, he's not a thing, that's all there is - including looking after his mother (Watts, who does the best she can) and her brother (Tremblay, a strange reuniting after last year's almost equally bad Shut In) who really shouldn't need looking after but... don't get me started on that yet.  The point is Henry happens to see across from his house to the one next door that a girl about his age is being abused (sexually or not? who cares, it could be both, but let's be vague) by town Police Commissioner Dean Norris, and tries to report it to child services, but the man is brother with Norris so that's a no-go.  What to do?  He can't be apathetic, as he tells his mother at a key point, which I'll get back to if I can still type without my fingers falling off from profuse bleeding after typing so rigorously. 

Naomi Watts pays a visit to her agent
 Anyhow, I can't get into this without revealing a key spoiler (which I can't recall if the trailer revealed, I shouldn't bother as a PSA to you all, but I'll be kind): Henry dies of a brain tumor - one of those convenient ones that, despite Henry's own terminology not matching up to how *science actually works*, since this is a boy genius character written by someone who doesn't research things for plot contrivance sake - but he has a plan.  He's written everything down and left a series of audio cassette tapes (because it's not like this script wasn't written in the 90s oh no wait it was) for his mother because it's time for her to fulfill his 'Make a Wish Foundation' request: kill the next-door neighbor Dean Norris because of his abusing his daughter and no one being able to stop him.  So through his coursebook and through a wildly ludicrous series of recordings that literally direct the mother through town (and in the woods via where the kids' treehouse is or whatever) and sync up even down to her taking a wrong turn on a street or going up to an ATM or a gun shop or or.... the point is, this movie is stupid.

How stupid is it, I can hear the audience asking.  It's the kind of work that I could pick apart for days through the countless logic gaps, the ways the story has to contort itself to make sense of how people act - and a good lot of the time not how people act (even down to small things like how Sarah Silverman's friend waitress of Watts still talks in a tone that's joking even while her friend is *being fired basically*) - but what's frustrating the most, unlike a Collateral Beauty which was more-so offensive on a whole other level to people dealing with things like grief, is that it had potential.  The movie takes a cue from Rear Window as far as a kid and then the mother (not the younger brother, he's basically ignorant for the better) look across to see flashes of the daughter being... is it hit?  Raped?  It's a PG-13 so it's not graphic of course, but clearly enough is seen to have the director, Colin Trevorrow, to show the boy and mother's faces at different times look horrified.  But this approach robs the audience of actually getting to *know* who the people next door are and, for better and/or worse, we never do.

Aside from something like, say, wasting the talent that Dean Norris has shown he has in spades on Breaking Bad, Hurwitz and company could've gone the American Beauty route which, however you feel about how that deals with things, at least shows us what the f***ed up family next door is like (the son in that story is also abused by his father).  I had heard going in to the movie there was a "twist" and a pretty terrible one at that - not the content of it, just that it existed - and what I thought the movie was going for, or perhaps a movie with a higher IQ could've attempted, was to show that perhaps, just maybe, everything that Smart-Ass-Hell Henry and mother saw wasn't really happening; this might've taken some tweaking in a couple of scenes, but not much, and ironically whatever abuse seems to be happening to the daughter we don't see it, there's no bruises visible, she only looks... sad, as if countless girls don't look that way in adolescence.  So then in a way this ties in well to the message that is conveyed earlier in the film, where we see Henry and Mom at a grocery store where a man is practically hitting his girl and Henry asks for someone to stop it and the Mom says to mind their own business. 

I'm not saying apathy is the way to go generally speaking in society, I'm referring to how this movie treats its particular characters, and the idea that this son and mother are looking in on people they don't *really* know (in part because the writer never gets us to know them, by design or by accident), and basically the movie ends up painting Norris's Police Commiss Glen as a creep, but one without any dimension at all - he's just the "thing" that needs to be wiped out.  It's simplistic and reduces things to levels that are so basic.

Aside from this, Hurwitz has so many laughable scenes even outside of when Henry is "directing" his mother (why she obeys from the start is crazy)... like when, just after Henry first sees young Christina abused at night, we cut right into him storming into the *principle's office* asking about why all his letters and calls about the abuse haven't been answered, and she gives some kind of answer and then he responds and back and forth as if this was written by a robot thinking this is how human beings talk.  WHAT?!  And how much time has passed with his letter writing/calls?  What is *going on* with this anti-masterpiece of contrivance that is the writing of this kid?

It's not to say this has the quality-level of incompetently made dreck like a Neil Breen movie or something.  It's actually frustrating in a different way because of all the talent assembled and that, whether they believed in this project from the start or not, people like Watts and Tremblay and even Silverman to an extent commit to their roles, wherever they go (I want to say the same for Norris but, again, he's so underutilized I just felt sorry for him).

But near the end, when the "plan" gets put into action do things get especially hackneyed, and this is already following that mid-section where, for at least a little while, it has the emotional substance of My Sister's Keeper.  There's a final "twist" that, to some, may seem somehow perfectly logical, but a) it's not, b) it's *really* not, given so much that has happened already or not been revealed, and c) the catalyst for this particular character to suddenly change her mind is really stupid (and I'm not talking about Watts's Mom, though her own moment is inane as well).  By the end of what has come from a script that has so, so, so many problems is something that feels, like so much other Hollywood glop, is all tied up and back in order and so on. 

This movie is kind of a disaster, the likes of which where you wonder how so many people got together, not the least of which (probably most of all) the director who chose *this*, a script that had been either sitting around or at best floating around for 20 years, as his follow-up to the (barely) passable Jurassic World.  I don't know what's to come of his Star Wars Episode 9, but one can't help but feel like he's failing upward here. 

Monday, May 8, 2017

Papa Mike's Video #17: MARWENCOL (2010)


There are two kinds of people in this world, those who will see the story and just the person that is Mark Hogancamp and completely dismiss him as some nutter who should go get regular old psychological therapy (whether by drugs or not), and those who have empathy and see how this man is hanging on by a thread... and yet by that thread he's created an entire world of his own.

Marwencol kind of works as an unofficial empathy test for human beings; we eventually find out in this documentary about this man's life and personal process for what he does about why he was viciously attacked by five assholes outside of a bar in 2000 (this also leads to other revelations about Mark which, really, are so harmless and yet depending on where you live it may not be), but that doesn't matter as much as the fact that a) he survived, and b) this film as an excellent example of the triumph of the human spirit - his, as a chain-smoking, gruffy-voiced, beautiful, damaged soul.

 It's also significant that it's World War Two: it's never explained really why it has to be THIS setting (it's not said either way if he was fascinated by WW2 before the attack, though in a deleted scene on the DVD he shows us his grandparents and that his grandfather was in the war, even getting a doll that somehow, miraculously, looks exactly like him) and we simply accept it.

And it makes sense in this general way: when looking at American history of the past hundred years, this was the clearest "Good Guys" vs "Bad Guys" when it came to the West vs the Nazis.  Mark's Marwencol is a safe space amid what on the surface would seem to be the chaos of war, but in reality (or Mark's reality) his dolls and sets and constructions are safe because the sides are so clear.  He makes up his own stories for his army group, sometimes having fun with the ladies (the Barbies, I mean, hey, it can't be a town of just guys, you know?) and then other times when the SS comes in, and... it can't be helped if he plays out the attack in some direct or indirect ways with the dolls.

 But he's not just laying out the dolls for his own amusement and that's it - there's not exactly 'amusement' when it comes to art therapy, an act that I think I took for granted but this documentary paints it in a whole other light - he has a camera and is constructing these narratives.  Whether anyone else sees them doesn't matter, he could go his life and only make them for himself and maybe a few close friends, and that's it.  And what are these photographs?  Well, take a look below at some examples:












With Mark, his therapy is one of inclusion: his characters are at least largely using people he knows - friends, would-be lovers (or girls he has crushes on), and people he works with - and yet nothing is meant in the slightest as mockery.  His is the kind of personal art that's like seeing someone writing a sincere poem, though with visuals the impact has another level, more stark and sometimes violent and brutal but also exhilarating and kinetic in its compositions in the process, so that it becomes something of a surprise when he might tell someone he knows (a neighbor or someone he works with) that such and such a doll is based on them and that his own doll may do this or that with them.  The sincerity, one wonders, could cause some friction depending on who it is - what if Mark is constructing a narrative about marrying a woman who is already married, for example, which does happen - makes it all the more impactful; if it was all ironic or a lark, then people wouldn't respond to it.  Hell, there might not even be a movie there.

It's good that the director has some background about Mark pre accident, that in a sense this was a reset that Mark perhaps simultaneously needed and didn't need.  We learn he was an alcoholic, was married, and was before the accident an excellent illustrator.  Part of the inspiration inherent in this story is that if you can somehow pick up the pieces of your life after being scarred and, indeed, everything being erased (Mark's brain damage was bad enough that he had to learn how to write and how to talk and walk and all of those things - he doesn't even know what sex is like, which leads a little too into how he constructs his Barbies and their relationships with the men, I think), and that the artistic impulse and drive and, basically, talent can be there still.  We also learn too that he was, yes, a cross-dresser, and perhaps was bi-sexual too (he loves women, but he may also love men too, that latter part is left a little more ambiguous), and this is only a matter due to the visual of all of those pairs of high-heeled shoes Mark owns. 

But how about how it works as a simple documentary, how the film about Mark goes?  It's shot on not high-grade video or film, and this adds an intimate feeling, at least for me, and it makes for a strong contrast to all of the photographs that Mark makes himself (he goes from film to digital, why this happens exactly isn't clear, I wish it was since process is always the big thing in art).  It's to the point where at one point director Jeff Malmberg is able to make at least once a semi-stop-motion sequence of one of the soldiers kissing one of the girls (quite much so), and that makes it entertaining when it's not just illuminating about this man and his world.  He does a good job of showing how this man walks around, leading along his car of soldiers along the road as he goes into the main part of Kingston, New York, and making mis-en-scenes out of Mark's mis-en-scenes, if that makes sense.

And in the last third, one's heart goes out all the more to Mark.  It's clear from what Mark says, both in the documentary proper and in the deleted scenes on the DVD that he could care either way if people think his work is "art" (you should watch those all, by the way, there's one that is especially heart-wrenching as he describes what happened to his face and how it was constructed back together that just... I'm going to cry thinking about him describing it).  This isn't even about art, in a way, but about living... or, let me rephrase that, if there is art it comes out organically from the tableaus being created.  And, again, this is WW2 being recreated - even Steve McQueen doll makes an appearance as the "tall, dark, handsome man" one of Mark's lady co-workers wants as a lover - and with the intricate detail that Mark has to make for himself.

It's a celebration of humanity and says, whether directly or not, that, hey, if THIS man can do this, what are you doing with yourself?