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


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?

Sunday, May 7, 2017


The power behind the (originally) TV movie I Only Want You to Love Me isn't (or not necessarily) that because it's based on an actual murderer interview that Rainer Werner Fassbinder read it makes for a compelling movie. Who knows, this could've been boring as hell (and for some who might come to it, whether it's before or after seeing other Fassbinder films, they might feel this way), as any film has to present itself as being fully DRAMATIC, and Fassbinder's gift was kind of going for that but at the same time adding a peculiar distance - not all the time, but sometimes - in how the drama is presented.

But the power behind this, to get back to my first point, is that it feels so wholly personal for this filmmaker: I had the notion watching this, both feelings and thoughts varying between the two depending on the scene, that perhaps Fassbinder looked at this man Peter Trapper and said, "you know, I could've been this guy, in another life." The empathy is wholly palpable, and in a way it's like an (unintentional?) remake of Why Does Herr R Run Amok?, only better and more focused and experimental in small ways.

It's also a film that has a melodramatic force, and at the same time doesn't play by the rules of what one usually thinks has to be shown in a dramatic film (at least as far as what modern, usually BS screenwriter manuals tell us). This man Peter doesn't lead too complicated a life and yet, despite some flash-forwards (or is the movie all a flash-back, either way), it's simply about a working man who wants to do right by the wife that he loves and, as the title says, he only wants her love, but goes about things in some foolish ways. But it's not the foolishness of someone who is mean or spiteful or petty; Peter's fundamentally a decent and good person who was likely f***ed up in a bad household from unloving parents.

Although, come to think of it, that may not be fair; it's probably as foolish of me to try and play arm-chair psychologist regarding Peter and his childhood, regardless of the only flashback we get to when Peter's mother beat his butt senseless with a stick (the flash cut from this to adult Peter smashing someone with a telephone, we don't know who or why yet, and then to him talking to someone in a room about his past... it's one of those moments where you go, "now THAT is daring filmmaking!"), as it would be for Peter to buy his wife a coat or sewing machine without asking or talking to her first. The one thing that I do think is there to witness, and this is looking beyond the lines (though not by much), is that Peter is fully shaped by the upbringing he had and the world he's in, whether he'd acknowledge it or not, and it goes to how he treats Erika as far as "Don't 'but' me, I'm doing this for you," and the general sense of, as nice as he is, everything is about what HE thinks he has to, MUST do, for her (this extends to the workplace as well).

Something else about Peter: he has a thing about always buying flowers to try and correct a wrong, whether for his wife or his mother, but especially his wife Erika - everything's prettier now, but won't they wilt and die?

Does this mean it doesn't date well? I don't think that's the case: on a personal level I related to this as I've been a working class person for much of my adult life (not a brick-layer, but that economic bracket, living paycheck to paycheck), and as far as creating that realism, Fassbinder knocks it so far out of the park there's no more parks to look down upon. I can believe there are men who think and act this way because it's all they know, this is the world they have to work in and, as much of the Western world is, THINGS matter so much as does money and how much there is and, going back to Peter's stiff and probably terrible parents, how Peter's been taught to view money. Is he going to do better than them? Does he want to BE them, to have that kind of wealth - he can go to his father for money but, often, the shame is excruciating more-so than the long hours he over-works himself for - and what does that say about him, decency aside?

There's so much rich stuff here that it's worth mentioning the actor Vitus Zeplichal, who's Peter. I didn't remember seeing him before (he had worked with RW before and after this, albeit in supporting roles), but I'll never forget him after this. I'd love to find out whether it was Fassbinder or Zeplichal's idea for Peter to rarely, if ever, blink. It's a clear decision as it's not something you can tell from the other actors, and it stands out as well due to how big his eyes are, how much we can read in to it.

Intercut interviews
But it's not the intensity of like an Al Pacino; his eyes convey mostly terror (at himself, his circumstances), fear, worry, the occasional, almost maniacal joy, and perhaps an emptiness. There may be full sadness as well, but I don't want to say it's only that since that's too easy and limiting what he does to one emotion. And there is a distinction to make for how he is doing this through much of the film, and then when it comes to this conversation with this woman in the room (post telephone smash one can see) that his eyes have changed, whether it's due to being resigned to his fate or whatever.
Something I pondered too at the end of this is... was Peter's fate, well, fate? Did he have a choice to change, or would he be doomed like other Fassbinder characters in these melodramas? I'm not sure if this is "better" than, say, Ali Fear Eats the Soul or Petra von Kant, but this carries such a degree of realism that I'd have to think the Charlie Kaufman from Adaptation would have a poster of this on his wall, and yet it has a level of stylization that marks it as being a cinematic experience, not just like docudrama or other.

(Or, to go back to 'documentary style, the in-name-only Fassbinder collaboration, Herr R, which was shot hand-held but was much looser than this film, which feels tight for all of its experimentation and propels the tragedy forward much greater than that work).

Saturday, April 15, 2017

YOUR NAME (directed by Makoto Shinkai)

This review may contain spoilers.
Although everything that happens in Your Name is all of a piece, the first and second halves are fairly different in tone, with the first being more light-hearted as it's a story about two teens who seem to meet in the pre-credits (and I think during credits) editing montage and swap bodies - not every day, it would appear, but only a couple or few days in the week - and of course a body-swapping movie (much less one that involves different sexes, which we may have seen somewhere before but not like this), and then the second half reveals to the male lead Taki what has been going on with this strange but totally normal girl Mitsuha from the boondocks: she's been dead for three years, a victim of a cataclysmic event, and it becomes what appears to be a sad - and then urgent as a somewhat-thriller - story of time travel-ish goings on between the present day Taki and the past Mitsuha.

And yet tonally it doesn't feel like it's clashing together, these two sides of lightness and sorta comedy; I found myself laughing quite a bit, mostly through the "HUH!?" reactions from the friends and family of the characters as they wonder what's got into their respective teenagers, and then I found myself caught up in the tragedy of this girl and what happened to her and if she could change what happened.
I don't know if it's possible to talk too much in depth past "I liked it!" or "I didn't" and not spoil something here (aside from speaking in generalities about this as an evolution of the career of the director Shinkai after a number of anime films, this being the one in Japan to usurp Spirited Away at the box office, it's that big a deal). But I think that one of the underlying strengths about a story where it evolves from being a slightly crazy and wacky but also still grounded in some form of reality animated story and then becomes about tragedy on a if not epic than grandiose scale is that it IS about the things it wants to be about.

When Taki finds out the many illustrations he's drawn, in a frenzy like Dreyfuss in Close Encounters as a possessed-by-something-*important* sort of thing, and that he doesn't remember about comets destroying a sea-side town, it devastates him. Did he suppress the memory of it? When did he really meet this girl? Why is he suddenly switching with her now, over the course of three years? The melancholy is underneath, and when it bursts out it's delivered with the kind of emotion I haven't seen in any animated film, Japanese or American or otherwise, in a very long time.

Pfft, that's how Tokyo looks *every* night, c'mon!
And, yeah, it's also a story of teenage love, as one might expect by the (in the dubbed version I saw) pop songs, but there's also a mystical dimension to it, something about it where the filmmaker (adapting his own book) is reaching into the genre of science fiction but digging into a core that is asking us to embrace the unexplainable. What does it mean, for example, that a comet previously a thousand some-odd years before created the crater that makes for the lake of this town? What about that string that somehow connects Mistsuha and Taki in the first place, and yet it creates some disorientating feelings as they do and don't remember their old selves and take on characteristics of the other gender (we don't see as much of Mitsuha being masculine, possibly by design except for a couple of moments, but we do see Taki being more feminine, which is funny but also allows for some space for social commentary - of what I'll leave others to decide). And yet this couple can never really *be* a couple, as they're separated by time and existence itself, and that makes it all the more... romantic.
Along with the romance of the film, and I mean as much as how this director treats the story itself - a key moment late in the film takes place at the "Magic Hour", which, if these two kids had seen Terrence Malick they'd understand a wee bit more initially, but they quickly get the full-blown awe as well as, like life is itself, all too fleeting - as it is with the characters and their unrequited love. And they do love each other, even if they don't fully understand the how or the why of it. There are heady concepts throughout lining the walls of Your Name, but the film is also loaded with good characters who, in the scope of the two places they're at (the city and the small town), bring a realism to what is otherwise a fantastical story. At the same time while I mention the romance here, the tragedy is dealt with enough gravity and sorrow that that his great deal. I didn't expect to become emotional watching Your Name - I wasn't so sure what to expect, only knowing about its box office reputation - but I got swept up with Taki and Mistuha, felt for them deeply, and wanted them, despite all logic, to connect together again, or to simply remember the other's name.
I don't know if the opening and the ending of the film, where Shinkai makes it more montagey than elsewhere (there is another segment, near the closing of the first half, where we also get a montage showing how the boy and girl try to navigate, with difficulty but eventual capability, how to *be* in their flipped selves at school and work and home and so on). It feels like it's out of a different movie, and at the same time I wondered if the movie could have been slightly shorter; at 104 minutes it's not too overlong, but near the end it extends itself to draw out some extra twists and revelations that are like pouring too much whipped cream on the sundae - it's still tasty, but it's overdoing what we should already understand. I won't spoil what eventually comes from how Taki and Mitsuha's efforts to change the course of history as far as the oncoming comet in the past tense.

What I can say is that the ending makes emotional sense if not logically entirely, and I left having felt like I went through a real journey with these characters and the rest of the cast. It's warm and friendly, dark and melancholy, thrilling and strange, though not *too* disturbing as, you know, it's for teenagers after all.
Oh, and it's all so beautifully animated, with many touches once Taki finds the place he's been looking for and goes, on his own, to discover how he can see, at one point, Mitsuha's entire life, and.... wow. Not perfect, but this director is a good new cat to have around in a world where Ghibli seems to be all there is with widely-distrubuted, not ultra-violent anime features.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

R.W. Fassbinder's IN A YEAR WITH 13 MOONS

To begin, I wouldn't say to start with this as your first film by Rainer Werner Fassbinder; it's the end of what Richard Linklater calls in the introduction on the Fantomas DVD RW's "middle period" where he crafted some of the most original melodramas and riffs on them that one can ever see (Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, Fox & Friends and Merchant of Four Seasons come to mind), as well as other oddities that are great outside of that (World on a Wire and Satan's Brew as two examples). But it's also a film that was made when Fassbinder was in an extremely dark and tumultuous mood following the suicide of his lover at the time. He almost contemplated leaving filmmaking altogether, however realized the not so much best but only way he could get through it was making a film and leaping off from this experience to explore deeper issues involving loneliness and being a 1000% outsider in this world.

The revelation about the dead lover I didn't know about before watching the film (I waited until after to see the Linklater intro), and now it's something I can't stop thinking about in context of the film. I think in merely the less than an hour it's been since I finished watching '13 Moons' I admire it more than while I was sitting and actively engaged with it. This is because what was going on in Fassbinder's life, for me, elevates it and makes things a little more profound: this was an artist crying out in despair and trying to find some redemption through his art, or whatever that might be, as well as for his lover. I don't know if the relationship was with a transgender or transsexual or what have you, but Fassbinder was at least bi-sexual if not flat gay (I feel like I read he had sex with a *lot* of people, men and women, but I digress, sort of), but that also plays into it as well, as an outsider filmmaker trying to find a voice for his narrative through the character.

Speaking of which, I think something that threw me off some time into this was that Fassbinder didn't make a film that really conforms to how we think of transgendered women. The character of Elvira ("deadname"? Edwin) is someone who seems so lost that it's difficult to tell if this person always was a woman from birth, as is the case with transgendered women and for men it's the opposite way, or if he had a sex change operation in haste due to a comment made by a man who Edwin at the time was in love with, Anton Saitz (don't forget, always with an 'ai').

Clearly at the least Edwin is gay and had a wife and daughter before and was closeted, but I wonder if Fassbinder thought through about the actual definition of trans and terms like "deadname" (which may not have even been a thing like it is now in 1978), but I think that at least a large part of Edwin/Elvira's identity is sexual but it's also just a struggle of self on the whole: did he/she make a mistake in getting genitalia discarded forever in the hope of new love?  At the least, it never feels in the slightest Fassbinder means offense (if some do, I don't know what to tell you), it's all about the confrontation of whoever the audience is and seeing if they'll come along with him on this downward spiral death-trip. In that sense it's a boldly experimental film.

Right at the start Fassbinder sets the tone through two sequences: the opening, which plays out over the opening credits, where Elvira is beat up by some guys when one of them discovers "he" is a she, and then when Elvira crawls back home with her dress down and faced beaten, her current lover Christoph decides to leave her and packs up and leaves as she begs him to stay.

Through this I thought this might be the, or one of the first, looks at a transgender protagonist in a sympathetic, even empathetic, light that likely hadn't been made at such a level as this (perhaps there were more underground films, I'd have to do more research). But this is really a jumping off point for a theme that Fassbinder was often concerned with, but that here is made more explicit and, in how things unfolds, experimental in structure: how to simply LIVE in this world that is needlessly cruel and strange and off-putting and where even the ones who seem like they'll be with you - the girl Zora played by Ingrid Caven, seems to be acting both for and in total disregard for Elvira, sometimes in the same scene - and, ultimately, if the doomed feeling of living a life that is a constant BATTLE is worth it at all.

'13 Moons' was difficult at times to watch for reasons that were intentional and made a disturbing impression - the slaughter-house and seeing all of the cows with slit throats and skinned (the most graphic outside of Franju's Blood of the Beast) and perhaps the closest tie in to this idea of fully *seeing* and get a different take as opposed to simply being told (i.e. recognizing that a trans or gay or 'other' person has rights without meeting them as opposed to really meeting it and not looking away) - and other times for going on too long.

Monologues by characters go on and on and on; some are more compelling than others (the weird guy in the darkened apartment with the screeching music in the background is one, while the nun who knew Edwin as a boy gives one of the most overloaded backstories where it felt almost like a deadpan satire of movies where a character gives an over-loaded backstory), and then there's a scene like when Elvira is going asleep and Zora is watching television and playing music and... what was the point of all that (by the way, Fassbinder makes an uncredited cameo as himself briefly on the TV being interviewed... talk about a truly odd meta moment, and I mean odd even for this director!)

This is a film that may be most daring in juggling tone; this isn't so much in the look of the film, though one has to be prepared for many shots that confront the audience by how long they are and the self-consciousness of some of the acting (not all but some, like the random guy who for what seems like four, five minutes, talks about Anton Saitz in the building before Elvira goes up to see him, and he's in the same pose of looking up, not moving from his spot, the entire time), rather it's how jarring Fassbinder will make things just *happen*. For example, Elvira finally gets to meet this Saitz person we heard about earlier (he's the closest one might think to be some kind of antagonist or a conflict at least outside of the interior kind for Elvira), and what one might think is about to be a dramatic confrontation is... broken up by a quasi-musical number that Saitz makes his lackeys put on (Elvira joins in, of course?) and Saitz is sitting there pouting like a child. Just... huh?

It's this daring though that makes me like the movie all the more in retrospect. I'm not sure if it will make the film more alienating for viewers or not and, again, this is probably the place to come to cinematically once one is comfortable with this director's work, to get an idea of what the years of melodramas and (direct/indirect) Sirk homages lead him to. Not to mention the performance by Volker Spengler, who gives so much pathos to this character that there's always that potential, danger even, of it going into camp like it could be a John Waters turn or something. But it never happens, and while we do get a lot of other characters talking about him/her, by the end, when we hear this audio interview playing over what we know is the only way this story could end, it's a truly heartbreaking piece of acting - just like the film, and hopefully, through seeing it, one sees and feels what it's like (even for a moment) to be in his/her/whoever's shoes.

(PS: Not sure if the fatalism of the 'moons' in the opening entirely works for the benefit of the story - like, would Elvira be any *less* depressed if it was 1979 somehow - but it's a pretty piece of poetry to begin the story, dark, too)

Sunday, December 11, 2016


Once again I try to continue the tradition that comes down from critic Jim Emerson, who used to do this on his blog Scanners (you can also google to find moments out of time in years past).  This is meant to showcase moments in movies that really stuck out as being special, whether it's because of the acting or the directing, the music or the mood, what it does to juxtapose things (that'll be the first one right out of the gate) or to give us all something to remember the movie by.  It doesn't even need to be a GREAT film overall, and indeed not all of these are.  But it's simply films that stood out for one reason or another as the most memorable of this 2016 movie year

(also for this blog, unlike in the past, if I can find the video of the scene, it'll be here):

1) 13TH (dir: Ava Duvernay)

Easily the scene to most make me uncomfortable of the year, but rightfully so since, at the time I watched it, Donald Trump was not the 45th president elect of the country.. but deep down I knew that he could be, possibly, even within a small piece of a percentage of a chance, and that these people at these rallies were not going away.  Now that he is, it carries a greater, heavier, WTF ARE WE DOING IN OUR COUNTRY weight (and especially I keep flashing to those cuts between the black and white footage of the man being pushed with the woman at the rally). 

I won't even try to describe what Ava DuVernay does here except that she presents past and present into such a moment that is tragic because of how it repeats itself.  No one sees the patterns that occur from one time to the next, and that racial hatred is something that is passed down and grows like a fungus when engendered by the wrong people.

2) MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (dir: Kenneth Lonergan) (SPOILERS)

A man flashes back while sitting in a lawyer's office being told that he has been entrusted (unless he fully refuses) to become the guardian to his nephew.  Up until this point in the film we've had some flashbacks already with Affleck's character when he had a home, kids, and a wife played by Michelle Williams.  But we don't see why he's not with them now, that he's living instead in some lowly one-room pad in some outskirt of Boston.  But in a series of flashes leading up to this 'Moment out of Time', he comes home after a late night walk to get some wood and groceries at the store, only to find his... house is burning down, and that his wife is outside but his kids are in it.  Dead. Gone. 

But the real Out of Time Moment for me (which isn't available online - guess it's kind of spoilery) is when his wife, who has inhaled a lot of smoke and has to be taken to the hospital (also in, you know, complete fucking hysterics over losing her children all at once, one of them a baby), is put on a stretcher.  The stretcher can't seem to get on to the ambulance van despite repeated attempts.  Finally it happens, but it feels like it's still a struggle to push her inside and close the doors.  Everything takes longer and is more arduous and is a complete nightmare that seems to never end when endless grief is in front of you (and according to Lonergan at a Q&A this was an actual mistake during filming, not scripted, but he kept it in). 

3) GREEN ROOM (dir: Jeremy Saulnier)

This is a kick-you-in-the-solar-plexus kind of movie, the likes of which I loved to watch with my friends back in high school (and even middle school), and it's rough, raw, fuck-you-in-the-face violent exploitation flicks that don't kid around (I'm talking about, oh, Suburbia and Kids and Romper Stomper to name a few).  Saulnier has a great cast assembled here, and the way we're fully introduced into this world that this rag-tag punk rock band (they don't even have a facebook page!) is when they go on stage at a neo-Nazi/Skin-head/white supremacist bar and perform as their first number a cover of the Dead Kennedy's NAZI PUNKS: FUCK OFF. 

Considering this year as well, this is catharsis and a half, and truly a punk rock moment.

4) KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS (dir: Travis Knight)

There's a scene early on in this film where Kubo comes home after a day of performing his magic tricks in the city - he can make little origami Samurai figures come to life and tell quick stories to capture people's imaginations - and has to take care of his mother.  She is staring off into space.  She isn't a total vegetable, but she's been through a LOT in life (the prologue shows her protecting her son from being blinded by her God of a father, no really he's a God, and almost died in the process, breaking off ties with them all).  She has major PTSD still by this moment.  It's a quiet thing to see between son and mother as he takes care of her, gets her ready for bed, and she has the expression of someone in an Ingmar Bergman existential is-God-even-fucking-THERE wintry drama and... I mean that as a compliment.

5) RULES DON'T APPLY (dir: Warren Beatty)

This movie is a mess, but it's the kind of mess that only a director like Warren Beatty gets to make these days, or at least those who get final cut (whether he was told though to keep it under 2 1/2 hours by the studio may be arguable).  It's a choppy thing to watch at times - scenes just END without any explanation - but it's also a highly entertaining experience because Beatty has been wanting to make this for years and it shows: he knows the cadences and weird rhythms of Howard Hughes, but more than that he's a master at the awkward-reaction kind of comedy (you can see this awkwardness in many of his performances, even in dramas like Bonnie and Clyde and McCabe & Mrs. Miller, and especially in Reds) where, even though he's the lead, he can give a look or a stare and it says so much about this person *thinking* about what another actor is saying or doing. 

The scene from this that sticks out as a 'Moment Out of Time' is when Alden Ehrenreich's character, who has been driving around the girls and women under contract to Howard Hughes but has not actually met the man, gets to meet him very late one night on a pier.  The two men walk slowly together and Hughes asks about this young man, and right back at him the young man asks Hughes about some things - he has some ideas for businesses and an investment in particular - and this is the first time we're getting a good look at Beatty as Hughes (we see him only once before, and this is about 40 minutes into the movie, when he meets Lily Collins' character in a dark room to have a bite to eat and a chat).  But this is all in one long shot, easily the best moment for Caleb Deschanel as a director of photography for the film, and it goes on and on and where is it leading to?

Oh, Hughes has, uh, set up at the end of this walk (wherever this is on this pier) a table where burgers and fries and sodas are waiting for them since, well, Hughes is in the mood for a good burger and damn the time it is he'll get it!    While sadly this video isn't online yet for this moment, there is another that I'll share where Beatty does the repeating-a-statement bit which one might remember as being a big part of THE AVIATOR.

6) DOCTOR STRANGE (d: Scott Derrickson)

Steven Strange wants - needs - help.  He can't get his hands to work like they used to (or how he would *demand* them to get done through his stubborn sense of self), and it leads him to a I-Have-No-Choice moment where he takes the advice of a man who somehow was able to walk again despite being seemingly totally crippled - and it's in the city after that infamous Bob Seger song!

He meets 'The Ancient One' and is told that if he commits to the Mystic Arts, he can not simply cure himself - he can see what is beyond this world, into MANY worlds.  He calls hogwash on it as a devout atheist and then...


Oh, and it's right after this Strange decides he needs to be taught for sure, and is kicked out the door.

But this one look into the 'Multiverse' is so astonishing that it deserves an Oscar on its own.  I mean .... fuuuuuuuck!   And the rest of the movie's very good as well.

7) LOVING (d: Jeff Nichols)

One of the family friends (or it may be a brother or relative, I forget) that Richard Perry Loving has married into - he's white, his wife is black - is having drinks at a bar (Loving's not alone and there's other black guys there), and this comes at a time when there is immense pressure; the Lovings have been put into the spotlight because of their case being of main focus by ACLU lawyers going forward re: being married and an illegal crime in the state of Virginia.  One of these guys is pissed at Richard for getting Mildred into this.

Doesn't he know that he's not really black, he says over drinks (one of the guys tells him to be quiet, but right now he wont, he's got to speak his mind), and asks why he doesn't just divorce her so he can get on with his life and Mildred hers.  He sits there stewing... or is it?  He doesn't look like he's about to lash out, which seems like it would be the apt response.  No, in this moment out of time he... sits there, pondering.

He almost has a curious face.  Would it be easier to do this?  Of course it would be.  But life isn't easy, not for Richard Perry Loving or his wife Mildred who he loves more than anything in the world (well, his kids too, but especially her), so he can't agree with the guy.  But does he dismiss it out of hand, either?  It's a scene that might hint at ambiguity for Richard, and while the immediate next scene - Richard coming home still tipsy and telling his wife with tears in his eyes, "I can protect you... I can protect you!" - squashes what he thinks and feels, I'd want to ask Nichols why he put this scene in the film at the bar, where this black man asks a direct question that, frankly, could make a lot of sense... but, of course, love never makes sense, does it?

8) THE WITCH (d: Robert Eggers)

This is a movie I thought would go for the usual thing in such stories dealing with witchcraft which is at least to some extent ambiguity, like, here is a religious family, they are ostracized, they turn on each other, paranoia and suspicions arise, particularly how women had less than zero rights at the time and were seen as breeders and mothers and that was it and if they weren't in line witches and yet.... Witches in this world are real.  The two notions aren't mutually exclusive either: here is a film where the people are on edge and fearing of Satan and the devil and being absolutely disgusting human beings to each other (especially to the daughter who, by the very end, will turn to Satan), and yet... Witches are very real.

This revelation stuck with me.  While I was in the theater I put a Black Sabbath song to it - it might've not even had to do with witches, just a song with a spooky tone like 'The Writ' - which is sometimes for me a sign of a filmmaker who has really hit it out of the park (another example of this is when we get to the "punch-line" of Godard's WEEK-END and it's the dead body, 'Riders on the Storm' by the Doors popped into my head)

9) O.J. Made in America (d: Ezra Edelstein)

Watched all 7 1/2 hours in one sitting and I'm glad I did.  This packs a wallop as far as putting you into what it means to be part of the National Character of America, which is... frankly, not a nice place to be.  It's tough to actually MAKE IT as someone who is a hero to people, the nation or even the world over, when one is a minority and working as an entertainer (and football is entertainment).  I could pick out a lot of moments here, but one that sticks out to me is in the first episode, or rather it's two moments connected together:

O.J. is sought out by the Hertz rental car company for a commercial in the 1970's - he's known for running like a motherfucker, so he's put in a storyline that he is running across an airport to get to his ride in time - and we see this commercial and it's wildly entertaining in its 70's commercial way (and originally this was meant for a regular businessman, and it was thought, hey, no one will believe that a businessman can do that so fast... but OJ, hmm).  What happens though that's key is that we see what the director of the commercial did to make OJ seem more appealing: everyone around him, the "average Joes and Janes" at the airport who see OJ pass by (one of which a little old white lady who says "Go, OJ, Go!" or something to that effect), is white and respectable.  He's getting the *approval* of white society in a way that is not obvious on a first or even second viewing, it just seems like 'Hey, people like OJ!"

But, like any product put forward to society (not even Hertz, I mean Orenthal James Simpson), image is everything.  It was this commercial in a big way, by the way, that made OJ a much bigger deal than he already was, and he was known for being a Heisman trophy winning minor celebrity football player for the Bills with a 2,000 yard run for the 1973 season.  So.... yeah... And the moral of the story is: what happens when a black man is, as George Carlin might say, not "openly black" but "openly white" and just *happen* to be black(?)  This sequence showing the inner workings of the making of a commercial is astonishing,

10) DEADPOOL (d: Tim Miller)

Just that moment where Wade Wilson's tiny hand makes an appearance next to his friend Bline Al.  It's so charming and creepy at the same time.  I love it.  (It's not quite in this clip but it is made mention)

11) KNIGHT OF CUPS (d: Terrence Malick)

I could pick if I wanted to one of the myriad of poetic-philosophical-spiritual-meditative beats (and myriad is a good work to use for 21st century Malick cinema), but I actually remember the most in Knight of Cups two things: 1) that there is a set piece that actually *shows the character in a moment of drama*, even if it's something as basic as, say, an earthquake.  and 2) there's a bit of... humor to this movie?  The target may be too obvious - Hollywood's self-consciousness, narcissism, and self of 'OMG LIKE WE ARE SO LIKE FAMOUS Y'KNOW!'  But I'd take this over whatever the fuck he was doing with To the Wonder.

Here is a sample of what I mean, featuring Antonio Banderas and Joe Managiello:

12) Moonlight (d: Barry Jenkins)

... when the kid hits the other kid with a chair.  Cinematically, of course, it carries a lot of build up and explosive pay-off, as we're following our protagonist through the hallway in school, into the room, and then as he picks up the chair and hits him like all reason might be off but....... this is a feeling that I know.  Real rage being taken out on a bully in a movie, and it feeling not only earned but tragic in its way, this is something that made me think "yeah, I wasn't gay in middle school, but this was *exactly* what middle school was like, often, at least every other day."  It's a scary thing to think back to them, but Moonlight did that, painfully, exactly, and startlingly.  I hadn't felt so shaken up by seeing such a personal act of violence like that that connected with me since, oh, I don't know, Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love (which reflected how I felt at 18 too, full of a lot of bottled up anger). 

13) Captain America: Civil War (d: the Russo brothers)

Uh... how about when Iron Man confronts Cap and Bucky when they first enter that Russian station, and when Tony quips - "hey, Manchurian Candidate!" to Bucky - well.... that's not so funny anymore....

14) Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (d: Gareth Edwards)

Peter Cushing returns to the film that one might call Episode 3.5 or 3.75 or 3.6 7/8ths or whatever... Peter. Fucking. Cushing. Dr. Frankenstein-Sherlock-Holmes-motherfucking-Cushing.  In CGI form, like this is that Super Bowl ad from years back where Christopher Reeve could walk again.  Only now, if you're ready for this folks, it's actually *good*, like it's convincing, like you almost, kinda, sort believe that Cushing, a man who has been dead for 22 years, is acting in the same scene with Ben Mendehlson... and doing it WELL... except this is not Cushing.  Not really.  But it is.  This is 'you don't know it, but your BRAIN does' stuff here. 

This is someone standing in and the equivalent of Golem being painted on his face and it's convincing enough to the point where I now dread this becoming a thing with movies to come.  One day we may not have actors with their faces on screen that we can empathize with - that's the thing about actors, it's empathy machine time (which is why Darth Vader, albeit he makes a pun, is still a truly iconic horror-samurai movie presence in his few moments in this movie too, no eyeballs to look at) - so... what then? 

Leaving Rogue One, which I thought was alright, and even feeling that I wondered if I might get flack for not thinking it was OMG amazing or OMG terrible, just alright, this was what was on my mind the most (Leia is also briefly seen, also in full CGI, which was a mistake, but in a way not as mortifying as Cushing as Tarkin... just... my God.  It's a Moment out of time for all time)...