Thursday, August 24, 2017
I don't find anything wrong with Noah Baumbach or Lena Dunham, they're great. But the Safdie Brothers seem to have come out of nowhere and maintained an ability to avoid pressure from the studios. They're films are raw; the plots feel like something mundane happens and then the character just meanders along a hamster wheel of repetitive complications. They capture the spontaneous. They start nowhere and get nowhere, but some point in between there's a point where we find emotional identification.
Good Time (2017, Josh and Benny Safdie) is an indie urban crime drama set in New York that feels like the New Hollywood's best of the early 70s. Like the other films from the Safdie Brothers, Good Time is shot on film (35mm Techniscope) with mostly long lenses and handheld; the story's pacing is relentlessly climactic; the conflicts are melodramatic and the wall to wall moogy Cliff Martinez sounding score from Oneohtrix Point Never never lets go, and remains the sole modern touch in this wonderfully realized gritty tale about family and redemption.
The centerpiece of any Safdie Brothers movie is its lead actor, and Robert Pattinson as CONNIE NIKAS marks the first time the directors have cast a movie star in that role. Pattinson's intensity is the film's cornerstone. But Benny Safdie as NICK NIKAS enthralled me in his turn as the innocent brother trying to live up to his older brother's expectations.
Connie is the ideal Safdie hero. There's a nice touch with Connie's dialogue where he tends to exaggerate figures lower than they ought to be. Connie asks for "a few thousand dollars," when he needs ten thousand. Connie tells the bus driver he needs to be dropped off "just a couple blocks away." Connie will need "just 2 minutes." And when he makes his parasitic opportunistic demands, he'll usually repeat himself to emphasize the importance of the matter.
As I sat in the dark theatre, the opening scene was so riveting I knew the Safdie Bros. had not only preserved their talent but have continued improving it in exciting ways. The anger, hostility, and defensiveness exhibited by Nick towards the therapist, embodied by his tough, masculine determination quickly shatters and crumbles revealing his delicate filial pain and remorse. I often question whether or not and how effectively a drama is either sentimental or contrived. But Nick's backstory involving his grandmother, and Good Time's bookending device left me with a profound sense of pathos and a cathartic identification with the unintentional suffering we bring on those of our family members who love us most.
When Nick has his haircut and is wearing the black and yellow Southpole puffer jacket I couldn't help seeing my own little brother up there. And aside from my overwhelming emotional baggage that left me with, Connie's journey gave me a vividly realistic empathy for fuck-ups in that way that tells us they are not other, they are us. But it also gave me a newfound understanding about the motivations of people who seem to have lost all moral sense and how they may have arrived at that point.
Sorry to be so serious. I should add that Good Time actually has a lot of hilarious moments of comedic brilliance.
For the record I think Malick is a genius from 1998's The Thin Red Line onward. I guess this all boils down to individual taste, but Malick's no imposter. He's discovered how to achieve alchemy through cinema.
On the other hand, unfortunately I have a bias against films from Jodorowsky's late period. Aside from The Holy Mountain, I worry he's too much an amalgam of things I hate: poetry, the circus, and art about the artist.
Endless Poetry (2016, Jodorowsky) is an autobiographical lyrical voyage dream through memory. With cinematography by Christopher Doyle and inspired with imagination and a thoroughly surreal directive, Jodorowsky's latest exegesis hits a profoundly emotional chord as it lets us share in its author's most private and nuanced life experiences as he sees fit.
The surreal inventiveness won me over instantly, when in the opening sequence the young ALEJANDRITO embarks on his maiden voyage with a crowd of black and white cardboard cutouts of figures whom I think represent ghosts, with skeleton-costumed figures supporting them bidding him farewell. Shortly following this we get a cardboard train that recalls Gondry. But beyond this one point, comparing the two is a stretch. Gondry is to surrealism playful, whereas Jodorowsky is deep. And I don't know if it comes from the world of theatre, but I love the black leotard shadow figures who pop in and out to help a character with a prop.
I have yet to verify this, but I suspect there are no VFX shots in Endless Poetry, and that's such a delightful touch. Everything staged seems to follow the logic and laws of the theatre. But a little more on Doyle's contribution. Shot on HD, the saturated reds—especially when that dude fucks that midget on her period in the red bedroom—dominate the pallet, but we get bold primaries, green and blue mostly; and the Doyle signature lit by practicals look goes full on here. For me the cinematography is the best thing going in Endless Poetry.
The crowd scenes are spectacular too. The red band of carnevale festival revellers were a great treat to end with. Well I find that Endless Poetry has won me over. I expected to rant on more of a tirade against it, but in the end Jodorowsky's passion and penchant for midgets, amputees, and carnevale are too entertaining to resist. Sadly, I feel like I respond to Endless Poetry more as an autobiographical document than on its own merits as a standalone work of art though.
The joys of Endless Poetry are episodic and sparse. And as much as I seem to be laboring to appreciate it here, Endless Poetry does suck. I mean seriously, a dude talking about wanting to be a poet has always been torture for me to endure in drama. It's the biggest so what? I've ever mustered. And how much poetry do we get? That shit about an illuminated butterfly and bringing fire from the dream? I still hate poetry so much.
Like poetry itself, Endless Poetry is worthless, trite, pretentious, and doesn't really say anything. I'll file this in the special category I think of as worthy of a single viewing in the theatre, but so help me God I hope I never have to sit through it again. But again, Doyle's beautiful cinematography and the mild pleasure of Jodorowsky's one-man recital were undoubtedly engaging.
Sunday, August 20, 2017
Remember in summer 2013 when Spring Breakers (2012, Harmony Korine), The Bling Ring (2013, Sofia Coppola), and Pain & Gain (2013, Michael Bay) were all released and all of them had young sexy good looking people performing capers?
Logan Lucky (2017, Steven Soderbergh) is a classic star-studded Hollywood heist comedy set in the South. This is Soderbergh in top form. This is a seasoned veteran auteur working within the narrow confines of the crime genre and pushing the craft to its most effective potential, for a broad audience, playing by the rules, and orchestrating our emotions the whole time knowing he's gonna leave us with a life affirming ode to good people. Soderbergh has done more experimenting in the last 30 years than any other American filmmaker; but he rotates between one for me and one for them. This is maybe his best one for them he's done since the Ocean's trilogy.
And this is really weird, but it sounds like this weekend Logan Lucky didn't perform as well at the box office as some were expecting it should. Could this possibly have anything to do with last weekend's vehicle ramming and deaths during the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville? The Hitman's Bodyguard with Samuel L. Jackson debuted to a strong opening at number 1 this weekend. Okay I'll stop here. I'm not supposed to talk about this kind of stuff, it doesn't have anything to do with the movie.
But Logan Lucky is centered on rednecks in West Virginia. And what I couldn't get over was how well paced and funny its story is crafted. Logan Lucky is a strong character piece and reminds me of how intelligent and dramatically effective the Hollywood screwball comedies of the 1930s were. Chan as JIMMY LOGAN and Craig as JOE BANG deliver star performances. Has Daniel Craig ever done a comedy before? He's great in Logan Lucky. The comedy is what did it for me, but progressively I had so many unstoppable crying attacks over sentimental moments that I feared I may have developed a medical condition.
Ever since Kill Bill: Volume 2 (2004, Quentin Tarantino) I've claimed that that's the only movie that caused me to cry tears of joy. Every other of the countless moments I've cried in movies have been from sorrow. Logan Lucky bests Kill Bill by having several moments that devastated me with their old-fashioned sweet morals and good nature.
The rest of the cast includes a knockout where has she been Katie Holmes, who really lights up the third act in gold capri pants and a silk leopard tank top; Adam Driver as CLYDE LOGAN, sounding like the manchild from Tideland and acting like DELMAR from O Brother, Where Art Thou?; Katherine Waterston with her same Alien: Covenant doo and looking as adorable as always; also with Seth Macfarlane as a cockney asshole called MAX CHILBLAIN who almost turned the whole thing too silly and into Talladega Nights though.
Some of my favorite of the comic gags involve Jimmy's ongoing hatred of cellphones, like the scene where after the barfight Chilblain's cronies are attempting to phone for help. Seriously, I laughed a lot. And holy crap that scene of the bear in the woods! Who throws in jokes like that? The bear moment defies all logic and is never explained. It's brilliant. I love it! Also, yeah, maybe it's almost too cheesy, but I love the gag with the prison inmates desperate for new George R.R. Martin novels.
What carried me as fast as a speeding NASCAR into the third act was the thrill of hoping maybe they'd get away with it. And without spoiling anything, Logan Lucky caught me off guard and its unpredicted ending impressed the hell out of me. And it also made me love rednecks this weekend. Like any group, they're not all bad. Another thing that works toward making this such a feel good movie is the central father daughter relationship, and how real it feels, bolstered by a chemistry that features exchanges between the way smarter young girl and the father who's proud of her. Man, I didn't know I was so vulnerable to this kind of maudlin confection.
The actress who plays Jimmy's daughter is great. She's whip-smart, clever, funny, and tucks her smartphone in the front waist of her wind pants.
I'm glad I wasn't scared off by the Logan Family Curse and Logan Lucky might be my favorite movie of 2017. It's like Soderbergh is teaching a class on how to apply classic Hollywood basics and almost a miracle that it actually works so well.
Thursday, August 17, 2017
Then there's The Hurt Locker (2008) and Zero Dark Thirty (2012). I love Kathryn Bigelow.
And I have a long standing theory that Homicide: Life on the Street influenced Lars von Trier to adopt his handheld documentary realism approach to everything from The Kingdom (1994) and Breaking the Waves (1996) to Dogme 95, which beginning in the late 90s would prove one of the biggest cinematic trends of the twentieth century. In the 2000s it's cult fanaticism died down some, but not for Kathryn Bigelow. With The Hurt Locker, she found collaborator Barry Ackroyd, B.S.C., who previously had honed the very same style of camerawork to perfection in United 93 (2006, Paul Greengrass).
Detroit (2017, Bigelow) is an historic agitprop riot-police brutality drama set in 1967. Barry Ackroyd's subjective handheld gritty camerawork paints canvases of rioting masses in night urban exteriors. Kathryn Bigelow contrasts a racist evil white cop helplessly giving into his violent impulses as he desperately tries to maintain justice in the middle of a huge riot with a Christian pious black Motown singer with an angelic voice and his friends being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
This might all seem outrageous, but I'm a huge fan of the way it all goes down. The bulk of the first two acts comprise harrowing racism, police brutality, corruption, and rioting with large scale scenes of huge crowds interspersed with old bits of historical footage that is so convincing if you ask me I think it's all real, then segues into a nightmare claustrophobic raid at the Algiers motel.
Is there a riot genre in movies? Recently I got to enjoy the superb ESPN doc O.J.: Made in America (2016), which delves into the history the LAPD and 1965 Watts riots. And a lot of the same footage is used in the prologue of Menace II Society (1993, The Hughes Bros.), which sets the right tone for what follows in that movie. Remember in 1992 when Spike Lee and other celebrities were wearing Starter baseball caps that had a block all-caps arch font of the word LOOTERS? The rest is fuzzy, but after the 1992 L.A. riots the movie had to change its name to Trespass (1992, Walter Hill) and the movie also has nothing to do with riots. What a let down.
Detroit took me into the riot and left me there, with Bigelow's painterly eye and sense of textures utilizing tapestries of a decaying city. And the coda courtroom proceedings with loathsome Krasinski giving us something to hate pulled me out of my seat with outrage. Okay, I saw this coming but still, I became susceptible to my own anger over injustice. The cops. The courts. Anyway I guess the politically correct thing to say here is: even though this kind of situation may happen, it doesn't happen all the time.
What a beautifully complex series of questions to leave Detroit with. I feel like it's all really provocative and I wasn't let down. Okay but also something just kind of hit me: if Zero Dark Thirty could maybe look to some people like Bigelow embellished facts about the methods used to capture UBL and in a way implies support of torture, Detroit could be a definitive counterstance that shows how typically torture ends hopelessly and destructively without uncovering any new clues.
Sunday, August 13, 2017
I am a huge fan of Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999, George Lucas). Since, say, 1990 I'll say it's my favorite sci-fi fantasy movie and for the longest time I hated sci-fi and fantasy movies. But I wanted to broaden my tastes. The colorful imaginative alien worlds and species along with futuristic space ships and colonies finally became of particular interest to my artistic sensibilities. And The Phantom Menace is what led me to discover this latest personal cinematic obsession.
But key to appreciating The Phantom Menace is recognizing its inherent drawbacks as a giant budget VFX franchise entry (PG-13, positive values, kid-friendly) and being able to overlook them in favor of finding something you've never seen, and personally, some camp and space oddities that are fun in a shocking looking at a trainwreck at times kind of way. Still, since 1990 the only sci-fi movies I truly deeply love are the Star Wars prequel trilogy and The Matrix trilogy. But I love the look and feel of: Total Recall (1990, Paul Verhoeven), Starship Troopers (1997, Verhoeven), A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001, Steven Spielberg), Minority Report (2002, Spielberg), Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991, James Cameron), Avatar (2009, Cameron), Prometheus (2012, Ridley Scott), Alien: Covenant (2017, Scott) and John Carter (2001, Andrew Stanton).
Similar to what I find to be The Phantom Menace's greatest strength (believably creating and populating another universe), Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets offers 302,036 different species in Alpha (the space station where the title comes from). And this is the source of all the film's eye-popping imagery, along with the heaping assortment of inventive sequences. First, the beach utopia is so colorful and surreal in its depiction of the alien ecosystem; and the jumpcut to VALERIAN (Dane DeHaan) sunning as LAURELINE (Clara Delevingne) enters in a black bikini (we are introduced to her by way of a close-up of her ass before we even see her face) on their own beach establishes the correct genre tone taking us into the enjoyably unfamiliar. Cara Delevingne in black bikini with her bushy eyebrows and high ponytail is a total movie star.
Secondly, the Big Market sequence is one of the most jaw-dropping spectacles of sight and scale. (The narrative device that enhances this business is the set of goggles that setup the possibility of having this scene play out simultaneously cross-cutting from different dimensions.) And well there's also the benefit of Luc Besson's passion of dizzying heights when he creates his visual geographies. The scene where Valerian is hit by heavy metal ball bearings and sinks through a series of floors is awesome. And as much fun as Big Market is, Alpha is an even larger maze of chutes and ladders where Valerian at one point gets in a dogfight piloting his skyjet then later has to escape running through a wall that he breaks through into more assorted rooms, including an orchard, and an underwater civilization.
There's this one character the commander is speaking with who looks so amazing in his thick white plastic coat with clear red bubbles and purple blob body who only appears on screen for a few seconds but it's moments like this that make me feel the craft here is worth appreciating.
The Paradise Alley set piece rounds out the city of a thousand planets and introduces BUBBLE (Rihanna) in a cutting-edge music video really cool gimmick that allows her to effortlessly morph around the stripper pole from a cabaret Sally Bowles outfit to nurse to jump rope schoolgirl to 70s rollergirl to French maid. As Bubble, Rihanna channels Jake Lloyd as ANAKIN for her performance and I love it. The ham was needed. Like The Phantom Menace, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is camp. I mean come on, the entire plot centers around a rainbow kinkajou who shits pearls. But it's some of the best, most artistically adept, coolest camp around.
Oh yeah before I forget, normally I don't associate movies with political messages (ahem Avatar coughing), but, in Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, the good guys were attacked (6 million casualties) by a bad guy (a government commander who lied by telling everyone they had weapons of mass destruction) and I think it's all just a coincidence so why read anything into it. And I think there's a whole bunch of hints about gender diversity which of course I'm not saying is bad. Like, this might just be me, but while Clara Delevingne is strikingly high fashion sensationally cute and sexy, she is a lesbian from what I hear and I found absolutely zero chemistry between her and her male costar; nor do I buy the playlist maguffin. I look at Laureline as the smart one who puts up with douchebag Valerian and his sexual harassment only for the greater good of the universe. And Valerian has a woman trapped in his body the whole movie. Also all the aliens are like gender swapped, like the father who talks with a woman's voice. Progress evolves slowly.
I love Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.
Saturday, August 12, 2017
For a while, when it first came out on home video, I recommended Memento (2000, Christopher Nolan) often, but its novelty has worn off long ago. I've wanted to but have yet come to appreciate any of Christopher Nolan's work. His movies are tedious and boring.
90s filmmakers are my contemporaries. For me the modern era of cinema is 1990--. That's my main focus. The 90s are my main passion. The Thin Red Line (1998, Terrence Malick), Che (2008, Steven Soderbergh), The Hurt Locker (2008, Kathryn Bigelow), and Zero Dark Thirty (2012, Bigelow) spoiled me. As of this writing, since 1990 no other movie has come close to qualifying as a great war movie. But I'm still looking. Inglourious Basterds (2009, Quentin Tarantino) is amazing, but really it's such silly fun I kind of have to set it aside. Saving Private Ryan (1998, Steven Spielberg), Black Hawk Down (2001, Ridley Scott), Flags of Our Fathers (2006, Clint Eastwood), and Letters from Iwo Jima (2006, Eastwood) are cool. Miracle at St. Anna (2008, Spike Lee) sucks.
Dunkirk (2017, Nolan) in 70mm is a documentary realism World War II drama streamlined to 100 minutes of Hans Zimmer-scored first person any-minute-this-could-be-the-end patriotic nailbiter. Probably the best thing going for Dunkirk is its breathtaking technical craft using David Lean formalism by way of subjective POVs that place us right in the middle of imminent danger with the sense of scale and space uncomfortably close. I mean like that scene on the beach when the British troops hit the ground for cover and we see the plumes erupting spewing wet sand telling us that as this gets closer and closer it ends in death; yet, wait it comes closer than it normally would. And there is the death. Everywhere.
But my favorite thing about Dunkirk is its proficiency at telling a story through silence. And when I say silence I obviously mean every sound but dialogue. This is so uncommon nowadays. Also another thing nifty and great about Dunkirk is the illustrated key that tells us in the film's opening that 1. THE MOLE 1 Week, 2. THE SEA 1 Day, and 3. THE AIR 1 Hour sequences elapse at different lengths of time. So cool.
And well I am a total sucker for how cool the Tom Hardy dogfight Spitfire sequences are, or really even just anytime he and the other two Spitfire pilots are doing any kind of maneuvers--I used to love drawing fighter planes and playing with jet toys so much when I was a kid. And the shots from the cockpit benefit from a constricted POV that has the same limited field of vision as the pilots do.
Returning to the evocative depictions of horrific death: the climax of the attack on the Heinkel, the submerged destroyer, and the fuel engulfed waters burning and trapping the young soldiers in between burning or drowning, the surrounding perils in Dunkirk continuously shape together cohesively towards the final minutes. And at the end Hardy, Kenneth Branagh as a British Naval Commander, and Mark Rylance as a civilian with his own boat, combine to give this genre piece some pretty worthwhile performances. Yet at the end I also near my fill of British gentlemen at war high culture. It's so obnoxious. Evident most when the son of the Rylance character saves the British troop greeting him with: "Good Afternoon," in that stupid ha ha isn't it ironic that I'm being civilized at such a moment? kind of way.
So Dunkirk might be a great war movie. It certainly is one of the best pure cinema exercises in genre filmmaking. Cold? Sure. But that is another of its characteristics that fit it well.
Sunday, August 06, 2017
Years ago—12 or more—I had many special needs. I rode my bike everywhere, with a 12-mile round trip to work, regardless of Portland weather, and I didn't spend a lot of time at home outside of sleeping and (rarely) bathing. This all meant: I needed to carry layers, for rain, for stench and a hat to keep the sun out of my eyes and rain off of my glasses; I needed to carry entertainment (reading material [Moorcock paperback?], music, my beloved pink handheld, maybe a DS, one or another notebook); I needed to carry bike locks; I needed enough storage space to pick up a sudden Gundam or Stikfa, or wedge in a thrifted Dreamcast; I needed somewhere to tuck my travel mug; at the end of my idiot nights, I often needed a six-pack of tallboys and a Totino's party pizza.
I had two bags at that point. One, my college LL Bean Turbo Transit backpack, big enough that I once lived out of it, travelling, for six weeks, magnificently ugly, but not strong against rain, and not convenient for getting into / out of without taking it off. Two, an early model Timbuk2 messenger bag, modified by its previous owner to use a length of seat belt material as its strap—a bag I adored, but found too big for some summer nights.
Thus it was that Tinzeroes and I betook ourselves to the local surplus store, where I first encountered an item listed as an "Israeli Paratrooper Bag". My first reaction: "Wow, evidently Israel's paratroopers need to do a lot of paperwork, because this bag is like 80% pen slots." My second reaction: "I really like this bag's look, feel, size."
Besotted with notions of kit-bashing and customization, and at a surplus store, I bought a couple strips of hook and loop fastener, a big buckle, and a length of wide, thick strapping. Once home, I grabbed a case of dental floss, my sewing kit, my pocket knife, and an X-acto blade from my model-building set.
I added the hook and loop to close the bag's flap more easily, and replaced the shoulder strap, sewing in as much strength as I could with floss. I added an attachment loop for a blinky bike light, and heat-sealed the straps where I'd cut them with my pocket knife, held over the stove's burner. The X-acto knife cut out one of the two main compartment's dividers, freeing up space and lightening the bag a bit (but I think it was mostly just doing something for the sake of doping something).
Even for summer use, it was never quite big enough. With anything at all in it, it was a little too full for much more than a six-pack, and even the most wadded-up hoody would more or less fill it. And since I hadn't tested where to put the velcro, if the bag was too full, I couldn't close it. Rainy season ruled the bag out entirely for outdoor use: the thick canvas wasn't waterproof, or even really colorfast.
But I loved it. The experience of customizing it had only taken an evening, but had bonded me to it as securely as the shoulder strap was bonded to the bag's side wall.
The size was too small (14" wide, 11" tall, main compartment 4" deep), but every force that constrains my overpacking is welcome. The material wasn't waterproof, but it didn't promote gross back sweat as badly as a plastic bag on longer summer rides. Plus, the canvas was strong without being stiff or rough, meaning that it didn't tear up things it came into contact with (sweaters, for example) or wear through where it creased, with the exception of this one spot, after substantially longer than a decade.
The organization options weren't incredibly robust, but the flat pocket at the back wall was always a good spot for a U-lock, and the front pouch pocket always seemed to accommodate more than I'd expect. And a big empty main compartment is a must no matter what your needs are.
I still have the bag! I throw it in a larger bag sometimes if I'm flying somewhere I expect to be walking around a lot. It's also good for those late-night "need beer" rides. Most of my special needs from circa 2004 are no longer, but a good bag is a good bag. This is a good bag.