Saturday, August 23, 2014

Jim Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive and the quandary of the cooler than thou

Jim Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive left me half-appalled and half-impressed. Given his indie-status as the writer/director of Mystery Train (1989) and Down by Law (1986), I have much respect for Jarmusch's work, but his current vision of Adam and Eve (Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton) raises many questions, like, Did Jarmusch really name them Adam and Eve? Beyond the movie's impulse to celebrate guitars, writers, books, rock and roll, and night-time Detroit, is there a plot? Have I seen two characters more self-congratulatory than the ultra-cultured Adam and Eve as they strut about night-time Tangier in nicely contrasting outfits? Did Eve really just look up and mention the "magical musical diamond in the sky" like some ersatz variation on a lyric from Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon?

I imagine that Jarmusch must live with a lot of romantic pressure on his own creativity, so once he figures out what he finds to be cool, be it Tom Waits or New Orleans or the Sun Studio in Memphis, then he can make his movie and damn whatever anyone else thinks. I respect his aesthetic of the endlessly fetishized, but still . . . If a movie prefers to ogle a 1960's Silvertone, a collection of uber-tasteful books (Kafka, Infinite Jest, etc.), and Jack White's childhood home, can one still legitimately wonder about little things like dramatic tension? Both Adam and Eve occupy so much of their time sleeping during the day, affecting poses that recall Bowie and Deneuve in The Hunger of 1983 (sunglasses at night), and generally slinking around in muted pseudo-rock star glamour, one is left wondering when this movie will come to life (the movie's title anticipates this critique). Adam especially often seems reluctant to wake up, and why would he? What motivates him to fully engage in this inferior century amidst such sad humans?

Meanwhile, a plot of a sort develops when Ava (Mia Wasikowska) suddenly appears as Eve's evil LA younger sister (you can tell she's related because they all have long shaggy hair). She meets nothing but disapproval from Adam, but she does succeed in getting the jaded couple over to a Detroit nightclub where they can jam languidly to the decadent tunes of White Hills in a manner very reminiscent of the opening scene in The Hunger with Bauhaus's lead singer Peter Murphy twitching to "Bela Lugosi's Dead." Ava brings undead life to the movie because she still seems capable of doing something unexpected, which serves to further emphasize how much the central twosome have congealed in their amber of cool. In comparison to Only Lovers Left Alive, things happen in The Hunger. Bowie's character John Blaylock ages 100 years in a day, Deneuve's Miriam finds herself attracted to Susan Sarandon, but Adam and Eve tend to be too demurely iconic to have much going on.

One can see why Swinton would choose this vehicle as another variant on her sleeping Art exhibit, but I much prefer the mockery implicit in her role as the communist crackpot authority figure Minister Mason in Snowpiercer. Hiddleston, meanwhile, goes shirtless in leather pants in his semi-derelict but tasteful Detroit home, his character full of disdain for his rock 'n roll fame (in part due to his desire to be not known). Adam has a wall with pictures of various writers (Twain, Dickinson, Billie Holiday, Joe Strummer) all over it, but one gets the impression that he carries nothing but contempt for our present, the 21st century and its petty distractions. Given the way Jarmusch works, his scenes tend to rigidify into tableaus like famous paintings in the Louvre ("Vampires Weeping on an Oriental Rug").

I do like much of what Jarmusch trains his eye on, especially the abandoned buildings of Detroit, but the fagged-out world-weary characters at the center of Only Lovers Left Alive suffer from an all-encompassing ennui that threatens to engulf this viewer as well. When Ava angrily calls Adam and Eve "condescending snobs," I fully understand what she means.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Nukes behind the rusty iron curtain: Mimi Leder's The Peacemaker (1997)

[I had just started writing reviews when this film came out.] Mimi Leder's The Peacemaker takes as its opening conceit a train loaded with nukes getting hijacked at full speed by a disgruntled Russian general and his red-lit night-goggled henchmen in the Ural mountains. Pretty soon the train collides into another one full of people just before a warhead blows up and evaporates two awestruck peasants. As the bomb's nuclear pulse flies into the camera lens, frying everything in sight, the scene cuts to Nicole Kidman swimming olympic sized laps in some Washington DC pool. Soon she's leading a White House Nuclear Smuggling group into tracing the whereabouts of those ten "broken arrows."

Repeatedly in this movie, Kidman's character Dr. Julia Kelly walks full speed into a room or a hangar full of state-of-the-art computers, telephones, and great maps on the wall as harassed preppy underlings debrief her on the crisis at hand as the camera circles around them. "Give me Russian military command!" she cries. There's a hint of romance in a bouquet of flowers that arrive from some guy named Roger, but there's no time for fooling around. This movie means business.

George Clooney (who plays Lt. Col. Thomas Devoe) got on my nerves for lowering and wagging his head around with his exaggerated televised charm. He could learn a few lessons from Cary Grant for holding back his gestures for maximum effect. Regardless, Julia and Thomas head off to Austria to research the Russian general's bomb-filled truck driving towards Iran, and we're off on a decent James Bond / Tom Clancy-style thriller.

In spite of the tank-like military movement of many of the film's set-piece scenes, I enjoyed this film in part because of Mimi Leder's intelligent direction. Constrained by the limitation of a macho-action plot, Leder strives at every turn for greater depth, and this tension between explosions and human interest makes the movie surprisingly engaging. She humanizes the Bosnian terrorist villain Dusan Gavrich (played by Marcel Iures) by emphasizing his religious intensity, his classical piano playing, and the war-torn landscape of Sarajevo around his apartment. When men die in combat, characters actually mourn them for a minute or two. Even Clooney covers his face later in his hotel room when one of his Russian contacts gets shot.

The fact that Julia and Thomas never get romantically involved keeps the film very businesslike, focused more on terrorist-stopping strategy than on star power. Even the thieving Russian general has a recognizable motive (money and weariness with Russian cutbacks in military might) in comparison to the cartoonish Red Baiting villainy of Gary Oldman in Air Force One. The title of this film turns out to be ironic as Gavrich comments on all of the harm America has visited on Bosnia in its efforts to keep the peace.

Lastly, the cinematography looks different--lots of dark blues and greens with burnt sienna highlighting--capitalizing on the grungy landscape beyond the former Iron Curtain. The climax, a bomb threat to New York's United Nations, pulls a few too many children in the way of sniper rifles for emotional effect. A retiree covers his poodle's eyes when a bunch of FBI men invade an elevator. Nicole Kidman's character gets to dismantle the little baseball-sized core of the warhead in the atrium of a cathedral. She uses a knife to try to pry the core open. "Be careful!" Clooney mutters as the seconds tick down on the red digital read-out. I kept hoping the timer would stop at 007 as it did in Goldfinger. Regardless of who gets blown up at the end, I found The Peacemaker surprisingly stylish and photogenic for a formulaic thriller.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

dystopian present links


---Tornistan

---"Officer Friendly" by Tom Tomorrow

---"whenever I see masked and helmeted police in photographs and movies or on the street going after protesters, I wonder, as I did during a battle royal between peasants and cops in the summer’s class-war sleeper Snowpiercer: 'Who are these hidden people?' It crosses my mind anytime I see a helmet swing a nightstick at a skull. The movies, especially dystopic science fiction, have gotten really good at siccing human drones on human beings or just showcasing warfare as stacks and stacks of computer-generated menace. Ferguson demonstrates how good life has gotten at turning into science fiction. That collapse of the real and the morally unreal took place in last summer’s Fruitvale Station, which dramatized the 2009 shooting of 22-year-old Oscar Grant on an Oakland train platform. It opened the weekend before the president made his remarks about Trayvon Martin and race, and bears a subdued kernel of resemblance to the events happening now in Ferguson.

What is so affecting isn’t just that 18-year-old Michael Brown was killed when he was barely a man. It’s other things as well. One was how many reports of the incident that first day mentioned that he was about to start college. That’s a rite that’s universally emotional. But for a black male from a poor family, the first day of college is a freighted day that usually requires the sacrifice of more than one person. Black people know the odds of getting to and graduating from college, and that they’re low. That Brown seemed to be on the right path compounded the parental, local, and national outrage over his being wiped from it."  --Wesley Morris

---Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing documentary

---Interiors: Blade Runner

---filmmaking tips for John Cassavetes

---Robin Williams, Irrepressible Character

---“I financed and made my own films from the start . . . My path has been autonomous and independent, so I don’t have any horror stories about glass ceilings and expectations and tense studio meetings.” --Ava DuVernay

---"I want to suggest that there may be a strong connection between the visual style of video games and the visual style of American police forces — the 'warrior cops' that Radley Balko has written (chillingly) about. Note how in Ferguson, Missouri, cops’ dress, equipment, and behavior are often totally inappropriate to their circumstances — but visually a close match for many of the Call of Duty games. Consider all the forest-colored camouflage, for instance . . . It’s a color scheme that is completely useless on city streets — and indeed in any other environment in which any of these cops will ever work. This isn’t self-protection; it’s cosplay. It’s as close as they can come to Modern Warfare 3 . . . The whole display would be ludicrous — boys with toys — except the ammunition is real. The guns are loaded, even if some of them have only rubber bullets, and the tear gas truly burns. And so play-acted immersion in a dystopian future gradually yields a dystopian present." --Alan Jacobs

---trailers for The Cosmopolitans, Saint Laurent, Camp X-Ray, Two Night Stand, The Babadookand The Drop 

---Lauren Bacall in To Have And Have Not

---remembering Y tu mama tambien

---Impossible Shots

---"it’s time to re-think the Ramones as essentially an avant-garde outfit that just happened, also, to be popular." --Nicholas Rombes

---"Through Groot, Guardians captures Americans’ troubled relationship with the environment. We love the way nature makes us feel, but we also expect to take from it without worrying about the consequences." --Sarah Todd

---"Marlboro Boy and Fat Ronald: The Brand Jamming Art of Ron English" by Hugh Hart

---"Hamlet’s — and Shakespeare’s — charismatically demonic knowledge of the void at the heart of reality, the death that is the essence of life, catches something very real in our experience (or mine, anyway), a basic metaphysical uncertainty that should disturb all of us, a faithlessness and despair that no doubt has the poisonous potential to ruin the plans of our reformers and revolutionaries, of our dispensers of Christian charity and our disseminators of socialist-feminist politics, but a grim knowledge that nevertheless murmurs constantly beneath the busy clamor of everyday life and that seeks passionate expression in the face of all protest." --John Pistelli

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Genius Sessions: Gus Van Sant's Good Will Hunting (1998)

[Yet another of my early newspaper reviews.] Having seen Matt Damon's Tom Cruisey-easy-smile acting style in The Rainmaker, I didn't have much hope for Good Will Hunting. Take a young cute genius mathematician janitor with problems, stir in some Robin Williams therapy, and then add a title that sounds like Quest for Decency? Bleah. But it turns out that all those people praising the film were right. GWH is that increasingly rare media product--a film that allows the viewer to breathe, react, and think, a much needed antidote to the prevailing Batman and Robin sit-on-your-brain-and pop-your-eyes-out with-a-crow-bar aesthetic in Hollywood.

The two twenty-something writers, Damon and Affleck, make the inherently sappy storyline work by constantly juxtaposing Generation X slacker smarts against the fancier world of MIT math professors in Boston. Damon's poster-boy good looks contrast nicely with his machete-like way with words. Orphaned and abused as a child (the film just hints at this), Will Hunting has learned to use his genius as a shield and a weapon. When up against the legal system for punching a cop, he calls upon obscure legal statutes in his photographic memory to argue his way out of jail. When faced with a battery of shrinks, he reads their books before each session and then turns their techniques inside out, honing in on their weaknesses until they quit in disgust.

Meanwhile Will works as a janitor in the MIT math department just so he can solve dastardly difficult math problems without telling anyone he did it, and he hangs out with a bunch of Irish working class yobs in the low haunts of Boston. Someone compares Will to the Unabomber at one point, and the reference is apt: he'd just as soon hurt people with his brilliance as help them. Soon enough, an MIT math professor adopts Will and sets him up with weekly sessions with Sean McGuire (Robin Williams). Where all of the other shrinks fail, McGuire gradually develops a rapport with the brash young brat, mostly by mercifully not resorting to much psychobabble. We've seen plots like this before in The Prince of Tides, Ordinary People, etc., but again the young writers skirt the cliff edge of Freudian cheese by emphasizing Will's emotional sterility. The director, Gus Van Sant, explored another sterile character in To Die For, where Nicole Kidman's ice queen kills her husband and then revels in the media attention.

In this film, we gradually realize that Will won't let anyone near him or challenge him. His brains provide artillery against any personal encroachment, but what to do with himself after all of the intellectual putdowns? Robin Williams counters Will's irony with shaky gnomelike sincerity, and they play a kind of chess game of the psyche. I know it sounds hokey, but it works in part because of Van Sant's postpunk direction and the luscious contrasting colors (grunge burnt sienna, dark blues, and tacky reds) of cinematographer Jean Yves Escoffier. GWH's screenplay reminded me of other undersung Gen X films like Chasing Amy and Grosse Point Blank, but the film has a complex visual sophistication all its own.

Minnie Driver shows up as a love interest, a rich Harvard girl named Skylar Stella with an impossibly round face. I won't give away the ending, but imagine a glacier of ice starting to melt, a kind of lyrical softening you get in The Graduate. After all of that cold brilliance, it's nice to have a thaw.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

thinkpiece links

---John Waters appreciates The Girl Can't Help It

---a scene from La Femme Nikita

---1000 Movie Snapshots

---Godard's trailers

---James Brown performs before the Rolling Stones

---25 short films

---"Hell is other selfies."

---Richard Brody considers Barcelona

---"The rest of the train has everything it could want, because desire cannot survive without lack to give it meaning. If you have everything you want, you don’t have want at all. Conversely, to believe that you don’t want for anything, 'nothing' needs to exist to make extraneous desire unthinkable. This is the first purpose of the tail section: to convince the rest of the train that they have everything they desire (and want nothing), the tail section passengers must exist so as to provide a zero-point from which pleasure and desire can be measured. In this way, by creating a space in which desire and frustration and hope and fear can actually still be exercised—because the first class passengers can never change or progress or grow or evolve—it becomes possible for the 1% to forget that they are standing still on a moving train.

In this way, even the 'revolution' only keeps the system sustainable."  --Aaron Bady

---nostalgia and The Guardians of the Galaxy

---filmmaking tips from Shirley Clark and Kentucker Audley

---an excerpt from Glenn Kenny's Robert De Niro: Anatomy of an Actor

---Satoshi Kon--Editing Space and Time

---Joe Swanberg considers the financial life of the independent filmmaker

---trailers for Into The Woods, Interstellar, Jimi: All Is By My Side, Get On Up, The Theory of Everything, and The Longest Week

---"History of Film: Once Upon a Time in the West"

---Wild and Woolly

---Lacey Rose profiles Nic Pizzolatto

---downtown Los Angeles

---the opening title sequence of The Fall

---"TMZ has been the most influential and important media organization of the last decade. It’s not in good taste. It’s brazen, proud of its gaudiness. It’s altered the way that news about celebrity is treated, spread, and consumed — and earned its place in a lineage, spanning from Confidential magazine to the National Enquirer, that turns 'celebrity gossip' into serious investigative journalism impossible to ignore.

But TMZ’s remarkable success and reputation have come at a price, as the demand to acquire and 'own' scoops while simultaneously catering to a demographic of untraditional (read: straight male) gossip consumers has transformed a rag-tag group of reporters invested in illuminating Hollywood hypocrisy into a cabal of ruthless, click-hungry, and aggressive TMZers with little journalistic training and a tolerance of misogyny, both within the workplace and on the site and television show." --Anne Helen Petersen

Monday, July 28, 2014

Lucy's last 10 thoughts at the end of Luc Besson's Lucy

1) "The Taiwanese gangsters have just used their massive submachine gun/bazooka firepower to blow open the door of this room. How quaint."

2) "Are humans more concerned with having than being? Also, what happened to Thora Birch after Ghost World?"

3) "If I am everywhere, then where is my Sandstone Shimmer Maybelline lip gloss?"

4) "Every cell knows and talks to every other cell. They exchange a thousand bits of information between themselves per second. Cells join together forming a joint web of communication, which in turn forms matter. Cells get together, take on one form, deform, reform — makes no difference, they’re all the same. Humans consider themselves unique, so they’ve rooted their whole theory of existence on their uniqueness. 'One' is their unit of 'measure' — but it's not. All social systems we’ve put into place are a mere sketch: 'one plus one equals two', that’s all we’ve learned, but one plus one has never equaled two — there are in fact no numbers and no letters. So much for Algebra II."

5) "We’ve codified our existence to bring it down to human size. To make it comprehensible, we’ve created a scale so we can forget its unfathomable scale, so don't even bother to try to understand. Time is the only true unit of measure. It gives proof to the existence of matter. Without time, we don’t exist, so always keep your watch on your wrist. I can wipe the screen of reality, going back and forth in time. All of time is now. Stanley Kubrick, with your simplistic match-on-action cut from an animal bone to a space ship in 2001: A Space Odyssey: eat your heart out."

5) "I have become pure consciousness. Now I will go back in time to teach the primitive woman-ape also named Lucy the fine art of becoming an efficient hit-woman and driving against one-way traffic in Paris."

6) "Michelangelo, you thought that God created man by touching the hand of Adam? Ha! I wonder: does Leeloo have a Tumblr account?"

8) "I can feel pain, fear, and desire ebbing away as I become all-knowing. I sense everything going on everywhere, both electrical and magnetic waves (not to mention cell phone conversations) forming vertical tendrils of light. I have arrived at the vascular macro-experiential mainframe of time and space. Funny how it's still hard to locate Bill Murray."

9) "The brain cell only has two solutions, either to reproduce or be immortal. Time to vomit light and manufacture a cosmic flash drive. La di dah."

10) "What makes us us is primitive. It’s all obstacles. But, now that I've arrived beyond human identity, I could still use a hot stone massage and a microdermabrasion facial."

11) "We never really die, unless you are Hercules."

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Future Color: Luc Besson's The Fifth Element (1997)

[As I brood upon the philosophical conumdrums of Lucy (Is time the only unit of measure?), it occurs to me that I did review Besson's The Fifth Element back in my very early years of writing for a local newspaper (my first was for The English Patient). Leeloo does share with Lucy a tendency to absorb insane amounts of information off of a computer without half trying.]

To review movies nowadays, one must become a connoisseur of explosions. Ninety-nine percent of the films have them, beautiful sets are built to be blown up, and one gets used to great flaring balls of light cascading across one's retina. The color scheme of The Fifth Element seems to have been worked out with explosions in mind--bright orange and blue.

I dreaded this film because a friend of mine, Rob, took gleeful pleasure in relating how some Washington DC critic ripped it to tiny shards. I had already been wowed by the preview and did not want this movie to fail. Well, it turns out that The Fifth Element isn't bad at all; it's just more interested in visual ideas than in story originality. In terms of plot construction, it resembles many other sci-fi storylines out of Heavy Metal magazine--a Blade Runneresque hero Korben Dallas (played by Bruce Willis) stumbles into a mammoth intergalactic convergence of evil forces that threatens to end all life in the universe about 300 years from now. Dallas must save the gorgeous Leeloo (Milla Jovovich) in her skimpy day-glow orange clothes, when she is wearing clothes, and her brightly dyed orange Raggedy Ann hair and piercing blue eyes, from these evil forces so she stop a large glowing reddish-black planet from creating yet another explosion when colliding with the earth.

Now this may sound silly, and to some extent the movie is silly, but it's also visually quite striking, since the director Luc Besson (of La Femme Nikita (1990) and Leon: The Professional (1994)) combines his talents with several major graphics artists and a top fashion designer (Jean-Paul Gaultier) to build quite an intriguing future world, much as the makers of Blade Runner did. In this vision of New York City, hovercraft vehicles fly around on multiple levels, Dallas' bedroom resembles a cockpit where the refrigerator lowers to expose a shower, and everyone had yellow spots on the wall to put their hands on in case the police show up.

Luc Besson has already established that he has a flamboyant punk sensibility when it comes to design; he builds great elaborate worlds to mock them and then blow them up, but he also brings a bizarre French side to his pyrotechnics that you won't see in other dumb American movies. For instance, Besson combines a beautiful opera aria song by a blue alien in what looks like the Philharmonic with an armed takeover of bulldog alien goons of a giant luxury cruise ship, and with Milla Jovovich displaying her Fifth Element calisthenic fighting power. After awhile, the aria segues into a rock and roll beat and pretty soon the entire ship explodes.

Also, Chris Tucker plays a wacked out blend of Dennis Rodman and Prince as a hyper-celebrity radio personality named Ruby Rhod who trails Dallas through his adventures. Tucker's role is high, high camp coming out of nowhere, the ultimate futuristic extension of the talk-show celebrity worship of today.

As we walked out of the theatre, my friend Jack said the film has no ideas, and in terms of original plot or characterization, he's right. Bruce Willis just walked over from Die Hard. Milla Jovovich borrows many character elements from the woman-alien in Species.  But I don't care. Visually, The Fifth Element is a knock-out.