Sunday, May 25, 2014

24 Words Per Film (#103)



The sudden, ambiguous indie film ending has become a cliche, but disarmingly natural acting and dialogue never will. Wonderfully subtle shadings of emotional complexity.

Your Sister’s Sister (2011); dir. Lynn Shelton; starring Rosemarie DeWitt, Emily Blunt, Mark Duplass, Mike Birbiglia.



Friday, May 23, 2014

Playing in a Bigger Sandbox: Cold In July

 

It’s one thing to make a film that plays within the sandbox of a certain genre; it is quite another to play with the idea of genre itself. With his fourth film, Cold in July (opening today), Jim Mickle has climbed out of the horror genre sandbox and moved towards a more restless investigation of genre itself. His first three films form a trilogy, each part of which sits squarely within the micro-genre of vampire, cannibal, or post-apocalyptic zombie, respectively. This is not to say that they are not playful or interesting, only that each one inhabits a specific genre.  

Last year’s We Are What We Are, in particular, was a beautiful and restrained entry into the Stephen King style of religious-hysteria-gone-horrific thriller, and also contained a whiff of historically treated cannibalism that might remind one of Ravenous (1999)--or the Donner Party. The new wrinkle presented by Cold in July is that it doesn’t content itself with one genre or another. It moves effortlessly between modes, and in retrospect can feel like three distinct chapters in this certain part of the protagonist’s life. These distinct and discrete parts, though, always maintain the momentum from scene-to-scene and feel absolutely connected and part of the same story.  

Once again collaborating on the screenplay with his key actor, Nick Damici (who once again plays a potentially shady sheriff, but a different one than in We Are What We Are), Cold in July finds Mickle for the first time adapting a work from another medium. The novel is by Joe R. Lansdale, perhaps best known to genre film fans as the writer on whose work Don Coscarelli’s Bubba Ho-Tep (2002) was based. Mickle and Damici make the crucial and brilliant choice of not updating the novel’s setting, contemporary to its release, of 1989--instead they use it as a period. A twist that propels the story into its third act is contingent upon 80s era tech, but the period choice provides more than just that narrative device or the mullet-and-huge-mobile-phones jokes. It provides the broader genre sandbox that Mickle is playing in with Cold in July: the 80s thriller, specifically the type you would have found late night on HBO (or direct-to-video). 


Right from the opening title, we’re given a clue to the game we’re playing, as it’s written in the font and color styles of an 80s thriller. The reference is unmistakable, but not as on-the-nose as, say, the hot pink cursive used by Nicolas Winding Refn for Drive (2011). We’re in the realm of Tarantino’s half of Grindhouse (2007)--authentic exploitation recreation, with a wink--rather than Rodriguez’s more parodic take in his own half of Grindhouse. The score functions the same way, referencing John Carpenter’s synth work for the original Halloween (1978)--and the myriad of 80s film scores it influenced--while remaining its own thing. The point is proven when, at a climactic point near the end of the film, the synth disappears and is replaced by an acoustic piano. It’s the same acoustic piano sound from the same composer (Jeff Grace) that you’ll find in Mickle’s other films. This sort of personal transformation of a filmic reference is used in an even more straightforward manner when Mickle telegraphs a plot point by showing the characters watching a scene from Night of the Living Dead (1968) with the seemingly random line of dialogue, “Persons who are really deceased have been coming back to life.” 

In the first third of the film, Mickle plays up the horror elements. At that point, Cold in July is essentially a monster movie, with Sam Shepard playing the monster. The shot of a dark, seemingly empty room wherein a lightning strike suddenly reveals a hulking monster filling up its space is a standard horror movie trick. Other moments throughout this early portion of the film bring to mind Max Cady creepily watching Sam Bowden and his family, intimidating them through his mere presence, in Cape Fear (1962 or 1991, take your pick). But then, wonderfully, all of this suspenseful moodiness is allowed to dissipate, and we’re given the opportunity to relax and have some fun with the arrival of Don Johnson, playing a beloved recurring character of Lansdale’s called Jim Bob Luke.


Johnson/Jim Bob is given a hell of an entrance, and the tone palpably changes as soon as his red Cadillac pulls into the frame. A certain comedic jocularity overcomes the proceedings, and even some violence is played for laughs. Cold in July becomes the buddy movie Elmore Leonard would’ve written if he was from Texas. But then the introduction of that most 80s of technological relics--a videotape--syncs up the motivation of the ostensible protagonist, played by Michael C. Hall, with those of the other two principals, Sam Shepard and Don Johnson, and the film moves towards an inevitable showdown. Things turn dark again, but without the horror film trappings of earlier on. Now we’re in a low-budget shoot-em-up, but one where the emotional stakes are very real, especially for the Sam Shepard character, who is given a roundedness that utterly belies the monster he had been portraying earlier on.

Cold in July has a playful complexity that reveals itself more in retrospect than it does in the moment, when you’re too busy enjoying the constituent parts to start examining how intricate the scaffolding is that holds it all together. Maybe the same can also be said for Jim Mickle’s growing filmography.  


Wednesday, May 21, 2014

24 Words Per Film (#102)


Either I’m a rube, or the family-film recreations in Stories We Tell are incredible. Either way, the evoked nostalgia is palpable and emotionally affecting.  


Stories We Tell (2012); dir. Sarah Polley. Documentary.


Sunday, May 4, 2014

24 Words Per Film (#101)


This intimate two-hander seems to mark the return of the old, Malick-influenced Green after his bizarre turn to a slew of straightforward comedies.


Prince Avalanche (2013); dir. David Gordon Green; starring Paul Rudd, Judd Hirsch.


Friday, May 2, 2014

24 Words Per Film (#100)


The leads rely on likeability, but greater humor can be found in the smaller roles, especially the partnership of Sonya Walger and Michael Sheen.

Admission (2013); dir. Paul Weitz; starring Tina Fey, Paul Rudd, Lily Tomlin, Wallace Shawn, Gloria Reuben, Sonya Walger, Michael Sheen.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

24 Words Per Film (#99)


Echoes of Saturday Night Fever, both in social milieu and in the fairly affecting portrait of contemporary social attitudes about nightclubs, dating, and sexuality.


Don Jon (2013); dir. Joseph Gordon-Levitt; starring JGL, Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore, Tony Danza.


Wednesday, April 30, 2014

24 Words Per Film (#98)



Using Fairport Convention was apt; it shares a symbolic affinity with this group of young English people focusing on idyllic nature during intense times.


How I Live Now (2013); dir. Kevin Macdonald; starring Saoirse Ronan, Tom Holland, George McKay, Harley Bird.



Thursday, April 24, 2014

Talking Back to "Old School" by Andrew Marantz


Talking Back is an occasional series wherein I respond to an article or essay published in a media organ that I typically value and respect. “Old School” was published in the New Yorker, April 7, 2014.


Perhaps Andrew Marantz derives all of his knowledge of hip-hop music from his subject, “The D.J. Peter Rosenberg, hip-hop’s reigning purist,” as his subtitle has it, because he doesn’t challenge any of Rosenberg’s biases about the form. Rosenberg is a DJ on Hot 97, New York’s most popular hip-hop station. Marantz presents Rosenberg as one of the last voices defending “underground rap--or, more contentiously, ‘real’ hip-hop,’” without discussing how the music was created or how it evolved into the style that Rosenberg advocates for. From the title of the piece on down, Marantz present the style of rap Rosenberg happens to like with the music’s origins, calling it “Old School,” when it’s really something much closer to ‘middle school.’
“Rosenberg frequently aligns himself with the purists,” Marantz writes, “defending old-school craftsmanship against the encroachment of pop hooks and lowest-common-denominator rhymes.” Hip-hop’s actual origins relied heavily on the repetition of stock phrases and simplistic patter passed like memes from one emcee to the other, all in service of rocking the party or park jam, e.g., “throw your hands in the air/wave ‘em like you just don’t care.” Marantz doesn’t seem to know this or other essential facts about the earliest form of hip-hop, claiming, for instance: “Some African-American forms, like disco, grew so popular that they merged with pop music and effectively disappeared,” when in actuality disco, along with funk, was one of the two main currents feeding into old-school hip-hop. To use the jazz metaphor introduced by Marantz (and beloved by music critics everywhere), what Rosenberg is actually advocating for is a return to bebop, not to jazz’s beginnings; a return to an acknowledged Golden Age of complex artistry. There is nothing wrong with this, per se, until you start claiming that you represent the “real,” the original strain, without acknowledging the two decades of development previous--and especially when you attempt to limit the advancements made by younger artists because of your conservative viewpoint.


Which is precisely what Rosenberg attempted to do to Nicki Minaj. The conflict is one of the main focuses of the piece. It centers around Minaj’s track “Starships,” described as “featur[ing] singsong vocals and a Eurodance chorus.” Rosenberg calls it, “one of the most sellout songs in hip-hop history,” and says, “Nicki was supposed to be one of ours. I didn’t want young kids looking at this dance-pop song, going, ‘This is what rappers do.’” In his attempts to deprive Minaj of her right to make her own artistic choices, the straight white male Rosenberg came off like quite an asshole. “I know there are some chicks here waiting to sing ‘Starships’ later,” Marantz quotes him announcing from the stage of Hot 97’s annual festival, Summer Jam (emphasis mine). “I’m not talking to y’all right now.” Because women enjoy trivial pop music of the type represented by Minaj’s scheduled performance on the main stage and wouldn’t understand the “real hip-hop shit” Rosenberg was presenting on the side stage? Compounding his apparent insensitivity to how ridiculous he can come off, when he and Minaj sat down on the radio to make nice a year after the Summer Jam incident, Rosenberg made the classic ‘some of my best friends are...’ bigot’s comment, claiming, “I was a women’s studies minor in college!”
Worse, perhaps, than Rosenberg’s tone-deaf stupidity in regards to his own attitudes, is the way Marantz treats him like the hero of the situation, never pointing that out that a DJ is a selector of music that, by curating a certain group of music to his taste, is already a gatekeeper. By limiting the aesthetic choices of artists, he is going too far. Marantz ends his profile of Rosenberg with a vignette depicting him going to rapper Joey Bada$$’s house and choosing which songs will make it onto his album and which songs are too pop to fit the ideal of hip-hop he has in his mind. Minaj, during the radio summit with Rosenberg, is quoted as saying, “I’m choosing to get back to my essence and just feed the core hip-hop fan,” and Marantz follows this with: “If Rosenberg’s goal had been to steer her away from dance-pop, this was vindication.” After Minaj’s surprise appearance at the next Summer Jam, Rosenberg is quoted as saying, “I don’t take full credit--but she didn’t sing or dance, did she? She didn’t do any silly voices, did she? Straight up-and-down rap.”


There are many problems with this statement; I’ll attempt to unpack some of them. For one, Marantz and Rosenberg both seem to completely miss the irony in Minaj’s performance and in her persona in general. Marantz writes that Minaj appeared on the Summer Jam stage “Wearing a baseball cap and shredded jeans--a remarkably straight-forward outfit for a woman who once dressed as a gumball machine--[then] rapped two verses, struck a street-thug pose, and left the stage.” I would argue that there was nothing “straight-forward” about Minaj’s outfit or performance--it was just as constructed and carefully chosen as any other outfit she’s worn or performance she’s given. Minaj operates on a postmodern level where identity is constructed and was performing a certain ‘authenticity’ to make a point about the statements Rosenberg had been making about her. Heather Havrilesky, in her “Riff” column for the New York Times Sunday Magazine for May 5, 2013, gets at precisely this aspect of Minaj’s persona. “[H]er overall fakeness--the constant rotation of purple, green and pink wigs; the visible yellow push-up bra; the seven-inch platform heels--is celebrated precisely because it’s fake.” Havrilesky writes that, for Minaj, the most important thing is to “be obvious in your pretending.” When she struck that street-thug pose as Summer Jam, it was precisely that--a pose.
The other important thing to point out about Rosenberg’s comment that Minaj didn’t “sing or dance… [or] do any silly voices” is that these qualities don’t seem to be inherently bad to Rosenberg--only when they are coming from Minaj. Rosenberg’s beloved Kendrick Lamar’s brilliant 2012 LP Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City is deemed a timeless classic by Rosenberg--and is also a record on which approximately 90% of the tracks feature Lamar singing and/or using (arguably silly) vari-speeded vocals. What is it about Minaj’s use of these techniques that Rosenberg finds offensive, while Lamar not only gets a pass but is showered with praise? I would argue that it is again Rosenberg’s attachment to notions of authenticity or ‘realness’--witness his use of the passe term “sell-out” to describe what was wrong with Minaj’s “Starship.” Kendrick Lamar doesn’t present himself as a gangbanger or drug dealer, but he continually deals with those subjects from a street-level, authentic point-of-view, while Minaj’s postmodern persona calls into question her ability to speak from that same plane of authenticity.


It’s not an unusual trait for someone approaching middle age to begin viewing the culture they experienced as a voracious youth as the best that things will ever be. The further away we get (in time) from the music we loved as teenagers, the more those sounds become imbued with the rosy glow of nostalgia. I don’t believe that anyone truly invested in an artform can be wholly immune to the idea that the works that first made them fall in love with that artform are somehow special. And not just special to you, but intrinsically and inherently special in and of themselves. I am only two years younger than Rosenberg, and so we are essentially from the same generation of hip-hop fandom (not to mention the fact that we’re both straight white males who grew up obsessed with the culture dominance of New York, especially as it pertained to that artform).
Over and over in the article, we’re given evidence of Rosenberg’s obsession with “the gangsta rap of the mid-nineties.” Schoolboy Q points out that, “He likes real music--Wu-Tang, Nas,” i.e., artists that first made a splash in ‘93. Rosenberg’s morning show segment wherein he propagandizes for his point of view, “The Realness,” uses as its theme music “a 1995 song by Group Home.” That, and the Jeru tha Damaja instrumental mentioned by Joey Bada$$ near the end of the piece, were both, in all probability, produced by DJ Premier, the master of mid-nineties New York boom-bap. Like a lot of hip-hop geeks from our generation, many, many of my favorite examples of the form were released between 1993-1995. How could it not be? I was 12, 13, 14, just getting into hip-hop--into music--and was thus impressionable to a degree that I probably never would or could be again. Plus, shit was good. It’s not for nothing that The Source magazine (Bible of rap geeks in those days, mentioned by Rosenberg as being carried under his arm throughout high school) deemed 1994 The Golden Age of Hip-Hop.
BUT--when you love an artform, you want it to be alive, to progress, to be exciting and new all the time. Marantz quotes Rosenberg as saying, “I want a future where hip-hop is still relevant. But I want that music to be related to what hip-hop originally was.” Unfortunately, his idea of “original” extends back only to the period when he originally discovered the music, not all the way back to its beginnings. The music began with a group of young people taking pre-existing music and--with both love for that music and disdain for keeping it pure and precious--twisting it into something new, into an expression of their own creativity. As an older hip-hop fan, when I hear new rap songs that alienate me, that sound foreign and incomprehensible, I am excited all over again by the infinite possibilities of the form. If only Rosenberg and hip-hop’s other conservative gatekeepers could remember not the sound of the music that first made them fall in love with the artform, but the feeling of falling in love with it.




(Images were found using Google image search and may be subject to copyright. Please contact me to receive proper accreditation.)





Tuesday, April 22, 2014

24 Words Per Film (#97)



The plot--two couples caught in a love rectangle--initially seems telegraphed, making Drinking Buddies all the more rewarding when its complexities sneak in.

Drinking Buddies (2013); dir. Joe Swanberg; starring Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick, Ron Livingston.


Monday, April 21, 2014

24 Words Per Film (#96)



Romy & Michelle meet Candide and Pangloss. Ass Backwards gamely sticks to its lowbrow character humor through hits and misses. Up the funny ladies!

Ass Backwards (2013); dir. Chris Nelson; starring (and written by) June Diane Raphael & Casey Wilson. With Alicia Silverstone, Jon Cryer, Vincent D’Onofrio, Bob Odenkirk, Brian Geraghty.



Sunday, April 20, 2014

24 Words Per Film (#95)



Judging by Kon-Tiki’s credits, it took the entire population of Norway to make, but it was worth it: Charm, adventure, and a history lesson.

Kon-Tiki (2013); dir. Joachim Ronning & Espen Sandberg; starring Pal Sverre Valheim Hagen, Anders Baasmo Christiansen, Odd-Magnus Williamson, Agnes Kittelsen, Gustaf Skarsgard




Friday, April 18, 2014

A Proper Human Specimen: The Final Member



The Final Member, a documentary directed by Jonah Bekhor and Zack Math (opening today in select locations around the U.S.), is a portrait of three men with intense, and wildly different, relationships to the penis. Siggi Hjartarson is the founder and curator of the Icelandic Phallological Museum which, he says, “started as a joke, with a bull’s penis given to me by a teacher in 1974.” But, after nearly forty years of collecting, it’s anything but a joke to him. It’s his life’s work, and the world’s largest collection of mammalian penises, lacking only one specimen to be considered complete: that of "a proper human." Ten minutes into the film--but twenty-five years into the history of his collection--two contenders come to the fore. One is a famous Icelandic explorer. The other, a strange, lonely man in California.
Pall Arason, the explorer, is very much attached to his image of himself as a trailblazer and an adventurer. “I’ve been the first in so many ways,” he says of his desire to have his penis be the first human specimen in the museum. “Womanizing” (the word he and several other men in the film use to describe his sexual history) is part of that image he has of himself, and of the men he is descended from. He claims to have slept with over three hundred women, “not counting prostitutes and such,” and shows off the book where he has documented all of their names. Siggi is shown sitting around with some of his friends debating how many women Arason has actually been with. They can’t agree on an exact number, but do agree that he’s certainly the most legendary womanizer in all of Iceland. Considering that the entire country only has a population of 300,000, that means a considerable percentage of the women there would have already seen his penis, even before its possible display in the museum.
But Arason has competition. Tom Mitchell, the lonely Californian, is also determined to be the first to have his penis displayed in the Phallological Museum, and his desire is so great that he considers donating it before his death. His relationship with his penis, which he calls “Elmo,” is complex, to say the least. He says, “I’ve always had a dream of not only Elmo being placed on display in a public place, but, as a result, possibly some fame and fortune. Not for myself, but for Elmo.” The journey that Mitchell goes on to complete this goal is one of the more winding ones that the film depicts, with many twists and turns, so I won’t spoil it any further.


For Siggi, it is not his own particular penis that is the issue. He has a scientist’s dislike for taboo surrounding the human body, and having a museum dedicated to the penis “helps in decreasing taboos about this organ.” A friend and fellow academic, Terry Gunnel, Ph.D., explains that, “Anything that Siggi comes across that mustn’t be talked about, as far as he’s concerned, it must be talked about straight away.” But there is also something of the scholar’s need to find a new area of study--or even the explorer’s need to find dark areas of the map--in his work. At one point he comes out and says, “I try to provoke people, to make them look at things differently. You want to explore things that other people don’t.” Having the human specimen will complete the museum, and thus his life’s work. Even after a full academic life, writing or translating twenty-two books, he feels he will be a failure if he doesn’t leave behind the complete collection. Is it, in the end, a monument to himself, to his own greatness, and thus a substitute penis?
It is to the film’s great credit that none of this is necessarily played for laughs. Even when it is funny, there is no hint of disrespect towards the subjects. The desire that Siggi has to complete his collection for the edification of the world; that Arason has to continue breaking new ground as an explorer even after his death; that Mitchell has to have his penis “be the world’s first true penis celebrity,” are treated as serious motivations befitting serious people. It is up to the audience to choose which horse they wish to see win the race, or whether the completion of the collection is a worthwhile goal at all. This viewer, for one, started out with my head in my hands over the absurdity of it all, and ended up in a state of rapturous attention, hoping against hope that Siggi, at least, got what he had wished for all those years. The Final Member is rewarding viewing for those who wish to see penises discussed for the length of a feature film, and, in the spirit of Siggi’s taboo-smashing, essential viewing for those who don’t.


Thursday, April 17, 2014

24 Words Per Film (#94)



A nice variation on the “girls can be sexual too” theme. Plaza proves she can play roles far removed from her familiar TV one.

The To Do List (2013); dir. Maggie Carey; starring Aubrey Plaza, Bill Hader, Alia Shawkat, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Donald Glover, Andy Samberg, Clark Gregg


Wednesday, April 16, 2014

24 Words Per Film (#93)


A how-to for indie screenwriters: Simple plot with strong character motivations, set In a World... both immediately recognizable and not overly familiar. Take note!


In a World... (2013); dir. Lake Bell; starring Lake Bell, Demetri Martin, Fred Melamed, Ken Marino, Rob Corddry, Nick Offerman, Tig Notaro.



Monday, April 14, 2014

24 Words Per Film (#92)



While her talent was never in doubt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus brings such an impressive subtlety to her performance that I'm tempted to say she's underrated.

Enough Said (2013); dir. Nicole Holofcener; starring James Gandolfini, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Catherine Keener, Toni Collette.