Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Notre Musique: A Review

As filmgoers, many of us were programmed at an early age to take for granted that a movie had to have characters, plot and narrative to qualify as a, well, movie. Those safety nets would always be there for you to grasp onto for familiarity’s sake. This includes the notion that you could sit anonymously in the dark while the film’s events unspooled for your pleasure. As Kurt Cobain wrote: “Here we are now, entertain us.” In the works of Jean-Luc Godard, however, these givens are tossed out like bad trash. He lassoes you, often forcibly so, into his cinematic fray - best exemplified by the glorious final shot in Contempt (1968) where a camera inches closer before turning its big lens directly on you. Notre Musique is no different a specimen and is thus a highly unique, interesting yet sometimes frustrating cinematic experience.

Broken into three distinct parts, “Hell,” “Purgatory,” and “Heaven,” Musique weaves in the themes, respectively, of man’s violence at times of war, idleness in post-war, and serenity in after-life. “Hell” is made up of a furious onslaught of images of 20th century war, taken from Hollywood films and real battleground footage; presented sometimes in slow motion, divided by closed-eye blackness, and lyrically set to some hauntingly beautiful piano music. “Purgatory,” set in modern day Sarajevo, offers a vast array of characters, artists, journalists, poets, Native Americans, and Godard himself (giving a university lecture on text and the image) in a collage of varied lingual conversation. “Heaven” pictures a hushed final eternity on the sandy edge of a restless ocean. Watching this cine-poem unfold for 80 minutes is not unlike wandering dreamlike through a museum; presented with a series of images to behold and ponder without any true plot, character or narrative to rely on to guide you. Left alone, though, the mostly fractured dialogue occasionally borders on didactic or dense.

Godard’s most well-known work, the still-fresh New Wave classics (Breathless, Band Of Outsiders, Weekend) that he made during the furtive 1960s, can be viewed as composites of an infinite number of well-known and obscure literary, musical and cinematic influences and direct quotations – the post-modern style that today’s Tarantino only can hope to imitate. Notre Musique is similarly infused. In “Purgatory” there is a close-up of a book called “Minuet” by French-born American author Julian Green whose work often concerned man’s preoccupation with violence and death. In “Heaven,” a young male is reading “Streets of No Return” a noir-ish 1940s pulp novel by David Goodis that was later turned into a film by Sam Fuller, who was given the following dialogue as a character in Godard’s Pierre Le Fout (1963): “Film is a battlefield. Love. Hate. Action. Violence. Death. In one word, emotion.”

Someone once said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture – both an encouragement to the reader to experience the subject on their own and an admittance of fear on the writer’s behalf about conveying anything of substance about something substantial. Writing a review of a Godard film and even the film itself can present a similar quandary. So let me say it simply – have this dance.

Monday, November 22, 2004

Overnight: The Fall Of Troy

Success can be an evil temptress; Fame, its twin, a merciless succubus.

The traditional path of American artistic fame and success is as well-worn as it is well-known: Your naive, humble roots and lonely nights of hard work lead to your discovery; your first hit leads to money, power and fame; inexorably you get drunk on those three elixirs which leads you to supreme egotism (marked officially by the first time you hurl an empty whiskey bottle at your best friend); your inevitable rock-bottom self-destruction (or “OD”) which is then followed by apologies, rehab and your even more inevitable comeback. If you are lucky, you can stretch out that path over forty years (See Ray as an example). If you are unlucky, like Troy Duffy, that period can barely last five of your allotted fifteen minutes of fame (See Overnight as an example).

Following in the recent personal home videos turned yummy arthouse dish genre of films like Capturing The Friedmans and Tarnation, Overnight documents the meteoric rise and spectacular fall of Duffy, an unknown LA bartender by way of South Boston, who was paid $300,000 for his first script, The Boondock Saints, by Harvey Weinstein and Miramax. Oh! Miramax would also give him a $15 million budget to direct the movie. Oh yeah! And his band, The Brood, would also release the soundtrack album. He was an overnight success, the kind of rags-to-riches tale that fills newspapers and warms the hearts of hopefuls. Most people might be humbled by this opportunity. Most people also feel that they won’t let such early success go to their growing heads. Troy Duffy is not most people. He grabbed this crown as if it was anointed by mandate of a higher power. The early footage in the documentary (made by two of Troy’s friends, Troy Montana and Mark Brian Smith) depicts the kind of celebrity hob-nobbing and juvenile watering-hole drinking conquests that any new hotshot on the block might experience. But it is Duffy’s unabashed boasts of being the “first” ever to do this and that; check that, it’s the sheer balls of the guy to be planning his Chairman Mao-esque world cultural domination before a frame of his movie has even been committed to celluloid that show his troubling symptoms of megalomania.

Calling Hollywood a fickle town is something that even Captain Obvious might laugh at you for saying. So it is no shock that Miramax eventually put The Boondock Saints in turnaround AKA movie purgatory. Overnight, however, never makes clear what Troy did, specifically, if anything, to draw ire from Miramax. The reality of the situation can be found in the old Corleone family truism: “It’s business, nothing personal.” What is clear, as the film plays out, is that Mr. Duffy took this affront personally; making several desultory, inflammatory comments - on camera - about Weinstein. Rarely has a real man’s self-destruction, layer-by-bloody-layer been so pain-stakingly caught for our viewing pleasure; its like an 85 minute behind-the-scenes DVD extra on acid. That his initial opportunity is one that I, or any other wannabe filmmaker out there would sell his worthless soul for makes this cautionary tale all the more compelling. It automatically prompts you to whisper aloud the “What would I do in his shoes?” question, even if your dream is not to be the next Scorsese. Once in a lifetime opportunity is something we all can identify with and dream of.

Many young directors do garner a kind of totalitarian ego and it’s a trait that can serve that director well. Usually, though, you need to make The French Connection or The Exorcist before you can stomp around Hollywood and Vine like you’re William Friedkin. The Boondock Saints did get made, albeit for less money and by a much smaller studio, was barely released theatrically and has enjoyed some life on home video (personally, I think it’s a silly, overviolent, bloody John Woo-slo-mo drenched fury that signifies nothing). Some, myself included, might consider that success alone. But, in the most telling scene of the film, Mr. Duffy berates a class of film students for daring to express that very sentiment to him. By then, of course, it is too late. He has sealed his fate with the kind of fame no one wants: infamy.

Your Mornin' Cup O' Pop Culture

Delivered Fresh - and free!

In the first half an hour of the 11pm EST Sportscenter last night, they showed the ugly lowlights from Saturday night's shocking, despicable melee, brawl, hootenanny (choose your own word adventure) between the Pistons, Pacers and the Piston fans at least ten times. I wish that was an exaggeration. I, for one, am sick and tired of being beaten over the head with these images. So I shut Sportscenter off which, for me, is like saying no to a good night sleep. It hurts, but it hurt me more. Media is everywhere and saturates this land like fast-food restaurants. Common losers can type their thoughts on blogs, pretending to be real journalists. Even here in NYC, there are not one but two free morning daily newspapers. Big stories are covered ad nauseum. The beauty, however, is that no matter how hard they try; no matter if they are seemingly everywhere, these media outlets cannot prevent me from pressing the "channel up" button and watching something that I really enjoy: women's college volleyball. Aaaah.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

The Godfather Returns: Yay? A Short Commentary

Fact: I love original Godfather novel and the first two films even more.
Fact: The Godfather Returns, a new novel that fills in gaps in the Corleone family history, was released on November 16th. A film inevitably must follow.

Opinion: This is wrong. WRONG! Do you smell the money? Did we not learn anything from Godfather III? Francis Ford Coppola has freely admitted he did it for the money. At least that sin can be slightly forgiven because it was born and raised by the book's/movie's original architects, Coppola and Mario Puzo. But Puzo has since passed and Coppola will not do another Godfather movie. So why this and why now, besides money? Why can't we let the franchise retire and be content with the ability to re-enjoy its already glorious fruits over and over again? Whatever comes now (the new book is written by Mark Winegartner) can only feel fake, forced and for capitalism. It taints what came before. I love this country's modern pop culture for the genius of the works it's progeny can produce, like The Godfather; but I hate it when those works are flogged to death for the almighty buck (I'm looking at you Scarlett; and you, dead digital celebrities in new commercials). This, my friends, is the true crime.

Monday, November 15, 2004

"Finding Neverland?" Here Are Some Directions

Imagination, like money, is something not all of us have much of; but if you are lucky enough to come by a good amount, your life can be the richer for it. It also happens to be the thing that turns my five-minute showers into half-an-hour marathons of staring blankly at a yellow bath tile, enslaved and lost in thought. This magic/curse duality similarly bedevils famed "Peter Pan" author and playwright J.M. Barrie (Johnny Depp) and forms the central conflict in Marc Forster's (Monster's Ball) Finding Neverland.

Coming off a terrible flop, Barrie is inspired (the magic) by a relationship he develops with Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Kate Winslet), a widow, and her brood of four young boys; eventually basing his classic fairy-tale on the imaginative adventures they all share. Unfortunately for Barrie (the resulting curse) spending his time with a whole other family causes further strain on his already rocky marriage to Mary (Radha Mitchell); resistance and skepticism from Sylvia's mother, Emma (Julie Christie) and general upper-crust whisperings of impropriety and inappropriate behavior.

For Shakespeare in Love fans, this sub-genre of the fictionalization of the etymology behind a real-life beloved work might feel a bit familiar. Both the protagonists in these films sacrifice much and experience great personal pain in order to achieve great artistic gain. Both films use well-worn plot lines of forbidden relationships; family disapproval and societal pressure as the basis for our heroes’ sacrifices. But while Shakespeare’s take feels new, fresh and lively, Neverland’s adult-themes feel much safer, predictable and sometimes problematic. In early one scene, from nowhere, Sylvia starts to cough uncontrollably. Possible Terminal Illness alert! In another, far greater example, the Barries’ past strained marriage isn’t mentioned until two-thirds of the way through the movie when they talk about it with each other; it never being hinted at, visually or otherwise, previously. The closest evidence occurs in a scene where the two families meet over dinner and Mary comes across as a wicked social climber. But her character is so underdeveloped that it never truly sticks or fits in well. In fact, I ended up empathizing with Mary for the loneliness that J.M.’s dalliances-for-inspiration cause her; something I’m not sure that the filmmakers were going for. Ultimately, it weakens Barrie’s overall motivation to leave her behind. Perhaps the film’s greatest crime, however, is it’s under-utilization of two members of the cinema’s acting royalty pantheon, Christie and Dustin Hoffman (who plays Berrie’s producer). Neither has that scene that can transcend a supporting role from background noise.

On the flip side, I qualified “adult-themes” earlier because it is the kids-play that shines in Neverland. The Fellini-esque fantasy-scenes are excellent and on par with the Fellini-esque fantasy scenes in Big Fish. You would truly have to be devoid of heart or emotion to not be touched by the scene where Berrie asks the young Peter if he could use his name for the new play he inspired him to write; or the sequence where the four boys and Sylvia, bed-ridden with sickness, are treated to a personal performance of the play in their home. All of the scenes Depp shares with the kids are the closest the film comes to the magical inspiration I had hoped for from its entirety. While I will admit to some emotional welling as the credits rolled, is was the kind of sadness that I would have felt had someone relayed similar events to me in a conversation at a bar, not through any achievement of the film itself.

There is an excellent and just final irony to Neverland: Towards the end of the film Barrie laments that kids these days grow up too fast and stop using their imaginations. Frankly, I am tired of seeing this analogy to modern kids made throughout the pop-culture lexicon. Perhaps if the filmmakers, and others like them, had taken some of their own medicine and applied it to create a truly inspiring film, there would be no need to convey that in the first place. After all, imagination is hard enough to come by.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

"Sideways:" A Rare Vintage

Wine is the kind of passion that requires subtle appreciation and a refined, sophisticated taste. It takes similar traits to enjoy the full flavor of certain films, too; the kind of films it would be an insult to call mere "movies." Alexander Payne's Sideways is that kind of achievement. Rarely does a film capture the kind of truth that transforms the screen into a mirror; at times causing you to squirm at a character's embarrassment, laugh with their joy and sever a heartstring at their pain. Rarely do "characters" feel more, in fact, like people. Some films can have a precious few of these moments; others, like Sideways, provide them in spades.

Sideways stars Paul Giamatti as Miles Raymond, a middle-aged mope of an 8th grade English teacher, who takes his college roommate, Jack (Thomas Haden Church), on a road trip through California wine country as a bachelor party for his upcoming marriage. Each, and the women they meet on the trip, Maya (Virginia Madsen) and Stephanie (Sandra Oh), are all at major crossroads at the middle of their lives. For Miles, he is barely over his two-year-old divorce and struggling with getting his first novel published. Jack is an over-the-hill soap opera actor getting married when he clearly is not ready for the responsibility. Maya is similarly divorced and works as a waitress but studying to become a horticulturalist. Stephanie raises a young daughter, without a father, and likewise is clearly not ready for that responsibility. The men and women are each the opposite of one another. The yin to each of their yangs. Miles is emotive, passionate, deep, intelligent, sensitive and mature; while Jack is juvenile, id-driven, shallow and when he thinks, its often with the wrong head. Likewise, Maya is cautious, strong and wise while Stephanie is more impulsive and aggressive. Like different kinds of wine, they all offer distinct and complex tastes. What expressly makes these "characters" people are those same complexities. They all have flaws, strengths, triumphs and disasters. You often feel like them and for them.

Sideways has no flashy sets, costumes or photography. Indeed, one of Payne's strengths throughout his career has been removing the slick Hollywood varnish from his mise-en-scene, lending a documentary, folksy feel to everything within in his frame. On a related tangent, look for a continuation of Payne's funny awkard-nudity trend; Kathy Bates's disrobing from About Schmidt as a previous entry. This overall style leaves the success of the film to the basics of writing and acting, both of which shine overabundantly here. What a talent Payne has in unearthing actors like Thomas Haden Church (last seen on TV's Wings and Ned & Stacey) and a forgotten Virgina Madsen who both deliver career defining performances. Much has and will be written about Giamatti's towering performance, so I will save my superlatives and instead, cross my fingers and hope that he'll have a gold statuette in his hands come February. The scene he shares with Madsen on a porch, where they analogize their lives to their passions is incredibly intimate, real and soulful; one of the best I have seen this year. For Payne, it doesn't matter if the label on the bottle is pretty, it's the stuff inside that counts.

A great bottle of wine improves with age and likewise a great film can too, improving with repeated viewings. Unlike those vintages, the beauty, power and transcendence of Sideways is readily apparent in the first taste.

Post-Election Pop

Top 5 Songs For The Post-Election:

1. "Ohio" by CSNY
2. "Tell Me Why" by Neil Young
3. "Black Math" by The White Stripes
4. "Ashes of American Flags" by Wilco
5. "Heartbreaker" by Led Zeppelin

Feel free to add any more below.

This is not a political blog, it's the blog of a disillusioned and distressed American.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

The Voting Dude: A Quick Thought

By know means is this a political blog, nor will it become one now; there is a glut of places to go to to hear everyone and their mother soapbox about the presidential election. From the standpoint of pop culture, I can't quite think of any other time period in my life where a singular topic was so heavily scrutinized by all facets of media; by anyone with a camera, microphone or keyboard. Even the graffiti in my subway station and on the trains are politically motivated. While it is intriguing to see politics and voting en vogue, the resulting amount of coverage, drama and theater have left me reaching for both Xanax and Tylenol. Which is pretty good considering I don't even live in a swing state and thus have been left relatively candidate-commercial free; instead left to bask in various male-enhancement drug ads.

But I will say that the media-induced headaches, anxiety and nausea were more then worth it when I swung that lever this morning. Say what you will about the fallacies of the candidates or the process, but the act of voting felt truly fulfilling. Many of the people who's eyeballs get to peruse these words enjoy the sweet fruits America can provide, and a vote is only two minutes of repayment. While it may only be one vote, it is the most fundamental act of participation in a democracy, one the original fathers of this country dreamed of and its sons have too often died for.

Go Vote!