Monday, June 03, 2013

Stuff I've Written in May

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—Apparently it just worked out that it took another whole month for me to finally get around to doing my usual self-promotional round-up of stuff I've written and published.

Well, the big news of May is that I attended—to the consternation of my ever money-conscious dear mother—the 66th Cannes Film Festival and covered it for my site, In Review Online. I ended up getting four dispatches out of it:

The Immigrant (2013)

The Bling Ring, A Touch of Sin, The Past, Like Father, Like Son and Stranger by the Lake here
The Missing Picture, Blind Detective, Shield of Straw, Ain't Them Bodies Saints and Inside Llewyn Davis here
Closed Curtain, Only God Forgives, All Is Lost and Bastards here
Nebraska, Norte, the End of History, The Immigrant, Blue Is the Warmest Color, Only Lovers Left Alive and Manuscripts Don't Burn here

Perhaps I'll say more about my first-ever Cannes experience in a separate blog post; it had its ups and downs, admittedly (screw you, colored-badge system), but of course I'd gladly do it again in the future!

I also wrote about the great Chinese documentary Disorder for In Review Online here and Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood for The House Next Door here. Yes, I somehow managed to rattle off more than 1,000 words on a silly Friday the 13th movie. (I really should start trying to make more of an effort to get, you know, paid for writing shit like that.)

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Literary Interlude, "Statement of Purpose Via Roland Barthes" Edition


...The Text is plural. Which is not simply to say that it has several meanings, but that it accomplishes the very plural of meaning: an irreducible (and not merely an acceptable) plural. The Text is not a co-existence of meanings but a passage, an overcrossing; thus it answers not to an interpretation, even a liberal one, but to an explosion, a dissemination. The plural of the Text depends, that is, not on the ambiguity of its contents but on what might be called the stereographic plurality of its weave of signifiers (etymologically, the text is a tissue, a woven  fabric). The reader of the Text may be compared to someone at a loose end (someone slackened off from any imaginary); this passably empty subjects strolls—it is what happened to the author of these lines, then it was that he had a vivid idea of the Text—on the side of a valley, a oued flowing down below (oued is there to bear witness to a certain feeling of unfamiliarity); what he perceives is multiple, irreducible, coming from a disconnected, heterogeneous variety of substances and perspectives: lights, colours, vegetation, heat, air, slender explosions of noises, scant cries of birds, children's voices from over on the other side, passages, gestures, clothes of inhabitants near or far away. All these incidents are half-identifiable: they come from codes which are known but their combination is unique, founds the stroll in a difference repeatable only as difference. So the Text: it can be it only in its difference (which does not mean its individuality), its reading is semelfactive (this rendering illusory any inductive-deductive science of texts—no "grammar" of the text) and nevertheless woven entirely with citations, references, echoes, cultural languages (what language is not?), antecedent or contemporary, which cut across it through and through in a vast stereophony. The intertextual in which every text is held, it itself being the text-between of another text, is not to be confused with some origin of the text: to try to find the "sources," the "influences" of a work, is to fall in with the myth of filiation; the citations which go to make up a text are anonymous, untraceable, and yet already read: they are quotations without inverted commas. The work has nothing disturbing for any monistic philosophy (we know that there are opposing examples of these); for such a philosophy, plural is the Evil. Against the work, therefore, the text could well take as its motto the words of the man possessed by demons (Mark 5:9): "My name is Legion: for we are many." The plural of demoniacal texture which opposes text to work can bring with it fundamental changes in reading, and precisely in areas where monologism appears to be the Law: certain of the "texts" of Holy Scripture traditionally recuperated by theological monism (historical or anagogical) will perhaps offer themselves to a diffraction of meanings (finally, that is to say, to a materialist reading), while the Marxist interpretation of works, so far resolutely monistic, will be able to materialize itself more by pluralizing itself (if, however, the Marxist "institutions" allow it).

—Roland Barthes, from "From Work to Text" in Image/Music/Text (1977)

I may well be reading too much into this passage, but, in the way it suggests, through all the semiological jargon, the possibility of finding multiple meanings in a text, I see a justification of sorts of the existence of arts criticism: as an outlet for elucidating these meanings through various prisms, whether self-contained or connected to the wider world. And considering Barthes, in Image/Music/Text, uses a frame of cultural reference that ranges from Beethoven to Goldfinger, I imagine he would embrace the idea, arguably made popular a couple decades before this by those Cahiers du cinéma critics in the 1950s, that such a multiplicity of meanings can be found even in the most seemingly "lowbrow" of texts.

By the way, if any of you want to have your brain hardwired to look at art through a deconstructive prism of signs and signifiers, Roland Barthes—judging by this one book of his I'm still reading—is your man. It's truly mind-altering stuff, if sometimes verging on the dryly academic.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Stuff I've Written in April

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—Let's start from most recent first this time.

The Machine

New York's own Tribeca Film Festival came to an end on Sunday, and once again I was on the beat for Slant Magazine. I ended up writing four reviews:

Flex Is Kings (here)
Frankenstein's Army (here)
A Case of You (here)
The Machine (here)

As you can see, I was mostly underwhelmed by these four (The Machine was the best of the bunch, and even then I wouldn't make any grand claims for it as a great, visionary sci-fi achievement or anything); in fact, the only Tribeca Film Festival title that truly blew me away was Before Midnight, the latest in Richard Linklater's Before... series—and alas, I wasn't assigned to review that one (I did write this short Letterboxd entry, though). Actually, truth is, I didn't see a whole lot of films at Tribeca this year, so I'm sure I missed a lot of potentially good stuff (especially on the non-fiction front, as I kept hearing Tribeca had a lot of great documentaries to offer this year).

Otherwise, three more non-festival reviews: this of Terrence Malick's latest film, To the Wonder (I'm firmly in the "pro" camp); this of Shirley Clarke's recently restored 1967 documentary Portrait of Jason; and this of Unmade in China, a problematic but nevertheless compelling documentary about one filmmaker's increasingly nightmarish attempts to make a movie under the ultra-controlling grip of the Communist Chinese government.

Holy crap, did I write all that in April? I've sure kept myself busy this past month—and that also includes editing reviews for In Review Online and writing up shorter reviews at Letterboxd! And next month is looking to be about as productive...being that I'm going to the Cannes Film Festival for the first time!

Friday, April 05, 2013

RIP Roger Ebert (1942-2013)

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—A titan of film criticism has truly passed.

Roger Ebert's death was especially stunning a mere two days after he had announced, at his blog, that his cancer had returned and that he was cutting back on film reviewing. Even in the midst of such adversity, he was still writing, (Fitting that he called his upcoming scale-down of activity a "leave of presence" rather than the standard "leave of absence.")

It is Ebert's thirst for life that I'll remember from reading his writing, whether related to film or not. At his best, his writing exuded an openness to fresh ideas, impressions, sensations—and really, shouldn't this be the mindset of all critic? What made Ebert arguably singular among film critics was that he was able to convey his vision of cinema and the world in prose that was both eloquent and accessible to the layperson, without the insular shackles of academic theories to constrain his reach. To him, cinema had the power to reflect and illuminate life; you don't have to go too far than his recent reviews of The Tree of Life (with this as an even more illuminating corollary) and especially Synecdoche, New York (here's an addendum to it that he wrote) to grasp this. But, of course, if all you know about Roger Ebert is his television show and his thumbs, then you owe it to yourself to read him in print, whether online or in his books, and really get to know the man—because at his best, he was able to merge the personal and cinematic in ways that most of us would envy.

I can't say I ever really knew the man personally; though I did get to meet him and shake his hand at Ebertfest two years ago, I was never bold enough to actually, you know, contact him and maintain a steady correspondence. (My heart now burns with regret for not reaching out. Missed opportunities? Story of my life.) And yet, last year, he was apparently so impressed with my hypothetical Sight and Sound list for The House Next Door that he especially highlighted it in this tweet. (My editor, Ed Gonzalez, told me that my list absolutely killed in web traffic as a result of this.) I have no idea if Ebert remembered me when he posted that or if he just really liked the list; I guess now I will never know, sadly.

There is now a huge hole left in the world of film criticism—and heck, the world in general, if the outpouring of fond remembrances when the news broke yesterday is any indication—as a result of Roger Ebert's passing. But if his writing over the years—especially his more personal essays during his cancer-ridden years in the '00s, which to my mind, constituted his best recent writing—suggests anything, it is that he would not have wanted us to dwell on the fact of his death and would instead have implored us to return to living our own lives. I will do that, Mr. Ebert, while drawing strength from the very full and rich life you led.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

A Self-Promotion Catch-Up of Epic Proportions

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—As many of you could tell, I indeed have been slacking mightily in keeping this blog active...but this week has been a bit of a lighter one than I expected—perhaps a welcome calm before the storm that is Tribeca Film Festival, which I'll be covering for Slant Magazine again this year—so now I have a bit of time to catch up on promoting things I've been writing in the past couple of months.

So let's go all the way back to January, when, over at In Review Online, I wrote this review of Hors Satan, the latest film from French filmmaker Bruno Dumont. Good movie—maybe not quite as good as I remembered it from Toronto International Film Festival back in 2011, but still a fascinating watch.

Then came three reviews for Slant Magazine. The "best" of the trio, relatively speaking, was The Sorcerer and the White Snake, a martial-arts spectacle that didn't entirely leave me unaffected—I admit, the romance aspects sort of got to me towards the end—but which can't help but pale by comparison to the splendors its director, Ching Siu-tung, once unleashed in films like A Chinese Ghost Story (1987) and Duel to the Death (1983). You call that CGI "state-of-the-art"???

But at least I found that more passably entertaining than either the egregiously hagiographic Mumia Abu-Jamal documentary Long Distance Revolutionary: A Journey With Mumia Abu-Jamal (reviewed here) or, worst of all, the insufferable glorified globalization sitcom Shanghai Calling (here).

Later in February, I gave a second look to Gebo and the Shadow, the latest film from that seemingly ageless Portuguese auteur Manoel de Oliveira (he's 104!), and wrote this up over at The House Next Door as part of its coverage of Film Comment Selects, a local festival hosted by the renowned film magazine. If nothing else, the film offers a master class in making something truly cinematic out of the theatrical.

Fast-forward to March. I went to South by Southwest for the third year in a row! I ended up filing these five dispatches from Austin, Texas:

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone and V/H/S/2 (here)
Prince Avalanche and Drinking Buddies (here)
Museum Hours and Spring Breakers (here)
Downloaded, Touba and Before You Know It (here)
Cheap Thrills (one of the worst of the festival) and Short Term 12 (one of the best) (here)

And finally, I reviewed Bob Byington's ne plus ultra of deadpan comedy Somebody Up There Likes Me (no relation to the Robert Wise boxing picture with Paul Newman)—a review that apparently so annoyed a certain well-known film critic with my suggestion that Byington might actually be doing something somewhat Robert Bresson-like with his style that he made an offhand dismissive comment about it in this comment thread at the film site Letterboxd. I'll, um, take it as a compliment that I engendered some kind of reaction, however contemptuous. (As for whether I'm just full of shit, well, you should just watch the film for yourselves and decide.)

Speaking of Letterboxd: In between not blogging here and handling all the other crap in my life (occasional existential crises included), I've become rather addicted to the site's capabilities of allowing one to keep track and log reviews of films you watch. So if you all want to know what I've been watching since the beginning of this year, check out my profile and explore...because who knows if I'm ever going to revive that consumption-log thing I used to do?

Monday, April 01, 2013

White Elephant Blogathon 2013: A Hidden Treasure in the (Avocado) Jungle

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—[This is my contribution to the White Elephant Blogathon. What is the White Elephant Blogathon, you may be wondering? Well, remember this from last year, on this same date? Hopefully you get the idea.]

A few weeks ago in Austin, Texas, during this year’s South by Southwest film festival, I saw a documentary called Rewind This!, a loving tribute to the VHS format especially during its prime in the 1980s. But wait, I said to myself going into the screening: VHS has been widely recognized to be an inferior format as far as visual quality goes. Why should we be nostalgic about it if DVDs and Blu-rays have been demonstrated to be superior home-video formats? But the film’s director, Josh Johnson, offered at least one persuasive reason for not completely tossing the medium overboard just yet: With major studios now exercising near-total control over what films make it to the new digital formats, there is the strong possibility that a lot of hidden treasures will get lost in the shuffle, maybe forever. After all, silent masterpieces like Erich von Stroheim’s Greed and King Vidor’s The Crowd still have yet to make it to standard-definition DVD, much less high-definition Blu-ray—but of course, there are far less widely celebrated films that are facing the threat of biting the dust with the end of the popularity of VHS.

I couldn’t help but think of Rewind This! as I watched my White Elephant blogathon assignment this year, Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death (1989). Here’s a direct-to-video item that one would expect to be little more than curiosity for VHS fetishists by now—so imagine my surprise when I finally sit down and watch it…and discover myself not only enjoying it immensely, but finding something legitimately worth talking about (and you bet I’ll be doing so below). Granted, this film, for some odd reason, actually did make it into the DVD ranks; that’s how I watched it, after all. But if this is an indication of the kind of sneakily intelligent visions that can exist even in direct-to-video material—well, one can only imagine the kinds of films of this sort that aren’t making it to digital formats.

And yes, I do mean “sneakily intelligent” when it comes to Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death, which credits a “J.D. Athens” as its writer/director, but which is in fact the writing/directing debut of J.F. Lawton, the man who would soon afterward be best known as the screenwriter of Hollywood hits like Pretty Woman(1990) and Under Siege(1992). In Cannibal Women, one can already see bits of the underlying social concerns of Lawton’s Pretty Woman script allied with the kind of refreshing sense of the absurd that made Under Siege far more entertaining than it had to be.

With the presence of former Playboy centerfold (and soon-to-be erotic thriller queen) Shannon Tweed in the cast, one would expect this film to feature all sorts of gratuitous female nudity…and Lawton obliges us in the film’s first five minutes, as two guys lost in the titular avocado jungle encounter, to the vocal delight of one of the guys, a bunch of scantily clad women—some of them more topless than others—washing themselves in a waterfall. But then, one of the women fires a couple of arrows and kills one of the men, and then the rest of the women pursue the other guy into one of their traps. Here, in miniature, is an encapsulation of the kind of purposeful overturning of viewer expectations, especially when it comes to the so-called “male gaze,” that Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death gleefully engages in throughout. Perhaps the biggest subversive element of all: Shannon Tweed never, ever gets naked in this film.

Instead, she plays, believe it or not, an academic: Dr. Margo Hunt, a women’s studies professor with a strong anti-male bent. She’s recruited by a couple of government officials, with the coercive help of her college dean, to track down a tribe of “piranha women”—a bunch of extreme feminists who capture, cook and eat men with guacamole dip—at the edge of the avocado jungles in San Bernardino, Calif. Dr. Hunt develops her own personal interest in the mission when she discovers that a celebrity feminist scholar named Dr. Kurtz (horror scream queen Adrienne Barbeau) recently disappeared, presumably at the hands of these piranha women. One of Dr. Hunt’s students, a ditz named Bunny (Karen Mistal) who says she wants to learn how to be an independent woman, accompanies her on this adventure…and later on, these two are joined by Jim (Bill Maher—yes, that Bill Maher, of Politically Incorrect and Real Time fame), an alpha male who was once Dr. Hunt’s boyfriend before she broke it off.

Reading that brief plot summary is bound to inspire lots of raised “are you kidding me with this movie?” eyebrows…but one of the more disarming things about Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death is the realization that Lawton knows how silly all of this is and proceeds to have fun with it. This film practically overflows with comic grace notes: the two government officials who go by the names “Ford Maddox” (as in writer Ford Madox Ford) and “Col. Mattel;” a tribe of emasculated men named Donahues (as in talk-show host Phil) whose vocabulary consists entirely of either “Alan Alda,” “Mark Harmon” or “Walter Mondale;” gender-war-inflected parodies of 2001: A Space Odyssey (to tie in with the Donahues triumphantly locating their inner macho men) and Apocalypse Now (this film’s version of Col. Kurtz’s “the horror” lies not in the atrocities of war, but in the prospect of facing David Letterman on the talk-show circuit with a book about male insensitivity). That’s really just the tip of iceberg.

Perhaps most surprising about Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death, however, is the realization that there is actually a vision underneath the breezy surface frivolity. Granted, Lawton presents a broadly cartoonish vision of the battle of the sexes here, with Shannon Tweed’s bespectacled ultra-feminist college professor pitted against a slew of macho caricatures—not just former boyfriend Jim (whose chauvinism is frequently subverted by his own slapstick pratfalls), but also Ford Maddox and Col. Mattel, both of whom want to relocate the piranha women to “reservations” in Malibu that will no doubt anesthetize their feminist leanings in a wave of numbing domesticity; and three brutish action-hero types—a crazed Vietnam vet, a samurai and a wrestler—she encounters at a bar, all of whom slink away in cowardly fashion when they realize she’s going after the piranha women. (This, Dr. Hunt concludes, is proof that the threat of a strong woman is the one thing that punctures their male machismo.)

But Lawton doesn’t just reserve his burlesques for those feverishly macho types; he’s a classic equal-opportunity offender, it turns out. The aptly named Bunny, for instance, is ridiculed for wholeheartedly embracing the objectifying male gaze, despite the lip service she offers about desiring feminist enlightenment. Later on, though, even the extreme feminists come in for comic ribbing, most notably in a late plot twist in which it is revealed that the piranha women are also engaged in a battle of their own—an ideological one with so-called “barracuda women,” who, Dr. Hunt discovers to her horror, aren’t so much against the more extreme feminism of the piranha women as they are against their choice of dip on the men they cook and eat (they prefer clam dip).

Throughout the film, Dr. Hunt stands as the voice of reason amidst a sea of gender-war insanity, the outspoken but level-headed academic who prefers consciousness-raising over radicalism—and Lawton seems to align with that mindset. It’s because of his commitment to a more moderate brand of feminism that he manages to get away with the most potentially problematic late development with her character: her love-at-first-sight attraction toward Jean-Pierre (Brett Stimely), a to-be-sacrificial lamb of the piranha women that she meets at their compound. In the context of a world in which men are either chauvinists or wimps, Jean-Pierre represents the “perfect” man: one who exudes a brand of masculinity that is tempered with sensitive and intelligent impulses (he learned a bit of English from listening to Dr. Kurtz and audibly laments about how the piranha women value men not for smarts but only for their muscle tone). Dr. Hunt—who earlier had been complaining to Bunny about how her feminist beliefs have had the unfortunate side effect of leaving her unable to make any romantic commitments—finds in Jean-Pierre the man she has perhaps been looking for all her life; naturally, her convictions are strengthened when he ends up being the one rescuing her from doom at the hands of the piranha women at a crucial juncture. By the end of the film, Jean-Pierre is now enrolled in Dr. Hunt’s class, and teacher and student appear to be carrying on an affair. Is the movie going a conservative route in suggesting that all Dr. Hunt needed was the right man after all? I’m more inclined to give Lawton the benefit of the doubt that perhaps this was his way of acknowledging that hardcore political ideology can’t always account for matters of the heart.

Who knew a film with a title like Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death could not only be often genuinely funny, but also somewhat politically intelligent as well? Who knew such a film would actually have thematic ideas worth grappling with? It’s heartening to know that the world of cinema can still offer up surprises, no matter how long one has been immersed in it.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Abbas Kiarostami and The Photographer's Gaze

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—Yes yes, I know, I've been neglecting this blog for about a month and half now. With the combination of my Wall Street Journal day job, my In Review Online editor-in-chief duties, and some unexpected personal stuff (I won't go into much detail about it here except to say that it was basically a sadly short-lived romance), such neglect was bound to happen. Yesterday, though, I was struck by something I saw at work, and I realized that there was no way I was going to be able to articulate my thoughts and feelings about that something in a mere 140 characters on here I am.

This image was on the front page of Friday's Wall Street Journal Asia edition:

Now, I see photos like this pretty often not only in the pages of the Journal, but in many other forms of news media, print, online or otherwise. I suppose you could say I've become somewhat numb to the suffering such photographs portray. And yet somehow, this one hit me a lot harder than I expected when I saw it at work on Thursday.

It wasn't simply the grief inscribed in the woman's crying face that got to me, though. Look at how the photographer seems to have pointed his/her camera lens directly at this woman's face. There's no escaping her heartache; we're forced to stare right back at it and confront it, without any obstructive artiness to distance us from the raw emotion of the moment. As I kept staring at this photograph, I couldn't help but wonder: What was the photographer thinking when taking this shot at this straight-ahead angle. Was the photographer as shaken by this as I was?

Not that that really matters in the long run; the photographer got the shot, and there you go. But about a week ago, I finally saw Abbas Kiarostami's 1999 film The Wind Will Carry Us at Film Society of Lincoln Center's recent complete retrospective of the great Iranian filmmaker, and couldn't help but think of Behzad Dourani, the photographer at the heart of the film, when contemplating the photograph above. In the film, Behzad is a man so devoted to his craft that he basically camps out in a remote Iranian village waiting for a particular individual to die just so he can snap a few shots of townspeople in the midst of funeral rites. Sounds callous, right? And the Behzad that's presented in the film isn't always easy to read; mostly, we see him coolly observing and reacting rather than emoting. Kiarostami, however, doesn't go for simplistic moralizing; his approach to storytelling and characterization is too patient, elliptical and exploratory for us to pass easy judgment on Behzad. The Wind Will Carry Us gradually reveals itself to be partly a meditation on the distance between an artist and his subject, and as such I couldn't help but think about Behzad as I gazed at that picture above.

At the very end of the film, Behzad—in his car, all by himself, camera in hand—snaps the photographs for which he came in the first place and simply drives away...and Kiarostami refuses to follow him, leaving us to wonder what might be going through his mind as he makes his exit. We've seen Behzad, during the course of the film, make gestures toward developing a kind of affection toward the town and its inhabitants, to the point where he's even desperately summoning townspeople to come help a villager who has fallen into a hole. Does that sense of emotional involvement and human empathy end for some photographers when they wield their cameras and snap their precious shots? Maybe that photograph above is as much implicative of the photographer's gaze as it is of our own.

Monday, January 07, 2013

Celebrities Are People Too, You Know!


Or, at least, that's one idea that celebrity photographer Kevin Mazur wants us to take away from his debut documentary feature $ellebrity, which I reviewed for Slant Magazine here. There's more to the film than that, but for me, that's the thread that comes through most strongly. My inner humanist finds a certain value in a film that expresses such a sentiment...but considering the way Mazur seems to pin as much blame on the general public for fostering paparazzi culture as he does on the vulture-like photographers themselves (but oh, not him, surely not him), I have a feeling that he wasn't exactly working from a humanist perspective himself. Still, the film has its, uh, useful qualities; it's, at the very least, a slightly more interesting film than I was expecting going in.

Artistic Consumption Log, Dec. 31, 2012 - Jan. 6, 2013

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—This was a fairly light week in artistic consumption, and attendant earth-shattering revelations were kept to a minimum. The closest I came to such an experience was with Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini's 1971 adaptation of The Decameron, the opening panel of his so-called "Trilogy of Life." Actually, "life" could be one way to suggest the scope of Pasolini's film underlying the deceptive lightness of touch; many of the episodes in this unabashedly episodic film may deal with matters of flesh and spirit—but really, broadly speaking, isn't "flesh" and "spirit" the two things that make up all human existence, more or less? Pasolini's film feels like the work of a filmmaker who, taking off from Boccaccio's source material, wanted to cram in everything he had on his mind regarding sex, love, religion, class differences and art into this one film; the result is consistently surprising, endlessly playful, often irreverently funny but not without moments of darkness to puncture the frothy, airy surface at certain points. But hey, that's just how life itself is like, right? I wish I had been able to see the other two films in Pasolini's triptych, The Canterbury Tales (1972) and Arabian Nights (1974), this weekend at Museum of Modern Art...but thankfully, in this case, it's the Criterion Collection to the rescue!

The Decameron (1971)


Cheyenne Autumn (1964, John Ford), seen at Walter Reade Theater in New York

$ellebrity (2012, Kevin Mazur), seen via screener link at home in Brooklyn, N.Y.

The Decameron (1971, Pier Paolo Pasolini), seen at Museum of Modern Art in New York


Apollo: Atmospheres & Soundtracks (1983, Brian Eno)
The Pearl (1984, Brian Eno)

Thursday, January 03, 2013

Catching Up on Promoting Myself

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—Oh man, I've got a lot of catching up to do in regard to self-promotion on this blog!

For much of my November and December, I found myself consumed by balancing my Wall Street Journal day job with my In Review Online editor-in-chief duties, which in December including trying to organize an end-of-year cinema wrap-up. Now 2013 is finally here, all of that is done, and I can finally focus on other things. Behold the end result of all my duties here! (Thank you to all my writers at InRO for helping me pull this off!)

As a contributor to Slant Magazine, I also contributed to that site's end-of-year movies feature with a short blurb about my favorite film of 2012, Moonrise Kingdom. Click here to check out the whole shebang (Wes Anderson's film placed at No. 10). Oh, and speaking of Moonrise Kingdom, listen to me basically re-read my Slant blurb for Peter Labuza's Cinephiliacs podcast at some point during this most recent two-part end-of-year wrap-up episode.

Amidst all this, I still somehow managed to write some film reviews! Let's start with a couple of negligible items, both of them for Slant Magazine: that of Darragh Byrne's completely forgettable Irish drama starring Colm Meaney named Parked (review here) and Antonino D'Ambrosio's marginally more engaging documentary about the rise of punk entitled Let Fury Have the Hour (see here).

Over at Slant's sister blog The House Next Door, I penned this review of Brad Bernstein's Far Out Isn't Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story, which screened during the DOC NYC festival here in New York in early November. I didn't love the film, but I wouldn't necessarily discourage anyone from seeing it whenever it receives a proper theatrical release; its interview subject—a cartoonist who pushed the boundaries of taste with his illustrations in the '60s and eventually got ostracized for his fidelity to his vision—is, if nothing else, an endlessly fascinating personality to witness onscreen.

Speaking of documentaries, I made my first proper review at In Review Online that of The Central Park Five, Ken Burns, Sarah Burns and David McMahon's often scalding chronicle of the institutional and personal injustices that befell five black New York City youths as they were sentenced for a horrific gang rape in 1989 in Central Park that they did not commit. It's an entirely honorable and sometimes incisive picture and definitely worth seeing, though I would hesitate to call it a great one (if only Spike Lee had handled this material instead of the ever-respectable Ken Burns...).

For my second review to date at InRO, however, I took on one of the biggest films of 2012: Kathryn Bigelow's much-lauded search-for-Bin Laden chronicle Zero Dark Thirty. Let's just say, I'm not entirely on board with the near-universal praise this film has been getting. You can read my ambivalent take on it here.

And I think that's it for catching up. Here's to more great films and film writing in the new year!

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Artistic Consumption Log, Dec. 24, 2012 - Dec. 30, 2012

NEW YORK—Happy New Year, everybody! I hope you all had a good one!

I suppose I should make a New Year's resolution to do a better job of keeping up with these weekly artistic consumption logs—and heck, even this whole blog in general—than I've done in the past couple of months or so. But I'm pretty sure that is a resolution that I will eventually break. I'll try my damnedest, however!

Anyway, my highlights of this particular week in artistic consumption came courtesy of that German-American Romantic Ernst Lubitsch—Ninotchka especially (having Greta Garbo at the top of her form as well as Billy Wilder's endlessly witty and layered dialogue sure helps, apparently). Just about everything you want to know about what interests me in cinema, as in life—specifically, the intersection between cold logic and warm emotion, and the ways both intersect and enrich each other—can be seen in this 1939 comic masterpiece.

Ninotchka (1939)


The Shop Around the Corner (1940, Ernst Lubitsch), seen on Turner Classic Movies at home in East Brunswick, N.J.
Ninotchka (1939, Ernst Lubitsch), seen at Film Forum in New York

Django Unchained (2012, Quentin Tarantino), seen at AMC Bridgewater Commons in Bridgewater, N.J. [second viewing]

Keep the Lights On (2012, Ira Sachs), seen via screener link at home in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Detropia (2012, Heidi Ewing & Rachel Grady), seen at IFC Center in New York


Ambient 2: The Plateaux of Mirror (1980, Harold Budd/Brian Eno)
My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (1981, Brian Eno/David Byrne)
Ambient 4: On Land (1982, Brian Eno) 

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

(Another Supersized) Artistic Consumption Log, Dec. 10, 2012 - Dec. 23, 2012

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—I'm not going to bother apologizing for the extreme lateness this time. know. Perhaps needless to say, the log below will be barebones.

Anyway, hope you all had a great holiday yesterday! I, for one, am actually rather dreading having to force myself to get back into the daily grind after two days, more or less, of just sitting around and doing nada. Wish me luck...

The Perks of Being a Wallflower


The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012, Stephen Chbosky), seen on screener at home in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Silver Linings Playbook (2012, David O. Russell), seen at Angelika Film Center in New York

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012, Peter Jackson), seen at AMC Loews Lincoln Square 13 in New York

A Home Far Away (2012, Peter Entell), seen on screener at home in Brooklyn, N.Y.


Before and After Science (1977, Brian Eno)
Music for Films (1978, Brian Eno)
 After the Heat (1978, Brian Eno/Moebius/Hans-Joachim Roedelius)
Ambient 1: Music for Airports (1978, Brian Eno)

Les Troyens at the Metropolitan Opera House


Your Day is My Night (2012, Lynne Sachs), seen at University Settlement in New York

Les Troyens (1858, Hector Berlioz), seen at Metropolitan Opera House in New York

Where (we) Live (2012, Sō Percussion), seen at Brooklyn Academy of Music in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

(Supersized) Artistic Consumption Log, Nov. 26, 2012 - Dec. 9, 2012

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—Well, I'm pretty sure I have published two-week artistic consumption logs before, so it's not like this is without precedent...

Some day, 2012 movie catch-up will end. (Over the past weekend, I turned in one ballot, and I have two more to submit before the year is out—not to mention the year-end wrap-up I'm planning for In Review Online.)

Oh, and if any of you are wondering why I haven't put a recommending star next to Zero Dark Thirty—well, no, I'm not especially enthusiastic about it, in stark contrast to seemingly every critics' group that has bestowed Best Picture honors to Kathryn Bigelow's latest action epic. Are we looking at the next Best Picture Oscar winner? In any case, I'm planning to explain the sources of my resistance over at In Review Online soon.

Until then...well, below is a barebones overview of all the art I've consumed in the past two weeks.

Vamps (2012)


Photographic Memory (2011, Ross McElwee), seen on screener in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Neighboring Sounds (2012, Kleber Medonça Filho), seen on screener in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Zero Dark Thirty (2012, Kathryn Bigelow), seen at Director's Guild Theater in New York
I Wish (2011, Hirokazu Kore-eda), seen on screener in New York
Lincoln (2012, Steven Spielberg), seen at Brooklyn Academy of Music in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Vamps (2012, Amy Heckerling), seen on screener in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Let Fury Have the Hour (2012, Antonino D'Ambrosio), seen on screener in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Django Unchained (2012, Quentin Tarantino), seen at Academy Theater at Lighthouse International in New York


Here Come the Warm Jets (1974, Brian Eno)
Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) (1974, Brian Eno)
Another Green World (1975, Brian Eno)
Discreet Music (1976, Brian Eno)

The set of the latest Signature Theatre Co. production of The Piano Lesson


Golden Child (1998, David Henry Hwang), seen live at Pershing Square Signature Center in New York
The Piano Lesson (1990, August Wilson), seen live at Pershing Square Signature Center in New York


the event of a thread (2012, Ann Hamilton), seen at Park Avenue Armory in New York

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Artistic Consumption Log, Nov. 19, 2012 - Nov. 25, 2012

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—Sorry for the tardiness with this latest artistic consumption log...and, as you will all see below, sorry in advance for the lack of usual critical commentary. Thanks to a review I had to write for Slant Magazine this week (I'll post a link to it on this blog later on) plus In Review Online-related duties—not to mention, you know, Thanksgiving—I found precious little time to give this log the fuller treatment I usually give these kinds of posts. It's quite possible that you may see more of these barebones logs, too, as end-of-the-year film-roundup responsibilities look to be keeping me busy for the next few weeks, at least.  But I'll make a more concerted effort to post future logs on Monday, as I usually do.

The Man in the White Suit (1951)


The Man in the White Suit (1951, Alexander Mackendrick), seen at Film Forum in New York
A Man Vanishes (1967, Shohei Imamura), seen at Anthology Film Archives in New York
Parked (2010, Darragh Byrne), seen on screener DVD at home in East Brunswick, N.J.
Red Dawn (2011, Dan Bradley), seen at Regal Commerce Center Stadium 18 in North Brunswick, N.J.
Anna Karenina (2012, Joe Wright), seen on screener DVD at home in East Brunswick, N.J.


Substance (1987, New Order)


Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962, Edward Albee), seen live at The Booth Theatre in New York

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Artistic Consumption Log, Nov. 12, 2012 - Nov. 18, 2012: "Dominated By Experimental Theater" Edition

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—This past week was the first one in which I tackled editor-in-chief duties at In Review Online, so much of my time was consumed by that. For that reason, I ended up not seeing too many movies—thus leaving it open for two startling pieces of experimental theater to pick up the artistic-consumption slack.


Samsara (2011, Ron Fricke), seen on DVD at home in Brooklyn, N.Y.
As was the case with Baraka (1992), Ron Fricke's previous globe-trotting documentary epic, Samsara is an often astonishing mix of the profound and the facile. Ultimately, though, I think this follow-up cuts much deeper than its predecessor. It's still "a mile wide," still grounded in travelogue-like glimpses of exotic and modern cultures in its grand 70mm imagery. Instead of cheesy "we are one" sentiments, however, Samsara hones in on more specific, if no less broad, themes: life, death, birth, destruction, the differences between civilizations past and present. (Its opening pre-credits scenes lay out the whole movie, more or less: an exotic dance, an exploding volcano, an embryo, a preserved corpse.) Fricke is still as shallow as ever when it comes to trying to actually tackle human beings, especially in modern society: Its time-lapse footage of humans in assembly lines and wide shots of neon-lit city landscapes inspire a not-especially-revelatory sense of mechanized dread. (You can't get more clichéd, for instance, than that one cheap shot of morbidly obese American fast-food consumers downing their food—as if that was meant to represent the decline of Western civilization or something.) Once again, though, the Eisensteinian montage saves him, situating these momentary failures of taste and empathy in a more resonant wider context, as merely one piece of a larger societal/historical quilt. The sheer amount of food for thought that Samsara inspires in addition to its expected visual wonder is mind-boggling; one viewing is hardly enough to unpack it all.

The Central Park Five (2012, Ken Burns/Sarah Burns/David McMahon), seen at SVA Theater in New York
Here's another documentary I saw this past week, one that's far less aesthetically ambitious than Samsara but no less thought-provoking. I'm reviewing this for In Review Online (and since I'm the new editor-in-chief of that site, this is something I expressly chose to tackle) so you can read more about it when that piece goes up (by Friday, hopefully, when it starts a theatrical run at IFC Center here in New York). In spite of some regrettable pulled punches, it's worth your time, for sure.

Argo (2012, Ben Affleck), seen at Director's Guild Theater in New York
This is an entertaining thriller that one could also point to as a classic illustration of "This is why they hate us." It doesn't matter who "they" are in the viewpoint of a certain kind of self-absorbed American mindset; "they" are all just grist for a cinematic adventure of boy's-own derring-do. That's fine in, say, a big-budget Hollywood action blockbuster that doesn't pretend to allude to any recognizable real world. But when "they" are angry Iranians in the midst of a real-life event—the Iran hostage crisis, in this case—then it becomes rather more problematic. Granted, Argo does make brief gestures toward acknowledging U.S. involvement in getting some of its own into this particularly ugly situation, mostly through a few tossed-off lines of Aaron Sorkin-like "witty" dialogue and a half-animated opening sequence giving all of us a speedy overview of the history of U.S. involvement in Iran—all of which suggest a political complexity that is quickly brushed aside to focus on a mere sidebar to the main crisis: the rescue of six Americans from the Canadian embassy through a cock-eyed scheme involving the production of a fake Hollywood science-fiction epic. Though Ben Affleck never quite shamelessly overcooks the suspense like, say, Kevin Macdonald did in the gag-inducing finale of another based-on-true-events thriller The Last King of Scotland, the unexamined racist mechanisms are still basically the same: The Iranians become the implicitly villainous "other" preventing these six Americans, plus dour CIA "exfiltrator" Tony Mendez (Affleck, as stiff as ever), from their heroic escape. And what of those 52 hostages that remained in captivity for 444 days from 1979-'81? Well, you know, recreating a fictionalized version of that story and maybe exploring its political ramifications isn't nearly as "exciting" as being able to throw in tired jabs at the business of Hollywood in the midst of a story with a more uplifting ending.

Get Ready (2001)


Republic (1993, New Order)
Get Ready (2001, New Order)
Waiting for the Sirens' Call  (2005, New Order)
I think there's some fairly underrated music in these three later New Order albums. Republic—the first album released after the demise of their usual label Factory Records—has a certain vague sense of personal reflection underpinning its dance beats. Soon afterward, they would break up—only to reunite five years later, in 1998. With Get Ready, the first album after their reunion and eight years after Republic, Bernard Sumner & co. would go back to their Joy Division roots, deemphasizing electronics in favor of a relatively more stripped-down, lyrics-based aesthetic. Waiting for the Sirens' Call, in the context of New Order's entire career, then, has the feel of a summation, veering from guitar-oriented opening tracks to electronica and then back again, all wrapped up in lyrics that, as was also the case with Bernard Sumner's lyrics in Get Ready, are more direct and earnest than one might expect from this band—for better and for worse.


Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 (2012, Dave Malloy), seen at Ars Nova in New York
 Roman Tragedies (2007, Ivo van Hove/William Shakespeare), seen at Brooklyn Academy of Music in Brooklyn, N.Y. 
This past weekend, I took in two pieces of experimental immersive theater, both daring to place spectators within the same space as its performers. The results offered a fascinating study in contrasts.

Imagine an electro-pop opera set in a simulated Russian speakeasy—with free vodka served, no less—that is based on a selection from Leo Tolstoy's epic tome War and Peace? That's composer-lyricist Dave Malloy's new work Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 in a nutshell. It gets off to a bit of a gruesome start with an ebullient opening number setting up the characters and situations in a way that suggests, none too promisingly, that this will just be a self-aware, ironic and hip modern updating of Tolstoy...but such suspicions are immediately, thankfully dashed once the plot gets underway. Turns out, the novelty of its immersive staging is hardly the only notable thing about it; the music and lyrics are constantly keyed into their characters' emotional states, and the staging only helps to bring us closer to these people and their tumultuous inner passions: Natasha's naivete, Pierre's cynicism, Anatole's callowness, and so on. The result is a musical that is as profoundly moving as it is theatrically and musically inventive...and damned if its ending—in which Pierre sees the titular comet and achieves the kind of unspoken epiphany that James Joyce would later make a regular feature of his fiction—not only reaches for transcendence, but actually achieves it.

The masses rushing onto the stage in the early going of Roman Tragedies

Roman Tragedies—a six-hour conceptual theater piece involving consecutive abridged adaptations of three William Shakespeare tragedies, Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra—is a much chillier work...but of course it is, considering the dramatic material. Shakespeare depicted the political machinations and tragic flaws of these characters from an omniscient perspective, and so does Dutch theater director Ivo van Hove. One of Van Hove's major innovations with this century-old material, however, is to update it to our media-saturated political landscape while also retaining vestiges of the old Roman-arena theatrical style—politics as a ruthless, "survival of the fittest" Roman circus. To that end, the stage of Roman Tragedies is not only transformed into a kind of modernized Roman amphitheater, complete with huge jumbotron relaying what's happening on the stage; there are also television screens everywhere on set, as well as onstage cameramen filming the actors live. Oh, and did I mention that we spectators are allowed to actually go onstage and watch the action up close, either by watching the actors or by watching one of those many television screens? And that we're also expressly invited to live-tweet during the experience, if we so chose? And that below the jumbotron is a digital news feed of sorts offering headlines, broadcasting tweets and foreshadowing major characters' deaths (example: "395 minutes until Cleopatra's death") much like those bottom-of-the-screen tickers on news networks?  

Roman Tragedies, in short, is filled to the brim with provocative stage gimmicks—but does this all add up to an interesting and resonant vision? I admit, there were large portions of Van Hove's show where I felt disengaged from the drama onstage and wondered whether this show was ultimately all concept and no heart. The more I mull over the whole experience, though, the more intriguing I find elements of that concept—especially regarding its audience-interactive elements. With many audience members taking photos of the actors and/or looking down at their phones during the performance, it lent a purposely vulgar sideshow element to what, in other contexts, are supposed to be serious dramas. How does this necessarily make us any different from, say, those onlookers who gawk and take photos of car crashes without actually, you know, doing anything to help the victims? In this way, Roman Tragedies dares to implicate us as well, forcing us to question our relationship to the action onstage—because, for all that we're allowed to get close to the performers onstage, we don't actually interact with them, and they don't interact with us. That fourth wall remains upright; physically, we're close, sure—but emotionally we remain mere plebeians to the machinations of those of supposedly higher rank.

All of that might have come off as impossibly alienating if it weren't for the actors, whose performances in the various roles are often vivid enough to cut through the barriers Van Hove purposefully puts in front of us and move us in individual moments. What stamina it must take these actors to maintain such a level of emotional intensity for the better part of six hours! Roman Tragedies is a deeply impressive feat of theatrical ingenuity and performance, and even if I ultimately found it to be more intellectually than emotionally engaging, I'm certainly glad I saw it. Yay for experimental theater!