Friday, December 30, 2011

Top Ten Films of 2011 (That Would Be Most Improved By Flying Guillotines)

Some quick notes:

* this list only includes films I actually saw. Despite my suspicion that, say, J. EDGAR or WE BOUGHT A ZOO would be much more watchable with flying guillotines, I can't speak to that likelihood with true authority.

* some of you may never, somehow, have seen a flying guillotine in action, and so this trailer, which as far as I know represents the pinnacle of cinema du flying guillotine, may prove useful:

* this list is not the top ten best films of the year, nor is it the worst films of the year. It is, merely, the films that would be most improved by the inclusion of flying guillotines. Because, of course, every film would be improved by the inclusion of a flying guillotine, but the question is, how much?

For you, dear reader, an answer is here.

10. VIVA RIVA! I had my hopes up for this much hyped Congolese action film, and its setting was fresh and exciting, but I quickly found myself descending into a hibernatory state as it descended into formulaic no-budget action. Memo to all action filmmakers: flying guillotines are always a great way to rouse your audience.

9. THE IDES OF MARCH. It's an easy joke that a classily-photographed chamber play of a movie would be improved by a flying guillotine - but it's easy BECAUSE IT'S TRUE. Anything would be an unexpected infusion of life into this antiseptic film - but if you're going for an infusion of life, why take half measures?

8. KNUCKLE. Can't fault the filmmaker on this one, what with it being a documentary, but the fact is that bare knuckle fighting starts shocking and then continues at the same level of shocking, albeit more engrossing as we know the characters. But if these characters had taken their grudge settling to the next level, everyone would have been screaming about that crazy documentary about the Irish travelers and their crazy flying guillotine grudge matches.

7. PUSS IN BOOTS 3-D. "Oh, but it's a kid's film!", you say. I say: any kid's film that has room for FIGHT CLUB references, has room for flying guillotines. And whilst I was fairly happy with my experience in this film, a flying guillotine would have made my heart ten sizes too big. WITH JOY.

6. BRIDESMAIDS. Now, I enjoyed BRIDESMAIDS, despite it being 83 hours long and ending with a Wilson Phillips song, but damn did I have a difficult time convincing my fellow Y-chromosome holders it was worth their attention. But if I could have hit with the one-two punch of "it has Chris O'Dowd from THE IT CROWD ... and it has a flying guillotine"? Sells itself, really. And would it have been out of character for Melissa McCarthy to use one at some point? No. No, it would not.

5. SANCTUM. I love caves, I love diving, I love the 3-D system used in AVATAR, I love horror. These four things came together and somehow produced one of the worst movies I saw this year, as someone along the way decided to take all of that and put in the background in favor of a hackneyed father-son conflict. Now, if the writers had been forced to work in a flying guillotine, a level of unseriousness might have been reached that would take it around the bend into sheer goofy enjoyment. One can live in hope, anyway. Also, it could have been the setting for the innovation of an underwater flying guillotine: now, THAT would be something.

4. ATTACK THE BLOCK. A controversial inclusion, in that this is my favorite film of the list, and I like to consider it perfect as what it is. But then I stop to think: what if our street toughs had broken out a flying guillotine as an alien-fighting tool? No question that, at the screening I went to, the crowd would have gone wild.

3. 3-D SEX AND ZEN: EXTREME ECSTACY. Nothing I saw in the theatre in 2011 came close in terms of "shameless exploitation" to this ... well, I guess technically it's a film, but mostly it's a receptacle for insanity. But there are many tedious passages in between the extreme moments of WTF-ery, and that tedium would have instantly lifted with the appearance of a flying guillotine ... in 3-D, no less! And it would have fit ... well, about as well as anything fits in this movie.

2. THE TREE OF LIFE. You know that scene with the dinosaur? The one where it decides whether or not to kill its prey? Replace it with a master of the flying guillotine, deciding whether to show mercy or not on the final of his victims. Malick fans would insist it fits just as much as anything else in the movie (and get to watch the dinosaur scene in the inevitable 2019 7-hour cut), those who found the dinosaur scene risible would lose it and instead have an awesome flying guillotine scene. Who wins? EVERYBODY.

1. DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK. A fundamentally flawed movie, too fraught with potential peril for children while well short on actual consequences for adults. But if the monsters of this film wielded some truly frightening machinery - and you know what I'm talking about - in the first twenty minutes, suddenly there would be some real blood on the floor, a great fan moment, and it would have had to then follow through at that level of menace. And it might be remembered as the horror movie of the year. (Well, no, probably not. But it would have been less forgettable.)

My hope for 2012, as always: more flying guillotines in cinema.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Objects. Experiences. Data.

or, a half formed shower thought.

In the past, broadly speaking, artists presented their work to the world, and provided revenue for themselves (or the companies who were marketing/distributing their work) in one of two ways: as objects you owned, or experiences you had. These weren't mutually exclusive, of course, as you could have the experience of the live show and then own the object of the album.

Objects - books, albums, videotapes, and their progeny - were receptacles of data.

Now, data has been liberated from objects. And so the possible markets become: objects, experiences, data. The consumer preferences multiply (some people prefer books as receptacles of their writing data; others prefer e-books). Niches that are largely about experience (live music, theatre, etc) are largely unchanged. Those that are about objects as transmission devices for data are transformed completely.

This is probably a really obvious analysis, but I've never thought of it quite that way before. And I'm convinced that somewhere, lurking in there, is a revelation about the future.

If you find it, let me know.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Best Worst Podcast #5

Recorded just a few days after the Fatso 24 Hour Movie Marathon, Doug & Jacob attempt to make sense of the mayhem within. B-Grade awesomeness and cinegeek mouth frothing abounds!

Monday, December 12, 2011

Best Worst Podcast #4

Best Worst Podcast, Episode 4: The Return

Yes! Cinemadventurers Doug & Jacob return to the audible realms after a few months of separation. Doug has been travelling the USA in search of cinematic inspiration whilst Jacob has secluded himself in a cave and watched TV & DVDs with the odd excursion out to the cinema. This episode is roughly split into 3 parts:

1. Doug’s Fantastic Voyage (0-18 mins)
Jacob grills Doug on the pleasures of Fantastic Fest (Sep 2011 in Austin, Texas) and the New York Film Festival (Oct 2011 in NYC, New York).
Films discussed from NYFF: CAPRICIOUS YOUNG MAN, A DANGEROUS METHOD, Views from the Avant-Garde Festival films]
2. Big Screen vs Small Screen (18-29 min)
Jacob talks Shane Meadows’ THIS IS ENGLAND ’86 and the transition of the story from film to TV then we discuss the future of film and television.
3. Overdrive (30 mins to end)
We unpack our shifting feelings toward Refn’s compelling Gosling led LA Noir piece DRIVE.

Monday, October 10, 2011

A few notes on Fantastic Fest 2011

In retrospect, I should have blogged in real time at Fantastic Fest 2011 - for those unaware, one of the world's pre-eminent festivals of what is increasingly being referred to as "genre" film, a shorthand catch-all for those works traditionally marginalized for their genre, such as horror, sci-fi, action, and suchlike - because I would have fit in better. After every session, dozens opened their laptops, furiously typing their reviews for their various blogs, news sites, and what have you. It's indicative of the cultural currency Fantastic Fest, along with the Alamo Drafthouse (where it's hosted), Mondo (the poster company that operates out of a bathroom-sized annex of the lobby), and their other affiliated interests have gained over the past few years. It's become a must-do event for geeks of a certain stripe, nowhere near on the order of Comic-Con ... but the comparison in fervor is apt, particularly given that the last night's closing night film was a documentary on Comic-Con.

I missed that film. I missed lots of films, in part because you physically can't see everything that plays at Fantastic Fest (of 70+ feature programs, there's just under 40 potential slots over 8 days) and in part because you can't always see everything you want to. The screenings take place over 5 of the 6 Alamo Drafthouse screens (the sixth was dedicated to regular commercial screenings of CONTAGION - in my opinion, a scarier movie than anything I saw at Fantastic Fest). With badge-holders combined filling up the capacity of the available theaters, it's inevitable that some movies will be too popular to get into, particularly as VIP badge-holders get first choice. (Want to be a VIP badge holder? Good luck - this year it sold out in three minutes. I tried last year to have VIP for this year, failed, bought a regular badge instead.)

So I didn't get to see such much-hyped films as JUAN OF THE DEAD, or BULLHEAD, or MILOCRORZE: A LOVE STORY, or HEADHUNTERS, or YOU'RE NEXT (though that one we can blame on Lion's Gate, who pulled the second screening of it for some indeterminate reason - maybe because every writer who would consider covering its theatrical release would have written about it at Fantastic Fest if they'd been able to see it). I did not see HUMAN CENTIPEDE II, either, although I had the chance, but I did get annoyed at the self-important guy behind me in line one day who dismissed it saying the violence wasn't "that bad" and he'd seen "much worse".

(I really, truly have no truck with the fraction of genre cinema fans who seem to treat movies exclusively as a survivalist challenge, and pride themselves on what they can stomach. Thankfully, that's a small fraction of the audience.)

Do I sound negative? Call it a recalibration of expectations for those who haven't been. Within those expectations - knowing you won't see everything you want, knowing you'll be more tired than you've ever been by the end, knowing you'll be standing in the Austin heat at undesirable times of day in a hothouse of aggressive geekery - it is, really, a fantastic experience, a movie lover's dream. A few reasons:

1. Quite a few of the filmmakers - and a couple actors, and other demi-celebrities - make it here for the event, as has been publicized in the various karaoke sessions, boxing matches, and other events that surround the festival. I didn't talk to Dominic Monaghan when he was in the bathroom before the screening of THE DAY, or introduce myself to Harry Knowles, but I did browse through posters with the director of the Belgian black comedy KILL ME PLEASE, and had a great 15-minute chat with the directors of the first Israeli horror film, RABIES, after its midnight screening. (Something I realized too late - the filmmakers, quite often, are the ones who don't know many people here, and are often standing aloof. I would have loved to talk to the frequently-spotted-by-me, brilliant, funny, and incredibly self-effacing Panos Cosmatos, for instance, about whose BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW more in a bit, but I didn't see the film til near the end of the fest and I think he left immediately after that screening.) And while it wasn't the most memorable film I saw, I won't forget the filmmakers of ZOMBIE ASS walking in wearing only a sumo wrap around their crotches, throwing out Baby Ruth candy bars while leading a call-and-response "ZOMBIE!" "ASS!"

2. The Drafthouse philosophy of serving food and beer during films divides people. I think if I was at an avant-garde festival, I'd hate it, but here, it was blissful, perhaps a slight distraction in three of my twenty-nine screenings, more than made up for by truly excellent food (those peanut butter and banana cookies haunt my dreams!) and a deep variety of great beers, complimentary ice water, everything served in the least distracting way possible. Popcorn? Actually served in metal bowls. No crinkling paper. On the whole, given the Drafthouse option or, say, the person who brought a three-course meal worth of plastic containers in plastic bags into THE TURIN HORSE with me at NZFF, I'll take the former. Also, weirdly, the slight continual traffic creates a noise floor, almost like the static of vinyl, that everything sits on top of, undisturbed.

3. But, see, there aren't any other disturbances. Alamo famously has a "use cell phones or talk and we'll kick your ass out" policy, and re-iterates it before every film ... AND IT WORKS. I'm not just comparing this to NZFF, for instance - I recently attended the New York Film Festival, and almost every screening had worse-behaved audiences than the worst audience at Fantastic Fest. Well, I say "worst audience", but I can't think of a single bad audience experience at Fantastic Fest. Yeah, there's cheering, laughter, and so on, but all in appropriate quantities, particularly given the types of films.

And then, yeah, there's the films.

BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW is one of two films I fell deeply and passionately for, entering immediately in my all-time personal canon. Almost all twitchy, dreamy style, Cosmatos described the film in his post-Q&A as largely stemming from his imagination of what early 80's sci-fi/horror movies that he wasn't allowed to watch when he was a kid were like. To my eyes, it struck me as a Cronenberg script adapted through a filter similar to the revisionist giallo AMER, only using the two or three minutes of 70s and 80s sci-fi films where the hallucinatory montage takes place as a template for the style of 80%+ of the film, all with a thrumming analog synth score underneath. There's a structure it all rests on, and it became clear in the Q&A that Cosmatos had thought a lot about specific plot details and how everything fit together as he answered specific questions, but I didn't care how the ride worked. I just wanted to take it again.

On the opposite side of the accessibility meter, A BOY AND HIS SAMURAI employs very conventional style in the service of a very unconventional - and yet somehow warmly familiar - story. The hypothetical logline is both easy to summarize and willfully bizarre - a single mother's life is overturned when a time-travelling samurai shows up in her life and becomes part of her family. Also, lots of dessert making is involved. The result, on screen, is something that left every single viewer I talked to, viewers who had showed up for HUMAN CENTIPEDE II, using the word "adorable" in the most gushingly positive, non-ironic way possible. Yoshihiro Nakamura is a Fantastic Fest regular (at least with his films - he wasn't in attendance), and his previous film FISH STORY showcased a very different type of narrative while finding a human core to an outlandish story. That, more than anything else, seems his trademark - while A BOY AND HIS SAMURAI tries for a very different emotional effect, the seemingly effortless ease with which Nakamura achieves a tearful lightness in its well-earned finale makes him, in my eyes, one of the most overlooked directors today. (Well, outside of Fantastic Fest, anyway - the first two screenings were sold out, and it's only thanks to an encore screening that I caught it, at my very last screening. I couldn't ask for a better film to end on.)

My biggest surprise of the festival was a film I'd almost skipped. Nacho Vigolando's EXTRATERRESTRIAL received some mixed responses from its Toronto debut, where those expecting an advancement on the plotty, dark TIMECRIMES instead got what they felt was a disappointingly light concoction. Apparently, the first screening at Fantastic Fest also suffered from this, with one audience member aggressively shooshing laughers. Nacho assured us that this small film, meant as a break whilst he worked on a denser-than-TIMECRIMES followup to that film, was indeed a comedy and we were permitted to laugh. Thus released from the tyranny of expectation, EXTRATERRESTRIAL played as a bravely bold revisionist take on genre film - an alien invasion taking place largely in an apartment as romantic complications overwhelm galactic one. There's a perpetual lightness and sense of absurdity, while cleverly playing with the paranoia of an alien invasion, and the question of whether everyone is who they truly appear to be. My few quibbles (mostly to do with character likeability as the layers of deception grew greater and greater) were washed away with the unexpected, yet perfectly poignant, emotional note at the ending, nailed directly to my heart by a Magnetic Fields song.

Speaking of undercutting expectations, RABIES is one of the craftiest, most unpredictable films I've seen in a while, easily my favorite film that I almost walked out of twenty minutes in. Perhaps I should clarify that: it was a midnight film, I was exhausted, and the characters were behaving increasingly irrationally. But rabies does that. It's not a disease film, at least not literally: but there's a mental effect on the characters whose lives merge in this forest that echoes the corrupting influence of the trees in CHARISMA, and then there's a serial killer, but it's not really a serial killer movie, but the body count just keeps growing ... and then, there's the landmines. It's the sort of structural and tonal audacity that you'd see in a Korean movie (the filmmakers, Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado, acknowledged the influence afterwards, referencing SAVE THE GREEN PLANET as a particular influence), and despite being their first film, they've made it their own: despite many laugh-out-loud moments, the closing passages manage to merge strong emotional effect with a dark undercurrent. As an Israeli film, there are many social parallels that you can inevitably draw; me, I was too busy enjoying LATE MARRIAGE's Lior Ashkenazi as a schlubby, overweight police officer. (The directors confirmed that there's lots of casting against type, which will be entirely lost on non-Israeli audiences.)

One thing that stuck with me about RABIES is the extent to which, despite the various national origins of films at Fantastic Fest, the true identity of many of these films shouldn't be seen as belonging to a nation, but belonging to an emerging, shared film culture. One of the most thorny, interesting examples of this can be seen in UNDERWATER LOVE. Shinji Imaoka directed the film, part of Japan's tradition of pink (sex) films, about an engaged woman who falls in love with the reincarnation of her high-school friend, who has returned as a sea spirit known as a kappa, in one of the least convincing costumes in the history of cinema. But death is coming to get her. Oh, and it's a musical. This is the point where most people's brain explodes, and the "Japan, you so crazy!" response gets evoked. But, here's the thing: it was funded by German money, including European script development, and making the film a musical was a requirement of the funding. (Imaoka made it quite clear that it wasn't his idea in the Q&A; as all his pink films, including this one, shoot in about 5 days, adding musical sequences is, directorially speaking, pain in the ass.) The resulting film, shot by Christopher Doyle, is on one level casually half-assed and on another level incredibly enjoyable for that casualness; I can't really call it a good film in a lot of ways, but I'd watch it again in a heartbeat.

One oft-overlooked feature of Fantastic Fest is the retrospective screenings. I fell hard for a 2K restoration of THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY, Fulci's 1981 haunted house movie, one of the more incomprehensible wild rides I've been on. It was one of the best, if not THE best, digital projection I've ever seen: the grain structure of the original film still pulsed with life, as if somehow a print had survived all these years with perfect registration. (Bill Lustig, who introduced it, implied that by going back to the original elements, it looked better than the original release print ever did.) I've long been skeptical about digital presentations, but the Alamo's projectors in general looked great and that presentation in particular made me a believer. (Now if only all digital presentations were created equal.)

Meanwhile, New York Asian Film Festival co-founder Grady Hendrix brought a treasure trove of rescued prints of Hong Kong movies. I got to see three of the four screenings, one of which I can't discuss (other than to say that many bullets were involved, and no, that's not a cryptic hint). DREADNAUGHT was a wacky martial-arts ride which manages to amble along effortlessly, joyfully, for something like an hour with not even a bare hint of a plot, instead relying on tailor-fu, internal medicine-fu, Chinese dragon float-fu, and whatever else they felt like doing on the day, somehow coalescing into an enjoyable ride despite its utter lack of narrative drive. THE ETERNAL EVIL OF ASIA, meanwhile, is clearly the product of insane people, slightly reprehensible, and pure exploitation heaven. Let's just leave it at that.

There are many other striking films that I saw - CARRE BLANC, THE YELLOW SEA, WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN, and KILL ME PLEASE I enjoyed as much as any of the films that I've mentioned - but I've gone on long enough, and want to save the final word for CLOWN. The first movie made from a long running Danish series (produced by Zentropa, no surprise) uses a CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM-style concept, taking two real-life Danes and following them in their interactions with other real-life Danes (I recognized Iben Hijele, who you might know from HIGH FIDELITY, and Jorgen Leth of THE PERFECT HUMAN/FIVE OBSTRUCTIONS fame, undoubtedly the tip of the iceberg) as they commit epic acts of public stupidity and self-abasement. Combine that approach with a river trip inspired by APOCALYPSE NOW and DELIVERANCE, and their choice of bringing along an 11-year old boy, and you get the funniest movie I've seen in years. I'm a demanding person when it comes to comedies - I need to laugh often and hard to really feel like I've gotten my money's worth. This delivers both - and just when you think it might be easing off at the end, it returns back around for its biggest and most audacious laugh. So very wrong, so very funny.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Fantastic Fest: Pass One.

So: this is my first pass through the Fantastic Fest program. Of the 70 or so features programmed, I figure I can see, at max, 35. (No more than 5 per day, minus some parties and such like.)

So I've broken the program into six sections. But of course I have incomplete information. And so, if you're reading this and can advise, please do.

(Asterisks mean director or someone relevant in attendance.)

++a boy and his samurai
(director of FISH STORY)
++american werewolf in london*
(classic + Rick Baker in person + chance to get Mondo poster)
++beyond the black rainbow*
(STALKER + LOGAN'S RUN + early 80's VHS aesthetic? I'm there)
(Fantasia award winner, looks like insane disreputable fun)
++comin' at ya! 3d*
(restored screening of when 3D meant having fun with the genre? Hell yeah!)
(director of TIMECRIMES)
(directors of INSIDE; looks goofy, stylish, and unhinged; TIFF selection)
++milocrorze, a love story
(sounds insane; good press reviews)
++movies on fire!
(vintage Hong Kong insanity, yay)
++revenge: a love story
(from the DREAM HOME production team)
++sleep tight*
(REC director, good description)
(director of TASTE OF TEA and FUNKY FOREST, neither of which I've seen but both sound like insane Japanese fun; positive review from Michael Sicinski (scroll down))
++underwater love
(Christopher Doyle-shot mermaid love story)
++yellow sea
(missed this at NZFF to my chagrin; everyone loved it there)
++zombie ass
(MACHINE GIRL director; it's called ZOMBIE ASS. I doubt any film, for better or worse, will epitomize the Fantastic Fest experience as much.)

+body temperature
+boys on the run
(insane premise plus Fantasia awards)
+carre blanc
(on description alone)
+the corridor
(good Fantasia reviews)
+the day*
(TIFF Midnight Madness)
+el infierno/el narco*
(high IMDB rating; Mexican drug black comedy; 145 min may prove challenging to schedule; title on program is el narco but trailer is for el infierno, weird ...)
+house by the cemetery
(old Fulci)
+karate robo zaborgar*
(MACHINE GIRL director again)
+kill me please*
(MAN BITES DOG producers, good premise, good review)
+a lonely place to die*
(awards at actionfest)
(Lars Von Trier, raves from some trusted friends; other chances to see on big screen keep it from ++)
(very mixed reviews for chilly Austrian profile of a pedophile, but the good reviews convince me it may be up my alley)
(stylish trailer, hyped director - COLD SWEAT, which I haven't seen)
(good fest reviews)
(one positive review)
+snowman's land
(on description alone: Coens being invoked gets my attention)
(on description alone: "Oscar and Lara have an entirely normal family other than the fact that Oscar runs a haunted house in their basement and Lara speaks with elves.")
+yakuza weapon*
(VERSUS director)
+you said what?
(on description alone: "The producers of DEAD SNOW re-imagine Takashi Miike’s AUDITION as a rom-com and make Peter Stormare ride a paper mâché dragon shrieking that he is the King of Darkness.")

(mixed notices, blind alcoholic who does martial arts still sounds up my alley)
(I can't remember if I even saw ARANG; I have a negative impression in my head of it. stock premise, but split screen in the trailer caught my attention)
~~the devil's business*
(mildly positive Kim Newman review)
~~elite squad 2
(good reviews but will probably be available easily in the future)
(good reviews at home; might be slickly generic …)
~~juan of the dead*
(Cuban setting intriguing but zombie fatigue)
(mildly positive fest reviews)
~~last screening
(avg review but stylish giallo comparisons)
~~new kids turbo*
(looks aggressively stupid, like a TRAILER PARK BOYS/BACK OF THE Y hybrid, which could be enjoyable depending on my mood)
(sympathetic to concept [namely, man loses role as Satan in Xmas parade in Mexico and goes crazy]; trailer looks uninspiring)
~~sleepless night
(TIFF midnight madness)
~~the squad*
(mildly promising trailer, despite meh color grade)
~~the stoker
(Balabanov of CARGO 200, who I've never seen any films by; try to watch something before FF)
~~you're next*
(didn't gel with what I saw of POP SKULL, but was impressed enough to think that Wingard deserves a 2nd look)

(gangland, kickboxing. trailer looks mildly promising but possibly not too exciting)
~calibre 9*
(looking at the trailer, could be blood-spurty fun)
~how to steal 2 million
(dark on African action after being let down by VIVA RIVA and nothing sounds novel here)
~invasion of alien bikini
(zero budget is losing its charm for me quickly)
~julia x
(3-d serial killer with Kevin Sorbo as its big selling point? Hmmm.)
~let the bullets fly
(got a collective shrug at NZFF, from what I remember.)
~polvora negra
(generic sounding premise)
~two eyes staring
(didn't they already make THE ORPHANAGE? the trailer looks pretty much like that.)

(meh on the trailer)
(cringy trailer)
-the retreat
(bad fest reviews)
-the holding
(bad frightfest reviews)
-urban explorer
(bad fest reviews)

(Morgan Spurlock)
--human centipede 2
(really not my thing. let's leave it at that.)

the innkeepers*
(HIGHLY recommended - a great old fashioned scare film. May go back if it's being projected on film.)
the loved ones*
(strongly recommended for those with a strong stomach.)
(didn't enjoy and have major issues with some of its choices, both aesthetic and story-telling wise, but it's certainly a bracing experience.)
take shelter
(this didn't work for me, but i appear to be in the vast minority)
(I adore it.)
(this is the one where a zombie fights a shark, right?)

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

If At First You Don't Succeed: JUMP TOMORROW

(Note: I originally published this over at Mobius Home Video Forum in 2004, for a column I used to do there called An Incomplete Education, whose archive got wiped out in one of Mobius's transitions. It came up on Twitter recently, so I thought I'd dust off the column. If anyone cares, I might dig more of these out.)

Niagara Falls is the love capital of America, and it's also the suicide capital. It's a place where unlikely, extraordinary, banal, and horrible things happen. If a screenwriter wrote a climactic scene where the character jumped off of Niagara Falls, unaided, and lived, they'd be laughed out of the room when they presented the script. Except, of course, that it happened in real life. Extremes, implausibilities: these are the currency of Niagara Falls.

JUMP TOMORROW is a road trip movie to Niagara Falls, and fully embodies the spirit of its destination, in the deepest sense. I've read people who criticized the film - scathingly, even - for its failures in realism and over-the-top caricatures of characterization. No doubt, JUMP TOMORROW is replete with unlikely turns of plot based on coincidence and characters who so fully embody cultural stereotypes as to seem fully implausible.

But such a criticism misses the point. Yes, we do have a crazy Frenchman who falls in love at the drop of a hat, creates elaborate wedding proposals, and even has an Eiffel Tower statuette on his dashboard. Is this lazy characterization? Not to the end it's used: without giving anything away, the ending for this character is simultaneously happy and non-obvious. More pointedly, it's what happens when a man living in a myth must firmly, finally, deal reality. (Not unlike the shot, late in the film, where the characters drive by a seemingly abandoned amusement park, left to the elements.)

The themes of myths (and by this I mean contemporary romantic myths - see the frequent references to Telemundo in the film for other examples) hitting hard up against reality are the bread and butter of this film, in fact. An early central scene plays out in a "love hotel" of sorts, where every room is absurdly decked out with everything from vibrating beds to champagne-glass bubble baths. It's the sort of room where one's fantasies are supposed to play out.

What happens instead, of course, is simultaneously amusing and painfully accurate. Our fantasies never play out the way we imagine them, and while there's some cheap laughs extracted from the way they don't play out, the larger point shouldn't be missed, either. Magic is supposed to happen here, and it doesn't.

(The next two paragraphs give away the ending, albeit in vague terms, though a lot of this movie is about the quest rather than the destination, so you decide whether you want to deal with said SPOILER.) The jaded viewer, of course, will see this as an obvious and cheap feint towards an end where true, uncommercialized love comes to the fore. While it could be characterized that way, the ending is not what we'd really expect from such a story. At first, everything goes the way we expect it, and then we wait for what we know has to happen, how we're sure this movie will end, the true romantic catharsis. And then the movie ends, depriving us entirely of what we've come to expect.

Instead, personally, I got something more richer: I got something that felt real. The myth of love is that a film ends with a romantic embrace "happily ever after", and we imagine our couple in perpetual bliss forever. The reality is much less elegant. It's clumsy, and it's uncertain. It's difficult and messy and rarely truly successful, no matter how glorious and achingly romantic that kiss in front of Niagara Falls may have been, and if your eyes are open to the decay behind you, at first you may feel cognitive dissonance. But if you come to realize that that's the flip side of the coin, that you don't get the beautiful myth without the messy reality that goes with it, you're in better shape than most, and maybe that's why the superficially disappointing ending of this film leaves me happier and more optimistic than any number of soft-focus dissolves to "THE END" ever could. Or, for that matter, any plot twist we might see on Telemundo.

Monday, August 22, 2011

does Kevin Smith believe himself?

So Kevin Smith has launched his release plan for RED STATE. Perhaps of most note is that he plans to tour the country for the next two years, doing post-show Q-and-A's.

Which is cool. My feelings about Kevin Smith aside*, any filmmaker committed to making sure his fans have the option of a theatrical screening of his film has got my back, as far as that goes.

It's his reasoning, however, I find a bit specious:

My long-term goal with the ever-evolving Red State experiment is to redefine the theatrical exhibition window: if I’m willing to accompany the flick somewhere in the country every other weekend for the next two years, I can probably do about $20 to $30k per night. That’s a big enough per-screen to land Red State a noticeable position on Variety’s weekly box office chart every other weekend. And if I can make sure Red State stays on that chart for the next few years, some kid who wants to make a movie but sees the system of the movie business as impenetrable might just find it a little easier to get his or her head around… and maybe give it a shot themselves.

I'm totally with this until the middle of the fourth sentence - and it's the idea that Kevin Smith puts forth here that captures something that's been a constantly recurring motif of the RED STATE release. The idea that somehow he's opening the doors for other young filmmakers to follow him.

But he has something none of them have. Well, lots of things. To name a few:

- a 15+ year, 10 film career of consistently high-profile films
- 1.85 million Twitter followers
- an almost unique status amongst contemporary directors as a raconteur - I've heard more than one person say that the best thing he's ever done is his AN EVENING WITH KEVIN SMITH DVD. The only other personality who comes to mind with a similar reputation is John Waters (and I doubt he could draw half the crowd Smith does, sadly)
- a film starring Michael Parks, Melissa Leo, John Goodman, and many other familiar faces (Anna Gunn from BREAKING BAD and Stephen Root jump out to me)

In sum, Kevin Smith, with CLERKS, made a film that was inspirational to many because of its approach - no name actors, low production values, low budget, in sum, a model almost anybody could follow. Now, almost two decades later, he's trying to achieve the same sort of inspiration for distribution with an approach that virtually no one can follow.

Can they? Am I missing something? Or put differently: do I have any filmmaker friends out there who are finding inspiration in this?

*As a film that embodied the DIY aesthetic like no film I'd seen before it (which says more to what films I'd seen than film history as such, but anyway), CLERKS was in fact inspirational to me, as was CHASING AMY, which I got to see with Kevin Smith and producer Scott Mosier in attendance at a pre-release screening in Houston, prior to the days of these things being gigantic events. I asked him what he was working on next, and he talked about DOGMA, and how he had been nervous whether the studio would support it, to which Bob Weinstein replied, "we'll put that shit out on Good Friday!" (note: probably a paraphrase, given that this was 15 years ago). He invited everyone to meet up with him afterwards for a drink somewhere, but I was going to see a band - either Six Finger Satellite or Railroad Jerk, can't remember which - that night. Anyway. I also laughed my ass off at JAY AND SILENT BOB STRIKE BACK and, more recently, found - yes - CLERKS II unexpectedly touching. There's other films I like less - some a lot less - and I don't think he's got much aesthetic sense as a director, but nonetheless, he's still made some entertaining flicks. Point being, I'm not a hater.

Friday, August 19, 2011

It's Our Fault.

In the last twenty-four hours, the Scott brothers have been in a race to one-up each other with outrage-inducing remake proposals - Ridley with BLADE RUNNER, and Tony with THE WILD BUNCH. (No word on Adam Scott's CASABLANCA remake yet.)

The venom has been swift and predictable, but is no less ironic for the fact that it comes all too shortly after so many have joined hands in praising a remake of a sequel (or, depending on your point of view, a reboot of a remake) as the best film of the summer (hi, RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES!).

Personally, I think it's nothing new: my capacity for outrage at remakes was shattered many, many years ago, when the director of CASPER was hired to remake WINGS OF DESIRE with Nic Cage starring and the female lead role was transposed from trapeze artist to heart surgeon. (And what was left was bulldozed into microscopic pieces when PASSION OF MIND, the Demi Moore-starring remake of Kieslowski's DOUBLE LIFE OF VERONIQUE, unspooled shortly thereafter.) But if you do have a problem with it, maybe take a minute and ask yourself - where does that problem begin?

Remember, there is only one rule in capitalism: if you vote with your dollar, you will get what you vote for. And this chart of US box office to date in 2011 pretty much speaks for itself - but I'm going to speak about it anyway, because sometimes when something's all around you, you miss the obvious.

1 Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
- sequel to the 7th in a series, remade from books.
2 Transformers: Dark of the Moon
- 2nd sequel to a remake of a toy adaptation.
3 The Hangover Part II
- sequel to an R-rated comedy - right now, one of only two places that Hollywood has room for "originality", although the format is very circumscribed.*
4 Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
- 3rd sequel to an amusement-park ride adaptation.
5 Fast Five
- 4th sequel to a remake
6 Cars 2
- sequel to a mega-studio kid's animation, the only other place where original property derives from.
7 Thor
- Marvel comic adaptation; building block in AVENGERS franchise.
8 Bridesmaids
- R-rated comedy, Apatow brand. Considered to be "risky" because it stars women. Facepalm.
9 Kung Fu Panda 2
- sequel to a mega-studio kid's animation.
10 Captain America: The First Avenger
- Marvel comic adaptation; building block in AVENGERS franchise.
11 X-Men: First Class
- Marvel comic adaptation; prequel to a sequel to a sequel.
12 Rio
- mega-studio kid's animation; connected to ludicrously successful Angry Birds video game in way I don't comprehend.
13 Super 8
- one of two "gambles" on this list, if by "gamble" you mean directed by JJ Abrams, produced by Steven Spielberg, and marketed as a known quantity (i.e. throwback to THE GOONIES and 80's kid's entertainment)
14 Rango
- the other "gamble", if by gamble you mean this year's INCEPTION - i.e. a personal project permitted by earning shitloads of money for Hollywood. Also, this "original" project is entirely built on CHINATOWN, Sergio Leone movies, Johnny Depp, etc. Nonetheless, this is, in this list, the paragon of "original risk-taking".
15 Rise of the Planet of the Apes
- as noted, I can't even figure out if this is a reboot of a reboot, a prequel to a reboot, a remake of a sequel, or what.
16 Green Lantern
- DC Comics adaptation.
17 Horrible Bosses
- R-rated comedy.
18 The Smurfs
- adaptation of TV series inspired by children's toys.
19 Hop
- mega-studio kid's animation.
20 Just Go With It
- Adam Sandler branded comedy. Edited to add: per a note from Mike D'Angelo, it's also a remake of CACTUS FLOWER, a 1969 Walter Matthau comedy.

And there you have it: the top 20 highest-grossing movies. Which is not identical to the most successful movies, but close enough for the purposes at hand.

And that purpose is to remind people: if you want to change things, vote with your dollar. **

And if you don't, please, don't be shocked when Hollywood does exactly what it has been doing.

* As an example of what I mean about "originality being circumscribed" - one of the genre requirements, so to speak, of BRIDESMAIDS was adding the wedding dress/vomitorium scene. Gotta have those gross-out scenes to make it commercially viable!

** In the interest of disclosure, I've seen three of these films: FAST FIVE, BRIDESMAIDS, RANGO, and RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES. I had a pre-paid ticket to burn for the first one, spent my own money for the other three. I actually enjoyed all of them. But I've spent at least 20x as much money this year on movies that don't fit those categories. That's a ratio that roughly represents my view of what I'd like to see at theatres as programming options, although by necessity most of that spending has had to come at film festivals.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

a horse is a horse.

One week after the end of the festival, THE TURIN HORSE keeps chasing me. Twice today: first in Steve Garden's excellent appraisal for the Lumiere Reader, and now, I have, via a friend, a block-mounted print-out still from the film, of a woman walking to a well to get water.

For those who have no idea what I'm talking about: THE TURIN HORSE is a film by Hungarian director Bela Tarr, known for his use of black and white, long flowing takes, and dour sensibility. It's loosely inspired by the true story of Friedrich Nietzsche, who had a breakdown after seeing a horse beaten on the streets of Turin, and starts by asking a seemingly simple question: what happened to the horse? The horse's fate recedes more and more as the movie continues, however, into the grinding desperation of two characters, waiting on a farm for a windstorm to stop ravaging the land.

I feel that I am spoiling nothing to tell you that the ending, along with the film itself, could not be characterized as "happy". I am also spoiling nothing by telling you that, of the 30-some films I saw at the NZFF, it was by far the most masterful film I saw: one of the most masterful films I've seen in my life.

And yet, when I went to make my top 5 list for the festival, I didn't include it.

(It was a strong contender for the fifth spot, which was taken by THE INNKEEPERS [choices are in alphabetical order on the site], but so, too, was HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN.)

Why? I suppose because the list was less about the objective quality of the films than the overall experience. As a critical writer, I can find no fault in THE TURIN HORSE. Yes, it is grindingly slow - the key plot elements of the film, such as they are, could be covered in a half hour. (Danny Boyle could probably do it in five minutes.) But a film like this is not about the plot: it is about the experience, and the feeling, as communicated by cinematic tools.

And that experience, that feeling, was grueling, enervating, and felt like being dragged down by a lead vest. I use the phrase "transcendental" freely and often, even in relation to camera moves I've seen in other Tarr films (and I've only seen DAMNATION and part of WERCKMEISTER HARMONIES, so I'm no expert here). I use it to describe that sensation where my skin tingles, my heart races, where I feel I'm part of something larger I can only dimly connect to but have, in that moment, gotten closer. It's the feeling I had at the lip of the Grand Canyon for the first time, or on my most satisfying scuba dives. It's a feeling that some would equate to a religious experience, or to knowing God.

I say this to try to explain what I mean by THE TURIN HORSE being resolutely, arduously anti-transcendental. If you feel it at all, you may feel it in the staggering opening shot, a tracking shot of the titular horse travelling to the farm, but even then, the sick knowledge of this horse's recent past weighs down, and the extended nature of the take produces a split effect; an acknowledgement of awe on a technical level, and a gut sense of horror in re: the horse's continued efforts in the face of abuse.

If I were to chart "happiness" in this film, this scene would probably be the peak. Not that I believe Tarr gives a shit about happiness. Not that there's anything wrong with that. There's plenty of other things to talk about, and if you can gel with the slow pulse of the film, you'll find plenty of it. To quote Garden's review:

… what of the film itself? What about the stunning choreography of those hypnotic long takes, the alternating viewpoints, perspectives, implications and perceptions, of painting with light, the breathtaking chiaroscuro, richly detailed, textural, evocative, lovely combinations of grey and black, perfectly suited to the depiction of the protagonist’s lives and Tarr’s starkly philosophic themes, the crucial use of repetition, the incessant score, empathetic but detached, expressing pity and regret but also consequence, coarse violins, violas, cellos and organ, the musical structure of the film (movements, thematic variations, a bridge and a coda), the music of the wind, the punishment of the wind, the heaviness of existence, the sense of impending apocalypse, the paintings of Rembrandt and Van Gogh, particularly the latter’s The Potato Eaters, the near-feral aspects of human nature, the paired down aesthetic, the conviction to eschew mainstream demands for easy to digest, easy to dismiss, comforting, pacifying, diverting, fundamentally dishonest crowd-pleasers, and what about compassion and empathy, the near-confessional admission of shared culpability, the responsibility of creating politically and philosophically vital works of art, the neighbour’s rant about centuries of unabated plunder, the perpetual subjugation of the disenfranchised by the powerful, the gypsies and the well, the rich who never pay, the poor who bear the burden, the anti-bible, the withdrawal of God, of packing up and leaving only to realise that despair is everywhere, of preferring to die at home, the well running dry, the global economic collapse, the failure of the lamp, the failure of systems and technology, peak oil, losing the motivation to eat and to speak and to look each other in the eye, a silent scream of immutable despair, an urgent plea, the dimming of the light, and fading to black? What of the film indeed.

Well, when you put it like that, I feel like a real dick for thinking of putting HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN in its place in a top five list, and actually putting THE INNKEEPERS there.

Except I kind of don't.


Here's the thing. There's critics, and then there's cinephiles. They can overlap, but for me, the crucial distinction is this: the critic has an abiding set of principles for cinema that dictate how they evaluate it, where as the cinephile is unstrung, bound only by love and feeling. A critic, faced with a hole in their logic, should be able to discern, with pinpoint accuracy, what distinguishes a praiseworthy moment in a film they like from a similar moment in a film they don't. It's an analysis that I've seen done, many a time amongst critics that I follow.

(And, I should make it clear, I value the work of said critics. I do not bring this up as a cudgel.)

But it doesn't really work for me. At the end of it, I can analyze cinema, but much of it is trying to justify a gut reaction. I've said many times recently variations of a phrase that boils down to "loving a movie is faith over reason": this is why. And the more I think about it, the more I value those gut reactions as the true signifiers of value to me (which should NOT be confused with value as a piece of cinema). The only true transcendent moment of the festival for me happened during AITA, and that's something I value, so I merit its inclusion. (Would it have been transcendent if I knew it was coming? Maybe not.) But I would be very, very hard pressed to argue critically that AITA is actually a better film than THE TURIN HORSE on any level.

I can only argue that I fell in love with it.

Those feelings of love, at a time when I've made my own film and feel increasingly familiar with the tricks of cinema, are rarer and rarer things, and so I cherish them dearly, out of proportion, even. I love leaving my own head, its logical strictures and analytical meanderings, and I find it harder and harder to do, the more I watch. Not that I would know, but it is like what I understand some drugs to be: it's harder and harder to replicate that first hit, but you keep chasing it, even as it becomes more and more of a shadow.

THE LAST CIRCUS consistently delighted me, surprised me, shocked me, and finally, broke my heart. THE INNKEEPERS let me know I could still be genuinely scared by a movie. TABLOID combined my love of philosophical inquiries about the nature of identity with one of the most riotously funny stories ever told on film. AITA, as mentioned before, provided my only moment of complete transcendence. And SLEEPING BEAUTY hit me hard, very deep inside, with its lacerating portrait of contemporary loneliness.

And then, there's THE TURIN HORSE. I didn't love it. Not like that.

It's only a goddamn masterpiece, that's all.

Why isn't that enough?


Recently, there has been a great deal of debate about films that are critically acclaimed but difficult to like, for which Dan Kois coined the term cultural vegetables. The original piece is worth reading, kind of, I guess, as a sign of the times, even though it makes me nauseous, as it uses two films I genuinely love, SOLARIS and MEEK'S CUTOFF, as starting points for implicitly bashing anybody who likes such films as a poseur of sorts.

As far as the debate goes: I find myself torn in my usual ways. To say "I love what I love" is not particularly far removed from Kois's "my taste stubbornly remains my taste" bon mot, which makes me feel that deep-seated need to question my beliefs that can only be triggered by sharing them with somebody whose ideology you find repellent. And I find myself cringing a bit when I hear people say "well, what you like is what you like, and you don't have to defend it". To me, it's a slippery slope from that to "critics are elitist because they don't like TRANSFORMERS 3/ZOOKEEPER/etc". And that statement causes me great personal pain, because I don't believe having standards is a bad thing, and I do believe there are such things as objectively bad movies. (And some of them are movies I love dearly, like TROLL 2 and DEATH BED: THE BED THAT EATS. Thankfully, unlike ZOOKEEPER fans, it would never occur to me to berate a critic for accurately identifying them as terrible.)

I don't just love bad movies, though: I also love great ones. And while (unlike Kois) I have no professional duty to engage with the most challenging and important works cinema has to offer, I feel the calling to, regardless. And it's not a matter of eating my cultural vegetables (though it took a great deal of self-restraint to avoid calling this entry "Eat Your Potatoes"). There's cinephilic joy, and beauty, and that sense of reward that comes with grappling with something difficult. It's interesting to note how many movie-goers will get excited about this kind of grappling in the form of an INCEPTION or MEMENTO, but very little of that enthusiasm extends to CERTIFIED COPY or THE TURIN HORSE.

But how can I judge said movie-goer? In my own personal information diet, I find myself, increasingly, veering away from the challenging and towards comfort food. I spoke to a friend tonight who's been reading Shakespeare and Schopenhauer; my reading has tended towards George Saunders and Jim Thompson. I listen to less classical, jazz, and avant-garde than I used to, and more straight-up comfort music. I don't know the Rembrandt and Van Gogh references that Garden makes in his article. I barely scan news sites, but have ten different film sites in my RSS reader. I don't feel good about these things, but I no longer have the energy to feel bad about these things, either.

Perhaps if I was engaged more with these things on a day-to-day basis, on a level of cultural sophistication above that I currently partake in, different senses would be more responsive, and other things might seem shallow in comparison to THE TURIN HORSE.

All of which is a long way of saying that I can't really judge anyone who doesn't want to sit through something as resolutely devoid of typical entertainment value as THE TURIN HORSE, just as I hope I am neither judged in a Kois-esque manner as a poseur for liking it at all, nor looked down upon for disrespecting it by not including it in a top five list. But people judge: it's what they do, rightly or wrongly, and I should stop pretending otherwise. And, at the end of the day, I suppose it's what I did in the first place, by making a goddamn list.

But here we are. And we must continue. While we can.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Sure Shot.

In the interest of making sure one of the three people who might visit this page doesn't inadvertently read a KILL LIST spoiler as it loads, I'm adding this post. If you haven't seen it, it is pretty much the best thing of all time.

Sesame Street breaks it down from Wonderful Creative on Vimeo.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

KILL LIST: behind the mask. (MASSIVE SPOILERS)

Note: this is not a review of KILL LIST (short review: I liked it quite a bit, more so in retrospect), so much as a theory of what I think is going on, and as a result contains MASSIVE FUCKING SPOILERS and you should avoid it if you have not seen the film. But feel free to come by afterwards and theorize with me.

Seriously: if you haven't seen it, get the hell out.

While you can.


(Apologies for anything I missed/got wrong on a first viewing: there's a lot that's not spelled out, and a lot that seems really random on a first viewing that can't be understood until the whole film unspools.)

The key line to unlocking KILL LIST occurs after the second killing, when the two hit men attempt to recuse themselves from the three hits they have been assigned. This turns out to be unacceptable to the client, who has them in mind for something. When asked what their goal is, they explain it in one word: "Reconstruction".

Neither of the hitman, Jay or Gal, has any idea what that means. Neither did I. But my friend Mike pointed out after the screening that reconstruction was a term used historically in regards to reorganizing Christian churches. I can't find a great precis online for it in a brief scan, but this book's summary gives an idea, as does this contemporary symposium's summary of reconstruction.

Now, having seen KILL LIST, you know it's about a religious cult. (SERIOUSLY, GET THE FUCK OUT NOW IF YOU HAVEN'T SEEN THE FILM!) If the reconstruction of the cult is occurring, it means it's fallen upon hard times in some way. And so they need an agent for this reconstruction - a "chosen one" - who will lead the cult into the new era. One who, by blood sacrifice (a not uncommon religious practice), will bring about greater religious heights.

Meet Jay, our main character.

When I immediately walked out of KILL LIST, I took the final scene, where Jay kills his wife and son (who are masked and portrayed as a hunchback and fighting Jay with a knife), as merely a person put into a disturbing situation that got really screwed over, and perhaps a mere audience provocation.

But, I don't think it's just a provocation. See, there's this.

Jay's first two victims both thank him. The first, the priest, in passing. Easy to dismiss at the time. The second, the librarian, at great length, in one of the most darkly funny scenes of the film. Before this, when Gal leaves the room, the librarian says to Jay, "He (Gal) doesn't know who you are, does he?"

He doesn't. And neither does Jay. Not yet.

While Jay is slowly torturing the librarian, Gal discovers a safe that has pictures of them, not just from a failed mission in Kiev, but from their surveillance of the first killing. Why?

Well, Jay and Gal have been chosen for this mission especially, that much is obvious. And it's been in the works for a while, from Fiona (cult member) seducing Gal to the Kiev reconnaissance. But forget about Jay's life for the moment. Let's talk about the priest and the librarian.

I believe both are cult members - the latter seems dead cert, the former has less evidence but the "thank you" is pretty strong hint. They know Jay's face.

They know Jay is coming - maybe not for them specifically - but they know he will make a blood sacrifice for the glory of the religious organization. (His photos from Kiev are enough to share his image. His current photos, perhaps, proof of his doings as religious text for a future age.)

(Also: Jay for Jesus? Is that too much of a stretch? Maybe. Maybe not. He does sacrifice his only son, so perhaps it's not a Jesus figure we're looking at; it's a Christian God, come back to the Earth in a low-budget Revelations-style housecleaning.)

So at the end of the film, when Jay kills his wife and child, it is a completion of a prophecy. He takes off his mask - and the cult see the arrival of the chosen one.

What Jay's feeling about all of this is a bit hard to know. Not that he's ever been the most open guy, but the look on his face (the last shot of the film) is indecipherable. The cut on his hand that refuses to heal (OH HAI STIGMATA REFERENCE) has perhaps also caused him to go a bit crazy? Perhaps the wound is infected with some chemical from the knife, or perhaps not.

But here's a question: if you'd done what Jay did, and were in his shoes, would you kill yourself? Would you try to kill those around you? (Good luck, you're surrounded by madmen.) Or would you choose to live as a hand-appointed messiah of the rich and powerful - assuming that you survive long enough for that privilege?

And could you delude yourself into thinking you ever, really, had a choice?


- WTF is going on with the scene with the doctor? He refuses to treat the hand and says some mystical stuff about the present. Presumably he's with the cult. But what's the greater significance, and why doesn't Jay go to another doctor?

- Is the cult logo (that begins and ends the film) online anywhere? I vaguely remember it having four lines, which would match the four killings, but I don't want to go too far down that road without seeing it again first.

- I have assumed that neither Gal nor Shel (Jay's wife) are in on this. I'm not 100% sure, though, particularly on the latter; Fiona's spending a lot of time with her, and her reaction to the cat seemed strangely muted. But she certainly doesn't seem on the inside as the cult is closing in on their house.

- As for Gal, he makes Jay go in the storage space for the librarian, which opens the puzzle more deeply. My gut is that this is a decision made for exposition/backstory purposes, so as to motivate Jay's more out-of-control aspects, but there's the small possibility that Gal's doing that because he knows what they'll find. I really don't prefer that - I like to think that Jay goes off list, but it doesn't really matter to the cultists in the larger narrative. He can try to restore order and justice, in his own chaotic matter, but as the chosen one his destiny is pre-ordained.

- I presume that it's the MP that's shot in the cult scene, but I'm not sure if there's textual evidence for this. I'd be curious to know if he knew it was coming. My feel is that the cultists we see there are perhaps an offshoot that's being decimated for the reconstruction, but I think it could be read either way.

- To be honest, my biggest question in the movie and biggest frustration with the movie (apart with certain camera/editing choices that weren't to my taste, albeit perhaps a natural offshoot of the improv-y nature of the filming, and problems picking up certain dialogue lines, which is simply an accent interpretation issue) is this: WHY DO JAY AND GAL NOT TURN THEIR FUCKING HEADLAMPS OUT WHEN THEY'RE HIDING IN THE TUNNEL FROM THE CULTISTS? This completely jarred with me and took me out of the film entirely. These are pros. Find a place to hide, snipe your enemy as they're coming. Interestingly, while this took me out of the movie, it was also the sequence that a couple people mentioned as the high point of the final act of the film. And technically it's a well done sequence, and if I can find it in me to accept that there's a reason (other than, you know, you need light to see your actors) for them to leave their lights on, I might come around on it.

Thoughts? Disagreements? Alternative interpretations?

Sunday, July 10, 2011

ten NZFF suggestions.

So, maybe you're like me, and for months, you've been doggedly tracking every festival over the past year, from Toronto to Sundance to Cannes, seeing what the big films are, hoping they'll come to Auckland for the two week winter holiday we know as the New Zealand International Film Festival. Then, after following every news release dripped from the web site and email list, you pick up the schedule the day it goes on sale, and spend hour after agonizing hour figuring out how to schedule them all in, which titles to drop, reshuffling things as you hear about yet another film that suddenly becomes unmissable.

Or, maybe you have a life.

If you're the latter, but still want to seem all "cultured" and shit, or just want to see some awesome films that you might miss out on otherwise, well, I'm here for you! Herewith, ten highly regarded films (in no particular order) you might want to check out, and some short reasons why. (I've left out films that will likely get theatrical releases, most notably THE TREE OF LIFE and SUBMARINE, because you'll get to see them elsewhere; some of these may never turn back.) And if you want to hear more about them, well, let's just say I might be able to help you out soon ...

aka "that crazy Greek film"
Athina Rachel Tsangari is a relatively unknown quantity as a director, but she produced the surreal, controversial, and masterful DOGTOOTH that played two years ago at NZFF. ATTENBERG doesn't reach for the more uncomfortably provocative moments of DOGTOOTH, apparently, but still explores similar subject matter - characters who are estranged from "normal" humanity as we know it, trying to make sense of the world in funny, sad, and uncomfortable ways.

aka "that dark as fuck Korean film"
Kim Jee-Woon is most highly regarded for A TALE OF TWO SISTERS, one of the highlights of Korean cinema and horror filmmaking alike. He's a bold stylist who hops between genres - A BITTERSWEET LIFE took on gangster films, and THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE WEIRD took on the Western. Now, he takes on the revenge film, in a movie so bloody that Korea censored it locally. Not for everybody, but I can say confidently: this will be a very, very memorable film.

aka "that really talky Korean film"
As Kim Jee-Woon hops genres, his fellow countryman Hong Sang Soo does the opposite - his films are so of a piece stylistically and content wise, it was a big deal when he started using the zoom lens. His stories of self-absorbed creatives struggling in matters of the heart make you smile and cringe by turn; it's low key, but there's something uniquely honest, and his films are next to impossible to see outside of a fest setting (most aren't even in print on DVD). They're not for everybody, but his films have an additive power that have made me a lifetime fan (I've seen them all); if you really want to dig in, you can get a double dose this year, with THE DAY HE ARRIVES also screening.

aka "that British film where ... oh, wait you haven't seen it? I'm not saying anything"
I'm not saying anything.

Ok, that's not quite fair. It involves hitmen, and it's playing the Incredibly Strange section, and it goes through at least three different genres in its runtime. I know more about this film than I'd like to; there's a film I could compare it to, but to do so would give up the game. If you like your movies dark, smart, and surprising, buy a ticket now.

aka "that really fucking slow Hungarian film"
I'm already fast forwarding to the future, where someone has punched me in the face for recommending this. It's easily the most arty thing on this list; black and white, long takes, and so slow it's in the "Slow Cinema" section. In my defense? Bela Tarr is a legendary director, this may well be his last film (at least, he's claimed it will be), and on the big screen, for those whose nervous systems are willing to adapt to its pace, this will be the masterwork of the festival.

aka "that one about the cults with an Olsen twin"
A dark drama about cults may provide an instinctual revulsion reaction from a country recently traumatized by THE CULT, but curb your hostility. It's been a standout at both Sundance and Cannes, it's got a brilliant supporting cast (including John Hawkes, who stole WINTER'S BONE at last year's festival), it's from the same filmmaking team that did the little-heralded but stunning AFTERSCHOOL, and I'll be shocked if it's not in my top five for the festival.

aka "that documentary about the insane woman"
In a just world, saying that TABLOID is the new film from Errol Morris - responsible for THE THIN BLUE LINE, THE FOG OF WAR, FAST CHEAP AND OUT OF CONTROL, and so many more - would be all you need to know, and the resultant stampede to the box office would leave TRANSFORMERS 3 bruised and bloodied in the distance. Meanwhile, in this sad plane we call reality, how do I lure you? Maybe like this: I'm reasonably confident that this exploration of a sex scandal will be the most entertaining and most well-directed doco in the fest this year, with a subject so crazy she's now stalking sessions in disguise and crashing Q & As.

aka "that Japanese one with the amazing action scene at the end"
Speaking of TRANSFORMERS 3, if you want to watch a movie that ends with an astonishing, visionary 40 minute action sequence, but don't want the shame and embarrassment of having seen TRANSFORMERS 3, the hyper-prolific Takashi Miike has a present for you. A love letter to samurai films (a personal favorite genre of mine), 13 ASSASSINS promises to be both a career highlight for Miike and one of the most electrifying films of the festival.

aka "what the hell was that Ukrainian film about?"
I have a huge bias towards what could be called "anti-realistic" filmmaking: to me, one of the glories of art is that you aren't constrained by the rules of reality, so why follow them? Films as diverse as CERTIFIED COPY and RUBBER, or YOU THE LIVING and DOGTOOTH, all fit into what for me into that camp. Proudly flying the "anti-realistic" banner, and hopefully deserving of being listed in the same breath as those films, the first dramatic feature by documentary director Sergei Loznitsa promises to take us on a dark ride through contemporary Russia; shot in a documentary style, it's nonetheless often described as a horror film, and names like Bunuel and Kafka have been invoked.

aka "that haunted hotel movie"
Amidst an especially bloody Incredibly Strange lineup, along comes a quieter film that might be overlooked. It shouldn't be. Director Ti West has made the best horror film of the last few years with THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL, so anything he's up to next is worth a look; this ghost story, inspired by experiences making DEVIL, promises to be a endearingly creepy journey, particularly suitable for those who want to check out the Incredibly Strange section but have no taste for gore. And furthermore, he's here in person!


For more info, check out the NZFF page!

EDITED TO ADD: Also, fellow Auckland cinenthusiast Jacob Powell and I have recorded a two part podcast previewing the best NZFF has on offer this year as we inaugurate the Best Worst Podcast and explain the Circle of Quality. Part 1 is here, and Part 2 is here. 2+ hours all up. Yes, we talk a lot.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Five Worst Complaints About Complaints About FCPX

I've been using Final Cut Pro since version 1.2, in 2000.

This week, as most people likely to read this already know, Apple killed that product and replaced it with a product with a confusingly similar name, Final Cut Pro X. Despite the name, it's built from scratch, and is completely incompatible with the old Final Cut Pro.

And it is not built with the interests and needs of professional broadcast editors in mind.

Which is fine, in a sense. Apple has clearly signalled to the marketplace that it is interested in a different market, one that is less demanding in its necessity to broadcast standards or traditional post-production workflow, easily enticed by a lower pricepoint, and much more likely to be shooting on DSLRs than high-end cameras.

Now, there could have been better ways to do that ... like, for instance, a bit of advance notice, or a transition period. Because as of today, there is no product commercially available from Apple that can fully meet the needs of most broadcast professional post-production workflows. There is no way with a company with an investment in FCP 7 (the last functional edition of the old software) to buy new licenses, even. (Other than eBay or privately, of course.)

Long story short: Apple didn't care about broadcast editors and post houses, and didn't even think about that audience before releasing this version and discontinuing the old one. Because they didn't, people got angry. And then, because it's the Internet, people got angry at them without understanding what they were getting angry about. And then I got angry with them.

Herewith, a few complaints (paraphrased from searches on the Twitter tag #fcpx - you're likely to find all of these in any sample of 100 tweets on #fcpx) I'm sick of hearing.

1. "Stop whining! FCP 7 still works! Just keep using that!"

Yes, you are correct. And I'm on an FCP 7 project now, that will go til March 2012.

But that's at least one life cycle in technology these days, and by that time there will probably be new cameras, and new codecs, unsupported by FCP 7. That are all sexy little toys that people want to use. And because FCP 7 is dead, it's unlikely that support will be forthcoming for them.

Effectively, FCP editors have been put on the plank, and told to start walking. They can jump whenever they like ... but Monday was a crystal clear announcement they will have to jump - to FCPX (which is currently completely unsuitable for their needs), to Avid Media Composer, or to Adobe Premiere.

I'm lucky - I'm also fluent in Avid, having used it professionally for 7 or so years now. I prefer Final Cut Pro for editing in a large number of cases, although Avid has clear strengths over FCP in some situations (particularly multiple users on a single machine), and I suspect if I worked at a post house I'd have a stronger pro-Avid bias.

The point is, it's not a big deal for me to work on Avid going forward. But for FCP editors who've never done anything else, and for companies who've invested in an FCP infrastructure, they've got to decide where to jump to. Ironically, the smoothest path for FCP editors right now is not FCPX, but Adobe Premiere, because of the similarities in UI and because FCP projects can be imported. (They can't be imported into FCPX, though.)

(Caveat: I've never used Adobe Premiere. It may well be time for me to learn - knowing both Avid and FCP has meant that I've been able to work in any professional environment in New Zealand, and I suspect Premiere will pick up a great deal of the FCP slack that's about to appear in the marketplace.)

2. "FCP never worked for me, but FCPX is great! Adapt or die, old dinosaur editors!"

I've always been in a funny place with Final Cut Pro. On one side, I have people who aren't experienced who are very confused by it and claim it's too hard, and on the other I have Avid acolytes who think it's a drop and drag kid's toy.

The truth, as always, is much more nuanced.

The old FCP worked great for my needs in most ways ... if you understood how it worked. Most people didn't, and inevitably I'd get called into a project that's having trouble to discover that people had combined three different codecs onto a timeline in a fourth codec that wasn't friendly with all of them, and then complain because "FCP makes you render all the time".

I'd explain how to get around that, but FCP knowledge is a rapidly decaying asset, like being able to fix a CRT television or something. Suffice it to say, FCP had a fundamentally different architecture than Avid for managing data, which made it a very powerful tool that could very easily get people in trouble.

I bring this up to point this simple fact out: just because FCP didn't work for you, doesn't mean it didn't work. Ok?

3. "You whiners! Of course Apple's going to put everything back they got rid of! You'll eat your words!"

Will they? Well, that's half the question. Now that this has all blown up spectacularly, they've belatedly starting trying to let people know that, well, of course it's coming, and everything will be fine, although the only quasi-official thing I've seen so far is this somewhat condescending and somewhat inaccurate NY Times article essentially written by FCPX's product managers. (This response is recommended, for those who care about this side of things.)

But here's the evidence against it.

a. Broadcast features were not considered relevant for inclusion in this version, nor was it considered significant to flag their absence.

b. Broadcast editors are - quite bluntly - a pain in the ass customer. They're the most demanding and the smallest part of the market place. From an economic incentive, there's very good reasons to ditch them. (Dylan Reeve visualizes this here.)

c. People have been especially up in arms about the loss of the Multicam feature. (A feature I never used, and now suspect I'm missing out! But anyway.) Apple's initial response which came to Philip Hodgetts initially indicates that "Multicam will come in a future release, when Apple decide how best to implement it within the new application and architecture." I may be misreading it, but to me, that's a startling admission - that something that was considered a key feature for lots and lots of pro users was not contemplated in the basic architecture.

d. If you want to know what people or corporations will do in the future, look at the past. (Perhaps something I should have done sooner. But anyway.) Look at Shake, which was discontinued and never replaced. Look at QuickTime, which was upgraded from 7 to X, in the process eliminating key functions which have never returned. (QT7 is still a key quiver in every FCP editor's bow for handling transcodes without tying up FCP.) The trend is clear: ditch pro features, make things easier, et cetera.

4. "It's a new product, a 1.0! Why do you expect a 1.0 to be complete, you whiner?"

A variant on the last one, I suppose, but this gets to something that really, really galls me about this product release. I haven't dropped $299 on the product yet (more on that later), but I'm told that internally it comes up as "Final Cut Pro 10.0" or something similar on the Help display. It's using the brand name that has been around for over a decade. It's as if Microsoft released a new version of Word that couldn't read old documents and couldn't print, but was really good at formatting.

Those of us who make long term decisions based around products were - in my opinion, quite reasonably - expecting that self-described 10.0, with all the interoperability and continuity of basic functionality associated with that.

Now we have a 1.0, and if there's one thing I learned from my previous life in software, it's this: you NEVER bet your business on a 1.0 piece of software if you can possibly avoid it. (To be fair, ANY .0 release is a bad idea. But at least higher up the codestream, you have reason to believe revisions can be integrated more quickly and easily into the codestream. And you don't usually unexpectedly discover your business model is about to collapse with no obvious replacement in sight from your key vendor.)

5. "You haven't even used it yet, Whiney McWhinerson! You have no write to whine about it, whiner!"

(By now, it should be clear that "whiner" grates on me like no other word when applied to people with legitimate complaints.)

That's accurate, I haven't installed it or used it. I also haven't used Windows Movie Maker, DreamWeaver, and countless other programs that are completely inapplicable to my needs as a broadcast editor.

A little known fact: in a previous life, I had an R&D role at a software networking company, that involved testing new versions of products (particularly Lotus Notes/Domino). So one thing I got really good at was understanding the difference between architecture and implementation.

Implementation is things like the FCPX GUI. I have a lot of skepticism about the decision in FCPX to change the fundamental metaphors of editing, and major qualms about certain decisions, but you'll notice I haven't uttered one word of criticism about it. Because I'm not qualified to evaluate that until I've gotten my hands dirty with it.

But there's no point at the moment in me getting my hands dirty with it. Because of the architecture.

Architecture is what that GUI and the like sits on top of. And you don't need to touch the software to understand that - you just need to know what it does. And at least as of today, there are so many things missing from that architecture, that FCPX is entirely useless to my needs. It may not be to yours - if you make DSLR videos with limited footage and no external post workflow, it could be a great step forward in speed.

So, if FCPX works for you, that's great! Take advantage of it! For you, it may well be revolutionary, instead of just revolting. But in the meantime, the most ardent and vocal (albeit by no means the largest) sector of FCP's user base have major, basic issues with it.

And if you're on Twitter, or anywhere else on the Internet, do yourself a favor: don't make yourself look like an idiot in public without understanding those.

(Oh, two bonus favorite bad complaints/syllogisms:

1. "People complained about the iPad, too! And now everyone loves it!"

Apart from the fact that I don't think the complainers were the same people using it, businesses weren't using an old version of the iPad for mission critical tasks that the new version rendered redundant.

2. "But X who sells training material for FCPX says it's great!"

Yes, by all means, if you want your unbiased information about a product from people who have skin in the game, go for it. Also, I hear Apple says FCPX is revolutionary, thus invalidating all the critics! Sigh.)

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Beyond Schadenfreude: The Road Past Rapture

"Those who know do not talk.
Those who talk do not know." - Lao Tzu

So now, I can presume, we all agree the Rapture isn't happening this weekend. To be honest, I presume we (=anyone I know who'd have stumbled across my blog) all agreed that beforehand anyway, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't step outside at 6 PM, just to see if flying bodies were in the air, because, on the 0.000001% chance that Mr. Camping was right, and I missed that sight because I was watching ZATOICHI MEETS THE ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN, well, that might have been an embarrassing tale to tell during the subsequent remaining five months of existence.

But I was still kind of angry at myself for even stepping outside, and angry that a buffoon who had previously predicted the world would end in 1994 had gotten so much attention, the latest in our cultural affirmation of the Warholian edict of 15 minutes of fame, a cycle so rapidly churning that the death of Bin Laden already feels like distant past, and next month Camping will be as forgotten as Rebecca Black is today.

There's a couple things at play here, but the one I'm concerned about - and the reason I can't just treat the non-Rapture as the punchline to a great cultural joke - is the overwhelming power of certainty. There is very little I am certain about in life - while I operate under a series of hypotheses, these are open to revision and change at any time, to the extent that my neuroprogramming allows, anyway. So when I am confronted by someone who is absolutely certain, my first impulse is to assume that, if they are so convinced about something, they must know something that I don't.

This weekend throws into relief why that is a very, very bad first impulse. Whether Mr. Camping was a charlatan or sincere in his beliefs, he projected certainty to his followers, who in turn spent their life savings on billboards warning of said rapture, and some even going so far as to plan to kill their pets. His certainty, even to those of us who were convinced that he was hopelessly wrong and a complete buffoon, nonetheless captivated people's attention, an attention that could be so much more usefully deployed in so many other ways. (And, personally, yes: I do consider watching ZATOICHI MEETS THE ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN a much more useful way to spend one's attention.)

But here's the thing: the lesson from this weekend is not "don't trust people who pick a specific date for the rapture". It's this: don't take people who are overly certain at face value. Whether that's about religion, or politics, or the efficacy of homeopathic medicine, or anything.

And - especially - do not take them seriously just because they have a vague explanation couched in certainty. This is the point where I provide my semiannual advocacy of Ben Goldacre's book BAD SCIENCE, which looks at how pseudoscientific bullshit is used to fill people's heads with false beliefs. It takes just the proper deployment of a couple scientific terms for otherwise reasonable people to turn their heads off and buy into ideas no less outlandish as Camping's rapture prediction.

Too often, the terms of the debate in the world is set by people who are most sure of themselves. For so many of us, that voice of certainty is the voice of reason. If we can learn anything, may it be to dissociate those two ideas; that, in fact, the voice of certainty is, more than likely, diametrically opposed to reason.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

On The Road: Tokyo, Part 2/Kyoto, Part 1

So it's been quite a gap since my last installment and memory has occluded some details. But I'll do my best to keep going. The good news, for those of you who haven't seen them already, is that I've uploaded some photos. And even two videos!

Tuesday: took the train to Yasukuni Shrine, famous both for its stunning shows of sakura and being a site for ultra-nationalist demonstrations. My interest was the former; I was meeting Scout and Jarrett there. I got there early, and thus first wandered across the street to Kitano-Maru, whose show of sakura was, itself, stunning.

From Japan 2011

Also in Kitano-Maru: Budokan! And weird old science museums, and people sitting around the park, hanging out under cherry blossoms, enjoying life. But then: Yasukuni.

From Japan 2011

From Japan 2011

From Japan 2011

From Japan 2011

One thing worth noting is that there were signs up, indicating that hanami (the viewing of cherry blossoms) was cancelled this year at the site - because of the disasters, it was believed to be inappropriate, or so it was explained to me, or so I roughly recall it. Apparently, this was taken with disbelief in the North.

Some dodgy okonomiyaki and a quick detour to visit a Zero in an adjacent museum, and then off in a different direction, walking through the beauty of Yoyogi Park.

From Japan 2011

Yoyogi Park from Doug Dillaman on Vimeo.

We stopped at a temple along the way as well, en route to what couldn't be a more contrast-y destination: Harajuku.
From Japan 2011

For those inclined, Harajuku is a gawker's paradise, and/or a shopper's delight, provided your taste in shopping is similar to a 17-year old Japanese gothic lolita.

From Japan 2011

As for us, we ate chocolate croissants, got crazy pictures taken on goofy machines, ate crepes (because apparently one dessert wasn't enough), and went shopping at the UNI QLO t-shirt store, where I got shirts for Art Blakey and DOWN BY LAW. All the shirts are sold in capsules, and there are very few of them in sizes to fit me.

Then, the walk to Shibuya, and the home of Lock-Up. Which is, quite possibly, the strangest place I went to in Japan (and therefore in the running for strangest place I've been in my life).

From Japan 2011

Scout and Jarrett suggested that I consider filming the whole entry, which seemed intriguing but also a pain in the ass. So there's no video of the point where the entry transforms into a bizarre combination of haunted house and prison, nor of the demure concierge handcuffing Jarrett and I and leading us to the cell where we dined on appetizers and goofy drinks, served goofily.

From Japan 2011

That would be strange enough. But (MAJOR SPOILERS IF YOU INTEND TO VISIT LOCKUP!) once every ninety minutes, Lockup transforms into a sensory assault, where it goes into lockdown: lights go out, monstrous hands reach into your cell, and metal plays, and announcements (in Japanese, natch) clamour over the loudspeakers. Then, suddenly, without warning, the metal switches to Ray Parker, Jr.'s classic "Ghostbusters". It was about this time I decided, regardless of the results, I needed to get my camera out.

The food itself is completely blocked from my brain.

Wednesday, and I wake early, store my main bag at my ryokan, and take the shinkansen (aka "bullet train") to Kyoto.

(More detail than some will want: I took the Nozomi, which is the fastest train. It's slightly more expensive, and unavailable to tourists who buy the JR pass, but it's a bit quicker than the alternative, and given my tight schedule it seemed worth it. But if you're visiting for a while and travel a lot, I do recommend investigating the train pass, as it gives you a great deal.)

At the arrival in Kyoto, I find a visitor's information center, where I inquire about sakura viewing. The fellow behind the counter, who speaks very good English, promptly produces a spreadsheet of every major viewing point in and around Kyoto, and after explaining that I am slightly early (no place is in truly full bloom), he directs me to the area around Kodai-Ji Temple, gives me a map, and explains which bus to get on. Throw my bag in a locker, and I'm off.

So here's the deal with Kyoto, for those of you who haven't been here. It is, I believe, the largest city in Japan to escape major bombing or natural catastrophe, and as such has a huge concentration of temples. Those with a greater faculty for recall with dates and names of dynasties than I could impress you by listing at copious length all the historical details. Suffice it to say that it should not be missed, and that, had I not visited it once before at good length in 2002, I would feel criminal spending only a day and a half there. I kind of felt that way anyway, to be honest.

There are a cluster of temples on the east side of town, and I started south of Kodai-Ji, at Kiyomizu-Dera. Its blossoms were not rated quite as highly, but I had fond memories from my previous trip and I looked forward to revisiting it.

There are no words.

From Japan 2011

From Japan 2011

From Japan 2011

At Kodai-Ji, the temple appears more modest, and the sakura appear to be more modest as well. The key here, however, is not quantity, but placement.

Outside of Kodai-Ji, I belatedly realize I'm too late to visit some place I've been before that I recognized whilst in the hills around it: Ryozen Kannon. I've visited before, and I believed (though upon further research am questioning) that the Buddha featured here is the same one pictured in Sam Fuller's SHOCK CORRIDOR. Since I don't have pictures of Ryozen Kannon, and I'm going to wrap this up here, I leave you with the SHOCK CORRIDOR trailer, for no particular reason other than that, despite (or because of) its misleading nature, it may be the best trailer OF ALL TIME.