Monday, February 28, 2011

The Living End


Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 3/14/06 w/ Additional Edits.


The 1992 Sundance Film Festival is often considered to be a great class where a bunch of new film directors emerged. Two directors that came out to become the most successful from that class were Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, both of whom released their respective debut features, Reservoir Dogs and El Mariachi. The winner of the Grand Prize that year was Alexandre Rockwell for his feature film In the Soup that also starred Reservoir Dogs co-star Steve Buscemi. Two other films got attention that were from female directors, first is Alison Anders' drama Gas, Food, & Lodging, and Poison Ivy by Katt Shea while Jim Jarmusch's longtime cinematographer Tom di Cillo also broke through with his debut feature Johnny Suede that starred Brad Pitt and Catherine Keener. Another film that got attention at Sundance was a nihilistic, gay road movie that was described as a gay version of Thelma & Louise called The Living End from director Gregg Araki.

Prior to The Living End, the Asian-American director had created two features at the time, 1987's Three Bewildered People in the Night and 1989's The Long Weekend (O’Despair) before channeling his rage and frustration over the way gays are treated, especially in the world of AIDS, Araki wrote, directed, shot, and edited The Living End. The film centers around a gay film critic who just discovered he's HIV-positive as he meets another HIV-positive gay drifter as the two go on the road after the drifter kills a cop. Sharing a vision of nihilism and the idea that they're dead anyways, they drift into nowhere on the road while embarking on a love/hate relationship. Starring Mike Dytri, Craig Gilmore, Darcy Marta, Mary Woronov, Johanna Went, Paul Bartel, and Scot Goetz. The Living End is a powerful, in-your-face road movie from the always talented and provocative Gregg Araki.

For a young film critic named Jon (Craig Gilmore), his often boring living in Los Angeles has just gotten worse. He just received test results that he's HIV-positive. His mood only increases his hatred for the world and the only person he can count on is his friend Darcy (Darcy Marta). While driving around L.A., Jon would often see a drifter walking by who is looking for places to stay or things to steal. The drifter's name is Luke (Mike Dytri) whose anarchistic view on life leads him to hate everything as he gets picked by a couple of lesbians named Fern (Johanna Went) and Daisy (Mary Woronov) where Daisy flirts with him only to hold him at gunpoint. Fortunately, Fern goes to the bathroom where she screams as Daisy leaves the car leaving Luke to steal it, briefly. Still in a state of shock and despair, Jon goes on a drive where he sees Luke again who has been running after killing a few guys with a gun.

Jon takes him in as the two immediately befriend each other as Luke is amazed by the things he has in his apartment as an attraction happens. The two have a share for their distaste of the world and how the previous generation get to do all crazy things while the generation they're living is paying for the sins of the old generation in the sexual revolution. Jon enjoys Luke's company until he sees his violent behavior after a gay-basher tells them that AIDS stands for something else as Luke beats him up. After a brief separation, Luke returns to his apartment telling Jon that he had killed someone who could be a cop. Jon realizing that he's an accessory to murder, the two decide to leave L.A. and go on the road.

Deciding that since they're both HIV-positive and don't have a lot of time to stay alive, the two fugitives go on the road with no clear destination as they just decided to forgo conventions and rules and go on an anarchistic road trip. For Darcy, Jon's departure bothers her since she's the only real friend he has while her boyfriend Peter (Scot Goetz) insists that he'll be back saying that he was really depressed for about two weeks when Echo & the Bunnymen broke up. After a stop in San Francisco, Luke tries to get a place to live from a guy he knew named Gus (Peter Grame) who has no idea who Luke is. Jon meanwhile, calls Darcy through a series of infrequent collect calls which leaves Darcy emotionally upset since she is fully aware of Jon’s declining health.

With the two moving on towards the American West, Luke's nihilistic beliefs only makes Jon feel disillusioned as he finally gets sick. Luke insists that they're going to continue on this road trip but his own behavior gets the best of him as Jon has simply had enough and declares that he wants to go home. For Luke, he must find a way to win Jon’s love, even if he has to go everything he’s fighting against.

While it's been nearly 20 years since the film's release, especially since the recent acclaim of Ang Lee's gay cowboy romantic drama, Brokeback Mountain. Gays are now accepted as fully develop characters but in The Living End, the main protagonists aren't as likeable as Jack and Ennis but they're not people to hate either. Sure, Jon is a bit whiny, moody, and often neurotic while Luke is more outgoing and violent yet they're both fully developed characters. The real difference is timing yet both couples have issues to deal with in being gay. For Luke and Jon, they're both HIV-positive and feel like they're going to die anyway as they go for one last ride yet their idealism about things clash against each other. Plus, the film has more political context in the way they talk about George Bush and Republicans' attitude towards gays at the time.

Still, Araki chose not to go into the politics yet use that time to reflect the often disillusioned behaviors of the characters. Yes, the early 1990s are filled with a sense of cynicism but the reasons behind them are very understandable. Due to the 1980s era when AIDS was starting to come out and gays being the targets, it seems that they are the ones responsible for what happened. That sparks the behavior of the protagonists as it would later lead to some tragic circumstances. Still, it's Araki's script and his observant yet nihilistic direction. While some have called this film a low-budget, gay version of Thelma & Louise, it really owes more to the style of Jean-Luc Godard plus some of the narrative style of Terrence Malick. Still, Araki's approach to storytelling is unique, even if he had to use a small budget for the film which gives the film a sense of reality.

That low-budget look though does give the film a grainy presentation with the camera yet Araki's camera work does shine in his locations and ideas about sex and dialogue. The dialogue is often filled with pop culture references and politics while the sex isn't as explicit as one might would think yet watching what they do would get the audience the idea of what's going on. Araki also brings in a nice style of editing to the film that is often reminiscent of his love for Jean-Luc Godard, especially in the jump-cut styles where it would briefly cut to black and then back to a road shot. Though the film's look in its camera may not be perfect, its story and stylish presentation makes up for those shortcomings.

Helping Araki with the film's look is props master Johanna Went who brings an arty look to the film’s edgy, L.A. art scene, especially for the character of Darcy whose boyfriend is a performance artist. Then there is the soundtrack that Araki has assembled that would be the catalyst for his entire career. For this film, Araki employed the likes of such industrial bands like Coil, Psychic TV, and KMFDM plus groups like Chem Lab, Braindead Sound Machine, Babyland, 16 Volt, Drance, Chris & Cosey, Fred, Cambodia, and Biohazard PCB. The music for the film helps conveys the film's angst and attitude that is used very well.

The film's cast doesn't bring much to offer yet the cameos from obscure German actor Peter Grame, Eating Raoul director Paul Bartel, performance artist Johanna Went, and Warhol protégée Mary Woronov are fun to watch since they all represent many of the quirky cameos in Araki's early films. Scot Goetz is good in a brief role as Darcy's performance artist boyfriend who is just sexually frustrated in Darcy's worrisome behavior over Jon. Darcy Marta gives the most realistic performance of the film as Jon's worrisome friend who seems to be the only character in the film that brings any sympathy throughout the entire film. Craig Gilmore is pretty good as Jon though at times, his despaired behavior and whining does make his character very unlikeable but at least Gilmore sells the performance in the third act when he's playing sick. Mike Dytri is also good as Luke with his charming, anarchistic performance with his good looks and cool demeanor though he doesn't bring some more depth into his anger despite giving a few reasons.

When The Living End came out to theaters in 1992, the film received some critical acclaim and was a hit among the art-house film circuit, notably between the gay film community. Since its release, The Living End is considered among one of the landmark films of the New Queer Cinema movement of the early 90s that also featured works from film directors like Todd Haynes. While Araki has enjoyed the clout, for the next several years from 1993-1997, he made a trilogy about teen angst with such films as 1993's Totally Fucked Up, 1995's The Doom Generation, and 1997's Nowhere that all features Araki's colorful style, angst-ridden attitude, and alternative soundtrack yet the films did received mixed reviews in the critical circle despite a fan base among angst-ridden teens. While none of those films did live up to the revered stature of The Living End, they remain cult favorites as Araki changed direction for 1999's romantic, love-triangle comedy Splendor before trying to launch a TV show for MTV in 2000 that failed. In 2005, Araki received the biggest success of his career with 2004's Mysterious Skin that won him rave reviews and modest box office success.

While The Living End isn't as accessible as Splendor or as revered as Mysterious Skin, the film does serve as a nice introduction to the work of Gregg Araki. Those interested in the New Queer Cinema movement will indeed find this film essential. While the film is available on DVD, someday the film will get a great DVD release with special features and insight from Araki. While the film's low-budget look and feel and the often-amateurish performances won't be for everyone, the film does hold itself thanks to its attitude and idea of gay life. Still, anyone looking for a road movie with a lot of attitude and cool music on the gay side, The Living End is likely to fulfill those expectations.

Gregg Araki Films: (Three Bewildered People in the Night) - (The Long Weekend (0' Despair)) - (Totally Fucked Up) - The Doom Generation - Nowhere - (Splendor) - (This Is How the World Ends) - Mysterious Skin - Smiley Face - Kaboom

(C) thevoid99 2011

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Exit Through the Gift Shop



Directed by renowned U.K. street artist Banksy with narration by actor Rhys Ifans. Exit Through the Gift Shop is a documentary about a French immigrant named Thierry Guetta living in Los Angeles as he documents everything about his surroundings. There, he eventually meets the secretive yet prominent street artist Banksy as the cameras suddenly turn on Guetta himself. The film is an exploration into the world of street art with other artists while it is all eventually controlled by Banksy who would try and make Guetta into a street artist of his own. The result would be one of the most fascinating films about art and how a man would become an artist of his own.

It’s 1999 as a Frenchman named Thierry Guetta is a Los Angeles native who makes a living selling vintage clothing. He’s also a man who likes to document the things in his life with a camera that often annoys his wife Debora. When he goes to France for a visit, he learns that is one of his cousins is a renowned street artist named Invader. Known for his mosaic art work based on the game Spaced Invaders, Invader’s work would lead Thierry to discover the world of street art through other French artists like Zevs and Monsieur Andre. After taking Invader to Los Angeles, another street artist named Shepard Fairey becomes Thierry’s next documentary subject.

After discovering other artists over the next few years all around the world, it is the name Banksy that Thierry is very interested in. Banksy’s art work has popped up all over Britain to lots of attention where in 2005, Banksy garnered international attention for a piece of art he made at a wall in the West Bank. With Thierry wanting to meet Banksy, he would finally meet the elusive artist a year later during Banksy’s trip to Lost Angeles. Thierry is eventually invited to London to meet with Bansky where Thierry is asked to document more of Banksy’s work in London, much to the bafflement of Banksy’s crew.

With Thierry getting full access to Banksy’s studio in preparation for an art show in Los Angeles. Thierry waits for Bansky to arrive in L.A. as he suddenly creates stickers of his own where he starts to become his own artist. With Bansky finally arriving to Los Angeles for his art show, he decides to pull a big stunt in Disneyland in response what was happening in Guantanamo Bay. Though Thierry was captured by security and interrogated, he was able to secure the footage he had filmed and got away. Though Banksy’s art show attracts a lot of attention including some surprising criticism from various organization groups.

Though the show was a success, it did create lots of attention for street art much to Banksy’s dismay due to the fact that all art was for sale. It was at that moment that Thierry had to finish the film under Banksy’s orders where the project was being edited. In the spring of 2007, Thierry arrived to London to meet Bansky with a rough version of the film then entitled Life Remote Control and the results weren’t very good. With Banksy deciding to take control of the film, he orders Thierry to put down the camera and become a street artist of his own under the name Mr. Brainwash. It is around this time that Thierry would create his own art as he would finally unveil into his own art gallery for the world to watch.

The film is about a decade in the life of a man whose interest in street art would lead him to meet one of the key figures of the street art movement and then, become an artist of his own. Yet, the film raises a lot of questions about whether Thierry Guetta’s rise as Mr. Brainwash was pre-meditated or just some lucky accident about a guy who came in at the right place and at the right time to become an artist himself?

Well, there’s never an answer whether or not this really happened. Even if its some crazy hoax by Banksy, a man who is a prankster of sorts. Yet, he is an artist that is a master in being a prankster though it’s all about the end result. With this film that was shot by Thierry Guetta, he creates an idea of what the world of street art used to be and then how it later, like all forms of art, becomes something to make money out of. Even as someone like Guetta will want to cash in on this phenomenon of street art so he can be called an artist and be successful despite the fact that his art isn’t entirely original.

Guetta is a fascinating personality of someone who could be mentally unstable, depending on who anyone asks. Yet, he’s a loveable character who starts off being a man that is interested in art into someone that becomes full of himself once he decides to become an artist. Then, there’s Banksy who is probably the most interesting figure of the film though his face is never shown. He’s interviewed with a hoodie while his face is covered and talking through a distorted voice.

Here’s a man who is probably someone who believes that art shouldn’t be commercialized but rather be a statement of one’s self. He uses his art in maybe making commentary about something that is going on with the world or something to express what he feels. Even if its satire as he also wants to profile the other street artists who used their art to express who they are. The film itself starts off as an exploration into the world of street art in the first act, the second act is Banksy and his interaction with Thierry Guetta, and the third act is Guetta becoming Mr. Brainwash.

With the help of editors Tom Fulford and Chris King along with sound editor Jack Gilles. The film captures an entire decade of work along with the fast-rapid work of Guetta’s original film Life Remote Control. The music from Portishead’s Geoff Barrow and drum n’ bass artist Roni Size plays to the chaos of the world of art with electronic pieces as well as comical accordion music for Guetta. The film opens and closes with a song by Richard Hawley while features other pieces ranging from classical to a track by the French electronic duo Air.

Exit Through the Gift Shop is an amazing, intriguing, and entertaining documentary from Banksy. Fans of the world of street art will no doubt enjoy the film about the artists and the art that is created. Even as it gives those new to that world about its importance and why some of its artists aren’t happy about the commercialization. Even as it’s a film that can be taken seriously or not taken seriously about the rise of Mr. Brainwash who could or could not be a legitimate artist. It’s a film about art and the people who create it as this film is a piece of art whether the whole thing is a hoax or not. In the end, Exit Through the Gift Shop is a superb piece of art from one of the greatest artists working today in any medium, Banksy.

© thevoid99 2011

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Margot at the Wedding


Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 2/24/08.


French director Eric Rohmer is one of France's premier directors that came out the French New Wave movement in the 1960s. Making films on various subjects about morality, relationships, and seasons in a series of films. Rohmer continues to make films as in 2007, the director was finding himself becoming an influence in American cinema. Just as he was releasing a new film entitled Les Amours d'Astree et de Celadon, two American feature films were released inspired by Rohmer's work. The first was a Chris Rock comedy I Think I Love My Wife which the comedian who also co-wrote and directed this remake of Rohmer's 1972 film L'Amour l'apres-midi (Love in the Afternoon). The second Rohmer-inspired film that came out later in 2007 came from Noah Baumbach as he took inspiration from Rohmer's 1983 film Pauline a la plage (Pauline at the Beach) that was about a teenager discovering love in the summer at the beach. Baumbach's version is in the form of a character-driven comedy-drama entitled Margot at the Wedding.

Written and directed by Noah Baumbach, Margot at the Wedding tells the story of a woman who decides to attend her sister's wedding. Upon meeting her groom, tension arrive between the two sisters. A film about family dynamics and sibling relationships, the film explores some of Baumbach's themes of family dysfunctions that he explored in his 2005 film The Squid & the Whale as he casts Nicole Kidman in the role of Margot and his own wife Jennifer Jason Leigh as her free-spirited sister Pauline. Also starring Jack Black, John Turturro, Halley Feiffer, Zane Pais, Flora Cross, and Ciaran Hinds. Margot at the Wedding is a complex yet complicated film from Noah Baumbach.

Margot and her son Claude (Zane Pais) are riding on a train as they attend the wedding of Margot's younger sister Pauline. After taking a ride on a ferry, they wait for to be at the family home as they're picked up by Pauline's daughter Ingrid (Flora Cross) and Malcolm (Jack Black) who turns out to be Pauline's fiance`. While Margot and Pauline haven't spoken in years, Pauline is happy to see that Margot is there as Malcolm reveals to be an unemployed musician/painter still trying to find a job. Yet, Pauline's work as a teacher still manages to keep them well financially. Margot doesn't seem pleased at Pauline's choice while learns that Pauline is pregnant. While Claude and Ingrid walk around a trail nearby the house with their dog, Pauline reveals some trouble with the neighbors known as the Voglers in whom Margot manages to cause more trouble during a walk.

When Margot, Pauline, Malcolm, Claude, and Ingrid are invited to swim at the home of Dick Koosman (Ciaran Hinds), everyone goes except for Malcolm who seems uncomfortable in the presence of Dick's teenage daughter Maisy (Halley Feiffer). During one night when the adults decide to go out, Claude begins to have a crush on Maisy much to Ingrid's dismay. Things become more complicated when Margot reveals to Pauline that she's having an affair with Dick making Pauline believe that she came here to meet with Dick while still being married to Jim (John Turturro). Jim arrives briefly to celebrate Pauline's marriage as Margot’s criticism towards Malcolm makes him feel insecure.

With the wedding day approaching, Claude gets attacked by the Voglers' son as he finds more comfort in Pauline rather than his neurotic, critical mother. Then during a public conversation about a book with Dick in front of book readers, things go bad when Margot is asked a very personal question. Things worsen when Margot's snide comments about everything put things into a tailspin in which Malcolm’s insecurities get the worst of him in front of Pauline. Suddenly, everything crashes down as old tension between the two sisters starts to boil with Margot suddenly being targeted for all of the family drama.

Taking a lot of cues from Eric Rohmer, Noah Baumbach creates a story that is filled with a lot of family drama along with dabbles of humor. Unfortunately, the story is so high brow with all of these talks of psychological babble and an unlikeable protagonist, it's a story that's hard to delve into. Probably because some of the characters Baumbach creates kind of fall into stereotypes. The neurotic, snotty protagonist; her free-spirited, slacker-like sister; and a lazy, cynical, childlike loser. It's not that Baumbach kind of puts them into those stereotypes, there's just isn't much depth for those characters to connect with. Only the situations involving the characters that include family dysfunction is the one plot-point that audiences can relate to.

Baumbach's direction does make up for the film's dense and babbling script. Baumbach creates an intimate portrait with the film's hand-held camera style that is also in tune with his love for the French New Wave. Even in that style of hand-held cameras, comedic moments, and abrupt shift scenes can work and sometimes, doesn't. There's a moment when following a dramatic scene involving Margot and Claude, it then transitions into a very abrupt scene of Margot at the book store her for her public conversation. It's really Baumbach's direction rather than the editing that causes that abrupt shift that will make the audience feel baffled. While he does underplay the film’s drama and humor. The result is Baumbach starting to realize his craft as a director but still needs work to trying to make a coherent story that audiences can relate to.

Cinematographer Harris Savides does a wonderful job with the film's intimate yet, somewhat grainy look as the look of the film doesn't really have much colors except for a very scenes with sunlight. Most of the look is kind of desolate to convey the mood of the film while the interior settings are shown with little light for its sense of intimacy. Editor Carol Littleton does some fantastic work on the film's editing with the use of jump-cuts and transitions though its flawed is in more due to stylistic choices from what Baumbach wanted. Even in scenes where the transitions from one sequence to another where things feel abrupt.

Production designer Anne Ross and art director Adam Stockhausen do an excellent job in creating the bohemian look of Pauline's home that is filled with pictures on the refrigerator, loads of antiques and such to give the film that look. Costume designer Ann Roth also plays to that bohemian look with loose clothing for the likes of Pauline and Malcolm to the more city yet loose look of Margot that included her red-pink hat. Sound designer Paul Urmson and sound editor Ruth Hernandez help create an atmosphere for the film's exterior scenes that includes the location near the beach, woods, and such as well as the noise of cars driving around upstate New York. Music supervisor George Drakoulias creates a unique soundtrack filled with music from the likes of Dion, Britta Phillips & Dean Wareham of Luna, Blondie, and other types of music to convey the sense of youth in both Margot and Pauline.

The casting by Douglas Aibel is wonderfully assembled with small performances Seth Barrish and Matthew Arkin as a gay couple Margot makes unflattering comments towards and Michael Cullen as the creepy Mr. Vogler with Justin Roth as his son. Halley Feiffer, who was previously in The Squid & the Whale, is good as the seductive Maisy who tries to woo the young Claude while flirting with the very uncomfortable Malcolm. Ciaran Hinds is excellent as Margot's publisher/lover Dick Koosman who is snobbish and smug in which he makes Malcolm uncomfortable and then says hurtful things towards Margot. John Turturro is good in his brief role as Claude's father who cares for Margot as he wonders about their strained marriage in which his feelings towards her, makes her confused. Flora Cross is good though not as memorable as Ingrid, Claude's aloof cousin who seems to care more about her dog than anything else while singing a song for the wedding unaware of where she is.

Zane Pais is great as Margot's son Claude who is trying to deal with his mother's neurotic behavior while finding some comfort in Pauline as he deals with things like girls and such in his own adolescence. Jack Black is good as the slacker Malcolm where Black proves to be a capable actor in doing both comedy and drama as he plays a man who is so used to disappointments and not trying to let Pauline down. The only flaw in Black's performance is in scenes where he’s really emotional where it's pretty bad in a funny way. It's not Black's fault for this flaw since he's trying very hard, it's just that he needs to take more time in delving into those moments.

Jennifer Jason Leigh is excellent as the free-spirited Pauline who is trying to deal with Malcolm's shortcomings as a man along with the presence of her sister Margot. Leigh's performance is wonderfully restrained as she presents a character that is Margot's opposite as free, caring, and sometimes aggressive as she deals with her older sister's constant criticisms and such. Nicole Kidman delivers her best performance since Lars Von Trier's 2003 film Dogville after years of lackluster films and uninspired performances. Kidman delivers a subtle yet humorous performance as a neurotic writer who is always saying bad things, making harsh criticisms, and such in which she is a very unlikeable character. Though Kidman at times falters in her voice where she would be saying things in her native Australian accent, she does manage to create a character, though stereotypical, an amazing presence to watch. Kidman also has great rapport with Leigh in which the two actresses have great camaraderie together in the scenes they're in.

The Region 1 DVD from Paramount Vantage presents the film in the widescreen format for 16x9 TVS with 5.1 Surround Sound for English and Spanish along with English, Spanish, and French subtitles. The special features include two different trailers for this film along with films like Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood, Sean Penn's Into the Wild, Susanne Bier's Things We Lost in the Fire, Marc Forster's The Kite Runner, and the Farelly Brothers' The Heartbreak Kid. The big special feature is a 14-minute conversation segment with director Noah Baumbach and his wife/star Jennifer Jason Leigh.

The couple basically talk about the film's story and casting. Baumbach talks about Nicole Kidman whom he met a coffee shop as the two didn’t want to talk to each other as he passed his script to her. The next day, he got a call from saying she wants to do the film. Leigh talks about Kidman's approach to acting which is similar to her own approach where they both got along easily. The two also talked about Jack Black who was approached for his comedic talents and didn't give into pressure into being serious. They also talked about Zane Pais’ performance which Baumbach refers to as natural while delving into the story and characters along with his approach to the film.

While not as accessible as The Squid & the Whale or as funny as Kicking & Screaming, Margot at the Wedding is still a good film from Noah Baumbach that features superb performances from Nicole Kidman and Jennifer Jason Leigh. While the film does raise interest in the works of Eric Rohmer, it's suggested to see Pauline at the Beach which is a superior film than Baumbach's own reinterpretation. Fans of Nicole Kidman will be glad to see the actress return to more straightforward, dramatic territory while Jennifer Jason Leigh delivers another fantastic performance as well. In the end, though it's not a great film but not a bad one either, Margot at the Wedding is still a film that is worth watching for its performances.

Noah Baumbach Films: Kicking & Screaming - Highball - Mr. Jealousy - The Squid & the Whale - Greenberg - Frances Ha - (While We're Young)

(C) thevoid99 2011

Friday, February 25, 2011

Blog News 2/25/11 & Blogging Around


With the Oscars this coming Sunday. The only film that is nominated for an Oscar that I will watch this weekend will be Exit Through the Gift Shop where I hope to have a review posted after seeing the film.

In the meantime, I will be catching up on 2010 releases that I've missed including Mark Romanek's Never Let Me Go, Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island, Nicole Holofcener's Please Give, Gregg Araki's Kaboom (though it was just released theatrically but I'm counting as a 2010 release since it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival), Noah Baumbach's Greenberg, Olivier Assayas' Carlos, and the Dreamworks animated film How to Train Your Dragon. That's all I'm going for as far as 2010 releases are concerned as i will begin my 2011 viewing with the release of Zack Snyder's Sucker Punch coming in late March.

Around the same time, there's the upcoming Todd Haynes' TV miniseries adaptation of Mildred Pierce as I'm pushing the Auteurs essay on Haynes till early April once I've seen all five parts of the miniseries. I will also have a review of the 1945 film by Michael Curtiz of the same name that starred Joan Crawford.

That's all I'm going for what is ahead in March along with films I've missed in 2009 that I've been wanting to see. In my other blog at The Void-Go-Round. I'm just posting reviews of albums by PJ Harvey in anticipation for her new album as well as hoping to have some new reviews coming. Even as I'm thinking about going to the upcoming Cut Copy concert coming in late March. That is all for now in my front and now let's blog around with the other places.

James at Cinema Sights has been making contributions to the recent director's chair on Terry Gilliam as one of the reviews I want to note of his is a great review on the much-maligned (and very misunderstood) Tideland which is a great read.

Edgar at Between the Seats is someone I'm despising right now because he's finally convinced me with his review of Never Let Me Go to finally go see this. I'm not sure if it will be a mess or an overlooked gem. I'm just wanting to see what the fuss is about.

CS at Big Thoughts has a wonderful review on the Oscar-nominated film from Greece called Dogtooth which I just saw. Yes, it's really a fucked up film. Seriously, it's really fucked up.

Another film I saw recently was Rabbit Hole by John Cameron Mitchell that I really liked. There's also a couple of reviews that also praised the film. One from Andrew at Anomalous Material and Dan at Dan the Man's Movie Reviews.

Finally, there's Mike at Cinema Du Meep who is continuing his marathon celebrating the greats of Blaxploitation as he selected one of my favorites in Mr. Smooth himself, Billy Dee Williams aka Lando Calrissian. I wish he really did have his own fried chicken place like he did in Undercover Brother.

That is all. If there's an Oscar party around with all of y'all. Show me and I'll be there.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Dogtooth


Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos with a script written by Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou, Kynodontas (Dogtooth) tells the story of husband and wife who imprison their children in their home as they reach into adulthood.  With the children not knowing of the world outside, their repressed are lives are changed with strange occurrences including a security guard who works for the father.  The winner of the Un Certain Regard prize at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival.  The film stars Christos Stergiolou, Michelle Valley, Aggeliki Papoulia, Mary Tsoni, Christos Passalis, and Anna Kalaitzidou.  Kynodontas is truly one of the most fucked up films ever made about imprisonment.

Living in an estate outside of the city in the middle of nowhere are a married couple (Christos Stergiolou and Michelle Valley) and their three children.  For years, the children learn new words every day that really mean different things as they have no idea of the world outside.  With a tall fence surrounding their property and their children are adults, the father brings in a security guard named Christina (Anna Kalaitzidou) to his home so he can fulfill the sexual needs for his son (Christos Passalis).  Yet, Christina is more interested in the eldest sister (Aggeliki Papoulia) while the youngest sister (Mary Tsoni) looks on wondering where did her sister get the headband Christina gave her.

While the father works and runs a factory at a nearby town, the kids remain isolated in their home as they engage in contests for stickers and such.  Yet, Christina’s visits would have an influence on the kids as they also believe to have an imaginary brother.  An encounter with a stray cat would have the father claiming that the cat is a monstrous creature.  When the mother claims she is going to have twins soon and the kids will have to share rooms, contests are held again to see who can still have their own room.  Even as the parents begin to have more control around the household.

When Christina makes another visit for the brother and older sister, the older sister blackmails Christina into giving her the movies in exchange for sex.  What happens would create a chaos into the lives of the family as Christina is banned for life.  The repressed world that the children lives in becomes a nightmare as it would lead up to an event where everything would change for one of the siblings.

The film is about three young siblings in their teens/20s who live in a very repressed yet wondrous home that is surrounded by fences blocking whatever is outside.  At the same time, the planes that appear in the sky are believed to be toys as the siblings hope a plane would be the ultimate prize.  They’re also taught to believe that words such as “zombie” means a small yellow flower or salt is called phone.  The only person that comes to their world as an outsider is Christina who is always forced to be blindfolded in and out of the house not wanting to know of where her boss lives.

The script is very loose in terms of storytelling as it often features the young sibling playing around their backyard or swimming in the pool.  Yet, there’s very few moments when they would have strange encounters such as a stray cat.  The problem is that they have no idea what to do as their immediate reaction is a violent one.  Particularly towards another at times since they need some way to react to their repressed lives.  The presence of Christina during her visits would create some inklings of the world outside as the eldest daughter would start to react in such a way that leaves the parents befuddled as they would have to discipline her.

The screenplay not only succeeds in the way it presents its characters while it also has an ambiguity into why the parents are keeping their children in their home and not telling them what is outside.  There is never any answers into why and really, that doesn’t seem important.  When the film goes on, it becomes more troubling to the point that the film will reach into subject matters that will make anyone uncomfortable.  Even in how the eldest daughter decides to break free.

Yorgos Lanthimos’ direction is definitely one of the most intriguing elements of the film as if he’s playing the invisible brother watching everything unfold.  Lanthimos’ framing of the scenes he creates whether its shots of all five characters with one of them in the background is very startling.  It’s as if he knows what he needs to shoot while making the audience just as uncomfortable in not just scenes of violence.  Even in sex scenes which aren’t explicit in some parts but other scenes do create a sense of disgust.  There is a bit of dark humor into Lanthimos’ direction such as the way the father pours fake blood and creates cuts on his suit just so he can warn his kids about the outside world.

Lanthimos also uses hand-held shots for a few scenes while creating very silent moments for the film just so he can observe the behavior of the characters.  What is more striking about the film is that there is no film score though there is a soundtrack which is a mixture of Greek folk and pop music plus a song by Frank Sinatra as the father claims is the children’s grandfather.  The overall direction of Lanthimos is phenomenal as it is definitely a true breakthrough for an up-and-coming director.

Cinematographer Thimios Bakatatakis does a superb job with the film‘s bright, colorful photography for many of the film‘s daytime interior and exterior scenes.  Notably the gorgeous look of the grass in the backyard and in the pool.  For the nighttime scenes, the film carries a dreamy look while having some bit of grain in some of film‘s darker scenes.  Editor Yorgos Mavropsaridis does an excellent job with the film’s editing with its methodical yet rhythmic cuts to create a slow pace for the film.  Even as it helps create montages that emphasize the world that the children live in.

Production designer Stavros Hrysogiannis and art director/costume designer Elli Papageorgakopoulou do a fantastic job with the look of the home the family lives in that includes old-style beds with stickers on the boards for the kids.  Even for the climatic party scene where the set decoration is great along with the dresses that the young women wear for the party that looks very girly.  Sound designer Leandros Dounis does a wonderful job with the film’s sound to capture the intimate yet idyllic world that everyone lives in as the interiors scenes are very sparse in sound.

The casting by Christina Akzoti and Alex Kelly is wonderful for the actors they chose to play the main six roles in the film.  Anna Kalaitzidou is excellent as Christina, the security guard who is hired to have sex with the son only to create a sense of rebellion to the elder daughter in exchange for sexual fulfillment.  Mary Tsoni is very good as the youngest daughter who is the medical specialist of the family while also having a habit of licking people just to get the things she wants.  Christos Passalis is excellent as the son, the one in need of sexual fulfillment while also being the most competitive as he is the one often talking to the imaginary brother.

Aggeliki Papoulia is superb as the eldest daughter who often amazed by the appearance of Christina while would become the one to rebel as she has an amazing moment during the party scene towards the end of the film.  Michelle Valley is pretty good as the mother, the woman who is often by herself as she talks on the phone in case something goes wrong or sometimes organizes the game just to hand out prizes.  Christos Stergiolou is great as the father who tries to create an entirely fantasy world for his kids to stay away from as he does all of the things to make sure that the world out there is dangerous as he’s also abusive at times despite the fact that he’s just trying to protect them.

Kynodontas is a mesmerizing yet eerie film from Yorgos Lanthimos featuring a superb ensemble cast.  It is definitely one of the most disturbing and certainly, fucked up films in recent years.  For a mainstream audience, the premise of the film will be interesting yet how Lanthimos will go to push buttons including taboos will definitely stay away from a film like this.  It’s certainly a film that audiences that want to be challenged will no doubt find something in a discovery like this.  In the end, Kynodontas is a dark yet fascinating film from Yorgos Lanthimos.

© thevoid99 2011

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Animal Kingdom


Written and directed by David Michod, Animal Kingdom tells the story of a young man who is forced to live with his estranged grandmother following the drug overdose death of his mother. During his stay, he learns that his grandmother and uncles are part of a crime family that gets involved in all sorts of things as they’re evading the police. Based on real life Pettingill crime family from Melbourne in the late 1980s, it is a study of a young man’s discovery of the dark underworld. Starring Ben Mendelsohn, Joel Edgerton, James Frecheville, Sullivan Stapleton, Luke Ford, Jacki Weaver, and Guy Pearce. Animal Kingdom is a haunting yet compelling crime drama from David Michod.

After his mother dies of a heroin overdose, Joshua “J” Cody (James Frecheville) is picked up by his estranged grandmother Janine “Smurf” Cody (Jacki Weaver) to live with her and his uncles. The eldest Andrew “Pope” Cody (Ben Mendelsohn) is missing while Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) and the youngest Darren (Luke Ford) are living with their mother as they do crime with their friend Barry “Baz” Brown (Joel Edgerton). J knew what they were doing as he got a glimpse of what his family does. When Pope finally makes an appearance one night to meet with Baz, Baz reveals that he’s been watched by two detectives at his house asking for Pope’s whereabouts.

A further private meeting between Pope and Baz about what is next leads to disaster when the family is unsure what to do. J turns to his girlfriend Nicky (Laura Wheelwright) for help as Pope and his brothers decide to launch an attack on the two detectives who are looking for Pope. J decides to be involved as well by stealing a car for his uncles so they can launch the attack. The next day, J and his uncles were arrested as J is interrogated by a detective named Nathan Leckie (Guy Pearce). J goes to Nicky and her family to stay the night as he’s later picked up by Darren and Pope to talk with their lawyer (Dan Wyllie) who gives J some instructions in case he’s questioned again.

J would have another interrogation with Leckie following another incident as Pope is aware that J is becoming a liability who will say anything to Leckie. Pope decides to get rid of some loose ends while J realizes how much trouble he is as he turns to Leckie. With Darren and Pope in trouble, it’s up to Smurf to settle things with help from corrupt officials as J is now a target. Yet, J has plans of his own to settle everything else that is going on.

The film is essentially a noir-like crime drama about a young man entering into this dark underworld where he has an idea of what his uncles do. Yet, he has no idea how eerie it is as he’s surrounded by uncles who are more troubled than he is. Even as his girlfriend is getting a chance to see what this underworld is while he’s being watched by a non-corrupt, good-hearted detective. Amidst all of this is his grandmother, a woman who is a maternal figure for all the people involved as she is just as corrupt and organized as her sons are. Though she isn’t a dangerous person, she is someone who can slime her way into getting what she wanted.

Writer/director David Michod definitely creates a soothing yet chilling mood with his script as it weaves it way into creating tension and chaos whenever something goes wrong. Even as it’s told early on from the perspective of J that includes some voice-over narration just to give an idea of what the family does and who they are. Michod’s direction is very stylish in terms of its mood and how he can create scenes that involve three or four actors. Notably an intimate moment between Detective Leckie and J where Leckie gives this great monologue about what J should do.

The direction also succeeds in how violence is portrayed. It’s not done in an overly-gore approach with a lot of films though it is intense and at times, bloody. Yet, it’s a bit more restrained due to what the characters are doing as they either go for revenge or just to take someone out of the picture. Michod creates something that is intriguing while allowing the audience to follow this young man as he becomes a liability for a world his late mother never wanted him to see. Overall, Michod creates an eerie yet captivating crime film that is really nothing like anything else.

Cinematographer Adam Arkapaw does an excellent job with the film‘s photography that is a bit de-saturated for its look. Yet, it works to maintain a noir-like style for the film including some eerie nighttime scenes around Melbourne. One of the best shots of the film is a scene near a desert during a confrontation between Craig and the police that is beautiful to watch. Editor Luke Doolan does a fantastic job with the film’s stylized yet hypnotic editing from some straightforward cutting montages and transitions. Even in some slow-motion yet enchanting montages to create the dark mood for the film as Doolan’s work is a real technical highlight.

Production designer Josephine Ford and art director Janie Parker do some really good work with the look of the homes and places that the characters live in. Notably the home of Smurf with its middle-class look with some really nice things. Even the museum where J and Smurf meet with a couple of lawyers in a great scene has something that is truly wonderful to see. Costume designer Cappi Ireland does an amazing job on the costumes from the casual-like clothing the men wear to the dresses that Smurf wears to complement her motherly personality.

Sound designer Sam Petty does a phenomenal job with the sound work in the film from the violent scenes to some location setting including the places in Melbourne. Even in scenes with cars and what goes on at home as Petty’s work is truly another of the film’s technical highlights. Music composer Antony Partos does a great job with the film’s brooding yet mesmerizing score. Notably with a plaintive piano and ambient textures to create a noir-like feel for the film as it is definitely a score that is really captivating to listen to. Even as the soundtrack includes a mixture of rock, dance music, and pop as it features a video of Air Supply’s All Out of Love.

The casting by Kirsty McGregor is superb with its array of memorable performances from its cast to its leading actors to smaller roles. Notable appearances in fantastic performances include Anna Lise Phillips as J’s barrister, Justin Rosniak as a corrupt cop that Smurf knows, Anthony Hayes as Leckie’s associate, Susan Prior as Nicky’s mother, Clayton Jacobson as Nicky’s father, and Mirrah Foulkes as Baz’s wife. Dan Wyllie is great as the family lawyer who is just as slimy as the Cody family with his ideas of what J should do. Laura Wheelwright is good as Nicky, J’s girlfriend who finds herself going deep into the dark world of his family unaware of how dark it is.

Joel Edgerton is superb as Baz, the family friend and organizer who is being watched as he suggests about what the family should do. Though it’s a small role, Edgerton really stands out as the least corruptible member of the crime team. Sullivan Stapleton is phenomenal as Craig, the most outgoing Cody family member who runs a drug thing on his own as he is also the most vulnerable in what is a fantastic performance. Luke Ford is very good as Darren, the youngest Cody brother who is also the least experienced as he tries to get J away from what is happening though is often in shock of what is going on.

Guy Pearce is amazing as Leckie, a good-natured detective who tries to get J to talk while reminding him of the dangers he is in as Pearce really plays the man just trying to what is right for everyone. James Frecheville is wonderful as J, the soft-spoken young man whose innocence is shattered once he enters into a dark underworld. Frecheville’s understated yet entrancing performance is really powerful as he plays a boy who just doesn’t want to be into this dark world. Ben Mendelsohn is great as Pope, the eldest Cody brother who is very quiet but also the most ruthless in how he does things. Even as Mendelsohn is someone who acts like a fraternal figure but his methods are very discomforting as it’s definitely a mesmerizing performance.

Finally, there’s Jacki Weaver in what is definitely an outstanding performance as Smurf. Weaver has this maternal soul in her in the way she loves her boys and the way she kisses them. Even when they’re in trouble, she charms her way into making sure they get out as if she’s the unsung leader of the group though she doesn’t do anything. It’s a superb performance from a woman known as a star in Australia as Weaver really brings a sense of warmth to a woman that is corrupt and dark.

Animal Kingdom is a magnificent and chilling crime film from David Michod featuring a phenomenal ensemble cast led by Jacki Weaver, Ben Mendelsohn, James Frecheville, and Guy Pearce. Audiences who enjoy gripping yet exciting crime films will definitely see this as something different but entrancing to watch. Even in the way Michod presents his characters and their setting in a noir-like fashion. In the end, Animal Kingdom is one of 2010’s finest films as help remind audiences why Australian cinema can still brings surprises to an unsuspecting audience.

© thevoid99 2011

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Squid & the Whale


Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 8/9/06 w/ Additional Edits.


Childhood and growing up is often a very difficult stage for anyone. When the subject of parents divorcing come up. For some, it's very painful in where children are forced to take sides and deal with the anger of not having a very stable family. That was something Noah Baumbach had to deal with as a young teen when his own parents, novelist Jonathan Baumbach and Village Voice critic Georgia Brown divorced. In 1995, Baumbach broke through with his independent debut feature Kicking & Screaming about the difficulties of post-college life. His 1997 follow-up Mr. Jealousy about a man's jealousy towards his girlfriend's former relationships didn't do as well in comparison to his debut feature. Baumbach kept a low profile in doing various projects including co-writing 2004's The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou with its director Wes Anderson. In 2005, with Anderson serving as a producer, Baumbach returned with some said was a revealing yet funny look into the world of divorce with The Squid & the Whale.

Written and directed by Baumbach, The Squid & the Whale is about two young boys growing up in the 80s in Brooklyn when their parents had decided to divorce. From the perspective of the older son, he takes on the side of his writer father after learning that his mother had affairs with other men. His younger brother meanwhile, has taken the side of his aspiring writing mother while discovering the world of sex. Baumbach chooses to study and bring humor to the subject of divorce where its revealed to be his most personal film yet. Starring Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney, Jesse Eisenberg, Owen Kline, Anna Paquin, and William Baldwin. The Squid & the Whale is one of 2005's heartbreaking yet funny films about family situations from Noah Baumbach.

It's 1986 in Brooklyn where the Berkman family led by novelist/teacher Bernard (Jeff Daniels) and wife/aspiring writer Joan (Laura Linney) are playing tennis with their sons, 16-year old Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and 10-year old Frank (Owen Kline). Joan's writing talents is now flourishing while Bernard is still trying to get a publisher for his novel where the marriage is starting to fall apart after years of tension. Bernard has suspected Joan of having affairs with different men for years as he tells Walt while Joan is fed up with Bernard's high-intellectual attitude. Then one day when the kids went to school where Bernard tells them about a family conference for the evening, Bernard and Joan announced that they're going to divorce. While the parents agreed to have joint custody where the boys would stay with a parent for some days, the announcement devastates the young Frank. More problems get complicated when the family isn't sure what to do with the family cat who is also going to live by the same schedule the boys do. Bernard tells the boy that he's moved out to a house some blocks away from Joan's home.

Things become complicated for the boys as Frank remains devastated while Walt gets some advice from friends about joint custody. Walt also starts to be smitten by a student named Sophie (Halley Feiffer) who learned that Walt is going to be part of the school talent show. Frank however, due to the shock of his divorce his becoming frustrated with his tennis lessons as his teacher Ivan (William Baldwin) is concerned. Frank’s behavior also becomes stranger where he starts to engage in drinking alcohol and other things. On the day it was supposed to be Joan's day with the kids, Walt tells his mother that he won't live with her anymore after hearing about her affairs. A split between the boys go on as Frank's anger starts to go towards Bernard, especially when he decided to have one of his students in Lili (Anna Paquin) to live with him. When Walt is about to go on another date with Sophie, Bernard decides to join them where he took the two to see Blue Velvet by David Lynch where Bernard tells Walt some awful advice about Sophie.

Frank decides to run away back to his mother's house where he learned that she is now dating Ivan and had just got her story picked up for a top New York magazine. The young Frank becomes confused by everything as Bernard is now dating Lili in whom Walt has a crush on. Though Frank likes having Ivan around, he remains emotionally confused while Walt's relationship with Sophie becomes troubling due to the advice his father gave him. During the talent contest where his parents, Ivan, Sophie, and Lili attended, Walt wins the contest while claiming that Pink Floyd's Hey You was originally written by him. Walt is still angry about his mother's new relationship where Sophie notices that Walt is eyeing other girls. Walt even attempts to flirt with Lili one night where it becomes a disaster.

The effects of the Berkmans' split finally unfolds when the boys began to have some trouble in school as Frank's strange behavior gets noticed while Walt is accused of plagiarism. Walt is forced into psychological evaluation by a counselor (Ken Leung) where old memories of his childhood starts to emerge. Realizing what's going on all this time, Walt's confusion starts to emerge to the point that the boys are now caught in the middle of a nasty war between their parents.

The film's tag line pretty much sums up what the film is saying... joint custody blows. In what is a very personal story, Noah Baumbach manages to capture all the angst, confusion, and humor that surrounds the world of divorce. While most films about divorce are often very serious or take the route of comedy. Baumbach chose an interesting approach by having the story be more about the boys instead of the parents though they get an equal amount of back story. Baumbach's approach to realism is very evident in not just the affects of the boys but how they too get into conflict where the character of Walt is trying to be his father with all of this intellectual jargon about Kafka when has no idea on who he is. The subplot of Frank's emotional journey is equally as troubling as Walt's own exploration where Frank embarks on activities that are really disgusting but is understandable for his own emotional confusion.

The script that Baumbach concocts is really one of the best scripts ever written since it contains some very funny, realistic dialogue and some great development of characters. The dialogue is often filled with some of the most inane, intellectual commentary about art on how a certain book by Dickens or a film by a director is mentioned and Bernard says, "it's minor stuff". Even some of the funnier dialogue is done with great timing about everything as the characters themselves, notably the Berkmans are done with great depth as Joan admits to her own guilt and her desire to be a writer. Bernard's own struggle to reinvigorate his own writing career and the boys dealing with their own parents divorce and their own individual goals.

On the directing front, Baumbach goes for a realistic yet home-like feel where the film is shot on location in Brooklyn for 23 days in the summer of 2004. His approach is real yet entertaining from some of the funny moments where it feels natural to the more emotional moments that is relatable to anyone remembering when they're young. Overall, Baumbach has created a smart, funny, yet heartbreaking tale of divorce and the affects of its children.

Helping to create a colorful yet grimy Super 16mm feel of mid-1980s Brooklyn is Robert Yeomen, Wes Anderson's cinematographer. While the film does look a bit like some of Anderson's own films, Yeomen goes for a different style to convey the intimacy of the different worlds of the Berkmans while bringing some lighting to the exteriors of Brooklyn. Production designer Anne Ross does great work in getting the look of Brooklyn from the arty world of Joan's house to the delapidate look of Bernard's home while catching some 1980s objects and albums while costume designer Amy Westcott does great work in getting the 80s clothing along with the intellectual look of the parents. Editor Tim Streeto does some great editing where the film has a nice rhythm and use of jump-cuts that gives the film a nice pace for its 81-minute running time. Sound mixer Allan Byer also does great work in providing the intimate atmosphere of the Brooklyn neighborhoods.

The film has a great soundtrack assembled by Randall Poster that features a wonderfully melancholic score from Luna's Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips that plays to the film's humorous vibe and angst-ridden storyline. The soundtrack features some great cuts which is dominated mostly by the work of Bert Jansch plus a couple of songs by Loudon Wainwright III. Other cuts which are mostly 80s music includes Bryan Adams, the Cars, Lou Reed, the Feelies, the famous theme of Risky Business by Tangerine Dream, and a cover of Mr. Mister's Kyrie sung by Owen Kline's sister Greta. Other cuts from John Phillips, Anna and Kate McGarrigle, and Blossom Dearie reveal a folk side to the film while another famous cut that dominates the film is Pink Floyd's Hey You which Baumbach got to use where he thanks Roger Waters in the final credits. Though the song is really about the aftermath of the character Pink's building the wall, in this film, Baumbach chose to reinterpret the song to convey the troubling family circumstances which definitely gives some new meaning as the original song and Eisenberg's performance of it is in great use.

The film overall has a great cast that includes some memorable small performances from Ken Leung as the school counselor, David Benger as Frank's friend Carl, Adam Rose as Walt's friend Otto, and Noah Baumbach's brother Nico as a friend of Bernard who invited him for a college seminar. Halley Feiffer is wonderful in her role as Sophie, a young woman is sweet and caring yet is disturbed by Walt's attitude and his attempt to be like his father as it's an excellent performance from the young actress. Anna Paquin is also excellent as the more sexual vivacious Lili who writes disturbing poetry about her body while trying to seduce Walt and Bernard, in which the latter is even creepier since Jeff Daniels played her father in 1996's Fly Away Home. William Baldwin is great in the role of Ivan, a man who isn't a dim-wit as Bernard claims to be as he is a caring, sensitive teacher who tries to be the best buddy for young Frank as it's a great, restrained performance from the actor.

The film's real breakthrough performance goes to the young Owen Kline, who is son of actors Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates, that got the part through the suggestion of Baumbach's then-girlfriend/actress Jennifer Jason Leigh. Kline's performance is very natural in the way he conveys the confusion and sadness of a young boy dealing with his parents' divorce while leaning towards stranger paths discovering things like sex and alcohol. It's a great performance from the young actor who proves to have the same chops his parents have. Jesse Eisenberg gives another riveting performance as Walt, by making him less likeable and more confused in his own journey following the divorce. Eisenberg, who made a name for himself with the brilliant Roger Dodger, gets more to do in the way he tries to be like his father while is forced to deal the realities when it comes to girls and why his parents divorced. Overall, it's both Eisenberg and Kline that are the heart of the film and story as these two are actors to watch in the years to come.

Laura Linney brings another great performance as the driven yet frustrated Joan Berkman. Linney conveys all of the warmth and care of a mother while having some great, intense scenes with Eisenberg in the way they convey their tension. Linney is aware that her character is flawed and makes her more complex in understanding her own infidelities where she doesn't make Joan sympathetic or looked with disgust. It's a great performance from Linney as she also some great scenes with Jeff Daniels. Daniels delivers what might be his best performance in a long time since he's often played supporting parts and rarely leading roles. In a role that was supposed to be for Bill Murray, Daniels conveys all of the things that Bernard is. In one word, Bernard is an asshole and Daniels makes him a memorable yet enjoyable character despite saying some of the most awful things about art and people. It's a great performance from Jeff Daniels as he's great with other actors while he manages to bring a lot of depth and complexity to a character as unlikeable as Bernard.

When the film premiered at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival, it was a surprise hit as Baumbach won writing and directing awards while later winning several awards for his screenplay including getting an Oscar nomination for his script. The film also honored Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney for their performances which they both received Golden Globe nods as Daniels got more attention in a role that some said was a comeback. The film was also a comeback for Baumbach as later that year, he married Jennifer Jason Leigh who is set to appear in his next feature that also stars Nicole Kidman. Overall, thanks to a great script, a great cast, and great premise on the affects of divorce, The Squid & the Whale is one of 2005's most heartbreaking and funny films about family.

Noah Baumbach Films: Kicking & Screaming - Highball - Mr. Jealousy - Margot at the Wedding - Greenberg - Frances Ha - (While We're Young)

(C) thevoid99 2011

Monday, February 21, 2011

Velvet Goldmine


Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 4/16/05.


The early 1970s was an era where the whole counterculture, hippie movement was finally burning itself out. Replacing that whole era for a while but huge in Britain was the glam-rock scene filled with glitter clothing, platform shoes, glamourous tastes, and an openness to sexuality. Leading that wave during that time were the likes of David Bowie, Lou Reed, T. Rex, Roxy Music, Brian Eno, Gary Glitter, Iggy Pop & the Stooges, Slade, Mott the Hoople, and many more. When glam rock ended, so did many of its stars while some like Bowie, Reed, Pop, Roxy Music, and Brian Eno moved on to make influential music from the years to come. In the early 90s in Britain, a glam revival of sorts came around that would reach to the American underground. Finally, a film on glam rock was ready to be made from American director Todd Haynes with his 1998 film Velvet Goldmine.

Named after the David Bowie B-side, Velvet Goldmine is based on the glam rock scene of the 1970s about a pop singer named Brian Slade who faked an assassination that ruined his career. Ten years later, a journalist investigates what has happened as he looks into Slade's rise and fall and his many cohorts including an American rocker named Curt Wild. The story by Haynes and his editor James Lyon that was later scripted by Haynes, many of the stories of Velvet Goldmine was based on the lives of David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, and Brian Eno. While the film’s intention was to capture the glam rock scene, its result is an uneven and excessive film that has several moments but doesn't gel. With a cast that includes Ewan McGregor, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Christian Bale, Toni Collette, Eddie Izzard, Emily Woof, and Michael Feast. Velvet Goldmine is a film that glitters with its stylization but fails to deliver fully in its intentions.

The film begins with a narration by Janet McTeer as she talks about the arrival of Oscar Wilde into the world with a pin he had when he was a baby coming down from outer space. After proclaiming to the world that he wants to be a pop idol, the green-marble pin he had came into the hands more than 100 years later into a child who would reinvent himself as a glam rocker named Jack Fairy (Micko Westmoreland). It's 1974 at the height of the movement as fans run to the stage to see their hero Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) in his Maxwell Demon persona. With rumors that Slade was going to be assassinated at the show, witnessing the concert was a young man named Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale) who sees Slade get shot.

Ten years later, Arthur is now a journalist in New York City who has been asked by his editor (Don Fellows) to do a piece on the tenth anniversary of Slade's shooting stunt that turned out to be a hoax. For Arthur, he had to go back to his memory as an adolescent, something he wants to forget since he was a huge fan of Slade while feeling sexually confused during the 1970s in Britain. He remembers the movement very well as kids acted bisexual as part of a trend and he often gotten scolded for buying Slade albums because it's for pansies. He meets up with Slade’s first and former manager Cecil (Michael Feast) who talks about how he met Brian Slade during a concert at the top club in Britain during the late 60s/early 70s called the Sombrero. He met Slade and his American wife Mandy (Toni Collette) who was a socialite that talked in a British accent.

Cecil talked about how talented Brian was but at a festival show with a hippie audience, Slade's personal and cosmic songs were trashed. Brian's wardrobe of wearing a dress also gave him trouble as he complained about being slagged until he saw wild American rocker Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor) performing with glitter and rubbing baby oil while flicking off the angry audience as he exposes himself. Slade was shocked but in awe of Curt's uncompromising approach to rock. Cecil knew that Curt Wild had given him something, especially with Curt's troubled background of shock therapy and claims that he was raised by wolves. Brian changed his presentation in front of a new management group where he meets a flamboyant manager in Jerry Devine (Eddie Izzard) who decides to manage Brian with Cecil now in the lurch as Devine makes Brian a star.

Arthur then meets up with Mandy who gives him her story of how she met Brian and his first meeting with Jack Fairy, where he stole Fairy's pin and became a star. With Brian on the rise with his band Venus in Furs, a new assistant arrives in Shannon (Emily Woof) as Brian wants to use his success to meet and revitalize the career of Curt Wild. He and Jerry go to America where they offered Curt a new deal where Jerry wants to make him a star for publicity while Brian has fallen for Curt. Amidst the chaos and excess of the era, Arthur remembers that while masturbating to a record back in the 70s forced him to be kicked out of his home. Arthur finds a new home with a band named the Flaming Creatures (the band Placebo) as the scene begins to decline while Curt and Brian's relationship falters.

Mandy then recalls the final glam rock concert where Curt performed as Arthur remembers he meets Curt as well as see Brian, who makes one of his final public appearances where he and Mandy had already broken up due to Brian's reliance on drugs. Then as Arthur continues to investigate, he learns of what has happened to Brian Slade and who has become where he tries to reach Curt Wild for information. In the end, Arthur begins to confront his past while pondering his own future.

While the film has some wonderful performance sequences that are done throughout the film, the film does suffer in its exaggeration and uneven script. While many of the film's glam rock sequences have its moments, it loses consistency when it shifts from 1970s glam to the more gray, corporate world of the 1980s when Arthur Stuart investigates his story. The Oscar Wilde subplot in the film also seems to be a distraction from the story and when the film moves into the third act where Arthur begins to recall his memory at the final glam rock show and reveal Brian's aftermath, the film loses momentum. While Haynes continues to bring in some great ideas and camera shots, his film suffers due to its uneven script.

The film's faltering script doesn't effect the film's look thanks to Maryse Alberti's colorful cinematography with its contrasting look of yellowish scenes in the dance hall sequences of Cecil's meeting with Slade along with the glam rock moments filled with color. The film's glam look is helped not just by production designer Christopher Hobbs and art director Andrew Munro for capturing the contrasting look of 70s glam and 80s gray world but also costume designer Sandy Powell for her detailed look of the 70s glam rock clothing. With editor James Lyon giving the film a nicely paced feel for the film's non-linear approach, he couldn't help the momentum that got lost in the third act.

One great aspect of the film that made the movie memorable is the music with a wonderful score from Coen Brothers longtime composer Carter Burwell along with original tracks from Brian Eno, Roxy Music, Lou Reed, Gary Glitter, T. Rex, and Iggy Pop. A few of those tracks were performed by various bands that included Placebo, Nathan Larson, Shudder to Think, Pulp, and the Venus in Furs band that included vocal appearances from Radiohead's Thom Yorke, Ewan McGregor, and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers that included several members like Andy Mackay of Roxy Music, Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead, and Bernard Butler of Suede while other acts included appearances from Sonic Youth's Steve Shelley and Thurston Moore.

The casting is well done with some fine performances from Placebo and many of the musicians who played in the band. Emily Woof is wonderful in her small role as Shannon, the assistant turned confidant for Brian Slade while Michael Feast is excellent in his calm role as Cecil, Brian's first manager. Eddie Izzard gives a wonderfully flamboyant and sleazy performance as the Tony DeFries caricature of Jerry Devine with his big-time obsession and star-making power. Toni Collette also delivers a fabulous performance as Mandy Slade from her vain, elegance in the 70s sequences to the burnout and calm approach of her character in the 80s as Collette brings a complexity and depth to her performance. Ewan McGregor is amazing in his role as Curt Wild, a mix of Iggy Pop/Kurt Cobain with a bit of Lou Reed & Mick Ronson, that shows McGregor's wild side and comedic antics as he not only belt out those great Iggy Pop songs but proves his performing power. Jonathan Rhys-Meyers delivers an excellent performance whenever he is singing and on the stage but when he is acting, Meyers comes off as a bit stiff in the role. Christian Bale really shines in a great supporting role of the anguished Arthur Stuart as a man trying to confront his past and sexuality while bringing an innocence and angst in the 70s sequences while some confusion and weariness to his scenes in the 80s.

While Velvet Goldmine got good reviews including a special Artistic Contribution prize at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival, to the eyes of glam rock purists, the film was trashed. When Haynes originally presented the film to David Bowie, the rock legend was unamused as he refused to have his songs used in the film where as a result, led to Bowie to creating his own musical on his own Ziggy Stardust persona back in the early 70s. While Lou Reed, Roxy Music, Brian Eno, and Iggy Pop lent their music to the film, many (except for Pop, who hasn't seen it) were not happy with the film and Eno and his former Roxy Music mate Bryan Ferry felt the film was overly exaggerated. Glam rock photographer Mick Rock and Bowie's producer Tony Visconti also didn't like the film for its portrayal while 80s pop singer Boy George felt insulted by the film, especially since he was a teen during those times.

Despite its flawed script and lack of momentum in the third act, Velvet Goldmine is still a worthy film from Todd Haynes. With fine performances from Ewan McGregor, Christian Bale, Toni Collette, and Eddie Izzard, the film has something to offer for glam rock fans but don't count on the purists to like the film. The film does bring in some great moments and scenes that are memorable thanks to Todd Haynes' unconventional approach to storytelling. Though his previous film, Safe and 2002's Far from Heaven show more of his directing talents, Velvet Goldmine is still a worthy film to see.


(C) thevoid99 2011

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Rabbit Hole



Based on David Lindsay-Abaire’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name, Rabbit Hole tells the story of a married couple dealing with the loss of their son. During this horrific time, the couple each ventured into their own personal journeys with their marriage going into freefall. Directed by John Cameron Mitchell with the play’s creator writing the screenplay. The film explores grief and moving forward as it marks as a departure of sorts for the more radical and unconventional John Cameron Mitchell. Starring Nicole Kidman, Aaron Eckhart, Tammy Blanchard, Miles Teller, Sandra Oh, Jon Tenney, Giancarlo Esposito, and Dianne Wiest. Rabbit Hole is a somber yet touching film from John Cameron Mitchell and company.

It’s another day for Becca (Nicole Kidman) and Howie Corbett (Aaron Eckhart) as they stay at home not wanting to go to any parties or social gatherings. Though Becca later gets a call from her trouble-making sister Izzy (Tammy Blanchard) who got arrested for assaulting a woman at a bar. The big news is that Izzy is pregnant with that woman’s ex-boyfriend named Auggie (Giancarlo Esposito). Still, it’s another thing Becca has to deal with as she and Howie are still dealing with the death of their 4-year old son Danny (Phoenix List). The grief has led to a lack of communication for the two as they try to deal with it through group meetings led by Kevin (Stephen Mailer) and Gabby (Sandra Oh).

Unfortunately, Becca chooses to leave following a couple’s discussion about their own way in dealing with grief as she is trying to move forward. Still, offering to give Danny’s clothes to Izzy and trying to get back to work as an executive hasn’t done anything. During Izzy’s birthday party that is attended by their mother Nat (Dianne Wiest) who wants to give Becca some advice. Becca isn’t interested as she and Howie are unable to really talk to each other as he goes to group and continue working. Instead, she follows a teenage boy named Jason (Miles Teller) which eventually led to the two finally talking about what happened.

Meanwhile, Howie begins to befriend Gabby during group meetings as a way to deal with his own grief after learning that Becca had deleted a video in his iPhone despite her claims it was an accident. Even as he learns why Kevin hasn’t been showing up in meetings. Following the decision to sell the house, Jason makes an unexpected appearance leading to more drama between Howie and Becca. Even as the two ponder what are they doing for themselves and what is next for them.

The film is essentially about a couple trying to deal with grief and how they react to the death of their 4-year old son through a car accident. Yet, the film’s writer and original playwright David Lindsay-Abaire is more concerned about the way this couple reacts not just to the things around them but how they’re dealing with the loss they’ve suffered. For Howie, it’s all about watching a video on his iPhone, trying to work, and go to group meetings to just try and move on. Becca however, has a much harder time as she seems cold, angry, and not wanting to move on as her attempts don’t work. Instead, she turns to a teenage boy with a strange fascination with science as he writes a comic book.

The story does start off slow since it was deliberate so that audience can understand how characters behave when they’re dealing with grief. Even as it becomes clear that it’s not an easy thing to go through where Becca is annoyed by her group meeting because a couple talks about angels. For Howie, Becca’s behavior becomes embarrassing as he would later embarrass himself at a meeting through a different form of behavior. Even as they would both go into their own individual journeys to find some form of comfort or someone they can talk to. For Becca, it’s Jason and for Howie, it’s Gabby.

Director John Cameron Mitchell’s approach to the storytelling is definitely very intimate but also in a very theatrical setting. Shot on location in cities near New York City, Mitchell’s approach was to broaden the play by setting it in a small-town, suburban world while maintaining its focus on the characters. Even as he creates broad yet straightforward compositions to the way characters interact while being subjective in scenes where the camera is at the group meeting as an attendee.

One of Mitchell’s most notable moments as a director is the way he presents the scene where the moment of Danny’s death happens. It’s in a stylized approach but presented not in a sensationalized nor graphic presentation. It’s also in how it inter-cuts with the moments that Becca and Howie are having individually. It’s clear that Mitchell is becoming more confident and refined as a director. Even in the way he just lets the acting do the talking without over-playing or under-playing scenes. Even in finding some semblance of humor for the film as he reveals that when it comes to grief. There are no easy answers as it’s tough to get through and eventually, they move on. Overall, it’s Mitchell at his most mature as he is becoming one of the most interesting filmmakers working today.

Cinematographer Frank G. DeMarco does excellent work with the film‘s lush, springtime look of the film with its green grasses and trees along with bluish shots for some of the film‘s exterior evening scenes. For the interior scenes at night, there’s a wonderful dark-yellow look that plays to the somber tone of the film. Editor Joe Klotz does some fantastic work with the film’s methodical yet straightforward editing. Even in creating some rhythmic cuts for the film’s intense, dramatic moments along with the flashback montage of Danny’s death.

Production designer Kalina Ivanov, along with set decorator Diana Salzburg and art director Ola Maslik, does an amazing job with the film‘s look for the home of Becca and Howie with its upper-middle class look and feel along with Danny‘s room. Even the artwork such as Jason’s comic book is a real highlight of the film since it does play to what Becca’s character is looking for. Costume designer Ann Roth does a real good job with the costumes from the street-like, youthful clothing that Becca’s sister Izzy and her boyfriend Auggie wears to the more casual, clothing that Howie and Becca wears.

Sound editor Benjamin Cheah does some good work with the sound work from the atmosphere of the bowling alley for Izzy‘s birthday to the intimate scenes of the park and group meetings. Music composer Anton Sanko does a wonderful job with the film’s plaintive yet somber score with soft strings and a piano. Notably with some melancholic tracks to play to the dramatic tone along with music from Al Green, David Soul, and others played quietly throughout the film.

The casting by Sig De Miguel and Stephen Vincent is magnificent as it’s definitely one of the film’s highlights. Notably with appearances from Jon Tenney as a friend/co-worker of Howie, Patricia Kalember as a neighbor, Jay Wilkison as a former co-worker of Becca, Phoenix List in flashback appearances as the late child Danny, and in the varied roles of the group meeting attendees, Rob Campbell, Yetta Gottesman, Colin Mitchell, and Deidre Goodwin. Stephen Mailer is pretty good as Gabby’s husband and group leader Kevin while Giancarlo Esposito is excellent as the lively, fun Auggie. Tammy Blanchard is wonderful as Becca’s brash though grateful sister Izzy who finds herself at the wrong places in the wrong time whenever her sister acts out.

Dianne Wiest is great as Becca’s mother Nat who tries to give Becca some advice while saying some strange things as Weist really brings humor and depth to a character that understands grief. Sandra Oh is superb as Gabby, a mother in mourning who becomes friends with Howie as she is revealing to be in pain for something other than the loss of her child. Oh brings some needed humor to the film as she displays the things people need when they want to get back into the real world with such a calm, carefree performance. The film’s biggest surprise is newcomer Miles Teller as Jason, a young teenage boy who is traumatized for what he’s done while becoming a companion for Becca’s own personal journey. Teller’s quiet yet mesmerizing performance is definitely one of amazement as the chemistry he has with Nicole Kidman is fascinating where he manages to be equals with her.

Aaron Eckhart delivers what is definitely his best performance to date as Howie. Eckhart plays a man who is trying to move on and attend group meetings while wanting the memories of his son around him. Yet, when he sees that those reminders are being removed and has a hard time trying to move on. It’s a remarkable role for Eckhart who often plays creeps or crazy men as he allows himself to be vulnerable and sympathetic.

Finally, there’s Nicole Kidman in what is definitely her best role since Lars von Trier’s 2003 film Dogville. After a period of some uninspired roles in mainstream films to vanity-driven performances in art-house projects. Kidman returns to form as a grieving mother trying to move forward while wanting to get rid of the pain she’s feeling. It’s a raw performance from Kidman where at times, she acts like a bitch and lash out at people. Then, there’s the quiet moments where she doesn’t go into theatrics and just be calm. Particularly her scenes with Miles Teller that really shows Kidman at her best. Overall, it’s a film that reminds audience why Nicole Kidman is a great actress.

Rabbit Hole is a haunting yet intriguing film from John Cameron Mitchell that is led by fantastic performances from Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart. Fans of Mitchell’s work will find this to be his most conventional and least radical work of his career. Still, it is also his most mature work to date as he is refining his work as a director. Audiences looking for a drama that deals with grief will find this film as something more realistic and engaging though it does start off slow. In the end, Rabbit Hole is a superb and mesmerizing drama from John Cameron Mitchell.

John Cameron Mitchell Films: Hedwig & the Angry Inch - Shortbus

© thevoid99 2011