Wednesday, December 28, 2016

The Squid and the Whale (2005) A Film by Noah Baumbach

"The conventional wisdom around Noah Baumbach as a cranky misanthrope with a preemptive grudge against his fictional players—one of the hoariest ad-hominem characterizations in circulation—wasn’t yet in full swing when The Squid and the Whale bruised audiences with its lucidity and rawness. Equally hard-hearted and uncompromising in its mode of delivery as its coolly received follow-ups, Margot at the Wedding and Greenberg, the film executes its mercilessness in dart throws, with each offhand aggression piercing the cork around the bull’s-eye until the board is nearly filled up and a moment of release is granted. The cumulative impact validates Baumbach’s alleged cruelty as a natural, unshakeable route to emotional truth, not a temperament crudely applied to individual scripts. (It’s telling that his latest three efforts, the breeziness of which suggest a filmmaker reading his reviews and calibrating his tone accordingly, don’t hit as hard.)"

Full review of The Squid and the Whale, now out in a new Criterion edition, continues at Slant.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Albums of 2016

I'll be honest: the majority of this collection is in the singer/songwriter vein, it's almost 90% male-dominated, and it's mostly sad music about death or breakups or encroaching doom. That's been the year, I guess. I've been relatively disengaged from music for a while, but for whatever cocktail of personal reasons I've become re-invested this year (I'm even writing music again), and these are the artists that have been exciting me. With apologies to Kendrick Lamar and Tim Hecker, whose albums this year I've only recently begun to appreciate, here are the gems.

1. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds: Skeleton Tree

Artistic expression doesn't really get more devastatingly close-to-the-bone than Skeleton Tree, the alternately stygian and encouraging suite of songs that has emerged from Nick Cave's grieving process over his recently deceased son. Though written in large part prior to the tragedy that involved the 15-year-old falling from a cliff during an LSD trip, the album repeatedly doubles back on veiled allusions to the incident and to more direct dealings with Cave's mourning, while the grey sonic cloud that looms over much of its duration, and which finally starts to hesitantly lift in the heartening final two songs, feels unmistakably dirge-like. Opener "Jesus Alone" sustains an oscillating growl and an extraterrestrial whine for approximately six minutes, establishing the free-time, minor-key atmospherics that dominate the subsequent tracks. As a testament to a group of musicians in command of their craft and utterly in tune with one another, Skeleton Tree is peerless. Its audacious song structures, built on cresting and falling waves of textured distortion, practically necessitate precise musical chemistry, as distinctly apparent on cuts like "Anthrocene" and "Girl in Amber"—the former a downright creepy jangle with a skittering beat disappearing and reappearing, the latter a low-hanging fog of muted synthesizers resonating against ghostly backing vocals. That said, it's on album highlight "I Need You," a comparatively straightforward groove anchored by Cave's guttural croon, that the album's virtues are most clearly embodied: at the center of the pile-up of nightmarish details is a burning ache for a lost companion that won't be eased by pleas to God or well wishes from friends.

2. Alasdair Roberts and James Green: Plaint of Lapwing

My favorite musical discovery this year (with thanks to my good friend Jon Davies) has been the idiosyncratic and joyfully anachronistic folk of Scotsman Alasdair Roberts, and Plaint of Lapwing is probably his catchiest collection to date. Filled front to back with baroque earworms, the album is a dynamic showcase for Roberts as a virtuoso of melody, song structure and unorthodox time signatures (the springy interweave of guitar and voice on opener “Anankë” has been stuck in my head at least once a week this year). But the most unique source of fascination is Roberts’ gibberish-by-way-of-Old English vernacular, which has its own curious system for describing familiar phenomena: recounting an erotic encounter on “The Evening is Growing Dim,” for instance, Roberts sings, "and how my questing fingers made your every clasping to unfasten." Tales of drunken revelry, thwarted revenge and summer love take on a Chaucerian quality in their bounty of incident, and Roberts, with invaluable assistance from instrumentalist James Green, nests it all in warm curlicues of guitar, harmoniflute, and various bells and whistles. Plaint of Lapwing builds an entire world equal parts medieval and fantastical.

3. James Blake: The Colour in Anything

I went through the breakup of a nearly six-year relationship in early 2016, and James Blake's third album, The Colour in Anything, was the new record that did the most to get me through it. Blake's always had one foot in the soul genre, but this is his first to fully justify the terminology; where his self-titled breakout and his follow-up Overgrown never quite landed for me in their coolly cerebral stylings, The Colour in Anything anchors Blake's sonic experimentation to a heavy core of human emotion. The full gamut of feelings that accompany a breakup—shock and disbelief, anger and disillusionment, nostalgic fixation and reluctant acceptance—is tackled with courageous directness in Blake's lyrics, which favor straightforwardly worded self-assessments ("It's sad that you're no longer her") to symbolic obfuscation. And Blake hasn't become a lesser aesthete in pursuit of this emotional openness; on the contrary, this is his richest work as both a producer and a pianist. Crackly analog textures mingle with full-bodied synthesizer patches to cover the tunes in an overcast sky, but edgy drum machine backbeats and unorthodox accompaniments (a jew harp, a syncopated dog bark) keep the very long record from getting bogged down in gloom. It helps that Blake mixes the epic fistfuls of pain ("Love Me in Whatever Way," "Choose Me") with anomalous detours, like ravishing Bon Iver duet "I Need a Forest Fire" (better than anything on said artist's flatulent 2016 offering) or the virtuosic self-titled grand piano track. I'll submit that Blake probably could have cut a track or two (I'd sacrifice "I Hope My Life," personally), but in all its enormity The Colour in Anything instantly enters the pantheon of great heartbreak music.

4. Radiohead: A Moon Shaped Pool

A Moon Shaped Pool was met with what seemed like widespread skepticism when it was first released, so I'm glad that seven months later it's topping lists. I don't know what exactly people expect from Radiohead, but whatever it is, the band hasn't been delivering it for the last few releases, veering away from generation-defining statement albums and toward more modest records with expertly honed musicianship. The draw of this new collection is the increased emphasis on collaborative orchestration, with Jonny Greenwood bringing to bear his recent experiences in film scoring for Paul Thomas Anderson and thus gracing the music with a warmth and spaciousness not as evident on the more internalized The King of Limbs—a quality also attributable to Thom Yorke's uncharacteristically soul-baring lyrics, which touch with surprising candor on subjects like global warming, mass stupidity and the collapse of Yorke's marriage. A Moon Shaped Pool spills over with evocative grace notes: the violent surge of staccato strings that follows Yorke's declaration that "people have this power" on "The Numbers"; the almost subliminal way in which the dark piano arpeggio of "Daydreaming" shapeshifts into a synthesizer loop; the unpredictable vocal EQ automation on "Full Stop" or Phil Selway's barely articulated ghost notes on the same track; the wheeze of clipped phrases that prick the right ear in "Present Tense" behind Yorke's main melody. Sitting here revisiting album highlights, I feel like I could go on forever. This is the best band in the world feeding beautifully off each other.

5. Leonard Cohen: You Want It Darker

The declarative audacity of Leonard Cohen's final album title extends to the execution of the music: this is not a record that beats around the bush. Cohen faces his incoming death head on, sans moping and with a lethal dose of humor, and comes away with one of his most touching works. I don't know how he did it. The elegant, straightforward arrangements skirt cheesiness, which has long been Cohen's achilles' heel; the instrumentation is largely non-electronic, with grand piano, guitar, pedal steel and a string section only occasionally supplemented by snatches of drum machines and synth pads; and Cohen's voice is the deepest and richest it’s ever been, wearing both his heart and his larynx on his sleeve. Former relationships are reflected upon, childhood memories are summoned, mistakes are forgiven, sex life is wryly dressed down, and religious matters are cast aside for earthly wisdom. Farewell is finally issued with the glorious “String Reprise/Treaty,” a bastion of unsullied beauty in a year of global instability.

6. David Thomas Broughton: Crippling Lack

UK-born, South Korea-based songsmith/performance artist David Thomas Broughton has been said to contain multitudes. I'd agree, and add that his new triple album, Crippling Lack, which clocks in at an hour and 41 minutes, contains multitudes within his multitudes. Synthesizing the lo-fi chamber folk of The Complete Guide to Insufficiency, the full-band grooviness of Outbreeding, and the choral-infused balladry of Sliding the Same Way, Crippling Lack adopts a grand conceptual canvas if only to leap from idea to idea with reckless abandon. Recorded, per usual, in live scenarios with help from a loop pedal and containing all the invigorating inelegance that implies, the album is marked by the potent sense of Broughton completely losing himself in the songs—that is, until something brutally direct pierces the fog of the enigmatic storytelling. And then there's Broughton's voice on top of it all: florid, operatic, and tinged with just enough of a smirk to make the passages of purple prose work. That tonal ambiguity—the rue mixed with the venom—is what gives something like "The Plunge of the Dagger," a suicide note in song form featuring bad-taste injections of black humor from a thick-accented voiceover, such lingering resonance.

7. Hamilton + Rostam: I Had a Dream That You Were Mine

The second collaboration between Hamilton Leithauser and Rostam Batmanglij finds them fully harmonizing their distinct sensibilities into a cohesive whole rather than simply brandishing dormant Walkmen ideas with some Vampire Weekend ornamentations. This is not to say I don't also adore the somewhat uneven Black Hours, just that I Had a Dream That You Were Mine feels thoroughly cooked. Batmanglij's greatest contribution, in addition to curating some of the punchiest drum sounds and most singular piano tones I've heard on an indie rock album in some time, is in pushing Leithauser's next-level voice toward new inflections and flourishes, like the crackly hollering that closes out "Peaceful Morning" or the fatigued chattiness in the verse of "You Ain't That Young Kid." After seeming to issue a mellowing statement of adult contentedness in Heaven, Leithauser now seems re-energized in his relative middle age, blending his usual dewy-eyed romanticism with a rowdiness that I haven't heard in his voice since The Walkmen's live-recorded remake of Harry Nilsson's Pussy Cats. This is just an irresistible set of tunes, ideal for blasting at a high volume while driving.

8. Julien Baker: Sprained Ankle

I recently realized that this is technically a 2015 release, but I spent the whole year under the assumption that it was dropped in early 2016, so I don't care. I went through a little Baker phase in the middle of the year where I scoured the web for live videos of her performing (this one's the best if you can ignore the dweeb asking questions), all of which helped cement Sprained Ankle as something pretty special despite its surface resemblances to other stripped-down emo-confessional music. Baker's personal story of drug abuse and homosexuality colliding with abiding Christian faith lends the record a potent specificity that graces the woe-is-me musings with real dramatic dimension, and her impressive vocal range (peaking in the epic "Rejoice") really helps sell it. The songs here are sparse and simple—usually featuring only an acoustic or electrical guitar buttressed by subtle reverbs and delays—but Baker has such an intuitive feel for dynamics that the lack of supplementing instrumentation never feels limiting. As a side note, she's also super cute and erudite.

9. David Bowie: Black Star

Unlike Leonard Cohen's goodbye record this year, which sustains one register of unapologetic directness, David Bowie's own parting gift finds the singer in intimidatingly chameleonic form, vacillating between sounding possessed, desperate, devious, energized and exhausted. The seven-track Black Star contains an incredible waterfall of end-of-life creativity, sounding nothing like the flamboyant glam rock that rocketed Bowie to stardom in the seventies or the highly technical electro he produced in the nineties. I don't claim to know everything about Bowie's progression through the decades (I'm one of those casual listeners who took the national mourning over his death as an opportunity to discover and rediscover his body of work), but I'll be surprised if I stumble upon something in his catalogue that feels this haunted and noirish. The monumental title track, which lays a halting, convoluted beat over a moaning bed of woodwinds and guitar drone before switching gears multiple times through celestial funk and something approaching gloomy hip-hop, is an all-time album opener, and despite some duds (for all its coiled anger and atmospheric freakouts, "Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)" is undone by its tacky central riff), Black Star never loses its capacity to surprise.

10. PJ Harvey: Hope Six Demolition Project

A highlight from this year: emerging from an overwhelming PJ Harvey concert at the Shrine Expo Hall in Los Angeles with a renewed appreciation for Hope Six Demolition Project, then blasting the buoyant opening track in my car while driving past the still-dispersing crowd. It was on that night that I settled on this latest LP as a special work—not as monumental as Let England Shake per se, but a very worthy companion piece nonetheless. From the day of its release, claims of flippant white privilege dogged the album, which reflects in diaristic fashion on Harvey's experiences in the war-torn Middle East and in Washington D.C. and finds much to lament in the contemporary world's abuses of power and pockets of crippling disenfranchisement ("This is how the world will end," she rightly concedes). As long as Harvey's writing music and not legislation, I expect her to record her thoughts and feelings in an honest way, not to prophesize about paths to prosperity. And for Harvey, for whom restless evolution is an artistic M.O. and whose decades as a performer have involved countless leaps in persona from album to album, an acknowledgment of her own critical distance from abject poverty and inability to directly reverse it feels par for the course. What compels most about Hope Six Demolition Project is the ongoing collision of different styles and aesthetics (hard rock and blues, marching band theatrics and hypnotic incantations, Harvey's ethereal voice and the call-and-responses of macho background singers), which occurs not just on a song-to-song level but within compositions. That a charging rocker like "The Wheel" can segue so fluidly into a placid elegy like "Dollar, Dollar" is indicative of the musical range on offer here.

11. Jesu/Sun Kil Moon: S/T

Mark Kozelek's continuing retreat from conventional song structures and melodies, which has occasioned a new spurt of productivity in the last few years, apexes with this uncategorizable collaboration with guitarist Justin Broadrick of Jesu and Godflesh (already present in the Kozelek universe via Mark's description of him as a "hungry great white" on Universal Themes). It's not the most successful entry in Kozelek's ragged back catalogue, but it's certainly the weirdest, metamorphosing as it does from a sludgy black metal album to a vaguely danceable collection of slow-mo electronica about halfway through. The guitar-based pieces are jagged, sonically narrow and a bit of a distraction if you're trying to hear the lyrics, but in the latter mode, Broadrick excels at spinning dark cocoons of sound that function as ideal backdrop for Kozelek's streams of casually profound mundanity, which ebb and flow without following predictable narrative arcs. At some point, I'll need to write at length about whatever it is that moves me so deeply about Kozelek's new lyrical approach, but suffice to say that, with the leap into spoken word and absurdly specific personal anecdote, he's tapping into a level of unfiltered intimacy that reaps huge emotional dividends. That's nowhere more apparent than on album closer "Exodus," a harrowing act of empathy for grieving parents that I needed this year following the death of a close friend.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Always Shine (2016) A Film by Sophia Takal

"Shot in Southern California and set in a culture of fledgling film-industry types, Sophia Takal's Always Shine is also a film that feels acutely like it was manufactured in a development office on La Cienega Boulevard. It's Queen of Earth meets Mulholland Drive, Passion with a dash of Persona, The Neon Demon in the atmospheric key of Martha, Marcy, May Marlene. It won't take a cinephile to recognize these touch points, and that probably wouldn't bother Takal, who makes sure to signal on numerous occasions—through shots of camera lenses, glimpses of electronic slates, and direct-to-camera addresses—that Always Shine isn't just an entertainment product with echoes of other films, but a narrative about the deforming, cannibalistic project of Hollywood."

Full review continues at Slant.

Monday, November 14, 2016

The Illinois Parables (2016) A Film by Deborah Stratman

"The nature of Stratman’s decade-in-the-making project recalls the work of fellow Midwesterner David Gatten, particularly the monumental Secret History of the Dividing Line, a similarly long-brewing endeavor that burrows into the implications of an obscure bit of pre-colonial American history around the Virginia and North Carolina border. Stratman even has a likeminded fondness for bygone texts, whether in her embrace of the tactile qualities of the printing press (sundry newspaper clippings are Xeroxed and optical-printed for our viewing pleasure), or in her use of epistolary ephemera on the soundtrack, such as a Ralph Waldo Emerson letter narrated by Gatten himself."

Full review at Slant.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

The Quiet Man (1952) A Film by John Ford

"This being a John Wayne role in a John Ford film, Sean never tips over fully to the dark side. But four years before The Searchers mined this very territory and became canonized for it, The Quiet Man derived much of its complexity from its flirtations with the murkier shades of its star's persona. Not only is Wayne's assimilated Yankee etched with a sense of privilege that touches on the nastier registers of American machismo, his shyness is pierced by a propensity for nonverbal bluntness, his initial social grace is later undermined by a pushiness in getting his way, and, most critically, his sterling physical form is recognized for its inclinations to violence. In a radically unorthodox gesture, Ford withholds any particulars regarding Sean's background as a boxer until a moment of tension with Will Danaher (Victor McLaglen), Mary Kate's brutish brother, that dislodges a fragmented sense memory detailing his accidental murder of an opponent in the ring."

Full review of the new Olive Films 4K blu-ray at Slant Magazine.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Portrait of a Garden (2016) A Film by Rosie Stapel

"Botanists, horticulturists, and groundskeepers won't be disappointed by Rosie Stapel's Portrait of a Garden, a comprehensive visual inventory of a fabulously maintained multi-acre 'kitchen garden' on a historic Dutch estate. Others, meanwhile, may walk away feeling as indifferent to the craft of landscaping as they were when they came in—a crippling Achilles' heel in a film whose chief concern is the transmission of out-of-fashion knowledge to new generations. Peppered with a near-constant barrage of footnotes on the lower third of the frame identifying whatever varietal of crop viewers happen to be observing at a given moment, the film is insistent in its efforts to stoke interest in gardening and pruning, yet it stops short of bridging the gap for those less inherently spellbound by soil, roots, and branches."

Full review at Slant.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Autumn Lights (2016) A Film by Angad Aulakh

"Anyone who’s spent some time on Vimeo in the last few years should be familiar with a certain surge in fawning Icelandic tourism videography, the tropes of which are immediately recognizable, from time-lapse footage of waterfalls to leisurely pans of glaciers, all accompanied by sub-Sigur Rós post-rock. If a mark of distinction can be conferred upon the Icelandic-American production Autumn Lights, it’s that writer-director Angad Aulakh more or less skirts these conventions. Save for the occasional pillow shot of a distantly viewed snowcapped mountain or a glassy lake surface, the filmmaker keeps most of his story’s action confined to interiors, and when his characters do venture into the great outdoors, they spend most of their time in dense pine groves that effectively block off Iceland’s picturesque vistas."

Full review at Slant.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Son of Joseph (2016) A Film by Eugène Green

"This principle of elimination—why provide surplus aural and visual stimuli when two or three pieces of information will do?—informs every scene here, from a literary cocktail party that Vincent crashes to a dinner date between Marie and Joseph, both of which play out in a minimum of punctiliously arranged frames and share a blatant disregard for naturalistic ambiance. In many ways, Green's work runs directly counter to the show-don't-tell mode of cinematic thinking that valorizes 'leaving space' for the viewer's imagination. Instead, Green outlines his character's feelings and motivations in dialogue, ensures that nothing interrupts the transmission of the sentiments, and points his camera directly at his character's faces, those apparent vessels of truth—and yet, a sense of psychological complexity, even mystery, remains."

I wrote about Eugène Green's latest film, showing at the New York Film Festival, for Slant Magazine.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Gabe Klinger Interview

I interviewed writer/director/critic Gabe Klinger at the Zurich Film Festival for Filmmaker Magazine, in which we discussed his new film Porto, its unique use of various film gauges, and its debt to Manoel De Oliveira, among other things. Here's one of my favorite bits:

"Klinger: When I’ve been in romantic relationships and they’ve run their course, I think there’s still a little bit that you can salvage from whatever’s left. You always ask the person, 'don’t you remember the good moments?' But more often than not, the bad things cloud those things. And it works the other way around, too. The irrational side of us always wants things to stay as they are, but if you’re not in love anymore, you can take the rational posture, which is also kind of irrational, because love isn’t a coherent thing. So the person who wants to stay in the relationship becomes the crazy person and the person who wants to leave the relationship because it’s 'for the best' becomes the rational one, but actually you’re both irrational. There’s no clear-headed way to summarize what happened to you."

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Zurich Film Festival

"It's generally agreed upon that one should allow themselves a few hours of decompression and acclimation when first landing in a faraway city, but as I drowsily touched down for the 12th annual Zurich Film Festival after an arduous 10-hour flight, time was not on my side, so I rushed instead to a film that captures something ineffable about the frazzled traveler's mindset. Gabe Klinger's Porto, my first taste of the festival at an evening showing, is about bemusedly roaming in half-light through a foreign city while periodically drifting in and out of recollections of a potent recent relationship gone sour."

I attended the Zurich Film Festival and covered it across two dispatches for the House Next Door.

Dispatch #1: On Porto, La Reconquista, Lady Macbeth, and Two Lottery Tickets
Dispatch #2: On Vanatoare, Europe, She Loves, Einfach Leben, Sketches of Lou, The Eremites, Misericorde, El Invierno

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Hermia and Helena (2016) A Film by Matías Piñeiro

"Matías Piñeiro's Hermia & Helena offers an implicit rebuke to the received notion that the American debuts of eccentric international filmmakers are bids for accessibility. The film's narrative concerns the residency of a young, Bueno Aires-based theater director, Camila (Agustina Muñoz), in New York City, where she's been invited to translate A Midsummer Night's Dream into Spanish for a new take on Shakespeare's canonical comedy. And while her adventures feature rekindled romances and a familial reunion, Piñeiro takes considered measures to steer clear of saccharine self-discovery drama. In utilizing a temporally and geographically jumpy structure, a series of detours and doublings that frustrate Camila's centrality in the story, and a visual surface that delights in non-narrative distractions, he even goes so far as to obfuscate whatever crowd-pleasing qualities may have existed in the material."

I wrote about my favorite Matías Piñeiro film thus far as part of Slant Magazine's NYFF coverage.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum (1939) A Film by Kenji Mizoguchi

"On the back cover of their Blu-ray release of The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum, the Criterion Collection heralds the 1939 Kenji Mizoguchi film as 'the first full realization of the hypnotic long takes and eloquent camera movements that would come to define the director's films'—a seductive claim, to be sure, but one with the potential to mislead. The Japanese filmmaker was experimenting with the cited aesthetic as early as 1935 with The Downfall of Osen, which withheld a close-up revelation of its titular protagonist until the tail end of a lugubrious flashback structure, while 1937's criminally underseen The Straits of Love and Hate, inspired by Leo Tolstoy's Resurrection, plays like a model for Hou Hsiao-hsien's work in its serene patience and pictorial distance. That's, of course, to account for only Mizoguchi's extant films; within the dozens undiscovered, it's reasonable to assume, given the stylistically bold temperament of something even as early as 1925's The Song of Home, that there's some sophisticated time-sculpting going on elsewhere."

Reviewed the new Criterion Blu-ray.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Contesting History – The Films of Oliver Stone

"Regarded as a politically radical firebrand nearly as often as he’s discussed for his filmmaking, Oliver Stone is one of the monolithic voices of contemporary Hollywood—a figure about whom opinion tends to be divided starkly between derision and adulation, with little room for ambivalence in between. As a veteran of the Vietnam War whose Bronze Star and Purple Heart belie a profound disillusionment with his experience there, Stone has spent a considerable chunk of his directorial career depicting the events of the 1960s and 70s, paying particular attention to the ways in which the era’s tensions and contradictions act as barometers for more enduring problems in American politics. His overarching thesis as a filmmaker—that passive faith in one’s nation leaves one blind to the fact that the interconnected forces of government and national media construct digestible narratives for their citizenry in ways that protect their own interests—doubles as a call to action, which therefore brands Stone as an activist working within the entertainment business, a perch from which he wields a rare influence."

The Harvard Film Archive is hosting a small survey of Oliver Stone's political filmmaking this fall. They generously asked me to contribute the introduction and, with the exception of the blurb on Snowden, all of the program notes for the series, which can be viewed here.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Be Sure to Share (2009) A Film by Sion Sono

"An anomalous tearjerker from Sion Sono couched between some of the director’s most outré genre eruptions, Be Sure to Share channels Sono’s own grief over the loss of his father into a modest tale of filial piety renewed against the backdrop of terminal cancer. Shiro (Akira), who’s happily employed in his late twenties and on the cusp of engagement to his mild-mannered girlfriend, Yoko (Ayumi Itô), has his world rocked when his father Tetsuji (Eiji Okada) unexpectedly keels over and is rushed to the emergency room. When the diagnosis consigns Tetsuji to the hospital bed for what will likely be a permanent stay, Shiro, recognizing that his relationship with his dad extends scarcely beyond old-fashioned tough love, endeavors to deepen their connection before it’s too late. The premise is a melodramatic softball right over the middle of the plate, the kind of idea that Hollywood would hypothetically poach and transform into two hours of sad-macho life lessons handed down from an award-sniffing veteran actor to a handsome newcomer."

My second contribution to the Sion Sono retrospective at In Review Online continues here.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

The Girlfriend Experience: Season 1 (2016) A TV Series by Amy Seimetz and Lodge Kerrigan

"Seimetz and Kerrigan’s first stab at mainstream television proceeds with series producer Steven Soderbergh’s 2009 feature of the same name as its narrative and aesthetic model, and they’ve clearly studied up on his coolly anthropological late style. The show’s action occurs exclusively in office buildings, apartments, hotels, and restaurants of the most exquisite architectural modernism, with immaculately dusted reflective surfaces and symmetrically arranged décor implicitly demanding that anyone within these spaces hold themselves with a comparable degree of sharpness. And true to their overseer’s contempt for perfunctory shot-reverse-shot editing patterns, Seimetz and Kerrigan, who swap helming duties on a more or less episode-by-episode basis, exhibit a fondness for covering scenes in wide establishing shots that weigh principal and background talent equally, creating a sense of ambient surveillance only compounded when one master shot is followed with yet another spatially disorienting angle from some other distant corner."

I actually wrote about TV. My full review of the excellent first season of The Girlfriend Experience continues over at Slant.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

I Am Keiko (1997) A Film by Sion Sono

"I Am Keiko is a film caught within the dimensions of its maker’s head, composed of and consumed by the limits of that brain’s capacity for thought. This is a statement of fact, not a value judgment, and a twofold statement at that. Sion Sono may have directed I Am Keiko but Keiko herself, a 22-year-old waitress grieving from the recent loss of her father to cancer, is positioned within the film’s fictional framework as the sole author of its images and structure, with the film we’re watching ostensibly a celluloid diary transmitted to us as we’re witnessing it. Keiko plainly addresses the parameters of her film in voiceover: in exactly one hour and one minute’s time—she dictates to us as we contemplate the ticking of a statically framed clock—we will finish watching a series of recordings from her daily life, over which she will exercise total freedom with regard to the content and means of expression."

Review continues at In Review Online, which is currently holding a Sion Sono retrospective.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Richard Linklater: Dream is Destiny (2016) A Film by Louis Black and Karen Bernstein

"'He kinda has to create another world to express how he feels about this one,' enthuses Boyhood star Ellar Coltrane of director Richard Linklater during the procession of admiring quotes that opens Richard Linklater: Dream Is Destiny, the third recent release to offer a peek into the life of the Texan filmmaker and the second to do so in the style of a conventional expository documentary. Such an awe-strikingly general statement (about what director could this not be said?) isn't exactly a surprise from a young actor, but it's also not really the kind of sound bite that primes a viewer to expect critical rigor, and in placing it right at the head of their film, directors Louis Black and Karen Bernstein set an unfortunate precedent that's seldom surpassed. In fact, Coltrane's quote isn't even the flimsiest inclusion: At one point, longtime Linklater editor Sandra Adair declares that “he knows his characters so well and he understands the kinds of films he's making.”

Full review at Slant.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Indignation (2016) A Film by James Schamus

"Schamus's debut feature is impressive for how its tamped-down style and the coming-of-age narrative work so confidently in tandem, with the filmmaking's sedate professionalism increasingly reflecting a milieu in which decorum is paramount, and any behavioral deviation stands out. Marcus's decision, egged on by his vigilantly cautious parents, to attend Winesburg College while his peers ship off to the Korean War is itself a deviation, and it sets into motion a slowly dawning realization for the young man to the limited pathways allowed by the conservative society he's been raised in. If Newark feels to him like a hermetically sealed mini-universe lorded over by his paranoid father (Danny Burstein) and orbiting around only the prospect of the small-time family butchering business, then Winesburg, with its mandatory sermons and rigidly compartmentalized campus social groups, is just another trap."

Full review here.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

For the Plasma (2014) A Film by Bingham Bryant and Kyle Molzan

"Among the films to emerge in recent years to exhibit the influence of Jacques Rivette, Bingham Bryant and Kyle Molzan's For the Plasma wears its reverence for the French director most transparently. It gives us a coastal Maine setting vibrating with an air of the unreal; two female protagonists who, while tasked initially with one project, gradually become embroiled in other clandestine pursuits signifying some slippery conspiracy; a chain of scenarios involving mapping, tracing, and analyzing; and well-dressed businessmen with apparent connections to a larger, just-out-of-reach intrigue. The film's two leads resemble Rivette muses of yesteryear, with frizzy-haired, monotone Rosalie Lowe evoking Bulle Ogier and the boyish Anabelle LeMieux inviting comparisons to Juliet Berto circa Out 1. Eventually, one even goes boating."

Review continues here.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Van Gogh (1991) A Film by Maurice Pialat

"In 1956's Lust for Life, Vincente Minnelli captured Vincent van Gogh's antisocial mania and his harum-scarum dealings with the mainstream art world. With 1990's Vincent & Theo, Robert Altman fixed his attention on the swirl of meretricious forces surrounding the doomed artist, and in typical Altmanesque fashion, the ways in which the talons of commerce make fools of those with integrity. French filmmaker Maurice Pialat evidently found both approaches too dramatic. His own fictionalized account of the Dutchman's waning days, 1991's frankly titled Van Gogh, leeches late-19th-century France of sensationalism, barely treating it different than he would one of the drab modern locales of his contemporary dramas. In doing so, van Gogh's neuroses and shortcomings end up looking much like those of Pialat's standard anti-hero, a man driven to let his worst self gradually overshadow his best."

Full review here.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Cafe Society (2016) A Film by Woody Allen

"More than any of his numerous recent films, Woody Allen's Café Society conveys the enormity of life's experience, and it does so using the most direct means possible: by simply piling up incidents. While the 80-year-old filmmaker's speedy rate of production continues to be laudable, the velocity of his recent work is equally notable. These days, Allen's screenplays carom from one plot point to the next with a highly selective regard for what to bother picking through the implications of, and Café Society bears that tendency out in the extreme. Here's a film in which the protagonist's mafia-involved brother is put to death at one point and all that's allocated to the passing is a curt establishing shot of ash-spreading before a cut to a wailing nightclub crooner jars the film back into its jazzy swing."

Full review continues here.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Men Go to Battle (2015) A Film by Zachary Treitz

"Shot on quasi-grainy digital at close range and evenly lit in autumnal tones, Zachary Treitz's Civil War-set Men Go to Battle lacks the polish and bombast of much costlier historical dramas. Evoking the cloistered rawness of Andrea Arnold's Wuthering Heights and Robert Eggers's The Witch, the film aims for revelatory intimacy within a commonplace past, but while its simulacrum of 1860s Kentucky is impressively textured in spite of a shoestring budget, Treitz's preference for arm's-length characterizations renders a convincingly made-over ensemble little more than another ornament on the landscape."

Full review here.

Friday, July 1, 2016

A Guy from Fenyang (2016) A Film by Walter Salles

"In the blighted canon of documentaries about directors, A Guy from Fenyang has nothing of the hagiographical cheerleading or predetermined talking-head baton passing of something like Frank Pavich's Jodorowsky's Dune. If anything, Salles seems to take a cue or two from Gabe Klinger's excellent Double Play: James Benning and Richard Linklater, another film bonded tightly to the leisurely thought processes of its subjects, and one equally unbothered to let the work in question play out at length and stand on its own."

Full review here.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Dark Night (2016) A Film by Tim Sutton

"The first four images of Dark Night, Tim Sutton's contemplation of civilian gun violence in America, have a fragmentary precision that's gutting. First, a girl's eye is studied in close-up as red and blue light—seemingly the incandescence of either a movie screen or fireworks—flashes over it. Then, streaks of refracted red light blink rhythmically across the top of a dark frame, forcing us to reconsider the source of the initial glow as potentially that of a police siren, followed by a shot of a larger red smear, underneath which a distant American flag slowly waves. This sequence is capped off by a wider angle of the girl, who's sullenly slumped on some grass at the side of a road as the unfocused legs of onlookers bob in the background and ambulance sirens creep into the otherwise hushed soundscape."

Full review here.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Fantastic Planet (1973) A Film by René Laloux and Roland Topor

"Fantastic Planet's blend of straightforward, almost elementary storytelling (any missing context is filled in via a voiceover by Jean Valmont as the adult Terr) with heady themes and eroticized imagery marks the film as a relic of an era with much looser standards around the dichotomy of the children's film and the adult drama. Also pinning it to the early 1970s are the unmistakable assimilations of psychedelia into the Ygam ecosystem: The Draags nourish themselves by sidling up against sproutings of plant life and inhaling for extended periods of time, after which their souls, encased in tiny orbs, rise upward to attach to headless naked bodies, which then proceed to tenderly embrace. Casually liberated sexuality runs rampant on Ygam, from the female Oms whose breasts hang freely to the various phallic and vaginal estuaries in the landscape. Even the Oms' rocket ships, which propel them to one of Ygam's moons in a tactical effort to evade the Draag's gassing assaults, leave no question as to what their shapes are meant to evoke."
Full review here of the Criterion Collection blu-ray.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

The Shallows (2016) A Film by Jaume Collet-Serra

"For four films in a row now, Jaume Collet-Serra has placed modern image-capturing devices—a security feed in Unknown, smartphone cameras in Non-Stop and Run All Night, and now a GoPro in The Shallows—into his plots as carriers of empirical evidence that in some way click the narratives into place. It's an auteurist quirk that's getting increasingly difficult to write off as merely a techie fetish or an act of pandering to his touch-screen-savvy audience, especially since the wildly popular matchbox-sized HD machine at the heart of The Shallows permits Blake Lively's embattled surfer to record a soulful message to geographically distant loved ones that might otherwise have gone unexpressed. The camera also literally acts as the savior of the story, floating into her vicinity just when it seems all hope is lost." Review continues here.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Robert Aldrich Retrospective

The Harvard Film Archive is hosting "...All the Marbles (The Complete Robert Aldrich)" this summer in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I'm proud to say I contributed the introduction, as well as program notes on Kiss Me Deadly, World for Ransom, Ten Seconds to Hell, The Legend of Lylah Clare, Attack!, The Longest Yard, Big Leaguer, Apache, The Last Sunset, The Choirboys, The Dirty Dozen, Kiss Me Deadly, The Prowler, Sodom and Gomorrah, Too Late the Hero, The Grissom Gang, 4 for Texas, Hustle, The Southerner, The Angry Hills, The Frisco Kid, Emperor of the North, and The Big Knife.

Here's an excerpt of the intro:

"In many ways, Aldrich came out of the gate with a will to impress and a sensibility largely formed. In the first three years of his career alone, he directed Apache, one of the first Hollywood Westerns to center on a Native American protagonist (despite a bronzed Burt Lancaster playing him) and treat the subject of the white man’s colonization of the West bluntly; Vera Cruz, a financially triumphant vehicle for Lancaster and Gary Cooper; Kiss Me Deadly, a cause célèbre for the tough-to-please Cahiers du Cinéma clique and a sly retooling of the film noir genre; and The Big Knife, a scalpel sunk deep into the charade of a movie industry founded on duplicity and authoritarianism. These were films that aimed to make a mark, upturning expectations for the genres in which they worked and casting a view of society as inherently broken, a wall against which principled men must relentlessly push. They laid down the archetype that would course through Aldrich’s entire body of work. In his words, 'It’s the same character in a number of pictures that keeps reappearing…a heroic figure, who understands that the probabilities are that he’ll lose.'"

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The Alchemist Cookbook (2016) A Film by Joel Potrykus

"Joel Potrykus's last film, Buzzard, placed its loafer protagonist in a crushingly dull middle-American milieu until he went berserk, with the donning of Freddy Krueger fingers and Halloween-store masks crudely symbolizing the rejection of a status-quo existence while also staying well within the bounds of realism. His new film, the beguiling The Alchemist Cookbook, begins where Buzzard left off, with the numbing social context a thing of the past and the hero, like some metamorphosing movie monster of yesteryear, transforming hastily into something beyond (or sub) human." Full review of The Alchemist Cookbook, which plays as part of BAMCinemaFest, continues here.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Wim Wenders: The Road Trilogy

"Musical leitmotifs play a central role in Wim Wenders's 'Road Trilogy,' acting as both mood-setters and structural backbones. Nowhere is this more evident than in Alice in the Cities, which contains in one track, an arpeggiated acoustic guitar and synthesizer loop banged out in an afternoon by German krautrock group Can, the entire methodology and temperament of what would become a philosophically linked series of films. In musical-theory terms, the piece drones on an Aeolian modal chord and never settles on the root, creating a suspended sense of irresolution and uncertainty that aptly sets the stage for the 1974 film's meandering dramatic trajectory, as well as its ultimate view of life as a series of chance encounters without a clear end point." Full review of the new Criterion blu-ray here.

Friday, May 27, 2016

The Other Side (2015) A Film by Roberto Minervini

"An artist of herculean empathy turns his camera on a narrow-minded community in The Other Side, Italian director Roberto Minervini's fourth cinematic sojourn in the American South. Nearly every moment in this Bayou-set docu-fiction hybrid engenders a tricky twofold reaction: The words and actions of the people on screen often trigger revulsion, anger, or pity, even as Minervini's camera tenderly cozies up to its subjects, examining them in intimate proximity until the root causes and emotional justifications for their destructive behaviors become impossible to ignore." Review continues here.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Holcroft Covenant (1985) A Film by John Frankenheimer

"Noel Holcroft (Michael Caine) doesn't know how to use a gun when The Holcroft Covenant begins. By the film's conclusion, not only can he hold one with the kind of cool poise expected of spy heroes, but he's also sharp with pistol disassembly and reassembly. This education dovetails with a plot that finds Holcroft, an honest New Yorker in the commercial construction business, becoming the victim of a transnational terror scheme and ultimately learning enough about it to singlehandedly upend its fulfillment of a prospective Fourth Reich. The year is 1985 (“Now,” as a title urgently informs us), a time in which the United States was still using counterintelligence to sniff out Soviet influence. Yet director John Frankenheimer and writer George Axelrod look at espionage and find the very concept a destructive breach of privacy and a route to anarchy, something for which active resistance—in this case, prowess with a firearm—must come into play." Full review here.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Art of the Real

"For those still reeling from seasickness induced by Leviathan, Art of the Real has the tonic. Dead Slow Ahead, another experimental, largely nocturnal portrayal of industrial seafaring, moves with the lava-flow tempo suggested by its spot-on title, with director Mauro Herce's camera a seemingly high-tonnage contrast to Leviathan's plethora of featherweight recording devices. Panning, tilting, and dolly movements are sparse, usually occurring at paces almost imperceptible to the eye as they scan the musculature and intestinal corridors of a gargantuan cargo ship pushing through the Atlantic toward New Orleans like an undigested chunk of food exiting the body. An organism at once labyrinthine and blocky, it becomes the primary object of study for Herce, who appears only to reveal the human laborers on the vessel incidentally—and even then, as tiny instruments within the alien mechanics of the larger machine on which they toil."

That's an excerpt from one of my pieces this year on Film Society of Lincoln Center's Art of the Real series. I wrote two dispatches on the festival: one on festival highlight Dead Slow Ahead and Jose Luis Guerin's The Academy of Muses, and one on Ben Rivers' What Mean Something and Italian entry Il Solengo.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Green Room (2015) A Film by Jeremy Saulnier

"Bigotry ends up playing little direct role in the reckless murderous corruption that advances the plot of the locked-room thriller Green Room. Still, Jeremy Saulnier bluntly sets the record straight, early and often, that the thugs who run the exclusionary heavy metal club in the backwoods of Oregon where the film is set and who cover up crimes on their own premises are wretched, loathsome pieces of shit undeserving of a space on this planet. When our heroes, a woebegone punk quartet called the Ain't Rights, arrive in the titular backstage lair before a gig they've taken in the express interest of some much-needed cash, the background of every shot is littered with a cornucopia of advertisements for modern history's most oppressive institutions: swastika wall scribbles, Confederate flags, and all kinds of shiver-inducing decals advocating for the supremacy of the straight white male." Review continues at Slant.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Everybody Wants Some!! (2016) A Film by Richard Linklater

"Just as Magic Mike XXL cast aside threatening social realities to occupy a utopia of its own volition, Everybody Wants Some!! luxuriates in a world that's the platonic ideal of youthful indulgence. It pictures an undergraduate atmosphere bursting at the seams with the usual vices (excessive drug use, dick-first thinking, hazing rituals), yet palpably lacking any sense of menace or predation. Female behinds are ogled, and always by both characters and camera (yet significantly always in that order), but the guys remain goofs longing for affection, while the girls are equally eager to find a companion. Indeed, everybody wants some." Full review of Linklater's latest gem at Slant Magazine.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

The Trip (1967) A Film by Roger Corman

"Roger Corman's The Trip is exactly what one would anticipate an exploitation film made in 1967 about an LSD experience to be, offering its only pretext for its psychedelic indulgences during a madcap credit sequence where hack commercial director Paul Groves (Peter Fonda) is visited on a beachfront set by his wife, Sally (Susan Strasberg), with whom he's going through a divorce. Despite nearly being swallowed up by a jagged Electric Flag fusion number blaring away on the soundtrack and interfered with by title cards set against what looks like swirling colored molasses, the brief exchange between the couple is lovely in its understatement, with currents of regret and longing coursing implicitly through their shared glances as lines of communication are interrupted by the chaos of the shoot." Review continues at Slant.

Monday, March 21, 2016

I Saw the Light (2016) A Film by Marc Abraham

"Of course, this being a biopic in the most hackneyed mold, meaning one whose every scene is dictated by a slavish subservience to biography at the expense of psychological exploration or aesthetic experimentation, I Saw the Light also features various musical performances of Williams's most famous ditties. Some play out in Bible Belt recording studios, where typically cantankerous producers incite contractual quarrels, and others occur under golden stage lights, with hypnotized audiences singing along (look closely, though, and the extras in the crowd seem shaky on the lyrics). Rarely, however, does the film evince the pleasure Williams took in performing music. Whether he's scanning the auditorium for his next one-night stand, visibly fuming over a sarcastic remark delivered by a bandmate prior to the count off, or wading into cryptic pre-song banter while drifting off in a morphine-induced high, the performances scan as perfunctory stop gaps between the contrived depictions of a troubled man's descent into oblivion." Full review at Slant.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Eldorado XXI (2015) A Film by Salomé Lamas

"A muddy, trash-lined path snakes up a mountainside 18,000 feet about sea level in La Rinconada, Peru—the highest human settlement on Earth. Gold miners in hardhats and baggy canvas trudge wearily along this path as twilight gives way to pitch-dark night. The camera assumes a downward view, cramming the weave of the walkway into the widescreen frame so that it rises to the left in the foreground, tapers off to the right, and slopes toward the middle where there's a murky vanishing point. And with the exception of a handful of pre-credit establishing shots of snow-capped villages, this optically complicated but rather dramatically monotonous shot—over which the non-synchronous sounds of laborer monologues and regional radio programs are heard—constitutes the entire first hour of Salomé Lamas's Eldorado XXI, seemingly aligning the filmmaker's project with the durational landscape films of James Benning and Sharon Lockhart." Review continues at Slant.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Seijun Suzuki Introduction

"Like any shrewd workman, Suzuki was at his best when turning his limitations into strengths. Crowded shooting schedules encouraged impromptu technical experimentation, such as the in-camera superimpositions that became a unique Suzukian flourish when depicting internal states. Meanwhile, with the assistance of longtime production design collaborator Takeo Kimura, tawdry studio-built sets were embraced for their flimsiness, and it became a trend for Suzuki to disassemble them in the climaxes of his films so that his characters were suddenly adrift in two-dimensional color fields. In repeatedly calling attention to the artificiality of the medium and the construction of the narrative world, Suzuki’s form began to mirror his governing conception of society as a set of meaningless codes whose flimsy sense of order could easily be thrown into chaos."

"Time and Place are Nonsense: The Cinema According to Seijun Suzuki," a traveling program focused on the career of Japanese director Seijun Suzuki, is coming to the Harvard Film Archive. I wrote the introduction to the series, as well as program notes for Gate of Flesh, Youth of the Beast, Kanto Wanderer, Carmen from Kawachi, Fighting Elegy, and Story of a Prostitute. Read on here.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Happy Hour (2015) A Film by Ryûsuke Hamaguchi

"Hamaguchi arranges most sequences around a handful of static, roomy medium shots that subtly suggest emotional dynamics through camera and actor positioning; several scenes around a dining table demonstrate how much the director is able to express, how much latent energy he brings to the surface, merely through who's in and out of the frame. In an excruciating trial scene brimming with the defense's implicit sexism, Hamaguchi develops his shot choices around the axis of Jun's head, keeping her central as the dehumanizing processes of the court play out in the distant background. The use of pillow shots and choices of placid interstitial music reveal Hamaguchi's kinship to Yasujirō Ozu and Hirokazu Kore-eda, but the film's formal DNA bears more traces of Eric Rohmer, who was similarly expert at orchestrating extensive dialogues with a minimum of overt directorial statement." An excerpt from my review of the wonderful Happy Hour, showing at this year's New Directors/New Films festival in New York.