Friday, October 28, 2016

Frontière(s) (2007)

France / Switzerland, 108 minutes
Director/writer: Xavier Gens
Photography: Laurent Bares
Music: Jean-Pierre Taieb
Editor: Carlo Rizzo
Cast: Karina Testa, Aurelien Wiik, David Saracino, Chems Dahmani, Jean-Pierre Jorris, Patrick Ligardes, Samuel Le Bihan, Maud Forget, Joel Lefrancois, Estelle Lefebure, Amelie Daure, Adel Bencherif

It's easy to call Frontière(s) torture-porn, because the label fits in so many critical ways. It came out of the general horror revitalization going on in the 2000s (and/or eating of itself, ouroboros style, with reboots and remakes of classics). More specifically, it comes of a French strain that is particularly ferocious: Martyrs, Inside, High Tension, and many others I'm still too scared to look at. Frontière(s) puts that most fundamental element of torture-porn front and center, which is the large private facility dedicated to such horrors. They are usually warehouses (as in the Saw franchise) but they may also be hostels, as we find here, or abandoned buildings in failing cities, or nightclub spaces after hours. Anything that's big and relatively private will do. So first things first, fair warning on that point. This movie is ultraviolent, albeit only in overwhelming bursts.

Frontière(s) pays respects to some surprisingly resonant sources, such as Psycho, Taxi Driver, and no doubt others I did not recognize, but the movie it most clearly seems intended to model is The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. It opens in a similar way, grounding itself in a specific moment of historical time, suggesting that what we see is what comes of large-scale psychic dislocations. In Texas Chain Saw, it is Watergate, and news stories about grotesque '70s murders. In Frontière(s), the news reports are about an election in France in which an extremist rightwing group has come to power. The public response has been widespread rioting with brutal police crackdowns. But that's not even the very first images and scene in the picture, which are video of an ultrasound that is hard to make out, and a woman in voiceover—Yasmine (Karina Testa), we find out later—ruminating on her decision to end her pregnancy.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Masterminds (2016)

Here's one that's full of familiar faces and usual suspects of today's comedy, starting with three-fourths of the Ghostbusters headliners redistributed into smaller parts. Well, actually, Kristen Wiig has another starring role, as a love temptress for bank armored vehicle driver David Ghantt (Zach Galifianakis). Owen Wilson plays Steve, who more or less orchestrates the bumbling heist at the center of the story. They are all morons, yet nonetheless net $17 million in the haul—still a record (because, you see, this movie is "based on true events"). But even as the betrayals start and drive the plot the rest of the way, the crime is mostly beside the point. This is just about jokes and carrying on. It's always juvenile and sometimes funny. It can't help but be a little funny, with all the talent assembled. Unfortunately, it is only a little funny. Galifianakis is likable as a gullible idiot with a Prince Valiant haircut, playing it low-key and wide-eyed, genially working the situations. Ghantt is cuckoo for Kelly (Wiig) but he's also engaged to be married to Jandice, played by Kate McKinnon in her typical galactically disconnected style. She's pretty good here as a steely small town ice goddess, but not as funny as I've seen her elsewhere, such as Ghostbusters or as Hillary Clinton on Saturday Night Live. Wiig is solid as always—a likable presence, but not given enough to do. Jason Sudeikis, another player from SNL, has a few good moments as a strange hit man, Mike McKinney, who develops a soft spot for Ghantt, and possibly a hard one too, though that's never quite clear. A lot of things in this movie are never quite clear. It's set in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1997, where the robbery happened. But it's used more as an opportunity to make fun of the South, the way they talk, for example, and the presumption they are stupid if they are poor and that their brand of lumbering stupidity is funny. These are easy targets and only go over so far. After a while, lampooning hicks and rubes starts to look like the work of underachievers cutting corners. Which is kind of what happens here. I like a lot of the cast but I know they can do better.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Frankenstein (1818)

The original novel by Mary Shelley (originally published anonymously) is subtitled The Modern Prometheus, a sign of its ambition and ponderousness both. The ambition was warranted, as it's nearly 200 years later and we have been talking about it pretty much continually since. As for the ponderousness, well, everyone has their limits with 19th-century language, and this is mostly on the far side of mine. It took me many years and many attempts to get through it, and it's not a very big book, little more than a hundred pages in most editions. I was finally inspired to it once and for all by a documentary on a DVD with the 1931 Frankenstein picture, where I learned that the story has been popular practically since first publication, with countless theatrical productions and a few different versions, starting in the 1820s. In other words, interest in the theme of humans presuming to themselves godlike (or Godlike) powers has been steady and growing since 1818, though I think it comes and goes some, and we may presently be in a period of lower interest. Maybe superhero movies are covering that gap? At any rate, Edison Studios (yes, that would be Thomas Alva) made the first film version in 1910. What I had always vaguely considered the film original, the 1931 Universal production directed by James Whale, with Boris Karloff as the monster, is actually the fourth film version. In turn, that 1931 film is based on a 1927 theatrical adaptation by Peggy Webling, which is something of a departure from other versions. In fact, the Shelley novel is very different from the 1931 movie, though many elements remain in both. The mad scientist Victor Frankenstein ("Henry" in the movie) figures out how to "animate" and grant life to dead substance, an original sin if I ever heard one. He is thus cursed to the end of his days, and this novel is here to tell us every blasted detail. The storytelling is made of frames within frames within frames, which have no apparent purpose except to clutter things up. The language is verbose and tangled, with long sentences unfurling endless clauses. (I realize I'm not one to talk, but still.) The plotting is too often improbable. You will need to be on good terms and open mind with the literary device of The Coincidence, as it appears often. I can't deny that Shelley's Frankenstein has the power to strike dark and chilling notes. It possesses a strong, even sickening, sense that life is a system of rotting away to further degradations, that pestilence, decay, and eternal damnation are just a preview of coming attractions. It's the dark side of Enlightenment values, colliding with the aftermath of political revolutions. Reading it shed a lot of useful light for me on the 1931 movie and its 1935 sequel, also a Universal production directed by Whale and starring Karloff, and perhaps the greatest movie sequel ever, Bride of Frankenstein. I'm glad I read the Shelley novel but I have to say for me it was work.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Random Access Memories (2013)

Full disclosure: Though it's only their fourth studio album since 1997, Random Access Memories is the first I've listened closely to Daft Punk. In previous encounters, I was left cold by what I heard as robotic and repetitive, a typical problem of one flavor of electronica I'm quick to dismiss (Fatboy Slim is another example). So my first surprise here was how melodic and soft it is, with conventional pop structures, mid tempos, and even room for improvisation—those are virtues to me, though I understand the "easy listening" and/or "soft jazz" charges I've seen leveled against this. It offers a great big glorious wallow in musical sweets. It might be fair to say it's intended for an audience approaching middle age, as long as the band is too. There's a nice sense of history (another sign of age), with Nile Rodgers on board for the big hit, "Get Lucky," which also features Pharrell Williams. That sense of history is perhaps most evident in "Giorgio by Moroder," in which Giorgio Moroder himself narrates the story of his career as a producer, songwriter, and iconic disco figure. It's a nice story, in a few different ways. Moroder, an avatar of that very robotic and repetitive style I was just complaining about, comes across in his oral history more like a winning scrapper in the mold of indie rock bands, driving a van to gigs, sleeping where he can, and scratching it out, when all else fails, by pure belief in himself and what he is doing. Other collaborators stepping in on this album include Julian Casablancas, Chilly Gonzales, Panda Bear, and Paul Williams—an interesting range in the collaborators. Daft Punk makes good use of them too, as they generally appear on the best songs, such as "Lose Yourself to Dance," dominated (in all good ways) by Pharrell Williams. The album ends on the only song with a sample, "Contact," which includes a musical figure from the Sherbs and audio from the Apollo 17 mission describing a strange light in the night sky. Beautiful mood. Random Access Memories is not a challenging album but it is a very charming one—that is, it comes all the way to you, and does its best to please. I think I might have used it up some time ago, as recent sessions have found it more receding into the background while I pay attention to other things. Still, I think it has the potential to be a pleasant if temporary infatuation for anyone, and perhaps for me again too.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Journey to Italy (1954)

Viaggio in Italia, Italy / France, 80 minutes
Director: Roberto Rossellini
Writers: Vitaliano Brancati, Roberto Rossellini, Colette, Antonio Pietrangeli
Photography: Enzo Serafin
Music: Renzo Rossellini, Giacomo Rondinella
Editor: Jolanda Benvenuti
Cast: Ingrid Bergman, George Sanders, Maria Mauban, Anna Proclemer, Paul Muller, Anthony La Penna, Natalia Ray, Jackie Frost

Director and cowriter Roberto Rossellini's third and last picture with his wife, Ingrid Bergman, shortly before their marriage ended, almost seems like an imaginary movie now, something that someone wrote about in a novel. That's probably more because of its relative obscurity. A beast with no natural home, a neorealist piece with Hollywood stars, an art film and a woman's picture all at once, it was released to terrible reviews and short runs, variously butchered in attempts to make it more commercial, and quickly sank like a stone. Besides all the confusing markers—an Italian movie shot in English, with stars but whose careers were on the slide—it's also about the end of a marriage, which makes it a complete and total bummer. Audiences at the time were baffled, which tells you something about different times.

For all that, the influence of Journey to Italy has grown over the years. Now safely installed in the top 100 of the big list at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?, it could almost be reverse-engineered from close viewings of Abbas Kiarostami's amazing Certified Copy, from 2010, or Richard Linklater's series of "Before" movies with Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke. It's about a relationship going bad, and incidentally about how travel can complicate that. One reason it flopped, and still languishes in all but critical obscurity, is likely exactly this downbeat trajectory. If it still seems a little alien now on that score, that's more for its general air of reticence. Among other things, Journey to Italy is also a story of the clash between repressed Northern Europeans and lusty life-affirming Southern Europeans. In the scope of film history, it can also serve as a milestone finish to Italian neorealism, Rossellini's career bread and butter, which was arguably no longer operative by 1954. It's also a swooning look at the layers of history with which we live. There is some sense here that the events could have happened hundreds and thousands of years ago, or that they could still happen now and in the future, and very little about the story would have to be changed. The threat of Mount Vesuvius is the only constant.

Monday, October 17, 2016

The Girl on the Train (2016)

The Girl on the Train is told from the point of view of an alcoholic who has blackouts. That's Rachel (Emily Blunt), whose life is shattered in a number of ways. The plot point partly accounts for the confusion in the way this story unfolds, but I think most of the responsibility actually goes to the script, which spends the first half of the picture hiding information and not telling us enough. It might help if you like, or even know, the novel by Paula Hawkins, which I don't. As an unknown quantity for me, with no preparation, it was all quite mysterious, with Rachel's strange obsession with a house she sees on her daily train rides. As it turns out, she knows that neighborhood and those people very well. Things happen and they are confusing and Rachel is usually drunk. There are babies and girlfriends, there are woods and rain, there is a walking tunnel in a park near the train station and Rachel is usually drunk. It goes along like this for some time. The scenes juggle a few different time streams, details come to us by happenstance, and Rachel, yes, is usually drunk. In due time (yo spoiler), we come to find it's basically a Gaslight story—Gaslight, the movie so good they made it twice (in 1940 in the UK and then in 1944 in Hollywood), the movie that resonated so much we adapted it as a figure of speech. There's some good to be found in The Girl on the Train. For one thing, I remembered both those Gaslight movies are well worth tracking down and seeing. This movie from early in the prestige season of 2016, well, not so much. It's not all bad, and some is good. Emily Blunt carries her load admirably with a bravura performance of a person barely functioning. Allison Janney in a small role as a police detective is just about perfect, and I liked seeing Lisa Kudrow in another small role too. And I think if you strain at it hard enough, the project might even have something of a positive message about empowerment, even through all the grim trappings. But the grim trappings, the somber mood and lumbering tones, are mostly what The Girl on the Train seems to be about. Director Tate Taylor has made at least a couple of movies I liked in spite of various flaws—Winter's Bone and The Help. In this one the flaws come away with the win, sorry to say. If you like rolling your eyes a lot, this is just the ticket.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

The New Journalism (1973)

I first read Tom Wolfe's polemic-as-anthology (or should that be anthology-as-polemic?) when it was much newer, in the mid-'70s. I checked it out of the library, read it, mostly forgot it after a few years, and never owned it until recently, when it came to my attention that Robert Christgau has a piece in it alongside such usual suspect luminaries of the time as Truman Capote, Joan Didion, Norman Mailer, George Plimpton, Hunter Thompson (twice), and many others. Michael Herr is also in it—another name I did not know until later. The collection is packed full of good and even some great pieces, including an early chapter in Wolfe's inchoate fulminations against the state of the novel and fiction, a hobbyhorse he would rock and rock again—though my dwindling interest in him finally evaporated for good when he attempted schooling us with 800-page novels of his own. Let me be clear that I believe in "the New Journalism" as much as ever—both in the sense that journalism remains one of the most direct and effective routes to greater truth, and in the idea that giving up the journalist's pretend game of objectivity remains valid and useful. In fact, Wolfe admirably argues for what he calls "reporting"—talking to people and writing down what they say. New Journalism then was criticized for its recklessness in embracing the subjectivity of reporting. I never had much problem with that, as it seemed a matter of common sense, not to mention fundamentally more honest, to acknowledge that every reporter has a personal point of view. Today, more and more, the word for reporting has turned into "access," a PR term, and most journalists in major reporting venues (broadcast and cable-TV news, and nationally distributed print news outlets such as Time, USA Today, and the New York Times) are practicing PR much more than they are journalism. That's the newer journalism, since some point in the '80s. On the other hand, in fairness, and for better or worse, it must be said that this book weirdly comes with an unexpected aura of those "Best American" volumes which also came from the '80s. I was particularly impressed with the journalism in the Best American Crime Writing series, for example, many of whose pieces (though not all) could sit alongside the pieces here as very good examples of New Journalism. Like disco, it was never that new and it never really went away. It was just called other things. Some of the best and earliest examples are here.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)

Germany / UK / France / Greece / USA / Cyprus, 123 minutes
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Writers: Jim Jarmusch, Marion Bessay
Photography: Yorick Le Saux
Music: Jozef van Wissem, Sqürl
Editor: Affonso Goncalves
Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Tilda Swinton, Mia Wasikowska, John Hurt, Anton Yelchin, Slimane Dazi, Jeffrey Wright

The only thing you can call Only Lovers Left Alive is a vampire movie, which means it comes with the usual clutch of confusing vampire rules about sunlight, wooden stakes, invitations across thresholds, garlic, reflections in mirrors, and all that. As a project of director and cowriter Jim Jarmusch, however, Only Lovers Left Alive is nearly as much a movie about hipsters, his more typical theme, reimagining them as a secret society of long-lived rationalists who love music and science and poetry to distraction, even as they can't put much time or confidence in actual people. They are the usual bunch of misplaced record store clerks in a Jarmusch picture. Their tastes are refined, precise, even admirably noble, but their pouty arrogance is off-putting. It's the usual problem with hipsters.

I'm probably not making this movie sound very good, but I actually think it's exactly that: very, very good. You have to skip by the various conceits—for one, the main characters are named Adam and Eve (Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton, the alternative Meryl Streep). A friend of theirs with many names (John Hurt) is the actual author of most of Shakespeare's plays. These indulgences mostly work with the given air of romantic hedonism, but in spite of themselves, and just barely. What's best to me here is the touching faith in Enlightenment values, the romantic passion these vampires have for science, clarity, and beauty, which is the result of centuries of perspective. They refer to plants and animals by their Latin genus and species names. They share latest news of scientific research. They can't believe the stupidity of the masses. Only Lovers Left Alive has a wonderful sense for how it would feel to be marginalized and intelligent for centuries, with an incidental appetite for blood that's guaranteed to keep you out of the lamestream.

Sunday, October 09, 2016

"The Figure in the Carpet" (1896)

Here's a funny story about art and criticism. I like the stories from this period, when Henry James was thinking very hard about the place and meaning of art. An example of his most exalted form of art goes floating by here, the portrait painter, but this is actually about a great novelist, which makes it more interesting. It's about a great novelist and one of his admirers, a newspaper book reviewer, who is also our narrator. After accidentally insulting the narrator for a review he wrote of his book, the novelist confides that no one has yet ever caught his most profound theme, which exists across his body of work like a figure woven into a Persian rug, hence title. The narrator, so great is his regard for the novelist, takes that as a personal challenge. He studies very hard, and he discusses the problem with a friend, who becomes equally obsessed. While traveling in India the friend hits upon it. He telegraphs the narrator: "Eureka. Immense." The novelist meets with him, hears him out, embraces him. At last someone understands him. Then things happen, one thing and another, and the narrator never learns the secret. And now people are dead, so he never is going to learn it. The only one who knows, the widow of the friend, refuses to tell him. There's a certain finality of interpretation here that surprises me coming from James. This is after The Turn of the Screw so it's not like he didn't appreciate ambiguity and multiplicities of interpretation. But everyone in this story is after the one true thing. I almost want to take it as satire—it certainly has comic elements. But I also suspect this is some kind of shriek of frustration on some level. Most regard for James came after his death so he didn't see much of it, and was denied a certain level of gratification. Reading him more thoroughly, I've seen some severe ups and downs. The high points are still taught in college classes, and the low points are often strange and interesting pratfalls. What's good is really good, and can be tremendously subtle. The Turn of the Screw is as good an example as any. That narrative is so mysterious in its intentions, tones, textures, and details that it almost seems there must be a greater pattern just back of it, almost discernible but not quite, that could potentially open all his work wide—the figure in the carpet, so to speak. The story is also interesting in regard to the critical enterprise. James clearly seems to respect it and see its validity. He's frustrated with it like we all are—critics get so many things so wrong so often. I know I do. But I think he understood too, if sadly, that it's got to be done.

"interlocutor" count = 0 / 37 pages

In case it's not at the library. (Library of America)