Wednesday, September 30, 2009

On a Carousel of Sound...

We’re a generation whose medium is television and movies…it just is. As much as we might like music we like it better with a visual stimulus accompanying it[…] The rate at which music is consumed people just listen to something once and then move on. People have no choice to make it the music equivalent to a magazine; you get the ones that you want, basically the style that you like, and you listen to it…then you get another one, and then you just blow through them. I mean they’re not albums…they’re not someone pouring tremendous amounts of time into them to really make some difference in someone’s life. If things keep going that way it’s not going to get any easier for us. That’s for certain.

The following quote is from one of the members of America's most underrated and yet-to-be-discovered rock bands The Snake The Cross The Crown. I thought their 2007 album Cotton Teeth was the best album of that year, and it's probably one of the five best albums of this decade. His quote is interesting and a major reason why great bands like his have a hard time surviving; because I think he's onto something when he talks about how nobody really listens to music's become a disposable, quick-fix medium.

All of these thoughts (and why they struggle with the idea of touring), and the making of their 2007 album, can be found in a new documentary by Nicholas Kleczewski called On a Carousel of Sound.... Kleczewski followed the band around during the recording of Cotton Teeth and the subsequent tour. It's interesting to hear some members talk about how they hate to tour because they suffer some sleep deprivation, or how other member do enjoy touring...and how this dichotomy drives a band to go on an indefinite sabbatical. The trailer for the documentary comes after the jump...check it out. At about the two minute mark you get to hear one of their best songs from Cotton Teeth. Enjoy (and if you do like it go buy Cotton Teeth)...

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Revisiting 1999: The Top 10 Films of the Year, #6 --- Being John Malkovich (Spike Jonze)

Here's what we've covered so far:

The Top 10 Films of 1999:

Introduction: The Best Films of 1999
10 - The Limey (Steven Soderbergh)
9 - Affliction (Paul Schrader)
8- American Movie (Chris Smith)
7- Rosetta (The Dardenne Brothers)

It’s easy to forget sometimes that Being John Malkovich is just plain and simple a really damn good comedy. What I mean by that is that a lot of the focus is always centered on the ingenious premise penned by Charlie Kaufman. This postmodern comedy about a portal into the mind of the most unlikely of actors (John Malkovich playing himself) is rightly extolled for its one-of-a-kind, dada-esque storyline (I mean puppets are a major part of the third act); however, it’s easy to overlook just how sure first time director Spike Jonze’s timing is, how funny its actors (John Cusack, Cameron Diaz, and Catherine Keener) are, and how enjoyable this most bizarre, existential comedy is.

There’s so much to like about the innovation in Kaufman’s script. The detail attributed to the puppetry, the bizarre love triangle, the wonderfully odd and refreshing setting on a 7 ½ floor of an office building, and the sheer audacity to continue to go for the gusto for its entire 112 minute run time. Kaufman’s script doesn’t always work, but it has a way of weaving in tender moments amidst the absurdity (like the aforementioned love triangle where a pet store employee played by Diaz falls in love with the sultry co-worker of her husband).

Cusack plays a file clerk who puppeteers on the side. He gets a job at an odd building on the 7 ½ floor…and what they half floor…well you just need to see the brilliant training video they have to watch. It’s the details like the training video that get the biggest laughs. Or the way Diaz interacts with a monkey who has anxiety disorder (the only genuine relationship in the film because it’s the only one not predicated on sexual desire or power over the mind); or how Cusack puts on a puppet show on a street corner that is not kid friendly. These are the things that compound on the brilliant ideas of Kaufman, and are executed brilliantly by the cast to create some big laughs. Cusack is truly pathetic (and borderline psychotic) in his pursuit of Keener’s sexy siren, and Diaz’ pursuit of her seems more genuine, more from the heart.

Once we find out the reasons why there is a portal into Malkovich’s head the story gets a bit congested with some big Meta moments, but they all seem to work in this fantasy that seems indebted to the films of Terry Gilliam. The acting is universally good here, especially Malkovich who in the third act is being completely controlled by Cusack’s character; this is the ultimate fantasy for a puppeteer. There is a scene at the end when Malkovich gives up on acting, and there is a tribute video about his career playing on the television, and there cameos in the video that are just perfect. Speaking of cameos, Charlie Sheen drops by as Malkovich’s friend and confidant, and when Malkovich begins to relay his relationship with Keener’s character to Sheen there are so surprisingly funny moments from the actor.

The film is shot the way a Kafka story feels. The film is surreal, yes, but not a bunch of odd vignettes that act as nothing more than a platform for non sequiturs. Kaufman’s script is surprisingly taut considering all of the existential and postmodern ideas he has fluttering around, and as I’ve already mentioned, those big ideas could bog down a lot of movies annulling them of their comedic moments. Not this film, though…every scene is executed to perfection and no idea overshadows ones enjoyment with this film. I mean come on…when a film can pull off the visual gag of a title card that reads: “Malkovich’s Puppetry Master Class. Julliard School, New York City” you know you’re dealing with a special kind of comedy that doesn’t come around too often.

The subdued, yet beautiful and haunting, score by Carter Burwell is another one of the major highlights of the film. And cinematographer Lance Acord films the office scenes with the appropriate amount of sterility, and then knows to kick up the visual élan at the right moments so that the audience doesn’t grow weary of the camera’s tricks. The journey into Malkovich’s brain could have gotten tiresome, but Acord is always doing something new and interesting with his camera so as not to bore the audience…because too much innovation can be a boring thing when overused (I’m looking right at you Daren Arronofsky and you’re zoom into the eye trick).

Spike Jonze is one of those directors that I wish would work more. It’s incredible that this was his first film as it shows a filmmaker who is able to unravel new surprise after new surprise in a perfectly executed way. There is a chase scene at the end of this film that is one of the most bizarre things I have ever seen…it’s also one of the most inspired, and Jonze’s direction throughout the entire hard-to-believe third act never steps wrong. He followed this film by directing another Kaufman script the brilliant Adaptation.; another film that spent the majority of its time in its characters mind. Again, he shows us a director who understands Kaufman (that doesn’t always happen…need I remind you of Human Nature…ugh) and not only gets the big themes, but that there’s classic humor buried beneath all those postmodern ideas.

Of course Kaufman has made a career off these kinds of offbeat comedies inhabited by offbeat characters. Being John Malkovich is still one of those comedies that always manage to sneak up on me with how much I laugh out loud. The famous scene where Malkovich gets into his own head is still one of the most surreal and hilarious scenes I’ve seen in a movie. I don’t think the film has aged as well as the others that will rank higher, but it’s still worth dusting off every now and then and re-watching. Taking another look at this picture was one of the best movie experiences I’ve had this year – this project has proven to me (and as I stated at the beginning of this endeavor) that when something this audacious, something that can be easily defended as one of the most original films of the 90’s ranks sixth on this list…then you know you’re dealing with a very special year in film.

Extra Stills:

Monday, September 28, 2009

Question of the Day: What is the worst movie title you've come across?

Your question today comes courtesy of the awful looking Law Abiding Citizen (why didn’t they just call it Serial Killer Murders People While in Prison) starring Jaime Foxx and Gerard Butler. Here’s what I’m wondering: did the producers have so little faith in this movie that they just gave it the least sexy title they could think of. I can’t think of a title that is more blasé than this one. And the irony in the title isn’t lost on anyone (I can just picture the production meeting now: Exec #1 – “We’ll call it Law Abiding Citizen because there people being killed in the same manner this serial killer killed his victims, but he’s doing his time in jail, so the detectives are stumped. See…it’s ironic” Minions: “oooh that’s good!”). I swear I’ve seen that catchphrase (“how do you stop a killer who is already behind bars”) plastered on other movie posters. Ugh. Sorry…the question is this: what is the laziest (worst, most blasé, whatever adjective you want to use) title you’ve ever seen for a major release? B-grade movies don’t count because they are expected to be bad, especially in the horror genre, and they aren’t really expecting people to flood the theaters to their movie. Bonus question: what’s one of the best titles you’ve ever seen for a movie (Off the top of my head I love Synecdoche, New York…great title).

Friday, September 25, 2009

DVD Review: Youth Without Youth

Francis Coppola’s Youth Without Youth (from the story by Mircea Eliade) is a deeply personal film for the filmmaker. He’s stated in numerous interviews that when he was made aware of the story about a 70 year old Romanian linguist who is struck by lighting and ages backwards, that he felt he was made to make this story into a movie. Sounds odd, right? Well Dominic (Tim Roth) is struggling to complete his life work, and considers suicide. However, things change when he is struck by lighting and begins to age backwards. He has another chance to finish his life work (a book about the origin of language). This second chance at finishing a close-to-the-heart project appealed to Coppola because he often stated that at 68 he felt like he had been successful with his business (wine maker), but still felt unfulfilled creatively. Youth Without Youth shows Coppola returning after a 10 year sabbatical with a vim that can only be found in his earlier work.

The last film of Coppola’s oeuvre where I felt this kind of visual exhilaration was his take on Bram Stoker’s Dracula. In fact that film reminded me a lot of Youth Without Youth (and a lot of other Coppola movies) where you could easily watch the film with sound off and get the same enjoyment. The problem, however, is that Dracula was based on a classic horror story and had the safety net of mythology for Coppola’s garish visuals to fall into.

In Youth Without Youth his screenplay is a murky mess of metaphysics, doppelgängers, and a failed love story; however, in spite of the written material the films star, Tim Roth (who spends a lot of the movie talking to himself), is fantastic as Dominic. The dilemma he faces towards the end of the film is an interesting one: he meets a German woman who resembles his lost love from his youth....she has also been struck by lighting, and in an interesting development has begun to linguistically age backwards as she begins speaking in ancient languages that help Dominic understand more clearly the elusive nature of his life’s work. The dilemma of course is that Dominic is in love with this woman and must decide if that’s more important than finishing his life work. It doesn’t help that Dominic’s evil doppelgänger is around whispering in his ear throughout the film. One again…sounds odd doesn’t it?

The film is a must see for its visuals alone. It appears this material has awoken a sleeping giant in Coppola. His film is interesting if nothing else because it shows us what kind of story a director can tell through nothing but beautifully framed and constructed visuals. Coppola has always been at the forefront of new ways to visually tell a story, and in Youth Without Youth it doesn’t appear that he’s all the way back (the film meanders despite its reverie-like mood and visual approach), but he’s pretty damn close considering the material he left us with 10 years ago. Youth Without Youth is one of the best looking films of 2007, and for that alone its worth seeking out and devouring beautiful scene after beautiful scene.

I realize I haven’t said much about the movie…well there’s not much to say because I was so damned confused by the story; however, I didn’t care, and I as I mentioned in this mini-review, the visuals move the story along. So, I figured I would let the visuals do all of the talking for me: