Friday, July 07, 2006


About a year ago, I wrote a piece cracking on Robert Altman, basically saying that he's done good films, but never great ones. A few months ago, I saw McCabe and Mrs. Miller, which is definitely a great film, and yesterday I rewatched Nashville, which I would now also rank as a great film, one that improved quite a bit on the rewatching.

The reason I first watched Nashville was because I'd heard it was a major influence on Magnolia, and that affected the way I viewed it. Magnolia is definitely Altmanesque in structure, but it has a lot more connection between the stories. It's one story split into nine different characters, while this is a whole bunch of stories that have some overlaps. In that respect, it's more like Morrison's Seven Soldiers, each character inhabits their own little universe, there's some crossover, and there is an overarching plot, but on the whole, most of the stories begin and end without being profoundly affected by what's going on elsewhere.

Some of the pieces here are complete stories, you could extract the stuff with Barbara Jean and make a 45 minute movie about her illness and murder. Others are just fragments, the guy with the violin case does a bunch of stuff, then ends up shooting Barbara Jean, but we don't get a sense of his motivation from what actually happens to him. Rather, his final action becomes a blank slate that we can ascribe motive to based on what happened elsewhere in the film.

I love the opening credits of the film, with a cranked up announcer shouting about the cast of "Robert Altman's Nashville." I love the meta touch, we're made aware that it's a film we're watching, this is basically a trailer within the movie. From there, we get the fantastic scene of Haven Hamilton performing "200 Years," a song that's very catchy. I love the juxtaposition of his folksy image, as evidenced by the song and his stage banter later, and his diva-ish personality.

This scene also introduces my favorite character from the film, Opal from the BBC. She's always hilarious, in her total lack of regard for the people around her and her absurd, over the top voiceovers. Every scene she's in is brilliant, but my favorites are the Elliot Gould scene, the voiceover about the cars and her dismissing Norman as a servant. The most emotional scene involving her character is when she's talking about knowing Tom "biblically," oblivious of Mary's relationship with him.

The subsequent scene, in which Tom plays "I'm Easy," and we see four different women looking at him, thinking he's singing just to them, is my favorite in the film. I think musical performance can be one of the most powerful devices to convey emotion in a film, and just watching a character listen to a song can tell us everything we need to know about their emotional state. It's a favorite David Lynch device, witness "Questions in a World of Blue" in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me or the whole Club Silencio scene in Mulholland Dr.

The "I'm Easy" scene is a perfect example of what the film's structure does in allowing us to experience the diegesis from multiple perspectives. We've hung out with Opal, Linnea, Mary and L.A. Joan, and they're all likable characters, so their happiness at watching Tom perform becomes pain for the viewer, because we're aware of what kind of guy Tom is. This is backed up by the song, which is Tom basically saying that he's got no problem with sleeping around.

The film does a good job of showing Tom's simultaneous attractiveness and bastardness. He puts so much effort into sleeping with Linnea, then once she says she's got to leave for the night, he's on the phone to someone else. So, this is a guy for whom the conquest is the important thing, when Linnea doesn't want him, he desperately wants her, but once she's not giving him anything, he's moving on while she's still in the room.

One of the most effective setpieces in the film is the car crash sequence, which does a good job of drawing the characters together. Visually, it's very cool, and it provides a lot of the very real moments that Altman excels at capturing. Altman's greatest strength is his ability to give you the feeling that everyone in the film is a real person and he just happened to wander into their lives with a camera. This is what threw me at first, because Magnolia is a film so utterly stylized, using all the tricks of filmmaking to immerse you in a characters' emotional world. Altman is much more of an observer, and that's very refreshing. I'm so sick of transparent three act Hollywood films at this point, it's great to see a film that builds a world and explores it. All the characters have arcs, but they don't feel contrived, they feel like just ordinary events that would happen to people over the course of time.

One of the surprising things about the film is the way that even though most of the characters don't find any closure, there is a definitive sense of resolution and satisfaction at the ending. The murder has a high level of ambiguity, the sequence of shots, with Kenny first looking at Barbara Jean, then at the flag, then shooting her indicates that killing Barbara Jean is an attack on traditional American values. When John is trying to convince Bill and Mary to appear on the TV broadcast he tells them that their new music will stand out against all the old fashioned Nashville stuff. So, their disillusioned 60s generation will replace the old generation, which is represented by Barbara Jean. That fits with a lot of the other stuff in the film, notably L.A. Joan never even seeing her aunt before she dies. The older generation is dying out, Barbara Jean herself is already being bumped out by Connie White, as is Haven. This also fits in with the fact that it's a fundraiser for the Replacement Party.

One of the most amazing moments of the film is when Albequerqe gets on the mic, finally having a chance to sing, and we find out that, unlike her parallel character, Suelynn, Albequerqe can actually sing. I love the way the song builds, the choir joining in and then the crowd, all saying "It Don't Worry Me." The song is fantastic and it gives a really powerful feeling of closure to the end of the film.

This is a film full of interesting stuff, it feels like being dropped into a world and given free license to wander around. There's hilarious bits, like Opal, and quietly sad moments, like the man losing his wife, but it all works together as one whole. And, it works equally well as a collection of small pieces. I'm not sure if I'd call this or McCabe his best film, but Nashville is the most distinctly Altman film in his catalogue. This is a film where even the end credits are great, due to a really rocking version of "It Don't Worry Me." So, watch the film and stick around for the credits, it's a great experience.

Related Posts
Short Cuts (6/10/2005)
70s Cinema, Box Office Economics and Auteur Filmmaking (6/21/2005)
McCabe and Mrs. Miller (5/11/2006)

Thursday, July 06, 2006

A Scanner Darkly w/ Richard Linklater, Keanu, etc.

Tonight, I finally got to see one of my most anticipated films of 2006, Richard Linklater's A Scanner Darkly. Linklater's one of the best filmmakers working today, and Philip K. Dick is my favorite prose author ever, so I was justifiably excited about the fusion of these two creative masters. And, in attendance at the screening tonight were Richard himself, Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr., Jonathan Lethem and Philip K. Dick's daughter, Isa. It's a big post, first I'm going to do a quick non-spoiler summary of my thoughts on the film, then go into spoilers, and after cover the talk, without spoilers. So, if you haven't seen the film, just skip the middle part.

So, quick summary. The film is very close to Dick's book, and better captures the essence of how I imagine the world of PKD than any other film, even Blade Runner. I always imagined his books taking place in a fusion of the future and the 70s, a look that this film captures nicely. There's some innovative uses of animation, notably the scrambler suit, but I felt slightly distanced from the characters due to the animation. It doesn't work as well for this story as it did for Waking Life.

Right now, I'd say it was a good film, possibly great. I need a review to better assess, but my first impressions are that some of the middle dragged a bit, but the ending, both of the film and the coda after, were fantastic and very powerful. I'll definitely give it another look in the next couple of weeks when it's out in the theater. With films that I've been waiting for for so long, the first viewing is usually difficult because the real film doesn't quite match the expectations I had for it. So, another viewing is needed.

On to spoilers...

The film's opening, with the bugs, is right out of the book, and it's also the broadest moment. I think it does an effective job of setting up the danger of Substance D, but it's a bit too over the top next to the darker rest of the film. I think the subsequent scene, with Freck and the policeman, was much closer to the humor of the rest of the film, and much more affecting.

I was expecting the film to be a fusion of Dick's themes and Linklater's conversational style, and to a large extent that's true. The lengthy conversation about leaving the apartment door unlocked was both funny and thematically right on target. The diner scene with Frenk and Barris was right out of Waking Life.

The most Dickian scenes were the scenes with Arctor and the doctors. That was really mind bending, crazy stuff, particularly the exchange about the cards. The basic conceit of the film is great, undercover cop work is right on target with PKD's favorite themes, because it's all about multiple levels of identity. You're an actor in real life and inevitably, as in Arctor's case, the charade starts to become real and the reality fades away. Arctor is playing an addict, but in playing an addict, he becomes one, and then he's no different from the people that he was working to stop.

One of the most powerful scenes in the film was the flashback to Arctor's family life. It's a brutal condemnation of complacent suburban lifestyle, and just how these addicts are going to keep doing the same thing everyday, so do ordinary people. They may not have the vices, but they too have routine, and after a while, the dose they need to get through the day increases. Arctor has developed too much of a tolerance to his everyday life, what worked once doesn't do it anymore and he has to leave. I like how he still talks about his family at the police job because it ties in to the mixed up identities. As Fred, Arctor is presenting this front of a cop, he's "posing as a narc," as he says. By this point in the story, Arctor the addict is the real person and the man in the scramber suit is the construction. This is what the opening speech scene is about, he can't keep towing the party line.

My biggest issue with the film has to do with the animation. I'm not a big fan of animation usually, I think an actor's face in live action can do more than an animator can ever capture. I can certainly understand why the film was animated, and aesthetically it looked great, but I felt a slight distance from the characters. In Waking Life the animation was fine because that was basically a talking head film, and the animation gave it some visual pazazz. Here, I liked the flourishes they did, like the dream sequences in the beginning, but I think it would have been easier to relate to the characters as real people if it was in live action.

Of course, one of the reasons for the animation was to create a hazy, dreamlike world, and in that respect it succeeded. I actually found myself wishing there were more moments of surrealism, like those dream sequences, because the film was on the whole constructed in a very traditional way. I also feel like the score could have done a lot more, the strings sounded very Waking Life, but I would have liked something a bit more prominent.

But, even through the animation, the actors all turned in great performances. This is a perfect role for Keanu, who can do any character, as long as it's a variation on a California surfer. He was great here, and his conversations with Downey and Harrelson sounded exactly like what high people sound like, full of lengthy debates over ridiculous minutiae.

The film has some pacing issues, but it's largely redeemed by a fantastic finale. Arctor is sent into Newpath and we see him in a very aloof state. He seems totally gone, but he still picks up the flower and the film ends with a wonderful shot of all the flowers and the thought that they might eventually be able to bring down Newpath. This was a fantastic ending, abetted by some nice Keanu voiceover.

So, I was definitely up on the film at that point, and then the final coda pushes things even further. The film ends with the afterword from the book, where Dick lists the people he knew that inspired the book, and wound up messed up by drugs. It's a very powerful anti-drug statement and a fantastic tribute to PKD.

Watching that coda made me think about the film's stance on drugs. It definitely indulges in humor surrounding the characters' addiction, but it ultimately comes down pretty clearly in the negative. All the users in the film are paranoid and clearly on the road to mental damage. However, the brief scene of middle class life is equally oppressive. So, what is Linklater suggesting is a better way to live?

With the revelation that Newpath is growing Substance D, and is in league with the government, Linklater seems to be indicting society as a whole, implying that we're complicit in our own imprisonment, be it in boring middle class life or in the squalor of drug addiction. It's generally pessimistic, but there is some hope there in the final moments.

So, this film has a lot that really works, but some issues that hold it back from the greatness that Linklater reached with Waking Life or Before Sunset. The biggest issue may be the fact that he is so faithful to the book. It's cool to have a film that is close, but Linklater is such a great filmmaker, it could have been interesting to see him claim the material for his own. Still, it's the best film of the year so far, and full of interesting thematic issues to ponder. I'll need another viewing before I give it a definitive assessment.


So, about the Q&A. Before the film, Keanu and Downey went up to introduce it, at that point Richard Linklater was not there, his flight was delayed. So, they did some funny banter, then headed into the audience and Keanu ends up sitting two seats down from me. It was cool to see him watch the movie, he was having some popcorn and seemed to be really enjoying it, always a big smile on his face.

After the film, all five people went up on the stage for a Q&A with some good stuff, but a few too many stock questions. I think I'm skewed being from New York, but Linklater talked at a really slow pace, and seemed a bit unsure of himself. But, I hear they take things slower out in Texas. Downey was a joker, his best comment was when he admitted he still wasn't sure what happened with the end of the film.

I've always been a Keanu defender, so I was glad to see that he was actually quite intellectual. He was the one always bringing the book to set, and had a lot of interesting stuff to say about his character, even if he did drift off into uncertain rambling occasionally. Still, he seemed to really engage with the film's ideas.

Linklater talked about how he had read 'Valis' a while back and shortly after Waking Life, decided to do a PKD adaptation as his next animated project. He actually ended up asking a bunch of questions to Isa about how her father worked, and what his life was like in the A Scanner Darkly era. She talked about how PKD rarely did revisions on his books, he would generally just plow through and finish them. He's someone who has so many ideas, it feels like he's just got to get them down on the page as fast as possible.

Most of the stories they told were stuff I'd read in interviews before, how Linklater got the rights to the book, the different approach in shooting for animation, the process of animating it, etc. However, there were enough interesting comments to make it worth it. This was a case where the focus was more on PKD's vision than on Linklater's, and considering how much of an autobiographical work this was for him, it's appropriate that the film be something of a tribute.

After the Q&A, I asked Isa why it was such a struggle for Linklater to get the rights to this book, but there's a ton of crappy movies based off PKD short stories. She said that they consider some of his stuff 'Philip K. Dick light,' and that's what gets turned into a bad action movie, but they keep a closer guard on his more personal stuff. So, don't worry about seeing John Woo's 'Valis.'

If nothing else, seeing this film and Q&A definitely made me want to check out some more PKD books. I've read a lot of his stuff, but I've still got some major works left to check out.

Related Posts
Finding Meaning in Discussion: On Linklater and the Before Duology (12/7/2004)
Dazed and Confused (3/23/2005)
Richard Linklater Day (7/22/2005)

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Belle and Sebastian @ Battery Park

I Fought in a War//Another Sunny Day//The Model//Sukie in the Graveyard//Don't Leave the Light on Baby//La Pastie de la Borgiosie//Jonathan David//If She Wants Me//If You're Feeling Sinister//Lord Anthony//Dirty Dream Number Two//Funny Little Frog//I'm a Cuckoo//Your Cover's Blown//The Wrong Girl//White Collar Boy//Sleep the Clock Around

Star Spangled Banner//Boy with the Arab Strap

For the third time in eight months, I got to see Belle and Sebastian live. This was their second best show, not quite up to the performance at the Nokia theater in March, but better than their previous outdoor show at Across the Narrows in October.

The thing I really liked about this show was that they mixed up the setlist. They've got a huge back catalog, and always do a good job of mixing new and old stuff. Freed from the need to promote the new album, they went back to some older stuff, particularly Fold Your Hands Child, which had four tracks. It was cool to hear 'The Model' and 'Don't Leave the Light on Baby,' and you can never go wrong with 'The Wrong Girl,' the one song they've played every time I've seen them.

Other highlights were a really tight version of 'La Pastie de la Borgiosie' and a majestic 'Lord Anthony.' Hearing that song on the album, it doesn't sound like it'd go over great live, but it really built and ended up as a highlight of the show. That song in particular was helped by the presence of a string section, which Stuart claimed approached them that morning. Most of their newer songs are based around synths, so there's not a huge need for a string section, but if they've got them around, it definitely helps fill out the sound.

'Your Cover's Blown' should be played at every one of their shows, it's a great mix of disco and epic rock. 'I'm a Cuckoo' was my favorite song they played, though I would have loved to hear 'If You Find Yourself Caught in Love.' Along the lines of those anthemic pop songs, 'White Collar Boy' has been taken up a notch with each playing and it rocked here. The bass line is fantastic.

I usually prefer the newer songs, but it was great to hear the three best songs off 'Boy with The Arab Strap,' the title track, 'Dirty Dream No. 2' and 'Sleep the Clock Around.' I hadn't heard 'Sleep' live before, and it was a great set closer.

So, it was great to hear a bunch of different stuff live, and it was really great that it didn't rain. The sound quality at the venue was top notch and it was just a lot of fun to be outside watching a great show. I'm guessing this will be their last trip to New York for a while, but I'll definitely be there when they come around in a couple of years to support the next album.

Related Posts
Belle and Sebastian: 'Dear Catastrophe Waitress' (11/10/2005)
Top 20 Belle & Sebastian Songs (2/28/2006)
Belle and Sebastian @ The Nokia (3/4/2006)

Sunday, July 02, 2006

2006 Screening Log: Part I

Here's all the films I've seen in the first half of 2006. The films with an asterisk next to it are the ones I'd seen before, but rewatched.

Five Star
Gozu (Miike)
All That Jazz (Fosse)
Clean (Assayas)*
Aliens (Cameron)*
Lost in Translation (Coppola)*
Star 80 (Fosse)
Casablanca (Curtiz)*
Brazil (Gilliam)*
In the Mood For Love (Wong)*
2046 (Wong)*
Apocalypse Now: Redux (Coppola)
Domino (Scott)*
Requiem for a Dream (Aronofsky)*
Visitor Q (Miike)
The Doom Generation (Araki)
Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (Park)*
The Shining (Kubrick)*
Lost Highway (Lynch)*
The Wild Bunch (Peckinpah)*
Boogie Nights (Anderson)*
Far From Heaven (Haynes)*
Days of Heaven (Malick)*
McCabe and Mrs. Miller (Altman)
Irreversible (Noe)*
Shampoo (Ashby)
Head-On (Akin)
The Professional (Besson)*
The New World (Malick)*

Four Star
Last Tango in Paris (Bertolucci)
Badlands (Malick)
On the Waterfront (Kazan)
Brokeback Mountain (Lee)
Broken Flowers (Jarmusch)
The Bow (Kim)
Lilja 4Ever (Moodyson)
Thumbsucker (Mills)
Dodge City (Curtiz)
Schindler's List (Spielberg)
Bride of Frankenstein (Whale)
6ixtynin9 (Ratanaruang)
Leave Her to Heaven (Borzage)
Secret Things (Brisseau)
High Noon (Zinneman)
Pretty Persuasion (Siega)
Two For the Road (Donen)
My Summer of Love (Pawlikowski)
Thelma and Louise (Scott)
Carrie (DePalma)
Tetsuo: Iron Man (Tsukamoto)
Head (Rafelson)
Three...Extremes (Chan/Park/Miike)
The Heroic Trio (To)*
The Searchers (Ford)*
The Seven Samurai (Kurasowa)
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Demy)
Imitation of Life (Sirk)
The Thin Red Line (Malick)*
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (Hill)*
Dancer in the Dark (Von Trier)*
Little Big Man (Penn)
24 Hour Party People (Winterbottom)
Fat Girl (Breillat)
The Squid and the Whale (Baumbach)
Funky Forest (Ishii)
A Prairie Home Companion (Altman)

Three Star
Me and You and Everyone We Know (July)
The Piano (Campion)
High Art (Cholodenko)
Match Point (Allen)
Hell's Hinges (Swickard)
The 40 Year Old Virgin (Apatow)
Bubble (Soderbergh)
Back Street (Stahl)
Bound (Wachowskis)
Stagecoach (Ford)*
The Last Picture Show (Bogdonavich)
9 Songs (Winterbottom)
The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Kaufman)
Lenny (Fosse)
Eros (Wong/Soderbergh/Antonioni)
The Ox-Bow Incident (Wellman)
Marathon Man (Schlesinger)
The Pillow Book (Greenaway)
Red River (Hawks)
Hearts of Darkness
Strangers on a Train (Hitchcock)
Sex, Lies and Videotape (Soderbergh)
Red Headed Woman (Conway)
The Gunfighter (King)
Morven Callar (Ramsay)
Stella Dallas (Vidor)
Pretty as a Picture: The Art of David Lynch (King)
Funny Ha Ha (Bujalski)
V For Vendetta (McTeigue)
Thank You For Smoking (Reitman)
Harold and Maude (Ashby)
Buffalo '66 (Gallo)
Written on the Wind (Sirk)
All That Heaven Allows (Sirk)
Rio Bravo (Hawks)
The Magnificent Seven (Sturges)
Sullivan's Travels (Sturges)
Election (Payne)
Capote (Miller)
The Hustler (Rossen)
Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Fassbinder)
The Outlaw Josey Wales (Eastwood)
Main Hoon Na (Khan)
A Hard Day's Night (Lester)
Schizopolis (Soderbergh)
Vital (Tsukamoto)
Klute (Pakula)
Party Girl (Von Scherler Mayer)
Belle du Jour (Bunuel)
Darling (Schlesinger)
Blow-Up (Antonioni)

Two Star
Storytelling (Solondz)*
Downfall (Hirschbiegel)
The Man Without a Past (Kaurismaki)
Heathers (Lehmann)
Red (Kieslowski)
Spun (Ackerlund)
Way Down East (Griffith)
The Constant Gardener (Miereles)
Broken Blossoms (Griffith)
Alien 3 (Fincher)
Killer's Kiss (Kubrick)
Jesse James (King)
My Darling Clementine (Ford)
Fort Apache (Ford)
Mannequin (Borzage)
La Haine (Kassovitz)
The Girl From Missouri (Conway)
Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (Allen)
Jane Eyre (Stevenson)
Shane (Stevens)
Gerry (Van Sant)
Lila Says (Doueiri)
Bull Durham (Shelton)
Don't Come Knocking (Wenders)
No Such Thing (Hartley)
Letter from an Unknown Woman (Ophuls)
Madame De... (Ophuls)
Totally F***ed Up (Araki)
Lola Montes (Ophuls)
Johnny Guitar (Ray)
Major Dundee (Peckinpah)
Some Came Running (Minelli)
Home From the Hill (Minelli)
Beauty and the Beast (Cocteau)
High Plains Drifter (Eastwood)
A Killing (Klympko)
Nine Lives (Garcia)
The Hired Hand (Fonda)
X-Men: The Last Stand (Ratner)
Art School Confidential (Zwigoff)
Scarface (DePalma)
L'Age D'Or (Bunuel)
Deliverance (Boorman)
Man Bites Dog (Belvaux)
A Tale of Two Sisters (Kim)
Superman Returns (Singer)

One Star
Malena (Tornatore)
Underworld: Evolution (Wiseman)
Wyoming Outlaw (Sherman)
Silent Witnesses (Bauer)
Ran (Kurasowa)
Balzac and the Chinese Seamstress (Dai)
Broken Arrow (Daves)
P.C.U (Bochner)
Winchester '73 (Mann)
Viva Zapata (Kazan)
Taegukgi (Kang)
Cobweb (Minelli)
The Brave Heart Will Take the Bride (Chopra)
Failan (Song)

Subtracting stuff I'd watched before, here's the overall ratings breakdown.

Five Stars: 8
Four Stars: 32
Three Stars: 50
Two Stars: 45
One Star: 14

So, this wasn't the best time for new films. Though, my ratings are a bit different than your average critic. A five is a perfect or near perfect film, a four is a really good to great film, a three is a film that had solid entertainment or intellectual value, a two I probably liked, only the ones were films I really couldn't stand. But still, I didn't see that many great movies, and only one, All That Jazz made it into my all time top 100. And just for comparison's sake, here's how the two halves of 2005 break down.

First Half of 2005:
Five Stars: 16
Four Stars: 27
Three Stars: 34
Two Stars: 23
One Star: 32

Second Half of 2005:
Five Stars: 9
Four Stars: 30
Three Stars: 29
Two Stars: 18
One Star: 11

Related Posts
2005 Screening Log: Part I (7/7/2005)
2005 Screening Log: Part II (1/1/2005)