Weekend of Phoenix
After buying tickets for Phoenix's show at the Bowery Ballroom, I received an e-mail letting me know that I'm now on the guestlist for their show at Maxwell's. So, I'll be going to both, doing back to back concerts with the same band for the first time. I've heard Maxwell's is pretty small, so it'll be cool to get a chance to see them in a smaller setting, and then I'll catch the bigger show the next day. In other Phoenix news, I found out today that Thomas Mars was the vocalist on Air's 'Playground Love,' one of their best songs. I'll be reporting back on both these shows.
Love and Death
I was sad to see that another 60s musical legend died this week, Arthur Lee, the lead singer of Love. Forever Changes is one of my favorite albums, it's one of those albums that might not have a lot of really well known songs, but has been massively influential, sort of like The Velvet Underground. Belle and Sebastian have songs that sound like they could have been made by Love, 'Waking Up to Us' in particular. All their output still sounds fresh, not like something that's forty years old.
The Miami Vice Reaction
As I mentioned in my review, I loved Miami Vice and I'd consider it easily the best film of the year so far. So, it's been interesting talking to other people who've seen the film and hearing their criticisms. A lot of people are saying that it didn't have enough action, or that it was hard to follow, which seems to be completely missing the point. The plot is irrelevant, you don't need to know what is happening, it's more about the mood you settle into. In this respect, it's a lot like Domino, a film that got lambasted by critics and the public because it went so far into stylistic experimentation. People have a very limited idea of what an action film should be, and they're not prepared to accept these hybrids of art house and action. Vice has more in common with Wong Kar-Wai's Fallen Angels than it does with Mission Impossible III, but people just aren't geared to look at action films as artistic statements. Criticizing Miami Vice for not having enough action is like giving the same criticism to Ashes of Time. If you're looking for a generic action film, it's not going to satisfy, but if you want a really exciting, experimental film, it's the perfect choice.
In the Docket
I've got a bunch of films out of the library right now. Memoirs of a Geisha is something I was interested in seeing when it was out, but never got around to. IT's interesting on two levels, one is to see two of the world's best actresses, Zhang Ziyi and Gong Li, together and speaking English. The other interesting level is the visuals which I've heard were dazzling, even if the film didn't quite make it. I've also got In July, a film by Fatih Akin, who directed the pop masterpiece Head-On. I've got another Altman film, California Split, a Bertolucci, Stealing Beauty, Mike Figgis' Hotel and finally, R. Kelly's Trapped in the Closet: Chapters 1-12. Reviews of the notable films were follow soon.
Earlier this week I watched Michael Winterbottom's Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story. Both this film and 24 Hour Party People were really entertaining, funny films, but they don't quite make it to greatness. Shandy suffered from the fact that there have been so many projects about making films recently, it's tough to come up with new material. Steve Coogan's funny, but his direct to the camera narration made the film a bit too reminiscent of Party People. I ended up wishing that Gillian Anderson had a bigger part and that the film was just a little bit better. Winterbottom's stuff is always entertaining, but he's never made a masterpiece.
This Saturday, why not make it a Champagne Saturday by checking out my new music video. I think it turned out well, there's a lot of cool color correction and some nice quick cutting at the end. If you check it out, post your comments, I'd love to hear them. Next up for me is more work on my feature, All Good Things, and on Tuesday, I'm shooting a video for the song 'Yer Warpin' Me' by Nepo.
Upcoming Dates of Note
8/6 - Phoenix at Maxwelll's
8/7 - Phoenix at Bowery Ballroom
8/8 - Manderlay on DVD
8/17 - Gnarls Barkley at Summerstage
8/22 - Veronica Mars Season 2 on DVD
8/25 - Idlewild Released
8/29 - Arrested Development Season 3 on DVD
9/22 - Science of Sleep Releated
9/24 - The Flaming Lips at Hammerstein
10/20 - Marie Antoinette Released
11/22 - The Fountain Released
Saturday, August 05, 2006
Weekend of Phoenix
Friday, August 04, 2006
I read a smattering of JLA stuff before beginning this whole series readthrough and the one thing I read that I really liked was Rock of Ages. Most of the weaker stories in Grant's JLA run are the ones that are decent superhero stories that just happen to be written by Morrison. The best, like Rock of Ages, are ones where it's a Grant Morrison story that just happens to star the JLA. This was written around the same time as The Invisibles' Hand of Glory arc, in the wake of Morrison's "alien abduction," an experienc that forever changed the direction of his work.
Before the alien abduction, Grant was a great writer, who told some weird stories, but his works didn't have an overarching connecting tissue. It was the abduction experience that gave Morrison the basis for his personal philosophy, the philosophy that informed all his work since. You can see this division quite clearly in The Invisibles, the first few issues explore a lot of things but it's not until the 'Sheman' arc that Morrison's conception of the nature of time becomes clear. As that series develops, his 4-D conception of reality becomes the guiding principle for both the fiction itself and the philosophy that it's trying to bring into reality. Works like The Invisibles and The Filth are a blend of philosophical text and adventure story.
Reading Rock of Ages you can see a lot of the concepts developed in The Invisibles filtered through a different lens, though this series also presents some inconsistencies from the worldview that Morrison forwards in Invis. However, the story doesn't begin with craziness, rather it starts with a pretty basic setup. Lex Luthor has bought the JLA's greatest enemies together to attempt a corporate takeover of the JLA. Despite the appearance of yet another evil version of the Justice League, this is a really nice opener for the arc. It's cool to see Mirror Master return, he was the star of a great single issue story in Morrison's Animal Man. One of the cool things about reading stuff in the DCU is seeing characters from previous runs, it's sort of like seeing an actor you really like pop up unexpectedly in another film. It may not have the same magic as the original appearance, but there's a nice spark of recognition nonetheless.
One of the things you get reading the whole JLA series rather than random excerpts is a better sense of the character development. A lot of the characters here are inert, Superman isn't going to go through a soul wrenching journey of personal discovery. However, we do get to see the younger heroes change. Kyle, despite his vast powers, has to deal with personal unease about his role in the Justice League. One of the scenes that best shows this is the moment where he's arguing with a random guy on the street, insisting that the JLA's just doing their best.
About halfway through the arc, things take a major turn with the appearance of Metron. I first encountered Metron in Seven Soldiers: Mister Miracle, a series that caused me much confusion. However, after reading the TPB of New Gods, I was totally prepared for the excursion into Kirby mythology. Metron is the DC Universe equivalent of John a Dreams, a guy who's able to move through space and time at will, however, Metron chooses to remain in his own form rather than subsume himself to another persona.
Metron sends Green Lantern and Aquaman on a mission to retrieve the Philosopher's Stone from a future reality and they bounce into reality known as Wonder World. While on Wonderworld, Green Lantern comes across the infant universe of Qwewq! This is one of those details that's just mindblowing, the infant universe of Qwewq somehow makes it off Wonderworld and later turns up in Morrison's JLA: Classified arc. Qwewq is infested with the black death, but also given a vaccine in the form of the ultramarines, and it eventually grows up to become Neh-buh-loh from Seven Soldiers. Just think about the journey of this infant universe from this issue to the end of Seven Soldiers. No one else is doing this kind of crazy storytelling, chronicling the growth of an entire universe in the background of a bunch of books. The series of events that will ultimately hold back the Sheeda invasion begins here in Rock of Ages.
After Wonderworld, Green Lantern meets up with Hourman. At the end of this book, Metron gives the philosopher's stone to Hourman, and asks him to keep it safe. However, this event actually takes place before Kyle meets with Hourman. So, Hourman is able to show Kyle the stone, and caution him about Metron's betrayal, because the good Metron travelled to Hourman and gave him the stone. Metron's speeches are all about asking people to transcend 3-dimensional logic and perceive all of time as one flowing entity. To understand the story, you also have to accept that logic because it's the only way you're able to understand why Hourman has the stone earlier in the story, but isn't given it until the end.
One of the best things about this arc is just how dense it is. Morrison's throwing out single issues that other writers would have spend twelve issues on, he's just got that much material. The Wonderworld segment leads into a post apocalyptic drama set in a world that Darkseid has conquered. After turning themselves into pure light information, Flash, Aquaman and Green Lantern turn up in this bad future and have to fix it. Sure, it's a little Days of Future Past, but the fact that this massive universe appears for a single issue adventure means you don't have time to dwell on the cliches.
The way that this arc resolves itself relies on a different conception of time than what Morrison uses in The Invisibles. In The Invisibles, it's impossible for there to be an alternate universe because all time exists simultaneously. If you went back in time five years, the changes you made would already be in place because you exist in a universe where you were five years ago. Figuring out this conception of time took me a long time, but I eventually got it by tracing Ragged Robin's journey. In 1996, the younger version of herself sees the older version of herself on the mesa. There was never a universe where the younger Robin saw no one, older Robin was always there, which means that the future she created through her time travel was the one she grew up in. That's why Jack tells her not to worry when she launches, she's already done everything right.
However, here in Rock of Ages, Metron posits a reality in which the forces of good and the forces of evil duel over the direction of reality and the outcome of each battle shapes the development of our world. One could argue that these Gods are essentially serving the same role as 5-D beings like John a Dreams did in The Invisibles. However, if that's true, then where did the evil Metron come from? If the alternate universe did exist, then it's logical that evil alternate future Metron could trick the JLA, however, if you're using the Invis concept of time, that alternate future would be impossible and the evil Metron could never exist.
To reconcile this, we need to turn to Morrison's idea of hypertime. This is the idea that time is like a river, there's the main river, but also a bunch of smaller bodies of water that branch off from the main flow. Sometimes these smaller rivers just stop, other times they'll connect back to the main river. So, according to this, the reality where Darkseid rules the world would be a small branch off the main river, one that eventually reconnects with the main flow.
Metron talks about the Philosopher's Stone as the Worlogog, an incarnation of all space/time. If we're to believe that the stone is a model of the universe, it would be logical that destruction of that model would lead to a new, incorrect universe. So, by saving the stone, they're quite literally saving the universe and ensuring that time proceeds down a good path. The stone, both visually and conceptually, is exactly like the magic mirror that the Invisibles crew encounters in New Mexico. The idea of a liquid that contains in it all moments of spacetime is one of those things I always struggle to get my head around. In this liquid we see all our experiences modeled, all of reality contained in this one object.
The idea that reality could be modeled in a fixed liquid is in line with Morrison's conception of our universe as a massive life chain flowing down from the first organism on the planet to present humanity. Travelling through this organism, freed of our individuality, we could experience reality through anyone's perception at any time.
The end of this arc has a lot of interesting foreshadowing. Metron indicates that the JLA themselves will be the New Gods, the key figures in the next fight for humanity's future. The idea that the JLA become gods is the critical founding component of Morrison's run. He is elevating them to the status of myth, and building towards a fnal battle on a mythic scale.
This is an arc that's just so nuts you have to love it. This is the first arc that feels uniquely Morrison and it's a great companion piece to the stuff going on in The Invisibles at the same time. I think comics can be proud that their biggest franchise isn't just telling the same story over and over again, this book is exploring intellectual territory that very few stories ever touch.
Twin Cinema//Use It//July Jones//Laws Have Changed//Jackie Dressed in Cobras//The Bleeding Heart Show//The Jessica Numbers//Mass Romantic//Testament to Youth in Verse//Miss Teen Wordpower//Bones of An Idol//It's Only Divine Right//Fake Headlines//Graceland//From Blown Speakers//Slow Descent into Alcoholism//Sing Me Spanish Techno
Star Bodies//Jackie//Execution Day//Letter from An Occupant
Back in March, I saw The New Pornographers open for Belle & Sebastian. They put on a solid show, but were undercut by the fact that the crowd was mostly just waiting for them to finish. So, I left with the impression that The New Pornographers were one of those bands that does fantastic records, and alright live shows. So, I was actually a bit unsure about going to this show, but I caught a good deal on Craigslist, so off I went.
The two opening bands were pretty solid. The Frames had really sweeping rock, a bit like Doves, but with a violin. They got a really strong crowd response and even did an encore, the first time I've seen an opening band do one. And I also really enjoyed Calexico, despite not being familiar with their work beforehand. They had a wide variety of instruments, cello, two trumpets, xylophone, accordian and the secret weapon, a Mexican singer who dropped some great vocals on a couple of songs. Their two trumpeters were great, doing some really nice team solos. The highlight for me was a cover of Love's "Alone Again Or."
Before getting into the show itself, I'll just note that Summerstage was a really nice venue. The sound quality was great and there was plenty of room. Plus, I got a spot front and center, one person back from the stage. I've been to many shows and I almost always enjoy the ones where I'm front a lot more than ones where I'm drifting around the back. It may be annoying to have to stand in place for a long time, but it's worth it to get there early and secuere a good spot.
With the first notes of their first song, the band wiped away any of my lukewarm feelings about their Nokia show. They ripped into Twin Cinema, speeding it up and turning it into a really tight anthem. One of their best songs, 'Use It' followed, in another fantastic rendition. They had a ton of energy, most of it provided by the drummer. He was playing pretty fast and this forced everyone else to put more energy in to keep pace. This isn't to say that every song was on speed, rather he kept things moving and the energy level high.
It's a huge difference watching a band as a headliner as opposed to being an opening act. Here, everyone was there to see The New Pornographers and that means that people are much more familiar with the songs and will dance or sing along in the audience. I think the crowd's enthusiasm means the band has to raise the bar to match and in this case, they certainly kept things going.
The highlight of the set was "The Bleeding Heart Show." Like a lot of New Porno songs, this one has a lot of segments. There's the subdued opening verses, the speedy, cascading b section ("We quit the room...") until it finally breaks into the wonderful, layered harmonizing of the finale, where "Hey La"s are layered over Kathryn's vocals. It's such a journey, I was completely absorbed in the song and the final segment was absoultely beautiful.
There's a similar structure on my favorite New Pornos song, "A Testament to Youth in Verse," which was another highlight. I love the round of "NoNoNos" that finish the song. The best moments in their work are almost always when vocals are layered, with some of them singing repeated syllables over one person's verse.
The opening of this show was so strong there was bound to be a little dip in the middle, but they roared back for the finale with "Slow Descent into Alcoholism" and "Sing Me Spanish Techno." I love the "Travelling at Godspeed" section of "Spanish Techno," and the way it segues into the "Listening too long to one song..." part. All of their songs have three or four sections that could be incredibly catchy hooks on a song, but combined they become supercatchy monsters.
Between listening to the albums again to get prepped for the show and seeing the show itself, I think it's pretty clear that Twin Cinema is their best album. I think each of their albums has improved on the previous one, but Twin Cinema adds a layer of darkness to the previously sunny world. The songs are still very catchy, but there's a bit more variation in tone and sound. It's a standout album.
For the encore, they broke out one of my favorite tracks off The Electric Version, "Execution Day." It was weird to hear the drummer taking lead vocals, at first his high voice was a bit jarring, but once I got used to it, his vocals were a nice way to mix things up. "Letter From an Occupant" was the perfect set closer, the non-words vocal part of the chorus is phenomenal and I walked out of the venue humming this song.
So, I was really impressed by The New Pornos performance here. They had tons of energy and were totally engaging, dropping most of their best songs, though they're a band where pretty much every song is something I'd want to hear. I'm really glad I saw them a second time and got to see them as headliners, at their best.
And there's the back of my head towards the bottom right of this pic up above.
Tuesday, August 01, 2006
Kevin Smith is a frustrating filmmaker, someone who came up in the 90s indie movement, but more than most of his contemporaries, he didn't seek artistic achievement, he was looking for mainstream crossover success. Smith's career path can be traced in moves from low budget comfort territory to more ambitious reaches for mainstream acclaim that fail leading to a retreat back to the comfort zone. In the case of Mallrats' failure, this led to what's easily Smith's best film, the hilarious and emotionally devestating Chasing Amy, however the failure of Dogma led to the goofy, utterly meaningless Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. Bennifer aside, Jersey Girl was a creative failure, a totally generic comedy that lacked Smith's unique voice. When this attempt to reach out to the mainstream failed, he retreated back to make his first official sequel, Clerks II.
The comedy work that I like is usually about using comedy to cover a dark undercurrent, and the best Smith work is like this. The moments in Clerks that work best are when Dante and Randal express their frustration about working at the Quik Stop. Chasing Amy goes even further, using comedy as a way to bring us into the world, then moving into heavy drama in its second half. That film features the best transition between disparate tones I've ever seen in a film, and both halves work equally well.
Clerks II attempts to merge the two Kevin Smith styles, absurd comedy and sincere emotional stuff, however, he doesn't pull it off with the grace he did in Chasing Amy. There's some major flaws, but enough good shines through to make this a worthy sequel and a totally satisfying viewing experience.
However, I'll start with my major issue with the film. The reason Chasing Amy works so well is that the low budget aesthetic makes things seem much more real. When Smith works with a higher budget, he has a tendency to do cartoonish set pieces that take you out of the emotional reality of the film, stuff that's designed to shock, but ends up not quite working.
Basically, any moment of over the top comedy here doesn't work. Most of the stuff with Elias falls flat because the character doesn't feel real. He works as a foil for Randal, but particularly in the 'pillowpants' segment he feels like a total caricature. There's a lot of bits that feel removed from the emotional core of the film and it's like Smith put them in there because he wasn't confident in the film.
Look at the 'ABC' sequence, this is a scene designed to show Dante's attraction to Becky, and it works wonderfully. The slow push ins on the two characters make us realize that Dante clearly loves her and we know she's the right one for him. This moment works so there's no need to go and cut to the goofy footage inside the restaurant and then go to an even more bizarre crane shot mass dance number. This is totally seperate from the reality that the movie created and undermines the point of the scene, which is to show the emotional connection between Dante and Becky.
The other bit that fails because it goes too far over the top is the extended donkey sequence. I feel like Smith was just trying to think of something that would offend people the way the hermaphrodite porn did back in the original, but this sequence just went on too long and wasn't particularly funny, particularly the stuff with Elias, which felt totally unrealistic. Now, one could say that was the point, and in a standard gross out comedy, Elias' reaction would have made total sense. However, it's frustrating because so much of the film is emotionally right on and it touches on some really interesting issues. If some of this goofy stuff was held back, and the film went for a more lo-fi, real aesthetic, this film may have come close to Chasing Amy.
Because of the deadline, the wedding, the film had a strong sense of urgency and a feeling of emotional recklessness. You can believe that all these people would open up in the way they do because the world as they know it is going to end the next day. It feels implausible that two women would be fighting over Dante, but that's something you just have to accept. They do mention the oddness of it a few times, but it still feels a bit off, since this guy seems to have nothing particular to offer. It's weird that Smith chose to cast his own wife as an incarnation of the worst sort of relationship one could fall into, but the character is well used to show how much better off Dante would be with Becky.
The development of their relationship is satisfying, particularly the '1979' sequence, which featured some of Smith's best visual storytelling. It's not the most original sort of montage, but at that moment in the film, it felt totally right. I was genuinely surprised when Becky revealed that she was pregnant and the cake scene was another highlight.
Jay and Silent Bob in this film were a bit off. I think part of it was Smith's performance, he was doing the really goofy Silent Bob of Dogma and JaSBSB, which didn't feel appropriate in the universe of this film. Clerks Silent Bob was much more subdued and that's the sort of performance that was needed here. Jay didn't get that much good material and generally they just felt a bit old to be doing what they were doing. But, I did like the way they came into play in the jail scene at the end of the film.
Despite the love triangle, the real relationship at the film's core was Dante and Randal's. Randal is facing a future without the only person he actually likes and that scares him. The Jason Lee scene and go kart sequence are the critical piece of the character development, he's confronted with just how bad his life is and the only thing that makes it tolerable is leaving. So, he has Dante go karting with him just so they can spend some time together before they leave.
I think the jailcell scene was fantastic and the most notable moment in the film where Anderson and O'Halloran transcend their acting limitations and give a really moving performance. I like the idea that Randal sees what they're doing as a way to get around growing up and living a 'normal life.' People might consider it pathetic to work at Mooby's, but if he's happy, that's enough.
In the end, they buy the Quik Stop and finally have control over their destiny. However, the ending had a slight melancholy to it, with Dante and Randal both realizing that they've totally commited to this life, there's no more chance of escape. I think they're happy, but there's also the awareness that they're now bound there inextricably. The original Clerks was meant to tie in with the Inferno and the ending here brought that association back, they be happy to be there, but they're also trapped.
So, the film ends with both characters realizing that all they really wanted was right there already. One could argue that the film refutes growing up and encourages a permanent adolescent slacker state. However, the fact that Dante and Randal take control of the Quik Stop makes the message more like find what you want to do and take control of it, dont' let society tell you what to do. And, I think that's admirable.
This is a frustrating film because some of it is brilliant, and some of it is just awful. But, generally speaking the goodness shines through and I was really satisfied by the ending. However, it does leave us with the question of where Smith goes from here. With this film, he stopped trying to appeal to the mainstream and just accepted his place at the Quik Stop. So, where does he go from here?
Monday, July 31, 2006
After the high octane, pop opening that was New World Order, Morrison scales things back a bit for some more tightly focused, short arcs. New World Order functions as a mission statement, showing the new JLA, composed of the world's greatest heroes, fighting huge cosmic threats. In his two longform revisionist mainstream superhero runs, this and X-Men, Morrison used the opening arc as a way of reinvigorating a property that had gotten stale. But where is there left go from there?
The first story in this collection is a nice, if unremarkable storyline about a robot who overcomes her programming to save the world with the JLA. There's a funny bit where the JLA is interviewing new members, but this is one of those stories where the shortness of the piece means that there's just not enough invested to get a really profound emotional impact. But, like a lot of early Transmetropolitan issues, it's satisfying in the way it tells a complete story with some interesting themes in a short time.
The next story is a two parter about a horde of angels invading Earth. My biggest issue with Morrison's JLA is that most of the stories have the same basic structure, some unbelievably massive foe turns up, some of the League are put out of commision, but the rest really to defeat the foe in the end. The most interesting thematic material here is Superman struggling to live up to his own mythology. The whole agenda behind the run was to approach the league as a modern pantheon, so it's logical that Superman would have issues with.
When we reach the end of the story and Superman uses his powers to defeat an Angel and all kinds of huge foes, we see Superman proving his own myth correct. The human part of him may have doubts, but he is able to overcome those human doubts and succeed. One thing that hurts this story is Superman talking about his myth while wearing the stupid electric blue outfit, the classic uniform is intrinsic to the mythology and this goofy outfit undermines some of that.
Next up is 'Elseworlds,' a two plane story in which the JLA is menaced by the Key in the real world, and live through a variety of alternate universes in their mind. I usually enjoy an alternate universe story, but there's always something a bit cheap about them. It's cool to see Batman and Catwoman married, but the fact that it's an 'imaginary story' makes it difficult to engage in the drama of those moments. We're aware it's not happening, so the only interest is in seeing DCU mythology reconfigured. It's interesting, but not particularly illuminating.
I do like Green Arrow's quest to save the JLA, using only goofy arrows. And, the Key's rants, particularly the moment where he says his newfound powers are making him talk to himself, are great. This series is some of Morrison's funniest work, he's simultaneously engaging with the material on a totally straight level and also poking fun at the absurd conventions of the superhero genre. It's like the characters have to play these roles, they subconsciously fall into patterns of behavior dictated by the genre.
This is definitely Morrison's lightest take on the superhero genre, throwing things back to Silver Age style over the top craziness and simple character arcs. Nearly every other superhero has had serious underlying issues, whether it be the acid burnout and petulant adolescence of Flex Mentallo or dark sexual undercurrent of Seven Soldiers, this is the one superhero work that is simple, straight ahead superheroics. Because it's so thematically uncomplicated, I think it's one of Morrison's less satisfying works. It's certainly enjoyable, but with most of Morrison's work, you're not only entertained, you're enlightened.
Of course, a lot of the fun of this is seeing Morrison play with the DC icons. I loved Morrison's X-Men because it took everything great about Claremont's work and hauled it into the present. So, being a huge fan of the X-Men in general, I was able to better appreciate the way Morrison played off character histories. I'm not that familiar with DC, so there's not that inherent sense of excitement that X-Men had.
Still, this was a generally satisfying volume and I'm excited for Rock of Ages next.
Seven Soldiers Wrap Up (6/28/2006)
JLA Classified: 1-3 (7/16/2006)
JLA: New World Order (#1-4) (7/26/2006)
Sunday, July 30, 2006
I just got back from seeing Miami Vice, the year's first truly great film. This is Michael Mann stripping away any attempt to do a traditionally structured narrative and just indulging in his greatest strength, the ability to create an engulfing mood and letting the viewer get lost in it. It's a huge budget action film, but the style is that of an art film, with constant handheld camera and digital grain lending the film a sense of realism that is absent from virtually every other summer blockbuster.
The opening shot of the film dumps you right into the world. There's no character or plot setup because it's not really needed. These guys are undercover vice cops, that's all you need to know. This club isn't the usual highly glamourous Hollywood nightclub, it's more realistic. To some extent this hurts because the nightclub doesn't ascend into the realm of film fantasy, rather it stays down in the real world where video screens are slightly grainy and not everyone dances that well. The music flows nicely though, going from Jay-Z/Linkin Park to an instrumental version of Goldfrapp's 'Strict Machine.'
Watching this film, the first thing that jumps out at you is the digital photography. I know a lot of people are going to crack on the film for its slightly grainy look, and at times the shots just aren't as aesthetically pleasing as they might have been. However, I think on the whole the digital photography works wonders for the film. The camera moves with a freedom that I've rarely seen in film based movies, at least the ones that aren't by Wong Kar-Wai. Mann takes full advantage of the potential of digital to shoot night scenes in low key, realistic lighting and also to move his camera all around, giving us some of the most dynamic, exciting cinematography I've seen in a long time. There's an energy to the film that I feel just wouldn't be possible with traditional film, and if shooting digital freed Mann to create that energy, I'd gladly sacrifice the aesthetic quality of the image.
The way I look at film vs. digital is like this. Imagine you were doing a painting. There's a regular paintbrush and then there's a twentypound paintbrush that makes better looking brushstrokes. You could use this twenty pound brush and get a better looking brush, but it would make it a lot harder to paint. Your options would be limited and I'd rather have the chance to do whatever I wanted with the little brush. That's what digital is like, it gives you more opportunity for experimentation.
The thing that makes this film great is the way that it doesn't give you much background on these characters' lives, rather it puts you in their world and their emotions. If someone was to ask me what Sonny's character traits are, I wouldn't really know. But when he's watching Isabella leaving on the boat at the end of the film, I was feeling exactly what he was feeling. The film puts you in the numb world of an undercover operative and because you experience what they're feeling, it's very easy to empathize with Sonny and Rico, even though we don't really know who they are.
If the film does have some flaws, they're mainly in the opening section. Some of the dialogue was a bit clumsy and the actors didn't seem to be in their characters yet. However, I was still liking the film because I was loving the way Mann shot their car pursuing Alonso and the general nighttime aesthetic of the film.
The character setup here is very economical. The intimacy of the shower scene with Rico and Trudy tells us everything we need to know about their relationship. You could fault the film for not giving us more scenes with the two of them, considering the importance their relationship has to one of the big setpieces of the film. However, this isn't a film about building a world. It's about slipping you into something that's already happening and letting the viewer struggle to keep up with everything that's going on.
The cinematography and music had me engaged right from the start, but the film really takes off when Gong Li's Isabella shows up. I was predisposed to liking her since I've seen her in so many Asian films, however the admiration that her character earns during the film transcends that predisposition. Her relationship with Sonny is the emotional core of the film, and like Neal's relationship with Eady in Heat, we want it to work, but know that it can't. So, it's all about enjoying the moments that they're together.
The scene where they ride a boat to Cuba is one of the highlights of the film. Gong Li's sunglasses are great, and the use of Moby's 'One of These Mornings' is perfect. Mann cuts between closeups of the two actors, building tension with each cut, we're aware of the attraction between them and are just waiting for them to finally get together. The scenes in Cuba are wonderfully filmed, isolating the two of them from the world outside. Isabella cries when they're having sex, she knows that a real relationship isn't possible in her world, so no matter how much she's attracted to him, there's no future. Gong Li still has some issues speaking English, but she still gives a wonderful performance, creating the most emotionally engaging character in the film. Colin Farrell also nails this stuff, this is a great followup to the emotional territory he explored in The New World.
I've already mentioned it a couple of times, but the music in this film was phenomenal. Mann rarely uses music in the way that score is traditionally used, to guide the audience's emotions through a scene. Rather, he uses the music to build an atmosphere that the audience can sink into. Two notable passages are the boat trip to the trailer park and the final cue of the film.
The film is enjoyable on multiple levels, you can watch the story and characters and get caught up in their drama, or you can just watch it as a piece of visual art, enjoying the combination of visuals and music. I got lost in the world of the film, I stayed for a lot of the end credits, and when I finally stepped out of the theater it was like stepping into another world. That's the sign of a great film, when your reality is superceded by the reality that's on screen.
Another really notable acheivement for the film is the sound effects. I've never heard gun shots on screen that sounded like this. The sound really ups the intensity off the action. Mann is an expert at staging big gun battles, just check out Heat to prove that. The thing that stands out about the fights here is the brutality of the violence. People are shot very quickly and the fact that the characters are so nonchalant about it tells us everything we need to know about their world. When Jose quickly kills Isabella's bodyguard, we know that it's going down. Gina's quick execution of Trudy's captor is another notable moment of shockingly quick violence.
The final gunfight is another highlight, working both as a great action sequence and a way of building suspense for the final resolution of Isabella and Sonny's relationship. Her rage after she finds out he's a police officer is fantastic. The final shootout was shot in a really shaky way, with some shots seeming right out of cops. This whole final sequence looks great, with some notable visuals being the blue light on the white bridge, the lights of the city at night and the shaky cam as the action breaks out.
The film concludes not with any sort of rousing denouement. Jose may be dead, but the cartel lives on. We get no sense of what this did in the overall scheme of things, because ultimately that doesn't matter much to these people. They just do their jobs and deal with the costs of those jobs. For Rico, it means Trudy being horribly injured, for Sonny it means giving up love. I mentioned the final music cue before, but it deserves to be noted again. There's a profound sadness as Sonny watches Isabella leaving, both actors say so much with their face. From there, Sonny goes bac to the hospital, he'll continue to do his duty, even though he knows that it'll cost him the chance at a normal personal life. It's a very bold move to end the film on such an unresolved, somber note, but it fits perfectly with the world that Mann built here. We may want Sonny and Isabella to be together, but we need them to be separated because any attempt to stay together just wouldn't be true to the film we'd seen.
This film reminds me a bit of Domino, in the way that it generally puts the narrative aside and instead chooses to focus on creating a filmic experience. Domino succeeds because of the sheer pop excess of everything that happens. This film works more like an action Wong Kar-Wai piece, what's happening isn't important, it's more about what the characters are feeling, building a mood to get lost in. Even though it's brutal and harsh at times, I think it's the warmest Mann film I've seen, and this works as a wonderful companion piece to Heat. Both films are about the sacrifices that professionals must make to do their jobs. It's impossible to be a professional and still have a fulfilling personal life, and the arc of the film is about the characters coming to terms with what they've sacrificed.
I can't reccomend this film highly enough. I was really energized at the end, happy to see a film so stylistically bold and emotionally engaging. This is the sort of piece that couldn't work in any other medium, it uses the ability of film to create a unique world, to put the viewer in a feeling. It's not perfect, but the flaws are insigifcant compared to the film's overall quality.