Saturday, September 09, 2006

Weekend Update

New Music

I've listened to a few new albums this week. One is The Cocteau Twins' Victorialand. The Twins are a band I've heard mentioned a lot and have always been meaning to get around to listening to them. I finally did and I really enjoyed the album. It's very ethereal, a less rocky predecessor of Sigur Ros. It's one of those bands with a really unique sound, perfect for a film soundtrack. I also listened to Justin Timberlake's Future Sex/Love Sounds, an album that's really successful, if a bit long on the first listen. The album is so now, with a great dirty electronic vibe. Timbaland's production is fantastic and I think he and Justin succeed in pushing him beyond the territory of Justified. A lot of rock bands never get beyond making the same album over and over again, and I'm glad to see Justin experimenting and pushing things a bit.

Not Yet Rated

Last week saw the release of the documentary This Film is Not Yet Rated, which has drawn a lot of attention to the MPAA ratings system. I actually don't have a major problem with the ratings system, the issue I've got, that isn't mentioned in any of these articles, is the fact that the NC-17 rating just isn't commerically viable. The whole point of the rating was to try to separate artistic films with explicit content from pornography, yet, because so many people won't advertise/show the films, the NC-17 just isn't commercially viable. Rather than trying to change the MPAA, I think the best idea would be to force theaters to show NC-17s, and make it like the X originally was, back when Midnight Cowboy, an X rated film, was able to win the best picture Oscar. How can this be done? Well, a lot of it goes back to America's puritanical morality, and there's an implication that you shouldn't be watching NC-17s. But, if a studio put out a legitimately good film, that also had popular appeal, with an NC-17, perhaps an audience would show up. Personally, I'd love for the rating to catch on so I don't have to deal with kids at screenings. A major issue is the fact that studios always target kids, so the NC-17 can be market death.

Grant Morrison Quote

I was reading this fairly recent interview with Grant Morrison, fascinating as always. Anyway, the interview has a quote that I love:

And think about the emotional experience of reading comics. Nothing but ink on paper , right ? Yet people fall in love with Jean Grey and threaten to commit murder in her name! People cry when Ted Kord gets shot dead! As we all know, inert drawings and words on a page can produce an absorbing, often addictive, unfolding illusion of life, movement and even personality but surely the reader's 'experience' of the 'story' in a comic is actually a hologram - a virtual reality generated by the overlapping of multiple human consciousnesses - 'creator' consciousness interfacing with 'audience' consciousness through the medium of print.

This touches on a lot of the themes that I got out of his work back in 2003 after I read The Invisibles, the idea that fiction is just as real, if not more so, than our so called reality, because it can create actual emotional responses in people. I love that Morrison is thinking so much about the very nature of the medium, you just don't see this sort of examination in film, and where it is, it's bogged down in Academic babble. Morrison has ruined college for me in some respects because his pop! philosophy puts academic writing to shame. The Invisibles not only tells you about the nature of the universe, it also tells a great story. You're not going to get that from a traditional philosophical text.

Rome and Rescue Me

I recently watched the first episode of these two series. Rome was pretty good, certainly the production values were amazing, but it suffered from the same problems as a lot of period pieces, namely a lack of relatability to the characters. There was a lot of potential though and I could see this being quite good once they get the cast sorted out. Rescue Me felt very much like a typical 00s cable show pilot. It was really well made and easy to watch with strong character drive right from the start. My major issue was the too cliche dead cousin talking to the main character and the fact that I just don't usually like stuff set in those really macho all male environments. But, I'll give this one some more episodes too. Neither completely grabbed me, but they both feel totally watchable.

Upcoming Dates of Note
9/22 - Science of Sleep Releated
9/24 - The Flaming Lips at Hammerstein
10/8 - Inland Empire at NYFF
10/20 - Marie Antoinette Released
10/25 - Seven Soldiers #1 Released
11/22 - The Fountain Released

Friday, September 08, 2006


The journey through Gregg Araki's filmography comes to a close (for now) with Splendor. Every successful indie director usually reaches a point where they are offered a mainstream project, and the success of this project will determine whether they "sell out" or continue in the indie world. Splendor certainly isn't your everyday romantic comedy, but it's so toned down from the excess of The Doom Generation and Nowhere that it can't help but feel like a stab at mainstream success. This is like Dazed and Confused after Slacker, or Mallrats after Clerks, a film that takes the director's idiosyncracies and fits them into a more mainstream form, in this case the romantic comedy. For Linklater, doing a mainstream film actually helped curb some of the excesses of Slacker and made for a fantastic, albeit unprofitable, film. Splendor is more like Mallrats in that it feels like Araki made some concessions to the mainstream that ended up blunting that which was so unique about him. Splendor isn't a bad film, it's just one that that's not particularly unique.

That said, the first half hour or so is very successful, and very Araki. The Halloween club scene, with intense blue light, is right out of The Doom Generation and Veronica is like a female version of James Duval's characters in those films, naive, yet full of strong desire that will drive her through the film. I really like the device of Veronica speaking directly to the camera. For one, those shots are gorgeous, with the ethereal white background and rings of light in her eyes.

Tracking back a bit, it's interesting how Araki uses near identical openings for all his films. We usually start on a white background with white letters on top, ethereal music playing as the camera pans down to a scene. I love the opening shots here, and the way the white soon fades into purple, it's fantastic visual stuff.

A film like The Doom Generation is notable for its complete visual assault on the audience. But, as Splendor forges ahead, we get less and less of visual interest. The opening club scenes give way to a rather standard domestic scenario, becoming more and more mundane as the film goes on. I'm guessing that the opening visual intensity is designed to disguise the fact that what we're watching is essentially exposition, but I'd rather watch this interesting exposition than the plot stuff that happens later.

The plot itself is at once transgressive, in its basic conceit, and totally ordinary, fitting the mold of countless romantic comedies. When the film begins, we're presented with a love triangle with no easy resolution, two guys who each have their own unique merits. When combined as one, they become the perfect guy, the fusion of physical and mental prowess serving as the ideal mate for Veronica. I found this pretty interesting, the troubles they have trying to navigate life as a threesome. I think there was more potential for comedy there, particularly in putting them in contact with more 'normal' social situations, maybe bringing in a character who knew Veronica back in her suburban home, directly contrasting her old life with her new.

Though I suppose that role was filled by Ernest. Ernest is a classic romantic comedy character, the nice guy who seems perfect for her, except for the fact that she doesn't love him. Once he enters the film, things start to descend. I was still emotionally involved in the story, but I wasn't really sure how to feel. On the one hand, Veronica doesn't love him, but at the same time, the story goes out of its way to make Ernest seem like this perfect guy, it feels a bit cruel for her to string him along then dump him. It's a bit of a cliche to make the romantic rival into a jerk, but that's done for a reason, because it makes it easier for the audience to get behind the heroine dumping him for the guy she really loves. In this case, the two guys seem so slackerish and unproductive, and Veronica so dissatisfied with them, that it's hard to accept that she has a deep love for them.

But, that's what the story's about. I think the ending is particularly troubling, with the really goofy jumping off the hotel balcony bit, which feels like a much different film. This, for all the goofiness, had a generally real world feel. But that final stunt felt like something out of an Adam Sandler movie.

In the end, Veronica's decision to embrace her alternative lifestyle ties directly in to Araki's central theme of people growing up and leaving behiind the repressive power structures of generations past. This is dramatized in a crazy way in The Doom Generation, and also represented in the totally out of touch parental figures in Nowhere. But it feels the most like Mysterious Skin, where Wendy has to choose between staying in Kansas and growing up to live her parents' life or heading for, and embracing the big city.

The film has most of Araki's thematic and stylistic tropes, but they're shoehorned into a conventional romantic comedy structure that really limits him. Mysterious Skin does a much better job of moving out of the hyper style of TDG and Nowhere and into more sedate, 'mature' filmmaking without sacrificing his visual style or narrative ambition. But, Splendor was a necessary step along the way.

Looking ahead, his next film is Smiley Face, a stoner comedy, which could be another attempt to move into the mainstream. He could play it as an over the top insane journey, a la Nowhere, but I'm guessiing it will be more restrained and conventional. Will this be successful, and more importantly will it be good? I'm still hoping that he gets Creeeeps going, that one's been talked about for a while, but doesn't seem to be making much forward progress.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Veronica Mars: The Second Season

A while back, I watched the first season of Veronica Mars, which I liked but didn't love. However it was enough to get me to watch season two, a season that solves a lot of the problems I had with the first season, but still has a bunch of issues of its own. I don't think the show has made it to greatness, though it's always entertaining.

The major place that this season improves on the first is in the episode to episode continuity. Back in season one, there was some character development, but the focus of most episodes was on the stand alone mystery of the week, with some development in the Lily Kane case going on in the background. Here we get a lot more subplots and development for the secondary characters, and much like second season Buffy, it becomes a serial show, where there's sometimes a standalone plot as well. Generally speaking, the standalone plots have a thematic tie in to what's going on in Veronica's life.

This season, the overall mystery, the bus crash, was usually a secondary plot element, weaved in to the tapestry of events going on in the characters' lives. On the one hand, this works because less of the season's success is reliant on the progression of the mystery. However, I think the fact that the bus is made up of a bunch of characters we don't know means we can't sympathize with the town's initial sadness at the crash. I do like the way they gradually develop the people on the bus, particularly in the dream sequence heavy episode with Veronica imagining she's on the bus. But, by the point we get to know these people, the initial impact of the event is gone, so we never get an emotional jolt from what happens.

This ends up causing problems when we get to the season finale. Because of the show's structure, we can never get a clear villain. It's a world where everyone's a bit nefarious, but not until the final moments of the season can Veronica have a clear antagonist. This causes a bunch of narrative issues when they try to turn Beaver, the goofy, troubled kid we've known all season, into a dangerous, menacing figure. Because we've been pulled through so many theories and loose ends, the actual revelation of what happened is rather underwhelming. The extent of the investigation seems to reveal that the actual person responsible for the crime doesn't particularly matter, the kids are still dead either way.

So, they have to make Beaver more than just the guy who blew up the bus, and this leads to one of the most uncomfortable plot decisions on the show, to say that Beaver raped Veronica when she was unconscious at the party back before the show started. Technically, this fits with what we've heard before, but it just doesn't make sense with the character we've seen, and it comes across as a really crass attempt to make Beaver come across as a villain. Plus, it just pours the misery on Veronica a bit thick, to think that she was forced into sex by two guys in that one night. Come on, that's a bit excessive.

In the case of this show, it's really the journey more than the resolution that's fun. Some shows are designed to build up to the season finale, most of Buffy or Six Feet Under, each season working as a coherent chapter structured to climax in the last episode. Veronica is like that, except the resolution here just didn't work for me. For one, the piling on of atrocities didn't quite fit with the tone. The Woody Goodman molesting children thing in particular was tough to match with Veronica's quip happy persona.

Because Veronica is such a caustic character, it's difficult to emotionally relate to her, and this means I don't get engaged in her pain in the same way that I did with someone like Buffy. She always remains cynical about things, and that makes it difficult to fit the Woody Goodman stuff, or the episode about the college rapist, into the show's world. I think it's good that they tried to branch out into heavier stuff, but it takes a lot of skill to move between a rape and comedy, and I don't feel like that episode was able to handle it that well. Plus, the Woody Goodman stuff came across as a retread of Mysterious Skin.

However, despite all this, I still really enjoyed the season. It just goes by really smoothly, the cliffhangers make it easy to back to back an episode and I liked a lot of the expanded cast. Dick Casablancas in particular was always hilarious and I'm hoping he'll make it back next season. Charisma Carpenter was interesting, playing someone who's basically Cordelia if she'd never met Buffy. The dialogue was always snappy and I loved the continuation of the Aaron Echols storyline. I just wish he hadn't gotten offed at the end of the season, it'd be great to see him and Veronica continue sparring.

So, this is one of the shows that's always entertaining, a lot of fun to watch, but lacks the intellectual cohesion of a truly great show. I'll still be watching the third season, and hope that the show does get a bigger audience now that it's paired with Gilmore Girls.

Top 22 Directors: Part I: 22-11

Here's a list of my twenty-two favorite directors. I'm not trying to present some authoritative view of the twenty greatest directors of all time, in the history of cinema, Francis Ford Coppola's certainly more notable than Sofia in the overall development of movies, but for me personally, Sofia's work has been more affecting. The way I see it, this list's order is determined by who I'd be most excited to see a new film by. Along with the name, there's the number of films I've seen by this person, as well as the number of films they have in my personal top 100 and the number of points they have, with 100 being 1, etc.

22. Bob Fosse
Seen: 4 (of 5)
Top 100: 1
Points: 37
Best Film: All That Jazz

Fosse is best known for his choreography work, but unlike a lot of multitaskers, his films are uniquely cinematic entities. All of his films are based around show business, usually focusing on the negatives, but occasionally showing us why people get involved in the first place. He's got a very dynamic camera and can edit a musical sequence better than anyone. All That Jazz is an extremely inventive film, most notably in the finale, one of the best film endings of all time. His most harrowing film is Star 80, a brutal assault on the viewer with one of the bleakest endings of all time. That film shows that he can work well outside of the musical genre.

21. Lars Von Trier
Seen: 4 (of 8)
Top 100: 1
Points: 65
Best Film: Dogville

Lars Von Trier makes films that frequently frustrate me, he challenges the viewer and I think that the strength of emotional reactions to his material indicates the power of his filmmaking. His 'Golden Heart Trilogy' bothered me at times, but the end of Dogville rebukes a lot of the criticisms there and provides his oeuvre with a violent catharsis. His relentless experimentalism is refreshing, if nothing else, you can always count on Lars to create something different.

20. Terrence Malick
Seen: 4 (of 4)
Top 100: 1
Points: 35
Best Film: The New World

Malick makes films that invite you into a world. Much like Wong Kar-Wai he forsakes traditional narrative for voiceover laden, philosophical and emotional journeys into moodiness. He's at his best when dealing with very simple stories, like the love triangles of The New World and Days of Heaven. In this context, he allows nature to represent the characters' emotions, and gets to show off his always gorgeous photography.

19. Gaspar Noe
Seen: 2 (of 2)
Top 100: 1
Points: 75
Best Film: Irreversible

Like Trier, Noe makes films that actively confront the audience, challenging the viewer to look away. I Stand Alone is a really difficult film to watch because Noe so thoroughly immerses you in the mindset of its racist, psychotic main character. Then with Irreversible he creates his first masterpiece. It's one of the most technically dazzling films of all time, wowing you with the photography while simultaneously horrifying you with the intensity of its content. Very few films could accurately be called an experience, but Irreversible is. It's a film that changed the way I view the medium.

18. George Lucas
Seen: 5 (of 5)
Top 100: 3
Points: 229
Best Film: Star Wars

I think of Lucas more as a storyteller than a director. He didn't have to actually direct Empire or Jedi to get his vision across. However, his direction is still notable, Star Wars changed the possibility of what could be done with science fiction cinema by creating another universe that is totally believable. In Star Wars, I find it hard to believe that cameras are there or even that these people are acting, watching those films completely erases the layer of fictional awareness. People say that Lucas ended New Hollywood with Star Wars, but by creating a film that conveyed his unique vision in a traditionally creative bankrupt genre he was doing the same thing that Coppola did to the crime genre with The Godfather. It's only what happened after that caused things to go bad.

17. Gregg Araki
Seen: 6 (of 8)
Top 100: 0
Points: 0
Best Film: The Doom Generation

Araki is another director who's notable for making really challenging films. His early work is very hyped up, always messing around with film convention, be it in the meta titles on Totally F***ed Up or the genre extremism of Doom Generation. He puts a lot of effort into making visually interesting compositions and backing them with great soundtracks. Mysterious Skin is more emotional than his previous films and manages to keep the visual greatness even in a more realistic narrative world.

16. Kim Ki-Duk
Seen: 6 (of 12)
Top 100: 1
Points: 11
Best Film: 3-Iron

Kim Ki-Duk is a filmmaker who works almost exclusively with visuals and music, frequently spotlighting mute characters who communicate through facial expressions and touch rather than through words. In this sense, he makes uniquely cinematic films and there's a lot of joy to be had in watching him construct worlds out of shots. He's got a fantastic eye and can create really powerful moments through the combination of visuals and music. Sure, he's a bit repetitive, every film seems to be involve water and/or prostitutes, but his films are always interesting, so more power to him.

15. Robert Altman
Seen: 11 (of 35)
Top 100: 1
Points: 8
Best Film: Nashville

Altman's made so many films, it's hard to pin down a specific style. I could easily see the guy who made Nashville making Short Cuts, or the guy who did Images making 3 Women, but connecting everything is more difficult. However, Altman is notable for making realistic films, in the sense that they capture words as spoken, not as scripted, and emotions in an underplayed way, trauma internalized rather than shouted out. I respect Altman for continuing to work, and excel, well in to old age. A Prarie Home Companion is one of the best films of this year and his filmmaking is still innovative and exciting.

14. Park Chanwook
Seen: 4 (of 6)
Top 100: 2
Points: 67
Best Film: Oldboy

Seeing Park's Oldboy for the first time was one of my most exhilarating film viewing experiences. The effortlessness of his craft is dazzling, each frame a beautiful composition and the stylistic flourishes, backed by over the top orchestral techno score left me really happy that such a cool film existed. Lady Vengeance was one of my most anticipated films of last year and it messed with my expectations quite a bit, however I've come to love the more serious approach to vengeance he takes there. No director has a better eye for composition, for creating a really striking image, than Park.

13. Sofia Coppola
Seen: 2 (Of 2)
Top 100: 2
Points: 73
Best Film: Lost in Translation

Sofia Coppola is an even better director than her father, and I love Francis Ford's work. Both of Sofia's films exists in a dreamy realm not far removed from Wong Kar-Waiville, a world where absolutely gorgeous visuals and perfectly chosen music illustrate stories of everyday events that happen to be hugely important to the characters involved. She understands the fact that cinema is a visual medium first, a storytelling medium second, and all the critics who complained that nothing happened in Lost in Translation totally missed the point. Those moments of nothing, beautiful pauses, are where the soul of the film lies. I'm eagerly awaiting Marie Antoinette.

12. Michel Gondry
Seen: 2 (of 2)
Top 100: 1
Points: 80
Best Film: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Gondry is arguably the most innovative visual director working in film today. In his music videos, he went to many crazy places, and is the only director in this CG age who's still able to make you ask "How'd they do that?" Beyond his videos, he's made one masterpiece. Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind is a totally unique fusion of very real emotional drama and surreal visual dreamscapes. It was such a leap for Gondry and I'm confident he's going to keep things going in his next feature, the soon to be released Science of Sleep.

Part II Coming Soon

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Defining Indie

At last year's Oscars, there were a bunch of articles about the fact that indie films were dominating the Oscars while the studio offerings failed to get many nominations. Concurrent with this was the idea that said indie films were out of touch with the mainstream, and the notion was that the Academy should try to nominate more "mainstream" film.

The major issue I have with this line of thought is the fact that these so called "indie" films are usually far from indie. Looking back at the Academy Awards last year, we had that indie Crash, which featured such obscure arthouse players as Sandra Bullock and Ludacris, or Good Night and Good Luck directed by and starring arguably the largest movie star on the planet. More recently, we've had the indie success of Little Miss Sunshine, starring the hottest comic on TV and star of one of last year's highest grossing comedies, Steve Carrell.

Even if these films are technically made with independent financing, with the talent involved, it's pretty clear that they're going to get some play. When picked up, they're put out by smaller divisions of major corporate studios, like Warner Independent or Fox Searchlight. So, saying that all these indie movies are coming out of nowhere and snatching up the nominations that should have went to major studio films is rather nonsensical. Whether it's Warner Bros. or Warner Independent, the money goes back to the same place. Actual independent films, like Andrew Bujalski's lo-fi stuff, or classics like Linklater's Slacker very rarely get any Academy attention, or viewers for that matter.

Essentially what's happened is that independent has become a synonym for art movie, a film where the quality of the piece more than the actors or effects is the primary draw. The studios were making such blatantly commercial films that they bought up smaller indie distributors to put out films that would get critical respect and award nominations. There's nothing wrong with this, most of the good American movies come out of these specialty divisions, Focus Features in particular has put out a bunch of really great films.

However, my issue with this is that the spectrum of production of shifted. Back in the 70s, a film like Good Night and Good Luck would have been a big studio film, targetted at a mainstream audience. Same for Crash, which is far from an art film. At that time, there were bad blockbuster type films, but in general, the films that were popular were the ones that also had artistic merit. That's the major difference between then and now, big films are sold as multi-media events and become commodities. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest may be a decent movie, but the quality of the film is insignificant compared to the marketing juggernaut around it.

Because the mainstream has become these generally lifeless blockbusters, formerly mainstream films are shifted into the indie world. That raises the question of what happens to true indies? If art house screens are taken up with a film like Little Miss Sunshine, where can foreign and really independent films play? Very few places is the basic answer, with a small amount of exceptions, foreign films get very little play here, same for artier American films.

Look at a film like Altman's 3 Women, this was made at a mainstream studio back in the 70s, today you'd be hard pressed to get any play for it. Even A Prarie Home Companion, a really accessible film with a whole bunch of stars, got limited play. To some extent, critical reaction can help out these smaller films, but in a lot of cases really indie films dont' get the critical support they deserve. Ellie Parker is a really well done indie comedy, but reviews just end up cracking on the digital video look. I saw the same thing in the early reviews for Lynch's Inland Empire, even though IE may look aesthetically worse than the polished film look of a big Hollywood movie, I can guarantee that it's more visually exciting than perfectly lit, but visually dead mainstream films.

So, this massive spectrum shift hurts us all as filmgoers. Mainstream films could be better, we've already seen it in the indie community. And indie films should be more challenging and innovative, not just there to provide something halway decent for a studio's award campaign. Strangely enough, the last three American films that I've loved were all released by major studios, Universal's Miami Vice and New Line's Domino and The New World, all doing more innovative filmmaking than anything in the indie community. So, occasionally a quality film does slip through, and I'm confident there's a bunch of good stuff coming up this fall.

Related Posts
The New Lynch Film and Digital Filmmaking (5/12/2005)
Great Films (12/19/2005)
Seriously, Crash? (3/6/2006)

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Weekend Update

Back to School

Tomorrow I'm pulling a Rodney Dangerfield and heading back up to school. What does this mean for the future of my web endeavors? Well, for one I'll have a lot more free time to watch movies, and hopefully I'll see a lot of stuff worth writing about. I'll be back on Netflix, so some eclectic stuff will be coming in. While up at school, I'll also be shooting more of All Good Things, as well as kicking off my thesis film. So, it should be a productive time. I've been working all the time this summer so it'll be good to return to the freedom of college.

Veronica Mars

I finished up Veronica Mars season two. I'm planning on doing a review of the whole season soon, but as with Carnivale, this may end up not happening. I had a bunch of issues with the end of the season, a lot of those inherent to the structure of a season long mystery. If you've had twenty-two episodes of buildup, any reveal is going to be a bit disappointing, and in this case, there were so many red herrings, there were a whole bunch of people who could have easily done it. However, the actual episode to episode work on the show was a big improvement over season one and I'll be glad to make a Gilmore Girls/Veronica Mars double feature this season. And side note, I think Lauren Graham on a Sorkin show, guest hosting Studio 60, is brilliant.

Future Plans

With Veronica Mars done, I'm looking to start up a new series. I'll probably Netflix the first discs of Rome and Deadwood, then see what catches my fancy. I'm also planning on watching Babylon 5 soon, though the awful reputation of the first season is not encouraging me. In terms of comics, after I wrap up JLA, I'm planning on doing an in depth reread of From Hell. I first read the book back in May 2003, here's my reaction from back then, and with nearly three and a half years gone, I think it's time to return.

Upcoming Dates of Note
9/22 - Science of Sleep Releated
9/24 - The Flaming Lips at Hammerstein
10/8 - Inland Empire at NYFF
10/20 - Marie Antoinette Released
10/25 - Seven Soldiers #1 Released
11/22 - The Fountain Released