Whiplash

October 21, 2014

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It should come as no surprise that the Grand Jury and Audience Prize winning film of the 2014 Sundance Film Festival should traffic in territory of a recently successful film. In this case, Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash has more than a hint of “Black Swan but with jazz drumming” as it centers on a young artist in a relatively niche cultural market desperate to reach perfection. Despite the easy reductive write-off that so often afflicts Sundance favourites, it does impressively manage to sidestep the attempted-crossover crowd pleasing stories that the festival loves to promote, and it features filmmaking beyond handheld “capture the raw moment of drama” that is so pervasive and yet so hard to pull off. Whiplash is nothing new, but it’s well made and propulsive enough that it hardly matters, and if its insights fall into a kind of clichéd hard-bitten romanticism, at least it is committed to reflecting it with what’s on screen. Read the rest of this entry »

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Frank

August 27, 2014

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The tricky thing about any film about a fictional band is expressing talent without actually having the years of hard work and, well, talent that goes into a truly exceptional band. Harder still, in the case of Frank, is crafting something believable about an avant-garde pop group based on some of the most idiosyncratic and unique artists of our time. Drawing most obviously from the alternative comedian Frank Sidebottom, but also liberally from Captain Beefheart and Daniel Johnston to flesh out the story, journalist Jon Ronson (whom played in Sidebottom’s band briefly) and co-writer Peter Straughan use an approach that is at times cloyingly obvious until it becomes genuinely surprising. It is a traditional rock band film in a lot of ways, but as Soronprfbs (the fictional band) are in no way traditional, it becomes a freeing exploration of this kind of oddball band destined for cult status by contrasting the way this story would normally go with the way it actually does. It is, in a fashion, using the subversion of the genre to understand the art it depicts. Read the rest of this entry »

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Derek Cianfrance’s previous film – and the only of his I have seen – was Blue Valentine, a somewhat inelegant but certainly affecting (really trying to avoid “raw” here) two-hander about the blossoming and breakdown of a relationship.  What it lacked in visual interest (grainy, handheld, American Indie by-the-numbers) it made up for with pacing and, of course, performances.  That picture worked through incredible acting, and it had to, as there wasn’t much else to rely on.  It was an exercise in reactions, movement, and glances.  It was a picture of big emotions because of its small proportions.  His follow-up, The Place Beyond the Pines, takes a different tack, although one suspects he was hoping to work within the same emotional model.  It’s a sprawling, 140-minute saga, with a triptych structure that unfortunately makes it feel like it is going on for a lot longer than it’s already lengthy running time.  It’s a shame he couldn’t have learned a lesson from his last film, then, and realized that Big Emotions don’t necessarily need a Big Story.  Read the rest of this entry »

If you’re going to make a film that’s baldly poetic, you’d better be damn sure you know what you’re doing.  It can seem unfair to castigate anyone who drops all cynical pretenses to “let it all hang out”, as it were, but there’s a serious danger of inducing the kind of eye-rolling in the audience that can kill a picture dead in no time at all.  It’s why there’s a cliché about coffee house singer/songwriter types.  There are elements of the song and the performance – just the right lyric or turn of phrase, a melody, the sound and inflections of the vocal delivery – that must work together to push through the cynicism or, perhaps more correctly, the ‘bullshit detectors’ of the audience to tap into that zone of pure emotion for which the artist is striving.  Most, as anyone who has ever been to an open mic night can attest, fail miserably.  Really, though, I’m overstating it.  “Cynicism” isn’t solely the problem, or at least it isn’t the easy answer as to why this sort of work fails.  There are basic realities we live in – political, cultural, and social, etc – that are ingrained in us, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  Arguably great art should take all of these into consideration and still reach that emotional place, but some can pull it off without all of that.  Read the rest of this entry »

As we mourn the tragic, too-soon (would it ever not have been?) loss of the multi-talented Adam Yauch (aka MCA) of the Beastie Boys, I think it’s important to remember what I hope to be his lasting legacy in the film world, Oscilloscope.  An independent film company with both production and distribution wings (amongst other areas), it has become in the last five years one of the most treasured imprints in American cinema.  In recent years, as major studios tighten their funding for their arthouse subsidiaries – championing mostly established names and (hopeful) crossover fare – it has come down to genuine independent companies like Oscilloscope to pick up the slack and give voice to unestablished or perhaps the more idiosyncratic works produced in the US and elsewhere.  This no small feat, considering the long list of short-lived and defunct independent companies the last two decades have witnessed.  Oscilloscope has become a haven for music (Who Took the Bomp? Le Tigre on Tour) and political (the exquisite and important Burma V.J.) documentaries as well as a place for exciting talents like Kelly Reichardt.  None of it would have been possible without the love for the artform and the enthusiasm of Adam Yauch, a longtime cinema devotee who notably directed a number of the Beastie Boys videos under the pseudonym Nathaniel Hornblower.  Jumping early on the Theatrical Release VOD model, as well as streaming services like Netflix, Oscilloscope has allowed for a much broader audience to find these intriguing works.  I haven’t seen all of their releases, but whether it’s good or bad, I know when I watch a film they’ve produced or distributed it will certainly be interesting.  Here is a list of six of those ‘interesting’ films – some are magnificent, others merely intriguing, but all are worth your time.

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Easy

January 21, 2012

If Jane Weinstock’s 2003 romantic comedy Easy had been made for a Hollywood studio, with attendant bigger budget and presumably bigger stars, I probably would have praised it as a noble failure.  Sure, it is not a good film, but in those circumstances, it would certainly be trying to do something interesting in that blandest and most uninspired of genres.  Unfortunately, Easy is a low-budget indie that should understand the trade-off between having no budget is having no market expectations, freeing the filmmaker to break the mold of the everyday genre fare and explore the possibilities it offers in elucidating the travails of romance in modern society.  The fact that it was written and directed by a woman, something that still happens all-to-rarely, only makes it worse.  Read the rest of this entry »

Lars von Trier’s Melancholia begins with a series of tableaux that, like the opening of his previous film Antichrist, could be a demented perfume ad.  This time around, however, he’s putting his cards on the table at the very start.  The images reflect both the mental state of its two main characters and a portent for things to come. A bride is being ensnared by limbs and roots, a woman runs frantically across the 19th green of a golf course clutching a child, the bride is peacefully sinking into water like Millais’ Ophelia, and so on and so on.  Never one to hold back theatrical bombast, this is all set to a piece from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde.  It ends with nothing less than the destruction of earth as a significantly larger heavenly sphere smashes through it.  This prologue is both beautiful and almost laughably overblown, but it is also turns out to be an incredibly useful mood-setter for events to come.  Read the rest of this entry »