October 21, 2014


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 »


August 27, 2014



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 »


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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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 »


November 3, 2011

Azazel Jacobs’ Terri has all of the elements you’d expect from a reasonably low-budget American high school outsider indie.  Many of these films are content to trade out the mainstream tropes for slightly more alternative ones, using non-commercial elements and treating them with an honest sensitivity to give us a slightly more “realistic”, but hopeful, ending.  In fact, recounting the basic elements of Terri, one can have a pretty good sense of where it’s going to go.  The main character is an overweight high school student that lives with his clueless and goofy uncle.  There’s an awkward but well-meaning assistant principal, a strange and annoying skinny friend, and a pretty blonde with problems.  Even incident wise, there’s nothing particularly radical about it.  Difficulties with bullies, an unexpected connection with a crush, and a night of alcohol and drug induced self-discovery are all present.  As ever, it’s in the execution that this type of film will succeed or fail, and Terri succeeds to such a surprising degree that it might just be one of the best films of the year.  Read the rest of this entry »

Perhaps the most significant and heated discussion in the film blogosphere this year was spawned by Dan Kois’ article in the New York Times Magazine about ‘cultural vegetables’ – i.e. the deliberately paced (read: slow) art films so venerated by critical culture that one who runs in that circle might feel nervous about expressing dissent toward the prevailing consensus.  Inspired by Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff, Kois saw fit to take swings at the narrative-forgoing Treme, Derek Jarman’s deathbed work Blue, and the contemplative (or dull, depending on your viewpoint) films of Tarkovsky and Antonioni.  Blogs and selected twitter feeds lit up in anger from both sides, and several months later, the dust still hasn’t entirely settled.  Even I contemplated entering the fray, though with the certain knowledge that nobody of influence would actually read it, but I abandoned it to the recesses of my hard drive for no particular reason.  I didn’t like Kois’ article – his broadsides against film critic snobbery were just another form of snobbery after all – but it does bring up an interesting quandary in a roundabout way: how do you judge a film that isn’t meant to be straightforwardly entertaining?  Meek’s Cutoff is, no matter if you liked it or not, intended to be slow and even boring and repetitive at times.  One of the features of the trek across the Oregon Trail it wants to highlight is the mind numbing tediousness of it all.  It isn’t fun, but it isn’t supposed to be.  There are lot more facets to that film, and I’m not here to talk about it at length, but if you’ve seen it, you hopefully understand my point.  It took less than ten minutes of Ronald Bronstein’s 2007 debut Frownland for me to start reaching for the remote, anxious to turn it off.  It wasn’t just that it was remarkably unpleasant, though it certainly was, but also I could tell it was never going to get any better.  This was the film Bronstein wanted to make, and I’m reasonably sure it was never intended to be enjoyable in the slightest for the viewer. Read the rest of this entry »

Margin Call

November 2, 2011

The recession is becoming the new Iraq for Hollywood.  It hasn’t taken as long for people to get in gear to deal with it (everyone agrees that Wall Street acted irresponsibly) but the results have so far followed a similar route.  Overdone dramas with Tommy Lee Jones (In the Valley of Elahi, The Company Men), the reduction of complex issues to fall into standard Hollywood fare (Green Zone, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps), HBO films based on non-fiction books (Generation Kill, Too Big to Fail), and Charles Ferguson documentaries that put everything else to shame (No End in Sight, Inside Job).  J.C. Chandor’s indie Margin Call isn’t the probing character study that The Hurt Locker was, but neither is it a tedious autodidactic lecture a la Lions for Lambs.  To labour the analogy beyond its limits, it’s closest to a Stop-Loss, only significantly more entertaining.   Read the rest of this entry »