Thursday, July 17, 2014

Harry Potter 1

My girlfriend has been waiting (usually patiently) for me to catch up on the Harry Potter movie series. I'm only now starting the series from the beginning, and can't account for why I waited - I'd never had anything against the series, and actually liked the idea of a youth-oriented fantasy series that acknowledged the aging of its characters and darkened along the way. Hearing the San Francisco Symphony play an extended piece of John Williams' score a summer or two ago stoked some curiosity, but only now, after some gentle (mostly) nudging from milady, am I watching the series. I'll be sketching thoughts on each movie as I see it here.


Harry Potter & the Philosopher's Stone

--Had known that the first story was more youth-friendly before the series veered into darker realms but we start off with a protagonist orphaned as a baby, then living life pretty much abused by his aunt, uncle, and cousin. Even without the magical trappings HP is pretty hardcore. D tells me that a number of religious parents groups have objected to the series and I'm not surprised.

--Potter hasn't even arrived at Hogwarts and I'm wishing I'd seen these movies theatrically, in 35mm. For whatever reason I wasn't ready to commit.

--Williams' score and themes are absolutely gorgeous. His knack for instrumentation and picking just the right tone for each of his motifs is undiminished. (I'd love to see him direct a movie, just to see what would happen.)

--The visual design is just as strong as the music - together they're more than enough to carry the thing. D is a total fan of the extended editions of the Lord of the Rings movies, and was delighted that The Hobbit was extended into three movies. Her basic argument is that it means spending more time in Middle Earth, which I totally get. The world of Harry Potter is a fun one to inhabit, and the prospect of doing so over the course of eight two-hours-plus features is a pleasing one.

--I'm watching Harry's relationships with Ron & Hermione gel, watching the supporting cast come into play, sensing that there's more than enough character drama here to fuel the series. Something about the specific dark pitch of the fantasy here in HP1 is making me anticipate nothing less than SCORCHED FUCKING EARTH in Deathly Hallows. Alan Rickman's Snape and Tom Felton's Draco Malfoy are particularly intriguing.

--I muse more than once that this is awfully metal for an ostensibly youth-focused story. It pleases me.

--Daniel Radcliffe hadn't, by the time of The Woman In Black, escaped his reliance on facial expressions to register emotions. I didn't feel much from him in that Hammer movie, and so the performance of the young Radcliffe here isn't quite grabbing me either. I don't have the same problem with either Emma Watson or Rupert Grint as Hermione and Ron.

--For my problems with the lead, and director Chris Columbus' sometimes clunky storytelling, the world of the story and characters within it have more than secured my interest. I'm fully engaged with this thing and genuinely excited to see where it goes.

To the Chamber of Secrets!

Monday, June 9, 2014

Rik

As a media-loving teen in the 80s it was full-time work following up on my various media obsessions. I was huge into Monty Python, and had a jones for all related British humor, staying up late to catch Fawlty Towers reruns on PBS, for example. So when MTV, in a then-novel foray into non-music programming, announced the airing of their first episode of The Young Ones, I eagerly tuned in.

There had been a timelessness to Python, but The Young Ones was more recognizably NOW, injecting elements of punk and other contemporary music that was beginning to fascinate me. The Young Ones seemed to jump out of the set; Python seemed to fester sillily, but The Young Ones was a moshpit. But its celebration of rule-breaking anarchy was tempered with self-reflection. Rik, the in-house anarchist, was often revealed to have crippling self-doubt, often stopping short when considering the reality of the party line he spewed so explosively. I wasn't surprised that Rik Mayall, the actor who played Rik, was one of the lead writers of the show, since Rik seemed to have more shade and substance than his three fellow students. He was a nice warning to a budding malcontent, and, in retrospect, looms large in my personal lexicon.

I'd kept only sporadically in touch with Mayall's oeuvre over the last few years - some swear that Drop Dead Fred is a classic, but it seemed much less than what it could have been. But I was pleased that he kept working, and was sorry to hear of his injuries later in his career. I was sad, though perhaps not surprised, to hear of his untimely death.

There's much to enjoy and appreciate in looking back on his work - memories of Rik's more insane moments, of Mayall's more bittersweet and shaded television experiments. And indeed of his role in a strong, countercultural movement in British comedy that has made as indelible a stamp on comedy as we know it as the surreal antic of Python before it.

I raise one to him, smiling even as I mourn.

Thanks, Rik. G'night.


Friday, May 23, 2014

GODZILLA (2014)

The giant creature (Muto, it's called) wreaks havoc and devastation. A massive foot lands in the foreground. The camera pans up, up, still farther up the length of this creature. Eventually we’re face to face with it, and as if finally introducing itself, the title creature roars, a sonic blast recognizable from decades of giant monster cinema, but given a new, 21st century feel. And at this point in Godzilla, I start crying.


It was always going to be a difficult assignment. Director Gareth Andrews had drawn, for his second feature directing gig, the 60th anniversary iteration of a beloved fantasy series with a gigantic, iconic monster at its center. He was doing this in Hollywood, whose previous attempt in this franchise was a resounding failure. Even Toho Studios, Godzilla’s home studio, had retired the character indefinitely.

Happily, Edwards was scrappy enough to address the Godzilla mythos much in the way that Orson Welles took on the Shakespeare canon: an avowed fan of the series who wanted to do right by it and by its fans, Edwards nevertheless brings his own eye and ideas to the table. There are aspects of its story familiar from the genre: a wild-eyed scientist (Bryan Cranston, here) whose findings point to something nasty on the horizon; the title monster heading, with ambiguous intentions, to the point of conflict; the ascent of an unambiguously destructive other monster; the failure of the military to repel/contain either creature; the dire prognostications of a Human Who’s Seen Too Much (here scientist Serizawa, a minimal but earthy turn from Ken Watanabe); and the final showdown amid a major metropolis-turned-war-zone.

If these beats are overly familiar, they’re given new life by the energy Edwards brings to them. Edwards (and scenarists Max Borenstein and David Callaham) further embellish the scenario with a number of flourishes and details that make this Godzilla their Godzilla. Not all of these ideas land (at least one fight scene is cut away from cruelly early), and yet some of them, in this context, are downright daring (we’re suddenly seeing this fight on cable news, through the eyes of a young child whose mind is freakin’ blown)(and we’re kicked back to our own first childhood experience of kaiju action). The rogues gallery cast at the very least execute their functions dutifully; Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s munitions expert Ford Brody emerges as the movie’s hero in a somewhat meandering process, but he wins us over. Even Sally Hawkins, who subdues her usual exuberance in an ongoing presence as Serizawa’s aide, gets a sublime quiet moment in her final reaction shot, a graceful, moving coda that the movie earns. I wanna see her go hand-to-hand with the Controller of Planet X. Maybe next time.

Edwards executes this without indulging in overt fanservice. Edwards only really gets meta in a dialectic going on between American general Stantz (David Strathairn), who prefers to simply destroy all (of the) monsters, and Serizawa, who believes that Godzilla is an agent of nature working in the Earth’s defense. It’s as if the militarized action of filmmakers like Michael Bay and the mythic fantasy of Japanese cinema are quietly arguing their virtues and differences right up on screen. (Serizawa’s admonition to “Let them fight” effectively ends the dialogue, as effective a statement of purpose as you could ask from a summer movie.)

Yet even here, there’s more going on: Stantz isn’t simply a power-mad military man. Though all smooth efficiency and military might, his thoughts are never far from the civilians whose lives are at stake. When a plan is launched to defeat the creatures with a bomb, Stantz immediately plots to withdraw civilians from the blast radius, rather than write them off as a regrettable but necessary loss. This morality extends across the movie, with Edwards accounting at some length for the lives at stake; even Godzilla seems to tiptoe carefully around high population areas, and doesn’t even tear through the Golden Gate Bridge until those trigger-happy soldiers leave him no other options (yet even there do Edwards and co. account for the safety of a school bus crossing in his path). Compare this to Zach Snyder’s tone-deaf Man of Steel, in which Superman pummels Zod through buildings across Metropolis, collapsing buildings in his wake without a thought for those inside. (And a friend reminds me that Benedict Cumberbatch’s Khan killed more San Franciscans than Godzilla does here.) It’s yet another balancing act in a movie full of them, and Edwards manages to create blockbuster-level destruction without callousness or cynicism, thrilling us while keeping us mindful of the human costs of the unfolding story.

I’m not sure if Godzilla will turn out to be a favorite for the year. And yet it pleased both the eternally-young kaiju-fan and the older, more discerning moviegoer in me. It is a rare movie, to be acknowledged, that fully engages one’s adult sensibilities while satisfying something so primal, deep-rooted, and cherished as the love of gigantic monsters beating the tar out of each other.

(Gratitude to Aaron Luk and Chris Sellers for clarifications & discussion.)

Monday, March 31, 2014

STRANGER BY THE LAKE

So easy to describe this movie: Hitchcock's Fire Island adventure. A film blanc with cumshots. Surface analysis of a movie that, in many ways, is all about surfaces. But this story of a young gay man drawn into murder and obsession during a jaunt to a lakeside cruising spot is all about the depths beneath those surfaces. Dive in.


The whole thing takes place by the titular lake; we infer from conversations that there are restaurants, bedrooms, and a police station nearby, but we only ever see our characters in various states of undress frolicking, chatting, and hooking up in and around the lake, swimming naked, fucking in the forest. The idyllic, dreamy atmosphere is only enhanced by early chat of a silurus, maybe as long as fifteen feet, that lurks beneath the lake's surface.

We follow young Franck as he sunbathes, swims, hangs out, and hooks up, and follow his growing relationships with two men. Henri is a shlubby logger, shy but good-natured, who only ever sits by the lake and chats with anyone who engages him, without any serious interest in sex. And Michel is a gorgeous, experienced swimmer whose clingy boyfriend one night disappears.

Stranger by the Lake moves at a languorous but steady pace, rendering its landscapes and characters beautifully. Writer-director Alain Guiraudie is remarkably direct in depicting the sex lives of his characters. But the sex that many filmmakers build to is where Guiraduie begins. His characters' hidden depths and personalities, their darknesses, courage, obsessions are ultimately what truly fascinate Guiraudie; I don't remember being so artfully absorbed into characters in quite the way Guiraudie pulls off. Such depths does it plumb in its characters that we wind up looking into ourselves.

It is very much a film blanc, its menace lurking not in the shadows but naked in front of our very eyes, illuminated and obscured in the bare sunlight. But when the night finally falls, it falls hard.

Monday, March 24, 2014

KRAFTWERK

Though I'd long had an aversion to concerts that were simply a guy or two on machines, with light show/video accompaniment, I saw Kraftwerk's concert tonight without any real trepidation. My girlfriend summed it up beautifully afterward, saying that yes, it was four guys standing behind keyboards with video playing behind them, but it was likely one of the greatest concerts you would ever have the good fortune to see. Indeed, I'm pretty sure it was the greatest thing I'd seen since Einstein on the Beach.


Performing a set composed mainly of The Mix and (perhaps perversely) two-thirds of Electric Cafe, the quartet powered through an entirely electronic set synced to an impressive 3-D video playing behind them. The shadows of the band members became an integral part of the visuals behind them, and loaned a surprising warmth to the entire concert, with the members seemingly dwarfed by the world created on stage, their work rendered oddly, beautifully tangible.

My familiarity with Kraftwerk's music isn't encyclopedic; indeed, quite a few tracks I knew by name I encountered for the first time. Well-known staples like The Robots and Computer World benefited from a 21st century digital sheen, while other new-to-me tracks became new friends (Neon Lights sounds like Gary Numan's entire career contained in a single, achingly beautiful song; similarly, the update of "Radioactivity" to include references to Fukushima gave it immediate poignancy, a sad portrait of how somethings never change).

There's a feeling that accompanies the technopop of yesterday, a strange nostalgia for a future predicted in its metallic rhythms and analog soundscapes, a future that never happened. Watching Kraftwerk now is to step backwards and forwards; though these are all 20th century songs remade with 21st century digital tech (a neat tension paralleled in the projected video, using state of the art technology to meticulously capture the feel of analog imagery), there's nothing retro about a Kraftwerk show. High-tech spectacle was never less static. And for all of the technology on display, the overall impression--from hearing these simple, gorgeous melodies played huge to the graceful solos executed as the band left one by one during the climactic "Music Non-Stop"--is a palpable, unifying, glorious humanity.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

BYZANTIUM

On the basis of the evidence here, Moira Buffini is my kind of playwright. Like many of my favorite British artists, she rejects the kitchen sink realism so prevalent in that country's cinema and theatre in favor of a more fanciful maximalism. At the same time, she uses genre and fantasist tropes to address and explore contemporary social concerns as diligently as any naturalist. It is no surprise then that Byzantium (adapted by Buffini from her play A Vampire Story) should address gender politics, family relations, the frailty of the body, and our relationship to our history within its story of a mother-daughter pair of vampires on the run from undead elders. What is pleasantly surprising is how entertaining and moving Byzantium turns out to be.


Buffini's script is gorgeously realized by director Neil Jordan, an old hand at adapting vampire literature by female authors. In the opening moments of the movie Jordan effortlessly balances two plotlines, as daughter Eleanor Webb (Saoirse Ronan) gently comforts an old age pensioner she's about to kill, while across town mother Clara (Gemma Arterton) is chased on foot from a neon-lit strip club through a shopping mall skylight to a dingy apartment by a mysterious but dogged pursuer. This kind of parallelism seems to run through the entire movie, and Jordan proves incredibly perceptive of many dualities running through Buffini's story: mother/daughter, past/present, living/undead, female/male, sex/violence. (Many of these seem to land during a stunning early moment in which Eleanor finds herself on a beach, face-to-face with her 19th-century self). The thing flows gorgeously, and the tale of the Webbs' vampiric origins unfolds deftly as their present-day difficulties escalate.

As commonplace as vampires seem to have become, it's no mean feat playing one well. Arterton, perhaps unsurprisingly, plays the now familiar blood-letting, leather-clad, ass-kicking female vampire with sleazy grace, but she's just as strong conveying the weariness of centuries in hiding, and the endless reservoir of love of an undead parent for her child. Ronan is just as strong in a quieter but equally deep role of an undead but ethical blood drinker, her pangs of conscience as strong as her thirst for blood, her need to tell her story sitting hand-in-hand with a longing to simply, finally connect. Buffini's depth & generosity extend to her male characters as well - Sam Riley and Jonny Lee Miller are strong as men who figure prominently in the Webbs' long lives; Daniel Mays and Caleb Henry Jones bring keenly felt (and very different) vulnerabilities to their roles as mortal men in the women's orbit.

Sean Bobbitt (cinematographer for some of last year's finest movies, including The Place Beyond The Pines and 12 Years A Slave) seems to capture an otherworldly luminosity unleashed by the Webbs in the dreary, everyday world they inhabit. I complained a while back that digital photography and presentation undermined the gothic atmosphere so desperately sought by the makers of The Woman in Black; perhaps I'm finally getting used to seeing such tales being told in this medium. Perhaps Bobbitt is simply a great cinematographer. The visual strengths of the movie are matched by its music, as Javier Navarette's score boosts the story with knowing, gentle intensity.

The whole thing feels like one of the best movies I've seen in recent memory. Byzantium finds new life and energy in the vampire story, and, finally, makes a compelling and persuasive case for the vitality of the 21st century horror movie. Long live the Webbs.

Friday, January 31, 2014

THE LORDS OF SALEM

Oh, how I wish I'd seen this thing theatrically. I've long been, not a fan, but certainly an interested observer of Rob Zombie's movie work. I was quite pleased by House of 1000 Corpses, which felt like the id of the grindhouse era unleashed on unsuspecting screens. The follow-up, The Devil's Rejects, left me rather cold, feeling that its relentless sadism was largely unleavened by wit (I said then that I found much to admire in the movie, and nothing to like). His Halloween remake and its sequel were rife with good ideas, strong moods, and more than a few truly harrowing shots, and yet they didn't really cohere.


But what the hell do I know? Zombie has his devotees, some of them close friends whose opinions I respect. And Zombie's movies grew steadily more ambitious, and between that and his clear devotion to genre films, I figured it would be only a matter of time before he made a movie I connected with. After finally seeing The Lords of Salem I felt like he was a lot closer to delivering that film.


And yet the movie's stuck with me since last night (among other things, it seems to have parked the Velvet Underground's "All Tomorrow's Parties" in my head for the foreseeable future). Zombie's tale of Heidi (Sheri Moon Zombie, of course), a nighttime DJ plunged into a nightmare by a mysterious recording, is rife with atmosphere and slow-burn horror. It feels like the most patient movie Zombie has made, though in retrospect there are plenty of visceral jolts throughout the piece And even though it feels like a more polished and refined Rob Zombie movie, there's still a superabundance of weirdness in pretty much every scene, delivered so gently and directly that at times one struggles to process what one is seeing.


Zombie is as much a child of genre movies and media as Tarantino, but Zombie's figured out how to use those inspirations beyond just slavishly quoting them. The Lords of Salem is a cocktail of influences from 70s Hammer horror (the witchcraft movies especially), Stanley Kubrick (from whom Zombie's assimilated much about manipulating cinematic space - check out the hallways of Heidi's apartment building and how Zombie maps her psyche with it), and Ken Russell (a clear and direct influence on the often mannered grotesquerie throughout, and especially the explosive and downright festive parade of blasphemy that climaxes the thing). And yet in addition to the visual quotes of those who came before (and his generous casting of those actors they worked with), Zombie's assimilated some of their boldness. Zombie's figured out that there's more to pushing the envelope than more tits, more blood, louder music, more violence; he's also figured out that there's more to Kubrick than just creepy atmosphere and one-point perspective. As the malevolence around and within Heidi grows in power it seems to take over the movie, which abandons narrative and, indeed, reality. Suddenly we're not watching a horror movie. Just as Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey became an otherworldly object not unlike the monoliths that drive its story, so does The Lords of Salem become something dark, mysterious, and finally magical.


The movie is by no means perfect; I can think of a half dozen actors I would rather have played Heidi (Zombie's ready to collaborate with a lead actor who'll challenge him). But it's a huge step forward. You could call it a more mature film than he's made, and not just because the soundtrack includes Mozart's Requiem alongside the Velvet Underground. I'm sad that some of his fans have rejected it (perhaps they feel it would have been more radical to simply resurrect the Firefly clan for yet another bout of psychobilly mayhem), but others more invested in his work than I are also calling The Lords of Salem their favorite Rob Zombie movie. I said earlier that it was a step closer to a Rob Zombie movie that I could connect with, but obviously that I even wrote this makes it clear that this is, in fact, that movie. I'd always been curious to see the next Rob Zombie movie; now I can't wait for it.