Thursday, April 21, 2011


Happy couple Renai and Josh Lambert (Rose Byrne, Patrick Wilson) have moved into a new house. Their domestic bliss is shattered when, after taking a tumble in the attic, their son Dalton falls into a coma. Josh retreats into his work (ostensibly to pay the debts incurred by Dalton's ongoing treatment). And Renai finds herself increasingly agitated by a number of unsettling disturbances that threaten to shatter the Lambert household for good.

Though I was never quite on board with either Saw or its various sequels, your proprietor has followed the work (and become something of a fan) of filmmaker James Wan. The revenge drama Death Sentence confirmed that Wan's interests extended beyond gore and violence, and though scant few gave Wan credit for it, his grip on the conflicted morality of his protagonist (as well as the ultimately soul-destroying void left in the wake of the film's violence), coupled with some masterfully-executed set pieces, showed that he was a genre filmmaker with increasing sensitivity and broadening focus.

Reuniting with Saw-scribe Leigh Whannell, Wan crafts a haunted house film that is mindful of its traditions (with nods to THE HAUNTING, POLTERGEIST, and the more recent PARANORMAL ACTIVITY) while laden with the patented Stygian imagery that has figured in all of Wan's films. But there's a strong sense of ordinariness to the Lambert's domesticity, which is slowly and knowingly upended as the film unfolds - Wan is just as confident showing the internal sources of conflict between the Lamberts as the malevolent external forces that shadow them. And though some have blanched that the movie shifts its focus from Renai to Jeff in its last half, the shift is more than earned by a lovely scene in which Jeff, confronted by the truth of his son's drawings, finally accepts his responsibility as a parent. It's a great turn by Patrick Wilson, and maybe the finest acting moment in Wan's oeuvre so far.

The main criticism leveled against this film is that its second half over-explains the story and loses steam after the masterfully sustained suspense of the first half. I can only say bullshit: the arrival of a downright goofy pair of ghost hunters followed by their extremely grounded boss (an excellent supporting turn by Lin Shaye) adds some nice variation and raises the stakes considerably, and whatever losses are incurred by fully exposing the previously little-seen spooks are more than balanced by the drama of the Lamberts fighting to save their son. The emotional intensity of the climax, a startling coda, and finally a gorgeously malignant post-credits shot seals the deal, and closes the circuit on the thing.

Wan's next project appears to be FALL NIGHT (or perhaps NIGHTFALL), about a Texas criminal sent to a prison run by vampires. And yet I'd be keen to see the musical that Wan says he's ready to make. And as I said before, I'd love to see him remake Gaslight.

Monday, April 18, 2011


The tale of everyone's favorite manchild and his cross-country search for his beloved bicycle is a perfect film, really, and of a piece with my favorite Tim Burton films. Like those films (Ed Wood and Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber etc.), Burton's sensibility is not the main auteurist spirit. With Pee-Wee Herman's stock riding so high at the time this film was made, there was pretty much no way the film's director was going to commandeer the thing with an over-riding vision. But by all accounts the collaboration was one of equanimity: there're many of what would become Burton's familiar touches throughout the film (the grotesque stop-motion bits would certainly bloom in Beetlejuice, for example), and yet Burton's gift for directing actors lends itself well to the chaos surrounding Pee-Wee.

Mention should be made of the script (co-written by Phil Hartman) and the uniformly splendid cast, from Judd Omen's intense turn as a fugitive from justice to Elizabeth Daily's weirdly smitten bike shop clerk to Alice Nunn's sensational cameo as the mysterious trucker Large Marge. The genius in this road movie is that each of these characters has a completely different relationship with Pee-Wee; some adore him, some hate him, some develop a grudging respect for him, and still others are crazier than he is.

Many of Burton's recurring collaborators began working with him here, including composer Danny Elfman and cast members Paul Reubens, Jan Hooks, and Diane Salinger. (Burton's CalArts classmate, animator Rick Heinrichs, made his feature debut with Burton here as well.) But the conflation of talent around this movie was a once-in-a-lifetime group, every member of which is firing on all cylinders (even James Brolin and Morgan Fairchild lend their celebrity to the film's divine final scene, giving themselves over to the joke completely). Most remarkably, it's all so damn seamless, everyone finding stake in this berzerk and hilarious story of a boy and his bicycle. Rarely do star vehicles feel like such a powerful group effort while offering such a warm and hilarious showcase for the presence at its center.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Missing Persons

This was one of the strangest fucking nights of my life.

This is the kind of story that I think is better heard in person, but I have to write this down, 'cause I'm still not totally sure it happened. I've never seen a band fall apart the way Dale Bozzio and Missing Persons did last month...and I've never seen a night where artists and audience came together so powerfully.

Advance word, from a friend who'd seen the band in San Diego three nights prior, wasn't positive. Apparently Bozzio was still in good voice, but quite intoxicated onstage, and prone to lengthy rants. As keen as I was to see the show, and cautiously optimistic about the night in general, I'd prepared myself for a difficult night. Missing Persons had been one of THE new wave bands of the early 80s, boosting a plastic, high-gloss and high-tech image with real musicianship and a knack for complex rhythm and melody (since all musicians were veterans of Frank Zappa's late-70s ensembles, such skill is hardly surprising).

But even though Dale Bozzio had co-written all of Missing Persons' songs, from a distance a 2011 tour might seem desperate, a clinging of a washed-up musician to past glories (particularly with the other founding members Terry Bozzio, Warren Cuccurullo, and Patrick O'Hearn having moved on, all enjoying more professional clout and respect than Dale Bozzio ever received). That her most recent release had been a collection of remakes of MP tracks, as well as other hits of the 80s, would also lead one to expect the worst.

But we steeled ourselves and soldiered on. Though I showed up at Yoshi's an hour before the gig, scant few people had shown up. We had ordered seats at a table on the first tier behind the dance floor, and were surprised to enter the space to find the floor filled with the usual table setup. Not enough tickets sold. Bad news. A bunch of open tables right in front of the stage. Good news for us.

As usually happens at Yoshi's there wasn't a GRAND ENTRANCE of the band - just a bunch of musicians taking the stage and getting set up. So we got a good look at the people filling the shoes of Missing Persons: Mike (I think), a non-descript guitarist; Doug, an older bass player (his instrument had five strings); a keyboard player who looked more like a roadie, save for his purple scarf and zebra-print platform boots; and Jake, the youngest member of the group, a drummer who, it would turn out, was a fine, fine musician.

As the show started Dale looked a bit disoriented. She reminded us a couple of times that it was her birthday. She kept moving around the stage, and looking at the ceiling like she was trying to remember the words. (D suggested that perhaps she was looking up to not be distracted by the smallish crowd, which may well have been the case.) This said, there was NOTHING wrong with her voice - it still carried the range and the weird mix of innocence and sexuality that it had always had. And though she would continue to down flute after flute of champagne (brought out by a dutiful roadie who seemed to have no other responsibilities), her voice remained strong, and by the fifth song ("Words", the band's earliest hit), everything was falling into place. The show was truly well under way, the band continued, and the audience were into it. But I think everyone was still keeping an eye on Dale, half expecting that she could flame out at any time.

So we were all caught by utter surprise when, about five bars into "Give," the guitar player fell over his amplifier. He got to his feet, played a couple more chords, and then fell against the wall. The band stopped and everything was chaos for the next few minutes.

Perhaps you've seen something like this happen, but when when a live performance goes THIS spectacularly wrong it's quite, quite disorienting to the viewer (to the people onstage, as well, sure). I felt weirdly concussed as the ensuing minutes unfolded, but I do remember these things:

-The band members struggling to get the guitarist offstage and into the hands of suitable attention.

-Jake in particular springing to action to nail everything down. ("You're our EMT, Jake, take care of it," quoth Dale.)

-Some strange things from Dale: "Get him a stool, he'll be fine." And ultimately "It's not like he's a drug addict or anything." These are not words you want to hear anyone say under any circumstances.

-And finally, a couple of fans, undaunted by the carnage unfolding before their very eyes, bringing some Missing Persons records for Dale to sign.

What we pieced together was that the guitarist had been in a fight (!) a couple of days prior, and was taking painkillers, which mixed badly with the beer he'd had earlier. So there was a lot of frantic activity (you could see the zebra boots running back and forth beneath the rear curtain), and there was quite a conflicted vibe coming from the stage - it seemed that Mike was determined to retake his place on stage but that the band wanted to just get him some medical attention. Eventually they said that there'd be a liability if he were to resume, and so finally, it was clear there would be no guitarist for the rest of the performance.

So we reached a point where you get whenever things go wrong onstage (somewhere in there we all sang "Happy Birthday To You" to Dale), and Jake played a 3-minute drum solo to fill the space. This is a sign that the band is desperate, but 'twas good. Jake was, in fact, an exceptional drummer (and certainly capable of filling Terry Bozzio's drum throne).

And then the remaining band launched (tentatively, at first) into the album track "U.S. Drag", more intimate and spare without a guitarist to fill it, and yet...

An acting teacher told me that an audience loves to see an actor recover from a flubbed line or some other disaster. I remember thinking at the time that I'd rather see a smooth performance. But this moment in this show made me rethink this.

Because what I saw in "U.S. Drag" at this moment was simply magical: the four remaining musicians were at a point of no return, no way to undo what had just happened, and so they thrust themselves forward. Something resembling a performance gelled before our very eyes, the music rose up from the ashes and took these four wayward souls (and the unbelieving/faithful/coked-up audience members) into its confidence. At that moment, Dale and band resealed the compact with the audience, and made it work. They'd gone over the cliff but reached out for a post, and the momentum pulled them back up on the road.

And from that point forward the show was just fucking solid. Dale continued her between-songs rants, fueled by champagne, endorphins, fearlessness, and utter carnage, but I don't remember her squinting for the words that point forward. The reduced band played on, motivated by a clear "fuck it, we're gonna do this", and it sounded like nothing was missing. Powering through the set, offering a perfectly appropriate and wonderfully rendered "Destination Unknown," ending with a SOLID "Walking In L.A." then covering a Zappa track as a coda. And thank you, good night.

Crazy applause from all of us, particularly a clearly coked-out contingent in their best neon 80s-wear sitting behind us. At my table we just looked at each other, delighted but still not entirely sure that we'd seen what we'd seen. As we lingered to process it, some roadies and a couple of band members came out to strike the set. Jake made the rounds, and there were a couple of us who wanted to compliment/congratulate him. One of the 80s contingent wanted to give Dale something: "Can you give this to your mom?" "She's not my mom." (Jake probably heard that at every gig.) He came over to us and thanked us for coming, asked us if it came off all right. I told him exactly what I wrote above: that after the chaos, something opened up and took us all in, and that the band had more than made it worked. He was pleased, and thanked us again.

On the way home, D had to pull the car over so that we could process. We laughed. This was not a derisive laugh at the band, but the somewhat hysterical laughter of the shellshocked. To this day we still can't quite believe that we saw what we saw. I've seen a fair amount of on-stage chaos (be it Link Wray falling off the stage at Bimbo's, or a typical Testicular Momentum gig at dc space), and even weathered my own share of backstage chaos during plays (one day I'll spill all about THE NIGHT) but this qualified as the most protractedly weird, gloriously uneven, and full-tilt bizarre performance I'd ever seen.

But we were both happy to have seen it.

Because there's no way in hell Yoshi's will ever have them back.

(And yet return they did, though not to Yoshi's - their next SF gig, at the Red Devil Lounge, with original guitarist Warren Cucurrullo replacing the inebriated Mike, happened just a couple of months later. I wrote about that one, too.)

Saturday, April 9, 2011



Under the watchful eyes of a rag-tag, binocular-equipped audience, an abandoned tire comes to life in the middle of the desert. Wandering aimlessly across the landscape, the tire discovers an ability to inflict harm, which it cheerfully unleashes upon a bewildered set of human targets. The hunt is on for this head-exploding killer, even as the nature of his reality becomes more and more questionable.

Your proprietor was as taken with the weirdness and energy of the trailer for this film as anyone else, but was disappointed to see it reveal itself, very very quickly, to be this year's Dot The I. Though the effects and filmmaking skills are there to fully fulfill its promise, director Quentin Dupieux immediately informs his audience that they're in for navel-gazing, coy gamesmanship, and tedious self-reflexive commentary that promises to undermine any thrills they might experience in the movie's running time. This promise, alas, is the one that Dupieux ultimately keeps, and it's sad to see a film that could easily have supported its outre premise fall into a self-congratulating rut of half-assed philosophizing; worse still the manner in which it talks down to its audience. Too dim to take any of its conceited games anywhere of interest, too arch to be any damn fun, there's no fucking reason for this movie to exist, or for you to see it.

Thursday, April 7, 2011


Argentina is rotting from within, thanks both to a seeming epidemic of car accidents and a shadow industry of insurance fraud. Two desperate souls manage to connect in this sad, sordid world: Sosa, a disgraced lawyer reduced to chasing ambulances on behalf of a greedy company; and Lujan, an ambitious but drug-addicted EMT he meets at the scene of an accident. Though Lujan is initially disgusted by Sosa's profession, the bond between them remains undeniable. And when Sosa launches a scheme to free himself from his shadowy employers, both lovers find themselves on the firing line.

CARANCHO is a beautifully executed Argentinean noir, with director Pablo Trapero finding just the right mix of grit and restraint. Stylistically there's little to root CARANCHO among its noir forbears; as powerful as Trapero's long takes and command of atmosphere are, his style doesn't distract from the immediacy of his story (Alfonso Cuaron could learn much from studying Trapero's economy). Ricardo Darin and Martina Gusman lead a uniformly strong cast, which adds to the film's realism and the impact of its story. CARANCHO is informed by very real despair, and cuts deeper than most other noir.

Friday, April 1, 2011


No, it doesn't look like an April Fools joke - this thing's really coming out today. Heartening to read that the brothers Weinstein appealed the film's original R rating, even though his decision to re-release THE KING'S SPEECH in a PG-13 cut smacks of greed.

Outside the ways that this fundamentally dampens some of the film's most salient themes (as clearly and persuasively outlined by Owen Gleiberman at Inside Movies today) one wonders why the word "fuck" is still so scary to the MPAA. Particularly in the context of this film, in which it's used solely out of any offensive context. Such language gives the film some welcome grit, and isn't anything anyone who's been near a middle school playground in the last 40 years hasn't already heard. One wonders if the MPAA will ever stop treating audiences like children.