23 January 2013

...Caligula Would Have Blushed

1979, Italy/USA
Tinto Brass, Bob Guccioni, Giancarlo Lui

Though I believe all perceived cinematic disasters should be revisited and reexamined through time, I regret the decision I made yesterday to give Caligula such treatment. Seeing it at an age when I actively sought out all things controversial and decadent, I possessed few feelings, one way or the other about the film, but following a strange impulse to give it another look, I'm surprised by my teenage ambivalence. Caligula is a trash heap of a movie, a singular achievement only in the fact that it managed to sour the combined efforts of so many talented individuals. Were those efforts collectively ruined by Penthouse founder Bob Guccione? Giving him any creative control or license was a mistake of course, but I'm pretty sure Caligula was beyond hope long before Guccione filmed those additional porn scenes.

Reading about the production nightmares of turning the roman emperor's debauched life into a motion picture, it's quite apparent that the various power struggles between screenwriter Gore Vidal, director Tinto Brass, art director Danilo Donati, producer Guccione, and star Malcolm McDowell were the source of the problem. And what's left is an unsurprisingly tasteless but surprisingly tiresome film that looks like a perverted child's version of Satyricon. I found myself cringing at every single aspect of Caligula, least of which its prurient affectations.

With: Malcolm McDowell, Peter O'Toole, Teresa Ann Savoy, Helen Mirren, John Gielgud, Guido Mannari, Bruno Brive, Giancarlo Badessi, John Steiner, Donato Placido, Paolo Bonacelli, Leopoldo Trieste, Mirella D'Angelo, Anneka Di Lorenzo, Lori Wagner, Adriana Asti, Rick Parets

09 January 2013

Best of 2012: Sophie Letourneur's Le marin masqué

Le marin masqué
2011, France
Sophie Letourneur

Similar to António da Silva's Julian, another of my favorite new films of 2012 follows the same set-up: someone returning home for a weekend visit with a friend in tow. In Le marin masqué, two young women, Laetitia and Sophie, take a road trip to Laetitia's home town of Quimper, in the northwest of France. The weekend consists of cute interactions with Laetitia's father, crêpe-hunting, and a night at the local disco where they run into one of Laetitia's girlhood crushes "le marin masqué" (or, the masked sailor, played by Johan Libéreau).

Made for around €150 and shot in black-and-white on HD video, Le marin masqué fills a similar cinematic void that Sofia Coppola did ten or so years ago, that void being films which combined youthful charm with intelligence and, most importantly, a feminine eye. Watching Laetitia and Sophie chat endlessly with one another, I was reminded of how few films exist that could be accurately referred to as "girly" without condescension. Le marin masqué premiered at the 2011 Locarno Film Festival, and Letourneur's festival-going experience became the inspiration for her latest feature Les coquillettes, about three young women cruising a film festival for available men, which subsequently made its world premiere at Locarno 2012.

With: Laetitia Goffi, Sophie Letourneur, Johan Libéreau, Thomas Salaun, Dominique Salaun, Emmanuelle Fitamant, Bertrand Boulogne

07 January 2013

Best of 2012: António da Silva's Julian

2012, Portugal/UK
António da Silva

The best short I saw in 2012 was a ten-minute long, super 8 chronicle of a romantic fling/weekend-getaway to Portugal. The titular figure is a ginger-bearded, Swiss horticulturist/dreamboat who accompanies the filmmaker on a nature-seeking road trip around Portugal and Lisbon. Certainly aided by the super-8 film, the look of Julian conjures a particular nostalgia that's perfectly matched with the film's narration, which sounds like a recollection of an exquisite, faded memory. To me, Julian felt like "Heartbeats" by The Knife by way of Carolee Schneemann's Fuses, though it's much more approachable than either of those two. To see the film, you can make a donation via António da Silva's Tumblr. Short excerpt below.

JULIAN (film excerpt) from Antonio da Silva Films on Vimeo.

06 January 2013

Best of 2012: 12 Singles

Though I like to consider myself an album kinda guy, I'm pretty sure the structure of the music industry as it is right now has seeped into the minds of musicians young and old, subconsciously nudging the faithful album creators into single territory (even if it's ever so slightly). I could be wrong, but I just wanted a valid excuse for why I'm not making a "best albums of 2012" list and why I've decided to dedicate a post to twelve songs from the past calendar year that left a significant mark on my life. I've already written about a song (Bat for Lashes' "Laura") and a music video (Grimes' "Oblivion"), and this will conclude the Best of 2012 music posts. Are these the twelve (er, fourteen) best songs of 2012? Probably not. They are, instead, an excellent sampler for the soundtrack of my past year... at least, in terms of new music. The tracks are not ordered, though if I had to pick the best of the lot (not counting "Laura"), I would probably opt for Light Asylum's "Shallow Tears." Off the Brooklyn-based duo of Shannon Funchess and Bruno Coviello's self-titled debut LP, "Shallow Tears" gives a new reference point to the moderately overused phrase, "hauntingly beautiful," with its hypnotic synth percussion and Funchess' exciting vocals, here sounding like a heavenly cross between Grace Jones, Q Lazzarus, and Alison Moyet of Yaz. On an even more exciting note, Funchess will be featured on my most hotly anticipated album of 2013, Shaking the Habitual from The Knife, due out in April.

Two additional notes about the songs listed below. Firstly, the Animal Collective track "New Town Burnout," off their LP Centipede Hz, perfectly transitions into the next song, "Monkey Riches," on the album, so maybe you could consider listening to it as part of the full album or via this live YouTube video of them performing the two songs in Vancouver. And finally, be sure to check out the unofficial video below for Róisín Murphy's "Simulation," directed by fellow San Franciscan Aron Kantor and featuring one of our fair city's finest drag artists, Ambrosia Salad. The video uses a four-minute edit of the eleven-minute song, which was the best dance track of 2012 that I heard. Enjoy.

Simulation - Roisin Murphy - ft. Ambrosia Salad from Dirtyglitter on Vimeo.

04 January 2013

Acting a Fool

The Fighter
2010, USA
David O. Russell

Biopics of athletes sit about as far down on my list of filmic interests as anything I can think of at the moment, so describing David O. Russell's The Fighter as "watchable" might sound like a recommendation coming from me. The film got quite a bit of attention a year or so ago for its performances, winning Academy Awards for Christian Bale and Melissa Leo in the supporting categories. The performances failed to impress me, however, and I think this is a large scaled reflection of the essential problem I have with the film as a whole. The Fighter is competent on nearly every level one could come up with to judge it. The cinematography is nice to look at. The screenplay is solid and mostly absent of sports-biopic clichés. The sound mix is professional. The direction is engaging. The pace is consistent. The actors all act their hearts out. Competent is great for award hand-outs and ideal for thoughtless viewings on HBO while you're nursing a cold. Unfortunately though, when competent is the only thing going for a film, it almost always cancels out interesting.

By noticing the individual competency levels of those dissected elements of this insipidly-titled film, I've already lost the illusion, which is absolutely essential to a sports biopic. The film crew creates the illusion of reality in order to convey morals, lessons, truths about life and the human existence. And yet the element for which The Fighter has received the most praise and accolades is the one that causes the most harm in abating the illusion. In the four central roles, Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams, and Melissa Leo all do what they're supposed to: inhabit their characters. All four have proven themselves respectable thespians throughout their careers, but the artifice of their performances was on constant display here. There's never a moment when it isn't blindingly clear that you're watching "acting." The gold statues now on Bale and Leo's mantles don't correctly lead to the conclusion that Bale and Leo were better than Wahlberg or Adams; in fact, they seem merely indicative of the "volume" at which these actors did their job, which also seemed to have been determined by the juiciness of their respective characters' sketches.

Wahlberg's acting was easily the quietest of the quartet; I mean, there's not a lot of meat to a character who's a "nice guy" who loves his brother, his mother, and his girlfriend and simply wants to do well in his chosen career. Wahlberg wasn't nominated for an Oscar (as an actor). Adams was, considering the fact that she had a few more bells and whistles at her disposal. She donned an accent, looked "unglamorous," and played a character with a few more than Wahlberg's. Adams' character is kind of a tomboy, dropped out of college in a town where the option of such a thing is close to unheard of, admits to having a slight drinking problem that may have been the reason she stopped her education, and becomes the target of severe verbal and physical animosity from Wahlberg's seven sisters. Effectively, she lost out to Leo, who is on the highest factory setting the entire film. Her character is an overbearing mother of nine, who chain smokes, has a tacky haircut and matching wardrobe, and suffers from a bad case of denial about many things in her life, not least of which being the fact that she may not love her younger son (Wahlberg) as much as she does his older brother (Bale). In a move that's become the actor's unofficial signature, Bale literally embodies his character, dramatically altering his physical appearance in the service of his craft. And he gets the juiciest of all the characters: the golden child of a small town whose glory is in rapid decline thanks to an addiction to crack, something which slides down to negatively affect his other roles as father to a toddler and trainer to his younger brother.

The "volume" of Bale's performance – loudest of the four – unintentionally silences whatever emotional truths the film tries to reveal... what those might have been, I haven't a guess since I was too distracted by craft and didn't especially care much in the first place. The illusion vanishes, and what's left is a person pretending to have a conversation with another person using sentences that were written by yet another person, who was giving words and thoughts to a pretend version of an actual person who lived. If The Fighter had emotional truths or life lessons to be discerned from its narrative, they were spoken to these deaf ears and shown to these eyes that couldn't stop looking at the man behind the curtain... doing his job.

With: Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Melissa Leo, Jack McGee, Frank Renzulli, Mickey O'Keefe, Erica McDermott, Sugar Ray Leonard, Caitlin Dwyer, Alison Folland, José Antonio Rivera, Anthony Molinari

03 January 2013

Best of 2012: Leos Carax's Holy Motors

Holy Motors
2012, France/Germany
Leos Carax

A lot of people have a lot of things to say about Leos Carax's Holy Motors, his first feature film in thirteen years following Pola X. I strangely do not. It was my most anticipated film of 2012, and it probably couldn't have ever lived up to my impossible expectations of it... but it's still quite good and certainly one of the notable films of 2012. It also continues the dynamic partnership between Carax and his cinematic proxy, Denis Lavant, which was rekindled in the short Carax made for the omnibus film Tôkyô! They were also both seen onscreen in Harmony Korine's Mister Lonely.

As always, Lavant is mesmerizing through each episode and character, and he's given fine support by Édith Scob as his chauffeuse (the Eyes Without a Face nod was appreciated), Kylie Minogue as his sullen ex-flame (light years -- pun not intended -- past her ill-fated cinematic endeavors of the 1990s), Eva Mendes as a supermodel held captive by M. Merde, the troll-ish figure from Tôkyô!, Elisa Lhomeau as one of Lavant's scene partners, and Jeanne Disson (from Tomboy) as his angsty teenage daughter.

With: Denis Lavant, Édith Scob, Kylie Minogue, Eva Mendes, Elise Lhomeau, Jeanne Disson, Michel Piccoli, Leos Carax

Best of 2012: Nadav Lapid's Policeman

2011, Israel
Nadav Lapid

In just his second feature, Israeli filmmaker Nadav Lapid displays a bold confidence, narratively and stylistically, that's hard to fully grasp in a single sitting. When you look at the completed careers of some of the cinematic greats, few have found their footing or their voice by their second film, but with the way films are made these days, young filmmakers are expected to have mastered these things by, at least, their third film if they want to stay in the consciousness of both their audience and the film industry. So when a filmmaker shows such an ease with their visions at an early stage, we begin to fear that they've already peaked, or that they're a one- (or two-) trick pony... even though we've already decided that they should have found their cinematic voice by that point. Making a big splash early isn't easy.


In a sense, Policeman is actually Lapid's first feature; his previous film, Emile's Girlfriend (which features the same leading man Yiftach Klein as Policeman), only clocks in at forty-eight minutes, technically three minutes in the green according to the French definition of a "feature film." In Policeman, Klein plays Yaron, the central figure of the first of the film's dueling narratives. Yaron is a young, handsome policeman working with a group of other men as part of an anti-terrorist unit. In his personal life, he and his wife are anxiously awaiting their first child to be born; professionally, he and his fellow officers are coming off  an assignment where it seems things didn't go as they should have. The most fascinating elements of Policeman can be found in its small details and the whispers of strange, complicated side stories that are (purposefully) kept along the peripheral.

The second narrative concerns Shira (Yaara Pelzig), a fair-skinned, blonde, waifish revolutionary who is plotting, along with a handful of other young Jewish leftists, a large-scaled attack around the wedding of the daughter of one of Israel's wealthiest capitalists. Propelled by Pelzig's icy performance, Shira becomes an endlessly transfixing and perplexing figure, a commanding presence who is deeply conflicted with everything except, possibly, her mission. Naturally, the storylines collide in the final third of the film, leaving a rather surprising, or at least unexpected, aftertaste. After taking home a number of prizes at the Jerusalem, Locarno, BAFICI, Philadelphia, and San Francisco Film Festivals, Lapid certainly has a lot of promise to live up to when his next film begins its festival rounds; and hopefully that won't take too long to happen.

With: Yiftach Klein, Yaara Pelzig, Michael Aloni, Menashe Noy, Michael Moshonov, Gal Hoyberger, Meital Barda, Shaul Mizrahi, Rona-Lee Shim'on, Ben Adam

02 January 2013

Best of 2012: Bat for Lashes - Laura

I haven't loved any of Bat for Lashes' three albums from start to finish, but with each of them, I've found myself hopelessly devoted to at least one track, so much so that I've put the rest of the album on hold to give said track the repeated listens it so deserves. On her latest LP The Haunted Man, that song is "Laura." A friend of mine suggested that all of her best songs were named after people; I had to disagree as I'd never heard of a person named "Trophy." "Laura" is fabulously decadent melodrama, a requiem perhaps for the woman who once captivated men by the droves at a cabaret that only existed for her. "You're the train that crashed my heart," Natasha Khan exclaims before reassuring, "Oh, Laura, you're more than a superstar." I think of the song as less of a requiem than a glittery reminder to the Laura of the song of what she possessed and, in present tense, still does -- the razzle-dazzle, je ne sais quoi that eternal stars/performers have within. It's not something that wears off, Kahn reminds her (and us) "when you're smile is so wide and your heels are so high." Video below.

Best of 2012: William Friedkin's Killer Joe

Killer Joe
2011, USA
William Friedkin

Over the next few weeks, I'm going to be writing about a number of my favorite things of 2012, as opposed to doing my usual Top 10 list. This will cover films, albums, songs, music videos, performances, or whatever else that pops into my head

Though we'll always run into annual technicalities of whether a film belongs in X or Y year as a result of final quarter festival screenings, the fact that William Friedkin's adaptation of Tracy Letts' play Killer Joe didn't play anywhere outside of a few festival screenings in the fall of 2011 (Venice in competition and Toronto) makes it acceptable for me to proclaim it the best film of 2012. Killer Joe is feverish and shocking in ways you don't see often in cinema (these days? ever? I'm not sure). Friedkin and Letts had previously collaborated (brilliantly) on Bug in 2006, a film which finds a magnificent Ashley Judd being sucked into a claustrophobic, paranoid world by stranger Michael Shannon. Killer Joe has more room to breathe than Bug had, but it shares Bug's dangerous stroll down the line that separates wild, unsettling frenzy and overcooked rotten "camp." Just as Judd and Shannon nailed their parts in Bug, Matthew McConaughey (who has sculpted his body into a rather frightening, hairless mannequin), Juno Temple, and (especially) Gina Gershon do the same here; and as Harry Connick Jr. hit sour notes in Bug, Emile Hirsch rings a bit false, or perhaps a tad bland, in Killer Joe. With the air Friedkin gives the film to breathe, Killer Joe feels less like a film adaptation of a play than it does a perverse, dark-as-night fable children are told in a nightmarish, Night of the Hunter-esque version of the American south. The film's climax is truly a wonder to behold, and though I'm always a little biased when it comes to the admiration of Gina Gershon, her name should be added to the (long) list of "cryin'-shame" absences if it doesn't come up the morning the Academy Award nominations are revealed.

With: Matthew McConaughey, Emile Hirsch, Juno Temple, Gina Gershon, Thomas Haden Church, Marc Macaulay, Danny Epper