Friday, January 7, 2022

THE SCHOOL OF MAYA DEREN: JULIE DASH

A Study In Choreography For Camera / Realatives


Julie Dash’s pre & post Daughters Of The Dust work is/was highly experimental in that the narrative was often abstract and there wasn’t much dialogue. There seemed to be more of an emphasis on dance & movement reminiscent of Maya Deren.
Julie Dash is very much her own filmmaker and Maya Deren is hardly the first filmmaker to document experimental dance. However Deren is a staple within film studies & film academia so it wouldn’t surprise me if Dash was influenced by Deren in an indirect or abstract kind of way.


At Land / Realatives


To be clear - imagery of waves and people walking on the beach is a common arthouse staple, but Deren did popularize and heighten that imagery early on (she didn’t invent or do it first, but she did make it popular with films like At Land and finale of Meshes Of The Afternoon).

Even some of the imagery in Daughters Of The Dust can be traced to the same history in Deren’s films like Divine Horseman: The Living Gods Of Haiti.

Divine Horsemen /
Daughters Of The Dust

Divine Horsemen /
Daughters Of The Dust


The voodoo documented in Divine Horseman and the Gullah culture seen in Daughters Of The Dust both have a connection to slavery. That connection is what sparked this specific blog entry…

Outside of Daughters Of The Dust, the dance & movement explored in Dash’s seldom mentioned short film work is rooted in African dance. I don’t want to credit someone like Maya Deren with popularizing something like African dance, but, to me, at the end of the day there is a visual similarity between the work of Deren & Dash (I’m also aware that experimental & interpretive dance is very vast & vague and I could be reaching).


Meshes Of Thefternoon /
Four Women

Divine Horsemen /
Praise House

Meditation On Violence /
Praise House

Ritual In Transfigured Time / Four Women

A Study In Choreography For Camera / Realatives

A Study In Choreography For Camera / Realatives

Ritual In Transfigured Time/
Praise House




Saturday, January 1, 2022

TOP OF THE FOOD CHAIN

 


My never-ending fascination with John Paizs’ Crime Wave led me to his follow-up feature; Top Of The Food Chain - a sci-fi/horror-comedy about aliens disguised as hyper-sexual human beings who try to take over the small Canadian town of “Exceptional Vista”.
Paizs explores everything from the negative stereotypes sometimes associated with small town North America, to the sometimes creepy & kinky things that lie just beneath the surface of seemingly conservative communities modeled after Norman Rockwell paintings. I know it’s lazy to call things like this “Lynchian”, but given Paizs’ coincidental connection to David Lynch - I’d say Top Of The Food Chain deserves the “Lynchian” stamp. 

Not only does the basic description of Top Of The Food Chain sound like a late-night movie of the week (or even a twilight zone episode), but Paizs keeps the same spirit & ambiance as the many genre films that came before it.
Between folks like Quentin Tarantino & James Gunn, there’s been a more mainstream resurgence of interest in “grindhouse cinema” (Grindhouse, Inglorious Basterds, etc) and old school Troma films (James Gunn’s background is rooted in Troma). My issue with all of this is that their films have multi-million dollar budgets which, in my opinion, is almost anti-Troma or anti-grindhouse. That doesn’t mean a movie with a nice budget can’t reference smaller/lower budget films, but when you’re Quentin Tarantino saying you’re just making a grindhouse movie with smooth/sleek computer-generated graphics and clear big budget resources - I don’t fully buy it. But that’s just me.

Top Of The Chain is in no way “low budget” but you can tell where John Paizs relied on practical visual effects & old school camera tricks that you would literally find in actual old-school science fiction films of the past.

There are tons of references here. Intentional & Coincidental…

Scenes like these from Lifeforce (above) & Top Of The Food Chain (below) are hardly the first to pull of moments like these but they’re both from a long line of classic science fiction tropes.
For unexplained reasons, the residents of Exceptional Vista always seem to be horny. The aliens use this to their advantage when luring their victims…

Lifeforce /
Top Of The Food Chain


And while John Paizs is his own filmmaker with his own unique style, I’d be remiss to not make some type of surface correlation between two exploding head scenes from fellow Canadian filmmakers…

Scanners /
Top Of The Food Chain


Another example of more recent practical effects used by modern filmmakers with the magic of make-up/prosthetics & editing…

Lost Highway /
Top Of The Food Chain


And while the connection between Paizs & Lynch is coincidental (in the words of Paizs himself), there is an awkward dinner scene early on in Top Of The Food Chain that reminds me of the dinner scene in Eraserhead

Eraserhead/
Top Of The Food Chain


Top Of The Food Chain co-star Tom Evert Scott pretty much confirmed that this moment (between two movies about aliens) was 100% intentional…

Close Encounters Of The Third Kind/ Top Of The Food Chain






Paizs also incorporates his unique modern satirical style. Like Crime Wave, elements of Top Of The Food Chain are presented through the eyes of generation-x looking back on the 1940’s (they weren’t alive then but their parents were). The only thing is the gen-x lens behind this movie has a huge smirk on the whole time. It’s respectful but still smirky. There’s lots of overly cheesy tongue-in-cheek dialogue mixed with the ambiance of Leave It To Beaver on edibles.
The entire cast, from stars Campbell Scott & Tom Evert Scott, right down to the smaller supporting actors do a great job of imitating the old-school b-movie style of acting all while showing those films respect. That’s another slight issue I have with modern directors paying homage to “b-movies” and grindhouse movies. 8 times out of 10 it’s like they’re poking fun more than making a genuine statement or paying a respectful homage to smaller/low budget films.


The finale is like an homage to The Night Of The Living Dead

The Night Of The Living Dead / Top Of The Food Chain


Or the very loose adaptation of Dr. Caligari from 1989…

Dr. Caligari / Top Of The Food Chain


and I would love to see these two films screened as a double feature...

Meet The Applegates / 
Top Of The Food Chain



It should also be noted that a lot of the skeletal elements of Top Of The Food Chain are a callback to Crime Wave (Sandy’s fascination with/crush on Dr. Karel is reminiscent of Kim’s childlike crush on Steven in Crime Wave).

I also hate to be that guy but there’s even dialogue in this film about a potential vaccine that can control the population. Given today’s climate - some might call that topical or even prophetic. Now…I’m pro-vaccine (I’ve had both shots and even had the Covid anti-body procedure for other various health reasons). I’m not saying the vaccine is bad. But the dialogue around it is very prescient and sometimes divisive at the same time. The scientist Dr Karel represents the pro-vaccine crowd while the small town locals represent the anti-vax side. Clearly this wasn’t what Paizs was trying to say intentionally as Top Of The Food Chain predates Covid by 20+ years, but it does play in to the simple-minded social media talking points where small town automatically equates misinformed or downright dumb (which obviously isn’t always the case).


If you’re a fan of Crime Wave, Kids In The Hall (another thing Paizs worked on in the past) or select Guy Maddin films, Top Of The Food Chain is a great continuation. The energy, which is more subdued this time around, is still a first cousin to the modern Canadian art films that came before it.
There’s a very strong continuous thread that starts with Paizs’ short films which went in to Crime Wave. the DNA from Crime Wave (which was birthed from the ideas in his earlier shorts) are all over Top Of The Food Chain. If you’re a fan of standalone films that also come together to form a bigger cinematic collage - I highly recommend Paizs’s work.

Monday, December 13, 2021

FRANCE



What sets France apart from the rest of Bruno Dumont’s work is that it’s his most traditionally “French-looking” film. What I mean by that is instead of his typical countryside/borderline backwood setting with intentionally odd-looking non-professional locals, the story of France is based out of Paris with mostly professional actors. There’s more of a polished feel to France and the actors when compared to stuff like The Life Of Jesus or Flanders. Dumont does sprinkle elements of his unique style throughout the film (some of the story does take us to small European countrysides inhabited by intentionally “weird-looking” people), but instead of nonstop close-ups of “actors” with scars and uncontrollable physical ticks, Dumont gives us endless close-ups and long takes of French darling Lea Seydoux.

In the film Seydoux plays famous television news host; “France De Meurs” who, after an auto accident with a delivery driver, starts to spiral downward both personally & professionally. 
The character of France is both a famous journalist and a celebrity in the vein of folks like Katie Couric, Rachel Maddow, Laura Ingram, etc. They report the news but can also be found in the tabloids themselves (one subplot of this movie deals with our journalist protagonist having to deal with being on the other side of the tabloids). Seydoux isn’t a journalist but she is very famous. Especially in Europe. In an interview with Screen Slate, Dumont admitted that part of the reason he cast Lea Seydoux in the lead role is because she’s such a major international star. Seydoux is a Bond girl, a former Mission: Impossible villain, a Wes Anderson regular and one of the current faces of Louis Vuitton. Who better to play a fictitious French star than a real French star?
Dumont occasionally works with professional actors but the majority of his movies are led by awkward non-professionals. The role of France had to be played someone with real acting chops and Seydoux does an excellent job.


France is a great companion/unofficial sequel to Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler. Seydoux's France is essentially a combination of both Jake Gyllenhaal’s “Lou” and Renee Russo’s “Nina” rolled  up in to one person. Its as if the story of France picks up years after Nightcrawler where the driven sociopathic journalist suddenly has an unexpected change of heart and feels a sudden wave of emptiness about life (in reality, Gyllenhaal''s “Lou” from Nigthcrawler would never feel this way but just go with my comparison here).

Nightcrawler / France

Nightcrawler / France

Even though this movie starts to drag towards the final act (it could’ve ended three different time within the last 30 minutes), I did enjoy it. The problem is that unless you're familiar with Bruno Dumont’s odd sense of humor that he often mixes with elements of drama - there’s a good chance you’re going to be a bit lost.
I’m not exactly sure what audience this was made for outside of people like myself (the very small cult of diehard Bruno Dumont fans left out there in the world). There doesn’t seem to be many hardcore Bruno Dumont fans left these days, and the critics that once loved him in the 90s seem to have had enough of his work these last 15 years or so (films like Flanders, Hadewijch & Outside Satan have pushed viewers and critics away).

I guess France is a bit different. It did well at Cannes and is getting a pretty decent international release unlike Dumont’s last handful of films (I'm sure Lea Seydoux's presence had something to do with that). My worry is that this might be an introduction to the world of Bruno Dumont and his incredibly unique style for many people. When I saw France on the big screen I found myself cracking up alone at times in a mostly packed theater full of confused people who didn’t know if they should be laughing or not. France is very much a socio-political satire/commentary on current world events but not in that easy to digest Adam McKay approach that a lot of people are used to. Especially in America.

Blance Gardin as "Lou" in France

Dumont also tries something new this time around by casting an actual experienced comedian (Blanche Gardin) in the role of the comic relief (she plays France’s personal assistant “Lou”). Much like Richard Ayoade in The Souvenir 2, Gardin’s performance as Lou will probably go unnoticed by most but it’s still one of best supporting roles I’ve seen in years.


No matter how much of polished appearance France has, it’s still a pretty odd movie that you don’t just dive in to head first.
Now that we have outlets like the criterion channel I urge folks to seek out Dumont’s earlier work if you haven’t already to get a little familiar with his style.

Friday, November 26, 2021

SCORSESE MADE ME DO IT

 

The regulars over at The Pink Smoke got together to share some of their favorite Scorsese-recommended films. 

Click here or the image above to go to the article.

Enjoy.

Friday, November 19, 2021

THE SOUVENIR PART II



The absolute best thing about The Souvenir II is how Joanna Hogg managed to do the multi-layered meta storytelling thing without falling in to the trap of being overly “quirky”. This isn’t a 2-hour long music video with inside references. I don’t mean to take down other filmmakers in order to prop up stuff that I like but so often there’s this urge to add a heavy layer of fantastical dreamy quirkiness to deeply personal semi-autobiographical stories. This is just a personal thing. Some people like it. I don’t. A recent example of this would be Charles Kaufman’s I’m Thinking Of Ending Things. Actually, a lot of stuff related to Charles Kaufman fits in to what I’m talking about. From Adaptation to Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind (I enjoyed these Kaufman-scripted movies when I was in my early 20’s but now that I’ve reached my 40’s, I’ve sort’ve grown out of them).
Without being too pretentious or eye rollingly personal, Hogg pulls off the task of making a film about a younger version of herself in a mostly realistic way. There are some isolated abstract moments, but at the end of the day this movie is grounded in reality.

The Souvenir II’s entire existence almost goes against a very poignant exchange that takes place towards the end of the film:


Patrick: Did you avoid the temptation to be obvious?

Julie: I think so.

Patrick: That’s all you can hope for, isn’t it?


I bring this exchange up because the movie is so obviously about Joanna Hogg (right down the protagonist having a similar name and the exact same initials as Joanna Hogg) yet there is this theme of not being too obvious as a filmmaker which makes for an interesting contrast. But perhaps that’s part of it all. Another layer of personal contradictory inside references stuffed in to the “cinematic universe” of the Souvenir (by the way - I’ve been using the term “cinematic universe” long before the marvel stuff took off). 
I actually wouldn’t mind seeing a third Souvenir story. These movies are so incredibly niche but they absolutely deliver for their niche audience…

While you should see the first entry in order to get the backstory of the latest, you could blindly watch the sequel and it still stands on it’s own. We pick up right where the first part left off and we follow Honor Swinton’s “Julie Hart” as she combines her grief from the events in the film first with her final student film.
A lot of the shots in The Souvenir II take place on a movie set which puts an emphasis on what I was talking about earlier. We see “Julia” (…Joanna) directing a film about herself which means we’re really watching Joanna Hogg direct a fictional version of herself directing a fictional version of her movie-self. It’s a breath of fresh air to see someone be incredibly open & personal without hiding behind that mixture of comically dramatic quirkiness I spoke of earlier (I’m sorry for using that word quirky so much but as soon as other filmmakers stop relying on it so much I’ll stop using it).




Another highlight of The Souvenir II is Richard Ayoade’s supporting performance as “Patrick”. It’s almost like Joanna Hogg went out of her way to please us folks who wanted more from his character after the first movie. It’ll probably go slightly unnoticed & under the radar but Richard Ayoade’s performance is one of the best supporting roles I’ve seen in years. For the folks that wanted more than just his one (brilliant) scene in the first film, your prayers have been answered.

Hogg also does the Olivier Assayas “thing” of making wealthy/privileged people seem interesting & fascinating. Dare I say she does it even better than Assayas?

At times, Hogg's latest feature feels like a love letter to UK cinema (which makes sense considering this is a movie about making movies). Some of the dialogue in the film directly addresses a lot of the basic stereotypes that come along with films set in the UK (rainy dreary kitchen sink settings) and Julie’s student film within the film comes off like an homage to both Derek Jarman & Terence Davies (Jarman-regular Tilda Swinton’s presence in The Souvenir II adds an additional layer to this).


This was the first movie-going experience I’ve had since February 2020 so it’s nice that my return to the movie theater ended up being the best thing I’ve seen I all year.

Friday, November 12, 2021

THE BEST INDEPENDENT FILM YOU'VE (PROBABLY) NEVER HEARD OF: MY CONVERSATION WITH WENDELL B HARRIS FOR ALTA JOURNAL

 


I got the chance to chat with Wendell B Harris Jr. about CHAMELEON STREET, the Black Star album, CATCH ME IF YOU CAN, his random appearance in Todd Phillips’ ROAD TRIP & more…

This convo was the culmination of a personal 23 year journey that started for me back in High School.

Click here or the image above to go to the interview...

Thursday, November 11, 2021

RECENT PODCAST APPEARANCES

 Just a quick update...

I made some recent podcast appearances talking about two of my favorite things: Claire Denis & LL Cool J

Check me out on the latest episode of Shoot The Piano Player where we talk about Claire Denis' White Material.

Click the image below to go to the episode...


Also make sure to listen to my return to the Call Out Culture podcast where we delve in to the career of the legendary LL Cool J...

Click the image below to go to the episode...





Friday, October 22, 2021

TITANE - A LOVE LETTER TO DAVID CRONENBERG


David Cronenberg is a major influence in my life - Julia Ducournau, filmisnow.com

Crash  / 
Titane


This isn’t a review or a critique of Julia Docournou’s Titane. While there’s certainly lots of misunderstood reviews and think-pieces out there, you can still find some solid reviews on the film if you look hard enough. Titane is something that touches on everything from auto-eroticism & body transformation to childhood trauma & the idea of family. There’s a lot going on and a lot to write about and plenty to decipher. I just don’t think there’s any point to add yet another “review” or opinion on this heavily talked about film. I would like it to be known that I really am fascinated by this film...

My specific fascination with Titane concerns Ducournau‘s love of David Cronenberg and the imprint he has on her work.

*THIS CONTAINS HEAVY VISUAL SPOILERS SO IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN TITANE YET - DO NOT KEEP READING*


It’s no mystery that Titane is heavily influenced by David Cronenberg’s Crash. That was the big selling point coming out of it’s Cannes debut. Outside of both films being about intense auto-eroticism, Julia Ducournau has admitted to the influence herself…

I prefer the term ‘mutation’ inherited from Cronenberg - Julia Docournou

Crash  / 
Titane

Crash  / 
Titane

Crash  / 
Titane

Crash  / 
Titane

The biggest Crash homage is the opening sequence. It’s not so much that both films essentially start with intense car wrecks. It’s the immediate cut to the operating table in both Titane & Crash that makes the connection stronger…

Crash  / 
Titane


But the Crash influence is just one layer. I’d go so far to say that it’s almost surface. Cronenberg’s DNA is all over Titane. Not just Crash.
In fact - Cronenberg has influenced Julia Ducournau l since day one…


David Cronenberg is a major influence in my life. I discovered his films when I was a teenager - Julia Ducournau, focusfeatures.com

Faith Healer / 
Raw

The Fly / 
Junior



It should also be mentioned that Titane co-star (and veteran filmmaker) Bertrand Bonello also has some light ties to Cronenberg as well.
In On War, Mathieu Amalric (who plays a character name “Bertrand”) watches eXistenZ in one scene…

eXistenZ in Bonello's On War


Throughout the film I caught imagery from Cronenberg’s early (and almost never talked about) stuff like Fast Company

Fast Company / 
Titane


...to M Butterfly in terms of transformed gender roles. Vincent Lindon’s obliviousness (…denial?) to the true identity of Adrien in Titane is quite similar to Jeremy Irons’ mindstate  in M Butterfly

M Butterfly / 
Titane


Then there’s his more well know films which seemed to have rubbed off in various ways…

Scanners / 
Titane

Dead Ringers / 
Titane

A History Of Violence / 
Titane

Dead Ringers / 
Titane

The Fly / 
Titane

Eastern Promises  / 
Titane

The Brood /  Titane

The Fly / 
Titane

The Fly / 
Titane


Maps To The Stars / 
Titane

Cosmopolis/ 
Titane

Shivers / 
Titane

Shivers / 
Titane

Dead Ringers / 
Titane

A History Of Violence / 
Titane

The Dead Zone / 
Titane

Shivers / 
Titane


At times Titane comes off like a slight reworking of Cronenberg’s Rabid more than Crash. Not only do both films begin with an auto accident that quickly transitions to the operating table (something brought to my attention by Martin Kessler), but the basic plot of the attractive woman that becomes a serial killer post-auto accident is basically the plot of Titane

Rabid / 
Titane

Rabid / 
Titane

Rabid / 
Titane


A major positive of Titane (besides the fact that it exists) is that it got me to go back and think about how films like Fast Company & Rabid planted the seeds for Cronenberg’s fascination with the story of Crash (in addition to his obvious overall fascination with body transformation).

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