Wednesday, September 21, 2016

RECENT PODCAST APPEARANCES...


Make sure to check out some of my recent podcast appearances on Wrong Reel & Illusions Travel By Streetcar where we discuss everything from my recent trip to the Toronto International Film Festival to Maysles Brothers...






CLICK IMAGE TO GO TO EPISODE

Thursday, September 15, 2016

THE UNTAMED (TIFF 2016)


John Cribbs & Chris Funderburg strongly suggesting that I check out The Untamed is a testament to how much they get my taste in movies. The Untamed was directed by Carlos Reygadas' former assistant Amat Ecalante so it's easy to compare his latest film to Reygadas' work (especially Post Tenebras Lux)...

Post Tenebras Lux/The Untamed

It's also easy to compare certain scenes in The Untamed to Tarkovsky but that's too lazy (even though it is a fare comparison in my opinion). The more I think about it, comparing The Untamed to Tarkovsky (or Post Tenebras Lux) is like comparing any random "weird" movie to David Lynch. It's almost the cinematic equivalent to all Black people (or Asian, Latino, etc) look alike. For me - this is everything I wanted Under The Skin to be (yes I still think that movie is overrated). Under The Skin & The Untamed are similar in that both films involve people being lured to a mysterious room where crazy shit happens. But there's a bit more depth to The Untamed and it doesn't feel like a feature length music video like in the case of Under The Skin. I'm sorry in advance for sounding so aggressive but if you like Under The Skin and can't get in to The Untamed then something is wrong with you. It would be like enjoying the films of Tarantino but hating Jarmusch's Mystery Train.

What starts out as a somewhat sterile family drama about infidelity slowly morphs in to a droaning surreal supernatural horror movie about a cabin in the woods that houses a mysterious "thing" that grants both pleasure & death depending on the person. But the shift in story/tone/genre doesn't just come out of nowhere. Like Todd Haynes' Safe, The Untamed always has this undercurrent of a potential threat looming even in scenes when "nothing" is happening thanks mostly in part to the score. We see the main protagonists sitting & eating dinner with their children but we wonder what's going to happen. When is the startle going to come? I know I compare a lot of ambient droany scores to Brian Eno and this is no different (perhaps the score for The Untamed is a darker/bottom heavy version/imitation of Brian Eno). The Untamed would still be a solid movie without the score (actually, it would be incredibly interesting without any music) but the film's music just puts everything on another level.

After reading all of that so far do you see what I mean in terms of John & Chris understanding what I like? Just read back some of the key words, phrases & connections: Carlos Reygadas, Droany Brian Eno-esque music, Tarkovsky, Todd Haynes/Safe, etc. This is all me. The Untamed is also a very sexual film (on a realistic level) which isn't a bad thing either. Some of the dialogue & scenarios concerning sex in the film play off of the basic human need for sex.

I know I'm contradicting myself from earlier by comparing this to Reygadas but a lot of the sexuality in The Untamed plays out like the sex scenes in Battle In Heaven (a film Escalante worked on) as well as the bath house scene in Post Tenebras Lux.

Do you like sex?

Don't we all?



The Untamed is subtle and it also lays all its cards on the table. I'm sure there's some deeper political commentary on Mexico but I gotta be honest - I'm not really concerned with all that right now. Perhaps when I sit on this move a little longer I'll discover a new/different perspective (I'm writing this literally just having left the screening).
I'm more interested in the beautiful imagery and the issues placed right in front of us: sex, self-hate, family and the creepy monster kept in the back of the cabin in the woods...

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

IT'S ONLY THE END OF THE WORLD (TIFF 2016)


It's Only The End Of The World is a bit of a paradox because in order for it to really have worked it should've been twice as long (we're given at least three hours worth of material crammed in to a 90 minute movie). But the problem is that even if the movie were twice as long, I doubt a lot of folks would want to sit through 3+ hours of one of the most frustrating cinematic families of the last ten years. It's Only The End Of The World tells the story of a terminally ill playwright ("Louis") trying to make an effort to reconnect with the family he distanced himself from for over a decade. His family, which consists of an older brother "Antoine" (Vincent Cassell), younger sister "Suzanne" (Lea Seydoux) and widowed mother (Nathalie Bey), doesn't know that he is dying. Will Louis tell his family the bad news or not?
(Marion Cotillard also co-stars as Cassell's wife but her talent was so underutilized that she was kind of forgettable. Just about any actress could have played her part).

Less than 10 minutes in to the film we're introduced to Louis' family and we quickly come to learn why he kept his distance from them for so long. His brother Antoine has the temperament of an angry 10 year old with emotional problems, his sister Suzanne is a moody brat (she's also a bit of a burnout), and his mother is incredibly flighty and overly concerned with vanity. They all make inappropriate comments towards each other and are constantly shouting every 5 minutes. It's chaos.
I know I'm not exactly praising this film but Dolan has certainly matured as a filmmaker. This might be his most mature film to date. And if you follow this blog regularly then you know I'm fascinated with films about siblings and/or big families (I'm an only child so that world is foreign to me). So I'm always down for a well-crafted (or an attempt at a well-crafted) family drama. Xavier Dolan does a great job of throwing us in to the deep end right away.

But there are some serious rough edges that could have been ironed out in my opinion...


A lot of the music in the film heavily dictates how you're supposed to feel when it isn't necessary. When Louis walks in to his mother's house for the first time in 12 years we already know it's a big deal yet Dolan uses this swelling orchestral music to make us feel overwhelmed. But it's overkill. We know it's a dramatic moment already.
Another issue I have with the music is Xavier Dolan's choice of pop music at odd/inappropriate times. If you're familiar with Dolan's work then you know pop music is a staple within the DNA of his filmography. But most of his films focus on young "hip" characters having relationship problems and/or going to parties so it makes sense to use pop music under those settings. But It's Only The End Of The World is a serious family drama. There's no point to throw in Moby and other synthesized pumping cotton candy pop songs. It would be interesting to see Xavier Dolan take his music cues from a guy like Haneke and use little to no music in his next movie.
Louis' "holier than thou" attitude is a bit much after a while and Vincent Cassell's performance is turned up to 10. At times it felt like Cassell was playing an angry caricature of himself. I don't see how a human being like "Antoine" would exist/survive in real life with the temper he has.


I don't spend my time writing about movies on here that I completely dislike. This movie shouldn't be dismissed. If you're a fan of Xavier Dolan or the new/current wave of young arthouse filmmakers, I still recommend seeing this. You can see the progression & maturity in his filmmaking since his debut in 2010 (I compare Dolan's growth to Ben Affleck's growth as a director in that Gone Baby Gone is still his best film but he grows as a director with each movie). Certain elements within It's Only The End Of The World seem as if they would come from the mind of a seasoned middle-aged filmmaker rather than the 27 year old mind of Dolan. There's an honest attempt at creating real drama and he does take his characters very seriously.

I do feel somewhat bad for the negative reception this film received from some critics at Cannes (I say somewhat because even with all the negative press, Dolan still won the grand jury prize). The (sometimes unlikeable) characters are very intense right out of the gate and I think certain critics disliked the movie when it's characters they really disliked and somewhere things got lost in translation (it's like hating The Last King Of Scotland because Forest Whitaker gives a somewhat charming performance as Idi Amin). It's a little unfair that Dolan had to deal with that kind of irresponsible criticism.

But from the use of color & slow-motion to the continued exploration of the relationship between mother & son (this is yet another Dolan film where the father is a just a brief memory with little screen time) - It's Only The End Of The World fits in perfectly with the rest of Dolan's filmography.

Monday, September 12, 2016

MOONLIGHT (TIFF 2016)


Feeling sad, melancholy and/or hopeless on a consistent basis can get exhausting and Moonlight conveys that in my opinion. By the time we get to the second act (the story is told in 3 chapters) our teenage protagonist already looks a little rugged and kind of tired from life already (having a drug addicted mother and getting beat up all the time for being gay can do that to a person).
Part of Barry Jenkins’ excellent sophomore feature (which not only breaks but destroys the sophomore Jinx) owes a little bit to Frank Ocean’s coming out letter from a few years ago on a subconscious level. A big part of Moonlight’s plot has to do with a young African American man ("Chiron") struggling/coming to terms with his sexuality in an environment that isn’t very accepting. Like Ocean, Chiron has feelings for his friend but certain variables won’t allow them to be together. Just take certain excerpts & keywords from Frank Ocean’s letter below and put them next to certain isolated standalone images from Moonlight and you’d think Barry Jenkins was dedicating part of his film to Ocean…







I may be projecting my own assumptions. Barry Jenkins may not have been influenced by that certain specific aspect of Frank Ocean’s life. But the similarities are so strong. Perhaps Jenkins was subconsciously influenced in the same way that David Lynch was subconsciously influenced by the OJ Simpson trial when coming up with Lost Highway.

Moonlight also comes off like a Gus Van Sant film if Gus Van Sant were Black and/or had a true understanding of the frustrated/misunderstood Black American male. Not only does Moonlight deal with homosexuality & sexual identity - like a lot of Van Sant’s films - but the cinematography in Moonlight (and some of the use of music) is very similar to Van Sant’s Elephant


But putting all influences aside, Moonlight is still very much Barry Jenkins' own film. As a filmmaker, Jenkins has grown immensely since Medicine For The Melancholy. Actually, if I wasn’t familiar with Barry Jenkins I would think his two features were directed by two totally different people. What’s most interesting about Jenkins' artistic direction is that Moonlight is set in Miami but we don’t see too many neon lights or pink & green color palettes. This is a side of Miami seldom seen in movies. And it should also be noted that rarely do we see Black skin shot in such a polarizing way. Actually, between the way Black skin is shown along with half of the music used in the film (from Goodie Mob to classic 70's R&B) - Moonlight is unapologetically Black.

In 2016 there are still very few films that tackle genuine frustration & depression among (young) Black men beyond the typical themes that were already over-explored throughout the early/mid 90’s (I’m sure some people could make cases for veterans like Spike Lee, but in the last 15 years his movies have tackled so many issues all at once that it’s hard to grab a hold of one topic). In my opinion, Ballast (2008) was one of the last films to do this but it was still told from the perspective of a white filmmaker. Not that there’s anything wrong with a white filmmaker telling predominantly Black stories (hell…Claire Denis is one of my favorite filmmakers and more than half of her films do that), but there’s something more genuine about a Black man telling a personal story about another Black man (the same thing applies to any other demographic of human being). And that’s what Moonlight is - the story about a (gay) Black man told from the perspective of a Black filmmaker (Jenkins).
No offense to David Gordon Green but watching something like Moonlight made me wish a movie like George Washington was directed by a Black filmmaker...


I encourage any & all Black men to seek out this film if you have the opportunity to do so. I really hope homophobia/ignorance doesn’t stop Black males from seeing this. There’s an underlying hatred for the LGBT community within the so-called conscious Black community when there really shouldn’t be. As I stated in my Toronto excerpt for The Pink Smoke - the current tension/underlying animosity between the so-called conscious Black community and the LGBT movement is nothing new, but it’s prevalent now more than ever (for those that don’t know, the driving forces behind the Black Lives Matter movement are gay men & lesbian women of color). This is reminiscent of the conflict between James Baldwin and certain civil rights leaders & activists. James Baldwin was kind of the living embodiment of that tension in a kind of abstract way. Not only was he a great writer but he was also an advocate & fighter for the civil rights of Black People. But...because he was gay, certain Black leaders wanted him silenced.


Anyway, Moonlight is one the best films I’ve seen all year. If you’re a fan of the aforementioned filmmakers & artist (Gus Van Sant, Spike Lee, James Baldwin, etc) I highly recommend it.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

BIRTH OF A NATION (TIFF 2016)


I remember feeling a little betrayed when I finally saw the first trailer for Birth Of A Nation. For months leading up to that all we got were these cool-looking images of slaves covered in paint ready to go to war. I was sold. I thought we were getting a different kind of slave story (for those that don't know, Birth Of A Nation is the story of Nat Turner's slave rebellion).


But once the trailer for Birth Of A Nation finally dropped I remember thinking that it looked like a generic slave movie. Sure, the story of Nat Turner hasn’t been explored on a major cinematic platform until Birth Of A Nation so Nate Parker does deserve some kind of credit for that. I also appreciate Nate Parker taking the title of one of the most offensive-yet strangely celebrated films in cinematic history and turning it upside down. And not only did he take DW Griffith's 1915 movie title and flip it, but he completely flipped the stock imagery of the fire-waving klansman into strong rebellious (BLACK) men...


There are even small references to the classic imagery of Nat Turner's rebellion in Birth Of A Nation...


But at the end of the day I don’t see much of a difference between Birth Of A Nation, certain aspects of 12 Years A Slave, Underground, The Roots remake, and just about any recent slave story. I’m sorry to break it to you all but Birth Of A Nation is just "ok" in my opinion. And that's frustrating because the story of Nat Turner is more than "ok" or "pretty good". No matter my skepticism, I didn't go in to this screening wanting to dislike it. In fact, the film starts out with a great sequence reminiscent of something from Julie Dash's Daughters Of The Dust. But things quickly dissolved in to the typical slave movie tropes one would expect.

(Some) audiences have already decided that this film is a masterpiece so there’s no sense in trying to debate or convince them otherwise. But if you're a rational thinking person (or have high standards in cinema), I think, when you finally see this, you'll get where I'm coming from. And I assure you all that my overall disappointment with this movie has nothing to do with the resurfacing of the rape case that Nate Parker was involved in 17 years ago. Birth Of A Nation is just bland for long stretches (or for me at least).
12 Years A Slave kind of raised the bar in my opinion. And if you’re going to follow that, you need to do a better job or move on and tell a completely different story and tell it better). Some might argue that it isn’t fair to compare 12 Years A Slave with Birth Of A Nation but Nate Parker practically gives me no choice. Outside of the basic plots of both films being pretty different, Birth Of A Nation follows the same format as 12 Years (and other slave narratives). There’s the rape scene, the whipping scene, the James Bond-esque slave master villains, the overbearing gospel humming soundtrack, the sympathetic white character (are we really still doing that in 2016?), etc. Now…I understand that if you’re going to tell a story concerning slavery that all of those elements should be shown, but when you see everything coming from a mile away it just makes things predictable and its not as enjoyable to watch (in my opinion).


And please understand that I’m not one of these misinformed Black folks that doesn’t want any more slave movies. America was built on the backs of Slaves. It’s the most important element of U.S. history as far as I'm concerned. In my opinion, a handful of slave movies isn’t enough. I think there should be more. But just make them interesting. Don’t play it safe. Make strange editing choices. Hire an interesting cinematographer. Stuff like that. Some of you may consider my criticism to be nitpicky. And that’s fine. But for me, if we’re dealing with history (especially slavery) I, as a Black person, want historical (and harsh) accuracy. I want uncertainty. I want discomfort and to not feel safe. Besides the climactic rebellion sequence (which held back nothing in terms of violence), Birth Of A Nation did none of that for me. But perhaps some of you reading this will have a different reaction than I did.

If you’re willing to put aside all my criticisms (along with the controversy concerning Nate Parker), the story of Birth Of A Nation is an important piece of American history that should be seen no matter how lukewarm I personally am towards it or what my personal opinion is towards Nate Parker's past (I absolutely hate falling in to this way of thinking but the historical elements in The Pianist had nothing to do with Roman Polanski’s personal scuminess. Plenty of people supported that film because the history was bigger than the filmmaker just like in the case of Birth Of A Nation). I don’t discourage anyone from seeing this but at the same time it’s totally understandable if you don’t want to support this movie. I get it. There's enough evidence concerning Nate Parker to confirm that he sexually violated an unconcious woman. Quite frankly I think as a society we’re way too forgiving. We dislike/vilify folks one minute then two weeks later we change our minds because someone wrote a sympathetic Huffington post article. It’s time for folks to be more consistent and stick with a belief/way of thinking for an extended period of time.

Anyway, like I said – this movie already has a built-in audience of people who will blindly support it (given how hard certain Black people are supporting this film you’d think Birth Of A Nation was the only outlet where one could learn about Nat Turner’s legacy which is completely ridiculous).
There are a few unique stylistic choices that stray from the typical formula that these kinds of movies follow, but for the most part you kind of know what to expect.


Thursday, September 1, 2016

THE CINEMA OF XAVIER DOLAN TOLD THROUGH (MOVING) IMAGES & STILLS



Say what you want about Xavier Dolan (he seems to have just as many fans as he does detractors) but his films have a place in certain circles. He's also young which means there's room to grow & mature over time (and I don't mean to be patronizing because he's already shown how talented he is as both a filmmaker and an actor). Like his contemporary Cam Archer, Dolan's influences range from Gus Van Sant & Todd Haynes (LGBT issues & sexual identity) to Wong Kar Wai (the use of slow motion) & Leos Carax which is pretty impressive given his age (a lot of young art house filmmakers under the age of 30 like Dolan tend to exclusively draw influences from obvious sources like The French New Wave or they get a warped sense of influence from John Cassavetes).

With The Toronto International Film Festival right around the corner (which coincides with the Toronto premier of It's Only The End Of The World) I thought I would dedicate this next entry to one of Canada's (youngest) hometown heroes.

Enjoy...


COLOR PALETTE

You can always count on Xavier Dolan to use every color combination known to man (as you scroll through this piece you'll see this is the one category that bleeds through all the other categories in this entry). Actually, if you go back and look at The Cinema Of Todd Haynes one might consider Dolan to be the modern heir to Haynes in terms of color usage...
It's Only The End Of The World
I Killed My Mother
It's Only The End Of The World
Heartbeats
Heartbeats
Heartbeats
Laurence Anyways
Heartbeats
Heartbeats
Heartbeats
Mommy
Laurence Anyways
Mommy




MOMMY ISSUES
I always hesitate to speculate about the personal lives of directors but in the case of Xavier Dolan it's almost impossible not to when he practically lays it all out for us in his films (hey, his relationship with his mom might be just fine in real life but his personal/intimate films lead me to think otherwise). I mean, his feature film debut is called "I Killed My Mother". Since his debut almost every one of his films has explored the rocky relationships between a (male) protagonist and his mother (he has yet to explore any other parental relationship i.e. Father & Son, Mother & Daughter, etc).
It's Only The End Of The World
Mommy
Laurence Anyways
I Killed My Mother




RECURRING SHOTS...
Tom At The Farm
I Killed My Mother
Heartbeats
Laurence Anyways
Mommy


USE OF SLOW-MOTION
Heartbeats
Mommy
Laurence Anyways




(POSSIBLE) VISUAL INFLUENCES
Ordet/I Killed My Mother
I Killed My Mother/Jackson Pollock
Mommy/The Creation Of Adam
Heartbeats
In The Mood For Love
Mommy/Gummo
Boy Meets Girl/Mommy
Boy Meets Girl/Mommy
Mommy/My Own Private Idaho
Mysterious Skin/Heartbeats
Heartbeats/David
Heartbeats/David




GODARD'S INFLUENCE






MUSIC
I know it's an obvious/cliche statement but music really is good for the soul. It (temporarily) heals, soothes, calms, etc. Xavier Dolan knows this which is why he uses music (usually through headphones) as a (temporary) escape for his troubled characters...
Laurence Anyways
I Killed My Mother
Mommy




RAGE
It's understandable why people get more caught up in the colors, slow motion cinematography & glamour (something we'll be getting in to next) in Dolan's films but a lot of his characters are hurting and holding in a ton of rage.
Our female lead in Laurence Anyways is struggling with the sexuality of her partner. Our lead youth in Mommy has a lot of misguided anger due to his home life and Tom (Tom At The Farm) is struggling with the fact that his deceased lover kept their (homosexual) relationship a secret from his family.
Tom At The Farm
Heartbeats
Laurence Anyways
It's Only The End Of The World
Mommy





GLAMOUR/MODERN ART
Perhaps this is another callback to Todd Haynes' influence (Velvet Goldmine). Dolan is clearly fascinated with pop art, high fashion, glitter, glam-rock (specifically Ziggy Stardust-era Bowie) and just all things "glamorous"...
Laurence Anyways
Hello
Mommy
I Killed My Mother 
I Killed My Mother





THE HUMAN BODY
Xavier Dolan doesn't shy away from exploring the naked/half naked body (I Killed My Mother & Heartbeats) or the idea of not feeling comfortable in your own skin like in the case of Laurence Anyway.
Laurence Anyways
Laurence Anyways
Heartbeats
Heartbeats
I Killed My Mother
I Killed My Mother




SEX, SENSUALITY & (SOMETIMES UNHEALTHY) DESIRES
Dolan's characters often find themselves unhealthily fantasizing over crushes (in Heartbeats we see one of the main characters masturbating while sniffing the shirt of the person he has a crush on) or we see them stalking their ex's like in the case of Laurence Anyways...
Heartbeats
Heartbeats
Heartbeats
Tom At The Farm
I Killed My Mother



FRUSTRATING MAIN CHARACTERS
While I enjoy most of Dolan's films, a lot of his lead characters sometimes drive me crazy as they're manipulative & narcissistic (Nicolas in Heartbeats), kind of bratty (Dolan In I Killed My Mother) or incredibly self-centered (Laurence in Laurence Anyways)...
I Killed My Mother
Laurence Anyways
Heartbeats


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