Friday, January 10, 2014


These two films may not have much in common to you all but to me they share a few connections. Both Prince Avalanche & Berberian Sound Studio represent "the return" of two separate groups of artists who I love/loved very much. With Prince Avalanche, this was a return to form for director David Gordon Green & his cinematographer; Tim Orr, while Bereberian Sound Studio represented Broadcast's return to recording music after the passing of their lead singer. Both films are also about loneliness among men to a certain extent, and lets also not forget these were both released last year and are set in the past...


Immediately after posting on facebook about how pleased I was with Prince Avalanche, PINNLAND EMPIRE contributor Matt Reddick's girlfriend; Catalina, noted the film's serious bromantic quality which brought me to the realization that David Gordon Green doesn't get enough recognition for his exploration into the world of male bonding. This lack of recognition is partially his fault due to his last two films being quite bad which turned a lot of people off to his work (myself included). But prior to Your Highness & The Sitter almost every film he made dealt with friendships between males of various ages (All The Real Girls, George Washington & Pineapple Express) or the bond between brothers (Undertow). Hell, even Your Highness is about bonding between two brothers when you really think about it.
Prince Avalanche fits right in with the rest of Green's filmography more than anything he's done in quite some time.
No matter how Malick-ian & artsy Green's past work was, he always expressed the desire to want to make a comedy since he first started making movies (refer to his Charlie Rose Interview back in 2000). It's just his previous two comedies were awful. With Prince Avalanche it seems like he's found a balance. On one hand he went back to the beautiful sprawling cinema he was once known for over a decade ago while at the same time still holding on to the comedic elements that he's been exploring for the last six years.
Prince Avalanche feels like a mixture of All The Real Girls and Pineapple Express (Gordon's one & only successful comedy in my opinion). Paul Rudd & Emile Hirsch's chemistry is pretty similar to Rogen & Franco - the grumpy cynic (Rogen/Rudd) constantly fussing at the dopey idiot (Franco/Hirsch) which is a relationship that dates back to the first comedic duos of stage. And certain moments in Prince Avalanche felt like extensions (or deleted moments) from All The Real Girls. There's an exchange of dialogue between Paul Rudd & Emile Hirsch in Prince Avalanche that reminded of a quote Shea Whigham delivers to Paul Schnieder in All The Real Girls...

Lance (Emile Hirsch): At least I don't go around thinking I'm a great dancer when I actually stink at dancing
Alvin (Paul Rudd): You've never even seen me dance
Lance: I've seen you do a lot of things when you don't think I'm looking
 - Prince Avalanche

Tip (Shea Whigham): No, we ain't friends no more! ...YOU AIN'T EVEN IN MY TOP 10! 
-All The Real Girls

You have to remember that both scenes I just quoted involve grown men. There's something incredibly funny, sad & intriguing about that. Its like David Gordon Green knows there's this level of immaturity that men will never lose no matter how much we age.
When I watch how grown men interact with one another in Green's work I'm sometimes reminded of John Cassavetes, Peter Falk & Ben Gazzara in Husbands...

George Washington (2000)
Undertow (2004)
Pineapple Express (2009)
Prince Avalanche (2013)
I have to give Green credit for crafting a solid film centered around two traditionally frustrating cinematic archetypes: "the idiot" (Emile Hirsch) and "the unpleasant cynic" (Paul Rudd). But in the case of Prince Avalanche, Green twists the screws a little bit and makes Hirsch's idiot character ("Lance") not only stupid but also without much of a conscience (at one point in the film he openly brags about sleeping with his best friend's girlfriend without fully realizing how fucked that is). And Paul Rudd's "Alvin" is one of those unpleasant people who only knows how to communicate through negativity and is just someone you don't want to be around for more than 20 minutes (he's easily agitated for no good reason, prefers to be depressed & lonely and he almost never smiles). And with the exception of two other supporting characters who show up sparingly, Alvin & Lance are all we have to deal with for pretty much the entire film.

Set in the late 80's, Prince Avalanche (a loose remake of the 2011 Icelandic film; Either Way) is the story of Alvin (Rudd) & Lance (Hirsch) - two road workers at odds with each other doing repair to a highway that's been severely damaged by a massive flash fire. Their job, which pretty much consists of painting the yellow divider lines in the middle of a long stretch of highway, forces Alvin & Lance to be away from home for days at a time. Alvin is currently going through a rough break up with his ex, who just so happens to be Lance's sister. As I already said, Alvin is a pretty unhappy guy with no friends who isolates himself from the world (we get the sense he's always been a pretty negative person which is what led to his break up) while Lance is a dopey guy in his early 20's more concerned with women and dreams of leaving his small town for "the big city". As the story progresses, tension in each of their separate personal lives comes to a head along with their relationship with each other. Do they work things out and become buddies or not?
In my opinion, David Gordon Green does Either Way justice with his remake. He maintains the same sparse ambiance and uses the same type of awkward adult humor. Hirsch & Rudd even deliver some of the same dialogue from Either Way line for line a couple of times.
I don't know if I'd label this a dark comedy like so many others have been so quick to do. While Prince Avalanche has plenty of funny moments, there's also just as many serious and/or touching moments that balance everything out making this David Gordon Green's first true dramedy (there's a difference between the two genres). Paul Rudd has worked outside of comedy in the past but this is probably the best non outright comedic performance he's ever given (he really channeled his performance from the 2007 dramedy; Diggers).

Visually, Prince Avalanche is the best looking thing Tim Orr has shot for Green since All The Real Girls. Once again, Orr makes rural/nowhere U.S.A. look nice & calm. There's also a couple of editing moments that are very reminiscent of recent Terrence Malick (specifically The New World & To The Wonder) which was ultimately what showed me that Green had returned to his old style while at the same time still growing and trying out new things as a filmmaker (for those who only started following his post-Pineapple Express work, Green was very much influenced by Malick in the first half of his career)


Not since Judgement Night (1993) had I been more initially excited about an original soundtrack more than the actual film the soundtrack was intended for. Ever since the untimely passing of Broadcast's lead singer Trish Keenan, I wondered if one of my all time favorite bands would call it quits. Even though they've experimented with instrumental music in the past (Microtronics 1& 2) it was Keenan's voice that really made them so great. But the score they put together for Peter Strickland's Berberian Sound Studio is proof that the remaining members can still make great music even without Keenan's presence (I sincerely hope they don't ever try to find a new lead vocalist because it just wouldn't be the same).

If you refer to my review of 12 Years A Slave you'll recall my growing annoyance with those Hans Zimmer/Howard Shore-style film scores. If I see a slave being brutally beaten on screen (like Chewital Ejiofor in 12 Years A Slave) I don't need the heavy handed string music blasted directly in to my ear to remind me that I should feel sad. I know how and what to feel without the added music. Thankfully quite a few filmmakers in 2013 turned to contemporary musicians for more ambient/non-traditional music than any recent year I can think. The Place Beyond The Pines (Mike Patton), Only God Forgives (Cliff Martinez), Berberian Sound Studios (Broadcast), etc. and even though Shane Caruth isn't on the same level as the aforementioned musicians, his work on Upstream Color was great too. Its not like this is some new phenomena. Almost all of Jim Jarmusch's films are scored by contemporary musicians (Tom Waits, John Lurie, Rza & Neil Young), Claire Denis practically works exclusively with various combinations of The Tindersticks lineup and Olivier Assayas has used Sonic Youth a couple of times. But 2013 seemed to be a mini-explosion of contemporary musicians scoring films.
Broadcast's sound is perfect for cinema. They often incorporate visuals in to their live performances and their retro sound is reminiscent of old 60's films like Blow-up which, coincidentally, is a film that had an obvious influence on Berberian Sound Studio.

I know it seems strange that I spent a good portion of 2013 listening to a film score without seeing the film but I was so disappointed by a lot of what I saw last year that I thought Berberian Sound Studio would be just another letdown. The reason I finally got around to watching it is because it landed on a few "best of..." lists in the contributors section of my end of the year wrap-up and its been compared to classic works like The Conversation & Blowout..
After finally watching this (courtesy of Netflix Instant) it makes sense that Berberian Sound Studio is being compared too and group in with The Conversation & Blowout by just about every movie critic out there. All three films are neo-noirs/mysteries about sound engineers in situations that get way out of hand. But to me, Berberian Sound Studio also feels like a mixture of Barton Fink & Roman Coppola's underrated CQ. If you're familiar with either of those films then you know that they're also heavily influenced works. With Barton Fink you have the obvious Eraserhead influence, while CQ is an homage to everything from Roger Corman B-movies & Italian horror films (like in Berberian Sound Studio) to European art house. Like Black Dynamite or Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive & Only God Forgives, Berberian Sound Studio is another retro "movie mixtapes"/movie collage, although slightly less obvious with the movie references...

Berberian Sound Studio / Barton Fink
In Berberian Sound Studios, Toby Jones plays "Gilderoy" - a British sound engineer hired to work on the post-production of a low budget Italian giallo film ("The Equestrian Vortex") in the vein of the style of Mario Bava or Dario Argento. The minute Gilderoy arrives at the Italian movie studio (Bereberian Sound Studio) we realize that he's out of his element. His timid nature causes him to be bullied around by the loud, boisterous, passionate Italians he's working alongside, there's clearly some inner turmoil between the cast & crew which he's now in the middle of, someone is trying to sabotage the film and it's also heavily implied that Glideroy has never worked on a low budget horror movie before. This immediately reminded me of the basic plot to Barton Fink - an off-Broadway New York City playwright (John Turturro) is hired to come out to "Hollyweird" to write b-movie screenplays. And the idea of a foreigner going over to another country to work on the post production of a sabotaged European B-movie is part of the basic plot to CQ. And like CQ, Berberian Sound Studio is a film within a film that's also about the making of a film that schools the audience on the little tricks that went on behind the scenes in order make a cheap movie come to life.
Through the course of the film Gilderoy becomes more & more uncomfortable working at Berberian Sound Studio and he starts to sense that the same mysterious force that's trying to sabotage the film hes working on is also out to sabotage him. There's no visible or immediate threat (outside of the Italians who dislike him for no legitimate reason) but you do start to feel that there's something creepy out to get him. ...Or is there?
Berberian Sound Studio is the kind of psychological thriller in the vein of Fear X or The Tenant where the longer you watch the more you start to question if our main character is really in trouble or slowly going insane. This is the part of the story that I thought got wrapped up a little too quickly. In the last 20 minutes Peter Strickland does a Demonlover/Mulholland Drive to the plot and we're given a sudden twist that felt hurried & rushed. This is a very entertaining film but parts of it felt kind of empty. There seemed to be more effort put in to the style and ambiance and less in to the story. I thought the sudden plot twist/split personality angle was unnecessary. Stirckland could have kept things more straightforward/based in reality like Blowout or The Conversation which I found to be a lot more effective in the end. I don't mean to insult Berberian Sound Studio because, again, I did enjoy it overall, but part of it felt like Peter Strickland couldn't come up with a good enough ending so he threw a hail mary and just decided to make things surreal & Lynchian at the last minute.
This makes the Coen Brothers influence even more evident given that's a common thing they love to do when they cant end a film. SNAP!

I was surprised to learn that director Peter Strickland wasn't a music video director prior to becoming a filmmaker given his emphasis on style over plot which is a trait many music video-turned movie directors have (Anton Corbijn, Mark Romenak, Jonathan Glazer, etc). Even David Fincher, Michel Gondry & Spike Jonze (who all got their start making music videos) get caught up in that from time to time. I think if Peter Strickland hooked up with a talented screenwriter he'd find that one key element that's missing.
But with all that being said, I still highly recommend this for anyone who loves old Italian horror films, psychological thrillers or Roman Polanski. Actually, this is a role I could see Roman Polanski playing. Toby Jones' performance, which is really good, did remind me of Polanski in The Tenant in certain parts.
No matter how empty some of the story may be, this is the kind film that's bound to bring up the kind of discussion brought on by films like Mulholland Drive, 3 Women, Black Swan, Persona, The Tenant or any other film that deals with split personalities, pressure, broken dreams, loneliness, being consumed by the art you create or all of the above.


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