Friday, April 25, 2014

GREAT MODERN FILM SCORES: GHOST DOG

We had about three or four conversations and then started talking about music and RZA's name came up. RZA really wrote the music to pictures or he wrote after he saw the film. He was inspired by it. He'd write pieces and send them over to Jim, and Jim cut it where it fit. The album's quite unique: it's inspired by the film, including those sparse tracks he had in there, like the opening one you hear while you see the bird flying. And they're so different on the album than on the screen.
- Forest Whitaker (popmatters.com) 



Jim Jarmusch has a new film out right now and The Rza is prepping a new Wu-Tang album (with an interesting marketing campaign) so they've both been popping up in the news recently. With a few exceptions, my Facebook timeline consists of either movie news or music news, so I've been seeing a lot of Jim & The Rza pop up on my timeline as I mindlessly scroll and it got me thinking how much I miss the two of them working together and just being associated with one another.
For those that don't know, outside of just Ghost Dog & Coffee & Cigarettes, Jim worked on a Wu-Tang album with Rza once and he also selected Rza's Wu-Tang partner; Raekwon to perform at an All Tommorrow's Parties concert (a famous UK-based music festival that allows artist, musicians, actors & filmmakers to curate the line-up).
It goes without saying that both of those guys are two of my personal favorites in their respective fields. With the exception of Olivier Assayas/Sonic Youth (Demonlover) & Nicholas Winding Refn/Brian Eno (Fear X), there hasn't been a collaboration between one of my favorite filmmakers and one of my favorite musicians, so I’ve always been extra appreciative of the music Rza did for the under appreciated/misunderstood Ghost Dog, even when I used to not like the movie itself back in the day. It’s been documented that I wasn’t a fan of Ghost Dog as a teenager, but after a college professor encouraged me to go back and re-watch it with a different mindset, it become one of my favorite movies of all time.

Besides taking unwarranted/immature shots at Quentin Tarantino (which I do later on in this write-up) & over-praising the work of Claire Denis, complaining about the use of music in modern film is another common theme here at PINNLAND EMPIRE. From Hans Zimmer & James Newton Howard to Danny Elfman & Howard Shore, scores are becoming more & more distracting to their accompanying films these days. I prefer scores that don't force me to feel a particular emotion that I already know how to feel based on the scene that's in front of me. Be honest - didn’t it feel like Hans Zimmer’s score for The Dark Knight Rises was a bit overwhelming? Everyone complained about not being able to understand Bane’s altered voice but I honestly couldn’t understand what ANYONE was saying because the music was so damn loud! What happened to subtlety? What's wrong with playing your part and just composing background music?



Jarmusch used Rza’s sound on Ghost Dog in a somewhat unconventional way. For a film with such an important score, there's lots of quiet moments or important scenes without any music at all. Besides the rooftop martial arts training sequence and the opening credits, a lot of the important scenes in Ghost Dog don’t feature any background music. The bear hunting scene, the scene on the bench between Ghost Dog & Pearline, the rooftop boat scene, the part where Ghost Dog storms though Vargo’s mansion and kills everyone, the finale where Ghost Dog is killed, etc. None of these crucial moments feature ANY music. This makes you appreciate the score even more because after long stretches of silence or minimal dialogue, which happens often in Ghost Dog, it's nice to hear some good atmospheric background music.
Just watch how much more effective some of the more important scenes from Ghost Dog work without music...



If you think I’m talking out of my ass, just look at how Rza’s music is used in other films versus Ghost Dog. From Blade: Trinity & Kill Bill to The Protector & Derailed, Rza’s music is used in a more conventional way – either paired with a tense moment or an action sequences, or it’s playing during a scene with important dialogue where music isn’t really needed. And I’m willing to bet that besides Kill Bill, you all forgot or didn’t even know Rza did a good portion of the music for those aforementioned films I just mentioned, thus adding to my point (I give things like Afro SamuraiThe Man With The Iron Fist a pass because Rza's music is supposed to be a prominent factor in those). 

Picking Rza to do music for a film in the late 90's was perfect timing since the last 3 music projects he worked on prior to that we're cinematically themed (Bobby Digital, A Prince Aming Theives & The Gravediggaz 2nd album). 
Jim Jarmusch was the first filmmaker who worked with The Rza before any other filmmaker. After that, everyone jumped on board...

I didn't discover how music and film could work together until Jim Jarmusch had me do Ghost Dog. I didn't know that these two things had such a poetic wavelength that went together until Ghost Dog.
- The Rza (interview magazine) 

No one attached themselves to The Rza post-Ghost Dog like Quentin Tarantino. It should also be noted that not only did Quentin Tarantino essentially "hi-jack" The Rza from Jarmusch, but he also borrowed heavily from him (and other notable filmmakers) in terms of style & storytelling. I've explained this theory before but I'll do it again...
Jim Jarmusch makes Down By Law (1986), a film where a major crime takes place (a prison break) yet we only see the aftermath, Tarantino makes Reservoir Dogs (1992) in which another major crime takes place (a jewel heist) and, like in Down By Law, we only see the aftermath. In 1989 & 1991, Jim Jarmusch makes Mystery Train & Night On Earth, respectively, which are two anthology stories surrounding multiple intertwined characters (one film featuring Steve Buschemi and a lot of nods to Elvis Presley, and the other film featuring important scenes inside taxi cabs). In 1994, Tarantino makes Pulp Fiction which is also an anthology story surrounding multiple intertwined characters (with a quick appearance from Steve Buschemi and another important scene inside a taxi cab shot similarly to Night On Earth) with multiple references to Elvis Presley as well.
Oh...yeah...let’s also not forgot that the Tarantino-scripted True Romance (1991) features a scene with the ghost of Elvis Presley just like the scene in the middle of Jarmusch’s Mystery Train (1989)…

Mystery Train / True Romance

In 1999 Jarmusch explores the martial arts genre and its influence on western/american culture with Ghost Dog, and he gets the Rza to do the score. A few years later Tarantino makes Kill Bill and gets the Rza to score his film. Both movies also heavily reference older martial arts films & samurai films. True, they reference and tip their hats to completely different movies, but that mix-tape/mash-up style of filmmaking is the same. Jarmusch's style is just slightly more subtle.
I know at this point calling out old movie references in Kill Bill is a lil' played out, but when done alongside Ghost Dog you can see whereo Tarantimo may have gotten some influence from...

Game Of Death / Kill Bill
Ghost Dog / Branded To Kill
Kill Bill / Lady Snowblood
Ghost Dog / Le Samourai

For someone with such a great knowledge & understanding of art, I wish Rza continued to work more with Jarmusch instead of aligning himself with folks likes of Tarantino.
On a personal note, I appreciate Jim Jarsmuch’s relationship with The Rza over Tarantino’s, because Jim doesn’t go out of his way to use urban slang or prove he’s “down” while we all know Tarantino does shit like that right down to using the n-word.

When I first finally got to meet RZA at three in the morning in some studio in Midtown, I think Raekwon was there. I don't know who else was there, but they were saying, "Wait a minute, is this the guy that made that film Dead Man?" Apparently, the Wu-Tang had been passing that film around, which is kind of a shock to me. They started quoting the film, and they were really happy to meet me. RZA and I got along really well and just launched into a lot of strange conversations. We just clicked.
-Jim Jarmusch (pitchfork media)

Ghost Dog was just as much new territory for Rza (being his first film score) as it was for Jarmusch. This was his first time working with a musician/producer who didn’t use live instrumentation (John Lurie, Neil Young & Tom Waits), so it makes sense that the music in Ghost Dog is used somewhat differently than in previous stuff like Permanent Vacation, Night On Earth or Dead Man.
Naturally Rza had to adapt his style as well. He couldn’t sculpt a beat with rappers in mind (to this day, Ghost Dog might be his one and only true instrumental project). Gritty drums were once synonymous with The Rza’s production. From beats like C.R.E.A.M. (36 Chambers) to Ice Cream (Only Built For Cuban Linx) he’s always used melodic samples (chimes, xylophones, etc), but the drums (mixed with a little bit off hiss, mugginess & raw mixing techniques) trumped everything else that went in to his production. 
Some people attribute Rza’s studio flood in the mid-90’s, in which he lost over 100 beats, with the changing of his signature sound, but personally I think it was Ghost Dog (...or Supreme Clientele). Sure, if you listen to everything that lead up to the score, from the 36 Chambers to Bobby Digital, you can hear the progression in his sound, but Ghost Dog really opened up his melodic/slightly non-loopy/operatic side more than anything.


Rza’s signature sound prior to Ghost Dog…



Sample from the Ghost Dog Soundtrack…



Post-Ghost Dog Rza…


Putting aside the fact that there’s a slight novelty to the Ghost Dog score (hip-hop production used for an arthouse film), it’s seriously some of Rza’s best work (prior to his new sound which didn’t sit too well with some harcore wu-tang fans like myself) and it honestly compliments the film rather than take it over like so many other film scores do these days. There's sounds and samples that he'd never used prior to this (accordions, harmoniums & ambient background noise). You could tell there was some serious experimentation. Even though the music is only used in probably only 50% of the film, Jarmusch still gives Rza a spotlight (most of the individual tracks are under two minutes long). The music is used in the right spots – interludes, transitional scenes, atmospheric moments and periods of no dialogue. All those pivotal music-less scenes I referenced earlier feature music just before & after instead of throughout. Sometimes filmmakers, critics & fans get so caught up in the idea of a popular modern musician working on a film score that that’s all they seem to care about til it trumps everything else concerning the movie. Jim Jarmusch didn't really use Rza's name as crutch to promote his film too heavily like Tarantino did with Kill Bill either.

The Ghost Dog score still stands up to this day and has a serious cult following. Even people who don't like or listen to hip-hop regularly still love it which makes it a success in my book. This is also very much an album to listen too in the headphones completely separate from the film. I guarantee you'll notice little intricacies that'll give you a better appreciation/understanding of hip-hop production beyond it being just sampling other people's music...

Monday, April 21, 2014

STRANGER BY THE LAKE (FAVORITE MOVIE OF THE YEAR SO FAR)


I've said it before on here and I'll say it again - anyone familiar with modern French art house cinema who denies Bresson's influence is an idiot. These days when I say things like; "the film was very French", all that really means is that it was very Bressonian - prolific, stripped down and (intentionally) emotionless yet somehow still full of emotion at the same time. I'm aware he's not the only major influence on today's French auteurs. Charbol, Godard, Melville, Truffaut and a few others are all also highly influential, but these days I see Bresson in people's work more than anyone else. From Camille Claudel, 1915 & Hors Satan (both directed by Bruno Dumont who was once considered the "heir to Bresson") to The PornographerThe House Of Tolerance (both directed by Bertrand Bonello who had his actors watch Bresson films to prepare before filming), Bresson's dent, both major & minor, on modern French art house is undeniable.
Stranger By The Lake is just another recent example of this...

Have you ever wondered what Cruising would be like had Bresson directed it instead of William Friedken? Chances are you probably haven't, but still...that's pretty much what Stranger By The Lake is. In fact, it’s the kind of film that makes you reevaluate something like Cruising and how distasteful it is (even though I do enjoy watching Crusing from time to time). In Alain Guiraude's latest, we follow "Franck" - a young guy cruising through life both figuratively and literally. Not only is he content with being unemployed at the moment, but he also spends his summer taking daily trips to a notorious gay cruising spot (the lake of Sainte Croix). The only problem is that there's a serial killer on the loose targeting all the gay men at this cruising spot. And to make things extra strange, Franck discovers who the killer is early on but instead of going to the police, he starts a relationship with him (this mysterious killer has no idea Franck knows his secret). In the beginning we're lead to believe the mystery of this film is finding out who the killer is but that's revealed within the first 20 minutes (I haven't given any spoilers away). The real mystery is the relationship that develops between Franck and the unnamed killer. Will Franck be next? Why is he so drawn to a cold blooded murderer? Is he suicidal? Or is he just drawn to the danger?


For a film with such deadpan & sparse dialogue, Stranger By The Lake has a sharp script. Early on in the story Franck befriends a local man, "Henri", who hangs around just outside the cruising spot, even though he's straight, and through the course of the film Franck & Henri engage in dialogue that challenges sexuality, friendship & love.
The most interesting part of Stranger By The Lake for me was the part of the story where we're introduced the police inspector whose hired to investigate the killings. Because he's heterosexual and not familiar with "cruising", he's not only investigating a murder, but he's also investigating a particular lifestyle. I was immediately reminded of Harvey Keitel in both; Clockers & Bad Timing. In both films Harvey Keitel plays a cop that’s not only investigating a crime, but a culture/lifestyle as well. In Clockers, Keitel is trying to solve a crime in an urban environment that's foreign to him while in Bad Timing he's trying to make sense of a couple's torrid relationship. In Stranger By The Lake, this nameless inspector asks the local "cruisers" just as many questions surrounding their sexuality as he does questions surrounding the crime.


Now...although Stranger By The Lake is an early contender for PINNLAND EMPIRE's Top 10 of 2014, Alain Guiraude did something I absolutely HATE that so many filmmakers are guilty of...
At the Q&A after the screening I went to, he downplayed the homosexuality in the film and was very dismissive towards all the questions surrounding that topic. I'd understand Guiraude's frustration/dismissive nature had Stranger By The Lake been a story with characters who just so happened to be gay, and it had nothing to do with the plot. But the story takes place exclusively at a gay cruising spot and is about a killer who only targets gay men. The film also quietly touches on issues like denial & self-hatred. Without giving away too much, it could be interpreted that the person committing the murders in Stranger By The Lake has some serious self-hate/inner turmoil about their sexuality (although we aren't made to feel any kind of sympathy for this person, because...well...they kill people). There's an emphasis on condom use and talk of HIV. Even the sex in this is extra graphic, unedited & unapologetic, yet Guiraude, said things like "I don't know if Stranger By The Lake has anything to do with homosexuality" and "I didn't really think about things like homosexuality when making this" 
Can filmmakers just stop doing stuff like this? Guiraude's obvious denial/borderline trolling is like George Lucas saying Star Wars has nothing to do with space or science fiction. Again, I know filmmakers (especially art house filmmakers) don't like to have their work oversimplified. I also understand wanting to be progressive and not being boxed in as the director who made a "gay film", but sometimes you gotta call things as they are. On some level, Stranger By The Lake is a comment on gay repression and society's aggression towards gay people (specifically gay men). That's not even an interpretation as much as it is a clear fact. I don't care what the person responsible for the film says either. Stranger By The Lake isn't Alain Guiraude's first time touching on homosexuality either. His 2009 feature; King Of Escape, deals with a gay man who falls for a teenage girl. His earlier film; Time Has Come (2005) deals with gay characters living in a made up/imaginary world. Any time Guiraude, who is gay, touches on homosexuality in his work, it's always done in some kind of challenging way.

Seeing this in a theater with a group of gay men (one of whom was a friend) really heightened the themes in the film for me as I imagine it may have for them as well. I hate to be presumptuous but given that this is clearly about aggression towards homosexuality on some level, I'm sure quite a few of the gay men in the theater have faced some form of aggression, oppression or ignorance in their life which makes Stranger By The Lake even more impactful.

Friday, April 18, 2014

UNDER THE SKIN: THE WOMAN WHO FELL TO EARTH...


I was a bit disappointed by Under The Skin but that doesn't mean I didn't like it. It just wasn't the masterpiece that a lot of people made it out to be. The first half was excellent while the second half really dragged its way to a sloppy finish. It was "ok". Certainly not in the same realm as the films of Kubrick, Lynch and all the other so-called "weird" modern cinema it’s being compared to by film critics.
I guess the David Lynch comparison is somewhat understandable. Under The Skin features a constant droning score, has lots of dialogue-less moments between the actors and it's a very surreal film where lots of random stuff happens and you don't know if you should laugh or be scared. These are all classic traits of David Lynch but at the same time that comparison feels lazy. These days any movie that's even slightly weird or "different" draws an immediate comparison to stuff like Lost Highway or Mulholland Drive. David Lynch, who is one of my all-time favorite filmmakers, didn't invent surreal, experimental or weird cinema. But film critics who write for The Huffington Post, Indie Wire and the million other nameless movie blogs would have you believe otherwise. Go a lil' deeper or look for a less obvious influence. If anything, Under The Skin looks like Jonathan Glazer tapped in to his inner-Chris Cunningham (for those that don’t know, both Glazer & Cunningham were prominent music video directors working around the same time). I always felt Glazer & Cunningham had the same spiritual connection as Spike Jonze & Michel Gondry. Each pair has worked with the same/similar music artists, and their visual styles are very similar. In fact, I used to get Jonathan Glazer & Chris Cunningham mixed up with one another. 
There's a scene in Under The Skin where a nameless man sinks in to some kind of a liquid abyss and has his insides sucked out of his of body until he's just a formless blob of skin floating along, and I was immediately reminded of Chris Cunningham's Only You music video for Portishead...

Only You (Cunningham) / Under The Skin (Glazer)
Only You / Under The Skin

There's another scene in Under The Skin where Scarlett Johansson picks up a man off the side of the road with a deformed face and I suddenly felt like I was watching an Aphex Twin video directed by Chris Cunningham. Both Glazer & Cunningham shoot deformities in the same fashion – darkly lit with just enough lighting to catch little glimpses of images that are supposed to scare us...

Rubber Johnny (Cunningham) / Under The Skin

I honestly don't get the Stanley Kubrick comparison tho. It’s evident from Glazer’s past music video work that Kubrick was an influence on him, but I just don’t see it with Under The Skin. In fact, I don't understand why any surreal film or filmmaker is always compared to Kubrick. He made ONE partially trippy film in the 60's. I know 2001: A Space Odyssey is a heavily influential film (probably top 10) but I wish critics had more to reference than that and Mulholland Drive. Have prominent film critics stopped watching films regularly? Or are they just not aware of the likes of Maya Deren, Stan Brahkage or selected works of Luis Bunuel, Andrei Tarkovsky or even Matthew Barney? Hell, someone make a Man Who Fell To Earth reference. Besides the fact that both films have a similar plot, there's some serious visual similarities as well...

The Man Who Fell To Earth (Roeg) / Under The Skin
The Man Who Fell To Earth / Under The Skin

Maybe the average people who read movie reviews don't know the aforementioned films & filmmakers and need a more recognizable name like Kubrick as a reference. But still - who hasn’t Stanley Kubrick influenced on some level? It's becoming redundant to mention Kubrick's influence on anyone in modern cinema...

this scene, used in Jonathan Glazer's music video for Massive Attack's Karmacoma, is so cliché but I had to throw it in...

I’m also shocked at how hardly anyone has made any kind of a link between Under The Skin and Leos Carax’s Holy Motors. Both films are darkly comical surreal stories about a nameless protagonist driving around getting in to unexplained adventures. I’m not saying the connection is as strong as Blue Velvet & Something Wild or Vertigo & Lost Highway, but I definitely see some strong similarities between the two…

Jonathan Glazer definitely went back to his music video roots with his latest feature and I'm not sure how I feel about that. On one hand - Under The Skin is wonderful to look at. But after 45 minutes it does start to feel like a really long music video or one of those “artsy” playstation ads you see on European television. Glazer seemed to be more concerned with style instead of telling a story. Under The Skin comes off like the feature film debut of a young former music video director but the problem is that this is actually the third feature film from an older/experienced former music video director so I don’t know if I can give this film a pass on certain things. Putting style over everything else, which is certainly the case with Under The Skin, is the kind of thing I don't personally go for (outside of my strange love for Nicholas Winding Refn) but I can let that go as long as the filmmaker is either young and/or new to feature filmmaking and their stylish visuals are exceptional. Jonathan Glazer had his time to purge and jerk-off to his own visuals with Sexy Beast & Birth (his first two features). Now that we're on movie #3, I'd like to see a stronger plot and/or a memorable performance (not to take anything away from Ben Kingsley's performance in Sexy Beast).
The plot for Under The Skin is a pretty typical sci-fi scenario - an alien (Scarlett Johansson) disguised as a nameless beautiful woman drives around Scotland and lures men back to a secret lair with false promises of sex, but instead they're hypnotized, captured and have their bodies harvested for some unexplained reason (presumably because their bodies provide some kind of energy for the alien race that Johansson's character represents). In the midst of doing her job, she has a sudden change of heart and goes rogue. After that, the film doesn’t fall completely apart, but I definitely remember checking the time more than once or squinting at the movie screen with a facial expression like; “…huh?”

It should be noted that the basic plot to Under The Skin is similar to The Man Who Fell To Earth. In Nicholas Roeg's film, David Bowie plays an alien who disguises himself as a human in an effort to get water back to his dying planet (there's also a crucial scene in both films where their true alien-self is revealed in a similar fashion).
I had to look up the plot for Under The Skin on Amazon (its based on a science fiction novel) and upon finding out what the story was really about, I was even more disappointed with the film adaptation. Glazer doesn't really delve in to the story that much. Instead he focuses more on Johansson's beauty and setting up cool isolated shots. I know not all films need to have a straightforward plot (or a plot at all) but there was an emptiness to Under The Skin that made me want more information. And the film was actually based on a story that had a plot! If you’re going to adapt a book, then adapt the book. Don’t just cherry pick what you want until it becomes a shell of what it once was. Just make your own story and call it something else if you’re going to do that.


Under The Skin also feels like a half executed comment on the male gender and how easily we fall prey to superficiality and/or sex. Through the course of the film, Johansson’s nameless alien character crosses paths with so many different male prototypes – The jocky/bro-ish sports fan, the sleazy night club guy that I imagine every woman dreads running in to, the insecure loner, the helpful sincere gentleman, and the aggressor/rapist. Almost every man Johansson comes in contact with in the film approaches her in a somewhat similar fashion: aggressive, sleazy, alpha male-ish or they try too hard to be cool. The story suddenly shifts when Johansson picks up the man with facial deformities. He’s quiet, shy, clearly depressed and doesn’t hit on her. In fact, he barely looks at her (he later reveals he’s never even been with a woman before). Because this is new for out protagonist, she’s thrown off and can’t comprehend that a man wouldn’t hit on her or instantly take to her aggressive flirting like all the others before him. This character brings her to the realization that not all men are the same and some have a soul. Her reevaluation of the male gender is ruined later on with the final man she comes in contact with...

Under The Skin has the makings of a cult classic (or at least a cult film with a solid cult following) but the problem is fans & (most) critics want to make it something bigger. Can’t we just call this a cult film and leave it at that? Putting aside the half-ass theory abouy this film being a comment on the male gender, Under The Skin isn’t that deep (no pun in intended) and I think we all know if the star was a random no-name actress or a model it wouldn’t get half the attention it’s getting, and a lot of you would write it off as just another strange artsy flick. Although props to Jonathan Glazer for not packing this film with a ton of recognizable faces. He could have easily made each nameless male character Johansson comes in contact with a known actor, but thankfully he didn’t as it would been distracting and would have probably taken us out of the (mostly empty) story. Between American Hustle & Grand Budapest Hotel, I just can’t take the ensemble casts anymore. It’s overkill. And Scarlett Johansson may not have given a phenomenal performance but I honestly can't see anyone else playing the part she did.

I feel like I'm in the minority with my lukewarm reception. I'd love to hear what you all thought about this. Perhaps there's something I missed...

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Friday, April 11, 2014

PUSHER 2: A SURPRISINGLY SAD & PERSONAL FILM


He [Tonny] is very much a sidekick in his own movie - Mads Mikkeksen

If you read this site regularly you'd know I'm a big fan of Nicholas Winding Refn. I've written about the majority of his filmography on here and he's one of the few young-ish/non-master filmmakers to get a "cinema of..." installment. But at the same time, I'm really not a fan of his early work. Prior to Fear X, which laid the groundwork for all of his future films, Refn was more of a guerrilla style filmmaker who embraced handheld camerawork & grittiness like every other young indie filmmaker in the 90's who looked up to Robert Rodriguez or John Cassavetes in a confused mis-guided way. Pusher & Bleeder (Refn's first two films) were full of gangsters, thugs & drug dealing for the most part. The goings-on in his work remain the same today: the criminal underworld, gangsters, and an almost immature exhibition of violence. But there's a beauty in everything he’s done style-wise since Bronson that makes his work so good (personally, I think it was Refn's unspoken exclusion from the Danish film scene that inspired him to move away from that cinema verite style and embrace the glossier, cleaner style that most people know him for today).
I know it’s strange to write about the middle film in a trilogy but Pusher 2 is quite different from the others. After watching the first Pusher I really had no desire to finish the series but an employee at the now closed video store; World Of Video, convinced me to give it a shot...and I was pleasantly surprised. If anything it's is a loose sequel in that it takes a smaller/supporting character from the first film ("Tonny") and makes him the main character this time around. The character of Tonny is the last person you'd expect to have an entire film based on. In Pusher he's essentially a sidekick that gets written out of the story in the first half. You honestly forget about him at the end of the first Pusher
Tonny shows a prison tattoo to his unimpressed father; "The Duke"
Pusher 2 picks up with Tonny (Mads Mikkelsen) after just being released from prison. This is hardly a story about an ex-con trying to rehabilitate to life on the outside or doing his best to not get pulled back in to a life of crime. Instead Tonny goes straight from prison to being a gangster again (even after discovering he’s a dad). It's almost as if his time in prison meant nothing. Tonny hopes to work for his father; "The Duke" - a respected criminal with a lucrative chop shop operation. The only problem is that The Duke pretty much hates his immature son and considers him an embarrassment. Throughout the film The Duke berates & disrespects his son Tonny to point where it gets ridiculous (Tonny does bring it on himself at times). But like a sad puppy, Tonny continues come back and vie for his father's love no matter what. There's an important subplot in Pusher 2 involving "Milo" (the Serbian drug kingpin from the first Pusher film and the main character in the third installment) and there's plenty of violence and other typical elements that make a gangster movie what it is, but at the end of the day Pusher 2 is really a drama about a son wanting to be accepted by his father. Refn just disguises all of that underneath a typical gangster story. I've read conflicting stories on why he made Pusher 2. Some believe Refn put no thought in to it. He needed to make a few quick films to get out of debt so he capitalized on the popularity of the first Pusher film and quickly churned out a sequel for the money. Others seem to think the real life relationship between Nicolas Refn and his father Anders Refn (also filmmaker) was the inspiration behind the relationship between Tonny and The Duke. Perhaps Refn's motivation was a little bit of both. I don't doubt that he made it for financial reasons, but maybe his subconscious kicked in during the writing process or while in pre-production and he drew inspiration from his personal life.



Much of this film's success is owed to Mads Mikkelsen's lead performance. I don't know if it’s his face or the vibe he gives off when he's acting but I can never picture another actor in any of his roles like I do so many other actors. Tonny is an interesting and surprisingly complex human being. He's a big immature child trapped in a man's body with grand illusions of being some big time gangster. Part of me dislikes him and wants nothing to do with him. Yet we somehow sympathize for him due to all the abuse he takes from his father and everyone else around him. No one else could have played the role of Tonny as well as Mads and not many filmmakers would dedicate an entire film to an unimportant sidekick character.

A big reason as to why I'm so critical of Refn's early work is because I was introduced to him through stuff like Fear X and Valhalla Rising. I'm more a fan of his slower, Kubrick-influenced stuff. I was a late comer to the Pusher series (I first saw the Pusher films only a few years ago). In retrospect I kind of appreciate the whole series because it showed Refn's growth as a person. For me, the first Pusher film represented a piece of work made by someone incredibly young (which Refn was at the time) with dreams of becoming the next Robert Rodriguez, who watched Mean Streets WAY too many times and still got the wrong message that Scorsese's early film tried to deliver. There's actually quite a few worthy comparisons between Mean Streets & Pusher. Both films are gritty/guerrila-style stories about lower-tier gangsters juggling women problems & unstable/lose cannon friends that get in way over their heads with people far more powerful than them. Both films even end on a negatively ambiguous note.
It's no mystery that Refn thinks gangsters are "cool", even though he did try to show the negative side of that lifestyle with the Pusher series. But from the score, the overall tone and even the advertising for the first Pusher - Nicholas Winding Refn's debut came off more like a "cool cocaine-induced indie gangster flick" instead of the depressing life lesson that it really should have been. However Pusher 2 makes up for all that. The Refn who made Pusher 2 was clearly a slightly more mature adult.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

PINNLAND EMPIRE'S PERSONAL FAVORITE SCENES OF THE DECADE SO FAR: PART FOUR

Lists used to be a regular thing on here at PINNLAND EMPIRE, but for whatever reason I gave them a rest in favor of writing longer articles that most of you probably don't even finish reading once you start. It recently hit me that although its way too early to start deciding what the defining movies of the decade are, there's already quite a few isolated moments from the last 4+ years that are either so visually striking, prolific, heartbreaking, frightening, hilarious or a combination of everything that they deserve to be mentioned.

So, as part of a new ongoing series, we're going to list my personal favorite movie moments of the decade so far.
I put an emphasis on the word personal because its just that. My own personal opinion. This list in no way speaks for anyone else. And please keep in mind that this is ongoing (as you're checking this fourth installment I'll already be putting the final touches on part six). So if you don't see something listed that you feel should be, give it some time. It may show up eventually. There's no order or hierarchy in what gets listed either.

FYI...three of the six films represented in this installment are currently streaming on Netflix instant and one is easy to come by on DVD & Blu-Ray just about anywhere, so I don't wanna hear any of that; "no one has heard of or seen any of these movies" (although I will admit that two films on this list aren't easy to watch or come by on DVD/Blu-Ray)

So here's part four. Enjoy...


Representin' Williamsburg (The Comedy)
Hating on “hipsters” has become a little tiresome and cliché. We get it – they can sometimes be pretentious, dirty looking and annoyingly ironic. But you can find faults in any sub-group/sub-genre of people (hip-hop backpackers, skaters, incense burning bohemians, rockers, bros/frat boys, etc). 
Film had yet to really address hipsters, specifically Brooklyn hipsters, until Rick Alverson's The Comedy came along in 2012. I somewhat appreciate that it was made by a white filmmaker instead of a filmmaker of color (as messed up as that sounds) because there’s a good chance it would have been angry, emotional & misguided instead of precise & well thought out. Imagine Spike Lee’s recent rant on gentrification in the form of a movie. Sure it would have been interesting and rooted in truth, but it would have come off slightly immature & angry. 
This scene from The Comedy, where we see our main character (played by Tim Heidecker of Tim & Eric) at a predominately black bar being casually racist and self imposing, pretty much sums up what’s wrong with "hipsters" & gentrification in Brooklyn today.



The seizure scene (The Comedy)
Here’s another great scene from The Comedy that really got to me for some strange reason. Towards of the end of the film Tim Heidecker casually sits back and watches a woman he hooks up with have a seizure and he does nothing to help.




The Hottentot Venus (Black Venus)
Not since Irreversible has there been a scene involving rape, sexual assault or sexual objectification that made me squirm in my seat. Simply for the fact that this is easily one of the most uncomfortable moments in cinema is why I’m putting this on the list. Before Abdelatiff Kechiche broke through with last year’s Blue Is The Warmest Color, he made one of the most underrated/misunderstood films in the form of Black Venus – the story of the Hottentot Venus. 
After being paraded around Europe as a sideshow attraction due to her voluptuous figure (something Europeans weren’t used to seeing at the time), Sarah Bartmann was later used as a prop/human sex toy for high society orgies and sex parties. In one scene, while random strangers are violating her in various ways, she breaks down and starts to cry. But the scene is shot so up-close & personal that you almost feel like you’re a part of the sexual abuse. You just want the scene to end. Black Venus is a tough film but it’s important. I’ll never understand why bipoics on the same damn people continue get made (and find success) while more original stories like this one get no love. Black Venus didn’t even get love in its own home country (France), but I’m sure part of that had to do with guilt and Europeans still wanting to keep certain thing tucked under the rug. 




A Pissed Off Bride (Certified Copy)
I can’t give too much of an explanation as to why I love this scene outside of the cliché reason of seeing someone angry and in tears on what’s supposed to be a happy time (their wedding day). There’s a nice contrast here. This (quick) scene is also very polarizing because the camera just stays locked in on this woman and there’s no movement on her part for a few seconds to the point where it looks like an old painting.



The Homonculus (Faust)
This is definitely one of the three creepiest moments of the decade so far. Easily. This scene, of a homunculus trapped in a jar, evokes the spirit of both Tarkovsky & Henenlotter (specifically Basket case) at the same time.




Tom Wilkinson's "extended cameo" in The Ghost Writer
It’s a shame that there's already signs of The Ghost Writer, Roman Polanski’s 2010 political thriller, not standing the test of time. In my opinion, this is the best thing he’s done in YEARS (it was in my top 10 of 2010). It seemed like most true Polanski fans didn’t like this because it wasn’t a psychological thriller (a lane that Polanski mastered & innovated) and average movie goers found it “boring” (I saw this twice in the theater and both times I heard rumblings of it being boring). Tom Wilkinson is one of those under-appreciated supporting actors (often mistakenly labeled as a character actor). Like Danny Huston, even in bad and/or mediocre films, their presence makes most things watchable. Wilkinson is used sparingly in The Ghost Writer (only two scenes) yet his creepy performance/extended cameo is the most memorable thing in the film for me.



Hiding Out (Upstream Color)
Like the scene in Certified Copy, this is another one I love but I can’t fully explain why. I know this scene is supposed to symbolize vulnerability and being scared of an unknown/mysterious threat, but beyond that, there’s a beauty & ambiance  here that almost can’t be put in to words.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

AN INTERVIEW WITH SHAKA KING!


Warren Wade Anderson was kind of enough to lend his excellent podcast (as well as co-host) PINNLAND EMPIRE’s first audio interview with filmmaker & Brooklynite; Shaka King – director of Newlyweeds (now on Netflix instant).
Listen as we discuss everything from Bad Santa & Little Murders to the lack of young black actors working in cinema today.

Enjoy…

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

TAKE THIS WALTZ



*MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD*

While Sarah Polley is responsible for one of my favorite movies of the last few years (Stories We Tell) she's also responsible for what I consider to be one of the most frustrating movies of the last few years with Take This Waltz. I'm not sure if it was Polley's intention to frustrate us, or if the movie itself has a lot of problems. Any good/great tale about a marriage or a relationship should always frustrate us to some degree. Films like; Faces, A Married Couple, The Puffy Chair & Blue Valentine (also starring Michelle Williams) all contain characters and/or scenarios that infuriate us, but that's partially what John Cassavetes, Alan King, The Duplass Brothers & Derek Cianfrence were trying to accomplish. Then there's relationship films like Unfaithful or Indecent Proposal that feature stupid and/or unrealistic characters & scenarios that infuriate us because they're...stupid & unrealistic. Take This Waltz falls somewhere in the middle off all this. There's great things about it (the ambiance, the score & certain isolated scenes) and then there's very very frustrating things about it as well (the choices our main character makes through the course of the film). I really want to love Sarah Polley's sophomore feature unconditionally but I just can't...

Take This Waltz is the story of "Margot" (Michelle Williams) - a married freelance writer who starts to develop mutual feelings for her neighbor "Daniel" (Luke Kirby) who just so happens to live across the street. Throughout the film Margot & Daniel "respectfully flirt" with one another (Daniel is fully aware she's married) but after a while the attraction becomes too strong and Margot leaves her husband "Lou" (Seth Rogen) for Daniel.

Margot & Lou
Hey, people fall out of love sometimes. It happens. But in the case of Take This Waltz I just wish there was a stronger reason for Margot to leave her husband. I get the feeling that Sarah Polley was trying to show the power of attraction and how difficult it can be to fight off sometimes, but it ended up coming off a little weak. I still respect her for making Margot's husband a good guy instead of a typical shitty husband who deserves to be cheated on. Filmmakers, both make & female, typically craft these cliché scenarios where one spouse (usually the boyfriend or husband) is mean, abusive, unfeeling, unfaithful or distant, which gives their partner (usually the girlfriend or wife) absolutely no choice at all but to cheat with the conveniently attractive person (usually a guy) who just so happens to understand them in a way their partner no longer does or never did. But that’s not the case here at all with Margot & Lou. At no point in the film does Sarah Polley indicate that there's some major underlying problems in their marriage. They have a pretty typical relationship. They have inside jokes, they're playful, they fight, they have little ticks that annoy each other, etc. It's obvious there's things Lou has to work on but nothing out of the ordinary. And the same thing applies to Margot. She's a good person like her husband, but there's stuff she could be better at in the relationship too. Daniel brings nothing to the table besides good looks. He's a bicycle cab driver/bedroom artist while Lou is a semi-successful cook/author who cares about his wife. Sarah Polley spends all this time making Margot out to be this emotional & complex woman. I don’t want to believe a person like her would leave her husband for such superficial reasons but that seems to be the case in the end. Is Sarah Polley trying to say that typical/traditional domestic happiness (what Margot & Lou had) is boring or mundane?
I also get the feeling that Sarah Polley wanted us to understand where Daniel was coming from too. Although almost all of the film is told from Margot's perspective, there's a couple of scenes in Take This Waltz that show how conflicted Daniel is with everything as well. His character is almost like Anthony Mackie in Half Nelson. He comes off so cool & nice that you almost forget he's kind of a snake. In my opinion, a character like Daniel doesn't deserve the luxury of being understood. He knew Margot was married but he still persisted. Basically, fuck that guy...
And to keep it real, Daniel isn't as good looking as I think he's supposed to be (no offense to actor Luke Kirby. You're far more handsome than me). But what do I know? I don't find men attractive so maybe there's something a straight female sees in him that I just don't. As my friend/past PINNLAND EMPIRE contributor Chris Funderberg jokingly put it - had the Luke character been Paul Walker (R.I.P.) it would have been somewhat understandable that Margot was so attracted to him.

On a side note, it is nice to see a female character leave their partner for such vein & superficial reasons. Male characters are almost always exclusively portrayed this way as if women are incapable being slightly shallow in terms of what they want in a partner. At no point in Take This Waltz is there a sex scene between Lou & Margot, yet towards the end of the film there's a sequence where Margot & Daniel try out almost every sexual position there is. This is something else that really pissed me off because it makes Lou look like an even bigger sap than he already is.
This is the kind of film that will separate the sexes (I'm well aware that my masculinity & manhood is the main driving force behind this review). If you go to rotten tomatoes you'll see that with the exception of two female critics, all of the bad reviews came from male critics while every other female critic gave it a positive review. Even one of the two female critics who gave it a bad review overall still had some positive things to say about it.
I have to give Sarah Polley serious credit for striking a chord with "average guys" like myself. Lets's be honest here - the average guy with relationship experience who has seen this film sees themselves in the Lou character more than Daniel (I'm sure a lot of guys wouldn't admit that, but it's true) so they're going to feel a certain kind of way as they watch the events unfold. All my male friends who've seen Take This Waltz dislike it, while the women I know who've see it tend to be more understanding to Margot's situation. I'm not even sure if Sarah Polley meant to strike such a personal chord with men, given this story is clearly geared towards women.
Daniel & Margot
I'm not denying that Margot is an unrealistic character or that people don’t leave their significant others for the wrong reasons. Plus, she learned her lesson at the end of the day (it's heavily implied towards the end of the film that she should have stayed with Lou). Margot was going through a stale/strange patch in her marriage and instead of working through it, she made a bad choice. But the tone of this film still suggests that we be concerned with her or care about her when we really shouldn’t. In my opinion, she really don’t deserve any kind of sympathy. When you think of all the characters in cinema that have left their partners for someone else, Margot doesn’t exactly fit that mold. The subconscious doesn’t allow us to be immediately frustrated with her and her actions.

Had the sexes been reversed in Take This Waltz, the male equivalent to Margot would have been labeled a scum bag no matter how sensitive they came off. I'm sure the average Jezebel reader is trying to come up with examples to debunk this theory, but face the facts - it's true.
We shouldn’t wish bad things on Margot or even hate her for what she did, but the somewhat lighthearted yet slightly upbeat ambiguous ending is clearly in her favor while Lou, who did nothing to deserve what he got, ends up alone in the end. 

Like I said earlier, Take This Waltz isn’t all bad. In my opinion, it has one of the best scores of the last few years and really makes some of the more bland scenes come off better than they should. Jonathan Goldsmith did an amazing job with the music. The swimming pool scene, and the few minutes that lead up to it, is one of the best isolated romantic moments I've seen in a film that doesn’t involve any kind of touching or kissing (it seriously evokes the spirit of the first sleep sequence from Soderbergh's Solaris). And for such a mish-mosh of actors, they all have pretty good chemistry with each other for the most part. Seth Rogen doesn't give a "tour de force" performance but we do see a different side of him than what we're used to (technically this is the best acting he's done so far in his career). But as far as the material he was given to work with, I really felt like the Lou character was the ultimate sap. When Margot leaves him, he's way too understanding & cool about everything (almost like Sarah Polley's father in Stories We Tell).
There's also a subplot in Take This Waltz concerning Margot's friend/Lou’s sister; "Geraldine" (Sarah Silverman) and her struggle with alcoholism that I thought was unnecessary. She could have been a supporting character without all the additional back-story even if it is minor.

I think if this was Sarah Polley's first film I wouldn't be as critical about it but Away From Her (Polley's first film) was so mature that this follow-up almost felt like a step backwards in terms of her exploration of marriage. Perhaps the reason Take This Waltz isn't as mature as Away From Her is because the characters in Waltz are in their late 20's and don't have the same experiences or level of maturity as our 70-something year old characters in Away From Her.

Even though I have some issues with Take This Waltz, I still suggest you all check it out (it's available on Netflix instant). This isn’t some run of the mil indie (I wouldn’t have taken the time to write about it if it was). Maybe there's things about this film I just didn't catch, or maybe  I'm just expecting more than I should from it. After all, I've never been married while Sarah Polley has. She briefly mentions her divorce in Stories We Tell. Due to the personal nature of all of her films, I'm sure there's pieces of her real life in Take This Waltz so perhaps I have no idea what I'm talking about...

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