Friday, April 9, 2021

ON THE ROCKS



I’ve never been the biggest fan of Sofia Coppola. She’s a talented filmmaker but at the end of the day her films are just not for me. And that’s ok. Honestly, I think more folks need to adopt that way of thinking when it comes to filmmakers they dislike. While there are some universally egregious examples of bad filmmakers that deserve harsh criticism, more times than not a person’s disdain for a director’s work comes down to them not being the target audience for said director’s work. Greta Gerwig’s movies aren’t for everyone. Terrence Malick isn’t for everyone. Neither is Sofia Coppola.

The thing is, I subject myself to all of Coppola’s movies whenever they come out so it’s difficult to not hold my tongue when it comes to her work (with the exception of The Virgin Suicides, I’ve seen all of her films in the theater). Like a lot of cinephiles with common sense and an appreciation for history, I’ve never been a fan her rewriting actual history to make things fit her ideology (from removing the Black maid character from her remake of The Beguiled to make racist southern whites ladies look more sympathetic to some of the liberties taken in Marie Antoinette, and the overall lightly sympathetic tone towards the spoiled brats in The Bling Ring).
I don’t want to dwell on her overall theme of; “it’s so hard to be a privileged white lady” because I don’t want to be incorrectly labeled as a misogynist. While I do think that the overall theme in almost all of her films is absolutely “it’s so hard to be privileged”, I have no problem falling back in to the idea of these movies are just not for me. Plus, these types of criticisms I just listed above could be debated forever so it’s almost pointless to keep going. 

It’s really Coppola’s unique diehard fanbase that bugs me more than her movies. In certain circles she’s made out to be one of the unofficial posterwomen for feminism in film and that really concerns me considering some of her ideologies play in to the negative stereotypes associated with what some condier to be “white feminism” (the erasure of Black women in The Beguiled, the unfair criticism of the “ditzy” woman stereotype as portrayed by Anna Farris in Lost In Translation, etc). But I recognize I am a man so I’ll tread lightly when it comes to women’s business...


Gender still does play an interesting role when it comes me and Sofia Coppola's movies. It’s no coincidence that I think Somewhere and On The Rocks are her best films BY FAR. I imagine some of you just looked at this like I said Martin Scorsese’s best movies are The Color Of Money or The Departed, but as a Black man raised in a middle-class Black household, movies like The Virgin Suicides and Lost In Translation just don’t relate to me. Again - that’s ok.
And it’s not like Somewhere or On The Rocks are completely relatable either. They still play in to some of the “rich people problems that really aren't problems” stereotype that comes along with Coppola’s films. But as a diehard fan of Olivier Assayas (Demonlover, Personal Shopper, Summer Hours, Boarding Gate, etc) I really have no right to complain about a director dwelling on rich people problems.


What stood out so much to me in On The Rocks was the portrayal of fatherhood. I think mothers and fathers are equally important in life but I’ve always been extra critical when it comes to the portrayal of fathers in movies. We aren’t going to argue that, for the most part, moms have it good on the big screen while dad characters are either dysfunctional psychos or useless paperweights. Occasionally we get a dad character that’s meant to be positive or realistic, but generally speaking - dads are often one dimensional. 
The fathers in Sofia Coppola’s later work are a beautiful mixture of loving, caring, immature and selfish. 

In On The Rocks, Bill Murray's Felix is an older womanizing, cheating playboy that loves his daughter. While he clearly didn’t appreciate or respect his ex-wife (something that I assume has been worked out over the years), he still loves and cares for his daughter Laura (Rashida Jones). He cares for Laura so much that he aids her in investigating as to weather or not her husband Dean (Marlon Wayans) is cheating on her.
On the surface, On The Rocks is a mature comedy caper in the style of Judd Apatow meets Claudia Weill. When you dig beneath the surface it’s a very autobiographical story for both Sofia Coppola (elements of Felix’s character appear to be based on Francis Ford Coppola) and Rashida Jones (her father Quincy Jones is a known womanizer with controversial opinions about women).
Who knows complicated rich men better than Rashida Jones or Sofia Coppola. I think their pairing is the perfect combination. 

The father/daughter caper in On The Rocks is also a weird form of bonding mixed with therapy in that Felix is witnessing what he put his wife through back in the day by observing his daughter’s insecurities about her own relationship.


As many folks have already pointed out in various reviews and on twitter, On The Rocks is kind of like a spiritual sequel to Somewhere.  There’s even a not-so hidden Easter egg as the daughters in both films dress alike...

Somewhere / On The Rocks

It’s as if Stephen Dorff’s Johnny Marco (Somewhere) matured a bit (a lot of the negative & positive qualities that apply to Felix apply to Johnny).


I don’t normally like the kinds of characters in On The Rocks (well-off people that need something to do so they create drama in order to fill some void), but like Olivier Assayas (and occasionally Wes Anderson), she makes typically empty characters seem interesting. I’d like to see Sofia Coppola tackle more complicated male characters as it seems to work the best in my opinion. I feel weird drawing a comparison between Sofia and Claire Denis (not so much because they’re both women but because Denis is my favorite filmmaker), but they’re both much better at showing complicated male characters than they are at showing female characters.
Similar to how Somewhere and On The Rocks are spiritually connected, Alex Descas’s portrayal of Fatherhood in 35 Shots Of Rum is a callback to his roll in I Can’t Sleep.
Sofia Coppola has claimed to not be familiar with Claire Denis which would indicate she isn't influenced by her, but they're portrayals of men (specifically under the umbrella of fatherhood) makes for an interesting pairing.

Thursday, April 1, 2021

I CARE A LOT


Occasionally I come across a review, tweet or opinion from a woman about I Care A Lot that paints Rosamund Pike’s Marla Grayson out to be a total badass boss or whatever. This bugs me for a moment but then I remember how many men idolize the shitty main characters from stuff like Scarface, Goodfellas, A Clockwork Orange and countless other classics that mislabel men as charming flawed anti-heroes when they're really just terrible. And I guess that’s fair. Both men and women should have the ability and opportunity to be dumb when it comes understanding movies and some of the praise for I Care A Lot is no exception.

Now...I don’t want to hold this movie accountable for doing something that filmmakers have been doing for a very very long time. Take Charlie Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux (a movie that also has a lot in common with I Care A Lot). When it first came out it was met with protests and picketers, but in the last 10-15 years history has kind of been re-written about that film's legacy and Chaplin’s Verdoux is treated like a charming anti-hero. Folks see Chaplin’s charming grin and the physical comedy gags and they forget that he kills innocent women for their money. But it’s “ok” because he’s doing all this for his sick wife and daughter and he gives an impassioned speech at the end. 
There’s a similar tone in I Care A Lot. Marla Grayson is bad, but the tone of the film could lead some easily swayed people to think she’s “cool” or even the hero of the story. 

At one point in the movie Marla narrowly escapes death and raises her arms in triumph after beating the odds.


This moment is clearly meant for the audience to cheer and applaud. But Marla Grayson is terrible. She scams old people out of their money and indirectly plays a part in some of their deaths. I wouldn’t even call her a sociopath because that term comes along with a scientific analysis which can be leveraged towards some kind of understanding which creeps in to forgiveness. No. Marla Grayson is evil. And I worry that some folks just don’t get that.


I did enjoy I Care A Lot overall. I want to make that clear. The first half is solid, the middle gets quite silly (and I don’t mean that in a good way), and the ending is phenomenal. Movies that are a combination of solid, silly and phenomenal are the best to dissect and write about!
This is the story of an ice-cold grifter/scammer of elderly people who gets in a little over her head with her most recent victim/mark (Diane Wiest). Rosemund Pike is great as always, Peter Dinklage makes for a fun “villain”, and it’s always nice to see Diane Wiest in something current.
But I didn’t enjoy this movie for any of the characters. I don’t want to give too much away but they’re all bad. From one of the “victims” right down to Grayson’s sidekick/lover that people can’t seem to stop fetishizing (I understand you all find her attractive but I get the feeling some of you didn’t pick up on the fact that’s she’s a terrible person just like her boss/girlfriend).
 
On one hand I want more modern films like this where we have terrible characters across the board and no one to “root” for. The only problem with that is it brings on the dumb opinions of today’s bratty keyboard critics who feel empowered by a character like Grayson...





I came across one particular twitter comment in response to a scene from I Care A Lot that really bugged me...



I understand the guy in the scene (played by Macon Blair) is physically intimidating, but given the circumstances (Marla had his mother falsely committed to an assisted living home and took all of her money) I don’t know if he’s the bad guy that people think he is at this point in the movie.
I also understand that Marla absolutely has a (general) point about being beaten by a woman and how some weak men can’t handle that. Sure. But in this particular case I think it’s pretty cheap to bring gender & misogyny in to things...

I don’t know if I’m understanding the logic. Is it because men have been terrible pieces of shit in movies since day one that it’s women’s turn (even though we've had great female villains in movies since the beginning of cinema)? 

According to some folks on Letterboxd that seems to be the case...

This shit is weird to me because when you watch I Care A Lot, Marla's victims are other women. Is that girl power? Are those girl boss vibes?? Did you see that?
The selective moral code that folks have for (some) movies these days absolutely kills me. It’s very telling. Please stop this bratty hot-take bullshit. You aren’t as clever, funny or edgy as you think you are...


(these letterboxd and twitter assessments I'm posting could also very well be ironic which is another issue. It's impossible to tell who is being genuine or not these days...)


Again - I’m fine with terrible people being the main characters of a story (especially an actress like Rosemund Pike who plays the part so well and effortlessly), but they don’t have to be cheered on, rooted for or propped up like a lady boss under the umbrella of weird misguided girl power. I think if more folks just outright admitted that they want to cheer for a terrible person then I’d be fine with it but instead some hide behind the facade of warped feminism thinking that propping up a shitty person is progressive or something. But this is the thought process of so many folks today when it comes to film analysis.
Is it just me, or did letterboxd usher in a whole generation of unfunny online personalities that can’t decide if they want to be open mic comics or (cynical) film critics? Pick one and be mediocre at it because most of you aren’t very good at doing both. I’m telling you - most of these new snarky one-liner punchline film critics can all be traced back to letterboxd with shit like; "top 10 horniest Al Pacino movies" or "here's my list of favorite Adam Sandler movies next to my list of favorite Bergman movies. I'm so random, right??" I recognize the site itself is really cool and is an important tool/platform that has brought together friends & communities, but the average user these days seems to be more obsessed with getting off jokes than sharing genuine thoughts about a movie. 


Anyway...


Between certain specific scenes, various elements of the plot and Rosemund Pike’s presence, there’s a natural urge to compare I Care A Lot to Gone Girl.

I’ve certainly done it...

Gone Girl /
I Care A Lot 


Gone Girl /
I Care A Lot 

Gone Girl /
I Care A Lot 


The score for both films are also incredibly similar. Before looking up composer Mark Canham, I assumed Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross did the music.


The biggest difference between the two films for me is that I have bit more sympathy for Pike’s Amy. A bit. She is revealed to be evil but when it comes to the relationship between her and Nick (Ben Affleck) - I’m team Amy. Nick not only took her money to fund his lifestyle, but then he had the nerve to cheat on her. Amy is completely in the right to screw him over as far as I’m concerned. I don’t know about setting him up for murder, but Nick isn’t the “good guy” of the story.
Marla is not the good guy or misunderstood or the edgy anti-hero of I Care A Lot. She’s an evil person that happens to be the main character. Again - that’s fine with me. I encourage more prominent movies like this. But there are certain scenes in the film that do kind of hold the audiences hand to cheer for Marla in a kind of twisted way. Throughout the film men try to harm her physically and people underestimate her because she’s a woman. But considering what she does for a living, none of that matters. She’s called a bitch a few times and we’re supposed to side with her? Another issue I had with this movie had to do with the presumed main victim of the movie (played by Diane Wiest) not really being all that innocent. This bugged me because it felt cheap. It's like by making everyone in the movie bad made Marla Grayson less evil and I just don’t buy it.

Please understand I think there are enough people out there that get the intended moral code of this movie. If you’re a rational-thinking person then you should be able to understand you can watch and enjoy something like I Care A Lot without having to “root” for someone. Unfortunately meme culture and shit like (bad) letterboxd criticism has ushered in this forced-edgy way of digesting and (mis)understanding film.

Friday, March 12, 2021

THE SCHOOL OF MAYA DEREN PART 14: MUSIC VIDEOS


Meshes Of The Afternoon / Da Mystery Of Chessboxin' (Wu-Tang Clan)

One thing this ongoing series has shown is that Maya Deren is one of the most influential filmmakers within certain lanes of cinema (experimental, avant-garde, surreal, etc). She’s rubbed off on everyone from David Lynch & Jim Jarmusch to Nicolas Winding Refn & Carlos Reygadas.
But her influence doesn’t stop at just movies. Her DNA is all over the music videos of artists like Madonna, Janelle Monae and Wu-Tang Clan (music videos are essentially short films). She’s even inspired certain lanes of underground & experimental hip-hop (Busdriver, Beans, Exile, etc).
Outside of the fact that the mirror-faced grim reaper character from Meshes Of The Afternoon has become a commonplace image over the years, a lot of the photographers, directors and artists behind the music videos shown below have a background in avant-garde & experimental art where Deren is often studied, so these connections have some merit...


Meshes Of The Afternoon / Electroma (Daft Punk)


It should be noted that the type of martial arts being performed in Deren's Meditation On Violence is Wu-Tang...
Meditation On Violence / Da Mystery Of Chessboxin' (Wu-Tang Clan)


Meshes Of The Afternoon / We're All In Power (Exile)


Meshes Of The Afternoon / We're All In Power (Exile)


Exile's entire Radio album was inspired by Meshes Of The Afternoon


Beans with a subconsious/coincidental nod to Maya Deren on his more recent album covers:
Meshes Of The Afternoon / Someday This Will All Be Ash (Beans)
Meshes Of The Afternoon / Nights Without Smiles (Beans)


Meshes Of The Afternoon / Tightrope (Janelle Monae)


Studies In Choreography For Camera / Justify My Love (Madonna)


Studies In Choreography For Camera / Love Will Never Do Without You (Janet Jackson)


Studies In Choreography For Camera / Love Will Never Do Without You (Janet Jackson)


Studies In Choreography For Camera / Love Will Never Do Without You (Janet Jackson)


At Land / Cherish (Madonna)


I know black & white imagery of someone running alone on the beach is pretty common, but considering this video was directed by Herb Ritts (director of both Cherish & Love Will Never Do Without You), it's safe to assume the Deren influence didn't just stop at Janet Jackson & Madonna.
Also, Chris Isaak's Wicked Game is connected to another student of Maya Deren. Not only did David Lynch direct the original video for this song, but it's also featured heavily in Lynch's Wild At Heart...
At Land / 
Wicked Game (Chris Isaak)



Meshes Of The Afternoon / Notebook (Busdriver)


Meshes Of The Afternoon / Notebook (Busdriver)


Both of these are bookended with similar visuals:
Ensemble For Somnambulists / Sledgehammer (Peter Gabriel)


At Land / Hot For Teacher (Van Halen)


Meshes Of The Afternoon / THEHIDDENCHARACTER (???)




Monday, March 1, 2021

CRIME WAVE



John Paizs' Crime Wave (not to be confused with Sam Raimi’s Crimewave which came out around the same time) is an amazing mix of surreal humor and the deconstruction of 1950s/1960s nostalgia (noir films, pulpy crime novels, Norman Rockwell paintings, etc). It’s like an entire season of Leave It To Beaver under the creative control of Kenneth Anger. And if that doesn’t work for you, imagine a cinematic stew of everything from David Lynch & The Coen Brothers to True Stories (The Talking Heads) & the dark side of Elvis Presley’s personal life.
For those of you that are unfamiliar or visiting PINNLAND EMPIRE for the first time - I’m very much in to cinematic comparisons (both intentional & unintentional) and visual similarities. Crime Wave is all of those things and more so I was very drawn to this

John Paizs doesn’t shy away from the possibility that he may (or may not be) influential in some way...

The Coen brothers...they were sent CRIME WAVE very early on by my distributors to see if they might have any suggestions for a recut of the film or whatever - John Paizs

Crime Wave / Raising Arizona

Crime Wave / Raising Arizona


What I do know is that about five years after, they came out with their own postmodern writer’s block dark comedy, which even had its own made-up movie genre, the wrestling picture. And of course I’m talking about BARTON FINK - John Paizs

Crime Wave / Barton Fink


The basic plot of Crime Wave centers around an author (Steve) in the midst of a serious writer’s block (he only gets inspiration late at night when the street light outside his room comes on). The majority of the story is told from the perspective of a young girl (Kim) whose parents rent a room to Steve while he figures out his next book idea (Kim is both very observant and also has a huge schoolgirl crush on Steve).
But the basic premise doesn’t do the film justice. There’s a serial killer dressed up as Elvis, a horny sadistic cowboy and interludes that come right out of Ren & Stimpy. Crime Wave feels like a footnote in the development of early 90’s Nickelodeon programming (Pete & Pete, Are You Afraid Of The Dark, Ren & Stimpy, Rocco’s Modern Life, etc) or modern day Cartoon Network Adult Swim programming (Tim & Eric, The Shivering Truth, Joe Pera, Eric Andre, The Heart She Holler, etc). I think that’s what fascinates me most about this film. It’s filled with a ton of influences and it also went on to (possibly) influence later films in the same lane.

I came across this movie while I was in the middle of a serious Guy Maddin phase. Maddin has always been one of my favorite modern filmmakers but it only hit me recently how much I love his work. Reading everything I could about his early career eventually lead me to his fellow Winnipeg contemporary; John Paizs.

A young Guy Maddin appears in a few of Paizs’ early short films...

Maddin often shouts out Paizs in interviews so it only made sense to check out his films (Crime Wave is currently streaming on Amazon Prime and his excellent short film; The International Style is on YouTube). Turns out, I was familiar with Paizs’ work without even realizing it. He not only directed episodes of Kids In The Hall, but he also directed the 1999 sci-fi satire Top Of The Food Chain which I’d seen once over two decades ago as a teenager. That’s when it all clicked. Everything suddenly made sense. The same satirical approach in Top Of The Food Chain can be found in Crime Wave. The same voice-over narration (courtesy of a young girl) found in some of the skits in The Kids In The Hall sketches are rooted in Crime Wave...

The “It’s a fact girl” had to have been influenced by Kim in some way...

Crime Wave /
The Kids In The Hall


Steve’s fascination with the radiator in John Paizs’ Crime Wave (below) reminded me of Eraserhead (top), then I came to find out Eraserhead’s tone was kind of an inspiration for Crime Wave...

I’d always imagined that this would play at a midnight movie, kind of a cult movie and that this needed special handling. It needed to be directed at the same audiences that were going to see, for example, Lynch’s Eraserhead. That wasn’t part of the market that they had experience - John Paizs

Eraserhead /
Crime Wave


This branches off in to more possible Lynch connections with stuff like the cowboy in Mulholland Drive...

Mulholland Drive /
Crime Wave

Mulholland Drive /
Crime Wave


And Lynch’s cinematic first cousin (and Canadian hero) David Cronenberg also seems to have rubbed off on Paizs/Crime Wave

Videodrome /
Crime Wave


The similarities between Crime Wave and David Byrne’s True Stories are also undeniable...

True Stories / Crime Wave

True Stories / Crime Wave


I’m also reading from multiple sources about how much Paizs loved Kenneth Anger and how he inspired some of his work. It definitely shows...

Rabbit's Moon /
The International Style 

Scorpio Rising /
Crime Wave

Scorpio Rising /
Crime Wave

Scorpio Rising /
Crime Wave


The visual similarities extend beyond film & TV...



Other possible darker visual influences can be traced back to everything from Friedkin’s Cruising to the frustrated writer in The Shining...

The Shining /
 Crime Wave

Cruising /
 Crime Wave


I feel like this movie (along with everything else in Paizs’ filmography) was made specifically for me. I still can’t believe it took me this long to see Crime Wave but I guess it’s better later than never.
I do have to shoutout my friend David Davidson of Toronto Film Review who tried his best to get me to watch Crime Wave for the last 6 years...




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