Wednesday, December 31, 2014

My favorite films of 2014


Now is the time of year when we are glutted with lists extolling the best and worst happenstances of the year gone by and there is, after one or two lists of verbal fireworks in the form of inapt metaphors, inept similes, and indiscreet opinions about the personal lives of actors, directors and writers one has never met, it all becomes a persistent noise in the background, like the sprinkler system the spurts on through the day and into the night at the house next door. All the opinions about best and worst movies, spoken at a pitch that nears hysteria and utter, complete, incalculable irrational .
Pretty much everyone has a the same views on the same films, and the best any of us can do is play around with the wording, scramble the choices as to what column they fall into, yay or nay, perhaps do something "daring" by including what we, who collectively regard ourselves individuals with refined tastes and idiosyncratic smarts, select an obscure movie that very few of one's tent-pole addicted brethren would have recognized. In that last instance, a fine argued case for a movie no one you know personally has seen leaves with the duty to over explain the films context , style , and of breaking the news that there are people in capes, no super powers, no destruction of a major American city.
Trust me, I have tried that ploy, I have tried to enlighten the masses with my peculiar selections for the latest and greatest films to be made and released in the 365 days now behind us. It's a grim lesson. Well, not grim, just depressing in a minor key: no knew what I was talking about, nor cared. But the joy of these lists is that it is a grand excuse to hear yourself write , construct absurdly long sentences and make like a dime store Mencken and toss a bit of snark to the rubes and rubettes who are just passing by the soda fountain.
In any case, my best films of 2014:
1.NIGHTCRAWLER: I've already sung praises and lavished ham-fisted metaphors enough on this film, but it bears repeating that Nightcrawler is one of those debut films from a newly minted director, in this case seasoned screenwriter Dan Gilroy, where everything a solid,tense, noirish thriller ought to do. Gilroy has assembled a crackerjack cast and proceeds with a tale of a marginal character , a petty thief with disturbingly skewed frame of mind, who stumbles onto the world of "nightcrawlers", the freelance videographers who respond to police calls and film the worst of what happens in a city like Los Angeles after dark; murders, car crashes, fires, assorted human tragedy.
The film resembles, in theme, Martin Scorsese's masterpiece Taxi Driver, but this film is wholly his own and Gilroy establishes his own personality on this thriller. Los Angeles is seen mostly at night, a tarnished jewel glistening in the distance as we view it from the dank, shadowy vantages of service alleys, side streets rolling down dry, cottage dotted hills, the rooftops of slum neighborhoods. The camera placements and the editing are sublime; Michael Mann, himself a master of interpreting L.A. after dark, would find much to admire in this vision. Jake Gyllenhaal as Louis Bloom, the titular nightcrawler, has a field day with his twitchy character who speaks and reacts in phrases and ways that make you think of someone who hasn't a center of being but is rather playing a role for the moment that will be sustained until it stops working, a moment after which anything can happen. Nightcrawler kept me rapt. A fine thriller, wonderfully done, splendidly acted.
2.BIRDMAN: This film is a about as meta-textual as it gets, concerning a actor named Riggan who, best known for portraying the cartoon super hero Birdman in three live action films, is attempting a comeback on broadway with a stage adaptation of a collection of Raymond Carver short stories, 'What We Talk About When We Talk About Love". The first inside joke, of course, is that star Michael Keaton was the first Batman in two Tim Burton versions of the DC icon, who had the oft circulated take away line "I'm Batman" when the Dark Knight introduces himself to the Gotham crime element. Keaton's character in this new film has a mind that is subdivided with conflict, a string of unresolved issues that force him to hallucinate greatly, not the least of which is a voice that rasps only to him "YOU'RE BIRDMAN", and which harshly chastises him for abandoning the super hero for the delusion that he could become part of the New York arts crowd. That's all a bunch of shit, the voice insists, and intrudes on the actor's private moments with more berating and demands that he give up this broadway charade and reclaim his one true calling , the man who is the definitive Birdman. The film, though, is quite a bit more than that, as it brings around a provocative stream of old associations, like an estranged daughter, an estranged daughter he's only recently reconciled with (if imperfectly), acting rivals , all of whom , between hallucinations, have wonderfully nuanced confrontations with Riggan and with each other on the irony latent in the countless attempts we make to rid ourselves of masks and present our true selves to things that matter most , such as marriage, rearing children, authentically gratifying work, only to realize that even the true self presented as evidence of no disguise is itself a mask, a disguise. The conflicted Riggan is jerked about emotionally and has several instances where the hallucinations, the warring desires, take over and the film is transformed into yet another space, a surreal terrain of tall buildings, floating, spectacles that then dissipate as the conflicted hero emerges from his melodrama and attempts to finish what he's begun, the afore said adaptation for the screen. A fine cast of characters abound here, and a superlative roster of actors to bring their quirks and vulnerabilities to the screen; Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts are sublime and each of them have solidly written, deftly directed roles.
3.GONE GIRL: "Gone Girl", for all the intimidating hype, is a terrific piece of work, deftly, skillfully, subtly directed by the increasingly estimable David Fincher ("Fight Club", "Zodiac", "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo"). Without going into plot detail and risk spoiling the film for others, lets say here that this is an intricate thriller, a murder mystery or sorts, a black comedy, a tale that evolves from a sort of "Peyton Place" situation of inane passion and betrayals but begins to morph into a taut, edgy thriller and into a dark, bleak comedy. As I said, this is a tale with lots of detail and surprises, but Fincher has a master's control of the material--use of flashbacks and shifting from points of view add texture and bring you in further into this seductive drama-comedy. We do not lose our place anywhere in the telling.
Fincher, like Alfred Hitchcock before him, has a sense of how to introduce complexity in a film at precisely the moment when you think you've accurately assessed where the plot is going. Especially pleasing is the lack of any rickety deus ex machina, the blatantly mechanical plot device in the form of a stock character or clich├ęd situation that appears only to initiate a generic and predictable twist in a genre thriller. "Gone Girl’s changes, cogently devised and deftly deployed, arise organically from the terrain of lying, cheating and infidelity that's already been established. This is a movie that lots of surprises and one in which you have to admit that didn't see coming.


Finding Vivian Maier

4.FINDING FOR VIVIAN MAIER: I saw this film and was thoroughly engrossed. Vivian Maier is such an enigma that she may well inspire continued speculation as to her personality and motivations as her renown grows.She was a housekeeper by trade, someone born in the United States yet feined a foreign accent and fictionalized her background, a woman without an observable social life of her own, an intensely private person who worked for several employers for several years a piece but about whom they couldn't recollect much at all. She was, though, a superbly gifted photographer who had a camera always at the ready where ever she went, taking a picture with an old, conspicuous camera when ever an image, a face, a spontaneous arrangement of objects presented themselves to her. She was a master of the art, as the film reveals in a generous representation of her photography.
The mystery of Vivian Maier unfolds with the discovery of literally thousands of undeveloped rolls of her photos at an estate sale; the purchaser of the photos processes some rolls and is flabbergasted as to the high quality of the work. Who took these photos? Why are so many rolls left undeveloped and nearly lost forever? Who is Vivian Maier and what compelled to live a life as a house servant when she had talent that equaled, on her own terms, the best work of photographers of great fame and praise.
This is a fascinating film, a discovery and appreciation of previously unknown master of photography, but also a mystery story. More is revealed about Maier, but the more we learn about her, the more questions we are inspired to ask. Her black and white photography are simply stunning and really do, as the experts in the film insist, match up with the best photographers of the period. It's an engrossing documentary on a fascinating subject.
5.GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL:Wes Anderson's deadpan absurdity works again. If you're an Anderson, you get the humor and the genre mashups the director brings to the screen: there is something quaint , lovely but a bit frayed into the worlds he to let his imagination move into for a period, while we're laughing at the off- kilter rhythms of the laugh lines and admiring his remarkable sense of art design, there's a sinister world lurking underneath the universe of his whimsical creations.


John Wick

6.JOHN WICK: A terse and true addition to the "payback's a bitch" genre, Kennau Reeves as the titular character, a hit man who has retired from his trade and is in a state of grieving over his dead wife until he is, well, fucked with by the son of the State side Russian mob. We know what happens next, with John Wick digging up the tools of his trade, the idea being like that of "Shane" where the former gun fighter takes his guns out of the saddle bag, and prepares a one man assault against a massive crime organization. It's been done to death, seemingly , premise that is the mark of a straight to video Steven Segal film, but co-directors Chad Stahlski and David Leitch keep this film tightly reined in, efficiently introducing a couple of new ideas here and there, but mostly sticking close to the idea that makes the genre so compelling, that the bad guys, despite their advantage in numbers and fire power, are going to pay for the sins they've committed with their lives. To cut to to the chase, this film works because it's a stylish and unapologetic shoot-em-up; the close quarters gun fights here are enthralling and show a strong influence of Hong Kong martial arts films. As with the exquisite movements in the combat scenes in the Christopher Bale science fiction thriller "Equilibrium", we have a fine illusion here that gun play can , like sword play , be artful, suggestive of dance. It's nonsense , of course, but there is something to be admired with the aesthetic the film makers brought to this violent enterprise and how well they pulled it off. Reeves, rest assured, has his Disney robot mannerisms put to good use here.
7.CAPTAIN AMERICA:WINTER SOLDIER: I am just a bit tired of the Mavel Universe, but Captain America continues to be a fun project. In this case, the bastards at Hydra turn out to be everywhere and the Captain finds himself neck deep in the dark world of conspiracy and secret agendas. This is one property I hope Marvel doesn't lard up with too much noise from the rest of the MCU. The Captain needs movies that can stand apart from the confusion that is already ruining what was once a font of good fun.
8.LIVE, DIE, REPEAT (EDGE OF TOMORROW): Really, this movie should have been a hit, an inspired take on the eternal-recurrence theme of "Groundhog's Day" ; instead dealing with a romantic comedy as the motivation for the activity to follow, we have an alien invasion and the fate of the Earth dependent on the exits and re-entrances on one precise and critical moment in time. Bad title, terrible re-titling, poor marketing, all of which is a shame considering that was the best science fiction movie of the year and was artfully efficient in all departments: taut, well acted, sweetly edited, all elements, from exposition to special effects, in line with enhancing the excitement.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

NIGHTCRAWLER


Nightcrawler, the directorial debut of screenwriter Dan Gilroy , is akin to Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver in it's close observance of titular characters of no observable depth of integrated personality who improvise their world views and philosophies on the fly. The shred goal of the men in both of these films is that they are at the frayed ends of the society they live, seeking either to have it fit and serve their erstwhile agendas or disrupt, disturb and injure in some fashion that comes with a warning. In Taxi Driver Robert DeNiro plays a sociopath who transfers his feelings of impotence and inadequacies onto the oppressive demands of the consumer culture; driving a cab through New York at night, he roams among the hookers, pimps, drug dealers who he finds disgusting and nurses an attraction-repulsion with those he perceives as rich and powerful , a class he wishes to both be a part of and wishes to destroy as well. Feeling that he's been dealt the rawest hand possible by powers on high, he vaguely plots to make something happen, something that would both change the way things are and define him as someone to be noticed and respected. In the course of Taxi Driver, effectively maneuvered by director Scorsese , Travis Bickle, DeNiro's emotionally unassimilated character, morphs from a sad and comic figure to someone who becomes menacing; the feeling that something will eventually , sooner than later, go wrong with this scenario is unavoidable.

Nightcrawler is another cool, restrained, artful study of a marginal personality attempting with their self-invented methods to define himself in a world that knows him not. Jake Gyllenhaal is a petty thief named Louis Bloom who hustles his way into the world of being a free lance news videographer, the sort of dude who waits in his car ,listens to a police scanner awaiting the announcement of a bloody auto accident, a robbery, a murder, plane crash and then responds so that he can film it and sell the morbid footage to a local news channel. Gyllenhaal has, like DeNiro, a sort of charisma that he oozes and applies effectively in the role, a wide smile, wide, attentive eyes and a patter borrowed from self-help books and on line encyclopedias. This a beautifully shot movie, a grand picture of Los Angeles after dark, with sharply drawn contrasts; the color scheme is gorgeously dark and makes the city's nocturnal side, shot from hill tops, side streets, alley ways and four ways stops, glisten even still like a display of expensive diamonds. Gyllenhaal's character is, to be sure, a sociopath, someone of no real concerns for the world other than his ability to negotiate a better position for himself; as the character rises in his new profession of filming the bloodiest events after hours , we witness him manipulate, twist, apply his creepily persuasive talk to gain his way. He displays a mastery of his character that is unnerving to see unfold, where different situations we see him learning how to coax responses he prefers to come from people, going from botched negotiations when trying to get a price he wants for stolen metal material , to getting low balled on a price when he sells his bike to a pawnbroker.

He learns from his mistakes by obsessively analyzing the words he chose in those situations and scours the internet courses to study research about human behavior and taking business classes where he appears most impressed by the lessons that instruct him in strong, goal oriented business language. His life becomes dedicated to a business plan that he has adopted as a philosophy and perhaps a substitute for a moral compass; when confronted with objections , protests and criticisms of his rationale and activities and results of plans that hadn't gone well, Gyllenhaal responds with a firm, calm response that is denial couched in the rhetoric of mass market motivational books.
The effects are frequently comic , as the character baffles and bamboozles others, but there is a sense of thing culminating in an oncoming catastrophe. Gilroy, directing his own script, has a the right touch for establishing the growing sense of unease; even as the story accelerates and the danger becomes more intensely presented, the film is steady in the pacing; there is the sense that your watching an accident about to happen and there is nothing you can do to stop it. A large part of the horror is when he we realize that we are watching a man who is without compunction, remorse, or any sense of moral right or wrong. He is a monster, a real monster, with no agenda other than achieving his ends. This is a fine motion picture, wonderfully filmed, acted, edited. One looks forward to more movies from Dan Gilroy.

    Monday, December 22, 2014

    JOE COCKER, RIP


    Joe Cocker had a voice that was rust and whiskey through and through, a soulful rasp and a bellicose roar that could make a songwriter's lyric seem to surrender a greater hurt, a greater passion, a more profound ache than mere definitions and vocaliizations, now matter how ardent, would usually reveail. There was something nearly cartoonish in his take on the blues-shouter tradition, the area of gospel-informed geniuses Ray Charles, Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin came from and changed the way pop singers regarded singing. 

    Where his influences had mastered their technique and honed their emotions to suit the timbre, pitch and range of their voices, and learned the subtle art of varying the use of the shout, the rasp, the corrosive croon, the melismatic technique of stretching words and even elongating syllables within words to suggest the tonal groans, cries and whispers of a human voice connected to unambiguous pain and joy, Cocker tossed much of that out the window when he came to the microphone and let loose a hard, blistering , sustained rage ; his voice was like one large gun aimed at a wall of hard experience, each bunker busting shell intended to blow it all to hell. He wasn't going to tell you about his experiences, he seemed intent to make you live them .

     It was raw, unnerving, exhilerating, unsullied in it's prickly graininess even when he did the most treacly material. In his his best moments, his bracing presentation of self was a thing of wonder that stayed in your memory a lifetime.

    Thursday, December 18, 2014

    THE NEWSROOM goes dark

    In discussing the collapse of plot, coherence, and inspiration on the last legs of the HBO newsroom drama The Newroom ,Slate magazine asks the question if creator and principle writer Aaron Sorkin forgot how to write a television drama . After recounting structural and themetic problems with his post West-Wing work , their answer is  "yes". I prefer to think that Sorkin hasn't forgotten what he did so well on the acclaimed Sports Night and WW so much as he doesn't care. He certainly hasn't forgotten how to write , as his writing on the superb motion pictures Charlie Wilson's War and The Social Network showed he could create his self-styled "sound of intelligence" with the pacing, phrasing and character development that makes his hyperactive dialogue believable and occasionally exhilarating.  His was the smart, snappy, quick witted conversation that combined book smarts and a trained ear for the idiomatic expression, a gift  Sorkin in his best writing shares with , say, Emore Leonard and David Mamet; there was verbal fireworks that left you dazzled and quoting favorite bits days later. Sorkin retains the skill to make the facts sexy, dynamic, the grounds for dialogue that sometimes brilliant in the way it becomes a tone poem of intellectual awareness and petty chatter. It seems, though, the writer needs matters that he cannot change, IE history, to keep his tendency toward nuclear effusion in check.

    Both those films, though, were based on actual events and people and although it's obvious that Sorkin took liberties with the historical accounts he was restrained by vetted fact; his plot outline was presented to him . What he demonstrated was a wonderful knack to dramatize, enhance recent events and social trends. For television, though, his sense of plotting is herky-jerky and the dialogue, especially on show premised on a work situation that should have been ideal for imagined smart talk, a newsroom, came off as a sort of cold virtuosity an uninspired musician resorts to in the belief that how fast one plays (or in Sorkin's case, how fast one talks) is a measure of genius and artistic grit. It isn't. There isn't any conversation, so called, in 'The Newsroom" that I found memorable or worth quoting days later. As has been pointed out, the effortless command of facts, figures, the arts, history, statistics and the general ability to sound like a chipmunk while punching out a Foghorn Leghorn quality of eloquence made you aware of how impatient , angry and unrealistically confrontational the characters were; there was serious blockage happening that only a  gruesome disaster could resolve.

    Thursday, December 11, 2014

    An unmade bed and plastic comb left on the water heater

    Russell Brand, the Tiny Tim of  leftist celebrities , continues to irritate. It's a lesson in personal humility , I suppose, in that I would, in a world that made sense, agree with the general drift of his otherwise twearker critiques of an economic system that has made him a rich man. Rich people espousing progressive cliches generally doesn't bother me. Russell Brand bothers me. His is the kind of personality that makes you want to knock  yourself unconscious with a bullpen hammer rather endure his prating presence.Why are we listening to this preening narcissist?

    His gummy stew of post-
    structuralist jargon, adjective-glutted paraphrases of Marcuse and Chomsky and his actorly declarations that we must strive toward a universal consciousness that transcends the offending ideologies he deplores is the species of self-regarding assistant professors sprinkle over their undergrads. 

    Brand, though, does nothing to guide people to other sources for astute and clear critiques of what's exactly the matter with politics and culture and what we can do to it. He is the worse thing to happen to progressive politics since the hey day of the essentially relativist obscurantism of Derrida, and Baudrillard and the impotent and empty symbolic gesturing of the Occupy Movement. Their message at core is that Real Power is in place permanently, attempts to get power and change the world are illusions, and what seems like victories against racism , sexism, homophobia and the like are themselves an illusion, allowed only because the mechanisms of the machine are such that we are given the delusion of autonomy while things in the world does not change. Doing nothing at all, in other words, is as effective as anything else you can do. The Great Refusal is what Marcuse called it in "One Dimensional Man", a book I admire greatly since I read it in college, as it is an acute critique of how consumerism is a powerful form of social control; anyone who follows the news regarding the way entities like Facebook , Amazon and other online services have infiltrated daily lives and have , in a brief amount of time, radically change the way we behave and the way we regard the structure of the world, will realize how prescient his thinking on this matter was.

    There is a point of departure, however, and while we can make smarter choices and refuse to offer ourselves to the altar of consumer capitalism and likewise refuse to contribute to the devastation of economies in its perpetuation, we have to realize as well that simply retiring and living as hermits and enlightened, stoic primitives does as no good. We will not return to Marx's Eden of pre-capitalist agrarianism. Voting matters, running for office matters greatly, becoming active in causes that have legislative has consequences. Voting and not voting in elections that have candidates and issues at stake have consequences at stake; tax increases, school bonds, infra structure spending, laws regarding fairness , politicians sworn to dismantle the Safety Net, end Medicare and Social Security and create new laws allowing corporations to further exploit American and foreign workers. Each vote not cast makes the world a worse place to live in.

    The problem with Brand's messaging himself; he is an abrasive autodidact who seems only to read and retain things in order to demonstrate how smart he is. It shows in his sneering voice and his knitted brow. He mistakes talking down to and talking over others, as he does in interviews, for winning a debate and carrying a message. His message is other than what he intended "I'm a jerk."

    Friday, December 5, 2014

    Triumph at the Biltmore — Norman Mailer — Medium

    Triumph at the Biltmore — Norman Mailer — Medium:

    J.Michael Lennon,  author of 'A Double Life", the terrific biography of Norman Mailer, has written a fine and delicately argued introduction for an expensive re-issue of a famous Mailer essay, 'Superman Comes to the Supermarket". It's prime Mailer, set in the Sixties, describing JFK's quest for the White House. It's a fine piece of writing, and with  it Mailer waxes poetic and apocalyptic as to what the election can mean for a greater or grimmer America.

    It's interesting that Taschen is reproducing what it considers marketable portions of Mailer's books ("Of a Fire on the Moon") or turning stand alone essays like "Superman Comes to the Supermarket" into singular books . The problem is the essay, which is an inspired piece of journalism that influenced writers for decades to come, is book length. At 370 pages, this edition is doubtlessly graced with many fine photographs of the time, but the effect is that it's a coffee table book which makes Mailer's prose something of captions that accompany the images. In addition, the price is absurd, at $100 retail. I support introducing Mailer to new readers with new editions and new critical overviews to limn his relevance to literature and our culture, but the price tag on this finally skimpy sharing of his work is not the way to do. Mailer himself might have been flattered by the treatment, but even he would have to admit the irony of being made into a commodity that can be molded to suit the seller's needs. A piece of plastic , in other words, Mailer's worst nightmare.

    Wednesday, December 3, 2014

    Ian McLagan: 1945-2014 :: Music :: News :: Paste

    Faces Keyboardist Ian McLagan: 1945-2014 :: Music :: News :: Paste:



    Damn. The Faces were, in my view, the best of the chunky, Chuck Berry influenced bands of their time, especially when Rod Stewart was their lead singer. The music was simple and cranky, effectively unslick, the highwater mark of non-virtuoso blues based rock. They were more clash than flash, more pugnacious than punky. It was a music that got you out of the seat, made you strut, move the arms and work   out the shoulder blades as if you were  bracing for either a fight or  an oversized schooner of ale. At their best, which was often, they  sounded  like they were about to fall apar, a rickety, badly assembled machine that groaned and lost bolts and t and yet still held together , if barely. It made for some of the most rousing rock and roll of the period, crankier and gruffier than Free, feistier and less bombastic than Humble Pie (which , ironically, featured original  Faces singer Steve Marriot when they still had the 'Small" qualifier at the front of their name). McLagan's keyboarding was as much responsible for the band's rakish, knockabout personality as were Ron Wood's guitar bashing and Kenny Jones' kickstarter drumwork; he was the spirit of the honkey tonk, the road house, the whore house, he was blues and gospel and soul , not a soloist but an essential , crucial element of the band's collective genius. These elements, brought into focus by Stewart's wonderfully  harsh, expressive and remarkably versatile singing, made The Faces one of those bands where each member was indispensable in making a sound that was unique, galvanizing and which remains after decades the sort of music that raises the roof and makes neighbors call the police  His piano work was the Rosetta Stone through which much of the musical styles that influenced the band collectively and individually were brought into play in very fine, shamefully under appreciated band. Hats off to Ian McLagan.