Category Archives: Film

‘The Bling Ring’ is a 2008 Period Piece – In the Very Best Way

I could think of no one better suited to direct a film about affluent, glamor-obsessed, Los Angeles teens than Sofia Coppola. Her heightened focus on aesthetics over conventional character development, in films like Marie Antoinette and adaptation The Virgin Suicides, is perfectly geared towards the similarly superficial Bling Ring members. The girls’ Uggs, giant sunglasses and even the A-List theft victims who’ve since faded into obscurity, capture Los Angeles in 2008 so well the film could be seen as a period piece of the not-so-distant past. The focus is not so much on the characters, but rather on a cultural landscape where The Hills’ Audrina Patridge was relevant and any song off Kanye West’s Dark Twisted Fantasy is perfect for wealthy teens to blast in their cars.

The movie starts off with quietly depressed new kid, Marc Hall (Israel Broussard), getting sent to Indian Hills High School – apparently the designated place for the troubled youths of Calabasas.  He almost immediately gets sucked into future ringleader, Rebecca Ahn’s (Katie Chang) toxic group of friends. They’re all wealthy: Marc’s dad manages a studio’s foreign film distribution for example and Rebecca traipses around in harem pants and high heeled boots at 15, but they still exist on the periphery of cool. Catching a Kirsten Dunst sighting at the club is what truly allows these kids to transcend high school cool for Hollywood cool by proxy. That explains why Marc, Rebecca, Chloe Trainer (Claire Julien) and adopted sisters Nicki Moore (Emma Watson) and Sam Moore (Taissa Farmiga) appear to spend 75-90% of their time partying or preparing their minds and bodies to party.

The real life Bling Ringers
The real life Bling Ringers

In a series of poorly integrated interviews, Marc offers a dab of awareness as to the moral implications of their lifestyle, but the desire to fit in quickly silences him. He idolizes Rebecca, who herself idolizes the celebrities whose homes they break into. When at a third of the way through the film Chloe Trainer gets in a drunk driving accident and then the next day brags, “my level was off the charts. It was crazy,” we see in this world a DUI is a badge of honor. Their actions are reprehensible, yet we can all identify with lusting for popularity in high school and for rich, LA teens the stakes seem to be much higher.

The main characters are constantly searching for ways to reach the next high. After snorting coke with twentysomething men has become pedestrian, it makes sense that Rebecca encourages Marc to break into sports cars in search of money for a Rodeo Drive shopping spree. The jump from breaking into sports cars to breaking into million dollar homes happens without a clear logical motivation, but teenage decisions are notoriously lacking in logical motivation. When Rebecca shows off a Paris Hilton bracelet and Marc reveals they “walked right in. It was so fucking chill,” it becomes clear that this will be their new high.

Not even halfway through the film when all the friends have joined Rebecca on her conquest of stars’ homes, Coppola throws in a whopper of a metaphor. At another star’s house, Sam finds a loaded gun and plays with it, pointing it at her friends and spinning it around. Without an ounce of self awareness, Sam calls attention to the massive loaded gun they’re all playing with: repeatedly breaking into wealthy celebrities’ homes and then posting about it on Facebook. Beautifully shot by the late Harris Savides, from hundreds of feet away we watch the Bling Ring members scurry around Audrina Patridge’s home like dolls unknowingly becoming the spectacles they always wanted to be.

Screen Shot 2015-07-23 at 11.11.35 AM

We get a few minutes at the end of the kids being taken to court and handed out punishments, but the severity gets minimized with the levity of Emma Watson’s spot-on Nicki still focused on finding appropriate clothes to wear to court. Really the best part of the last third of the film was the different characters all getting found out by the police because it provides a counterweight to the series of highs that characterized this film. All of these teens were just searching for their next high, going farther and farther to get the feeling back. The characters are pretty depthless and so are the specifics of the plot, but each visually intense scene scored to fun, bass-heavy beats compels you on because we get a glimpse into these kids’ lives – and it’s kind of exhilarating.


‘Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice’ Official Trailer Released Two Days After Leak

The trailer for Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice was released yesterday for the film that will premiere in a little under a year on March 25, 2016.

Given Sony’s unprecedented deal with Marvel to release four films through 2019, costly superhero films must truly break the mold in order to gain traction in what is quickly becoming an oversaturated market. Batman v. Superman, at least at first glance, certainly seems to break the mold with an apparently villainous Batman (Ben Affleck) taking on Superman (Henry Cavill). This is Batman in Superman’s world located in Chicago, so we will also see Lois Lane (Amy Adams), Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) as well as Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) all making appearances in crossover film.

The tone of trailer dedicates a lot of time to presenting intensely negative media reactions to Superman’s alien powers which suggests an especially dark and gritty tone in line with recent trends, such as the new Netflix series Daredevil. Certain critics question this move towards “realism” as a means of differentiating this DC movie from its Marvel counterparts. Still Director Zack Snyder and Warner Brothers are likely trying to correct for the first film in the Superman saga, 2013’s Man of Steel, which was deemed lacking in character development and story.

Anticipation for this sequel is high considering the media storm surrounding a leaked version of the trailer with Portuguese subtitles just a few days before the trailer’s intended April 20th official release. Little of the plot has been released, but Snyder’s decision to use “v” in the title instead of “vs.” in order to “to keep it from being a straight ‘versus’ movie, even in the most subtle way” suggests the crew is trying to differentiate this sequel from all crossover film predecessors. Whether the film will live up to the director’s lofty ideas, however, is anyone’s guess through response has been mixed.

‘Tank Girl’ Review: To Camp or Not to Camp?

In absolute terms Tank Girl is not a good movie. In fact I think it would be very hard to translate the absurdist, nonlinear British comic into a big budget film catered to a mainstream audience. The 1995 adaptation could, however, be considered a good camp movie. Camp for the uninitiated encompasses a wide array of films and meanings, but simply put it’s a genre with a consistently exaggerated tone in acting, writing, music or anything else you see in the movie. Rocky Horror Picture Show might be the prototypical camp film and for our purposes will serve as one end of our de-luxe movie spectrum.

Rachel Talalay’s Tank Girl certainly registers as camp on the movie spectrum by including an exotic dance club madam forced to sing Cole Porter’s “Let’s Do It” and so-bad-they’re-good zingers like “Look, it’s been swell, but the swelling’s gone down.” Still heavy studio interference impeded a full commitment to camp. The comic creator’s Alan Martin and Jamie Hewlett (also of Gorillaz fame) complained that their voices were unceremoniously silenced in an effort to develop a film deemed more palatable for the general American audience. As a result Tank Girl spews references to topical cultural phenomena like Baywatch that are halfbaked in execution and hardly make sense in 2033. If either poles had won out over the other, i.e. a confidently surrealist and explicit cinematic translation of the comic or a straightened out, highly-produced big budget film, I think Tank Girl could have been the exemplar adaption movie for more complex source material than Superman. As it is the film shuffles all over the spectrum resulting in a film unsatisfying from all sides.

Even summarizing Tank Girl’s plot is difficult because a linear storyline has been grafted onto the nonlinear source material, ultimately falling into a pit of cliches. The main character, Rebecca Buck or Tank Girl, starts out the film dropping us some exposition by quickly outlining the three factions in a post-apocalyptic, water starved world: the Water and Power corporation that hoards water with an iron fist, Tank Girl’s commune that illegally siphons off water and the mysterious and dangerous marauding Rippers.

The ensuing narrative about W&P capturing the defiant Tank Girl and her young friend Sam is hardly the point, having overall lost much of its luster in the Hollywood whitewashing process, more compelling rather are the film’s moments. The Tank Girl comics are well known for their strong visual aesthetic seen here in Tank Girl’s many androgynous outfits and the overall rendering of a post-apocalyptic Australia. As one of Tank Girl’s 18 costume changes, her missile shaped bra highlights the striking aesthetic that all too often got papered over in this film. Vivid scenes grace the film such as Tank Girl’s cutting of her stockings in the mode of a strip tease set to one of the delightful 90’s alt rock songs curated by Hole frontwoman Courtney Love. Almost incongruous scenes like this do nothing to progress the awkward plot forward, but Talalay’s smart directorial decision to focus on Lori Petty’s pitch perfect acting are when the movie and the audience has the most fun.

missile bra

A mismatch occurs from the humor and tone of the original British comic set in Australia to the ambiguous locale in the film that houses mostly Americans along with a few unexplained Brits like Naomi Watts’ character Jet Girl and the evil leader of W&P Malcolm McDowell’s Kesslee. Threats of rape on Jet Girl in prison and Tank Girl twice before she even makes it to prison are mined for laughs, but often violent retaliation by spurned men connotes a confusingly vicious edge. The comics contain plenty of violence and far more lewd sex, but the tonal variance make the same kind of themes and plot points overly dark and uncomfortable in the film adaptation. Without Lori Petty playing Tank Girl to irreverent perfection, this film would be an unmitigated disaster, but she manages to stabilize scenes that would have floundered without her comedic timing.

By the end of the film, despite certain humorous highlights, the wavering between almost acknowledged camp and Hollywood drivel makes the film feel overwhelmingly disjointed. This comic probably shouldn’t have been made into a live action movie with its science fiction adaptations of the comic, like the mutant kangaroos and a hologram head, coming across as far more silly than cool. Luckily interspersed animated sequences done by Steve Evangelatos although irregularly incorporated in the film fit much more in line with the edgy comic’s intent. Adapted films rarely capture the essence of its source material, especially when its source material is as nuanced and complex as the Tank Girl comics, so my advice is if you’re interested in Tank Girl read the comics and skip the movie.

Oneohtrix Point Never’s ‘Memory Vague’ Brings the Media Periphery Centerstage

Following my review of Orson Welles’ F for Fake last week, which has only managed about 96,000 views on Youtube, I want to cover another underviewed film – that’s even less conventional. Daniel Lopatin’s 2010 album film Memory Vague is a seminal work in the contemporary aesthetic and sound movement called Vaporwave made. Lopatin goes by the stage name Oneohtrix Point Never and his 2010 album Chuck Person’s Eccojams Vol. 1 gave shape to a style that has slowly gained followers with a fairly active Reddit community hosting a bevy of new material in the genre.

Chuck Person's Eccojams Vol. 1
Chuck Person’s Eccojams Vol. 1

Lopatin describes his style as “flowing electronics […], ambient drones and excursions into noise, and forays into adventurous sampling.” I’ve heard vaporwave described as post-elevator music for a more concrete idea on the music side of things, but the visuals seen in Memory Vague are slightly harder to situate. Vaporwave aesthetics overall shares a focus on 80’s trash television especially of Japan, overt consumerism in naming conventions and from the use of commercials as well as a glitchy editing conventions that normally suggest inexperience being are here used with notable skill. Within music videos by prominent vaporwave artists like Saint Pepsi and Internet Club a more unified aesthetic has emerged, especially in the digital art accompanying the music that often includes Renaissance sculptures along with 90’s computer graphics. Lopatin’s Memory Vague, however, does not sit squarely within the established vaporwave conventions, which makes it an interesting work to analyze.

Somewhat like Daft Punk’s Interstella 5555 as a visual manifestation of their 2000 album Discovery, Lopatin’s Memory Vague is a visual manifestation, albeit lacking a narrative or $4 million production values, of his album of the same name. The overarching focus, it seems to me, is dragging content from the media periphery, like infomercials and screensavers, to the forefront and thus elevating them to the status of ‘art’. The lines between highbrow and lowbrow have been all but erased with ballets set to Johnny Cash music and mass-market, thrift store kitsch selling exorbitantly at places like Urban Outfitters.

Certain lines have yet to be crossed, however, as few spend their time poring over screen savers despite their ubiquity, but as Lopatin illustrates interesting things can happen when we analyze the sorts of media experiences we always take for granted. We don’t know the names of the creators of this material likely because we question the artistic intent or merit behind them in the first place, but maybe our focus has been to much on the conscious intent evident in film and television, instead of the lowbrow media as representative of the mass commodification of art for consumerist use that swirls around our heads so many times a day.

Vaporwave, like much of life, has largely positioned itself around capitalism, specifically by updating relics of the “greed is good” zeitgeist of the 80’s using modern indie electronic trends to illustrate both the hollowness of Muzzak, smooth jazz, and 8-bit video game soundtracks by repeating their most vacuous lines and chords incessantly and, perhaps more importantly, how using new techniques on older material can show how relevant mass consumerism still is today.

For example, Lopatin’s video for his song “Angel,” which incorporates a slowed down sample of the Fleetwood Mac song of the same name, basically Angel Squareencapsulates the essence of the television melodrama in a few seconds. A woman carrying a boombox walks down a hill and Lopatin edits the footage so that the woman repeatedly turns her head in earnest to look off screen, then she transitions to smile and slowly raise her hand in a coy wave – only to cut away to the next song. There is no resolution because every episode of Dawson’s Creek or rather Knot’s Landing if we want to keep with the 80’s theme, can be paralleled to this short scene with an overly simplistic series of initial obstacles that always ultimately makes way for a cute courtship. Those primetime soaps are an amalgam of repetitive shots and emotions, often featuring the hot new commodity with not-so-subtle product placement, in this case a boombox.

MV Hand Washing

Likewise the repetitive focus on an insert of a woman washing her hands later scored with his distorted ambient sounds entrances us, but you can’t help but think that this insert was never supposed to on screen for this long. We would rarely consider an insert from a soap or lotion commercial for more than the fleeting moment its on television buffering the three minutes between Scandal, but I contend that the vacuity contained in those hands inefficiently washing themselves over and over is mirrored by Lopatin’s faraway digital tunes and thus makes us reconsider its role in the media landscape.

Even more challenging than footage from 80’s commercials, are the video segments with pixelated graphics that appear almost like errors stemming from leaving a VHS tape on the shelf for too long. A swirling vortex of grainy white noise floats above a neon pink and blue ground against the night sky. None of that adheres to traditional cinematic conventions of proper perspective with properly focused shots, yet from the dregs of media comes a beautifully mesmerizing composition.

MV Swirling Vortex

Lopatin incorporates a purposeful disruption of our viewing experience by stopping in the middle of a song or visual sequence and then transitioning with a white flash, that serves to underscore the awkwardness of the film transition instead of using the cross dissolve or match on action to hide the artificiality. Levying criticism on Memory Vague is difficult because the uneven nature of the segments comes across as more like an artistic choice than a mistake with the complete lack of cohesion between the footage as a whole intentionally preventing us from extracting a narrative. If Lopatin consistently errs on the side of complex disjuncture yet we find his material visually stimulating, albeit slightly uncomfortable, does that mean we are comfortable with the hollowness of capitalism permeating our daily lives or rather that the film’s honesty about the role of capitalism is a refreshing reprieve from the oft-ignored advertisement-ridden viewing experience we are used to? That’s the beauty of vaporwave, and of this film in particular, because there are no right answers, just a method of attempting to make the invisible visible.

MV Spheres

The interplay of context among the various visual sequences gives us morsels along the way to hang onto like Fleetwood Mac’s “Angel”, but even high art like Piet Mondrian’s geometric shapes, once emblematic of the avant garde, has been commodified in order to sell a cassette player. Another segment where a series of crudely pixelated spheres order themselves in rows and descend backwards into space in a never-ending loop is a dead ringer for a Windows 95 screensaver, but it’s impossible to determine the level of artistic authorship. All of these recognizable images are on parade, but the removal of context by slowing down the speed or using foreign languages and cultures like Japanese or Russian as source material prevents us from reading into the content in a traditional manner. Does it matter the extent to which Lopatin created each music video or is the intent all that makes a difference?

MV Mondrian Cassette

The questions brought up by this short film are on par with any conventional work of a contemporary art and at the same time the dazzling media dreamscape contained in Memory Vague’s 33 minutes never feels like a chore in the way some discursive experimental films often do. Lopatin’s modern capitalist critique incorporates the signs of Reagan-era American excess with music that can at times be mistaken for a SNES video game score, but understanding that context isn’t necessary to appreciate the piece. Lopatin’s adept editing in the style and through the use of low-quality media detritus in repetitive, trancelike sequences can be the point in and of itself.

Memory Vague’s final video simply features a terraced, neon rainbow-colored pyramid undulating backwards and forwards for a few minutes. I’d say that encapsulates my daily experience on Twitter in its alternating display of high-octane outrage, excitement, joy and snark that just restarts with the new announcement, buzzword or media sensation. For every MCA exhibit or art house film, we get 100 Mac loading rainbow wheels and Buzzfeed top 22 list of gifs. Rigid distinctions between high and low art or meaningful and meaningless are harder and harder to distinguish, but Memory Vague and vaporwave are here to show that maybe we don’t have to choose.

Lopatin’s Memory Vague has free streaming (and download) on Vimeo.

F for Fake Orson Welles

Orson Welles’ “F for Fake” Is the Ultimate Gestalt Film

“Rose… bud.” I’m sure most people can recognize perhaps the most famous one word quote of all time from Citizen Kane, but Orson Welles also directed 12 other movies during his lifetime – many of which were criticized upon their release as self-indulgent and unduly windy. Welles’ last big film before his death, 1974’s F for Fake, certainly fits that description, yet within the past few decades or so Welles’ reputation has soared up from its 1970s’ nadir resulting in new critics reappraising the quality of his films. I’m simply appraising the film, as I was about -20 in the 1970’s, and from a contemporary perspective I can see the legacy of this experimental film. F for Fake addresses the blurred lines between truth and fakery ostensibly through a series of interweaving narratives on the topic, but true appreciation, or at least understanding, of the film comes from reading how the film’s purposefully disorienting form tells the story.

There are more or less three main narratives: one about the life of famous art forger Elmyr de Hory, another on author Clifford Irving’s biography about de Hory and then in an unforeseen development Irving’s previous biography on Howard Hughes turns out to be partially fabricated leading to a strange exploration of the wealthy recluse. Then Welles and his girlfriend Oja Kodar insert themselves in various shorter segments that are harder to pin down within a narrative. All of these stories, that often cut between each other with no transition, holistically introduce the topic of what can be considered “true” and “fake” both in the content and Welles’ presentation, in which he chooses to point out the lies sometimes and other times not. Already it is easy to see why viewers were not initially fond of the film and its multiple locations, directors and editors that also confound by jumping around temporally at the same time.

Orson Welles Invented MTV Editing

What is important to note is that all the normal components for a documentary are present within the film, e.g. real interviews, insertion of various media sources for background, etc., but Welles arranges the pieces in such a way that it’s next to impossible to interpret scenes in a conventional manner. In fact, the editing in this documentary feels extremely modern largely for its speed that aligns with the the roughly five second average shot length of today. Similarly interviews with de Hory and Irving often got stopped in the middle of a sentence with Welles giving commentary like Goodfellas or abruptly cutting to another scene. The editing was meant more to disrupt and provide a visual reminder of the intensely edited nature of film, which Welles apparently drew from French New Wave and Dadaist filmmakers, but still the legacy lives on in as almost the editing standard.

Truly the creators of documentaries live and die by their editing and narration because they have to make sense of unrelated footage, but Welles and his editors Marie-Sophie Dubus, Dominique Engerer and Gary Graver all accomplish an awesome feat by drawing attention to the biased position filmmakers play in the creation of a film. A more traditional documentary uses a linear storyline that makes it far simpler to allow viewers to draw their own conclusions about the truth, but Welles ensures that discerning truth from fiction in this film is next to impossible. In addition, Welles’ role as the distinctly unreliable narrator who will often give commentary on the action and then go off on a tangent with commentary on his commentary  illuminates how inherently biased filmmaking always is whether we are aware of it or not. Luckily Welle’s baritone makes his digressions in Kipling poetry and explorations into Howard Hughes’ whereabouts more pleasant to listen to, though no easier to comprehend.

Gestalt = More Than the Sum of Its Parts

All of this is not to say that this film is perfect. Since the significance of the film stems largely from what its form accomplishes over the course of an hour and half rather than within each scene, certain parts drag on in a way that is not only confusing but at times quite boring. Welles is more than willing to indulge not only his strange whims, but also those of his girlfriend Oja who came up with a scene at the beginning of the film where she walks through the streets of Rome and “secret” cinematographers film reaction shots of men ogling her. Whether those were really uncompensated horndogs or actors is hard to know, but it certainly does drag on with countless reaction shots.

The huckster author Clifford Irving commented on de Hory’s fakery by saying, “when an artist has no personal vision, what can he communicate onto the canvas?” The paintings done by Mogdiliani and Picasso are interesting, but far more compelling is de Hory’s virtuosity at switching between several artists with such skill that by some accounts he sold over a thousand of his copies to museums. Welles could have a told a straightforward story about Elmyr de Hory and Clifford Iriving, but like the auteur’s “War of the Worlds” stunt, sometimes the facts are not quite as interesting as fiction posing as fact.

The Entirety of Welles’ film is on Youtube.

If you don’t want to commit to the entire thing…

Old Fashioned Hollywood Bias

Anonymous Voter Confirms the Academy’s Old Fashioned Hollywood Bias

We can all agree that as the anonymous “longtime member of the Academy’s 378-member public relations branch” said, “Everything is Awesome” from the snubbed Lego Movie deserves best song of the year. Alright, now let’s move on to the many disagreements I have with this voter for the Academy that chooses the winners of the Academy Awards. The Hollywood Reporter presented a transcript of an anonymous voter weighing in on all the Best Picture nominees and likely winners for the remaining categories with answers that range from direct to downright insulting not only to the all the creatives who have contributed to filmmaking this year, but also to the integrity of the Academy.

Well, I suppose that depends on what the Academy Awards are actually supposed to stand for and celebrate. The Oscars purportedly reward “excellence in cinematic achievements” but that still sounds quite vague. How do they define achievement? Achievement at the box office or among the art house circuit? How we interpret this woman’s responses depends on whether the Academy rewards well-done, artistic works of film or narrowly defined Hollywood-approved, money making movies.

Much like the MPAA, the Academy is often seen as a somewhat Kafkaesque Hollywood establishment that plays such a huge role in our consumption of modern film given that the statues can lead to increased box office returns (depending on release date) and give viewers an idea of worthwhile films to watch. Despite the clout this ceremony carries with it, the rules that govern the academy are hard to discern. This specific voter has received some flack for certain contentious statements that I’ll get to in a minute, but the larger problem is present in all of her responses.

The voter noticeably remained anonymous, perpetuating the perception of a nontransparent Academy, but more importantly the woman’s responses suggest a complete lack of concern for true excellence in film and filmmaking. When discussing Birdman, a film with nine nominations from Best Picture to Sound Editing, she devotes her entire explanation to how it managed to rack up ticket sales despite its narrative and cinematic complexity. There are no doubts about whether the Oscars equate to respectable film festival awards from Cannes or Sundance, but some mention of creative skill when addressing the current favorite for Best Picture would lend credence to the theory that the Oscars mean anything at all.

The rest of the voter’s Best Picture nominee analyses similarly criticize critical favorites like Boyhood and Selma yet praise weaker showings like The Imitation Game. Somehow in this crazy world, she thinks The Imitation Game should win best picture because of it is what she considers “’prestige filmmaking’”. The Imitation Game certainly passes the Hollywood test with a silly platitude repeated too often (“Sometimes it is the people who no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine”), an all white cast, and contrived score all ensure the film adheres to tired Hollywood conventions. While struggling in artistic merit, much like the voter’s other beloved film American Sniper, The Imitation Game has done very well at the box office with more than double the box office returns of Birdman.

A skewed view of the definition of excellence is not all the voter brings to the table. She also makes an inflammatory statement decrying the Selma filmmakers wearing “I can’t breathe” shirts at their New York premiere, calling it “offensive” and placing her again on the side of white Hollywood privilege. She poses Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper as the counterpoint to Selma’s offscreen politics because Eastwood decided to leave the politics in the movie. Frankly the Selma filmmakers wearing politically charged shirts is one of the least offensive things a group of people intimately involved in telling an intense story about Civil Rights could do. For an Academy that the voter acknowledges is still mostly white males, the overt racism the voter denies is not as much of an issue in this day and age as much as a probably unintended bias that stems from homogeneity. The A.V. Club’s recent interview with a seat filler at the Oscars indicates how much the awards are concerned with appearance and façade over thoughtful substance.

The Academy’s lack of focus on substance comes through clearly with the voter’s superficial focus on Patricia Arquette’s appearance instead of her acting chops in Boyhood. For Best Supporting Actress the anonymous voter believes Arquette should receive “a bravery reward” for having “no work done during the 12 years [of filming].” While Arquette is the favorite in that category, and in my opinion deserving of the award, the voter’s lack of attention to the actual skill of acting in favor of a rehashing of toxic, media-fueled ideals of beauty is an indictment of the Academy.

Again the voter believes Michael Keaton should win Best Actor for Birdman not really because he’s a good actor, or at least she never mentions that fact, but because Keaton’s “grateful, not particularly needy” and he probably won’t get nominated again. While I’m glad to hear of Keaton’s upstanding moral code, neither humility nor a lack of future opportunities to win should be the basis for receiving an Oscar. Good acting and good acting alone should be. The list goes on with her dismissal of Emmanuel Lubezki’s stunning cinematography in Birdman because it gave her a headache in favor of Robert Yeoman’s far more conventional work in The Grand Budapest Hotel. Cinematic merit for taking risks and honing the craft are not valued by at least this member of the Academy.

What is perhaps the most alarming in my opinion is that this voter was completely unwilling to broaden her horizons and get insight into the diverse and multifaceted nature of filmmaking outside of the main categories. More than her remarkably uninformed responses, is what the voter chose to leave out. She abstained from almost all of the categories that require some effort on the part of the viewer to understand and appreciate them outside of the conventions of Hollywood cinema such as Best Foreign Film and Best Documentary Short. Unlike the rest of us that have to hunt down these films to view them, this voter receives screeners precluding any reasonable excuse to not see them except their deviation from the more palatable feature-length Hollywood standard.

The examples I drew out are only the tip of the iceberg of close-minded, cinematic ignorance contained in her transcript so please read it to get a more complete picture. It is logical that the Academy places some sort of emphasis on making money as it is a strong indication of what the American populace is watching, but the national awards should have a more engaged voting public that also acknowledge challenging and less commercially viable filmmaking. The Oscars have the potential to present outstanding films that inspire the average American to investigate films they would not have heard about otherwise, but if this voter’s response is any indication the Academy has a long way to go before that becomes a possibility.

Amy Schumer and Judd Apatow Team Up for Upcoming Film ‘Trainwreck’

The Trainwreck is an upcoming film from Judd Apatow and comedian Amy Schumer. My very first review on Pop Insomniacs extolled the virtues of Schumer’s Comedy Central sketch show Inside Amy Schumer that showcases the breadth of Amy Schumer’s comedic talents. The basis for a lot of Schumer’s material on the show is her hard drinking and sexing lifestyle with a heavy dose of confident self-effacement. She now brings her writing talents to the big screen where she plays an exaggerated version of herself directly mining events from her life like John Cena spoofing her past boyfriend wrestler Dolph Ziggler.

Schumer plays a woman also named Amy whose life is, you guessed it, a trainwreck. She is the queen of drunk one night stands, but by her standards she is living the life without monogamy and with an awesome job at a men’s health magazine and a “sick” apartment. When she is forced to cover a doctor performing surgery, she meets Aaron Connors (Bill Hader) who must run the gauntlet in trying to pursue the commitment-averse Amy.

Being set in New York City, the film has a parade of stars from fellow comedian Mike Birbiglia to basketballer LeBron James to plain old famous actors Daniel Radcliffe and Marisa Tomei. As director of the immensely successful comedy Bridesmaids, I have confidence in Judd Apatow’s ability to direct Schumer’s material and if the trailer is any indication, the film should be just as funny as Schumer’s sketch show.

Trainwreck opens in theaters on July 17, 2015.

Also check out the NSFW trailer if interested.

Chicago International Film Festival 2014

Recap of the Turner Time at the Chicago International Film Festival 2014

The Chicago International Film Festival quietly celebrated their 50th anniversary this year, touting its role as the longest running competitive film festival in North America. CIFF even has a separate component of industrial, instructional and educational films and inspired the Children’s International Film Festival. As with many aspects of Chicago culture, CIFF gets far less fanfare than the much newer (and more exclusive) Sundance and Tribeca film festivals. Still the festival’s selection of over 100 films in categories ranging from Reel Women to Cinema of the Americas delivering a first-rate cultural experience to America’s second city.

Director Taylor Hackford’s two films from that 80s, White Nights (1985) and Idolmaker (1980), set a distinctly low bar as my first introductions to the festival. Both films made their premieres at the festival and played a large part in launching Hackford’s career as a profitable, albeit artistically stagnant, director of music films. At over two hours long with rambling plots and misogyny abound, these two films are fairly representative of Hackford’s career of Hollywood success with his most famous hit being An Officer and a Gentleman (1982). There were strong points, as mentioned in my review of the films, but my interview with Hackford largely colored my negative opinion of him as representative of the recalcitrant Baby Boomer establishment who continue to ignore the impact of web-based cultures on filmmaking.

Luckily the subsequent contemporary films all came from different countries and employed vastly different visual styles, making for a great series of cinema. The Golden Hugo award-winner for Best Picture this year, Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s The President, gave a great post-Arab Spring look at a deposed dictator trying to engage with his people as one of them – with no idea what that even means. The Iranian director has had a long history of filmmaking with over twenty films under his belt, and incorporates his unique view as an Iranian expat in Europe with this dark satire on the real meaning of revolution.

Finnish director Pirjo Honkasalo’s Concrete Night offers a counterpoint to the stark, and often disturbing, realism of Makhmalbaf’s film. This surrealist adaption of a 1981 young adult novel captures quite well the hormonal confusion of being a 14-year-old boy. The black and white coloring along with the soft visuals and sharp lighting moderate some of the film’s most challenging moments, adding a poetic touch to this coming-of-age film.

The final film I had the privilege to see was multimedia artist Kelvin Kyung Kun Park’s documentary on South Korea’s Miracle on the Han River, a colloquial term for the country’s unprecedented economic growth after the Korean War. Park’s role as a multimedia artist skewed the film much more into art film territory than traditional documentary. Large expanses of time pass sometimes with only shots of beautifully framed factories set to ambient music. This first-time director really stands in contrast to the aforementioned films by exploring some interesting visual and storytelling techniques that make it one of the most intriguing films I have seen this year.

In addition to these films, I also attended the Awards Night with Kathleen Turner heading up the main competition jury. Martin Scorsese sent in a video honoring famed Chicagoan Roger Ebert whose inaugural award was introduced by his stepdaughter at the festival. Another high profile director Joe Swanberg, probably most well known from the Chicago-based Drinking Buddies, sent in a video congratulating the film festival on 50 years. Sadly very few award winners made the effort to come to Chicago so there were a lot of video acceptance speeches, but nonetheless the diverse group of winners, from animated shorts to documentary, seemed genuinely happy to have won.

In addition to the films I mentioned, there were panels, collections of shorts, master classes and more that I just didn’t have time to attend. CIFF’s International Connections Program, begun in 2003 to encourage awareness of diverse cultures, is starting to pay real dividends with a huge selection of minority-focused films. So if you’re ever in the Chicagoland area during October and want a huge selection of independent films at reasonable prices, I would recommend taking a trip to the Chicago International Film Festival.

A Dream of Iron

A Dream of Iron Artfully Ponders South Korea’s Glimmering Future

For a country that is 15th in world GDP, South Korea does not get a lot of international fanfare. This intellectual blind spot makes A Dream of Iron’s meditation on Korean industrialism over the past 50 years a vital contemporary commentary. In astrology lore, a “dream of iron” is one where the dreamer fears sitting judgment of others and whoever controls the iron has control of the situation. If Park’s compelling art film/ documentary hybrid is to be believed, then South Korea’s breakneck industrialization after the unbelievable destruction of the Korea War could be seen as trying to take control of the iron.

Most Underpublicized Country in Asia

Maybe because Japan and China have been in more precarious positions the past few years, but I feel as though the average American would not finger South Korea as Asia’s highest income earner. Director Kelvin Kyung Kun Park brings out the backbone of South Korea’s success with a unique, local perspective in Ulsan, home of the world’s largest car manufacture plant. The tone of the film is slow and pensive, never moving too quickly from a grand shot of towering crane to aerial shots of the city’s huge, metal infrastructure.

The dots never get connected quickly, but the reverential cinematography towards Korean industry hints at its growing roles as a new Korean religion. A particularly strong moment comes about 20 minutes in when the blips of a whale slowly transition to the drums of a traditional Korean ceremony, which then return to swimming dolphins before a somewhat harsher cut to a Hyundai employee at the factory. Through visual style over concrete facts, Park suggests the movement from Korea’s ancient whale-based religion to traditional Confucianism and Buddhism occurred gradually, but Korea’s industrialism boom happened in a historical instant. Park periodically returns to a series of ancient religious petroglyphs that have since become submerged due to a nearby factory adding a heartfelt jab on the real implications on Korean history.

Manufacturing as South Korea’s Seoul

The origin for Park’s interest in this subject came from his grandfather who operated a scrap metal business in Seoul that became largely irrelevant as the years went on. Despite this being Park’s first feature film, he expertly juxtaposes archival footage of Koreans with eyes of full of hope awaiting Hyundai’s first manufacturing plant opening with an unsettling eulogy to a Hyundai executive given by a man who proudly describes ignoring his wife on her death bed so he could work more. Industrialism brought perhaps one of the world’s biggest national transitions in recent years catapulting South Korea into the worldwide economy, which according to Park seems to have come at the price of almost religious devotion.

Park took a greater amount of control than often seen in feature films by writing the script, shooting a large part of the film and directing it, perhaps because of his distinct connection to the subject matter. Sparse use of narrative elements prevent A Dream of Iron from erring farther into Park’s experience with video installation and performance art. The most conventional documentary-style profile follows a woman who stumbled into a job at Hyundai twenty years ago with the idea of it being temporary. The Hyundai factory has been a staple of this woman’s life, donning the layers of her safety mask reminiscent of the traditional talchum ceremony.

Narrative moments often devolve, or evolve in a certain sense, into contemplative industrial scenes scored to a lo-fi soundtrack that manages to echo both traditional music and the whirs and clangs of an industrial plant. The distant shots of beautifully lit industrial machinery say what the narration never explicitly delineates – these are the new iron idols. Towards the end there is a five-minute continuous take of one piece of machinery being placed down by a crane, interacting with the light forming new and interesting shapes and visual illusions before reaching the ground. Apart from simply making an unidentifiable metal structure become art (for a few minutes at least) Park addresses both the reality of modern South Korea and the potential that has for the country moving forward.

Concrete Night

Concrete Night’s Sweet Visuals Come With a Bitter Story at CIFF

The opening scene presents 14-year-old Simo (Johannes Brotherus) watching a light rail train collapse into the Gulf of Finland. He finds his way inside and swims around, but soon thereafter he bangs on the window trying to fix this problem he made himself. Pirjo Honkasalo’s 2013 film Concrete Night sounds as though it could be an indulgent, indie flick with high production value and a lot of gimmicks. While the film has a high production value for sure, the off-beat and hard to define coming of age story proves just as compelling.

pirjo honkasola

Finnish fixture Honkasalo has filled every role from cinematographer to film editor in her more than 40 years of filmmaking, which puts her in a unique position to be an expert in most major areas of film production. As a result I’m sure she played a role in Peter Flickenberg’s captivating cinematography which sets this film apart in how far it is willing to push conventions, uncharacteristically combining stark, high key lighting with a soft focus. The black and white coloring further transforms the notion of film noir young Simo probably has in his mind, into a sort of surreal dreamworld.

Pirkko and Pirjo

Honkasola can’t take all the credit because the screenplay was adapted from author Pirkko Saisio’s 1981 book of the same name. This is the bildungsroman you don’t normally see in film where confusion is highlighted and extracted almost to the point discomfort. Simo lives with his alcoholic Mother (Anneli Karppinen) and his soon to be imprisoned brother Ilkka (Jari Virman) in a confining, postmodern apartment in an equally confining concrete neighborhood. Ilkka, an insufferable loser by all accounts except Simo, bosses Simo around and intimidates their mother into complacency.

The presentation of Simo’s journey luckily allows us to see essentially the opposite of an unreliable narrator. Certainly there are scenes that can’t be taken literally, but his relationships although eccentric feel as grounded as a teen’s relationship with his family is expected to be. His mother prepares herself for a solid eight hours for a date just to get drunk and bring the man back to their apartment. Simo seems to take pleasure in deriding his mother in the same way Ilkka does, but we clearly see she is the ambitionless alcoholic Simo characterizes her as.

Brother Hero Worship at Its Most Honest

Conversely the audience has a stark view of how awful Ilkka is but here Simo can’t quite see past the alluring veneer of beer drinking, criminal older brother. When Illka takes Simo to a bar and he gets turned away for being underage Ilkka glares at the waitress, but Simo flips the whole table over.

In capturing the slice of puberty few acknowledge, i.e. the cruel and misguided decisions meant to impress, Concrete Night delivers above and beyond. While the attractive cinematography smoothes out some of the film’s darker edges, it is very much up to the viewer to negotiate the characters’ behavior. It can be challenging at points, but the seamless combination of disparate genres both tonally and visually makes this movie a must see.