I've been pretty busy pursuing other projects and thus didn't have the temporal opportunities to see all that many of the movies screening at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Cinemafest, but those pictures I have seen, four in all so far, have been very good to extraordinary. Three of them have already screened at the fest, the fourth will be there on Thursday.
Richard Linklater's Boyhood, the opening night picture, is one I imagine you've heard a lot about, and I agree with all the enthusiastic and maybe even gushing things said about it. It really IS all that; one of the things that's remarkable about it is the way Linklater stuck to the cinematic grammar he had decided on—a simple but not unsophisticated one—throughout the twelve-year shooting process, and how this grammar yields a relaxed, seamless viewing experience that gathers emotional power in ways the viewer won't necessarily notice until very near the end. The movie also has one of the absolute greatest final shots in cinema. When I first saw it (and I plan on seeing it again, and maybe again, and with pleasure), I mentioned on social media that it was "Edward Yang-level great." Let me expand on that: the movie has the compassions and directness of Yi-Yi and the ambition and concentration of A Brighter Summer Day. (One thing it does not have is Yang's anger, which is undetectable in Yi-Yi, the movie more than once cited by "I did SO like a three-hour movie" types who might be in for a rude shock if they ever happen to see Summer Day.) I think every resident of the United States ought to see this movie; I don't know if IFC can pull that off, but they release the picture on July 11.
The erudite and perspicacious young film critic Ignatiy Vishnavetsky went an unusual route for his deput picture, Ellie Lumme, contriving a haunting, satisfyingly feature-like experience within a barely (not even, even!) 45-minute running time. Set and shot in Vishnavetsky’s home base of Chicago, Ellie Lumme begins, it seems, as another examination of The Mating Rituals Of Today’s Irritating Young People. But via increments, in specific camera movements, lighting shifts, and cuts, it mutates into something odder and disquieting. Stephen Cone, a filmmaker who also was a coproducer on this, is excellent as Ned, the initially indifferent fellow who becomes a persistently bothersome presence in the life of the title character, played a few notes higher and finer above the Generic-Indie-Female register by Allison Torem (above). The movie's cinephilic currents are kind of subterranean, which is all to the good; in particular, Cone's character reminded me of a '40 or '50s noir demon, a persistent negative presence in the mode of, say, Robert Ryan in Fritz Lang's persistently great 1952 Clash By Night; but that's not quite it.
I met Mr. V., with whom I’ve had a number of invigorating (and sometimes intemperate—my fault as usual, and sorry) exchanges online over the years, at a social gathering on Saturday after the movie’s BAM screening, and he’s an impressive fellow, and taller than I had imagined as well. At the party I remarked to another friend that I thought it was kind of a shame that Ignatiy had made the movie a longer-than-average short; it felt to me that he could have taken this story to a more conventional feature length without stretching the material too thin. “Sure,” my friend said, “but isn’t it admirable that he went and made the movie he wanted to make?” So okay, there’s that.
The Mend, which screened Sunday evening, is not just a staggering debut feature, it’s a staggering movie full stop. The scenario setup might seem on the conventional side: One seeming hellion of a brother (Mat, played by Josh Lucas [seen above] with what one might call phlegmatic commitment, among other things) reconnects with the other attempting-to-be-a-normal-person-in-Upper-Manhattan brother (Alan, an excellently often-recessive Stephen Plunkett). But that’s the only thing conventional about it. Writer/director John Magary opens with an arresting iris-out opening image that recalls Arnaud Desplechin, and the movie, like many of Desplechin's, has a deliriously packed feel. Content arrives in the form of dialogue, inflection, eye movement, camera movement, cutting, lighting, music, sometimes all at once, but nothing’s ever on-the-nose; seldom does a shot or a sequence resolve on a consonant note. But Magary’s in full control of his dissonance. The movie is never not profanely hilarious, but it’s also almost nerve-wrackingly tense throughout. The movie’s opening is a good example of how Magary confounds standard film grammar, cutting from a down-and-dirty seduction scene to a screeching shit fit in which the seducee banishes the seducer, without depicting the precipitating act. In the hands of a less assured filmmaker this kind of ellipsis can seem affected, but Magary makes you like it, as he does the long, alternately mortifying, titillating, and immersive party scene that follows. The movie’s side-steps into genuine surrealism, largely centered around a dodgy power situation in Alan’s apartment, are also consistently exhilarating. I should make a disclosure here that Magary is a cordial acquaintance who’s been a longtime commenter on this blog, so I came to The Mend with some good feelings and high hopes. The movie itself exceeded them, I have to say. Magary is definitely a Director To Watch and I hope The Mend finds distribution soon so it can find an audience. It deserves a big, smart one.
Paul Harrill’s Something, Anything, which screens this Thursday, June 26 at 7 p.m., is a substantially quieter film than any of the above. It’s a beautifully concentrated story of a young woman in Knoxville, Tennessee (Peggy, played by Ashley Shelton, seen above) who’s living her life in the way everyone, including herself, expects of her. Works as a real estate broker, marries a hotshot young professional from the social circle she’s likely been in since high school, etcetera. An inopportune turn of events that everyone around her, including her husband, treats as a life-glitch sends Peggy into a tailspin, and a postcard from a former high-school acquaintance who’s now a monk inspires her to undertake a spiritual quest. She doesn’t quite get into Diary of a Country Priest or Meetings With Extraordinary Men territory, but her embrace of a particular asceticism confuses the people around her, including the estranged husband. Harrill’s writing and directing is sensitive in the best way possible, highlighting small details of behavior sharply but unfussily. And Shelton’s performance has a steady intensity that gives off a soft but beautiful light throughout.
Over at RogerEbert.com, I muse, darkly, on the ostensible subject of "Art, Freedom, and the Bechdel Test." It's the sort of thing I would normally put up here, but as my editors there have told me that they're eager to let me fly my freak flag in their yard, I figured I'd take 'em up on it. Enjoy, and comment there, or here.
It is possibly indicative of the insularity of the world inhabited by filmmaker Mike Myers and the interview subjects of his non-fiction feature (you can't, or shouldn't, really call it a documentary) Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon) that the t-shirt worn by Mr. Gordon during his '70s heyday is referenced as if it's kind of charming. We can make an excuse for the Funkadelic song because it's a piece of sociological observation as well as a funk monster. Anyway, Supermensch is one of the three motion pictures I review for RogerEbert.com this week, the other two being Ti West's not-bad The Sacrament and Clark Gregg's highly unfortunate Trust Me. As far as Edge of Tomorrow is concerned, I'm for it, although one of these days I'm going to have to develop a unified field theory of the Final 25 Minute Blockbuster Fizz Out. And that movie based on the YA novel, I haven't seen it, but good God I wish I'd written the book because then I'd be in Maui or Paris right now.
On July 28, Phaidon will release two new books in its Cahiers du Cinema "Anatomy of an Actor" series, one of which is my own study of Robert De Niro. The other is Amy Nicholson's look at the work of Tom Cruise, an intriguing excerpt or offshoot of which appears here. I suppose a good number of readers out there are familiar with the series, which examines careers of contemporary actors via detailed essays on ten individual films. Although we're still almost two months from the book's actual pub date (and there will be events around the release of the book, and hopefully some excerptions and interviews here and there prior to the big day, which I'll keep you informed about, both here and on my Twitter feed [@Glenn_Kenny]) I thought it would not be completely useless to talk a little bit about the book now.
I now recall that I neglected to thank the filmmaker and writer Nicholas Saada in the acknowledgements section of the book, which is definitely my bad because he apparently set the ball rolling, referring an editor at the then-newly-formed Cahiers du Cinema imprint at Phaidon to me. I had an appointment with said editor around July of 2012, when she was visiting New York. She showed me a few of the new Cahiers titles, including Michael Henry Wilson's mammoth Scorsese on Scorsese, and asked me if I had any ideas. I immediately pitched a Richard Quine biography. "Yes, he is brilliant, but..." was the response, and then we moved on to the just-launched Anatomy of an Actor series, and I said I'd put together ten films of De Niro's that might make for a comprehensive or at least intriguing study. The ten films were, and remained:
Bang the Drum Slowly, John Hancock, 1973
Mean Streets, Martin Scorsese, 1973
The Godfather, Part II, Francis Ford Coppola, 1974
Taxi Driver, Scorsese, 1976
Raging Bull, Scorsese, 1980
The King of Comedy, Scorsese, 1983
Midnight Run, Martin Brest, 1988
Awakenings, Penny Marshall, 1990
Meet the Parents, Jay Roach, 2000
Stone, John Curran, 2010
There was some concern about my not including 1995's Heat, which I do treat in a sidebar; my logic was that his appearance in that film, while containing a superb performance, did not constitute a latter-day career milestone, so to speak. From Midnight Run on, a lot of, if not most of, De Niro's work has to do with exploiting his cachet as a movie star, a status that had never really been conferred to him prior to the Brest film. Awakenings and Meet the Parents, regardless of what you think of them, represent moves on a movie industry chess board, while Heat merely keeps the core contituency happy. Also, I suspected that Karina Longworth would tackle that film in her own Anatomy of Al Pacino, which was close to publication as I started work on De Niro. As it happens, I was correct in my surmise, and Karina did a terrifc job looking at both actors in her Heat chapter. (I should thank Karina here for her words of advice and encouragement on this project. Over the years in engaging her I have been unforgivably rude and obnoxious; one of the many good things about taking on this project was that it gave me an appropriate opportunity to reach out to her with an apology, which she graciously accepted, and I am happy to have mended fences with her.)
When word got out that I was doing this project (and it was quite a bit of time before I got the go-ahead), some people asked me if I was going to "take De Niro to task" for such depradations as Rocky and Bullwinkle, 15 Minutes, a half a dozen VODish titles co-starring 50 Cent, etc., etc. The answer then and now is/was "No." This is not to say that I lavish praise on such efforts. In my introduction, after noting that in making Rocky and Bullwinkle and Shark Tale, De Niro was at least in part motivated by a desire to be in something that his young kids could see, I continue, "The main problem with Rocky and Bullwinkle, and to an arguably lesser extent Shark Tale, is that they ended up being movies that no one should see." However. I don't believe it is ever the critic's job to take an artists "to task" as such, or, for that matter, to offer career advice. I gotta be honest, it drives me fucking nuts when I read somebody offering "X really ought to make a children's film" or "Y ought to work with Z;" it always strikes me as smug busybodying, the middlebrow answer to TMZ coverage. What I try to do in the book, true to its title, is examine De Niro's work and his choices, and also to dig up some satisfying answers to questions that seem to torment some of his one-time admirers. But the fulcrum of my thesis has to do with how we mythologize great performers, and how in so doing we're almost doomed to be eventually disappointed in them.
That said, I am certainly very glad the little-seen Stone exists, because once you get to the contemporary section of De Niro's career, good performances in good movies are thin on the ground, there's no getting around it. I would have not really enjoyed delving back into Being Flynn, echoes of Taxi Driver or no; as strong as its central performances are, it's eventually almost as sentimental as, well, Awakenings. And while in Awakenings the physical precision of De Niro's performance was a pushback to the sentimentaliy, here no such subversion is allowed to occur. If you haven't seen Stone, I'd suggest you seek it out now, even if you don't plan on buying my book. It is strange, strong, resolutely unsentimental. My chapter on the film contains some terrific insights from Edward Norton, who was kind enough to grant me an interview.
End of the Road is a fascinating motion picture, not just because it was cinematographer Willis' debut feature. John Barth, the author of the 1958 novel on which it is based, dislikes the movie expansively. Being a fan of the book I anticipated I might come to a similar assessment, if I ever saw it. Which was difficult for some time. It became available for viewing under the aegis of Steven Soderbergh, who also made a documentary about its making; the movie and the doc are available via Warner Home Video. As it happens, Road, while not a very good adaptation of Barth's book, is an engaging, sometimes mesmerizing, and ultimately affecting movie. In transposing the book's action from the early '50s to the then-present day, Avakian and his co-screenwriters Dennis McGuire and Terry Southern concoct an alienated counter-culture anti-parable. If Eustache's The Mother and the Whore depicted personal and romantic dysfunction in Paris as an emblem of the failure of May '68, Avakian's picture implies a sour elegy for the Woodstock Nation. And its imagery is unfailingly striking and beautiful. There are worse things you could do this weekend than to seek it out.
A little background: I've alluded to my band, Artificial Intelligence, on this blog before, most expansively here; in the wake of the engagement described in the linked post, the personnel determined that, as they say in the movie, it would be fun to either make a record or play out again, or both.
Three years and change after that, we made a record. The aforementioned personnel are:
Daniel Burwasser, drums; Ron Goldberg, keyboards and samples; Douglas Harvey, the electric bass; myself, Glenn Kenny, vocals and low-grade guitar; and Thomas Santamassino, guitar. The rhythm tracks were recorded at BC Studios in Brooklyn by the great Martin Bisi in the winter of 2011; the vocals were recorded in the same venue, by Mr. Bisi, in November of 2012. The overdubs were recorded by Ron Goldberg at his homes at various sessions between 2011 and 2014. The records was mixed in February of 2014 by Martin Bisi, with Ron and myself sitting in on all sessions, Mssrs. Harvey and Santamassino advising on separate sessions.
The recording, which if released in album form will be titled Revisionist History, was produced by Ron Goldberg with Martin Bisi. The band entity can best be credited as the Associate Producer. The reason for the title is that all the material on the recording was originally composed and played out in the early 1980s. We have not yet determined a release date, or even a definitive release form for the recording, which consists of eight songs. I wanted to present the above track as a kind of "sneak preview" of the record, and also leech some interest off of the release of the latest Godzilla picture, no duh. Hope you enjoy the song and the admittedly rudimentary slideshow "video."
Don't get too excited. The Protector 2, from which the above still is derived, and which I review at RogerEbert.com, is pretty bad. And Rhatha Phongam doesn't figure in it as prominently as she might. Phongam was last "widely" seen in these parts in Only God Forgives, so she's due for a karmic break soon, I'd reckon.
Also in my reviewing sights this week are two films of worthy ambition that don't quite get to where they ought: Decoding Annie Parker and Belle, the latter of which does not have any relation to an Al Green record, which is too bad.
Virginia Leith in Violent Saturday, Richard Fleischer, 1955.
I got so terribly excited by the new Eureka! blu-ray disc of this ineffable thriller that I just had to post a screen cap of it, and I've always loved this particular shot from the POV of peeper Tommy Noonan. I got so excited that I forgot that I wrote at length about Noonan and this film a couple of years back. Which musings may provide some consonance for the above image.
For a long time the only home video versions of this movie have been non-optimized for 16:9 displays, meaning they put a 2.55 image in a 4:3 box, which is obviously less than optimum. The Eureka! disc is the first second true widescreen version [as a commenter below points out, Carlotta in France issued a prior such rendition, I apologize for the error] and hence cause for celebration. It's beautiful in pretty much every other respect too. If you don't have a region-free player you're out of luck at the moment, as the disc if Region-B locked, but I'm reasonably confident a domestic-player-friendly version will surface.