Thursday, December 26, 2019

"If You Just Love Movies Enough, You Can Make a Good One," Says Quentin Tarantino in Tara Wood's Documentary QT8: The First Eight

Reservoir Dogs / Live Entertainment/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock
(Tara Wood, USA, 2019, 103 minutes) 

Instead of dancing around Quentin Tarantino's connection to disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, Tara Wood uses it to frame her documentary. There's no getting around it: Weinstein, by way of Miramax and The Weinstein Company, released Tarantino's first eight films. He and his brother, Bob, had nothing to do with Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, which marks a new era for the filmmaker, though we aren't likely to get a QT8 II: The Next Eight, since Tarantino has claimed that he plans to retire after film #10, whatever it is and whenever it may materialize (all I know is that it won't be a Star Trek entry, since he's extricated himself from that particular commitment).

Former roommate Scott Spiegel (Evil Dead II) remembers meeting Tarantino in his video-store days. Spiegel thought he was "an overzealous geek"--with the talent to back it up. He came to that conclusion after reading the screenplays for True Romance (Tony Scott) and Natural Born Killers (Oliver Stone). Though Tarantino wanted to direct, studios weren't interested in handing the reins to an untested kid when these established gents were willing to step in, though producer Stacey Sher says that Tarantino would've shot True Romance in non-linear fashion, as he famously did in Pulp Fiction, and that--26-year-old spoiler alert--Christian Slater's Clarence wouldn't have survived the climactic gun battle.

True Romance crew feat. Baby Brad / Warner Bros
Filmmaker Eli Roth (Hostel), who appeared in Death Proof and Inglourious Basterds--as the infamous Bear Jew--marvels at the fact that Tarantino writes out his scripts in long hand with different colored pens (he has no interest whatsoever in computers). Let's face it: these are the kinds of things we want to hear about Tarantino, i.e. that he's been talking a blue streak since day one, like his loquacious leads, and that he's old school, like his vinyl-and-cassette-loving characters.

Using the residuals from his gig as an Elvis impersonator on The Golden Girls ("Sophia's Wedding"), Tarantino was able to scratch up the funds to shoot Reservoir Dogs. As far as I'm concerned, that's an origin story to rival anything in Marvel or DC comics. That said, he didn't have the budget to provide his actors with the black suits they needed to make the imposing impression that has come to characterize the film, so they had to provide their own. According to Michael Madsen, who played Mr. Blonde, the production supplied them with ties. From those humble beginnings, Tarantino's debut went on to play Cannes, and a career was born.

Wood proceeds through Tarantino's next seven films, organized by three chapters: The Revolution (1992 and 1994), Badass Women and Genre Play (1997, 2003-2004, and 2007), and Justice (2009, 2012, and 2015).

Forster and Tarantino in 2007 / Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock
Wood, who co-directed 21 Years: Richard Linklater, has been down this road before, but with a very different filmmaker. QT8 represents her solo debut (worth noting: she had to wrest it away from Weinstein). If her approach is largely uncritical, I'm okay with that. If you enjoy Tarantino's work, it's an opportunity to go behind the scenes with Christoph Waltz, Tim Roth, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Samuel L. Jackson, Zoë Bell, Bruce Dern, Jamie Foxx, Lucy Liu, Kurt Russell, Diane Kruger, and the late Robert Forster, all of whom have worthwhile things to say. Forster, for one, credits Tarantino for giving him his career back. When he told the director he didn't think the studio would let them hire such a down-on-his-luck actor, Tarantino replied. "They let me hire who I want." Says Jackson, "Of all those films, Jackie Brown is sort of like the best one, for me, just because of the cinematic beauty and gentleness of that particular story."

It's a swell lineup, but I still would've liked to hear from Harvey Keitel, whose participation helped to make Reservoir Dogs possible, and Uma Thurman, who may feel she's said her piece. Though she claims she'd work with Tarantino again, in 2018, she told The New York Times he endangered her during the making of Kill Bill by having her do a stunt that went wrong, causing permanent injuries. Wood recounts the incident, and there's mention of a cover-up on Weinstein's part, but no explanation as to what that means. About Thurman's very physical role, stunt double Bell notes, "Uma worked her ass off… She was in pain a lot of the time."

Thurman as The Bride in Kill Bill / The Weinstein Company

Austin Chronicle editor and co-founder Louis Black also praises the music in Tarantino's films, an essential element in their success, but he doesn't name Mary Ramos, the music supervisor who has worked on all eight films. It's an unfortunate oversight, but then Wood chose not to interview Tarantino (or maybe he preferred to let others speak for him). I'm pretty sure he would have given his longtime colleague her due.

Fortunately, Wood does make sure to credit Sally Menke, the Thelma Schoonmaker to Tarantino's Scorsese, though she neglects to say when and how she died: of heat-related causes in 2010. Django Unchained, which saw release two years later, represents the last film she edited.

Further, there's talk about race, something Tarantino has tackled through films in which people of color don't just take the lead—they triumph over their (mostly white) oppressors. Tarantino's use of the "n" word, however, complicates his attempts to uplift marginalized people. He and Spike Lee have been sparring about it for over 20 years, and it's an issue that will never go away, not when the word appears, repeatedly, in several films. If Foxx and Jackson, who has worked with Lee, don't have a problem with it--"Spike Lee’s that guy," Foxx quips, going on to characterize him as a "get off my lawn"-type--that doesn't mean it isn't a problem. Nor does it mean Tarantino is a racist, but it's a cruel, ugly, dehumanizing word. Putting it in the mouths of bad guys doesn't change that fact. Even in the context of the exploitation-style films he makes, it's tone-deaf at best.

Jamie Foxx is Django Unchained / The Weinstein Company
For all that Wood incorporates in the documentary, including a discussion of Tarantino's strong women characters, there's no mention of his foot fetish, though she does include the Death Proof sequence in which Kurt Russell licks Rosario Dawson's feet while she's snoozing. And...I suppose that's more than enough.

Just as the documentary opens with Reservoir Dogs, it ends with The Hateful Eight, in which Tarantino reunited again with Tim Roth and Michael Madsen (both also appear in OUATIH). As for Weinstein, his relationship with Tarantino unraveled after The New Yorker and The New York Times published revelations about his career-long history of sexual harassment. All the while, the director made Weinstein money. In turn, Weinstein offered him creative freedom. Stacey Sher confirms that Tarantino based Kurt Russell's bounty hunter in The Hateful Eight on Weinstein. In the end, and this isn't exactly a spoiler: Jennifer Jason Leigh's outlaw, Daisy, shoots him dead. It doesn't change the fact that Weinstein's name will always be associated with these films, but as Oedipal endings go: it's perfect.

QT8: The First Eight is available to rent or buy (no streaming) from Amazon Prime Video, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube, and Google Play.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

The Unstoppable Force of Adam Sandler in Josh and Benny Safdie's Uncut Gems

Sandler looking downright Mephistophelian / A24
(Josh and Bennie Safdie, USA, 2019, 135 minutes)

Adam Sandler never stops moving in Josh and Bennie Safdie's vertiginous Diamond District thriller, Uncut Gems. From start to finish, Sandler's gem merchant, Howard Ratner, is barely keeping his shit together. If he lets down his guard for even a second, he could lose a fortune, and a lot of people depend on him: his family, his employees, his girlfriend (who is an employee), and his customers, especially Boston Celtic forward Kevin Garnett (who plays an especially demanding, obsessive version of himself).

Before introducing Howard, the Safdies begin with a 2010, Exorcist-inspired prologue in which two Ethiopian miners excavate a chunk of rock studded with black opals. Since one of their colleagues suffered a grievous injury in the process, it's clear that this is a literal blood opal. As one worker raises it up to the light, cinematographer Darius Khondji (Funny Games) zooms in on what looks like a starry sky in miniature. From there, he dives into the stone, leading to 2001-like special effects that light up the screen to Daniel Lopatin's magical-whoosh of a score. The interior of the opal gives way to a certain glossy body cavity, which reveals itself as Howard's colon. After his colonoscopy concludes, the film begins in earnest. The year is 2012.

Garnett, Stanfield, and Sandler admire the rock / A24
From there, the Safdies introduce the major players in short order, starting with the girlfriend (the amazing Julia Fox, matching Sandler measure for measure) who would rather party than work, the regular customers, like Demany (Lakeith Stanfield), who serves as Howard's unofficial PR flack, and the thugs pressuring him pay his debt to their loan shark boss, Arno (a chilling, dead-eyed Eric Bogosian). Howard, it turns out, is a gambling addict, who doesn't know when to quit.

When Kevin visits his store, Howard sees a chance to make a dent in his debt, but what the towering athlete wants more than a diamond-encrusted Furby pendant is the opal-studded rock from the prologue. It took Howard 17 months to track it down after he saw it on a History Channel special about Ethiopia's Jewish tribe. "They say you can see the whole universe in opals. That's how fucking old they are," he exclaims. When Kevin refuses to leave without the rock, which Howard had intended to sell at auction, he lets him hang on to it in exchange for his clover-bedecked championship ring, which he promptly pawns, so he can increase his bet on that night's Celtics vs 76ers game. Kevin is convinced the rock will bring him luck, but it will prove to be unlucky in ways that none of its guardians can anticipate.

Once the Safdies, who wrote the script with co-editor Ronald Bronstein (Heaven Knows What, Good Time), have set the wheels of the plot in motion, it's up to Howard to figure out how to make it out of this mess alive. If he creates every problem that arises--"You did this to yourself," his exasperated brother-in-law, Arno, sighs--Sandler makes Howard just likable enough that you want to take this ride with him. Though Uncut Gems isn't exactly a comedy, the dialogue is consistently colorful, if not cuttingly funny, which makes the relentless pace easier to take. The same goes for Lopatin's score, which differs from his more drone-oriented work in Good Time. In this case, he adds a wistful, flute-infused motif that alternates with a gentle, whistled reverie, recalling the smeary character pieces of the 1970s--The Panic in Needle Park, Scarecrow--that clearly served as an influence.

Julia as Julia bets it all on Howard / A24
When Kevin fails to return Howard's rock on time for the auction, he cajoles Demany into driving him to Philadelphia to collect it, even though his whole family, including estranged wife Dinah (Idina Menzel, miles away from Frozen and Wicked) is expecting him to join them for his sullen teen daughter's play. In Howard's world, the domestic obligations don't stop as he ping-pongs between his house in Long Island and his apartment in Manhattan. When Howard admits he fucked up their marriage, Dinah counters with a less ambiguous assessment: "You are a fuck-up." If Menzel's character comes off as a bitch, you know she's right, just as you know the Safdies love this guy anyway. He has a lot of their father in him, a man they fictionalized with a similar degree of affection and frustration in 2009's Daddy Longlegs (it's too bad Bronstein appears to have left acting behind, because his performance in that film couldn't be better). In his Times of Israel interview with the brothers, Jordan Hoffman notes that they "modeled him after associates of their father."

As the film hurtles towards its conclusion, Howard suffers one indignity after another from the loss of his clothes to the bloody nose featured on the film's arresting B&W poster. Just when it seems as if things can't get worse, a light appears at the end of the tunnel. Maybe, just maybe, he can pull out of this nosedive into death and destruction. One way or the other, the final 10 minutes will completely wreck your nerves. The first time I watched the film, I felt pummeled by the pace and the cacophony of yelling and pounding. The second time around, I was able to more fully appreciate the editing as the Safdies cut between Howard in his shop trying to keep the beasts at bay, Julia tasked with a very tricky maneuver, and the opal-powered Celtics game which will determine the fortunes of most everyone in Howard's orbit. The way they bring these stories home is nothing short of masterful.

"Well, we all fall in love, but we disregard the danger" / A24
Equally masterful is Adam Sandler, building on his work in PT Anderson's Punch-Drunk Love (2002) and Noah Baumbach's under-seen--or at least underappreciated--Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (2017). Because I know him best from these finely-wrought films, rather than his mainstream comedies, I'm not surprised he can act; I'm just surprised to see him give a white-knuckle, Roy Scheider-in-Scorcerer-level performance. Except funnier.

Though it opens in Seattle on Christmas Eve (and halfway through Hanukkah), Uncut Gems is a Jewish movie. That's not just my take on it; the Safdies have only encouraged the impression by the gemological-meets-pornographic title and by setting the action during Pesach. It seems perfect, really, that Sandler, performer of one of the best known Hanukkah songs--will now be associated with a Passover classic. Or that's my hope for this film, which takes a critical, yet sympathetic look at a seriously flawed, but not completely un-redeemable human being. An uncut gem indeed.

Uncut Gems opens at SIFF Cinema Egyptian on Dec 24. The annual Fiddler on the Roof Sing-Aong plays the next day at SIFF Cinema Uptown with Chinese food and live klezmer music. For more information, click here.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Marching Band Member Goes Missing in Jennifer Reeder's Musical Teen Noir Knives and Skin

The marching band member who goes missing
(Jennifer Reeder, USA, 2019, 111 minutes)

I love a good musical teen noir, and Jennifer Reeder's Knives and Skin is a…not-bad musical teen noir. Her followup to 2017's Signature Move begins with a knife-wielding mother wondering where her 15-year-old daughter has gone. Carolyn Harper (Raven Whitley), a drum major, has gone to a secluded riverbank to get busy with Andy (Ty Olwin), a varsity football player. Andy has a girlfriend, but these two have made out before. At the last minute, Carolyn decides she isn't feeling it, so Andy pushes her away and drives off with her hat and glasses--but not before she scratches him on the forehead.

The next day, Carolyn's band mates wonder where's she's gone. The last we saw of her, she was very much alive, but bleeding, while Andy still has a "C" mark on his face, though he doesn't tell anyone how he got it.

Much as with Laura Palmer and the town of Twin Peaks, Carolyn's disappearance haunts the sleepy Midwestern town of Big River (Reeder shot the film in Chicago). Her single mother, Lisa (Marika Engelhardt), the high school choir teacher, seems dazed, but then, she seemed dazed on the night of the disappearance when she was skulking around their house with a knife. In one of my favorite scenes, Lisa, while wearing Caroline's green sequin-covered dress, leads the choir in a lovely, Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares-like version of the Go-Go's "Our Lips Are Sealed."

Ireon Roach, Grace Smith, and Kayla Carter
As we get to know the other parents, we find that they're pretty weird, too. Andy's seamstress mother, Lynn Kitzmiller (Audrey Francis), who wears the same over-sized, lion-face t-shirt daily, spends most of her time snoozing on a tin foil-covered pillow. It isn't clear what's eating her, but it looks a lot like depression. Her husband, Dan (Tim Hopper), lost his job, but he hasn't had the heart--or the courage--to tell her. As for Sheriff Doug Darlington (James Vincent Meredith), his wife, Renee (Kate Arrington), is pregnant and he's more annoyed than excited about it; everybody thinks the baby belongs to Dan with whom she's been having an affair. They're both right and wrong about the kid. The Kitzmiller and Darlington daughters were among Carolyn's best friends, although, unlike Laura Palmer, no one was especially thrilled about her. Like many teen girls, she could be careless and cruel. 

Life goes on. Renee continues to see Dan, who dresses up like a clown when they get together, and Lisa, whose makeup becomes increasingly smeared, continues to wear her daughter's clothes, from poufy party dresses to heart-patterned angora sweaters. Then one day, Carolyn's friends receive a text from her. It doesn't mean she sent it, in which case someone used her phone, but it's unclear who would do such a thing.

Things only get stranger from there as a t-shirt talks back to its owner, a student sells her mother's used underwear to a teacher, and a different teacher, a substitute, put the moves on the same student. Beyond the comparisons to Twin Peaks, Knives and Skin evokes other not-quite-horror films in which surrealism comes to the suburbs, like Richard Kelly's Donnie Darko and Gregg Araki's Kaboom, sometimes successfully, sometimes not.

None of this is played with a wink. For all I know, Reeder may find some of it as silly as audiences are likely to, but the deadpan vibe and Nick Zinner's dreamy score suggest otherwise. The supernatural aspect, meanwhile, doesn't spring from mystical elements--with the exception of a wound that won't heal--as much as the diegetic music that comments on the action as if the participants all decided, in unison, to sing. It happens at the choir practice with the Go-Go's song and continues with Modern English's "Melt With You," Naked Eyes' "Promises, Promises," and other numbers, all of which come from the 1980s, possibly an acknowledgment that Knives and Skin wouldn't exist without the precedent set by David Lynch with Blue Velvet in 1986 before he expanded on similar ideas with Twin Peaks four years later.

Reeder eventually provides the resolution to Carolyn's disappearance. She had dropped clues along the way, so it doesn't come from out of nowhere, but it works. If the weirdest stuff in the film falls the flattest, like a couple of food-throwing scenes, I found the end unexpectedly touching. Turns out the filmmaker had one more 1980s-oriented magic trick up her sleeve.

Knives and Skin is available to stream through iTunes and Google

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Everything's Got 'Em: On the Point of Harry Nilsson's Animated Feature The Point!

(Fred Wolf, 1971, USA, 74 minutes)

Two years before the publication of William Goldman's The Princess Bride, in which a father tells his son a bedtime story that takes up the bulk of the book, singer-songwriter Harry Nilsson used a similar format for his own bedtime story, The Point!

Fourteen years later, Goldman's adaptation of his book would form the basis for the big-screen version with which most people are probably familiar. And Rob Reiner's film isn't bad, but as is often the case: the book is deeper, darker, and more fulfilling. Nilsson's narrative feature, however, lived on the small screen before it took shape in other formats, including a stage musical (with Monkees Davy Jones and Micky Dolenz) and a home-video release.

For this hand-crafted project, Nilsson did everything he possibly could. He hired a screenwriter (Norm Lenzer) to adapt his idea, a director and animator (Fred Wolf) to bring it to life, a producer (George Tipton) to conduct and arrange his songs, and a narrator to tell the tale; Dustin Hoffman, post-Midnight Cowboy, for the TV broadcast and his close friend, Ringo Starr, for the version that appears on most video releases, including the 50th anniversary Blu-ray MVD will be releasing next year (Nilsson won a Grammy for Midnight Cowboy's Tipton-produced theme, "Everybody's Talkin'"). It's Nilsson, however, who narrates the album version with which I grew up, and I believe it's definitive. Starr has an engaging style, but his narration can be a little drowsy, whereas Nilsson's has more pep.

The Nilsson who came up with the story, which hasn't lost one iota of resonance over the years--hippy-dippy trappings aside--is the same Nilsson who grew up without a father, wrote songs about fatherlessness, like "1941" and "Daddy's Song," and would go on to father seven children, none of whom would experience the same degree of abandonment--though it's fair to say that his youngest children saw more of him than his oldest son, Zak.

In the film, Oblio (voiced by The Brady Bunch's Mike Lookinland) begins life in a medievalesque town full of points. As Nilsson's song would have it, "Everything's Got 'Em"--except for Oblio, the sole round-headed citizen. As the narrator notes, "He had no point. He had no point at all." Always a fan of wordplay, Nilsson extracts as much meaning from the word "point" as any human conceivably could. Anyone who's ever felt different from the rest, for whatever reason, can see themselves in Oblio, not least because he's a regular kid. He's polite, he's well mannered; he's just pointless.

In order to help him fit in, his mother makes Oblio a pointed cap. His head remains perfectly spherical, but now he looks more like everybody else, though I don't think it's completely accidental that the other kids look like what we would now call poop emojis. Instead of befriending any of his orange peers, Oblio finds a soul mate in the blue-hued "greatest dog in the world," which leads to "Me and My Arrow," a sublime, two-minute pop song in which Nilsson describes a friendship in the first person, just as he did in his Tipton-produced theme for ABC's The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, while simultaneously expressing adult fears of abandonment in lines like, "And in the morning when I wake up, she may be telling me goodbye." It's a completely unexpected detour in a song that seemed designed expressly for children and animal lovers, but that was Nilsson's modus operandi in a nutshell: to subvert pop-song expectations at every turn.

With Arrow's assistance, Oblio becomes a formidable player of Triangle Toss, the town's boomerang-like game, but just as the other kids are warming up to him, he beats the Count's purple-hued, sore loser of a son. The Count can't have the town see its future ruler as a failure, so he convinces the King, not exactly the brightest bulb, to banish Oblio to the Pointless Forest.

The Count is a Dr. Seuss-grade villain to rival the green guy in How the Grinch Stole Christmas, which preceded The Point! to TV by five years. Whether Wolf, best known for his work on The Flintstones, took inspiration from Dr. Seuss, I couldn't say, but there's a similar sensibility at work in terms of the quasi-surrealistic look of the thing. Other possible inspirations include George Dunning's animation for the Beatles' Yellow Submarine (1968) and Terry Gilliam's animated collages for Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1969-1974). Considering that Nilsson was friendly with members of both groups, it's unlikely that the similarities are wholly coincidental.

If it wasn't clear that The Point! is a parable about prejudice, one villager at the tribunal spells it out when she tells another, "If we let one of Oblio's kind stay, before long the whole village will be crawling…" She doesn't finish her sentence, and nor does she need to. Oblio stands for anyone who doesn't look, speak, or act the same as the majority of their community.

As Oblio and Arrow, found guilty of criminal conspiracy, enter the forest, Nilsson's Rube Goldberg ballad, "Think About Your Troubles" soundtracks their departure. The second-person song begins with you at the breakfast table, thinking about your troubles. You shed a tear that lands in your teacup, which ends up in the river, where it travels to the ocean to get eaten by fishes that are swallowed by a whale "who grew so old, he decomposed!" The cycle begins again as the body merges with the ocean, which flows into the river, which comes out of the tap, and ends up in your teacup.

Oblio, on the other hand, has no time to think about his troubles. He's just hoping to make it through the Pointless Forest in one piece, the first of his kind to accomplish the feat. To his surprise, it's full of points, although as the Pointless Man cautions, "A point in every direction is the same as no point at all." Oblio also encounters a swarm of bees and the Rock Man, who utters the best lines to a bass-driven bebop beat, "You see what you want to see," "You hear what you want to hear," "You don't have to have a point to have a point," and my favorite, "You been goofin’ with the bees?"

Just when it seems as if Oblio and Arrow won't meet any women along their travels, they come across the Fat Sisters, three tomato-shaped ladies who live to giggle and groove. Wolf has drawn them in such a way that they appear to lack clothes, and yet he's kept things G-rated by depicting them in a smeary, smudged manner as they bounce around like beach balls. "I really don't understand this," Oblio admits, ultimately deciding that understanding isn't necessary. The Fat Sisters exist simply to inspire joy and merriment.

The Pointless Man as depicted in the illustrated booklet.  
They next meet up with the Leaf Man, a malapropism-spouting businessman obsessed with leaf production. Frankly, he's a bit of as bore. It's possible that his conception sprang from the bankers and record company accountants Nilsson met during his career, but he's the least interesting character by far.

After an encounter with a prehistoric bird who takes Oblio and Arrow on a trip through the sky before bringing them down to Earth, hatching an egg, and then flying off with her chick, the two weary travelers decide to take a nap. Before, they drift off into unconsciousness, Oblio comes to a realization: what's in your head is more important than whether there's a point on top of it. With that, Nilsson croons "Are You Sleeping?," which picks up where "Me and My Arrow" left off as he continues to wonder whether a relationship, possibly his marriage to Zak's mother, will last. "And in the morning when I wake up, she may be telling me goodbye," he says with one breath. With another, he assures her that, "I'll be there by your side."

It's that unique combination of the expectedly childlike, the surprisingly adult, and the just-plain weird that makes The Point! work as well for me now as it did in grade school when I'd play the album over and over again, flipping the pages of the illustrated booklet all the while. In fact, I didn't watch the movie for the first time until this year (it's streaming on Fandor). If I've always felt as if I'd seen it, it's simply because I've memorized every line and image from the booklet and every lyric from the album.

There may be better children's films, but there are few that are more personal and less condescending to young people. And if there's a better soundtrack to spring from this genre, I've yet to hear it. As a song cycle, The Point! stands alongside Nilsson's finest albums, like Nilsson Schmilsson, to the extent that it loses nothing when un-tethered from the film. They're simply great songs about finding your place in the world.

In William Goldman's Princess Bride, there are two sets of fathers and sons; the father who read Goldman the original book--but "only the good parts"--before bed, and Goldman's son, Jason, who rejects it as boring (in Rob Reiner's movie, Peter Falk and Fred Savage play a version of the first pair). In truth, The Princess Bride was wholly the author's invention. His father, an alcoholic who killed himself while Goldman was in high school, never read him any such book, and nor did Goldman track down a rare copy for Jason, because Jason doesn't exist; Goldman and his wife had two daughters.

Through The Point!, Nilsson, the boy who grew up without a father, got to live out his fantasy of having one who was there for him, just as The Princess Bride allowed Goldman, the boy who lost his father, to live out his fantasy of having one who was happier and healthier. In Alyn Shipton's 2013 biography, Harry Nilsson: The Life of a Singer-Songwriter, Fred Wolf says he's "unsure that the story is deliberately autobiographical." In 1970, when Nilsson was working on the project, just a year after he'd had his first son, he may not have seen it that way, but in hindsight: it sure looks like it.

The Princess Bride Quote-Along, part of SIFF's annual Holiday Favorites series, plays SIFF Film Center Dec 6, 7, and 8. For more information, click here. MVD releases The Point! Ultimate Edition on February 20, 2020.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

"Young, Handsome, Brawny" Ex-Soldier Trades Israel for France in Nadal Lavid's Synonyms

Emile (Quentin Dolmaire) with Yoav (Tom Mercier)
SYNONYMS / Synonymes
(Nadal Lavid, France, Israel, Germany, 2019, 123 minutes)

"Male, young, handsome, brawny. Happy to serve as artist’s model."
--Yoav's job posting

Israeli director Nadal Lavid (The Kindergarten Teacher) wastes no time in plunging his protagonist into a nightmarish situation. It's the kind many people are likely to dream about, but few will actually experience.

Yoav (Tom Mercier, equally engaging in stillness as in motion) has just arrived in Paris from Tel Aviv. For his first move, he sets himself up in a large, empty, unheated apartment. Some unknown benefactor left him a key. On his first night, he takes a shower. After he leaves the tub, he's horrified to find that his clothes are gone. He knocks on several doors while completely nude, but no one responds. The next day, neighbors Caroline (Louise Chevillotte) and Emile (Quentin Dolmaire) find him passed out in the tub, so they carry him up to their apartment, nurse him back to consciousness, and set him up with clothes and toiletries. (Since Lavid never resolves the mystery, it's suggested that the duo took Yoav's clothes and ignored his knocking before checking in on him the next day.)

Yoav proceeds to walk the streets wearing a woman’s long, gold coat. It's strangely flattering. While he walks, he mutters synonyms to himself in French, never in Hebrew. His vocabulary is very good, so it's clear that he's been studying for a while. He wants to be able to say all the words.

Yoav and Caroline (Louise Chevillotte)
It seems fitting that this language-obsessed traveler would find common ground with a writer. When he reconnects with Emile, the aspiring novelist asks him what he plans to do. "I'll be French," says Yoav. "That’s not enough," cautions Emile. Yoav begs to differ, and that's pretty much the theme of the film. He soon finds work as a security guard at the Israeli embassy, possibly due to his military background, though he also runs an ad offering his services as an artist's model. As the opening scene attests, neither Mercier nor Yoav has any problem with nudity. For my money, he looks a lot like a not-especially-buff Tom Hardy, though I don't recall Hardy being quite so casual about disrobing on film.

Yoav continues to hang out with the couple. It isn't clear if they're brother and sister or boyfriend and girlfriend, and they only encourage the confusion, which seems designed to disorient the audience as much as Yoav, whose sexual orientation also takes a while to come into focus. The ambiguity allows Lavid to establish sexual tension between the three that could find release in any direction. Then, Yoav's friend, Yaron (Uria Hayik), comes to town, and he divides his time between the boorish Israeli and the refined French duo. Yaron has come to Paris "to save the Jews," which means telling everyone he meets that he's Jewish, wearing a yarmulke, and singing the Israeli national anthem into the faces of subway passengers.

It's a relief when Yaron disappears from the scene, though his discomforting presence helps to explain what Yoav is eager to leave behind. It's not so much that he hates Israel, but that he hates the macho, militaristic side of the country. With Yaron gone, the film threatens to segue into a modern-day updating of Bernardo Bertolucci's The Dreamers, which featured almost as much male nudity, except Lavid has different concerns in mind.

Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe
Yoav spends the rest of the film trying to make a living, to fend off his parents, to navigate his relationship with Emile and Caroline, and to maintain his dignity, which takes a nosedive when he poses for a photographer who seems interested in him/his body, but mostly seeks to exploit his nationality, the very thing he's trying to escape. During a session in which the photographer gets him to speak in Hebrew, Yoav realizes how much he's seen--and even fetishized--as different or other. Though Emile tells him, "Giving up your language kills part of yourself," that's precisely what he's trying to do. It's what his grandfather did when he traded Lithuanian for Hebrew. In a way, he's just carrying on the family legacy.

The strain eventually erodes his composure, and what had initially seemed like amusing quirks segue into signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. Or maybe it's that he's finding his true self by trying on a cultural suit that doesn't fit. A rigid citizenship course only adds to his doubts about France.

At first glance, I was frustrated by the decision he makes to resolve his dilemma, but in retrospect, I'm not so sure he had any other choice. In the end, Synonyms, which draws from the filmmaker's own experiences with France, isn't a tragedy, but it's hardly a comedy either. It's more like a love story between a man and a country--two countries, really--that don't love him the way he wants to be loved...but why should France love him when he doesn't even love himself? Yoav's final move indicates that he just might be making steps in that direction, and that's what I'd call a happy ending.

All images from Kino Lorber. There are no further show times for Synonyms in Seattle, but it's still making its way across the country. For more information, please click here. For streaming, click here

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Adam Driver Brings His Superhuman Focus to Scott Z. Burns' Directorial Debut, The Report

Adam Driver as Daniel J. Jones
(Scott Z. Burns, USA, 2019, 118 minutes)

After watching The Report, I read Katherine Eban's "Rorschach and Awe," the 2007 Vanity Fair article that inspired Scott Z. Burns' new docudrama. The filmmaker has personalized the story by honing in on one individual, Daniel J. Jones (Adam Driver), the senatorial staffer who helped to bring the CIA's Detention and Interrogation Program to light, but the article and the film are two entirely different things--to the extent that Eban never even mentions Jones. If you're interested in psychology, the former is where it's at; if you're interested in one-guy-against-the-system thrillers, like Michael Mann's The Insider (which also drew from a Vanity Fair article), the film is more likely to meet your needs.

That isn't a knock against The Report, which is definitely worth seeing, but it hits familiar--if welcome--beats along the way, while the article presents a far thornier reality. For instance, Burns makes little mention of the armed services-aligned psychologists who formed a task force to assist the CIA in the wake of 9/11. Through their $80 million contract, they led the agency to believe that enhanced interrogation techniques (EIT) would best elicit intelligence from detainees, except they don't. The "rapport-building approach," as Eban terms it, does. Historically speaking, humane treatment provides the most reliable results, whereas EIT is a great way to get detainees to say literally anything to make the torture stop.

Annette Bening as Senator Dianne Feinstein
If George W. Bush and his Cabinet are bad guys for encouraging and defending EIT--and they are--so is the American Psychological Association (APA) for participating in the sham.

In order to neutralize the politics of the situation, Burns downplays Bush's involvement, while casting CIA Director John Brennan (an excellent Ted Levine, whose participation is deviously perfect in light of his role as a serial killer in Silence of the Lambs) as the primary villain. It works dramatically, in part because Bush has become an over-familiar presence in movies and TV shows, from Oliver Stone's W. to That’s My Bush, but I wonder if Burns would have tread so lightly if Bush wasn't still with us, painting terrible portraits of dogs and laughing it up with Ellen DeGeneres and the Obamas.

If Burns takes care to note the parts Condeleezza Rice and Dick Cheney played in promoting EIT as a geopolitical good, he keeps the focus on his lesser known protagonist at all times, sketching in his background with the broadest of strokes. All we really know about Jones is that he's a relentless workaholic. In the film's early stages, he assembles a team, including April (Barry's Sarah Goldberg) and Sean (Alexander Chaplin), to uncover as many details as possible about the EIT program. Senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening) provides the resources they need, but as the years grind on, Jones's colleagues move on to other, less emotionally draining projects, while the single, childless staffer forges on, largely on his own.

Steven Soderbergh, who worked with Burns on The Informant! and The Laundromat among other films, produced The Report, and in the press notes, the writer-director compares Jones to the star of Soderbergh's Erin Brokovich. Like that film, his never attempts to mimic a documentary, the mode of many recent handheld docudramas. It is, unabashedly, a movie, making it a throwback to the days of Alan J. Pakula's All the President's Men. Burns even stages scenes in under-lit garages in which Jones has secret meetings with a physician (Tim Blake Nelson) and a reporter (Matthew Rhys). Chances are these real-life meetings played out in more quotidian ways, but they provide the dramatic juice this dialogue-driven film needs.

Scarlett Johansson and Driver in Marriage Story
If Adam Driver is never less than very good, there's no real emotional arc here. We know Jones will get the job done, and he does, but it doesn’t really change him, not as much--or as tragically--as similar system-fighting efforts would change NYPD plainclothes officer Frank Serpico or chemical technician and union activist Karen Silkwood. Annette Bening also deserves credit for her understated, quasi-unrecognizable work as Senator Feinstein, but as a director, Burns isn't at the level of Pakula, Lumet, Nichols, or even Soderbergh, and that's okay. He would probably be the first to agree, but this is an important story, and I'm glad he's told it.

By contrast, Noah Baumbach's Marriage Story, which opens at the Crest on November 29, shows the actor's range like never before. There's a sequence in which Driver and Scarlett Johansson's soon-to-be-divorced couple let down their guards to say all of the terrible things they've been repressing for years. Driver's Charlie yells so loud and so hard that he finally breaks down in heaving sobs. It doesn't feel like acting, but like Driver is re-living something truly traumatic. No matter how he got there, though: it is acting. What he does in The Report is worlds away, but it's still acting to play someone so diligent without making him dull, pedantic, or too good to be true. As Burns says in the press notes, he's "incapable of being boring."

In the end, Jones would produce a still-classified 6,700-page report for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Distilled to 525 pages, his findings were shared with the world, and I'd like to think they made a difference. Jones deserves credit for his dedication, but this country has broken my heart too many times for me to truly believe that the US will never engage in EIT again. It probably has, and it probably will again, but I also hope that men and women like Jones will continue to speak truth to power when they encounter that kind of injustice. It's not so much that torture is un-American, but that it is American--especially when inflicted against bodies of color. It would be nice to live in a country where that is no longer true.

The Report opens at the Varsity on Nov 15. It will be available on Amazon Prime on Nov 29. For extra-credit reading, I recommend this New York Times article, "The Report and the Untold Story of a Senate-CIA Conflict."

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Making Waves with Walter Murch and the Sound Editors of the New Hollywood

Walter Murch and the Valkyries of Apocalypse Now
(Midge Costin, US, 2019, 94 minutes)

As 2019 Honorary Oscar recipient David Lynch, one of the key figures in debut director Midge Costin's illuminating documentary, observes, "People always talk about the look of a film; they don't talk so much about the sound of a film, but it's equally important--sometimes more important."

He's right, not least because he's such a strong visual stylist with specific ideas about music, and yet I can't recall the last time I heard someone mention the sound in his films. It's just too easy to take cinematic sound for granted, an oversight sound editor Costin (Crimson Tide) aims to correct.

In Making Waves, the sound designers, sound effects editors, foley artists, and re-recording mixers who took us from the dank jungles of Vietnam to the arid fields of Wakanda explain what they do. Filmmakers come along for the ride, too, like Sofia Coppola, Christopher Nolan, Ryan Coogler, Robert Redford, Barbra Streisand, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Peter Weir.

Walter Murch (The Godfather, The Conversation) and Ben Burtt (Star Wars, E.T.: The Extraterrestrial) start by talking about the phonograph and the camera. Originally, these were discrete inventions as consumers listened to records at home and experienced live musical accompaniment when they visited the cinema to see silent films, some of which also featured live sound effects and dubbing. Everything changed with the addition of synchronized music tracks, recorded dialogue, and post-production sound effects.

Ben Burtt and Richard Anderson record Pooh
Murch and Burtt credit Murray Spivack, who worked on 1933's King Kong, for inventing tricks still in use today, like sounds he recorded from nature and slowed down, sped up, or played backwards--whatever it took to achieve the effect he wanted. His peers, meanwhile, would incorporate generic sounds from an effects library, like gun shots and explosions, that would appear in movie after movie.

The two sound designers also credit Orson Welles who brought his radio expertise to film. He was "as aggressive spatially with sound," Murch notes, "as he was with his depth of focus on camera." Other speakers cite David Lean, Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, and Robert Altman as filmmakers especially sensitive to sound. These sorts of idiosyncratic talents--he specifically cites Ingmar Bergman and Akira Kurosawa--inspired Murch to enter the field in the first place, because he longed to think creatively, rather than to re-use pre-existing sounds like a factory worker (he also took inspiration from John Cage and musique concrète composer Pierre Henry).

Murch met George Lucas while attending USC. Through Lucas, he met Francis Ford Coppola on the set of Finian's Rainbow. The three went on to form American Zoetrope to make films outside of the Hollywood system, like Coppola's Rain People and Lucas's THX 1138. Murch had found the freedom he sought. Fellow USC student Burtt found something similar when Lucas tapped him to design the vocalizations for a big, hairy creature in a film he was working on called Star Wars (he and Richard Anderson created the Wookie's signature yowl by recording a bear cub named Pooh).

Ai-Ling Lee at the console
Other films under discussion include Eraserhead and The Elephant Man (Alan Splet), Top Gun (Cece Hall), Braveheart (Anna Behlmer, Scott Millan, and Andy Nelson), Road to Perdition (Millan, Scott Hecker, and Bob Beemer), Mad Max: Fury Road and Blade Runner 2049 (Mark Mangini), The Dark Knight (Lora Hirschberg), Black Panther (Peter Devlin), Lost in Translation (Richard Beggs), The Matrix (Dave Davis), Monster (Peter Devlin), Brokeback Mountain (Eugene Gearty), Inception (John Roesch, Alyson Dee Moore, and Richard King), Selma (Greg Hedgepath and Bobbi Banks), Deadpool and Wild (Ai-Ling Lee), Roma (Skip Lievsay), and, of course, Apocalypse Now (Murch, Beggs, and Mark Berger) in all its permutations, like the 40th anniversary edition which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival this year.

Costin's speakers also discuss multi-track recording, Pro Tools, 6-track Dolby Stereo, Surround Sound, and the relationship between the composer--represented by Hans Zimmer and Ludwig Göransson--and the sound department. As Gary Rydstrom says about the way sound effects give way to John Williams' score in Saving Private Ryan's Omaha Beach sequence, "There's a rhythm, there's always a rhythm; even to chaos there's a rhythm." Though none of the sound designers mention whether they have a music background, it's clear that many of them think like musicians.

All told, over three dozen sound designers get to have their say, but in the end, Murch makes the most memorable impression. As one speaker notes, "In a way, Walter Murch is the father of us all in this modern era of sound." It’s largely due to his skill, but also to the author and speaker's ability to explain what he does so eloquently and in such a deep, mellifluous voice. Making Waves may not have been intended as a love letter to Murch, but it plays that way, and I can't imagine that any true movie lover will mind.

Making Waves is now playing in New York, Los Angeles, and 24 other cities in the US and Canada (some screenings are one-night only). It opens at Seattle's Grand Illusion Cinema on Nov 8. For more information, click here

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Prolific Japanese Auteur Takashi Miike's Gazillionth Feature, First Love, Is Pretty Great

Monica + Leo = True Romance / Well Go USA
FIRST LOVE  / Hatsukoi
(Takashi Miike, 2019, Japan, 108 minutes) 

First Love opens to the strains of fuzzy funk-metal, a boxing match bathed in golden light, and a decapitated head tossed into a neon-lit Tokyo street where it rolls, comes to a stop, rests for a moment, and blinks. Clearly, we're in Takashi Miike Territory, always a good place to be.

Leo (Masataka Kubota, Miike's 13 Assassins), a boxer, is a wiry fellow with floppy hair and a winning style, but his coach laments his lack of drive. When he wins a match, Leo shrugs his shoulders as if to say, "Eh, what-
ever." He never knew his parents, who abandoned him when he was a baby, and this isn't the kind of movie where he'll tearfully reunite with them at the end. When a sports writer asks why he boxes, he says, "It's all I can do."

One day, though, he collapses after a not-especially-hard punch from an opponent. An MRI indicates that he has an inoperable brain tumor. The neurologist informs him that he'll have to give up boxing. He's despondent.

On the run from yakuza and ghost dads / Well Go USA
Only a few blocks away, a young woman named Monica (Sakurako Konishi) isn't having much better luck. In order to pay off her father's debts to the yakuza, she spends her days locked in an apartment and her nights selling her favors to clients. It's driving her so batty she keeps imagining she's being followed by a bespectacled, tighty-whitey-sporting middle-aged man draped in a sheet like a cross between the wriggling figure in Miike's Audition and Casey Affleck's mopey husband in David Lowery's Ghost Story. I don't think it's too much of a spoiler to say that Sheet Man is the ghost of Monica's fucked-up father. 

The fateful encounter that brings these Gun Crazy-like loners together involves the ghost dad and the corrupt cop, Otomo (Kōji Yakusho lookalike Nao Ohmori, Miike's Ichi the Killer), assigned to keep an eye on Monica. Soon, the two are on the run from the granite-faced mob boss and his minions, including crazed gangster's moll Julie (Becky) and Kase (Shôta Sometani), an excitable goon who keeps killing everyone he meets--good, bad, neutral--it doesn't matter. He can't help himself, and some of his kills are especially amusing. That wouldn't be the case if Miike was going for realism, but there's a stylized, graphic-novel quality to this twilight world.

Once Kase enters the scene, it becomes clear that First Love is Miike in fun mode. There are car chases, fiery explosions, unintentional blow jobs (I'm not about to explain what that means), and mayhem involving cars, guns, knives, samurai swords, and squealing, sax-driven jazz from composer Endo Koji. Just when you think it can't get any more gonzo, lightning bolts spring from Leo's head, and he drives into a Yellow Submarine-meets-Scooby-Doo animated sequence in which sound effects are spelled out in big, block letters: "CRASH! VROOM!" (This bit was too short for my taste.)

Kase is the cutie second from the right / Well Go USA
Viewers scarred by Miike's more extreme entries may breathe a sigh of relief. It's not so much that he's never made a film as zippy as this one, but that his more outrageous fare tends to attract more attention.

First Love isn't as sweet as his zombie musical The Happiness of the Katakuris, which is suffused with pastoral beauty and familial affection, but it's still pretty sweet--and with no sticky aftertaste. Granted, anyone expecting the abused, drug-addicted Monica to turn avenging angel may leave disappointed, but it isn't as if there aren't women in the film, like Julie, who can handle a weapon, it's just that she isn't one of them.

If anything, I would have liked to spend more time with her and Leo, even if I found the considerably less stable supporting characters more entertaining. The obvious solution: a sequel. Considering that 59-year-old Miike has churned out two to three features a year for almost 30 years, including two sequels to Dead or Alive--and I'm not even counting the 41 made-for-video, anthology, and TV projects--I wouldn't be surprised if we get one.

First Love opens at the Egyptian on Oct 4. Click here for more information.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

On the Authorship of a Singular Vocalist in Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice

"Different Drum"-era Linda / CNN Films
(Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, 2019, USA, 95 minutes) 

In a surprisingly youthful-sounding voice, Linda Ronstadt, 73, narrates this look back at her life. She speaks so quickly that the words seem to tumble out of her, as if she's been waiting for years to let them out. And that's as it should be. The device lets us know that she's going to be shaping her story rather than simply contributing sound bites to an outsider's take on it.

European-American on one side of her family, and Mexican-American (and European) on the other, Ronstadt took after her father, Gilbert, and her grandfather, Federico, who played traditional Mexican music. She grew up in Tucson, steeped in country, classical, and mariachi. In her home, English was for conversing and Spanish was for singing.

After singing with a few local groups, a former band mate, Bobby Kimmel, encouraged her to move to Los Angeles. She was 18 years old. They formed a folk trio called The Stone Poneys. Through their performances at the Troubadour, where aspiring artists went to make their mark, they landed a deal with Capitol, which led to a recording of the Mike Nesmith-penned "Different Drum." Though Ronstadt wasn't thrilled about the strings her producer added to the song, it was, she acknowledges, "a huge hit."

Capitol soon made it clear that Ronstadt was the one they really wanted, so her band mates went their separate ways. She invited Don Henley and Glenn Frey to back her up. They would go on to form the Eagles. J.D. Souther also made her his girlfriend, and I use that phrase, because his opening gambit was, "I think you should cook me dinner." I can't imagine that that line was any more enticing in 1971 than it is now. She made him a peanut butter and jelly sandwich…and they moved in together.

Just a few steps away from super-stardom / CNN Films
From Capitol, she segued to Asylum Records and found a manager in Peter Asher, who was looking for a new gig after the implosion of Apple Corps. An opening slot on a Neil Young tour brought her in front of audiences 18,000-20,000 strong. If they were resistant at first, she won them over. If she felt isolated as a female performer, she formed firm friendships with other women, like Bonnie Raitt, which helped. The first time she saw Emmylou Harris, she thought, "She's doing exactly what I'm doing, but she's doing it better," but they hit it off big time. Harris credits her for offering comfort and support after collaborator Gram Parsons' death.

Other women, like Dolly Parton, emphasize Ronstadt's ability to "inhabit a song." She wasn't a songwriter, and yet songs that weren't unknown when she got to them have come to be more closely associated with her than their original performers, from the McGarrigle Sisters ("Heart Like a Wheel") to the Everly Brothers ("When Will I Be Loved"). I'm quite certain I heard her version of Hank Williams' "I Can't Help It (if I'm Still in Love With You)" before I heard his. As music journalist-turned-filmmaker Cameron Crowe notes, "When you become that sharp of a song stylist, you get authorship."

Ronstadt's success on the Pop, Country, and R&B charts--the first woman with five platinum albums in a row--saw her headlining the very stadiums she played on tour with Young. Long nights on the road with hard-partying men led to her to copy their worst behaviors, something she now regrets, though it's certainly understandable. Her drug of choice: diet pills. Fortunately, they don't seem to have wreaked the same kind of havoc on her that they did on Judy Garland, another petite brunette with a big voice.

The directors proceed to her relationship with California Governor Jerry Brown, which brought attention she didn't necessarily welcome, though she handled it as well as anyone could. When she grew tired of stadium life, she looked for other ways to use her voice, which led to a role in the Broadway production of Gilbert & Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance. Her voice was "so pure," co-star Kevin Kline remembers, that it made him cry. She moved on to albums of standards, a trio with Emmylou and Dolly, a duo with Aaron Neville, and two traditional Mexican albums, including Canciones de Mi Padre, the best-selling Spanish-language album in US history.

If she shape-shifted with ease, Ronstadt eventually reached a point where singing was no longer an option due to a diagnosis of Parkinson's disease, and yet she sings, quietly and gently, in the film. If she can no longer sing professionally, because most of "the colors aren't there anymore," she can still harmonize with family members, just as she did in her youth.

Filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (The Celluloid ClosetThe Times of Harvey Milk), are best known for their non-fiction and fact-based films about civil rights and free-speech issues, so a documentary about a musician may seem uncharacteristic except that it was produced by James Keach (Walk the Line, Glen Campbell: I'll Be Me). If Epstein and Friedman lack any significant music credentials, Keach, who considered Johnny Cash a friend, doesn't (Keach met Cash when the musician guest starred on his wife's Jane Seymour's Western series, Dr. Quinn: Medicine Woman).

Giving Bobbie Gentry a run for the money / CNN Films
Furthermore, Epstein and Friedman's Lovelace offers a sympathetic portrait of adult film star Linda Lovelace (nicely played by Amanda Seyfried) just as they offer a similarly sympathetic portrait of Ronstadt. Moving from a biopic about a famous woman to a documentary about another seems like a natural progression, and yet they've left out details that would've provided for a fuller picture.

As a portrait of a voice, their documentary does exactly what it set out to do, but as a documentary about a person, it falls short. We find out how Ronstadt met Souther and Brown, for instance, but we don't find out why they broke up. They ask Souther, but he says he doesn't remember, which seems disingenuous. How do you forget something like that? Bonnie Raitt defends a woman's right not to marry, and I fully support that, but it would've been better to hear from Ronstadt (the filmmakers also neglect to mention her relationships with Jim Carrey and former fiancé George Lucas). Though she never had kids of her own, she became a mother when she adopted a girl, followed later by a boy. This isn't mentioned even once.

Sometimes, when filmmakers work closely with subjects they revere, they tread too lightly, and audience members lose out on the chance to get to know them as well as we could have. We don't need to know everything,
but if a filmmaker is going to bring up a subject, like a relationship or a substance abuse problem, they should give it the attention it deserves.

So, I left feeling frustrated with the filmmaking, but not with the subject. Unlike Keach's Glen Campbell documentary, which focuses extensively on the late musician's experience with Alzheimer's disease, we learn almost nothing about Ronstadt's experience with Parkinson's, and that's okay. She's acknowledged it, and she's enjoying life as best she can, and that's enough. She's spoken about it in interviews; she doesn’t need to go into detail here. Mostly, the documentary makes you want to take a deep dive into her discography, especially that amazing run of albums from the 1970s, and that's one of the best things you can ask from any music documentary.

Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice plays Regal Meridian 16 and AMC Dine-In Seattle 10 through Oct 2. Update: the film returns to Seattle at Northwest Film Forum on Nov 24 and 27. Click here for more information. 

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Hello Darkness, My Old Friend, I've Come to Talk With You…About The Sound of Silence

Peter Sarsgaard as Peter Lucian / IFC Films
(Michael Tyburski, USA, 2019, 87 minutes) 

Peter Lucian, the professorial-looking New Yorker played by Peter Sarsgaard in Michael Tyburski's debut, isn't a musician, a DJ, or even a Simon and Garfunkel devotee—he's a house tuner. Clients, who find him through other clients, tend to be skeptical at first, but once he identifies the noise that's causing their malaise, they become believers. Like a therapist, he doesn't just pinpoint the problem, he provides the advice they need to eliminate it.

Tyburski's feature film, an expansion of his 2013 short Palimpsest (also co-written with Ben Nabors), is filled with vintage recording equipment, just as Peter's life is filled with vintage recording equipment (in that sense, it recalls Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio, which revolves around a sound mixer). Peter records the sounds he hears and the conversations he has with clients. After each assignment, he pins a note on a map, indicating the location of the problem. The map serves as the basis for a paper he plans to submit to an academic journal. For assistance, he enlists Samuel (Tony Revolori, The Grand Budapest Hotel), his mentor's TA, to help him compile the data (the incomparable Austin Pendleton plays his mentor).

Rashida Jones as Ellen Chasen / IFC Films
Ellen (Rashida Jones) contacts Peter, because she's tired all the time. And it isn't because she works at a non-profit that helps the homeless. It's her apartment, or she comes to that conclusion after talking to friends (Alex Karpovsky plays one of them) who benefited from Peter's services. Ellen looks tired, too, though because Jones plays her, she does so quite attractively. Peter looks tired, as well, though the actor who plays him often does. The Sound of Silence is just that kind of picture. This is not a complaint so much as an observation about the lonely-people-in-the-city brand of art house film--soft-spoken, chronically under-lit--to which I sometimes gravitate, and this one certainly fits that bill.

Peter identifies Ellen's toaster as the source of her problem. She's skeptical it can be that simple, but switches out her old model for the new one he provides. A recently-single woman more haunted by grief than discordant sounds, Ellen gives it a few days, but when her fatigue fails to lift, she gives Peter a call. He decides to visit her workplace to see if that could be a factor.

In the meantime, she tries acupuncture, while Peter rejects an offer to apply his knowledge to a commercial venture that manufactures ambiance for hotels through serotonin-targeted lighting, fragrance, and sound. He wants to make the world a better place by removing obstacles from people's lives and not be manipulating consumers into making wealthy realtors wealthier. It makes him sound heroic, except he's also arrogant enough to think he's too good for anything except the oddball career he's carved out for himself.

Ellen is tired of being tired / IFC Films
As for Ellen, it doesn't seem completely coincidental that Jones would be drawn to this role. As an actress, she's never needed to lean on her father Quincy Jones's fame as a producer and composer, and yet Peter has more of a background in music than science. Once he explains that to her, you sense Ellen's interest growing (Jones's partner is also a musician: Vampire Weekend front man Ezra Koenig).

Unfortunately for Peter, his well-ordered world starts to fall apart as a result of their meeting. Accustomed to being right all the time, he finds out what it's like to be wrong, and he doesn't know how to deal with it. As he tells Samuel, "Typically, I know the solutions to a client's issues before I even arrive," but Ellen's apartment messes up his map, which messes up his research project, which messes up his ability to trust his ears and his instincts. And on a more personal level, his arrogance and rigidity ends up scaring away someone who could be a friend--if not something more.

But sometimes you have to hit bottom to see your life clearly for the first time. It's a relatable (if somewhat clichéd) sentiment, so it's too bad cinematographer Eric Lin shot the film's conclusion in such darkness that I could barely see what was going on. It will probably make more sense on a big screen, but even on a small one, more light would have gone a long way. There's an unintentional irony that a film so sympathetic to sound, from the flapping of birds' wings to the clomping of horse hooves, would treat light with such casual disregard, but it reflects Peter's dilemma: he's so focused on seeing the world in one way that he misses all of the things--including some of the most pleasurable--that can't be so easily defined.

The Sound of Silence is playing at the Varsity (4329 University Way NE).

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Larry Fessenden's Depraved (on Account He Ain't Had a Normal Home)

I dig the old school-style poster
(Larry Fessenden, USA, 2019, 114 minutes) 

Larry Fessenden's Depraved isn't so much an adaptation of Mary Shelley's 201-year-old novel as his own unique take on the premise. He's changed names and biographical details and set the action in modern-day Brooklyn, but the doctor-creature relationship remains the same.

In the prologue, Alex (Owen Campbell, The Miseducation of Cameron Post), a young man who is a little wary about moving in with his girlfriend, Lucy (Chloë Levine, The OA), gets attacked on his way home from her apartment. The couple had just been talking about having kids--prematurely, in his view--and the next thing he knows, a stranger is plunging a knife into his abdomen. Repeatedly.

Fessenden then shifts to Henry (David Call, Gossip Girl*), a former field surgeon, who gives the gift of life to a collection of body parts he dubs Adam (Alex Breaux, a Harvard wide receiver-turned-actor). In Shelley's novel, the creature tells Dr. Frankenstein, "I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel," except Henry gives him the name for another reason, which will be revealed later in the film. It's clear that Adam has inherited Alex's brain. The two may not look alike, but they're brothers under the skin.

Initially, Adam has no idea what's going on, and so everything is vague and blurry. It's all rather psychedelic. Gradually things snap into focus. He's in some sort of loft-turned-laboratory. Henry dedicates his every waking hour to teaching him how to think, speak, and move. Meanwhile, Adam's memories are starting to come back, so there's a lot going on in his head.

Fessenden and Call chillin' in Brooklyn
Adam's world expands when Henry introduces him to John (Humpday's Joshua Leonard having a little too much fun), a pharmaceutical rep who takes him to a strip club and to the Met, where Adam spots Lucy in the gift shop. He recognizes her, but she doesn't recognize him. Although Adam has scars on his face, he doesn't look like the bolt-necked fellow of James Whale's--or Mel Brooks's--famous film. He just looks like a guy who's been in a few scraps. Because Breaux plays him as a blank slate, he may take some hits for his performance, but it works. Until it doesn't. Up until that point, Adam isn't a child and he isn't a simpleton--he's just an unformed human--and it takes him awhile to express himself.

When he finally figures out where he came from—the morgue—and why he exists—so that Henry and John can make money off an experimental drug called Rap X, he realizes he's just a means to an end. Like parents, Henry and John argue over their surgically-created son. Henry wants to restrict him to a calm environment, while John wants to expose him to the chaos of the wider world. I was reminded of Jake Weber's advice to his son in Fessenden's Wendigo that it's okay to be "fair and even-headed"--like his mom--but "you don't want to be a softy either." They're both right, of course, except the Frankenstein story is all about making the worst choices.

Left to his own devices, Adam meets a goth-lite woman in a bar who her finds herself entranced by--or at least curious about--his scars. Shelley (Addison Timlin) thinks he looks like Iggy Pop (he doesn't). Their one-sided conversation is cute at first, because she's talkative enough for the two of them, but when things go wrong, as they must, they go very, very wrong.

Adam and Shelley
I wouldn't say the movie goes off the rails once Adam becomes an instrument of vengeance. It doesn't, but what had worked about Breaux's performance earlier in the film becomes a liability once Adam turns on his creator-controllers. The problem is simply that he isn't very sympathetic. Intentionally or otherwise, Henry, who is suffering from PTSD, becomes the more sympathetic character, and that's not how this sort of thing is supposed to work.

Still, I like the way Fessenden found an ever so slightly more optimistic way to bring the film to a close. Things aren't supposed to work like that either--the creature is meant to take the life his creator gave him--but Adam deserves a chance at a better life. Maybe, just maybe, he might get one.

It's worth noting that Fessenden's son, Jack, worked on the film as both actor and crew member (and Larry dedicated 2001's Wendigo to him). The writer-director-producer's interest in father-son relationships isn't, I don't think, merely theoretical. If Depraved is a lesser work in his canon, it adds to a larger conversation around his abiding interest in this area.

*Call's first credit: Guy #1 at Party in Mary Harron's The Notorious Bettie Page.

Depraved opens in select theaters on Fri, Sept 13 (local info TBA). Black and white Fessenden and Call portrait from this Anthem Magazine interview.