Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Open Letter to Richard Kelly

Dear Mr. Kelly,

I didn't think it was possible. I don't know how you did it. But you did.

You did one better than Donnie Darko.

A lot of people will read this and guffaw. They will think something along the lines of, "Donnie Darko sucked! And Southland Tales was even worse!" Those people don't know what they're talking about, and I feel sorry for them.

First of all, Southland Tales was way bigger than Darko. It had a huge cast lineup, the locations were staggeringly more numerous and, presumably, more costly, and the music was unbelievably well chosen, or well written where applicable.

And the concept. My GOD. I can't help but wonder how you are able to sleep if those are the kinds of thoughts and ideas that spend their days swimming around in the viscous fluid of your psyche. Your metaphors, though oblique, all landed on the mark. The comedy, the farcical moments were equally on-point. You made me laugh one moment, and then metaphorically shit my pants the next. And there wasn't a moment that my interest or attention wavered.

And that's the crazy part. You managed to go even more balls-to-the-wall than you did in Donnie Darko which, god help us all, was your FIRST FEATURE(!?!?!), and it only ended up yielding you better results. You are the ultimate chemist filmmaker.

I have no idea how you managed to get such a mass of people behind you with the support, either financially or in spirit, that you managed to elicit, but you sir, are a lucky man. Their support paid off in spades. While I laughed at the thought of Southland Tales, in all of the absurdity that was presented to me, I lay my doubts humbly at your feet. I would follow you to the depths of hell to make a movie about tap-dancing if you told me it was going to be amazing.

You have officially made the greatest movie in the history of all mankind. My hat is off to you, sir.




Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Cormack McCarthy's "The Road"

The Road The Road by Cormac McCarthy

My review

This book was great, and worth all of the recommendations and accolades it is getting from people. I'm a little nervous about the movie, but that's beside the point.

First, I was totally engulfed by and invested in the story from the beginning. Sometimes I have a hard time getting into books, getting into the flow, but the writing is so easy and the elements of the story so few at first that there is no struggle to latch on. McCarthy does a great job of hooking you into a story that you would probably rather not hear, because it's one that doesn't seem all that implausible. Many post-apocalyptic stories seem far-fetched and alien, but this one was different. The characters seemed too much like people I might know now, dealing with the immediate aftermath of a peril that doesn't seem like it is that far in the future, based on the way he describes life before the catastrophe.

What this book did, which no story before has ever done for me, was make me feel grateful for every single thing that I have. Every meal I am able to cook and eat, every night I sleep in my own bed, in my own apartment, all of the things that make my life so easy and let me focus on inconsequential privileges like art, friends, and careless fun. It also made me remind myself just how fragile our way of life is, and make me confront the grim reality of how the world could be in the not-so-distant future if we're not careful.

A great read.

View all my reviews.

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Wednesday, July 02, 2008



The other night I finally watched Downfall, the story of the last 12 days of the Third Reich, based on the book of the same title (both are actually originally in German, titled "Der Untergang"). I'd been looking forward to this quite a bit, actually, after watching this video, of all things. I had no idea this movie even existed, so when I saw it I knew I had to see it. So much time gets spent on the concentration camps, the POWs, all of the mayhem and carnage of WWII, but very little mainstream cinema deals with trying to paint an ACCURATE picture of Hitler, his strengths and weaknesses, his humanity. The fact that it was taken on by an entirely German cast and crew is also great.

The film clocks in at about two hours and forty minutes. The amazing part is, at no point in that time span was I bored. Never. I was always trying to see more, trying to know more. So, the fact that I wasn't totally enthralled by this thing is pretty surprising to me. I think one of the big problems for it was that they tried to stay true to the book's wider scope. It's about the whole country at the very end of the war, not just about Hitler and his closest cabinet. As a result, their are sidepocket parallel narratives that, for me, were a total waste of time, such as the Hitlerjugend (Hitler Youth) Peter and his family. Completely irrelevant and uninteresting to me. In fact, I almost think I could have lost Traudl Junge, his secretary, too. I wanted to see what was going on with Hitler and those immediately surrounding him: those closest to him.

Here's another problem: only 12 days. The movie starts around 1942 when Hitler hires Frau Junge to be his secretary. It immediately fast-forwards to the last 12 days of the war. So all the intense relationships that Hilter has have already long been forged, and all we watch is the aftermath of the decline as these people finally see the end and most of them commit suicide. While the events are often startling, you feel no compassion for these characters. This may be a surprising thing to even want to feel for them given that we're talking about the top Nazis. But since we're dealing with a film that is NOT a documentary (and maybe even if we were), I think we need to find something in these people to at least empathize with, which makes their beliefs and downfall that much more gripping and visceral. Granted, there are plenty of emotional and sympathetic moments between characters, but it is at a point where they have already decided their feelings for one another. It is basically watching people unravel, which has its merits, but allows for a lot of distancing. It is a real skill to create a film about a villain, and make that villain somehow worthy of sympathy, but this is not really something that happened here.

Of course, the film has its merits. For one, the sense of claustrophobia is palpable, as a great deal of the film takes place within Hitler's bunker. The space is small, the lights flicker from time to time with the falling of heavy artillery, and the camera is often hand-held. The cinematography is great, too. And I think each actor inhabited his or her character quite well. They were very visibly affected (scenes of note: Frau Goebbels giving her children poison, Mr. Goebbels confiding for a moment his intense unhappiness about being sent away by the Führer, and crying about it, any of Hitler's outbursts, the two Hitlerjugend suicides).

The problems that I've laid out are not, I believe, problems in the eyes of the makers. After watching the making-of documentary I have come to realize that they had no desire to just talk about Hilter, no desire to make him a sympathetic or tragic figure. They wanted to make him REAL and ACCURATE, but not sympathetic, I don't think. And these other, seemingly superfluous narratives were also important to them, because I can only assume they were in the book. However, in my opinion, if they were able to hold my attention seemingly quite easily for almost three hours, that time could have been slightly better spent.

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Friday, June 27, 2008

Say Anything...

Let's put aside for a moment my great appreciation for John Cusack and Peter Gabriel, and the fact that Ione Skye looks like my fabulous friend Kristy Koopman. I just watched Say Anything... for the first time (yeah, I know, thanks), and this movie is unbelievable. Is it an amazing romantic movie? Yes. But the best part is that it's not a traditional one. Granted, it steps in a couple of the mud-puddles that others have, and perhaps the irony is that it may have set up those puddles to begin with, but this is a romantic film of honesty.

One thing that immediately struck me, once it got past it's starry-eyed first-love butterflies is the clarity to their conversations. The way that they deal with their problems is really rather extraordinary. The way that the two protagonists in most romantic comedies get over their issues is always terribly superficial, and often involves some outside source coming in at the last minute to save the day, or perhaps some simple moment of courage that sets everything right.

The beauty of Say Anything... is that it doesn't all work out. Romantic films like to parade themselves as windows of truth into the way romance can really happen, if we believe enough. And while this one might not be the posterchild for that mantra, it does something extraordinary. It tests our patience, and it reminds us that we don't always win. Everything doesn't always go "to plan."

The fact that the film ends with Diane's father incarcerated is a big choice. But there is an even bigger choice - the last shot of the film. If this is a spoiler for you, I'm sorry, but you, like me, have had just shy of twenty years to see this one so I'm going to spoil away. The final shot, of the young couple on a plane to England, fearfully awaiting the ding, which will come "any second now," that means everything is OK. That last shot lasts 23 seconds. Yes, it doesn't take a degree in much of anything to figure out that this shot is about anticipation, and puts us in their shoes. But it's twenty-three seconds. While that's not much for some (my favorite director is Apitchatpong Weerasethakul, for crissakes), that is a pretty bold move for a popular romantic comedy. The shot is completely static, and the frame contains virtually no movement and only one line of dialog. This is fabulous.

I have the tendency to talk things to death, to analyze things, and it feels crude and almost inhumane for me to try to theorize a late-80's romantic comedy, so I won't keep going any further than I have. But I will say this; this movie is a classic for a reason. Yes, it has some thrills, but it deals with the realities of a young relationship in a very mature and realistic way. There are always some movie-magic moments in those relationships, and then there are the moments of painful honesty where we don't know how to deal with the thing that we have to deal with. There is no such thing as a total happy ending. As Diane says, "good things always happen with bad things." You don't get to have your cake and eat it too. And at the end of it all, sometimes we just have to wait longer than we'd like for the "ding" sound that means everything is OK.

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Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Sky is Falling, but where will it hit?

I'm reading "Yes, the Sky Really is Falling," the speech Mark Gill gave to the LAFF almost a week ago. In it, he discusses the very real approach of a heavy death-toll in the indie film community. The film-making community in general, perhaps, but especially the indies. I agree with a lot of what he says, but of course like anyone of firm opinion, I also disagree with some of his points.

One particular thing that he says is, "the digital revolution is here, and boy does it suck." Well, I disagree with you, Mark. Here's the thing: the digital revolution is a DEMOCRATIZING process (which Mark points out). What this means is, thus, everyone gets a turn. The problem isn't that the revolution sucks, it's that it points out how much more sucky material there is wanting to be, or being, made. It's highlighting all the stupid and uninventive people. Those people have always existed, it just didn't used to be that easy for them to make movies, and to submit those movies to film festivals. That's why Sundance sucked.

The problem here, I think, is that we need a new form of filtering. YouTube, bless it's feeble, racist, childish heart, has a great model for this: number of views, star rating, and viral sharing. People are really, REALLY good at only watching good stuff on YouTube, because a lot of the parsing has already been done. And then they just open up the blog they read, or their e-mail inbox, and the best stuff is right there waiting for them. Maybe the rules and the JUDGING need to be a little more stringent at Sundance. Or maybe it needs to be a more democratic decision who gets IN. Why not push forward the submission deadline, then let everyone who submitted (hell, maybe set up a membership process where any members can do it) vote on what films get in. Yeah, they'll vote for their film, but they'll also vote for the other films they actually LIKE.

OK, maybe it's a bad idea, because maybe people won't want to sit through films twice. Maybe they will. The point is that we need a new model all across the board as the digital revolution pokes its slobbery head out. We're seeing this necessity not just in the film festivals, but everywhere: the big movies, the music industry, computer software, everyone is feeling the crunch. Because when all this stuff is available for free, you can criminalize it all you want, but it's still going to be free and people love free stuff. So, the RIAA and MPAA and all the record labels and software companies need a new business model, a new plan to make a profit off of ALLOWING their digital stuff to be free. I will return to my old argument, if you have something infinitely reproduceable for FREE, then you don't have a commodity, and there is no such thing as supply and demand anymore.

Likewise, if anyone can pick up a video camera and get a free copy of iMovie, or hell, even a free copy of Final Cut Studio for crissakes, then you need a NEW PLAN for how you figure out who's making good stuff.

Also, Gill says: "if you decide to make a movie budgeted under $10 million on your own tomorrow, you have a 99.9% chance of failure."

Well, I'll go back to what I said before. The money trail ran out, folks. Wall Street stopped paying Hollywood, and the 14-year-old next door with the dreams of "porno and Grand Theft Auto" can see any movie he damn well pleases for zero cash, just the cost of his Mom buying FiOS.

Gill says, and I firmly agree, that there is basically no money to be made in movie making anymore, except for people on the very top tier of the ladder (and these people, he says, will continue to see a profit). Or at least for right now.

He then argues that what needs to happen is all the bad movies and bad movie-makers will suffocate each other. There will be a drastic decrease in production, and in the amount that those in production will make. But there will ALWAYS be a movie-going community, as there will always be a movie-making community. What will simply happen is we will revert to the way it used to be, where only the good stuff got through.

Now, a lot of times the arguments that I made before come off sounding as socialistic when I start spouting off about them. And to fair degree, I have a socialist streak in me. However, here's something to ponder: The Canadian Government has financial support specifically for filmmakers. The American Government does not. The American Government doesn't really give much money to anything. Except the Army and Other Countries. But, if the socio-economic infrastructure of entertainment consumption shifts largely to a free method of distribution(this excludes cinema-going and concert attendance, which will continue because people love to see stuff BIG), then I believe there will [have to] be government subsidies for the creation of this kind of art. Realizing the necessity for this consumption, and hopefully a shift away from funding international conflict, will result in government sponsorship, essentially, of the arts. What happens is that people end up paying circularly, as we always have, but through a larger circle. Rather than paying the distributors directly for the product, we will be paying the government, who will pay the filmmakers, who will create, and who will distribute their work to the public for free, who will consume it and end up paying back to the government. We do this all the time. It's called taxes.

Ultimately, this concept of a bottom line is where people are getting tripped up, and it's the reason for a lot of my disagreements with other things Gill has to say (in a speech that I think is absolutely fantastic, spot-on, and necessary to read). While I agree that films should be globally watchable and appreciable, should be memorable, and should be somehow provocative, I think that likewise films can and should be specific to a generation, or to a place, and should take their time. They do not need to be explosive, or easily condensible other than into cliché phrases like "meditative" that automatically, and immediately, result in the loss of the message. Human experience will always be exactly that. And because of that, it is possible for it to transcend all borders. It's why we watch Soviet cinema, or films from the 3rd world. There is always a story to be told. The bottom line, which I think is also Mr. Gill's bottom line, is that we should simply strive for greatness. Get great performances from actors. Make images that are beautiful, not necessarily because they're perfectly lit for 35mm, but because the framing is good, or because we're looking at something important, or because we're being forced to NOT look at something that we want to see, and we ask "Why?" You can make a beautiful movie on a cellphone, and that challenge is STILL being posed to anyone (take a hike, Spike Lee). If we strive to make good cinema (and we will never know what "good" is until we see it), we will have fulfilled our duty. It is now our responsibility to determine how to find the good work being made, reward its makers, and provide the means for them to continue to do so, however that may be.

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NYC Waterfalls

Whether the rain currently falling on Brooklyn and New York is an effort to praise or to challenge them, the NYC Waterfalls open today. Olafur Eliasson, one of my favorite contemporary artists, has constructed five waterfalls which cascade infinitely along the East River between Brooklyn and Manhattan, the most exciting of which (to me) is the one underneath the Brooklyn Bridge.

If you're going to be in New York this summer (and if you're not, you should probably come check this out because all of Eliasson's large work is historical), come check out the waterfalls. There are many vantage points, and there is a (free?) boat tour to show you around.

Learn more about the waterfalls here. Although a word of caution, the website sucks a little.


So, it turns out that all of the waterfalls except the Brooklyn Bridge one suck BIG TIME. I looked at photos on the web and have begun reading the reviews on the blogs, and it turns out that Eliasson really phoned this sucker in. As I say, I'm holding out hope that the Brooklyn Bridge waterfall will not totally suck balls because it's the only one that actually looks like it's built into its surroundings, rather than "rainy scaffolding."

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Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Neave Television

It's slogan is "telly without content," but Neave Television is anything but.

When you start watching, there's no telling where along its programming you will begin, but Neave takes you on a hilarious ride through a variety of spoofs, funny B-movie clips, various internet-based content, and other stuff. Some of it is recognizable (for instance, a 2001: A Space Odyssey spoof), some of it is completely inscrutable (giant foofy-dog monster), and there's plenty in between.

What's most exciting to me about this is the fact that its "lack of content" is strikingly engaging. Because the viewer has no idea what will come next (and because most of what the viewer has probably seen already is funny), one may find oneself completely glued to the screen. For me, this was a hundred times more engaging than just about anything I catch on TV when I turn one on.

The only downside? It looks like there's only a set amount of clips. And, while it does go on for ten minutes or so, if you're like me, you'll find yourself disappointed when you see a clip you've already seen.

This plays brilliant host to commentary on both TV and internet content, and does nothing short of entertain along the way.

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Where the Hell is Matt?

I like talking. I'm good at it. You've noticed that if you read this thing. And, as much as I really want to talk about this video, and how awesome, but also super important, it is, I'm just going to let the thing speak for itself.

Where the Hell is Matt? (2008) from Matthew Harding on Vimeo.

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Saturday, June 21, 2008

Sigur Rós

Frustrated that I woke up early the other day for the fall tour dates ticket presale and didn't get a damn thing, I started poking around the Sigur sites. Also, I found a poster today reminding me that their new album is coming out on the 23rd!

What I discovered when I got to is that you can already listen to the album, streaming, for free!! I'm doing that right now. So far, I have to say, this is a real transformation for Sigur Rós. This metamorphosis was evident in gobbledigook, whose energy was as young and vibrant as the actors in its video.

This light, youthful abandon carries into the second track, and it becomes clear that Sigur Rós is not just about the long, dramatic epic anymore. They are also capable of calling in quick songs that pack a flowery punch to the ears. In and out.

Track three is a quiet ballad, soft and sweet. If Jónsi didn't have such a distinctly sweet voice, you would easily forget that for three tracks you've been listening to the band that brought you albums like Ágætis byrjun.

These tunes are almost pop. ALMOST. There is still a quiet sense of importance, of the impending arrival of something great, something bigger than us.

Then comes track five. As it begins, "festival" is cavernous and echoing, the song's lyrics remind one of "e-bow" from (), as though the original track had been stripped down and sung by Jónsi alone in the dark. The song serves as a reminder that the somber tones that have made the band the tearjerker that it is are still incredibly relevant to the band. By the end, the sound is big and bold, pompous and seemingly in fanfare. Hoorah! So beautiful.

The choir and strings on track seven are delightful and cinematic, and still somehow Sigur Rós. Yet another track that proves just how flexible this band really is.

On "All Right," the last track, Jónsi sports English lyrics. Almost every Sigur Rós song to date has been in Icelandic, the exception being all of (), the lyrics of which were all in the made-up language of Hopelandic. But don't get your hopes up about finally being able to understand the words in a Sigur Rós song. Despite the vocals being featured, the words are surprisingly indistinguishable. They bleed into the song like dye in fabric, taking their time to fill the space. And while that means losing definite form and content, it also means a beautiful layer that operates just the same as the vocals always have. This track is maudlin, sober, like a funeral march - a fitting end, perhaps, for the end of the album. It ends silently and sparsely, sneaking out the back door before you can realize it's gone.

Overall, the album is pretty great. It lacks some of the things that have made me adore Sigur Rós, but provides new ones. This band is extraordinary and sensational, and they have begun to sweep the music world anew of late. It's a beautiful thing to watch.

Also, if you finish listening to the stream of the whole album, you get lots of fun behind-the-scenes video clips to enjoy as well.

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