The Sound and the Fury of Birdman

Birdman

Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Birdman (from an a script inexplicable penned by the director and three others) might be a film about a washed-up action star writing and directing a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s classic short story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” but it’s that old Shakespeare quote about life being, “…a tale.  Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury.  Signifying nothing.” which inspired the title of William Faulkner’s alleged magnum opus (I’m not going to go off on a side-rant here about how Light in August is really his magnum opus and not The Sound and the Fury, which to me was always so…well…kinda like this Birdman here…self-indulgent) that runs through a viewer’s mind while watching Michael Keaton ACT!

Birdman is the super hero Riggan Thomson (Keaton) played twenty years ago and made him a mega-celebrity.  The Carver play is the intimate character-driven art piece he so desperately wants to restore his street cred and remake him into an Actor rather than a celebrity.  Inarritu’s film, in which the Birdman, the man who played him, and the play he creates exist, is exactly the type of film that people who watch only movies like Birdman (as in the explosion filled super hero movie within the film Birdman, not the actual film Birdman) think people who go to watch films like Birdman (the film, not the movie within the film) go to watch.  I can tell you now, Birdman, at times, is the worst type of those types of films that I like to watch.   It’s also, at times, maddeningly brilliant.

Inarritu’s central conceit is all so very meta and insular, appealing to those who believe in the myth of the tortured artist (“What do you risk?” Keaton blusteringly asks a brusk Broadway critic, “I RISK EVERYTHING ON THE STAGE!”) and those who live it.  It’s been dissected many times before.  It brought to mind the lines from a classic episode of Seinfeld where Jerry is forced to wear a fur coat and man-purse and the building super Silvio mocks him saying, “No, he’s very fancy! Want me, love me! Shower me with kisses!”  So then, how does a Director and a Cast make this often mocked mindset seem fresh and meaningful?  Surround it with sound and fury. Continue reading

Your Spin: Uber Wagner

Wagner Quote

It’s that time again to put The Spin your hands!  The topic this round: The Greatest Piece of Richard Wagner Music.

As Sam Juliano from Wonders in the Dark so eloquently mused, “Richard Wagner was a racist, an anti-Semite and a bigamist, yet he wrote some of the most extraordinarily beautiful music in the history of Western civilization.”  And it was Sam’s chatter on the facebook that spurred this post.

It got me wondering, not only about all that great music (that lends itself so eerily well to cinema) but also, “What the hell was going on in Wagner’s head?”  His music has spawned men like Adolph Hitler to score their epic and vile plans for world domination, while it left others rapt and spellbound with fevered dreams of those pearly gates.  What did Wagner see when he composed?  What inspired him?  And what lead him to spew hate while also birthing so much aural beauty, bequeathing to us an unrivaled output of operatic art that will last as long as human beings have ears to listen to his work.  There’s something both ominous and serene about his best pieces, moods that swoon to an emotional climax before bringing the listener back down from heaven (or up from hell) to solid ground where the world lays itself out before us in all its mysterious glory.  His is the stuff of both the calm and the storm, the worldly and otherworldly.

But back to the music.  I’ve left out his most recognizable pieces to the layman…The Lohengrin Bridal March  – yes, the wedding march used at almost every wedding - and Ride of the Valkyries – used so devilishly in D. W. Griffin’s hate mongering Birth of a Nation and overused since then to death.  And, yes, I’m trying to bias the vote by putting my pick at the top.  But without further adieu…the nominees: Continue reading

Scarlett Fever Gets Under the Skin

Under-the-Skin-Poster

In Her, all we heard was Scarlett Johansson’s voice – that husky, alluring, beautiful voice – as she played Samantha, an Operating System that fell not only in love with its owner, but in what it means to be human.  In Jonathan Glazer’s adaptation of Michael Faber’s novel, Under the Skin, it’s Ms. Johansson’s body that is on display (her voice used sparingly, awkward and British when she picks up her victims on the street) as she portrays a nameless alien come to earth to lure men into an inky goo (for what purpose we can only imagine from director Glazer’s fantastically bleak and otherworldly images).  She is an alien that eventually succumbs to that same Samantha trap – she can’t help but become fascinated by what it means to be human.  What egotistical creatures we humans are that we constantly have to fantasize about the “other” – be it artificial intelligence, gods or aliens – going completely gaga over us – as if we’re the greatest thing since sliced bread…or chocolate cake, as in one heartbreaking scene that probably has made every female audience member gasp, poor Scarlett is a cursed creature that can’t even enjoy THAT…a piece of chocolate cake.  Oh, if only she could be human and enjoy that damn slice of cake!

Yet Mr. Glazer and Ms. Johansson lured me into the trap with master precision.  The film is directed with a doctor’s scalpel with every image, every dissolve and overlay, every light, every tone, every musical note (from Mica Levi’s extraordinary score that sets a new bar for the discordant musician turned film scorer, Jonny Greenwood and his ilk) perfectly composed.  The packaging of this boring ages-old-tale and self-obsessed human fantasy is so disarming…so transfixing…I didn’t care what it was about. Continue reading

It Happened Again on True Detective

True Detective - Rust and Marty in the Car

A Note to Readers: The following contains descriptions of events that have played out over True Detective’s eight-episode run and details on the finale.  Read with caution if you are afraid of spoilers before having seen the entire season.

“It Happened Again on True Detective”

About six months ago the initial previews for True Detective boldly announced The McConaissaince was coming to TV, and just look at how gristly Woody Harrelson had become!  It promised yet another slow-burning mystery…this one on the oilfield strewn and smokestack choked bayous of Louisiana (the cable network’s favorite homestead, seen also in True Blood and Treme).  The big boys at HBO were gonna show the basic cable boobs behind The Killing and The Bridge how it should really be done.  It all felt a little tired.  We’d seen this before.  And it was with a morbid curiosity that I tuned into the first episode.

The opening credits embraced the conventions with seductive glee.  A creepy folksy tune titled “Far from Any Road” by the Handsome Family spun tales of a “poisoned Creole soul” and brooded over a graphic artist’s phantasmagoria of overlaid images, like a deadly serious realist flip side to the trashy-kitschy credits of the supernatural True Blood.  It was stylish and admirable…but predictable…HBO shows are known for their innovative and signature opening credit sequences.

True Detective - Opening Credit Shot Highway Face

True Detective - Opening Credit Shot Burning Face

It wouldn’t be until later episodes that I realized the credits’ subliminal power.  The image of a winding highway superimposed over Woody Harrelson’s face, in particular, was something that began to creep into my poisoned TV soul and became more unsettling every time I saw it.

The first episode, too, catered to the conventions.  Two prickly opposites were partnered to solve the murder of a drug-addled prostitute named Dora Lange who was found with antlers on her head and other cultish mumbo-jumbo casting a pall over the scene.  The story was presented in flashbacks as the elder versions of our detectives were questioned separately in 2012 about the case from the mid 1990′s hinting at something larger…a new copycat killer perhaps…and a current riff between the former partners.  Episode One was slow…methodical…well acted…well directed…tinged with nihilism…yet where was it going and would anyone care once we got there?

Eight episodes.  A complete story.  An anthology series in the style of American Horror Story - a title that could’ve easily been used here.  True Detective, unlike Twin Peaks and The Killing before it, promised completion…no long drawn-out anti-climax stretched over multiple seasons.  The approach was like that of an eight-hour film with one director, Cary Joji Fukunaga (the mastermind behind two stylistically disparate but equally compelling films, Sin Nombre and Jane Eyre), who armed with the scripts from under-the-radar novelist Nic Pizzolatto created a consistent and quietly thrilling tone.  So I stay tuned in…and slowly but surely I became addicted.  The communal fervor for the show bloomed along with my obsession.  Continue reading

Dave’s Excellent Eurotrip 2013 Part 2: Bruges

Bruges Map

Well, what is there to say about Bruges, Belgium (Brugge) that hasn’t already been said in one of my favorite films in recent memory, In Bruges?

While visiting a friend and vacationing in Amsterdam, the siren songs of Bruges were impossible to resist.  Depending on how many transfers you have, Bruges is just a three to four hour train ride from Amsterdam, and what better way to see more of Northern Europe than by train?  It was interesting to see the flat farmlands of The Netherlands, reclaimed from the water through their ingenious designs of dikes, dams and canals.  Off in the distance windmills both ancient and modern could be seen and quaint small towns were passed by until we reached Belgium.  On the way back to Amsterdam we even got to see a little bit of Antwerp during an hour layover at possibly the world’s most beautiful train station.  Who knew, however, that Belgium is apparently considered the armpit of Northern Europe, as my friend (who has lived in both Belgium and New Jersey – another famous armpit we share in heritage) confirmed the theory I was developing while the train rattled through more small towns and rundown graffiti-strewn cities.  But…who cares when Belgium is also home to the world’s best waffles, chocolate and beer?  And…well…Bruges.

Martin McDonagh’s endearing black comedy captured Bruges perfectly.  When Ken (Brendan Gleeson) fumbles over the phone with Harry (Ralph Fiennes) when trying to describe how Ray (Colin Farrell) felt about Bruges…he was spot on.  Getting off at the train station, your first thought might be what the hell…maybe Bruges is a shit hole?  But as soon as your feet hit those cobblestone streets and your eyes take in all the architecture, churches and canals, Belgium’s best preserved medieval city really is like a fuckin’ fairytale, innit?  I mean, honest to god, Bruges is probably the most unabashedly beautiful city I have ever seen.  Bruges knows exactly what it is, why people come, and it luxuriates you in its very essence. Continue reading

Dave’s Excellent Eurotrip 2013 Part 1: Amsterdam

Amsterdam Map

Ah, Amsterdam – a city of infinite inspiration.  A city of romantic canals and crepuscular red-lit streets, of curious contradictions, of people confident and tolerant and fit, of old and new.  I mean where else in the world could you see within a matter of minutes from each other the original building that housed the Dutch West India Company (yes, that Dutch West India Company, you know, that explored and exploited much of the New World and founded New Amsterdam which became New York City) and the current world headquarters of Booking.com?

Amsterdam – a multi-cultural liberal stronghold atop ground that had it been left to its own devices would’ve been swallowed up by the sea.  Kindergartens and churches sit comfortably adjacent to the Red Light District, and there is a vibe of very little worry or concern about it.  It’s a city where if you are looking for something, you will find it.  But there doesn’t seem to be any cultural neurosis or obsessing over it.  People just are.  They hustle and bustle, but in a laid-back manner.  The inhabitants seem to share in a sense of solving problems in practical, efficient, scalable ways – whether it’s reclaiming land for growth and controlling the tides, creating bicycle paths to corral the traffic, or dealing with the darker sides of human nature.  And while all of that is there if you look for it, it’s also a city of incomparable history, architecture, art and beauty.

It’s a city I envision myself returning to again and again as no single trip could ever do it justice. Continue reading

The Perfect Pull of Gravity

GRAVITY's stunning opening sucks you in.

GRAVITY’s stunning opening sucks you in.

In our era of instant interconnectedness, ADD and immediate gratification, Alfonso Cuaron’s bold new film, Gravity, demands viewers to Watch…and Listen.

The film opens with a spectacular continuous long shot of planet Earth from outer space.  Slowly we begin to hear the static-laden chatter of astronauts and mission control grow louder and clearer while the camera leisurely pans in closer and closer to those working outside of a shuttle docked at the Hubble Space telescope.  First-time space traveler, Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is installing a new scanning device to give NASA a better way to watch the skies in deep space.  Longtime astral cowboy Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) is out for a “Sunday drive” around the shuttle and telescope overseeing things while telling tales and keeping things light with mission control.  But then a frantic warning comes from Houston.  Stay calm.  Get back inside.  The Russians have taken out one of their own satellites.  The debris is traveling high above the globe at breakneck speed slamming into other satellites and anything in its way causing an avalanche of deadly metal to come hurtling right towards our dear crew.  Suddenly, in the vast distance of blackness above a blue and white sphere, the debris is coming into view.

The next ninety minutes become an epic cosmic ballet of white-knuckle suspense, eye-popping visuals and ensorcell acting.  Shot in 3D, the photography of Emmaneul Lubezki (who previously luxuriated in the magic of the cosmos in Malick’s The Tree of Life) is wholly immersive under Cuaron’s self-assured direction.  Cuaron spins his Oscar-winning mega stars through the calamities like a choreographer or puppeteer without strings.  There’s not a single moment in the film’s airtight run time where the director isn’t in complete control.  Continue reading

The English Patient vs The English Patient vs The English Patient

“There are stories the man recites quietly into the room which slip from level to level like a hawk…She entered the story knowing she would emerge from it feeling she had been immersed in the lives of others, in plots that stretched back twenty years, her body full of sentences and moments, as if awaking from sleep with heaviness caused by unremembered dreams.” – Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient

The desert of the mind is a seductive place.

The desert of the mind is a seductive place.

At age sixteen he was just beginning to learn of the world. There were things beyond…art houses in the city where stories from foreign lands and birthed in independence flickered in the animated darkness before communities of the willing. Amongst the suburban sprawl of his homeland across the river, the purveyors of these urban establishments spawned a megaplex like no other where established fare mingled with independent films and cross continental tongues whispered hotly in the darkness of small air-conditioned screening rooms smartly furnished. It was here his parents took him one night to see The English Patient.

Closing in on his 34th year on this earth and looking back (somehow having circled back to this suburban sprawl now naming a spot his adjacent to that very megaplex which has passed through as many hands as he has homes), he longs for those innocent days…that wonder of experiencing something on-screen he had never experienced before – a painterly, carefully constructed, flawed and blistering work of art splashed across a silver screen. A romance with the cinema was born then as he watched the elliptical tale of human frailty and survival against the backdrop of the world’s greatest war.

Continue reading

Moody Lighting, Red Hallways and Religious Symbolism Run Amuck in Only God Forgives

Only God Forgives - Ryan Gosling

A piece of human scoria (Billy Burke) with strong ties to the Bangkok criminal underworld murders an underage prostitute and is then justly dispensed of by the avenging angel ex-cop, Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), which sets off a sequence of violent events as Billy’s brother, Julian (a practically speechless Ryan Gosling), is ordered against his will by his evil wicked-witch of a mother, Crystal (Kristen Scott Thomas – so brilliant at going against type and positively oozing with diabolical dirt-baggery), to mete out Chang.  Suffice it say…(am I spoiling anything here?)…wrong move, brother.  Only God Forgives is a film about the scum of the earth…ahhhh…but it’s an art film!

If Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive was the best neo-noir “love story in the city of dreams” since David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, then Only God Forgives is a despicable neo-noir “hate story in the city of sin.”  Continue reading

Spotlight on the Independent Arts: In the Family

In the Family

With the recent Supreme Court ruling that struck down DOMA, it seemed fitting for The Spin’s Spotlight to turn to In the Family – a scrappy but subtle independent film that struggled to find a distributor, was rejected at many festivals, was ultimately released by the filmmaker himself into a smattering of art houses in New York last year where it quietly received some raves (from the late Ebert and the Times) and is now currently available through Netflix.

*SPOILERS AHEAD – this is as much a review of the film as it is a study of the film’s techniques and storytelling style*

Joey Williams (Patrick Wang) is a mild-mannered contractor from a small town in Tennessee.  He lives with Cody (Trevor St John), a fine upstanding middle-school math teacher, and together they raise Cody’s six-year old biological son, Chip (Sebastian Banes), as their son.  Their life couldn’t be more ordinary, more peaceful:  Chip is obsessed with dragons and talks too much, Joey works long hours and always drinks a beer before bed and Cody passionately runs his classroom like clockwork.  They hang out with friends and family, who range from wholeheartedly to awkwardly accepting of this happy little family unit.  They talk.  They laugh.  All is well.  But then Cody dies in a car crash, and Joey is suddenly thrust into a situation where he has no legal standing to keep his son and the only testament left behind is from just after Chip was born and before Cody got together with Joey where Cody left everything (the house, Chip) to his sister Eileen (Kelly McAndrew).  Suddenly, in a fit of confusion and poor communication, the sister takes Chip, there’s a restraining order, and Joey’s world comes crashing in on him.

Sounds melodramatic, right?  Sounds like the perfect story for a filmmaker to get on a soapbox, right?  Sounds like someone’s going to take a stand…draw a clear line in the sand, right?  WRONG.  Great care is taken, and great restraint is shown.  Continue reading