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Top 10 Albums, Singles, and Music Videos of 2003

This year, the music biz continued to wage war against P2P file-sharing by suing its own customers.

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Top 10 Albums, Singles, and Music Videos of 2003

It was a year of acronyms: non-existent WMD, PR-stunt POWs, 99-cent MP3s, a 50-cent P.I.M.P. (okay, so we’re reaching here), and both the U.S.A. and the RIAA went from victims to villains. Just as Bush dropped his B.O.B., the music biz dropped a bomb of its own, continuing to wage war against P2P file-sharing by suing its own customers. Sales were down for the fourth straight year, so what better way to encourage kids to buy your low-quality, high-priced product, right? Universal Music did drop their CD prices by 25%, a smart move for a corporate monster that dominates over 30% of the market, but few others have followed suit…yet. Liz Phair and Jewel sold out (with good-to-excellent results), while Madonna, the queen of commerce herself, made her most self-lacerating, least accessible album to date. Oh, how the times (and the rules) have changed. Divas who once ruled the charts were nowhere to be found: Mariah’s shoulda-been comeback single, a bombastic cover of Def Leppard’s “Bringin’ on the Heartbreak,” didn’t break any hearts (or charts), and, sadly, the Annie Lennox revival produced no music videos. There were no visible trends, unless you count hip-hop’s ongoing dominance of the singles charts (music might be the only industry where you’re more likely to reach the top if you’re black) and big music stars with penchants for small children (sorry, we couldn’t resist). Last year’s teen pop starlets seem to be faring better on the small screen (Jessica Simpson) and the silver screen (Mandy Moore), or, if you’re Hilary Duff, the small screen, the big screen, and the Billboard charts. Turns out “garage rock” and “electroclash” are great buzz terms for magazine covers but they’ve yet to live up to their respective hypes. So what was good about 2003? What follows is our, um, 50 cents. Remember: Tuna is fish, not chicken.


ALBUMS


Top 10 Albums, Singles, and Music Videos of 2003

1. Damien Rice, O

When a rather nondescript promotional copy of Ireland-born singer-songwriter Damien Rice’s debut, O, arrived in my mailbox sometime during the first half of 2003, I felt instantly compelled to place it in my 5-disc changer rather than on top of my leaning tower of To Be Listened To. It had been years since I’d had an all-out physical response to an album, and O delivered the goods. The album plays out like a Shakespearean love tragedy (though its title is presumably culled from Pauline Reage’s The Story of O, and not the bard’s own Othello). Rice and angelic guest vocalist Lisa Hannigan duet as lovers, at first singing of a love that isn’t bashful, but private and intimate and filled with discovery. While the first half of O bristles with the anticipation of newfound love, its latter half finds that love crumbling and even calls its very existence into question. Rice houses his Grecian drama in tidy, form-fitting folk structures reminiscent of the great singer-songwriters of the 1970s. His melodies are timeless and familiar, yet they land where you least expect them to.


2. Beth Gibbons & Rustin Man, Out of Season

It’s been several years since the one-two punch of Portishead’s Dummy and the group’s equally astonishing self-titled follow-up, so it’s difficult to imagine what a new record by the Bristol natives might sound like after all this time. Perhaps the answer lies in Out of Season, the solo album from the trip-hop trio’s head mistress Beth Gibbons. Geoff Barrow may have been Portishead’s sonic backbone, but Gibbons provided the humanity, the heart, the soul and the softly wrenching sorrow. As versatile as Gibbons’s vocal is, you won’t find her wailing in the sinister Portishead style, and she rarely draws on the killer-kitten coquettishness of Dummy. Instead, Gibbons’s folk and jazz influences float skillfully to the surface. With the help of Paul Webb, bassist of ‘80s band Talk Talk, and Portishead guitarist Adrian Utley, Gibbons has created an album as subtly rich and rewarding as any Portishead release.


3. Kenna, New Sacred Cow

Kenna’s debut album, New Sacred Cow, landed on the desks of music journalists across the country way back in early 2002. Then signed to Fred Durst’s Flawless imprint, Kenna, who hails from Virginia Beach by way of Cleveland and Ethiopia, struggled to get the album in stores after its dark lead single, “Hell Bent,” arrived and exited quietly. Eventually the album was released in 2003 via Columbia Records. Recorded in 1999 with Chad Hugo of the Neptunes, New Sacred Cow still sounds as fresh as ever in ’03. The album has a decidedly retro quality, drawing on the ‘80s synth-pop/new wave of bands like Depeche Mode and Soft Cell, but it never imitates any one artist in particular. Instead, it captures the essence of an era while remaining firmly planted in the present and, more importantly, residing somewhere in the future.


4. Goldfrapp, Black Cherry

In the early ‘80s, disco splintered off into dance-pop and house, but the newest incarnations of electronic music seem to have forgotten one vital element: the hook. On her second album with Will Gregory, Allison Goldfrapp made the seamless transition from trip-hop lounge chanteuse to disco siren. Just as the duo’s debut, Felt Mountain, was a masterful concoction of elegant melodies and spooky theatrics, Black Cherry combines the belching electronic synth chords and dramatic strings of Disco with bursts of melodic color and simple yet ominous lyrics. Goldfrapp have successfully channeled Blondie and Donna Summer (as well as their former dewy selves) to create a collection of soothing techno ballads and custom-made club tracks that draw you in and, more importantly, hook you.


5. André 3000, The Love Below

To Big Boi’s socially-charged yin is Dre’s horny yang. If Speakerboxxx hints at the pop-friendly funkadelic stylings of Prince, Dre’s The Love Below fully channels his purple majesty’s libido, not to mention his sometimes-sexy, sometimes-irksome falsetto. “Love in War” is Dre’s response to Big Boi’s “War,” while “Vibrate,” a sly ode to masturbation disguised as a pro-environmental ditty (“Mother Earth is dying and we continue to fuck her to death…The future is in your hand”), suggests that the cure for loneliness and despair can be found in the battery-operated self-massager in your top drawer. Whether he’s imagining his two-timing girlfriend crashing into a ditch while applying make-up in the car or re-imagining Cupid as a gun-toting thug on “Happy Valentine’s Day,” humor is key to the success of Dre’s half of OutKast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. While the album probably should have been whittled down to the best of both discs, Dre not only trumped his pal, he made the most subversive and inventive hip-hop album of the year.


6. Carla Werner, Departure

It’s truly startling how much of an impact the late Jeff Buckley’s music has had on an entire generation of musicians, most of whom are still scribbling song lyrics in science notebooks and building fresh calluses on their fingertips. Even more impressive is his widespread geographic appeal; his music has reached the ears of European followers like Travis, Coldplay and Starsailor as well as a growing number of female singer-songwriters like New Zealand’s Carla Werner. Werner’s debut, Departure, draws on a multitude of influences that range from Zepplin to Kate Bush to, of course, Buckley, and even hints at her country music roots. Werner, though, is not a mime. Departure resounds with the purity and ingenuity of a seasoned original, with just a touch of earnest self-deprecation. It’s not unusual for artists to be expert spectators, but Werner is a remarkable kind of sponge: what she absorbs seems to drip out in strikingly unique forms.


7. Teitur, Poetry & Aeroplanes

Emotionally engaging, ornately arranged and expertly sweetened with shades of optimism, Teitur’s solo debut, Poetry & Aeroplanes, plays like a sonic postcard from a nomadic artist. Teitur, who hails from Denmark’s remote Faroe Islands (nestled somewhere between Iceland and Scotland), grew up loving American pop music, and his own songs—embellished with organs, strings and the like—are plainly informed by early influences such as James Taylor and Suzanne Vega. Veteran Rupert Hine’s production is lush, yet more importantly, intimate. By album’s end, it’s difficult not to forget that Poetry & Aeroplanes was created under such lovelorn conditions and that, perhaps, Teitur’s creative home is one of such (seemingly) emotional deficiency.


8. Postal Service, Give Up

Give Up, the debut album from the Postal Service (the mail-order side project of Death Cab for Cutie’s Benjamin Gibbard and Dntel mastermind Jimmy Tamborello), is an arresting fusion of emo indie-rock musings and DIY laptop electronica. Call it smart pop, or semi-intelligent dance music. The album alternates between dazzling, revelatory out-of-body love songs and universally eco-aware ruminations on the state of the world, the binding thread being Gibbard’s often potent stream-of-consciousness and bright, jangly guitars and Tamborello’s infectious ambient house beats, faux strings and video-game bleeps. Whether it’s love or the world’s problems, Gibbard, despite what he says, seems incapable of “giving up.” Like on Death Cab’s equally stunning Transatlanticism, he ardently builds castles in the sky because, like he says on the album’s first single, “Such Great Heights,” everything looks perfect from far away.


9. Alicia Keys, The Diary of Alicia Keys

Once you realize there’s nothing new about neo-soul, it’s easier to appreciate the music for what it is and what it honors, rather than what it’s supposed to represent in the current not-so-grand scheme of R&B music. Perhaps that’s why the arrival of Alicia Keys’s 2001 debut Songs in A Minor—though slightly overrated amidst all the anti-pop excitement—seemed like such a vibrant beam of light, and perhaps that’s why her sophomore effort, The Diary of Alicia Keys, will undoubtedly prompt slightly overblown expectations. But the fact of the matter is, Diary builds on the promise of Songs in A Minor and, in many ways, trumps that album’s achievements. Though there’s nothing as immediate as “Fallin’,” or anything as empowering as “A Woman’s Worth,” the album is a deft mix of street and class. Sonically, Diary Of Alicia Keys is like the younger sibling of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, rummaging through her older sister’s vintage record collection and discovering what modern R&B has been missing all this time.


10. Missy Elliott, This Is Not a Test!

An artist as prolific as Missy Elliott is bound to stumble. This Is Not a Test!, her third album in as many years, pales in comparison to the steely, futuristic club thump of 2001’s Miss E…So Addictive and the warm, old-school vibe of Under Construction, but even Elliott’s missteps are infinitely more graceful than most of her contemporaries’ slam-dunks. In many ways, Elliott and longtime producer Timbaland can only be outdone by themselves, and Timbo, as always, saves his best beats for his lady, who never fails to bring them to sweating, heaving—if not cartoonish—life. Though the album doesn’t live up to (or hardly addresses) its war-meets-blaxploitation cover art, Elliott comes off like the Maya Angelou of hip-hop, waxing poetic on the state of the genre and sounding like a 21st century post-feminist on tracks like “Toyz” and “Let Me Fix My Weave.” In the end, it’s all about sloppy sex, self-gratification, and good hairpieces. And in times of war and exploitation, that’s what truly matters.


SINGLES AND MUSIC VIDEOS


Top 10 Albums, Singles, and Music Videos of 2003

1. Beyoncé featuring Jay-Z, “Crazy In Love”

Beyoncé Knowles’s first solo outing, last year’s soundtrack cut “Work It Out,” a post-disco/funk work-out that positioned the curvy bottle blonde as an MTV generation Tina Turner, wasn’t exactly a smash, but it hinted at what was to come. Enter “Crazy In Love”: Armed with a horn-y Chi-Lites sample, several pairs of hot-pants and some neon Barbie Doll pumps (not to mention that voice, which puts Mariah to shame—almost), the lead single from Beyoncé’s debut album was hands-down the song of the summer and easily the best single of the year. The bootylicious video, directed by newcomer Jake Nava—who went on to direct the baby-oil-logged follow-up “Baby Boy” and Kelis’s “Milkshake” (see #6 below)—pairs the singer with thug-toy Jay-Z, who seemingly blows up Beyoncé’s car…while she’s still in it. Beyoncé rises from the flames like a pimped-out phoenix and closes out the clip with some inventive runway-inspired choreography in the hottest alleyway I’ve never seen. Beyoncé is allowed more room to experiment vocally on Dangerously In Love, the best mainstream R&B album this year, exploring softer registers and lathering on the coquettish persona that was only hinted at in her work with D.C. Added guilty pleasure points for a sexed-up, promo-only [insert sad face] redo of 50 Cent’s “In Da Club” (see #7).


2. Madonna, “American Life” (Director’s Cut)

The sad sequence of headlines went something like this: February 14, 2003, “Madonna Defends Her Violent ’American Life’ Video”; March 28, 2003, “Madonna Edits Controversial ’American Life’ Video”; and, just two days later, “Madonna Yanks Controversial ’American Life’ Video.” Sure, she’s made better videos, and she’s caused bigger controversies, but to release “American Life” during the lynch-mob mentality of Bush’s war on Iraq would have required bigger balls than even Madonna has, and she knew it. The video, directed by Jonas Akerlund, juxtaposes images of war with the most capitalistic, materialistic, and seemingly superficial industry in the world: fashion. Models dressed in military garb and gas masks (one male model sports a half-shirt that reads “Fashion Victim”) and three Middle Eastern children strut down a runway while Madonna and her troupe of decidedly unconventional beauties prepare for their fashion terrorism in a backstage restroom. Madonna carves “Protect Me” on the partition of a stall, giving the otherwise militant proceedings a sense of desperate humanity, before she and her disciples engage in some fiercely aggressive choreography (intercut with images of a detonated atom bomb), and crash the fashion show and pummel the photographers with an industrial-strength water hose. Madonna may have never actually been on the frontlines of a battlefield, but she’s been spotted in the front row of more than a few fashion shows. It’s this hypocrisy that makes the video so damn intriguing. It’s the same contradiction that runs through the “American Life” song itself: the Material Girl is denouncing material things? You mean she was being ironic back in 1985? Madonna’s made it clear she’s not anti-American, just pro-peace: The new Madonna writes morality tales for infants, not bomb-making manuals for infidels. Disappointing for sure. In a time when most pop singers are too afraid to stand for much of anything at all, seeing the most famous woman in the world pull a grenade pin out with her teeth and toss the bomb into Bush’s lap (the typical, Madonna-style twist is that the grenade is actually a lighter, the moral being, presumably, that something destructive can be turned into something useful) is nothing short of explosive.


3. Queens of the Stone Age, “Go with the Flow”

“We collide and divide, go swimming and trailblaze into the sunset,” Queens Of The Stone Age bassist Nick Oliveri told MTV earlier this year. That more or less describes “Go with the Flow,” the award-winning video clip directed by visual artist collective Shynola. Inspired by the bold comic book images of Frank Miller’s “Sin City,” “Go with the Flow” is a combination of live action and rotoscopic animation (the kind made famous in a-Ha’s “Take on Me”). Silhouettes of the band barreling down a desert highway in the back of a pick-up truck toward a rival gang of “skulls” are juxtaposed with a blood red sky and overtly sexual metaphors (including a slow-motion collision that results in an explosion of animated sperm cells and a squirting slurpee).


4. Sigur Rós, “Vaka (Untitled #1)”

Unveiled at the Sundance Film Festival in January, this Floria Sigismondi-directed clip won the Best Video trophy at the 2003 MTV Europe Awards (evidence alone that America has a long way to go—no offense, Missy). The video opens with the sullen faces of grade school children being inspected before rushing outside for recess. Donned in gas masks (a quaint new pop-culture fixture in the wake of recent chemical warfare advances—see #2 above), the children play as if the scorched, red sky and falling ash are everyday occurrences (frighteningly, in Sigismondi’s post-apocalyptic creation, they are). Because it was released just prior to the U.S.-led war on Iraq, the video has been criticized for being propagandistic, even manipulative—a symbolic dead white dove is seen rotting in the ash early on in the clip. In the end, though, the powerful “Untitled #1” (a.k.a. “Vaka”), from last year’s ( ), adds another notch to Sigur Rós’s impressive video belt and is easily Sigismondi’s most evocative work to date.


5. Jewel, “Intuition”

If the definition of “selling out” is changing your music to sell records, then Jewel has been guilty of the charge since her first album, a folk collection of coffeehouse recordings that were completely re-recorded for radio consideration. Jewel’s fourth album, 0304, may have disappointed some of the singer’s fans and confused much of the public, but the album presents one of the most startling—yet oddly fitting—transformations in pop history. In many ways, Jewel is simply fulfilling her destiny: she’s become the pop tart her critics have accused her of being from the very start. But just one look at the cheeky music video for the hit “Intuition” and it’s clear she’s in on the joke. “Jewel’s music sounds much better now that she’s dancing!” reads a fake TRL crawl. What’s more, if you’re going to sell out, at least do it with an infectious pop song like “Intuition.” She urges us to follow our hearts but then taunts, “Sell your sin/Just cash in.” And that’s exactly what Jewel did: you could hear the French accordion of “Intuition” in a commercial for a razor of the same name all year long. Ah, the sweet smell of contradiction.


6. Kelis, “Milkshake”

Though her second album wasn’t even released in the U.S., Kelis scored an instant hit with “Milkshake,” the lead single from her new album Tasty. Written and produced by te Neptunes, the kitschy, metaphor-heavy track (Kelis espouses the virtues of concocting the perfect blend of sweet and spicy) features the duo’s standard minimalist beats, grinding bassline and a barely-there “la la la la la” pre-chorus. Kelis’s pseudo-rap hook is downright irresistible: she knows she’s got what brings the boys to the yard. Jake Nava’s sexy video interpretation, set in an old-fashioned diner and featuring a cameo by Kelis’s beau Nas as a short-order cook, is all freshly-baked buns and dancing waitresses with two cherries on top.


7. 50 Cent, “In Da Club”

And the award for best gunshot-wound-to-the-face slur goes to Eminem protégé 50 Cent, who owned the charts with “In Da Club,” the lead single from his debut album Get Rich or Die Tryin’ (a fixture in the Top 10 of the albums chart all year long). Add to that his successful G-Unit side project and 50 Cent owned hip-hop in ’03. Hey, 50: Here’s hoping your son won’t outgrow his mini-bulletproof vest before you get a chance to cash that next royalty check.


8. Fischerspooner, “Emerge”

The electroclash boom wasn’t so much an explosion as it was—well, for lack of a classier metaphor—a fart, a burp, a blip on the landscape of popular music, and Fischerspooner’s “Emerge” was its theme song. Okay, so that doesn’t exactly sound very appealing, but when VH1 uses your song in their promo commercials you must be doing something right, right? Referencing ‘80s synth-pop, Eno-esque soundscapes and Giorgio Moroder basslines, “Emerge” is a sonic retro feast.


9. No Doubt, “It’s My Life”

The 1930s film noir-inspired clip for No Doubt’s “It’s My Life” finds Gwen Stefani doing her best impersonation Jean Harlow (whom Stefani portrays in the upcoming biopic The Aviator). In the video, Stefani plays a femme fatale who’s on trial for killing off her three lovers one by one. Like “Don’t Speak” before it, the David LaChapelle-directed clip could be a comment on Gwen’s impending band-killing solo career. Culled from No Doubt’s greatest hits collection (get it? Gwen plays a hit-woman), the band’s cover of the 1984 Talk Talk hit is given some additional pop-cult allusion thanks to a “Billie Jean”-style rhythm section.

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The 2019 TCM Classic Film Festival

As evangelistic as I tend to get about making new discoveries at TCMFF, the familiar can also be revelatory.

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TCM Classic Film Festival
Photo: John Nowak

In 2014, on the occasion of the fifth annual TCM Classic Film Festival, even as I took the opportunity to raise a glass to an event that encourages audiences, especially younger ones, to acknowledge and embrace the past, I indulged in a little public worrying over the festival’s move toward including a heavier schedule of more “modern” films whose status as classics seemed arguable, at the very least. The presence of Mr. Holland’s Opus and The Goodbye Girl on the festival’s slate that year seemed geared toward guaranteeing that Richard Dreyfuss would make a couple of appearances, causing me not only to wonder just what constitutes a “classic” (a question this festival seems imminently qualified to answer), but also just how far down the road to appeasement of movie stars TCMFF would be willing to travel in order to bring in those festivalgoers willing to pony up for high-priced, top-tier passes.

If anything, subsequent iterations have indicated that, while its focus remains on putting classic films in front of appreciative audiences and encouraging the restoration and preservation of widely recognized and relatively obscure films, the festival’s shift toward popular hits and the folks attached to them seems to be in full swing. And from a commercial point of view, who could credibly argue against feting 1980s and ‘90s-era celebrities who can still bring the glitz and glamour, especially as it becomes increasingly more difficult to secure appearances from anyone directly involved in the production of 60-to-80-year-old films? One has to believe that the numbers would favor booking films which could afford “sexier” in-person attendees like Billy Crystal, Meg Ryan, and Rob Reiner, and maybe for a good portion of the TCMFF crowd that showed up to celebrate the festival’s 10th anniversary this year, that sort of thinking is perfectly in line with what they expect for their money.

Of course, the flip side of that coin is an opening-night gala devoted to the celebration of When Harry Met Sally, which isn’t the first film I would think of to announce to the world that TCMFF is celebrating a milestone. It’s been 10 years since the festival launched, and its mother channel is celebrating 25 years on the air this year—and, okay, the Rob Reiner-helmed, Nora Ephron-scripted comedy is now 30 years young. But I really wonder, beyond When Harry Met Sally’s most famous scene, which is all but stolen by the director’s mother and her delivery of the memorable zinger “I’ll have what she’s having,” if this dated rom-com really means enough to audiences to be included among a TCMFF schedule of films ostensibly more qualified to be considered as classics. Maybe it does. Because objections like that one were forced to fly in the face of the rest of the TCMFF 2019 schedule, populated as it was by other equally questionable attractions like Sleepless in Seattle, Steel Magnolias, Hello, Dolly!, and Out of Africa, all of which crowded screen space in the festival’s biggest auditoriums.

Speaking of amour, it was that most mysterious of emotions that was the biggest rationale other than filthy lucre for clogging the schedule with not one but two Meg Ryan “classics,” a weeper that’s broad by even the standards of borderline-campy weepers, a bloated musical nobody seems to like, a would-be epic best picture winner, and even the bromantic sentimental indulgences of the Honorary Greatest Movie for Men Who Don’t Love Movies. Because the theme of TCMFF 2019, “Follow Your Heart: Love at the Movies,” virtually guaranteed that room would be made for some of the festival’s least enticing and overseen selections, under subheadings like “Better with Age” (Love in the Afternoon, Marty), “Bromance” (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Shawshank Redemption), and, in a love letter to not romance but instead a movie studio, “A Celebration of 20th Century Fox” (Hello, Dolly!, Working Girl, Star Wars). Of course, each of those subheadings had their glories as well (I’ll get to those in a second, after I stop complaining), but it’s worth noting these selections because they seem clearly representative of the sort of programming choices that have become more dominant in the second half of TCMFF’s storied and much appreciated existence, choices that may signal a further shift away from discoveries, oddities, and rarities and toward even more mainstream appeasement in its near future.

For all of the problems that seem to be becoming hard-wired into TCMFF’s business model, however, there was plenty to get excited about as well, even when one of the weaker overall schedules in terms of cinephile catnip made maximizing the festival experience a little more challenging than usual. If that “Love in the Movies” header seemed at first a bit too generic, it also proved elastic enough to accommodate some pretty interesting variations on a obvious theme, from dysfunctional relationships (A Woman Under the Influence, whose star, Gena Rowlands, had to back out of a scheduled pre-screening appearance), to erotic obsession (Mad Love, Magnificent Obsession), to habitual obsession (Cold Turkey, Merrily We Go to Hell), to romance of a more straightforward nature rendered in various shades of not-at-all-straightforward cinematic splendor (Sunrise, Sleeping Beauty, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Tarzan and His Mate). Why, there was even a couple of straight shots of undiluted movie love in the form of François Truffaut’s Day for Night, adorned by an in-person visitation from the film’s star, Jacqueline Bisset, and a grand screening of my favorite film, Robert Altman’s Nashville, which Pauline Kael once famously described as “an orgy for movie lovers.”

My own obsessions this year ran, as they usually do, toward the unfamiliar. Six of the 11 films I saw were new to me, including the obscure, ultra-cheap film noir Open Secret, which pits John Ireland against a secret society of small-town Nazi sympathizers; the deliriously racy and surprisingly violent adventure of Tarzan and His Mate, entertainingly introduced by Star Wars sound wizard Ben Burtt and special effects whiz Craig Barron, whose pre-film multimedia presentation electronically deconstructed the Tarzan yell; and James Whale’s Waterloo Bridge, starring Mae Clarke and Kent Douglass. Also among them were two major surprises: Dorothy Arzner’s romantic drama Merrily We Go to Hell, a gloriously cinematic roller coaster of love, codependency, and betrayal starring Fredric March, forever testing the audience’s tolerance for the boundaries of bad behavior, and Sylvia Sidney, who displays a range that will surprise younger audiences who may only know her from her later work; and the rollicking, hilarious, fast-paced snap-crackle-punch of All Through the Night, in which a gaggle of Runyonesque Broadway gamblers headed up by Humphrey Bogart develop an uncharacteristic patriotic streak when they uncover a Nazi conspiracy brewing in the back alleys of the neighborhood.

As evangelistic as I tend to get about making new discoveries at TCMFF, the familiar can also be revelatory. My two favorite experiences at the festival this year were screenings of F.W. Murnau’s almost indescribably gorgeous and primally moving Sunrise and a beautiful DCP of Nashville, with screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury and actors Jeff Goldblum, Keith Carradine, and Ronee Blakely in attendance. (At one point, Blakely held court like Barbara Jean in rambling pre-meltdown mode and innocently gave away the ending of the film.) The joy contained in the five hours of those two films wasn’t necessarily matched by the gorgeous restoration of Anthony Mann’s powerful Winchester ’73, the exquisitely expressionist delirium of Karl Freund’s Mad Love, or the revelation of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, with its roots in the music of Tchaikovsky, as the partial fulfillment of the ambitions of Fantasia, the studio’s great folly. But then again, it didn’t have to be. It’s enough that those are all movies worthy of and inspired by true movie love, which is precisely what they were received with by TCMFF audiences.

Of course, the obsessive, orgiastic nature of movie love is itself the underlying subtext of any film festival, but at TCMFF that subtext is consistently resonant enough that it seems inextricable from any given moment during the long four-day Hollywood weekend over which it unspools. Some festivalgoers get dolled up in vintage clothes and five pounds of customized TCM-style flair to express it. Others rattle on endlessly about their irrational devotion to Star X and Director Y, or how some obscure B noir blew their goddamn minds, and they’re usually surrounded by a pack of fans with similarly hyperbolic stories to tell. And still others just tilt their heads down and barrel through the long lines, breathlessly scurrying between theaters in pursuit of something they’ve never seen or perhaps never even heard of. (I’ll let you speculate as to which category I belong, though I will say I have never worn a fedora or brandished a silver-tipped walking stick in public.) A good friend and former TCMFF regular once told me that the best way to be cured of a particular obsession is to suddenly find yourself surrounded by those whose individual enthusiasms match or exceed your own, and sometimes it seems that the first-world trials of the TCMFF experience as they have accumulated over the past five or so years, and contrasted as they have been by the multitude of peaks the festival has offered its most ardent fans, have been devoted to road-testing that theory.

However, no matter what TCMFF devotees do or say in between programming slots, the movies remain, providing a constant opportunity to either plumb the depths of cinema history or to simply go for the good times. With all intentions pitched toward continued prosperity, the greatest challenge for TCMFF as it enters its second decade might be finding a better balance between those deep dives and the allure of skimming the perhaps more lucrative shallows. And if genuinely great films and even greater chances to experience films one can only experience in a setting like TCMFF keep getting slotted out in favor of familiar dreck like When Harry Met Sally and Steel Magnolias, it isn’t unreasonable to imagine that TCMFF 2029 might, to its inevitable detriment, look and feel considerably less classic than it does now. No, it’s not time for sackcloth and ashes just yet when it comes to this beloved fest. But I’d be lying if I said, to purloin and repurpose the concluding sentiment of one of this year’s big TCMFF attractions, that the ultimate resolution of that dilemma don’t worry me just a little bit.

The TCM Classic Film Festival ran from April 11—14.

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Interview: Bi Gan on Long Day’s Journey into Night As a Technological Experience

The Chinese filmmaker himself appears not to suffer any pressure to separate the experience of the film from his own visual ideas.

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Bi Gan
Photo: Kino Lorber

Even before the hour-long take that makes up its second half, Bi Gan’s shapeshifting noir epic Long Day’s Journey into Night displays the kind of filmmaking prowess that’s better seen than talked about. Nevertheless, it was an honor to speak briefly with the 29-year-old auteur—albeit over the phone, and with the help of an interpreter—about how his life has changed in the wake of his staggering first two features. To discern a single clue into Bi’s notion of cinema—which is influenced by poetry, literature, painting, still photography, and real life—feels like a small victory, and the Chinese filmmaker himself appears not to suffer any pressure to separate the experience of the film from his own visual ideas.

Tell me about the release of Long Day’s Journey into Night in China. On social media, I got the impression the film had been mis-marketed as a romantic comedy, and made a lot of money the first weekend.

China is still not as mature as the United States in terms of how movies are marketed. Even though this is an art film, they still had to present it like a commercial film, and I didn’t think too much about how I wanted to release the film. They were coming up with interesting ways to release it, one of which was spinning it as a romantic film. A lot of couples went to see it and got something else entirely: an art film. There was an uproar. They felt they had been duped into seeing a different type of movie. But even though it was released as a commercial film and made quite a lot of money in its first weekend, I’m very proud of the way it was released. A lot of the audiences had never seen a film like that and may never again. I’m very happy it was their first time seeing that type of movie.

Whether the film made money or not, it’s going to be very difficult for me to find investors for my next project. I make a very specific type of movie and I probably won’t be able to make a more commercial film now that people know who I am, and the vision I want to work with. It doesn’t translate to easy investment, and it doesn’t change the kinds of movies I want to make. I will not be making more linear or commercial films.

My films are released at Cannes, or the New York Film Festival, but it doesn’t make a difference in China. Even though people understand that the films are showing internationally, they don’t really see the importance of it that much. The good news is that within China right now, the investment market is very healthy. If you have a decent script and vision, people may be willing to invest. I’m very lucky because I have a group of people as a base, at least, who have always been interested in my kind of work. But just to be clear, Long Day’s Journey into Night cost so much that I had to look elsewhere for investment.

Weren’t there changes made between Cannes and the film’s North American premiere, at the Toronto International Film Festival?

Normally when I finish a film, I can spend some time breaking it down and deciding the rhythm, but because I needed to make the cut in time for Cannes, the version we had there was the “finished” version. After Cannes, my team and I decided to carefully watch the film again and I wanted to simplify it a little bit more. Even though it was there, I wanted to cut down the dreamlike quality and make it more of a love story between Huang Jue and Tang Wei.

What’s it like being in Kaili now that you’re a world-renowned art-house filmmaker?

At home, they see me as an artist, but they don’t understand how; in their eyes, art is mostly painting. They’re slowly understanding filmmakers can be artists. In Kaili itself, they’re quite proud of the fact I’m from their town. Now, when people see me on the street they recognize me and they tell me they like my films, even though I suspect they don’t like them, or don’t understand them. The next question is always, “When are you going to make something a little bit more commercial?” And the answer is always: “I’m going to try.” [laughs]

Some colleagues of mine have complained that the film is actually too virtuosic for its own good—like, the camerawork is so dazzling it’s distracting. How conscious do you want the audience to be of the elaborate choreography that goes into a take like this?

Because of the way we all watch movies now, when we walk into a theater we know we’re about to get a technological experience, whether it’s an art-house film or a big-budget Hollywood film. Everyone is aware to some degree of the process of filmmaking. So, with my long scenes, I’m not trying to be meta about the camerawork. I want people to see it as part of the film instead of a distraction or a special moment for the audience. A lot of my friends, when they see the long take, they don’t understand how it was shot, but they understand it’s dreamy. I want the audiences to get lost. I want them to disappear into it.

The shots required so much prep that my thinking became purely technical. Every shot was about getting to the next shot. The stress of shooting those scenes is actually approaching PTSD for me. But now that I can watch it with an audience, I enjoy it.

I saw the film in a couple different contexts, but audiences always laugh at the moment in the theater where the screen goes dark. Everyone puts on the 3D glasses, and the title of the film comes up—over an hour into the movie. Is it supposed to be hilarious?

When I was writing the script, I knew that was going to be a funny moment. Back in the day, when you watched 3D movies, there would be a slate telling people to put on the glasses. As a collective experience I always knew that was gonna be a big laugh.

Translation by Steven Wong

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The 100 Best Film Noirs of All Time

Then and now, the best examples of this genre continue to evoke humanity’s eternal fear of social disruption.

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100 Best Film Noirs of All Time
Photo: Columbia Pictures

Purists will argue that film noir was born in 1941 with the release of John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon and died in 1958 with Marlene Dietrich traipsing down a long, dark, lonely road at the end of Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil. And while this period contains the quintessence of what Italian-born French film critic Nino Frank originally characterized as film noir, the genre has always been in a constant state of flux, adapting to the different times and cultures out of which these films emerged.

Noir came into its own alongside the ravages of World War II, with the gangster and detective films of the era drastically transforming into something altogether new as the aesthetics of German Expressionism took hold in America, and in large part due to the influx of German expatriates like Fritz Lang. These already dark, hardboiled films suddenly gained a newfound viciousness and sense of ambiguity, their dangers and existential inquiries directed at audiences through canted camera angles and a shroud of smoke and shadows.

As the war reached its end stage, soldiers came home to find a once-unquestioned era of male authority put in the crosshairs of changing cultural norms. And in lockstep, the protagonists of many a noir began to feel as if they were living in a newly vulnerable world, taking cover beneath trench coats and fedoras, adopting cynical, wise-cracking personae, and packing heat at all times while remaining hyper-aware of the feminine dangers that surrounded them. Jean-Luc Godard once said that “all you need for a movie is a gun and a girl,” and in noir, the latter was often the most dangerous. Indeed, Barbara Stanwyck’s anklet in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity and Ann Savage’s icy stare in Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour are as deadly as any bullet.

Our list acknowledges the classics of the genre, the big-budget studio noirs and the cheapest of B noirs made on the fringes of the Hollywood studio system. But we’ve also taken a more expansive view of noir, allowing room for supreme examples of the proto-noirs that anticipated the genre and the neo-noirs that resulted from the genre being rebooted in the midst of the Cold War, seemingly absorbing the world’s darkest and deepest fears. Then and now, the best examples of this genre continue to evoke—shrewdly and with the irrepressible passion of the dispossessed—humanity’s eternal fear of social disruption. Derek Smith


House of Bamboo

100. House of Bamboo (Samuel Fuller, 1955)

House of Bamboo wants to be a lush, romantic CinemaScope thriller and a Samuel Fuller movie at once. The director’s admirers will recognize those aims as almost genetically contradictory, as Fuller thrives on bold, often vitally threadbare aesthetics that suggest the visual embodiment of a tabloid headline. Indeed, Fuller’s best films don’t have much use for studio polish, instead courting the pathos of the immediate and the guttural, though the cross-pollination between the various forms and sensibilities at play in House of Bamboo is fascinating and often intensely beautiful. Fuller could play the studio’s game when he wanted to: The Scope compositions he devised with cinematographer Joseph Macdonald are some of the liveliest and most resonant of any in Hollywood history, subtly wedding Japanese theater and film tradition with American pulp, quietly refuting the notion that an epically sized screen must be statically embalmed in awards-courting “importance.” It suggests a for-hire film that’s been polished with flourishes so great they cumulatively transcend their potentialities as formal window dressing: They’re the film’s pulse, the work of a masterfully intuitive director whose artistic sensibility appears to be governed by an unusually large portion of id. Chuck Bowen


Stolen Death

99. Stolen Death (Nyrki Tapiovaara, 1938)

Echoes of German Expressionism abound in Nyrki Tapiovaara’s tough-minded, class-conscious Stolen Death, an early Nordic noir about gun-smuggling Finnish revolutionaries opposing the Russians occupying their country in the early 20th century. Tapiovaara’s unique blend of off-kilter compositions, unconventional camera angles, foreboding high-contrast lighting, and sparse yet creative sound design transforms the tumultuous journey of the resistance fighters into a nightmarish battle against both the Russian Tzar and the bourgeois Finns unwilling to risk their comfortable position in society. Despite the untraditional subject matter for noir, Stolen Death is steeped in the genre’s overwhelming sense of fatalism, its anxieties over a disrupted status quo, and, in the case of the jilted lover who refuses to let his ex-flame go free and fight for her cause, its doomed romanticism and fear of female empowerment. As the film builds to its tense, tragic, and darkly comical finale, Tapiovaara—who, in a cruel twist of fate, was killed while fighting the Russians only two years after this film was released—stresses both the futility and necessity of confronting oppression against all odds. Derek Smith


Brighton Rock

98. Brighton Rock (John Boulting, 1948)

One of the more terrifyingly amoral, sociopathic villains in all of noir, Richard Attenborough’s Pinky is at 17 already a slave to his nihilism. Consumed by a seemingly bottomless abyss of anger, paranoia, and, in typical Graham Greene fashion, Catholic guilt, Pinky hides behind a mostly stoic visage, teasing out a smile only when he’s trying to win over young Rose (Carol Marsh), whom he needs to keep mum about evidence she has that could get him convicted of murder. While he sees himself as a criminal mastermind, Pinky can’t quite shake the frumpy music hall singer who’s determined to give the hood his much-deserved comeuppance. But it’s Pinky’s implacable ruthlessness rather than his smarts that make him so palpably threatening, willing as he is to snuff out strangers and friends alike without a second thought. Playing out in the “dark alleyways and festering slums” of pre-war Brighton, John Boulting’s Brighton Rock peels back the idyllic façade of a touristy beach town to reveal the ugliness that can lurk beneath even the most gorgeous of locales. Smith


One False Move

97. One False Move (Carl Franklin, 1992)

Released days after the 1992 Los Angeles riots, One False Move offers a particularly prescient reflection of regional division and segregation still powerfully evident in Donald Trump’s America. It sees violence as the common denominator between blue and red states, a casual fact of life that cannot be stopped no matter your ethnicity or background. In the film’s opening act, mixed-race outlaw Lila Walker’s (Cynda Williams) southern-fried psycho of a boyfriend, Ray (Billy Bob Thornton), and his sadistic spectacled accomplice, Pluto (Michael Beach), murder six Angelinos to get their hands on a large stash of cocaine. Franklin’s smooth camera movements build unwavering suspense, illuminating the brutal seamlessness of these characters’ actions. For one of these perps, suffocating a woman with a plastic bag yields a fleeting pleasure. Another stabs his victims repeatedly while happy home videos, recorded minutes earlier, play in the background. The film is more noir than western, cynical of our ability to process trauma and resolved to the cold hard truth that good people are often punished for no discernable reason. It seems to comprehend that trusting someone is the fastest way to the grave, and that denial is something almost hereditary. Glenn Heath Jr.


Caught

96. Caught (Max Ophüls, 1949)

Max Ophüls’s Caught offers an intense corrective to the clichés of the American noir, particularly the perception of a woman as a predatory other who pulls all the strings, leading men downward toward a doom for which they often bear implicatively little personal responsibility. Right out of the gate, Leonora Eames (Barbara Bel Geddes) is understood to be trapped, even before she catches the eye of Smith Ohlrig (Robert Ryan), a psychotic thug who’s also a brilliant businessman as well as a filthy-rich parody of Howard Hughes. A model trading in illusions of heightened female subservience that remain essentially taken for granted to this day, Leonora is essentially stuck between two modes of prostitution: literally posing at the department store that pays her practically nothing, or figuratively posing at Smith’s mansion for luxury beyond her imagination. The premise indulges a blunt reduction of sexual politics, in the tradition of most memorable noirs, and the extent of the film’s impact resides in Ophüls’s refusal to shy away from concentrated, pointedly symbolic outrage. In one of the boldest and riskiest touches, Ophüls elides Leonora and Smith’s courtship entirely, understanding that it’s meaningless—a series of prescribed rituals designed to superficially ease the placing of all the participants into socially preordained positions. Bowen


While the City Sleeps

95. While the City Sleeps (Fritz Lang, 1956)

From his Weimar films all the way through his Hollywood productions, Fritz Lang evinced a deep suspicion of any and all institutions of authority. Alongside Ace in the Hole and Sweet Smell of Success, While the City Sleeps is the most cynical and piercing of noirs to place journalism in its crosshairs. The film’s killer is a by-the-numbers figure whose sexual repression feeds his murderous rage, but the true focus here is on a media empire divided by a mogul among three subordinates who war with each other for a top position at the paper. As each journo tries to find the killer, the company loses sight of its civic responsibility and embraces seedy sensationalism, stoking rumor and paranoia in order to sell papers. Executives are even willing to dangle their own employees as bait for the killer, and the film ratchets as much tension out of office politicking as the actual murders. One of Lang’s most stripped-down features, the film, which owes much to Shakespeare’s King Lear, nonetheless communicates a lot with its spartan views of the newsroom, a place of open-office planning that suggests a transparency that’s subsequently drowned out by the roar of printing presses and typewriters that symbolize the faceless, expansionist scale of large-scale media. Jake Cole


The American Friend

94. The American Friend (Wim Wenders, 1977)

Loosely based on Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley’s Game, The American Friend wears its love of the United States and its cinematic lineage on its sleeve. From its engagement with genre tropes (particularly noir), to its tangibly grimy urban backdrops, to its archetypal hero/villain dramatic dichotomy, there’s no mistaking the film’s American influence. Dennis Hopper stars as the novel’s namesake charlatan, though in a sage bit of imagination from the actor, not as Highsmith’s methodically devious characterization of Tom Ripley, but as an unhinged, impulsive personification of the character’s amorality run amok. Wenders stages the otherwise routine underworld dealings with an impressive stylistic and meta-cinematic gusto, coupling exaggerated fluorescent lighting schemes (courtesy of longtime cinematographer Robby Müller) with a gritty realism reminiscent of both concurrent American crime films and post-war noir. Which is to say nothing of Ripley’s signature cowboy hat—an unmistakable symbol of bygone Americana, as well as a call back to another beloved Hollywood genre—and the rollcall of then under-appreciated directors who fill out the supporting cast, most notably Nicholas Ray and Samuel Fuller, but also Jean Eustache and Gérard Blain. Jordan Cronk


The Postman Always Rings Twice

93. The Postman Always Rings Twice (Tay Garnett, 1946)

The Postman Always Rings Twice is a simple, deliciously depraved film. Based on the James M. Cain novel, the story concerns a feckless drifter (John Garfield) who at a roadside inn crosses paths with the owner’s beautiful and dissatisfied wife (Lana Turner), a woman his match in both sexual appetite and sociopathy. United in lust and a general disdain for everyone who’s not themselves, the two murder her husband (Cecil Kellaway) and manage to avoid legal punishment, only to be punished in a more cosmic sense. (“The postman always rings twice” is the film’s gritty, baroque metaphor for fatalistic moral reckoning.) Turner’s character, Cora, is a dark vision of the femme fatale, absolutely empty of any human qualities but raw sexuality, a lust for murder, and a veneer of exaggerated femininity. Her entry into the film is iconic: Garfield’s Frank is meant to be watching a hamburger on the griddle, but he’s distracted when a lipstick pen rolls across the floor to him. Following its path, the camera tracks up Turner’s legs, and then cuts to a wide shot: There’s Turner posing in the doorway wearing a shockingly white, vaguely marine, midriff-bearing get-up, and a strange, round, wrap-style hat. Distracted by this vision, Frank has let the hamburger patty burn, the film signifying with evident relish his overheated desire. The overt sexism of Turner’s introduction as tempting sexual object is offset somewhat today by the camp: This is a woman, a whole film, in drag. Pat Brown

The Asphalt Jungle

92. The Asphalt Jungle (John Huston, 1950)

The Asphalt Jungle could be understood as a hardening of John Huston’s directorial vision, breaking away from Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon and any greater conquest of cool for pathetic men whose minds have gone rotten from being left on the slab for too long. Dix (Sterling Hayden) is first seen woozily stumbling into a diner, which is apt given that his entire life rests upon the wobbly premise that he can go home again, back to the farm where his childhood colt might be resurrected, if only in his mind. He’s known around town as a “hooligan,” and is solicited for a jewel heist by Doc (Sam Jaffe), who’s fresh out of prison. Alonzo (Louis Calhern) backs their operation, though his finances turn out to be more than slightly dubious. Huston often frames these men in obtuse ways, from an unusually low angle or with their faces obscured in darkness for long periods of time, which makes The Asphalt Jungle, in terms of visual style, a somewhat conventional noir for its time period. Yet there’s nothing remotely commonplace about Huston’s handling of space between and within scenes, with objects consistently marking three or even four planes of action. Accordingly, the relative flatness of the characters is given counterpoint through their surroundings, which becomes the film’s actual line of inquiry, and renders the jewel heist more of a structuring plot than an end in itself. Clayton Dillard


The Killers

91. The Killers (Robert Siodmak, 1946)

Ernest Hemingway’s 1927 short story “The Killers” is a marvel of implication and showing rather than telling. Robert Siodmak’s adaptation opens with a beat-for-beat adaptation of the story that neatly functions as a self-contained short, elegantly alluding to the oppression that’s evident in the nooks and crannies of a lunch counter’s interiors, which suggest a figurative diner of America’s collective imagination more than any singular restaurant. (It’s difficult, for instance, to watch this film and not think of Edward Hopper’s iconic Nighthawks.) The dialogue is delivered with a perfectly blunt staccato that’s ideal for the story, particularly the lines uttered by the killers (superbly played by William Conrad and Charles McGraw), and Siodmak’s leisurely, unpretentiously modern, prismatic long takes connote a sense of evil that’s gathering in claustrophobic real time. The Killers is a svelte, vividly directed film, with a remarkable grasp of physicality, both human and locational (particularly displayed in a breathtaking heist scene that’s staged in one long master shot), though the fancy plot gymnastics do needlessly clutter up Hemingway’s original, evocatively streamlined setup. Bowen

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The 25 Best Chemical Brothers Songs

To celebrate the release of the duo’s ninth album, No Geography, we ranked their 25 best songs.

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The Chemical Brothers
Photo: Hamish Brown

This week, the Chemical Brothers will release their ninth studio album, No Geography, a notable feat for a group that was first propelled into the mainstream via electronica’s so-called big bang in the late 1990s. Here’s how consistently rich the duo’s vast catalogue has been throughout their near-25-year career: Given the task of choosing our individual favorite tracks, we came up with over 50 contenders worthy of inclusion. As you read—and better yet, listen—to this list, you’ll discover some unexpected omissions (pour one out for one of their biggest crossover hits, “Blocking Rockin’ Beats,” which didn’t make the cut), but also some equally surprising additions that more casual fans may find unfamiliar. Regardless of your level of immersion, though, what you’ll find here are 25 of the most explosive, head-bobbing, ass-shaking anthems in electronic music history. Blue Sullivan

Editor’s Note: Listen to the entire playlist on Spotify.

25. “Saturate”

The Chemical Brothers’s 2007 album We Are the Night is rightly maligned for containing a few of the duo’s rare missteps (here’s looking at you, “Salmon Dance”), but it also contains one of their most propulsive house bangers. Built on ping-ponging keys and a bassline so deep and dirty it almost qualifies as subliminal, “Saturate” builds to a surge of hammering snares that sound like crashing waves. A frequent late-set addition to the duo’s live show over the last decade, the track is just as deserving of its inclusion here as any of their early classics. Sullivan

24. “Life Is Sweet”

But is it? Structured as a call and response, “Life Is Sweet” first finds the Chemical Brothers radiating in an unambiguously optimistic vibe, to the point you can almost feel UV rays emanating from the speakers. And then, suddenly, everything clouds over and you find yourself dancing in a haze of primal doubt that winds up in a denouement of existentialist angst. Eric Henderson

23. “Loops of Fury”

Best video game soundtrack of all time? WipeOut XL, without a doubt. And the Chemical Brothers’s “Loops of Fury” was but one of the crown jewels of a compilation that also included Underworld’s “Tin There,” the Prodigy’s “Firestarter,” Photek’s “The Third Sequence,” and Fluke’s “Atom Bomb.” Even in that company, the relentless “Loops of Fury” comes about as close as any of them to feeling what it would be like to barrel down an anti-gravity race track at more than 200 kilometers per hour. Henderson

22. “Three Little Birdies Down Beats”

There is perhaps no other song on the Chemical Brothers’s 1995 debut, Exit Planet Dust, that defined the duo’s developing sound more efficiently than the unrelenting “Three Little Birdies Down Beats.” The track is a torrent of increasingly complex layers: breakbeats, soul samples, and an onslaught of screeching guitars and distorted vocals that would become the group’s signature over the course of the next decade. Sal Cinquemani

21. “My Elastic Eye”

Based around a sample of electronic composer Bernard Estardy’s 1973 piece “Tic Tac Nocturne,” “My Elastic Eye” sounds at once cinematic and classical, fusing prog-rock and jazz influences, and boldly employing the filtered basslines of French techno and electroclash, which was peaking in popularity around the time of the song’s release. The result is a mélange of styles that cohere into a spooky musical score that wouldn’t sound out of a place in an Argento giallo. Cinquemani

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Interview: Claire Denis and Robert Pattinson on the Making of High Life

The director and actor discuss how the film’s main character progressed from Denis’s imagination to Pattinson’s realization.

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Robert Pattinson
Photo: A24

Like her films, Claire Denis’s bond with Robert Pattinson defies familiar categorizations and feels forged from deep, profound emotion. It doesn’t appear to be maternal-filial, and Denis’s willingness to let her star make discoveries with a long-gestating project like High Life suggests it’s not strictly professorial. Denis and Pattinson resemble colleagues who’ve become great friends through collaboration. Pattinson’s talent for conveying repressed desires translates well to playing a quintessentially paradigmatic Denis protagonist, an inscrutable loner who teeters tenuously on the brink of transgression.

While each admired the other’s work for several years—Pattinson since he saw her White Material, and Denis since catching him in Cosmopolis and the Twilight series—their partnership on High Life arrives at a fortuitous moment for both. The film cements Pattinson’s status as one of the decade’s key figures in auteurist cinema and reaffirms Denis’s status at the vanguard of global filmmaking. And A24’s distribution of the film will help to ensure that she finally receives a release on a scale commensurate with her craft.

On the day of High Life’s American release, I talked to Denis and Pattinson jointly about the journey to bring the project to the screen. We began at the fateful night when Pattinson stumbled upon Denis’s work and talked through how his character, Monte, an ascetic prisoner tricked into a mission to harness the energy of a black hole, progressed from Denis’s imagination to Pattinson’s realization.

Robert, you’ve mentioned White Material as your entry into Claire’s films. What about it drew you to work with her? Were your impressions of how she worked with actors to inhabit their physicality and drop their self-consciousness accurate?

Robert Pattinson: When I watched White Material, it was on at two in the morning in Louisiana. I was shooting the last Twilight movie, and I had been asleep when I woke up, and the film had already started. It was really unusual for the film to be on that channel in the first place. And to wake up to it—it sort of felt like transitioning from being in a dream to being in the movie. I just remember the image of Isabelle Huppert holding onto the back of the truck. It’s just such a striking image. It’s weird, but it almost makes more sense now, to show the strength of her femininity. It’s not like she’s wearing armor trying to look like a guy, but she looks so powerful as her skirt blows up in the wind behind her. You could see there was something going wrong, but the expression on her face—you know immediately that she’s a dynamo. I just love that performance.

I remember sending an email to my agent that night at four in the morning saying that Claire Denis is “the one.” I talked to someone else, and they were like, “Claire has done loads of movies, what are you talking about?” But there was something about it that felt new. There was something about it, the performances first, that made it feel like it had to be made. That’s what I look for in directors.

Do either of you see any similarities between Maria Vial in White Material and Monte in High Life? They both hold onto their bodily autonomy and space with such intensity.

Claire Denis: They both have a child!

Pattinson: I guess there’s an autonomous thing where they make themselves exist in a slightly separate reality to everyone else around them. I think Maria is more connected with her environment. They definitely have something slightly missing. I was looking at this thing yesterday, giant wave surfers in Nazaré, these Portuguese surfers. These guys surf 150-foot waves. I saw one interview with a guy, who’s got a four-year-old son and a girlfriend, where they’re looking at these waves the size of mountains, and he’s like, “It looks like a good surf today!” And his son is looking at him. Some of these people have completely different mental setups. It’s exciting to see something which is like, “You’re gonna die.” Sorry, that’s not particularly relevant!

Denis: No, it’s not irrelevant! I’m interested in people who surf. I’ve seen one of these waves, in Tahiti. I saw it for real and thought, “How could people believe without doubt that that’s a great thing to do?”

Pattinson: It’s insane!

Denis: I was so amazed. They were there waiting, and they looked sane. They didn’t look crazy, you know? They looked excited, happy. So, I think you have to be like—I think Isabelle, if she would have decided to be a surfer, she would have been a crazy surfer! She’s really enjoying a certain type of danger, you know? As opposed to her, Monte decides not to stay in jail, to take this offer and mission to be left in peace. Just to be, I don’t know, maybe he has some hope. But it’s not only a question of hope. It’s a question of “will I be better there than this horrible corridor.” It’s not exactly the same heroic person, I don’t think, but maybe the same craziness. No, I think Maria is more crazy. She’s really completely crazy.

The role of Monte was originally envisioned for someone older, perhaps even Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Denis: Yeah, but I never asked him. I had someone in mind who was a little bit tired like him. But, of course, I never asked him. It was just an image for me when I was writing the script, you know?

Pattinson: There’s this thing where, when we were talking about Monte, there’s something about him where if it was an older guy, you reactively become someone who has nothing to live for. But I think Monte is trying, forcing his life to be the same every day. He’s like, “I want to wake up and feel nothing. Figuring out how to get rid of anything that is alive, basically. Alive in me, anything which can feel alive.”

Denis: But it’s really something like a Tibetan monk to get there. To this place where you need nothing.

Yeah, like the “chastity over indulgence” line. Did the role move more toward Robert, or did he adapt himself to play someone who fit the character as written?

Pattinson: Toward me as a person? I’m definitely indulgence over chastity! [laughs]

Denis: You changed immediately, I think.

Pattinson: I remember being in my hotel room—my weird hotel room that looked like a strip club with these weird green lights in the bathroom—not really knowing what I was doing at the time and not thinking of my lines. I have these weird videos on my phone where I’m trying to manipulate my body into strange shapes. Maybe it was just a completely random thing, but I think Monte is trying to get some kind of control over his body, so I wanted to dig inside myself or something. As soon as we got on set and did the lighting test, it was almost immediate: I knew there was something with the costume that made me want to do a sort of boxy thing. I wanted it to feel heavy. In the first test, I realized there was a different way to my walking.

Denis: I saw you change. I saw you transform. I didn’t understand how you were working, but I saw how different you were when we started shooting. I remember the scene where you’re shaving. That was something that came from you. And I liked that so much.

So for you there was more of a physical entry point into the character as opposed to a more emotional and psychological one?

Pattinson: [hesitates] I wanted to do the shaving where he didn’t want to have any hair. And I wanted to convey this constant fear of people touching me or having any kind of physical contact with me, of retreating inside myself. So, I guess it was a physical thing. I wanted to feel alien even to myself. You’re looking to play things in a way that don’t make sense to you.

Claire, given the frequency with which you portrayed post-colonial Africa, did space hold any of that same fascination for you given the long history of nationalistic conquest over the world above and around us, the way a wealthy society exploits marginalized people to have boundless resources?

Denis: Yeah, probably. I say “probably” because I do want to express things I feel, but I’m not a professional activist. I think I’m a very naïve person, honestly. No, it’s true! [laughs] I believe in one thing, and I try and translate that into film.

High Life ends on a moment that felt, at least to me, similar to Beau Travail in the way that they seem to exist in a totally separate plane of time and space from the rest of the film. Claire, what draws you to these fleeting final moments?

Denis: It comes from a different place. The ending of Beau Travail was in the script, of him with the gun and laying down on the bed. It’s his death, you know? He’s committing suicide. And the dance scene is from before, when he was leaving Djibouti. But when we were in the editing room, I thought, “I can’t finish like that, it’s too sad. I want him to be somewhere in another world dancing forever.” So we changed it. And in High Life, I thought they were going somewhere, and that somewhere was mysterious—a place nobody has been before. But it doesn’t mean to me that they’re dying. They’re reaching a place no one has been before. When Monte says to his daughter, “Shall we?,” to me it doesn’t mean “Shall we die?”

Pattinson: “Shall we?” is what you ask when you’re about to dance with someone.

Denis: Exactly.

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Interview: Mike Leigh on Peterloo and the Currency of Period Films

Leigh discusses the seemingly counterintuitive process of making a period film more contemporarily relevant by fully embracing the past.

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Mike Leigh
Photo: Amazon Studios

As we were about to settle into our conversation, I told British writer-director Mike Leigh that this wasn’t the first time I had sat down in his presence to hear him answer questions about his work. About five years ago, he spoke to a student program I attended at the Telluride Film Festival on the occasion of Mr. Turner’s U.S. premiere. Before I could even finish my sentence, Leigh let me know that he didn’t plan to participate in such student symposiums again since “it’s always for half an hour, and you should schedule at least two hours or an hour and a half, because you can’t say anything” in that amount of time.

This episode foretold much of what was to come in my interview with the esteemed filmmaker, who was in New York to promote the theatrical release of his latest feature, Peterloo, a dramatization of the 1819 Peterloo Massacre. First, it’s impossible to cover all the nuances and intricacies of his famous improvisational character-building process in a short period of time. Second, Leigh will speak whatever is on his mind, be it a simple one-word response when such an answer will suffice or a grandiloquent refutation of a question’s premise. And, to be clear, it’s a right that the seven-time Oscar nominee has more than earned.

During our chat about Peterloo, Leigh discussed how he incorporated authentic historical speeches and writing into his characters’ dialogue, why he dispels academic notions while directing, and the seemingly counterintuitive process of making a period film more contemporarily relevant by fully embracing the past.

The last time I heard you talk, you described your approach to Mr. Turner being to look at a contained period of time, drop an anchor, and investigate everything. Did that also hold true when you set out to make Peterloo?

Yes.

How does your improvisational process mesh with a project like Peterloo where both the historical record and oratory play such a large role?

Well, the oratory is a part of it, we’ll come back to the oratory. You can research, read all the books in the world until you’re blue in the face, but that doesn’t make it happen in front of the camera. We’re talking about flesh and blood, every moment being lived, three-dimensional characters. The fact that it may be a dramatization of a historic event may be true, but all the use of improvisation and exploration of character still has to happen to breathe life into it. You can read about the Peterloo massacre in some considerable detail about what happened, and we drew from it very copiously. But that doesn’t make it actually happen. People are going to get on their feet in their costume and talk and act. Improvisations are the way to do character work and bring events into existence, which we call scenes.

As to the fact that one of the elements of it is what people actually said, that isn’t news in my period films either. Turner on his death bed apparently said “the sun is God.” Constable actually said when Turner went up to his painting and put a red blob on it to turn into a little boy, “he has been here and fired a gun.” Those were in the script. There’s a scene in Topsy-Turvy where Gilbert and Sullivan are sitting on a sofa drinking tea, and Sullivan is saying he just wants to write operas, and Gilbert is trying to read him the librettos. A substantial amount of what they say to each other in that conversation was taken from letters that they wrote to each other in correspondence, but we’ve made it natural dialogue.

All of which is to say is that the overall series of events that are Peterloo was a whole lot of stuff that people say that comes from speeches they actually made, things they actually said, things they said in letters. We’ve researched those and assimilated them into the script, stitched them seamlessly in and made them an organic part of the whole. We’ve edited them a lot, we’ve reorganized them, we’ve made them work for the characterizations the actors we’re doing. But we’ve still stuck to the spirit, and in some cases the actual substance and words, that people actually said. So, what I’m saying to you is, don’t get sidetracked by the idea that there’s a contradiction between the improvisational approach to making it all happen and the fact that some of the material is original text.

In terms of the incorporation, you’ve spoken to what you do on your end—is there anything different for the actors?

Yes, of course there is. They’re doing the same thing with me, and we’re doing it together. There’s a difference between everything that comes out finally in the rehearsal, the written scene that comes out of something organic that the actor said spontaneously as a character in a situation, and reading something. But then we’re talking about where people are making a speech. So, the very fact that that’s what they’re doing is different from ordinary domestic behavior because the action of making a speech isn’t the same as sitting around having a domestic conversation about the weather.

Was it harder, or just different, for your actors not to know the motivations of other actors’ characters in the process of Peterloo given the way the film builds toward a single event? Did you make any alterations to your process in response?

Well, they don’t know about the other characters except what they experience normally when we’re making the story up. It’s different in the context of a story where everyone knows what we’re dramatizing, so it doesn’t really apply.

Peterloo opens with the Battle of Waterloo, which you and DP Dick Pope shoot at first as a sweeping shot surveying the carnage around a soldier that gradually becomes a close-up on his face. How did you all come to the decision to portray such a consequential event in European history in such intimate terms?

Well, because we say here’s the Battle of Waterloo, first there’s a label that says the Napoleonic Wars, the Battle of Waterloo, Wellington, all of that. You think you’re watching another movie and it’s a battle, but in fact, we know that the function of the scene is to focus on this guy. This individual. And pretty swiftly, it will be important whether you did it with lots of shots and cut to him or whether we did it the way we did it, you pretty soon need to get down and say, “On June 18, 1815, there was this famous battle and there was this particular guy.” And we go with the guy. It’s simply that that’s what the scene is about. It purports to be about the battle, but pretty swiftly, it turns out to be about one individual. And then, when you then see him gradually making his way back to England—and they did do that. There was no way they took anybody home. When the battle was over, they were left to their own devices, and a lot of people died on the way back. It took months; it was a real hassle. And while all that’s going on, other things are happening in Parliament and all the rest of England.

It seems like a good distillation…

Absolutely.

The opening is a real contrast to the Peterloo massacre itself, which is shot with a tremendous number of cuts for a director like you who often prefers to film as much of a scene in a single take as possible—

I think that’s a bit of a generalization. I think sometimes I do. But I would reject the notion that it’s a characteristic. There are famous occasions when I’ve done exactly that. If you go back and look at any number of sequences, I sometimes do it when it’s appropriate. When Hortense and Cynthia meet for the first time in Secrets & Lies, and they sit by side by side in the café for a continuous take uncut for eight minutes, you can say that’s good discipline to shoot the take like that. But there’s no way you’re ever going to shoot the Peterloo massacre in one take! It’s academic and not worth talking about, really, because if you’re going to shoot that, you’re going to obviously have a massive amount of footage of hundreds of things, shot some of it with three cameras at the same time. There’s no way, and I wouldn’t want it to, because apart from anything else, the rhythm of that event in the café lends itself to that. But the chaos and mayhem of what happened at Peterloo wouldn’t lend itself to even considering that, even if it were possible. It’s kind of an irrelevant question, really.

You’ve said that you don’t make films about other films, but you have mentioned being a student of Eisenstein’s work. Given that it also involves government forces turning their bayonets on unarmed citizens who are advocating on behalf of the proletariat, was the Odessa Steps sequence at all an inspiration or touchpoint?

No! I’ve been asked that quite a lot. Nor was Ran of Kurosawa. I know those films, they’re in my DNA, but I never thought about Battleship Potemkin for a split second at any stage of doing that. Now you say it, and I think, “yeah yeah yeah,” but it never occurred to me. It isn’t that I don’t know the film. I know it backward, actually! But you don’t think about those things. They’re there, maybe in your subconscious.

What are you thinking about then?

The content! What it’s about. Telling the audience what’s going on. It’s as straightforward as that, no matter what the film. This is what’s happening, and let’s work out how to investigate this cinematically in order to tell the story to the audience. That’s what’s in my mind. I know it’s unbelievably uninteresting, but it’s true.

It’s interesting! If you’re not focused on it—

No, no, no. That’s also true. But what I’m saying is, I’m not thinking about what is the genre, what other movie is this like, what am I referencing or any of that crap because it’s irrelevant.

You’re focused in this sequence on the pain of the victims, not on making a spectacle of the violence. Is this a projection of your normal guiding principles onto a battle sequence?

Yes, it’s not incidentally a battle sequence. A battle is two opposing forces—

Well, yes, it’s a very mismatched battle.

Well again, you see, it’s hard to answer that question because it poses a premise that isn’t really relevant. It just seemed that everything that happened in the scene seems the natural way of telling what happened.

When looking at your filmography on the whole, your earlier films looked unflinchingly at the contemporary, while your more recent films tend to be more focused on portraying the past. Is that a conscious shift?

I made my first period film with Topsy-Turvy, followed by a contemporary film, All or Nothing, followed by another period film, Vera Drake, followed by another contemporary film, Happy-Go-Lucky, then another contemporary film, Another Year, then another period film, and then another period film. All you can be saying is that the last two films are period films, and I’m more interested in them.

But why start making them at all?

Just seemed like a good idea.

You say that you don’t make movies about “themes.” Was that any harder given how the history of Peterloo seemed to echo with the present moment?

It would be wrong to say that Peterloo isn’t a film with themes. What I meant when I may have said that is that my films, and I think Peterloo is no exception, do a whole bunch of things within the overall subject matter. These aren’t films with no themes, but they aren’t simplistic black-and-white themes.

I don’t mean to imply that your films are without themes, only that you seem to start with the content and the characters.

Of course. I have the sense of what it’s about, but these things are all compounded. They all come together, part and parcel. You can’t separate one from the other.

But was it harder to keep it rooted in its time? So many filmmakers making period pieces will make a movie set in the 1800s but wink and tell us that it’s about right now.

I think you’re right. A lot of filmmakers fall into that trap. They start to compromise what’s in the film. They say, “Let’s not make the dialogue period, people won’t understand it. Let’s not have the women in corsets, let’s lower the necklines, it’s more sexy.” And in doing that, they aren’t helping the audience believe they’re looking at something that really happened. Even though it’s something that’s happening now, 200 years ago.

Apart from the fact that I and my collaborators enjoy the challenge of capturing how people spoke, behaved, what they wore, what a place looked like, et cetera, well, when I started to make period films with Topsy-Turvy, I said, “Let’s make a period film that doesn’t look like just a costume drama. Let’s make it so that you really believe these are real people with real issues and real preoccupations. Doing a job of work like we all do.” So those are the criteria.

The job of a period film meaning something to a contemporary audience can be best achieved by making it as period-accurate as possible. The thing about a contemporary audience understanding it can only be in contemporary terms. The audience only knows how to interpret anything in terms of their own experience. They all just walk into a museum and look at a piece of sculpture from two thousand years ago, and you can only really decode, understand, and empathize with it in terms of how you are now. In the end, history can only be understood from the perspective of the contemporary world anyway. In a way, the currency of a period film as to how it will have a meaning for contemporary audiences looks after itself.

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The 15 Best Nirvana Songs

Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic, and Dave Grohl were prolific enough to produce some of the greatest rock songs ever put to tape.

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Nirvana
Photo: Sub Pop

Today marks the 25th anniversary of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain’s tragic death via a self-inflicted gunshot wound. As if that weren’t a stark enough reminder of our fragile mortality, the band’s debut album, Bleach, will turn 30 this June. Of course, the massive success of Nirvana’s 1991 follow-up, Nevermind, would help change the course of rock history. The band’s songs, the vast majority of which were penned solely by Cobain, fused pop, punk, and heavy metal into raw yet relatively digestible scraps of visceral rock poetry that struck just the right balance of accessible and challenging, introducing “alternative rock” to the masses, influencing an entire generation of musicians and fans, and—for better or worse—christening a new subgenre: grunge. Though Nirvana only lasted for seven years and three studio albums, Cobain, bassist Krist Novoselic, and drummer Dave Grohl were prolific enough to produce some of the greatest rock songs ever put to tape. Sal Cinquemani

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on April 5, 2014. Listen to our entire Nirvana playlist on Spotify.

15. “Been a Son”

The first of many collections of scraps tossed out to hungry fans, Insecticide at least revealed a few new sides of the band, ranging from blistering punk assaults to strange slices of jagged power pop. “Been a Son” proves one of the standouts of these early recordings, a zippy, straightforward ditty that retains only a scant undercurrent of sludge, only hinting at the psychic trauma that other songs made much more evident. Jesse Cataldo

14. “Rape Me”

Emblematic of the band’s reaction to accusations that they “sold out” for signing with a major label and softening their early punk sound, the opening guitar lick of “Rape Me” pointedly and playfully evokes “Smells Like Teen Spirit” before the track devolves into a crushingly blunt treatise on sexual assault that conveniently, if unintentionally, doubles as a taunt to the media to take their best shot. Cinquemani

13. “Sliver”

Rock’s inherently primal qualities have always been obvious, but few songs have approached them as directly as this one, a charging anthem that boils down to a melancholy tale of a little boy crying for his mother. Originally released by Sub Pop as a non-album single, it’s another sustained tantrum of a track, a roar disguising a whimper, highlighting the tormented whelp at the center of all that seething rage. Cataldo

12. “In Bloom”

Pitted with a stream of pithy, sardonic koans that go almost unnoticed under all the noise, “In Bloom” imagines a micro-problem (ignorant meddlers of the Seattle scene) that quickly exploded into a macro one, leaving an acidic song retroactively aimed at the huge contingent of fans prizing the band for their muscular qualities, while ignoring the pained sensitivity which produced that intensity. If more people had been listening, maybe we could have avoided the long downward spiral of influence that eventually led to Puddle of Mudd. Cataldo

11. “On a Plain”

Few things are more selfish, or illogical, than addiction, and the messy, self-focused tenor of Nirvana’s songs proves the perfect platform to engage that topic. The exacting honesty of tracks like “On a Plain” ended up as one of the band’s biggest cultural coups, pushing the focus of mainstream rock not only from glam fakery to “genuine” emotion, but from a fixation on surfaces and objects to the intrinsic horrors of being human, the gross weakness of our bodies and the yawning emptiness of discontent. Cataldo

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Every DC Extended Universe Movie Ranked from Worst to Best

On the occasion of the release of Shazam!, we ranked the seven titles in the DC Extended Universe from worst to best.

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Shazam
Photo: Warner Bros.

This week marks the release of the seventh film in the DC Extended Universe, David F. Sandberg’s Shazam!, which Slant’s Jake Cole praised for being the rare superhero film to “foreground the rush of bafflement and elation that grips a down-and-out child who’s suddenly given the power of a god.” The film tells the story of Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a foster kid who’s transformed into the adult Shazam (Zachary Levi) and tasked with defending the world against the Seven Deadly Sins. His ultimate enemy is Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong), who’s been nursing his wounded pride for decades in the wake of being denied the superpowers that Billy now possesses. On the occasion of the release of Shazam!, we ranked the seven titles in the DC Extended Universe from worst to best. Alexa Camp


Suicide Squad

7. Suicide Squad (David Ayer, 2016)

Jared Leto’s hollow character work matches the empty style of David Ayer’s visual rendition of the Joker, all silly tattoos and teeth grills. Ayer’s direction aspires to the kind of frenetic pop-trash redolent of Oliver Stone’s most outré work, and coincidentally, the film’s best moments depict the romance between Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) and the Joker similarly to the relationship at the heart of Natural Born Killers. In one of Suicide Squad’s few mesmerizing moments, the pair leap into a vat of the same acid that disfigured the Joker and share a passionate kiss as their clothes melt off, sending streams of red and blue dye into the dirty yellow liquid. Elsewhere, however, the film adopts the functional shot patterns and desaturated palettes common to contemporary superhero cinema. The hyperactivity that propelled films like End of Watch and Fury is ideally suited to this material, but Suicide Squad never gets to be a manic, freewheeling alternative to the genre’s propensity toward dour severity and increasingly uniform aesthetics. Like the recruited criminals themselves, the film longs to be bad, yet its forced by outside pressures to follow narrow, preset rules. Jake Cole


Justice League

6. Justice League (Zack Snyder, 2017)

Beyond the substitution of one intellectual property for another, practically nothing about Justice League distinguishes itself from what the Marvel Cinematic Universe was doing five years ago. The film’s style, though, is very much Zack Snyder’s own. The filmmaker continues to fixate on fitting his characters into a political framework, with material gloomily rooted in economic malaise. Images of the Kent family farm being foreclosed in Superman’s (Henry Cavill) absence speak to a kind of banal, mortal villainy more subtly at work on people than the cataclysmic horror visited upon them by super-powered beings. But Snyder again leans on his propensity for desaturated images, so much so that even scenes full of sunlight appear faded. Such dreariness is consistent with his past DC films, but it’s still difficult to square how much Justice League wants us to look up to its superheroes with the way the film underlines how little they enliven the world they protect. Cole


Aquaman

5. Aquaman (James Wan, 2018)

“Call me Ocean Master!” King Orm (Patrick Wilson), the villain in James Wan’s Aquaman, portentously shouts at the outset of the film’s climactic scene. Warner Bros.’s latest attempt to shift its DC brand away from the dour masochism that marked (and marred) such films as Man of Steel embraces high fantasy, but for Wan and screenwriters David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall, this turns out to mostly mean having characters proclaim their silly comic book names as assertively as possible. At its best, the film’s underwater action, with its traveling shots that zoom through crowds of fantastical marine species and past moss-encrusted classical ruins, are vibrant, aesthetically engrossing spectacle. At its weakest moments, though, the film offers a parade of ocean-floor vistas that evoke the substanceless world-building of George Lucas’s second Star Wars trilogy, a supersaturated digital landscape of smooth surfaces and expensive-looking designs. The weightlessness of fights rendered with CG is compounded by that of fights between people suspended in water, and the sexlessness of superhero movies is only emphasized by the perfunctory romance between two leads who seem to have been cast largely because they look good dripping wet. Pat Brown


Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

4. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (Zack Snyder, 2016)

Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is an overstuffed sketchbook of ideas for a half-dozen potentially striking superhero adventures. One can feel Snyder aiming for an obsessive masterpiece while attempting to please investors with the expository generality that’s required of global blockbusters. The film wants to be a treatise on How We Live, dabbling in incredible religious iconography and glancing infrastructural signifiers, yet it can’t commit to any specific view for fear of alienating consumers. It comprises self-contained moments and gestures, some of which are impressive in their own right, but which fail to cumulatively breathe. It offers an apologia for the massive collateral damage that marked Man of Steel’s climax while reveling in more damage, resulting in more of the thematic hemming and hawing that belabored Christopher Nolan’s comparatively elegant Batman films. Every few minutes a character utters a bon mot that’s meant to impress on us the film’s depth and relevance to a culture racked by terrorism and a dangerous distrust and resentment of the populace toward governmental authority. After nearly two hours of this busy-ness, one wonders why we still haven’t gotten to see Batman fight Superman. Chuck Bowen


Wonder Woman

3. Wonder Woman (Patty Jenkins, 2017)

Wonder Woman is, particularly in the first hour, a remarkably buoyant and even laidback film, allowing a long conversation between Diana (Gal Gadot) and Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) to play out uninterrupted, simply basking in the atmosphere of thick sexual tension between them. Gently edited and genuinely funny, it’s the kind of scene that would be hacked to pieces and laden with ominous portent in a film like Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. At its core, the film is about watching a badass female kick some ass. And on this score, the film delivers, offering up lithe, supple fight sequences featuring Diana gliding through the air, punctuated by painterly smears of light and fire. And it creates at least one indelible image: Diana calmly but determinedly striding across a no man’s land as German artillery fire whizzes around her. However, as in so many superhero films, the final battle is an overcomplicated jumble of CGI explosions and ubiquitous blue lightning, waged against a seemingly arbitrary villain—in this case an armor-suited giant who looks like he stepped off the cover of a Molly Hatchet album. This gets to the film’s fundamental weakness: that the genre in which it’s operating has ossified. The central character and lightly kinky undertones may distinguish Wonder Woman from its predecessors in the superhero universe, but the film still falls victim to familiar pitfalls: a glut of underdeveloped side characters and unintimidating villains, an overcomplicated mythology, and a reduction of its characters’ interior lives to bland pronouncements about Truth, Duty, and Love. Keith Watson


Shazam!

2. Shazam! (David F. Sandberg, 2019)

The movies don’t lack for superhero stories that deal with the angst and isolation of young people who’re radically different from those around them. But few of them are quite like David F. Sandberg’s Shazam!, which foregrounds the rush of bafflement and elation that grips a down-and-out child who’s suddenly given the power of a god, potentially allowing him to bypass all of the pitfalls and anxieties of adolescence. Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is a prickly 14-year-old foster kid who’s transformed by a wizard (Djimon Hounsou) into the adult Shazam (Zachary Levi) and tasked with defending the world against the Seven Deadly Sins. To the film’s credit, it smartly treats this premise as inherently absurd, embodied right away in Billy’s inability to stop cracking up when he’s first presented with this quest. Shazam! sees DC combining the golden-age optimism espoused by Wonder Woman and the jubilant, self-aware silliness of Aquaman into a satisfying whole, even if the narrow scope of Billy and Sivana’s conflict does lead to stretches of downtime where thematic and narrative points are rehashed to the detriment of the film’s otherwise brisk pace. In stark contrast to the politically nihilistic and aesthetically grim Batman vs. Superman, Shazam! offers a charming, even moving throwback to the aspirational sense of belonging that marks so many comics. Cole


Man of Steel

1. Man of Steel (Zack Snyder, 2013)

Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel is a surprisingly thoughtful work in its examination of political and personal responsibility, and ultimately a call to arms against warfare of both the physical and ideological sort. Its militaristic without being fascistic, patriotic without being nationalistic—a bizarre amalgamation of hard science fiction and overt religious allegory. It’s also very much a historically present-tense film, giving us a Superman for a post-9/11 world—not unlike Superman Returns, albeit more explicitly. Opening with the destruction of Krypton as a result of an overused, fracking-like method of resource-extraction, the film is quick to contrast that planet’s demise—spewing geysers of fire before chillingly collapsing into a miniature star—with the political and environmental tumult of our own world: burning oil rigs, melting fields of ice, corporations run amuck. Much more has been made of the film’s third-act mass destruction, in which Superman (Henry Cavill) and General Zod (Michael Shannon, delectably batshit) wage war of Godzilla-sized proportions in a still-populated city. Your mileage will vary based largely on your investment in/adherence to the Superman canon, but to these eyes, the titular hero’s lone instance of lapsed judgment—namely, taking the escalating fight straight to the heart of Smallville, where innocent bystanders abound—is easily forgivable, if for, admittedly, inextricably personal reasons: Only someone looking for a blind-rage ass-kicking would be foolish enough to threaten Superman’s mother. Rob Humanick

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Agnès Varda, Legend of the French New Wave and Beyond, Dead at 90

Varda spent the better part of her life ruminating on the nature of time, the interior and exterior lives of women, and the socially marginalized.

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Agnès Varda
Photo: Cohen Media Group

Celebrated filmmaker Agnès Varda, who spent the better part of her life ruminating on the nature of time, the interior and exterior lives of women, and the socially marginalized, died today at the age of 90. According to a statement from her family: “The director and artist Agnès Varda died at her home on the night of Thursday, March 29, of complications from cancer. She was surrounded by her family and friends.”

Varda’s first film, 1955’s La Pointe Courte, has been acknowledged by critics as a forerunner of the French New Wave. She followed that with a series of shorts and, then, in 1962 with Cléo from 5 to 7, the film that would cement her legend. The film, starring Corinne Marchand and scored by Michel Legrand (who died in January at age 86), follows a Parisian pop singer in real time as she awaits the results of a biopsy that will determine whether or not her cancerous stomach tumor is inoperable. According to our own Eric Henderson:

All throughout, Varda captures the fairy-tale essence of early-‘60s Paris with a vivacity and richness that rivals Godard’s Breathless. Unlike her New Wave compatriots, whose talents were reared in part at film schools, Varda was trained in the field of photography and consequently films the city with a completely unique vision. Her framing teems with life at every corner: kittens wrestling in Cléo’s apartment, a child playing a tiny piano in an alleyway, and quarrelling lovers in a café. She demonstrates an unerring eye for complex compositions that still manage to delineate between foreground and background planes. And in the bargain, every one of the film’s gorgeously designed set pieces enhance our understanding of the character and amplify Cléo’s understanding of herself.

Varda met her future husband, Jacques Demy, in 1958 while living in Paris. They remained together until his death in 1990. Curiously, given how prolific they were as artists, the couple rarely collaborated: Varda has an uncredited role in Demy’s iconic 1967 musical The Young Girls of Rochefort and served as an executive producer on his 1971 drama Lady Oscar, and Demy co-wrote her 1991 film Jacquot de Nantes. Maybe that was because they were both drawn to different aspects of life and people’s relationship to them.

Varda’s fiction films, among them Le Bonheur and Vagabond, garnered much renown, but she’s now primarily known for her documentaries. According to Slant’s Pat Brown, in his review of Varda’s last completed film, Varda by Agnès, from this year’s Berlinale:

At one time she was best known for the narrative features she made during the first four decades of her career, but many of those films had a tenuous relationship to fiction, featuring as they do non-professional actors, having filmed exclusively on location, and, in the case of 1962’s Cléo from 5 to 7, taking place in real time. At the turn of the millennium—when Varda was 72—she and feature fiction finally broke up for good, and since then she’s made three celebrated documentaries: The Gleaners and I, The Beaches of Agnès, and Faces Places.

Faces Places brought Varda considerable acclaim. Made in collaboration with the semi-anonymous French street artist known as JR, the film tells the story of two Frances, one contemporary and the other made of memories and friendships from Varda’s life. Faces Places, which earned Varda her one and only Academy Award nomination, is, according to our own Peter Golberg, “a many-sided and meditative work that’s at turns delightful, saddening, yet always deeply personal, filled with uniquely Vardian chance encounters with people and places from Varda’s past while also focused on JR’s ability to use his art to engage people.”

We had the incredible honor of interviewing Varda on two occasions, once timed to the U.S. theatrical release of Faces Places in 2017 and two years prior to that timed to the one-week runs that her 1988 documentary whatsit Jane B. par Agnes V. and 1993 drama Kung-Fu Master! received at Lincoln Plaza Cinema.

Varda spent her long life and career giving voice to the voiceless. Her wisdom and empathy knew no bounds, a raison d’etre that’s perhaps best understood in her own words:

We did look for optimism. We looked for energy, we looked for the energy of expressing that everybody could express his or herself. Because that’s important—that it doesn’t stay totally quiet. Every moment can be agreeable to people we meet. But there is no way to say that life is beautiful, let’s go on. But at the same time, I think you have to be fairly honest about not having a ridiculous hope, but let’s meet, let’s share, let’s use the empathy we have for people, let’s create moments in which people understand each other. I mean, that’s already a big deal, you know?

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Interview: Kent Jones on Diane and Its Almost Miraculous Sense of Detail

Jones discusses how he and his collaborators were able to inform Diane with such verisimilitude on a limited budget.

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Kent Jones
Photo: IFC Films

Film critic, documentarian, and New York Film Festival director Kent Jones has a range of knowledge and influence that’s virtually unrivaled in the critical industry. In his writing, Jones displays a remarkable knack and hunger for tactile detail, examining a film’s aesthetic—and, truly, its soul—with a lively exactitude. (His 2013 piece on John Ford for Film Comment is one of the best and most casually erudite defenses of the filmmaker that you’ll ever read.) As a documentarian, Jones has a similar intensity of curiosity, having most notably collaborated with Martin Scorsese on A Letter to Elia and Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows, the latter of which is particularly essential.

Jones’s interest in behavior and emotional texture is quite evident in his first narrative feature, Diane, which gives character actress Mary Kay Place the role of a lifetime as an aging woman serving a self-inflicted penance for an indiscretion that occurred decades earlier. Diane allows herself virtually no pleasure, caring for her ailing family, including her dying cousin, Donna (Deirdre O’Connell), and her son, Brian (Jake Lacy), a drug addict who eventually seeks salvation in religion. This scenario could easily lend itself to the sort of female martyr tale in which Joan Crawford once specialized, but Jones grounds the film in a wealth of micro gestures, revealing a community of dignity and stature that refutes maudlin emotions. Even at its bleakest, Diane is a kind of celebration of sensorial experience, and it’s this quality that connects the film with Jones’s documentaries and criticism.

In a conversation earlier this week, Jones and I discussed how he and his various collaborators were able to inform Diane with such verisimilitude on a limited budget and a compressed shooting schedule. Over the course of the conversation, it became clear to me that Diane is a wrenchingly personal film for Jones that was a lifetime in the making.

As a filmmaker, do you wrestle with suppressing the formal and historical consciousness you’ve honed as a critic? Would it interfere with your creativity?

It has no place in filmmaking, truthfully. It has no place in the documentaries I’ve made about filmmaking either. Criticism is different. I think I was always aimed at making films, and I took myself through a lot of things before I got there. When I was younger, I think there was a part of me, without being able to articulate it, who knew that I couldn’t make the kind of movie I wanted to make at that point in my life. If I had been younger when I made my first film, it would have been very different and probably would have been self-consciously “cinephilac.” The filmmakers who I personally know—that isn’t a part of their work and it shouldn’t be. The critical knowledge and storehouse—of images and moments and passages from other movies—that’s more of a nuts-and-bolts thing, along the lines of “how is it done?”
It sounds like you didn’t want to make a classic “young man’s film.” Is that fair to say?

Yeah. [both laugh] Well, look, Marty was a young man when he made Mean Streets. Monte Hellman was a young man when he made Two-Lane Blacktop. Arnaud Desplechin was a young man when he made My Sex Life. The young man’s film that I knew that I would wind up making, I didn’t want to make ultimately. Let’s put it that way.

Diane doesn’t conform to the stereotypical idea of the “first film,” with flaunted references, heightened self-consciousness, and such. It feels like you’ve been making fictional features for some time.

Thank you.

Perhaps this is coincidental, but I thought of First Reformed while re-watching Diane recently. There’s a sobriety to both films that’s unfashionable in current American cinema. You handle extremely sad passages with a dignified matter-of-factness. You don’t pity Diane. You take her on her terms. Was it difficult to arrive at that tone? And is this tone connected to you waiting years before tackling fictional features?

Diane goes back many, many years in my life, to when I was a teenager. When all of my great aunts—not my aunts, though they were aunts to me—were still alive and well, and my grandmother was alive and well. And this was the world that I lived in, and I never wanted to leave. As a child going into adolescence, that was where I would go. Everyone would congregate in the kitchen that’s the basis for the kitchen in that scene in the movie. And these weren’t people that I pitied ever—these were people that I admired and that I loved. I loved their anger as much as I loved their sense of humor. I was a child so I was protected from a lot of the anger, but then sometimes I remembered there was anger directed at me.

There was the warmth of a close-knit family, shared by people who had been through a lot together. The fact that they all grew up in the woods was one thing. Another thing was that they all went through the Depression together. And they went through World War II, the men and the women, in different ways. I didn’t pity anybody ever. That was never a basis, and I never wanted to make a movie that was like that. I wanted to make a movie that reflected what it felt like to be at odds with somebody though, and it became a mother and a son story: of Diane and Brian. Then it started to inevitably reflect my own relationship with my mother without me being able to entirely articulate that to myself. It was an evolving process.

I could’ve watched a two-hour movie solely about the family sitting at that table.

Yeah.

That scene is so warm, so lived-in. You feel the comfort they all give one another.

Yeah, that was the only scene that took two days, or a day-and-a-half, actually. We were on a very tight schedule. It also the only scene where we needed two cameras for part of the day. It was very important that we get the right kitchen. It took quite a while to find it, but we did. It was important to get everybody oriented and also in the frame of mind where the energy was right, so that the characters fought in a way that was understood to be a part of their togetherness. It was a great couple of days shooting that scene.

Did you have much rehearsal time built into the shoot?

I wrote the role of Diane for Mary Kay and only her. I never had anybody else in mind. She and I had talked about the character a lot, and we discussed it while I was writing and re-writing. She said, “Well, if we ever get this made, you’re not going to be able to raise a dime on my name.” That’s a truth, but, on the other hand, we did get it made thanks to my producers. She and I kept getting together until the window opened and we had financing. Then it was a question of “What can we do to make the rehearsal process work with no money to pay the actors for rehearsal time?” We managed to find a considerable chunk of time between Mary Kay and Jake Lacy, and put them in a room and taped it off after we had found the location where Brian’s apartment was going to be so we could work out the blocking. I also had Mary Kay sit down for a few hours with Andrea Martin, Estelle Parsons, and Deirdre O’Connell. This was very important time spent, though I’m not sure I would call it rehearsal exactly. They read through their lines, but it was more about the actors getting oriented with each other.

In certain movies, I wonder how long it takes for filmmakers to communicate a sense that characters have shared pasts with one another, as in Diane’s kitchen scene.

The most important thing in that regard is that you have to be comfortable with characters, with nothing much dramatic happening. I kept wanting to put more error into the kitchen scene—more pauses, dead time. It’s not a scene that builds dramatically. It builds in terms of detail, in the way that everybody is with each other. At a certain point, I knew that I wanted a little boy to enter the room and crawl under the table and pop up in front of Mary Kay, because he’s probably done that a bunch of times before. I knew that I wanted a taller boy to walk in the room and kiss everybody on the cheek—he’s played by my son. Stuff like that, where people are walking in and out. The most important thing is knowing what you’re shooting, and not feeling an anxiety to create something dramatic. At the end of the scene, you know, when Patrick Husted asks Mary Kay, “Hey, how’s Brian?”—that’s part of the fabric of how they are.

And you see how it eats at Diane, having to put on this good face all the time, when Brian obviously isn’t doing well.

Right.

Speaking of people entering and exiting spaces, I think Diane is a remarkable film in terms of how actors move. A scene that jumps out at me in that regard is when Diane is weeping outside in a restaurant parking lot after getting drunk on margaritas, and her family seems to almost materialize out of nowhere. Based on the framing, the appearance of her family almost feels miraculous.

Yeah, I wanted it to feel that way.

It’s a lovely effect.

Yeah, that’s good. I’m glad to hear that, truly. It needed to feel a little miraculous.

I thought of Paul Schrader, and his interest in transcendental cinema, during the final scene between Diane and Brian. In the context you’ve established, it almost feels as if God is attempting to reach down and absolve Diane of her self-loathing. Brian seems to be reaching beyond himself to offer an unexpected forgiveness.

People can do that sometimes. We assume Brian is probably in the middle of a 12-step program, and he’s in the making-amends stage, which I believe is step nine, and he needs to tell her this, and he tells her. Does she hear it, and does everything change automatically? No. And he’s able to say to her that he’s going to return to his resentments in the future, but now he’s telling her this and that he wants her to remember it.

It’s very powerful. It’s one of those scenes where I thought to myself “I haven’t seen this before.” I have experience with people who have substance problems…

Yeah, me too.

…and Brian’s final speech is the sort of thing that struggling people say and that we rarely hear in cinema.

That scene took a while. I spent a lot of timing writing and re-writing it. And I would get it to the point where it almost felt like one of those scenes where people achieve a new understanding with each other but not really. The circumstances have to be specific, even if you don’t say them as a filmmaker. There are a lot of movies where things are left out and I feel like the filmmaker doesn’t know what those things are. And that’s never good. You have to know what it is that you’re saying and what it is that you’re leaving out. It took a long time to get that scene right and I’m glad that it works the way that it does for you. That’s nice to hear.

The potential catharsis of Brian’s final scene is complicated by the ending, where Diane seems to still be stuck in these loops of doubt and recrimination.

Well, it’s not so much recrimination. A friend of mine saw the movie and she’s like, “That’s kind of what it’s like, right up to the last minute of life.” We’re always thinking that there’s a whole that can be put together, that there’s an answer. But it’s all here already, though there’s a feeling of “Oh, wait a minute.” That ending also comes from my own experience with my mother when she had dementia. She was always feeling that there was something that needed to be done, like people were left behind in the car. Or what about the people downstairs? Things like that. That hanging feeling seemed apt to me.

Having worked as both a critic and a filmmaker, what element do you feel that critics understand least about the filmmaking process?

Look, I think that auteurism has been a great thing and continues to have an amazing effect, but the byproduct is that criticism winds up being director-centered in the wrong way. Being a director isn’t sitting alone in a room as a movie pours out of you. It’s exactly the opposite: responding to absolutely everything and everybody in the moment. As Kubrick said, you got to keep the spark alive for a length of time, but you’re also letting the film come alive and surprise you. I think sometimes in criticism there’s a weariness about talking about other people’s contributions, such as production design, etcetera. I’m married to my costume designer now. It’s all response, and it’s all, as Martin Scorsese would say, getting everybody to agree that we’re making the same movie.

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