21 February 2017

Punk Scene


One of Albuquerque's tightest bands scorched through a quick set tonight at Sister Bar downtown. Prison Bitch, now going by Prism Bitch, tore it up with their brand of Riot Grrrl rock. Lead singer Lauren Poole (the Burque Girl from the comedy scene and YouTube) has charisma to spare, and drummer Teresa Cruces holds it all together with powerful precision.

Here's the video for their hit song "Ya Ya," with the memorable line, "You know me, I'm from math class":



Here's a sense of them live, from a show in Santa Fe:



P-Bitch opened for the all-gal noise freaks from Memphis, Nots. They traffic in classic hardcore. Front woman Natalie Hoffmann knows her share of guitar tricks, in between screaming the same words over and over. Not for the timid:


 

13 February 2017

The New World


FIRE AT SEA (B) - This lethargic documentary has its moments. Its downfall is the filmmakers' misguided ambition.

Ostensibly about the plight of refugees who invariably need rescue near the Sicilian island Lampedusa, most of the movie follows a local boy, Samuele, 12, as he traipses around on his various Tom Sawyer missions. Samuele is a lively kid -- he has exaggerated adult mannerisms and the speaking style of a Tony Soprano underling -- but, being a kid, he's just not that interesting.

Samuele is the son and grandson of fishermen, and we slowly get to visit his father on the boat, and there are interludes with the boy's grandmother, who reminds me of my own Italian grandmother, constantly toddling around the kitchen. (She also makes up a bed better than a sailor can.) It is the grandmother who lends the movie its name, as she recalls her own father and uncles trawling in the waters during World War II, when the navy would light up the sky with during battles, creating a "fire at sea."

Samuele bums around with a pal trying to perfect his slingshot skills, terrorizing birds and cacti alike. He also ends up at the eye doctor, getting diagnosed with a lazy eye, which requires an eye patch to strengthen that eye. Another doctor tends to some of the migrants, including a mother lucky to be alive and with a viable fetus. Another random character is a local DJ who takes requests, including from the grandmother to her sickly husband.

The plight of the migrants comes off as both dehumanizing and demoralizing. They get herded like cattle and photographed like criminals. Sometimes all the coast guard workers can do is dredge and count the bodies. Foreboding and death haunt almost every scene. Even the mayday pleas can give you a shiver. Their voices drift through the night sky just like the DJ's tones do.

This is all assembled elegantly by Gianfranco Rosi, whose previous efforts all seem to have interesting premises. Here, he slows to the rhythms of the sleepy island, and his camera lingers over the faces of the migrants, faces that mostly communicate subtle fear and exhaustion.

Too much depiction of the refugees' travails might have been too much to take. But too little of it -- especially contrasted with the safe, traditional way of life of the locals -- comes off as a bit dismissive. Rosi needed a better balance to tell this important story.
 

10 February 2017

Malaise


20TH CENTURY WOMEN (A-minus) - Sensitive writer-director Mike Mills returns to familiar ground with this detailed autobiographical period piece about a teenage boy growing up with strong female influences.

This is a callback of sorts to Mills' debut film, "Thumbsucker," about a teenage boy evolving under the influence of three male father figures. (It has a lot in common with 2015's "Diary of a Teenage Girl," too.) And whereas his last film, "Beginners," was a tribute to Mills' father (who came out as gay late in life), this one nods to his mother, here in the form of feisty Dorothea (Annette Bening), who had Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) when she was already 40 and who appears to be too exhausted to handle him herself.

Dorothea enlists two younger women -- Jamie's best friend, Julie (Elle Fanning), who is just a year or two older and strictly platonic, and 20-something punk-rock chick Abbie (Greta Gerwig), who rents a room in Dorothea's house -- to help teach him how to grow up to be a good man. Also on the fringes is another boarder, handyman William (Billy Crudup), who offers his own new-age musings.

Mills sets this in Santa Barbara, Calif., 1979, on the eve of the Reagan revolution, and the liberal despair and ennui of the time feel achingly familiar to viewers experiencing the dawn of the Trump era. Around the film's climax, this extended family gathers around the television set to watch President Carter's infamous "malaise" speech, and Mills lets Carter's admonitions drone on, the voice of a conscience echoing from the past. The characters' divergent reactions to the speech speak volumes about the path liberals would take over the next four decades.

The three women in Jamie's life seem monumental. Bening is an absolute force of nature as the chain-smoking, cynical Dorothea, who is aware that the culture is passing her by. (A scene of her and William struggling to find the entertainment value in a record by the post-punk band the Raincoats lands nicely. Duke Ellington and Fred Astaire are on hand to represent her more traditional sensibilities.) She abdicates some of her maternal roles, thinking that Jamie would be better served by a hipster like Abbie (she lets them go clubbing) and by sweet, safe Julie, who likes to sneak into Jamie's room for sleepovers. Fanning ("Somewhere") captures the insecurity of the blond manic pixie dreamgirl who strings Jamie along but appreciates his friendship. And this is a return to form for Gerwig, with the jangle back in her limbs and nuance in her portrayal of a flustered single woman. As the trailer suggests, this is Bening's showpiece.

Crudup sinks into the role of a fading hunk, caught between the generations of Dorothea and Abbie, though happy to try to bed them both. At one point he laments the fact that he doesn't know how to sustain a romantic relationship once he figures his partner out. At another point, one character wonders aloud about how it is that we become the person we become. As another notes, we can't predict how we'll turn out. The adults tend to flail about as much as our young hero does.

Watching Jamie navigate that analog world while taking notes from his elders can hit close to home for a certain demographic -- notably, 50-something post-punk brats still trying to figure out the opposite sex. Mills is quite skilled at wringing laughs and tears from a basic human story. He is direct and relatable, wistful but not overly nostalgic. His movies are thoughtful and tactile. He's not wallowing in a fizzy past but searching for clues to how he, himself, turned out.

BONUS TRACKS
Talking Heads set the tone early with a needle drop on the vinyl of "Don't Worry About the Government":



Here's the Raincoats song, "Fairytale in the Supermarket":



A powerful closing song, from the Buzzcocks:


 

07 February 2017

New to the Queue

A clear vision ...

The latest from Iranian master Asghar Farhadi ("A Separation," "About Elly"), about a couple staging "Death of a Salesman" while dealing with unusual circumstances surrounding their new apartment, "The Salesman."

A study of the devastating effects on migrant workers and the environment by industrial development in inner Mongolia, Zhao Liang's "Behemoth."

A reformed gang leader is sprung from prison and struggles to re-acclimate to life on the streets of Harlem in Jamal Joseph's "Chapter & Verse."

A study of the stray cats who populate Istanbul, "Kedi."

A debut film melds a 30-something couple and a pair of prom-goers whose lives overlap at a hotel, "1 Night."

From Poland, a goth fairy tale about mermaid sisters who forgo the sea to embark on careers as lounge singers in '80s Warsaw, "The Lure."
  

05 February 2017

Poetry Spam, No. 1

The first in occasional series, steeped in the tradition of turning spam emails into poetry. Some folks have been anthologizing these for years, including the Spam Poetry Institute and the Anthology of Spam Poetry. 

Absolute Power

Threat,
and Sadat’s speech
-- weaponry and hard,
that are provided with marriage resources.
Genus
so please tired,
his powers do
but I hate.
Nike finally got together
to remove piles.
Texas flower delivery
from different culture propagation.
Tile,
tile frames,
table for … about
prominent public trading post.
President dishonest as fingerprints,
so dimensional
tree direct.
Denim has reduced to carvings,
as do biometrics as gearbox.
Friendships --
the fully committed,
close and throughout.
 

01 February 2017

Best of 2016


"It used to go like that, and now it goes like this."
   -- Bob Dylan, introducing "I Don't Believe You" and going electric with The Band at Royal Albert Hall in London in 1966

I was confident throughout 2016 that the Chicago Cubs were going to the World Series -- hey, hey, no doubt about it -- and when I told a Los Angeles Dodgers fan during the playoffs to give up hope and get out of the way this year, he objected, being a scientist, on the grounds that the Cubs going to or winning the World Series would create a rip in the fabric of the time-space continuum and fundamentally alter life in the universe as we know it.

Whether he was at all serious or not (and depending on your reaction to the election results a week after the World Series was clinched), things changed in 2016. And it felt fundamental. How we go forward in this space will be addressed in a future essay. For now, we'll offer a brief assessment of an off-year at the movies and dive into our lists below of the favorites and a few duds. Nothing beyond our top three or five movies is likely to be revisited down the road in some best-of-the-decade list.  There were plenty of satisfying films to experience, but few big thrills at the cineplex.

One of those thrills was "A Bigger Splash." A friend and I walked out after it on a warm June night giddy from the experience of watching Tilda Swinton and Ralph Fiennes dueling it out as ex-lovers on an Italian island. Director Luca Guadagnino (reteaming with Swinton from "I Am Love") saturates the senses with gorgeous scenery, ripping humor, and a powerful story. It's a gift to those who are in love with love and with movies. Another Italian director, newcomer Piero Messina, had me literally on the edge of my seat with the mesmerizing slow burn of "L'Attesa" -- halfway through I wanted to jump up and go write about it -- but I eventually succumbed to guilt for allowing myself to be manipulated by Messina's unsettling male gaze at two women (a mother and a girlfriend) fighting over a dead man.

I was profoundly moved by Viggo Mortensen's performance as an unrepentant off-the-grid father stubbornly fighting for his kids after their mother's death ("Captain Fantastic"); by Kelly Reichardt's quiet masterpiece about three women coping with modern life ("Certain Women"); and by the mix of humor and pathos in "Manchester by the Sea." I loved the millennial energy of Matt Johnson and company as they followed up "The Dirties" with their found-footage lark about the Apollo space program.

Sonia Braga (in "Aquarius") and Sally Field (in "Hello, My Name Is Doris") brought nuance to the subject of older women exploring their sexuality. Meantime, kids made an impression, including the young cast of "Captain Fantastic"; "Royalty Hightower in "The Fits"; Alex Hibbert and Ashton Sanders in "Moonlight"; Markees Christmas in "Morris From America"; and Ange Dargent and Theophile Baquet in the delightful French film "Microbe and Gasoline."

I laughed the most watching "Doris," the bruising dark comedy "The Bronze," the Coen brothers' "Hail, Caesar," the gals in "Absolutely Fabulous," the guys in "Keanu," and, improbably, Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling in "The Nice Guys." I caught up on 2015 releases that stuck with me a long time, and demanded repeat viewings, including the moody "Dear John" and the hilarious "Fort Tilden." I cringed watching Pee-wee Herman and Christopher Guest struggle to relive past glories.

It's time to turn the page on 2016, not the best of years, but somehow a liberating one. Those Cubs exorcised a lot of childhood ghosts, so I could grow up and grow lighter. The death of Muhammad Ali removed a layer of shelter above, shook up the world, and left me in charge of the future. But first, this quick recap of the past:

THE TOP FIFTEEN


 1. A Bigger Splash -- We left the theater in a bubble of bliss after this one. Old loves, young flesh, gorgeous beaches and a heavyweight bout between Tilda Swinton and Ralph Fiennes.
 2. Certain Women -- Three somber tales, barely intertwined, from the year's Best Director, the American master Kelly Reichardt.
 3. Captain Fantastic -- Viggo Mortensen leads a great cast of kids in this funny and heart-wrenching story of a father proudly defending the decision to raise his children off the grid.
 4. Operation Avalanche -- Not a false note in this highly entertaining imagining of young CIA operatives (and Stanley Kubrick wannabes) faking the moon landing.  Including Best Screenplay by Matt Johnson and Josh Boles.
 5. Manchester by the Sea -- Funny, heartbreaking, real.
 6. Aquarius -- The ache of nostalgia for old love affairs permeates this gorgeous slow burn of a protest film, anchored by a defiant Sonia Braga.
 7. Hello, My Name Is Doris -- Sally Field is always a delight, and she delivers more than just easy gags as a senior citizen crushing on a young co-worker.
 8. The Bronze -- More than a guilty pleasure; a wonderfully vulgar character study of a bitter, priapicly pony-tailed ex-gymnast. A fully realized satire from sitcom actress Melissa Rauch ("The Big Bang Theory").
 9. Blue Jay -- A small 80-minute masterpiece about a onetime teen couple reconnecting back in their hometown after 20 years
10. Dheepan -- Jacques Audiard gets back on his game with this harrowing tale of immigrants coping in France.
11. 20th Century Women -- Certain men will feel this one sharply in the solar plexus. An eerie Reagan-eve reverie about three women -- played beautifully by Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig and Elle Fanning -- preparing a teenage boy for manhood.
12. Louder Than Bombs -- None of the performances are particularly compelling (even Isabelle Huppert is quite subdued), but this tale of a father and two sons adrift and struggling after the death of their wife/mother nags at you a long time.
13. Microbe and Gasoline -- A wholesome and charming return to form for Michel Gondry.
14. Weiner/13th -- Two documentaries bursting with life and ideas -- a fascinating, rollicking profile of the infuriating Anthony Weiner, and Ava Duvernay's sharp indictment of the criminal justice system.
15. L'Attesa -- For the first hour, I thought this was the best film of the year; I still feel guilty for liking this gorgeous, sad drama seen through the male gaze of an Italian stylist. Still conflicted.

BONUS TRACKS

.
We got a huge kick out of the 2015 release, Fort Tilden, an insightful comedy about a pair of aimless 25-year-olds meandering around New York for a day. The cross between "Girls" and "Beavis and Butt-head" is infused with the natural chemistry of its stars, Bridey Elliott and Clare McNulty

Other little gems from 2015: The gut punch of "Uncle John," the creepiness of "Entertainment," the joy of Francois Ozon's "The New Girlfriend," the thrill of "Creed," and the arresting beauty of the documentary "Racing Extinction." And then there was the release of the restored 1960 noir gem "Private Property."


JUST MISSED THE LIST

(The honorables get a mention)



MORE TOP DOCS






TOP PERFORMANCES





IT'S NOT YOU, IT'S ME

(Good films where we just didn't fully click)





GUILTY PLEASURES




THE OVER-THE-HILL GANG




COMING ATTRACTIONS

(Haven't caught these yet)

  • Paterson
  • Fences
  • Elle
  • Things to Come
  • Toni Erdmann
  • I Am Not Your Negro
  • Cameraperson

Stay tuned for reports on those last seven movies once I catch up on them -- and plenty more -- as we churn into 2017 in earnest and in an altered state ...
  

30 January 2017

Doing the Sundance


Manohla Dargis of the New York Times has a thoughtful piece about some of the highlights of the Sundance Film Festival and finds political threads -- real or imagined -- as we descend into the Trump era. That's an excuse for us to flag a few promising offerings that splashed at the fest.

Familiar faces

Kumail Nanjiani, one of our favorites from HBO's "Silicon Valley," co-wrote (with his wife, Emily V. Gordon) a biographical dramedy about a Pakistani-born comic who must deal with parents who disapprove of his white American girlfriend. (Warning: Judd Apatow is a producer.)

Indie auteur Alex Ross Perry ("Listen Up Philip," "The Color Wheel," "Queen of Earth") explores the world of some unlikable women in "Golden Exits."

Eliza Hittman ("It Felt Like Love") returns to the world of young adults with "Beach Rats," about another teenager adrift in the world.

Melanie Lynskey ("Hello, I Must Be Going," "The Intervention") plays a depressed woman who seeks revenge on burglars in "I Don't Feel at Homein This World Anymore," the debut film from Macon Blair ("Blue Ruin").

Miguel Arteta ("Cedar Rapids"), who has spent a lot of time lately in the TV world ("Getting On," "Nurse Jackie"), is back on the big screen with writer Mike White (HBO's "Enlightened"), where they previously scored  with  "The Good Girl" and "Chuck & Buck." Their new project is "Beatriz at Dinner," starring Selma Hayek as a new-age hippie type who inadvertently falls in with the 1-percent crowd.


Dee Rees, last seen directing the coming-of-age tale "Pariah" (our fourth favorite film of 2011), is back with "Mudbound," a sweeping World War II-era story of a black family and the white clan that owns the land on which they work. Carey Mulligan and Mary J. Blige star.


Craig Johnson ("The Skeleton Twins," "True Adolescents") teams with Daniel Clowes ("Ghost World," "Art School Confidential") for "Wilson," starring Woody Harrelson as an obnoxious misanthrope.

Luca Guadagnino ("A Bigger Splash," "I Am Love") explores a May-December gay romance in the early '80s in "Call Me by Your Name."

Jenny Slate and Gillian Robespierre follow up "Obvious Child" with a '90s period piece about cheating among the various generations, "Landline."

Fresh voices

"Quest" is a documentary created over decades looking at a black Philadelphia family coping with life in the big city, including urban violence.

Geremy Jasper debuts with "Patty Cakes," about a chubby young woman from New Jersey looking to hit it big as a rap star.
  

28 January 2017

Space Invaders, Part II: Fake News


OPERATION AVALANCHE (A) - Matt Johnson and Josh Boles -- the renegade young filmmakers behind the quietly clever "The Dirties" a couple of years ago -- perfect the "found footage" genre with a meticulous re-creation of the Apollo era in a story of CIA agents infiltrating NASA and making a film that fakes the moon landing.

Johnson co-writes, directs and stars as Matt Johnson, along with Owen Williams as Owen Williams, a pair of CIA employees who come to learn in 1967 that the Apollo space program is behind schedule and can't land a man on the moon before 1970, as envisioned by President Kennedy. So Matt and Owen come up with an elaborate scheme to create film footage that will make it look like we did.

They seize an opportunity to infiltrate NASA -- there is a mole inside NASA, and Matt and Owen pose as NEA filmmakers making a documentary about the space program. Once inside, they begin crafting the iconic sounds and images that the world will celebrate as a milestone in human history. The spitballing that leads Owen to come up with the phrase "One small step ..." is particularly entertaining.

But the pair become targets themselves, presumably by the mole who is suspected of working with the Russians. The film is categorized as a thriller, and it really does ratchet the tension while creating a Russian-nesting-doll narrative and building to a heart-racing conclusion, drenched in paranoia and intrigue.

Johnson and Boles miss nothing in immersing their characters and the viewers into the late 1960s analog world of white men in crew cuts and short-sleeved dress shirts. They have a blast romping around in space suits and sneaking onto the set of Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" to steal the secrets of front projection. They order truck-loads of sand for their studio-created lunar surface. They come up with a way to replicate the feather-and-hammer-drop that eventually became a demonstration of weightlessness for Apollo 15.

Johnson, like he did in "The Dirties," totally immerses himself in the character and the world that he and Boles created. He has an infectious energy as a performer and an early Tarantino-like devotion to the movie-making process. He has a sure hand behind the camera. Like Wes Anderson, he and Boles create an alternative world and revel in it.

There's nothing particularly profound about this film, and it comes off almost as a modest lark. But when I sat down to list the movie's flaws, I couldn't think of any. This is inspired filmmaking by an inspired crew that delights in the art of storytelling. And they do it so well.

BONUS TRACKS
A scratchy old 45 plays at one point, Lord Luther's "Just One More Chance":



The boys bookend the film with Fogerty and CCR:


 

26 January 2017

Space Invaders, Part I: A Thinker


ARRIVAL (B) - It's hard to imagine a movie so smitten with wonder turning out so flat and uninspiring.

Amy Adams gives it the old college try as Louise Banks, a linguist recruited by the government to try to decipher the language of an inscrutable species that has invaded Earth by dropping 12 giant ovoid pods across the globe, including one in Montana. Adams is haunted by the memory of the drawn-out death of her daughter, Hannah.

Jump cuts to her days with her daughter are interspersed with dramatic scenes of Louise and a co-hort, a physicist named Ian (a subdued Jeremy Renner), team up to catalog sounds and images in a bid to communicate with the strange beings, who look like a variation on Thing from the "Addams Family," giant walking hands with seven fingers, whose tips can splay like a Venus fly-trap.

The bottom of the spaceship opens on a synchronized basis, allowing Louise and the team to enter and hang out in gravity-defying digs to chat up the aliens through a clear wall. Do they come in peace? Do they want to destroy the world?

World leaders scramble in fear, working together through the United Nations to cooperate and put up a united front. But that lasts only so long before China and Russia begin to pick up seemingly hostile language from the intruders. Soon the U.S. is on its own, and Louise must try to reason with the military leaders who are itching to blow the big egg into oblivion. Will the Earthlings prevail? Will they somehow find common ground to defend humanity?

Those government and military officials are ridiculously portrayed here as one-dimensional, as if this were a cheap World War II B-movie. Forest Whitaker sleepwalks through the role as the colonel who recruits Louise based on her work interpreting a terrorist video. (He tries to woo her by saying he was impressed by how she made quick work of that video. She snaps back, "You made quick work of those terrorists." That's the sort of campy dialogue that permeates the film.)

Whitaker spouts cliches and drily expositive dialogue. So does Michael Stuhlbarg ("A Serious Man") as the lead CIA agent in charge of the operation. Both actors have rarely been so poorly utilized on the screen.  All of the characters are wooden, almost intentionally so. Adams is a strong lead, but she does nothing exceptional here, nothing most other actresses couldn't do.

That's the main beef with "Arrival," which at times can be mesmerizing, such as when the aliens shoot out the smoky/inky substance that forms symbols in the air, the symbols that Louise strives to puzzle together. Mostly, though, Canadian director Dennis Villeneuve ("Incendies," "Sicario") displays a visual style that is capably Canadian.

The second half starts to knit together the flashbacks with the present-day invasion. When Louise suddenly cracks the code, it comes as a surprise, because there's no sensible explanation for it. But as we race to the dramatic conclusion, the secret becomes apparent, and while it's fairly clever as plot twists go, it also feels like a lazy cheat.

This is a movie that wants you to think that it's a lot more complicated and clever than it really is. (It's written by horror guy Eric Heisserer from a novel by Ted Chiang.) It provides the illusion of mysterious and profound storytelling. But overall, it's achingly old-fashioned, clunky and corny.

And then there's the ending. Without revealing too much, the takeaway message of the movie is borderline offensive: A woman could be an accomplished academic, and she might possibly have what it takes to try to save the world, but what matters in the end for a woman is to find the right man who will be a solid provider. For all its hopes and dreams for humanity, that's the bad taste that "Arrival" leaves in your mouth.

24 January 2017

Shit, I Could Get Shot for These


KICKS (B-minus) - This Bay Area product hearkens to the 1990s when the ultimate status symbol in some cities was a pair of Air Jordan sneakers. Here we follow a trio of teen pals on a mission to retrieve a stolen pair of the iconic basketball shoes.

Brandon (Jahking Guillory) is 15 and small for his age, but he grows a few feet in stature when he scores a black-market pair of original red Air Jordans for $200 from a sketchy street vendor. After he gets beat up by a street gang led by Flaco (Kofi Siriboe), he is determined to infiltrate the mean streets of Oakland to get them back.

He drags along his two buddies, chick-magnet Rico (Christopher Meyer) and dorky Albert (Christopher Jordan Wallace), both of whom are wary of navigating the inner city. Brandon tracks down an uncle, Marlon (Mahershala Ali, "Moonlight"), who has done hard time and knows how to handle the Flacos of the world. Brandon helps himself to a gun, and the second half is off and running.

New director Justin Tipping, writing the script with another freshman Joshua Beirne-Golden, has a neat, clean style. But the narrative too often feels more like a TV dramedy than a film. Tipping juggles light-hearted banter with legit thug-life behavior. But in the end, this comes of as more "Fresh Prince of Bel Air" than "New Jack City." You never get the sense that this will all end in peril or a sordid bloodbath.

One curious device has Brandon imagining an astronaut -- sometimes it's like an imaginary friend; other times he's the spaceman -- haunting scenes intermittently. It's a way of conveying Brandon's need for escape, for a better world, but Tipping never figures out a way to weave it into the story effectively. It's neither amusing nor touching, and thus it's mostly a distraction.

The lead trio of young actors try their best to banter and bond, but at times the dialogue seems forced. Tangential characters sometimes land on a word or turn of phrase that truly feel authentic. Guillory has an easy manner to him, and he is especially compelling when he's trying out his rookie moves on a few girls. He, too, is a relative newcomer, and he has the charisma and potential we saw with Royalty Hightower in "The Fits." Much here shows promise.

BONUS TRACKS

The soundtrack features a fairly tame sampling of rap and hip-hop. What's more interesting is a retro sound that sneaks in, as Charles Bradley chimes in with an R&B throwback"In You (I Found a Love)": 



Our title track, quoting from Public Enemy's "Politics of the Sneaker Pimps":


 

21 January 2017

Teen Wolf


AMERICAN HONEY (B+) - This tale of a crew of those youngsters who sell magazines door-to-door is bursting with youthful energy and dynamic camerawork from director Andrea Arnold, one of the most powerful filmmakers around. Unfortunately, this traipse through the underbelly of the heartland too often feels off-key and bloated, clocking in at an epic length of two hours and 42 minutes.

Arnold crept onto the scene with the gritty thriller "Red Road" in 2007 and then splashed her teen cri de coeur, "Fish Tank," in 2010, Like those two films, "American Honey" is claustrophobic but somehow liberating and hopeful, jangled yet life-affirming. And she is in love with her cast of characters, mainly the yearning heroine. Here, Star (newcomer Sasha Lane) escapes from domestic baby-sitting hell and falls in with this wild pack of young adults, a conglomeration of unglamorous stragglers, as they hustle and scam under the ominous gaze of their boss, Krystal (Riley Keough).

Star immediately connects with the older Jake (Shia LaBeouf), a brooding, menacing deputy to Krystal, whose needs he obediently serves. Jake seduces Star, as well, in the first of several incredibly carnal (though not graphic) sex scenes. You get the feeling early on that he gets his pick of the newbies.

But Keough (the granddaughter of Elvis Presley) is the true star here. Krystal is a rowdy gal and a stern taskmaster, playing mind games with her crew, more than once threatening to abandon one of them in the middle of nowhere. She is menacing, maternal, vindictive and sexy. In an unforgettable scene, Krystal, knowing that Star is after Jake, invites Star to her motel room for a mini-lecture; Jake eventually emerges from the bathroom and subserviently kneels behind Krystal and slathers suntan oil on her legs as she stands, goddess-like, in a Confederate-flag bikini, glaring at Star. Take that, Tarantino.

The beauty of Arnold's film is its panoramic exploration of middle America, from manicured lawns and pristine mansions to trashed trailers where strung-out mothers leave kids to fend for themselves. There is an Emersonian exuberance that infuses this gang as they celebrate the good, the bad, and the ugly of the American experiment. (See also, Confederate-flag bikini, supra.) Even Willy Loman's spirit hovers over the proceedings as, out in the field, there's a fine line between "sales associates" and prostitutes, the kids scrapping to make their nut.

Arnold's hand-held camera provides a jagged documentary feel to the storytelling. As Star and Jake roll lustily in a field of grass, the camera pries curiously, lapsing in and out of focus as it jockeys for position to find an intimate angle, a third partner thirsting for intimacy along with them. If only she didn't feel the need to repeat herself. As the camera frequently stares out of the kids' van as it barrels along, soaking in the passing sights, you can feel the riders' ache for a connection, like hobos on the rails, and you can sense a hidden, forgotten collection of souls along the countryside living out their ordinary lives.

Arnold tosses in images seemingly at random, and you wish an editor had tightened this up. Some images are unforgettable, as when an oil field flare provides a spooky amber glow to an impersonal handjob in a pickup truck. But we get a few too many interstitial nature shots, including one unsubtle quickie of a pair of beautiful butterflies mating. Lots of butterflies and moths and insects, even a turtle, skittering about the earth, yearning to breathe free ... like these unformed young adults.

Lane does a fine brood as Star, a mixture of frustration, heartache and unfocused ambition. She flaunts her tame sexuality when she falls in with a trio of creepy cowboys who invite her to their mansion, and her maternal instinct returns when she knocks on the door of those dirty, neglected children. Standing up in the passenger seat of a convertible cruising the open road, she shouts, "I feel like I'm fucking America!" LaBeouf is as intense as he's ever been, but he's working at a different pitch than the others, as if in a competition (not unlike Joaquin Phoenix in "The Master"). Both are blown away by Keough, who offers yet a third tone. Arnold never finds a way to knit them all together, and just when she has a chance to fall into a rhythm, we're back to the nature shots or another rave with the wolfpack as they burn off energy.

Arnold has created an epic worth exploring. But like Jeff Nichols in 2016, she came off as an emerging auteur in need of some direction herself.

BONUS TRACKS
Rap and hip-hop propel this film. (With ditties by the likes of Bonnie "Prince" Billy and Mazzy Star interspersed.) The crew members conduct sing-alongs in the van and adrenaline-fueled rave-ups in parking lots. As the girls pull up to some oil fields in slinky short dresses to lure the workers, Rihanna (with Calvin Harris) sets off an impromptu dance party:



A sweet scene between Star and a truck driver is scored to a corny recent song from Bruce Springsteen, "Dream, Baby, Dream":



And this dusty over the end credits, Razzy's "I Hate Hate":


 

18 January 2017

New to the Queue

Turning a page ...

Mike Mills ("Beginners") returns with a fond look at growing up in 1979, with Annette Bening as a mom, in "20th Century Women."

TV actors Ben Feldman ("Mad Men") and Olivia Thirlby ("Bored to Death") star in a drama about a relationship skidding at the six-year mark, "Between Us."

Eugene Green ("La Sapienza"), whose films deserve exploring, takes a biblical turn with "The Son of Joseph."

The long lost tour chronicle from 1974, "Leonard Cohen: Bird on a Wire."

A documentary about teenage girls, with horrifying backgrounds, serving time in a juvenile detention center in Tehran, "Starless Dreams."

Another documentary about two men at the center of the 1960s drug counter-culture, "The Sunshine Makers."
  

15 January 2017

La La Land

No, not that movie. We already reviewed it.

ALWAYS SHINE (C+) - Wherein the cool indie kids are indulged with enough money to make yet another movie about the fascinating world of actors and filmmakers, with their favorite twist: hipster horror-flick undertones.

Our gal Sophia Takal ("Wild Canaries," "Gabi on the Roof in July," "Supporting Characters") goes behind the camera for the second time (we still haven't seen her obscure debut "Green") with car-wreck results. She collaborates here with her partner, Lawrence Michael Levine (who made "Canaries" and "Gabi"), interpreting his script about two actress friends who spend a contentious weekend at Big Sur.

Not much works here; the first half is rather tedious, and the second half is a mess. Beth (Caitlin Fitzgerald) is a meek, soft-spoken bleach blonde (looking like Sharon Stone with the sexuality liposuctioned out of her) having some success in acting, though it comes in cheap horror films (how meta) that require extensive nudity and a lucrative beer commercial. Anna (Mackenzie Davis, a cross between Jennifer Garner and Elisabeth Moss) is much more assertive, bordering on angry.

The two characters have such little friendship chemistry you have to wonder why they would even want to spend a weekend together. Beth seems to be passive-aggressively sabotaging Anna by not sending to her agent Anna's reel and not telling Anna that a low-budget avant-garde director whom Beth ran into on the street wants to cast Anna in his new short. That last part is problematic for two reasons. First, it later turns out that the director has Anna's number, so you wonder why he even has to ask Beth to ask Anna to contact him. (That's not the only nonsensical scene in the movie.) Second, it is emblematic of the incestuous nature of this story about pampered, privileged indie actors in L.A. You have to work as a waitress?? Boo-hoo.

Takal makes some curious choices here, and her touch behind the camera is clunky. At times she seems to be nodding to Hitchcock and Polanski, but her technique is amateurish, and she traffics in tropes. Cheesy incidental music fails to inspire dread. Her lighting and blocking is antiseptic; we get luscious establishing shots of the ocean, the moon, a massive bridge -- but the bulk of the sets look more like movie sets than actual locations. We get a lot of twinning and call-backs of dialogue and images, a sharp nudge to the viewer's ribs about the Big Theme of duality.

Takal also seems to be making a point about the male gaze and the objectification of women's bodies, but then she likes to linger over their bodies (for example, showering elegantly, one arm sensually raised high, like they do in Dove commercials), going to distracting lengths to make sure she doesn't show any R-rated body parts. It's more meta commentary that doesn't seem to add up with the rest of the story.

The final half hour blurs the identity of the two women (calling to mind such mind-benders as "Mulholland Drive," which does the writer and director here no favors) and finally cops to being a suspense film. Afterward, you might have a good debate about what really happens at the end. If only "Always Shine" had enough logic and depth to warrant such analysis.

The tinkering with the identities also betrays the limited skills of Fitzgerald and Davis, as well as the holes in Levine's script that they struggle with. In the final reel, Jane Adams shows up for one scene, hosting one of the woman and her slightly creepy new beau. Adams previously paired off nicely with Takal on screen in Joe Swanberg's similarly thin gruel, "All the Light in the Sky." Here, Adams' presence provides another distraction from the story by reminding us what a substantive actor can do with such a pockmarked script.

Levine and Takal have shown a lot of promise. What was fresh and clever in the couple's previous efforts now feels precious and derivative. "Always Shine" is like that sophomore album -- a placeholder that makes you wonder if the first one was a fluke and whether this band will step it up to the next level.
 

12 January 2017

Soundtrack of Your Life: Suicide Is Painless

An occasional feature in which we mark the songs of our relative youth as played over public muzak systems and beyond. 

Date: 11 January 2016
Place: Smith's grocery store, cat food aisle
Song:  "Love Will Tear Us Apart"
Artist: Joy Division
Irony Matrix: 6.7 out of 10

Comment: There's that jangly opening, which often makes me pause -- the Cure? No, Joy Division. Ian Curtis agonizing through a melody that could have provided the B side to the "Mary Tyler Moore Show" theme. Crooned by Perry Como. But there are the eerie dawn-of-the-'80s keyboards. And the pervasive sense of dread that has enshrouded the band's entombed music and videos ever since Curtis hanged himself on the eve of the band's debut tour of America (apparently after spending the evening watching Werner Herzog's "Stroszek"). The dreary details were dramatized in 2007's "Control," the debut motion picture by Anton Corbijn ("The American"). None of that really came flooding back to me consciously, but I noted the absurdity of standing in the store aisle and recognizing that metaphysical teenage dread which floods the zone whenever Joy Division emanates from a speaker. Marketers make sure that it will follow me wherever I go throughout my life, for as long as I consume. Is there no escape? Is my life empty or meaningless on a Wednesday night? Am I just stuffing the void with packaged goods? Should I re-evaluate the choices I've made over the years? 

I went with the Purina Naturals, the big bag. It keeps.


Let's add a bonus track, "Atmosphere":


And one of my favorite guitar drones, "Shadowplay":



Und ... the "Stroszek" trailer:


 

10 January 2017

Socialized Medicine


I, DANIEL BLAKE (B) - Old lefty Ken Loach goes for the heart and the gut, shoving politics in your face with this bleak tale of a senior citizen navigating the UK's safety-net system, with the title character bouncing back and forth mercilessly between the soulless health care bureaucrats and soulless unemployment-benefits counselors.

Loach ("The Wind That Shakes the Barley," "The Angels' Share," "Kes") knows how to push buttons without being obvious about it. But here (with frequent writing collaborator Paul Laverty), his tone is a bit off, and he spins a riff on Job's suffering that in the end preaches, if not screeches, to the choir.

Daniel Blake (a sodden Dave Johns) is recovering from a heart attack and has been ordered by his doctor to abstain from work. This parachutes Daniel into both the public health care system of northeast England (Newcastle, near Scotland) as well as its unemployment division.  He is supposed to actively search for employment but he is medically barred from taking a job, though the bureaucrats in Public Health run him ragged through the red-tape wringer. (His struggles with the internet are epic.) He keeps sane and busy through wood-working.

The phone system keeps him on hold for 45 minutes at a time. In person, the government workers give him mostly blank stares and more of the runaround, except for one, Ann, who, on the sly, defies her bosses and expresses human concern and empathy for flabbergasted Daniel.

During one office visit, Daniel stands up for a single mother of two, Katie (Hayley Squires), who is desperate for shelter and enough money for food. She is denied benefits because she was late for her appointment. Daniel helps them get settled and slips Katie a few bucks to cover the next few meals. Squires, with big, expressive eyes, wrings a good amount of healthy pathos from a woman constantly in the throes of desperation. A scene of her being so hungry that she binges on handouts from a food kitchen before leaving the pantry is visceral and heartbreaking.

But Loach caricatures both the noble poor folks and the heartless government drones. Katie gets lured into questionable ways to make money (while retaining that heart of gold). Daniel is an absolute saint, even showing patience with his young slacker neighbors who are defying the capitalist pigs by selling knock-off sneakers on the black market.

At his wits' end, Daniel turns to open defiance of the system and public protest, becoming a local folk hero to the oppressed proletariat. With Daniel deified, Loach then unleashes a brutally bleak ending that would make even the most optimistic movie-goer slump in his chair during the end credits.

If only it were so easy to sort out the good guys from the bad guys.