Low: You May Need a Murderer

Low You May Need a Murderer

 

It may seem overkill for the so-called slowcore band Low to be the subject of another documentary feature film only a mere four years after Low in Europe, but it must be because they’re just so interesting. Filmmaker David Kleijwegt’s You May Need a Murderer could just as well be titled Low in America, as he speaks with founding members Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker at home in Duluth, Minnesota, and on tour across America in support of the Drums & Guns album. The key characteristics of that record are what most inform the film: Sparhawk’s mood post-nervous breakdown, and Low’s most overtly expressed social and political commentary yet. Low had also just adopted a new bass player, Matt Livingston, after Zak Sally’s long tenure, but he does not participate (he’s only barely glimpsed, even in live onstage footage).

You May Need a Murderer is a much more satisfying film overall than Low in Europe. Whether by their own desire to open up or by Kleijwegt’s persuasive interview skills, Sparhawk and Parker are notably more candid and direct, especially on the topic of their faith. Which is exactly what one would single out as the most interesting thing about Low: Sparhawk and Parker are a married Mormon couple that that tithe a tenth of all their income to the church. I suppose Low might belong in that rare category of bands whose music is often characterized by religious beliefs, like the often overtly Christian U2, but would never be filed under “Inspirational” in record stores. Unlike U2’s joyous hymns and optimistic calls to activism, Low’s inspirations are considerably more dark and apocalyptic.

Low You May Need a Murderer

When Low gets political they do so with a vengeance. Sparhawk is in despair over America’s economy and politics, and has long believed that the world may reach a crisis point in his lifetime (he stops short of predicting it will actually “end”). Sparhawk’s genuine beliefs gives him the real authority to criticize George W. Bush’s claim to faith. The title song “You May Need a Murderer” is sung from the point of view of one who goes before his god and asks to be used as a warrior. It becomes clear that the speaker is in effect staring into a mirror, bringing his own baggage to an imaginary conversation, and justifying his own dark impulses. Sparhawk is, needless to say, talking about self-proclaimed men of faith like Bush and Tony Blair. The song is utterly terrifying, and raises the hairs on the back of my neck every time. It may be the ultimate statement on the topic, and does not compare favorably to the similarly-themed song by Bright Eyes, “When the President Talks to God.”

The most surprising personal topic to come up is Sparhawk’s apparent nervous breakdown in 2005. We see Sparhawk appearing very nervous backstage before a show, but otherwise functional. But he describes himself as having been “clinically delusional” at the point of his breakdown, and while having nominally recovered, he also cops to being a drug addict. To him, the biggest conflict these two aspects of his life have is with his religion.


Must Read: The Speed of Silence review

Must Read: PopMatters review

Official Low site: www.chairkickers.com

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Woman of the Year

Woman of the Year

 

George Stevens’ Woman of the Year is one of the famous Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn double-acts, but there’s no question who was the real star. Discounting a brief glimpse of her character’s newspaper byline, there is much talk of star reporter Tess Harding (Hepburn) before her delayed reveal. In a scene that would make Laura Mulvey‘s head spin, the first time we finally spy Hepburn, the camera travels up her leg as she adjusts her stocking in her editor’s office. Was she flirting with her editor? Is any practical explanation necessary to justify a 1940s starlet showing a little leg? It’s hard to imagine Hepburn as a sexpot. He intellect and sass are undoubtedly sexy, but not in a way I would imagine would appeal to a 1942 everyman. Her face and figure are made up entirely out of angles, drawn by protractor and calculated by slide rule.

Woman of the YearIt takes balls

Even decades later, the rumor persists that one of or both Tracy & Hepburn were gay, and their marriage served as each other’s beards. I don’t bring this up to perpetuate the gossip, but rather to segue into the primary theme of Woman of the Year: a battle of the sexes, or at least, their perceived gender roles. In the tradition of Hollywood’s best bedroom farces, two opposites attract into a marriage, and it’s not long before the barbs are flying (some of which really smart). Sam Craig (Tracy) is a true man’s man, who covers sports for the paper and hangs out in the pub. But the question of the movie is, how much of a woman is Tess? She is witty, urbane, educated, and globetrotting. But she is deserving of blame for impulsively adopting a war orphan without being conscious of the responsibilities. But the movie seems to equate this serious fault with her inability to make pancakes. And I don’t think it’s merely a fact of the 1942 gender politics or this Dork Reporter’s modern sensibilities, for the end of the film is genuinely confusing, sending mixed signals about what exactly Sam wants of Tess: does he really want her to relinquish her independence and be his breakfast chef, and does she really want to acquiesce?

Woman of the YearGood god, woman, what is that on your head?

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Crin blanc: Le cheval sauvage (White Mane) / Le ballon rouge (The Red Balloon)

Red Balloon White Mane

 

Janus Films and the Criterion Collection have released two classic short films for children from French filmmaker Albert Lamorisse: White Mane (1952), and The Red Balloon (1956). Each is mostly silent, with only the odd line or two of dialogue. In essence, both are extended chase sequences that deserve to be taught in film school.

White Mane is the story of a proud, wild horse sought after by cruel ranchers. Only Folco (Alain Emery), a poor young fisherman, treats the horse with the due respect in order to be able to approach and eventually ride him. The two become equals, as opposed to master and pet. Shockingly, their tale ends in an apparent suicide, as Folco and the horse both chose the freedom of death over living under oppression (poverty for Folco, captivity for the horse).

Red Balloon White ManeThe Red Balloon

I vaguely recall seeing The Red Balloon in elementary school, as an ancient film print running through our rattling projector. As the little boy Pascal (Pascal Lamorisse) makes his way to school through a depressingly grey Paris, he frees a stray balloon (the reddest red you’ll ever see on film) tangled on a lamppost. The balloon becomes his faithful and playful pet, but causes him nothing but grief. He is kicked off the bus, made late for school, gets in trouble with mom, and provokes a gang of ruffians in short pants. Still, throughout, the boy remains the faithful defender of his adopted friend, and is ultimately rewarded after suffering tragedy.

Red Balloon White ManeWhite Mane

Together, the two films present the following morals: adults are cruel and unfair, intent on stamping out pleasure and freedom, and animals and inanimate objects make better friends than humans. Both feature heartbreaking tragedies that would almost certainly never figure into contemporary children’s films.


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The Incredible Hulk

The Incredible Hulk

 

The Incredible Hulk is Hollywood’s latest incidence of what has become known as a “reboot.” The term, I believe was originally coined in the comic book world, with further derivations in computer terminology. When a franchise begins to show its age with stalled creative energy and declining sales, its owners may opt to check it into surgery to be refreshed with a new cast, creative team, and updated plot particulars. Warner Bros. and DC Comics kick-started their valuable but stagnant Batman and Superman feature film properties, making them relevant to 21st century audiences, and now it’s Marvel Comics’ turn. Emboldened by recent successes with Spider-Man and The Fantastic Four (and conveniently ignoring the failures Daredevil and Elektra), Marvel has obtained funding to independently produce its own films with greater creative control and, presumably, a larger chunk of the financial return. The massive success of 2008’s Iron Man seemed to prove their instincts correct.

Remarkably, The Incredible Hulk comes only five years after Ang Lee and James Schamus’ Hulk, itself a reboot of the comic book, cartoon, and television series. Even before Marvel announced it was to start over from scratch, the original Hulk film had already been seen as a critical and commercial failure, even though the reviews were not actually terrible (54 on MetaCritic and 61 on Rotten Tomatoes, both about the same as what The Incredible Hulk scored) and it earned $245 million worldwide.

The Incredible HulkNORTON SMASH!!!

This Dork Reporter fully realizes his is the minority opinion, but the Lee/Schamus version is a far, far better film, not only in comparison with its successor but also on its own terms. To paraphrase a review I recall reading at the time, “only the director of Eat Drink Man Woman and Sense & Sensibility would look at ‘The Hulk’ and see ‘sprawling family melodrama.'” Lee and Schamus saw the core story as more than a simple Strange Case of Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde retread, and instead chose to tell a deeper tale of fathers and sons. The Hulk himself was created using motion-capture technology using Ang Lee’s own body language, and realized on screen as a giant green petulant baby (which is both absurdly funny and oddly moving, like the original King Kong). I still maintain it is one of the most brilliantly edited films I’ve ever seen, the closest in flow and visual style to a comic book a film has ever come. It’s also just really fucking weird, in a good way.

With Marvel in total charge of its own intellectual property at last, The Incredible Hulk had low artistic ambitions and was unsurprisingly crafted with comic book geeks in mind. In harsh contrast with arthouse mainstays Lee and Schamus, it was directed by action film specialist Louis Leterrier (of Transporter 2 and Danny the Dog) and written by Zak Penn, who has apparently cornered the market on super-hero scripts (including X-Men 2 & 3, Elektra, and the upcoming Avengers and Captain America). The backwards-facing film gives the fanboys a nod with admittedly fun cameos from Lou Ferrigno (who also voiced The Hulk’s few lines, and who also seems not to have aged one bit) and original Hulk co-creator (with Jack Kirby) Stan Lee. But the CG is surprisingly unconvincing for a film that should have been state-of-the-art; the Hulk looks like he’s made of string cheese and quivering gelatin.

The Incredible HulkIt’s showtime at The Apollo

Truth be told, I was actually rather enjoying the film, until one niggling fault grew to an unignorable degree that ruined the entire experience for me. Key character Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth) remains tragically underdeveloped. Any screenwriting student (hell, any film fan) should know the storytelling mantra “show don’t tell,” and yet Blonsky’s motivations are only hinted at in one or two lines of dialogue: he’s a career soldier grumpy about turning forty. Blonsky eventually evolves into the Hulk’s nemesis The Abomination, a hideous beast that lives to destroy. As the two creatures smash Harlem to bits in the final reel, there was no sense that the Abomination was once a man. What drove him to this? Interestingly, Roth plays a not entirely dissimilar character in Francis Ford Coppola’s Youth Without Youth: a man who uses up his youth in pursuit of an unattainable goal. In each case, the opportunity for a second chance is a mixed blessing.

Rumor has it an alternate, significantly longer cut of the film will eventually be released on DVD, preserving more of Edward Norton’s reported script doctoring, so this Dork Reporter hopes he will be able to revise his opinion at a later date.


Must read: Peter Bradshaw’s review of The Incredible Hulk as told to him by… The Hulk (spotted on Kottke.org)

Official movie site: www.theincrediblehulk.net

The Andromeda Strain (2008)

The Andromeda Strain

 

Michael Crichton’s original novel The Andromeda Strain was first adapted into a feature film in 1971, and now into a television miniseries from executive producers Ridley and Tony Scott. This 2008 incarnation is part feel-bad thriller, part wish fulfillment. As we thrill to the speculative illustration of how civilization might suddenly come to an end, we also can only hope the government does in fact have such an elaborate and high-tech procedure in place for identifying and containing new contagious disease outbreaks.

The Andromeda StrainGood times, good times

The original book is only nominally about a supervirus, evidently of extraterrestrial origin, that threatens the human race. It is actually more about how intelligent, well-meaning people can make subtle errors of judgement that may cascade into catastrophe (Chrichton would also employ Chaos Theory as a key theme in his Jurassic Park novels). But the miniseries complicates this interesting theme with added government venality (a basically honorable president is undercut by a corrupt chief of staff), the media (a drug addicted reporter breaks the cover-up), and the environment (strip mining of the ocean floor leads to the crisis). To give but one example of the diminishing returns: in the book, a simple unnoticed glitch in a supposedly perfect computer system causes a dangerous communication blackout at the worst possible time. It’s both more plausible and more suspenseful than the miniseries version of events, in which General Mancheck (Andre Braugher) deliberately creates the blackout, to everyone’s mild and temporary frustration.

The book is not without its flaws, particularly an undramatic ending in which the continuously adapting virus eventually mutates into harmlessness. But the miniseries disappoints by giving the virus a definitive origin, indicating it is expressly targeted towards humans, and showing its definitive defeat.

The Andromeda StrainThe cast checks in for the long haul

Miscellaneous other thoughts:

• Mikael Salomon’s direction is very boring and staid, except for a wildly over-the-top decontamination procedure that is filmed in a stylized, almost erotic fashion.

• The miniseries is probably one of the talkiest sci-fi movies and/or TV shows I’ve ever seen. The bulk of the action is set in a single interior location, and nearly every scene comprises heated conversations in laboratories or over teleconferences.

• The miniseries is laden with even more pseudoscientific bullshit than Crichton’s original novel: wormhole-enabled time travel and nanotech buckyballs from the future are the order of the day. The whole thing ends in the kind of temporal paradox that typically makes a plot point in shows like Doctor Who and Star Trek.

• The miniseries updates the book’s euphemism of “unmarried man” into “don’t ask don’t tell” territory. It seems fabulous Major Keane (Rick Schroder) is a friend of Dorothy.

• Spot the homage to Hitchcock’s The Birds!

• Why does the underground facility begin to disintegrate during the run-up to setting off an atom bomb? Wouldn’t there just be a countdown and then an explosion?

• This Dork Reporter, a longtime fan of the TV show Lost, is happy to see Daniel Dae Kim in a starring role. But the Korean actor is unfortunately cast as a Chinese stereotype.

• Benjamin Bratt is really terrible, giving the proverbial phone-it-in performance. He delivers every line with the same intonation, whether it’s saying goodbye to his family for possibly the last time or announcing humanity’s first discovery of an alien life form.


Official movie site: www.aetv.com/the-andromeda-strain

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The Sweet Hereafter

The Sweet Hereafter

 

Lest the brevity of this post indicate otherwise, The Sweet Hereafter is one of my favorite films. Although I’ve read the original novel by Russell Banks and seen Atom Egoyan’s film several times, I feel ill-equipped to “review” it. It is quietly heartbreaking and devastating, and difficult to capture in words.

Robert Browning’s The Pied Piper of Hamelin tale runs through the film as a metaphor. A tragedy of the worst kind imaginable, the death of an entire generation of a small Canadian town’s children, reveals that everybody, everybody, has demons. Lawyer Mitchell Stevens (Ian Holm) descends upon the town, claiming to be able to help the surviving families avenge their children’s deaths. His zeal convinces many of families to join a lawsuit, but his true attraction to this particular case are complex and personal, and it becomes clear he is possibly an even more tortured soul than any of his clients. His crusade only further pulls back the veil on the town’s deepest secrets, and it falls to the young survivor Nicole (Sarah Polley) to put an end to it all.

The Sweet Hereafter

One excellent scene that demonstrates the high level of filmmaking at work: when we finally see a flashback of the accident in question, parent Billy (Bruce Greenwood) watches in shock as an overturned school bus carrying his two children skids slowly to a stop atop a frozen lake, pauses for a heartbeat, then begins to crack through. The whole thing is filmed from a locked-down vantage point, at a distance, with muted sound design. Every element of the sequence shows astonishing restraint on the part of the filmmakers.

The Sweet Hereafter

Official movie site: www.finelinefeatures.com/sweet

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Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade

Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade

 

In order to catch up on the overwhelming backlog of movies I intend to cover here on this blog, this Dork Reporter is going to keep it brief with a few disconnected bullet points:

• Re-watching the original trilogy as an adult is an interesting experience; even the first time around as a kid I was right: Raiders of the Lost Ark is excellent rip-roaring fun, The Temple of Doom is borderline offensive crap, and The Last Crusade is thankfully a return to form. Gone are the annoying kids and mean-spirited xenophobia, and back are the Nazi-bashing and Judeo-Christian overtones.

Indiana Jones and The Last CrusadeWell, this is a fine how-do-you-do

• After a fun pre-credit sequence set in 1912 Utah (featuring the late River Phoenix doing a brilliant Harrison Ford impression), The Last Crusade is set in 1938. The previous installment was set prior to the first, neatly sidestepping any hint of Indy dumping Marion (Karen Allen). Apparently Spielberg and Lucas stopped caring, and this time just went ahead and implied that he did, after all.

• The biggest area of improvement over the lamentable Temple of Doom is in the “Indy Girl” department. After the spunky Marion and the bimbo Willie, we were due for a third stereotype: the femme fatale. Dr. Elsa Schneider (Alison Doody) is both a worthy love interest and nemesis to Indiana Jones. And Henry Sr. (Sean Connery) totally hit that! Way to go, old man.

Indiana Jones and The Last CrusadeOf course she can be trusted

• Why did Elsa wait until the most dramatic moment to reveal her true identity, and capture Indy and the diary? The woman has a knack for melodrama.

• Fun fact: Each film in the series starts with the Paramount logo mirrored in a landscape or prop.

• Must read: Indiana Jones and the Fonts on the Maps, an analysis of the anachronistic typographic choices made in the films’ iconic animated maps (via Daring Fireball).


Official movie site: www.indianajones.com

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Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom

Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom

 

In order to catch up on the overwhelming backlog of movies I intend to cover here on this blog, this Dork Reporter is going to keep it brief with a few disconnected bullet points:

• An opening caption places the action in “1935.” Raiders of the Lost Ark was set in 1936, so, The Temple of Doom is actually a backdoor prequel! Interesting, but why? Everything is basically the same, except for the absence of Marion (Karen Allen). Had that caption not been there, Indy would have seemed to have unceremoniously dumped her, offscreen.

• On the topic of “Indy Girls,” how could Steven Spielberg and George Lucas trade in the spunky, resourceful, independent, strong Marion for the helpless screaming ignorant bimbo Willie (Kate Capshaw)? It’s a crying shame only partially excused by Marion’s belated return in the fourth installment, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

Indiana Jones and The Temple of DoomDot your eyes and sleep with your starlets…

• In the DVD bonus features, Spielberg and Lucas both desperately defend Temple of Doom’s “dark” tone, comparing it to Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. This is puzzling, as to my eyes, The Temple of Doom is notably more jokey and cartoony than Raiders of the Lost Ark. Worse, it is casually sexist and racist, and not to mention, quite unkind to the cuisine of India.

• The globe-trotting begins in Shanghai, with an old-school Hollywood musical number. Jonathan Ke Quan (Short Round) is actually Vietnamese, and clearly a good sport.

• Hey, it’s that guy! Can you spot the Dan Akroyd cameo?

• The Temple of Doom has the least compelling MacGuffin of all the Indiana Jones films. While the others concerned the Ark of the Covenant, the Holy freakin’ Grail, and UFO artifacts, this time Indy must recover and return a stolen relic to a starving Indian village. He only learns of the injustice in the first place by accident.

Indiana Jones and The Temple of DoomPlease, sir, can I have another shit sandwich?

• It must be said that this is the only film in the series that has Indy grapple with the moral grey areas of his profession. Not exactly a stand-up model archeologist, he explicitly vocalizes his motivations for the first time: “fortune and glory.” So this time around, his relic-hunting is in the service of justice and not his own personal gain.

• Indy and pals stumble upon a sacrificial pagan ceremony dead for only 100 years? That’s not very exciting. If you’re making up a fake religion, why not make it a thousand or more?

• One of many tragic flaws that cripple this film is the obvious tinkering with the formula, made in the mistaken belief there would be more for the kids to identify with. Yes, I’m talking about all the annoying children running about the place: obviously Short Round, but also the horde of child slaves toiling in a mine (a straight lift from Pinocchio). Memo to Spielberg and Lucas: kids had no trouble flocking to Raiders of the Lost Ark, so you don’t need to give them an on-screen cypher.


Official movie site: www.indianajones.com

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Raiders of the Lost Ark

Raiders of the Lost Ark

 

In order to catch up on the overwhelming backlog of movies I intend to cover here on this blog, this Dork Reporter is going to keep it brief with a few disconnected bullet points:

• The 2008 DVD reissues of the classic Indiana Jones trilogy have terribly designed menus; it looks like everything’s been overprocessed with Photoshop’s “Dust and Scratches” filter.

• The zippy, witty screenplay is by Laurence Kasdan, known to genre geeks as the beloved writer of the best Star Wars script, now and forever: The Empire Strikes Back.

• Hey, it’s that guy! A young Alfred Molina briefly appears in his first film role. In the DVD bonus features, he recounts an amusing tale involving his lack of difficulty in evoking fear in his performance as a batch of real tarantulas scrambled across his face.

Raiders of the Lost Ark“I like your hat.” “So do I.”

• Karen Allen is really winning as the hard-drinkin’ Marion, and it’s a pity she never became a bigger star, or at least appeared in the second and third installments. She was robbed!

• Does the Indiana Jones franchise really give the field of archaeology a good name? Indy is motivated by money; he loots relics without the permission of indigenous peoples, and sells them to a museum associated with the university where he teaches (it’s implied his job or tenure – and that of his boss Marcus – depend on it).

Raiders of the Lost ArkRated PG, my melting face, suckas!

• I think I had the official coloring book as a kid, and I recall being fascinated by the concept of lost cities buried under sand.

• For better or for worse, the practical details of the phantasmagoric climax are left unexplained: why is the Ark empty, why does it make bad guys’ heads explode and/or melt, why does it matter if your eyes are open or not, and why does Indy know that it does?

• There’s lotsa drinking, gunplay, gore, and German profanity – in other words, all the stuff kids love! They don’t make PG movies like this anymore.

• Kids, the moral of the story is: anyone with an accent is not to be trusted.


Official movie site: www.indianajones.com

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