Kill Your Idols

Kill Your Idols (2004) movie poster

(2004) dir. Scott Crary
viewed: 09/28/06

Documentaries vary drastically in quality and vision and ability, but usually if the original subject is interesting enough, they are almost worth sifting through to an extent.  Kill Your Idols is on the low side of mediocre in its quality and its subject matter might be more compelling in a better contextualization, quite frankly.  Austensibly about the New York “No Wave” scene which sprung up in virtual parallel but moderate opposition to Punk, the film focuses on the early artists of the late 1970’s – early 1980’s who created a dissonant and noise-based sound, an opposition to traditional music.

The real No Wavers, Suicide, Lydia Lunch, DNA, Theoretical Girls, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks and their later counterparts the Swans and Sonic Youth were certainly more performance and art focused than commercial.  To me, the sound of the groups, which feature often screaming vocals over glare or dirges of sound with fractured beats rather than syncopated background exemplify the meaning of Punk.  As I got introduced to Punk and other “alternative” music styles, I was never one to actually classify them all that much.  Goth, Punk, Hardcore, No Wave, New Wave, it all appealled to me.  And in many ways, the sound of No Wave is what I would have considered quintisentially Punk, especially at the time.  It went against everything essentially and was often challenging to listen to.

What’s interesting, after watching Made in Sheffield (2001) about the avant-garde in Sheffield, England in a parallel track was how radical these movements were.  In the Sheffield scene, everything morphed into Synth-Pop essentially for some reason.  But the No Wave scene, with the exception of Sonic Youth, really never came anywhere near commercial success.  And though the film doesn’t really analyze the dissipation of the initial scene, what really happened to it, it does make a pointed criticism of contemporary nouveau-retro New York noisemakers and the scene that exists in corporotizing, marketing and productizing all of it.  And that it’s all style and fashion and without meaning.

Actually, this is not an uninteresting point, but it takes away from the story of the original No Wave artists.  They criticize the contemporary bands, who appear in the film, too, and largely sound like dopes (Karen O. of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, so cool and amazing on stage and in the band sounds like a typical young person with nothing interesting to say, just lots of “y’know’s”).  I do have to say that I think that the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, no matter how they have been capitalized on, are an excellent band.  Clearly they write songs that have radio-friendly poppy-ness, but they are awesome to me.  The only other contemporary act that seemed cool was Gogol Bordello which was like some gypsy-punk thing, strange and creative.

This film has some interesting aspects, but the point of comparison between the “then” and “now” seems like a more empty argument than a specific analysis of one or the other.  Interestingly enough, Sonic Youth seem to be having a resurgence with their latest album, proving that they (who went to a major label themselves in the late 1980’s and were considered “sell-outs” at the time because of it) truly bridge the gap between the periods, but more so, still making relevent and interesting music while they must be pushing 50.

Lady Vengeance

Lady Vengeance (2005) movie poster

(2005) dir. Chan-wook Park
viewed: 09/27/06

The third and final film of director Chan-wook Park’s “Vengeance Trilogy” which included Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002) and Oldboy (2003) takes a more moralistic look into the meaning and effects of revenge.  This time the narrative, as the title lets us know, is placed on a female figure, who like her predecessors in the other films is also unjustly imprisoned and seeks revenge on her captors and torturers.

I saw Oldboy first and it really impressed me both visually and in terms of certain aspects of the narrative and dialogue.  Chan-wook Park is often referred to as the “Quentin Tarantino of Korea”, which doesn’t really strike me as accurate, but I am not sure what aspects of Tarantino that they are referring to.  His films have a poppy entertainment value, but don’t seem to be filled with references to other films so explicitly or to rely so heavily on pop-culture references.

Lady Vengeance, to me, was disappointing.  Actually, everything else that I have seen by Park has disappointed, most especially his work in Three… Extremes (2004) and least so in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance.  I guess that I was hoping that all his films would live up to the surprise and impact of Oldboy, but they haven’t.  But to say that Lady Vengeance was disappointing only shows that I had high hopes for it.  It was still often visually impressive and there are certain narrative aspects that I thought were very clever and interesting.  Despite playing with a similar overall concept, Park tells the story via numerous flashbacks and asides that slowly evoke the whole of the tale.

The film has a significant focus on religion, particularly Christian religion and the concept of redemption.  Lady Vengeance herself, the character of Geum-ja Lee, plays up her adoptive religiosity that she picks up in prison, though in the end it proves to be a sham, though it has effects on many.  Her relationship with a pastor that met her in prison is a strange aspect of the film.  She shuns him openly and then eventually he sells her out to her nemesis by spying on her and informing him of her plans of revenge.

In the end, Geum-ja is redeemed in a overly stagy and melodramatic way.  But her vengeance is tempered by her pulling in of several families who have had their children abducted and murdered.  She forces them to watch horrific videos of their childrens’ murders and entices them with the help of a police detective to individually take out their own vengeance on the killer.  It’s an interesting twist, and certainly has its moments, with the multiple class tiers of grieving parents lined up in a dark corridor covered in plastic frocks to keep the blood off their clothes.

It’s clearly a turning point and it’s an interesting aspect of the film’s approach to revenge and redemption.  The problem is that the tone is trying very hard to strike emotional chords, certainly striving for more significant impact and drama.  This part of the film feels very overdone and cripples the ending from having real impact.  I guess the more twisted moral ambiguity in Oldboy worked better for me.

It will be interesting to see what Park does next.

Fists in the Pocket

Fists in the Pocket (1965) movie poster

(1965) dir. Marco Bellocchio
viewed: 09/25/06

Recommended by a friend, I didn’t really know anything much about this film before seeing it other than it verged on being a horror film.  It isn’t what I would call a horror film, though I won’t try to get into exactly how I would define that.  The film is a dark, creepy, and depressing drama about a highly dysfunctional bourgeois family that verges heavily into gothic darkness.

Lou Castel is amazing as the central core of the family’s inevitable dissolution.  There seems to be great social criticism in the film as well, a turning point in culture, dissonant and discordant.  In some ways it reminded me of Five Easy Pieces (1970), in that the family that Jack Nicholson strived to escape was similarly bourgeois.  While Nicholson’s character in that film runs away randomly from these things, Castel’s character is more like an active part of the family’s disease, and like a disease, he kills.

What it all really means, I am not sure.  He talks of killing his entire family by driving them off a cliff, all in interest of serving his slick older brother, who has some ambivalence about this fact. The title metaphorizes the tone of Castel and the film in general, this hidden, deep loathing and pent-up desire for destruction.  I can’t claim to understand it all and won’t give it thorough analysis, though I am sure that one could easily do so.

The Devil and Daniel Johnston

The Devil and Daniel Johnston (2005) movie poster

(2005) dir. Jeff Feuerzeig
viewed: 09/25/06

Madness and genius.  Daniel Johnston seems to exemplify this duality.  Though genius may be a bit of a strong term for him (he is clearly multi-talented and has often bursted with creativity), he certainly exemplifies the madness part.

This is a well-constructed documentary that utilizes home footage, lots of voice cassette recordings, as well as present day interviews with people in and around the life of Daniel Johnston, a fringe-y folksy musician who never really flirted with mainstream success but remained a cult figure to lots of better-known musicians.  From his childhood creativity to his drug experimentation, Johnston’s life and mentality quickly spiral out of control.  He is diagnosed as bi-polar but often seems totally delusional and schizophrenic.

It’s interesting from a lot of angles: his family’s approach to caring for him, his experience on medication, his art, his manias, his highly religious upbringing and nature.  It’s a strange, compelling exploration.

Made in Sheffield

Made in Sheffield (2001) movie poster

(2001) dir. Eve Wood
viewed: 09/25/06

A low-end documentary about the Sheffield, England music scene in the late 1970’s to the 1980’s.  It’s an interesting phenomenon about how this music scene grew up around the avant-garde of Cabaret Voltaire and The Human League, basing their music on synthesizers that they constructed themselves, a whole different aesthetic from the Punk scenes in other cities.  The weird thing is that these bands wound up morphing into the synth-pop hitmakers of their day, including ABC, who came to be known for poppy New Wave with crooner-ish camp vocals and stuff.  It’s an interesting little scene but the film is not much to write home about.

Dead Man’s Shoes

 

Dead Man’s Shoes (2004) movie poster

(2004) dir. Shane Meadows
viewed: 09/17/06

Recommended by a friend in England, Dead Man’s Shoes is the first film that I have seen by director Shane Meadows who seems to be compiling a number of somewhat notable films that are primarily set in the British Midlands, an area that doesn’t have a long history of significant filmic documentation (as far as I can tell), but also happens to be the part of England with which I am most familiar.

Dead Man’s Shoes was filmed in Matlock, a small town in the Peak District, and the location shooting was probably my favorite thing about the film.  The accents have this familiar, if hard to understand, Derbyshire character, which is also appealing.

The film, itself, is not bad and certainly has its moments.  There is heavy downbeat tone to the film, which is a violent revenge story (unsurprisingly downbeat, I guess — revenge murder sprees really are kind of a bummer).  I guess, as well, that this was my largest problem with it.  There are a lot of films that meet this basic criteria, and it’s hard to say exactly what this one brings to the “genre” if we can call it that.  If you don’t want the story ruined, please don’t read on.

The vengeance-seeker is an ex-military man, returned to the Midlands to avenge his mentally-challenged brother’s death due to abuse that he suffers from a gang of local drug dealers and brutes (a fact that is only unfolded completely toward the end).  Therein lies the mystery, which is moderately formulaic enough to sort of see long before it comes around.  The uses of grainy black-and-white for flashbacks is so by-the-book that it reflects a lack of imagination of the filmmaker.

What the film does seem to do is sort of sympathize both sides to an extent in this.  There is tragedy in the maniacal yet methodical harassment and killings and the ending reflects this.  But while trying to figure out why this revenge had to be carried out seems to linger and I don’t know that the film is utterly clear about this sad, pessimistic process, or ultimately what it is trying to say.

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

The Life Aquatic (2004) movie poster

(2004) dir. Wes Anderson
viewed: 09/09/06

I’d seen this film originally in the theater when it came out (during a period that I wasn’t updating this diary), and I’d enjoyed it significantly, as I had enjoyed Anderson’s other works, Bottle Rocket (1996), Rushmore (1998), and The Royal Tennenbaums (2001), and I guess was pretty primed to enjoy this one.  On initial viewing, I felt it echoed an emotional sentiment that reeked of Tennenbaums, considerably, in the protagonist is an aging egotist, who is also incredibly sensitive and insecure and despite his selfishness, is loved by the complex and intelligent people around him despite how much they despise him too.  Not to mention that half the cast is exactly the same.

Not to criticize the extent of Anderson’s foci, he creates a full, and well-imagined world of Zissou.  I love the costuming and the schtick with the red woolly caps and the Zissou-wear, including Nike shoes.  The characters are not well-rounded, but well-conceived, funny and strange in their imagining, while always feeling a little “put-on”.  Anderson does nice work, as well, aesthetically, framing shots in interesting ways, creating scenes that fail to feel “natural” while still being amusing and clever.  Somehow he comments on this in Zissou’s own film productions where genuine moments are exploited if possible and if not are re-created with complete faux empathy.  This seems self-reflective but I take it no further.

Bill Murray is brilliant.  I mean, I think that he’s brilliant in general, in all of his work.  But this character, I think, is the best he’s ever played.  It’s a mixture of sadness, self-loathing, self-love, and insecurity, all while deep down an exuding and predominant genius and wonder that attracts the world around him.  There is an artifice to the film, which I think Anderson acknowledges, but it also evokes a genuine sense of his character that juts forth from the strange menagerie of characters with whom he lives and interacts.  It is both fun and sad.

I bought the DVD used on Netflix for $6.50, which is a comment in itself.  I buy hardly any DVD’s.  This one was incredibly cheap and was a Criterion DVD.  It made sense.  It is good.

The other utterly significant thing about this film are the David Bowie songs performed acoustically by Seo Jorge.  I bought the CD of his songs, not the soundtrack, but the 100% Jorge/Bowie songs and it’s utterly fucking brilliant.  It adds an atmosphere to the film that is hard to describe.  It’s something sad and yet uplifting, mesmerizing and yet…who knows?  It’s je ne sais quois.  It’s a unique and clever film.  And despite the strangely animated fish which bothered me on the first viewing, I think it’s pretty great.

Let me know if you would like to borrow it.

Scarface

 

Scarface (1983) movie poster

(1983) dir. Brian De Palma
viewed: 09/08/06

For some reason, I had never seen this iconic 1980’s film from the significant, if not brilliant Brian De Palma.  My personal favorite of De Palma’s was his poppy, strange adaptation of Stephen King’s Carrie (1976), but his career has been marked by interesting, if not fascinating fare.  Perhaps, Scarface was one of his true peaks in terms of popularity.  It’s an epic, clocking nearly 3 hours of running time.  Oliver Stone wrote the script.  Giorgio Moroder created the original music.  And a young, beautiful and compelling Michelle Pfeiffer is the cocaine-addicted moll.  It’s got a lot going for it.  It’s a re-imagining, if not a re-make of Howard Hawks’ earlier gangster film.  And actually, in retrospect, watching it prior to this could have been informative.

Frankly, Al Pacino is a joke.  He doesn’t just chew scenery, he utterly masticates it, digests it, shits it out.  His Cuban accent is ridiculous.  There are a lot of Italians and Jews, but not a lot of Cubans or even Latinos playing primary roles.  It’s bizarre.  Pacino acts well with his face and body gestures, but emotes like the proverbial ham, hammier than ham.  He’s the whole pig.  It is painful at times to hear him speak.

The film has this cultural focus on the Cuban immigrants of 1980 and this criticism of Fidel Castro that I don’t have enough historical information to fully critique.  It just strikes me as weird and lacking analysis or true cultural connection.  A strange, phony atmosphere.  Fully 1980’s, which feels genuine due to the hairdos and the post-disco pop.

The best scene in the movie is the “chainsaw” scene which is relatively early in the film and seems to promise more than the rest of the film has to deliver.  I love the shot that tracks from the apartment down to the car outside, waiting, casually, while the inside is going crazy and someone is getting chainsawed to bits.  It’s the masterpiece of the film.  Later, the film delivers a fine camp moment, when Tony Montana’s younger sister comes nearly nude, provoking him sexually, and then starts shooting at him until she is gunned down by rival hoods.  It’s pretty over-the-top and has some trash appeal.

Overall, though, the film is not De Palma’s best.  The attitude toward Pacino’s Tony is mixed sympathy and total revulsion.  He is just a killer, a criminal, with shallow sensibilities, while living “the American Dream” in criminal style.  It could in a sense be a parable of the 1980’s.  There are probably better contexts in which to watch this.   Some context, perhaps.  On its own, I’d say it’s not bad but not great.  But it’s definitely a movie of its time, which perhaps is the best way to watch it.

V for Vendetta

V for Vendetta (2005) movie poster

(2005) dir. James McTeigue
viewed: 09/04/06

This overblown sci-fi/comic book adaptation comes stamped with the “hipness” of the Wachowski brothers, who wrote the script and the fact that director James McTeigue was their first assistant director on their Matrix (1999) series and that it has been adapted from a cult comic book from the 1980’s.  That sort of hipness depends on who considers it hip, I guess.

This film, being a mainstream action flick set in the moderately near future, has great pretension and preachiness in its rhetoric about freedom, reasons to fear the government, terrorism and more.  The bad government is explicitly evil and “the people” need to revolt.  V, the vigilante in the Guy Fawkes’ mask, preaches heavily along these lines, but really is simply out for revenge.  The fact that by killing off all of the evil heads of state that imprisoned and tortured him he saves England from authoritarian rule is sort of a bonus.

There are a lot of potential ramifications for our current world order, what with the U.S. government actively spying on its citizens and annihilating civil rights of prisoners and citizens in the name of protecting freedom, and fear-mongering to achieve greater control of the government…uh…it’s could easily resonate.  It doesn’t because it pulls all this off with a stark 1984-like image of John Hurt’s “Big Brother”-like face and this stylized modern world that just seems unlike the real world.

The other side of the film’s ideology is the terrorist as hero.  V is a terrorist.  He blows up buildings to make a point and it’s considered a good thing.  This would seem a touchy road to take in this day and age, not to say that it shouldn’t be their point, but it’s curious how solid the ground is underneath their ideology.  I mean, Guy Fawkes has always confused me.  I jokingly asked if Bonfire Night was a celebration of a failed rebellion, a celebration of terrorism, but was informed it was really the celebration of foiling terrorism and that Guy Fawkes, this film’s historical touchstone, led a very pathetic failed attempt to blow up Parliament.

But V is not just a terrorist, he’s a murderous avenger, slaying all of the bad guys purely for revenge.  And we’re never really told exactly what he suffered or how he suffered more than others.  It’s not just political; it’s personal.  It’s like a call to arms.  And it is.  By the end of the film, the entire city of London is dressed as Guy Fawkes to watch Parliament explode in fireworks.  Maybe there is a valid message somewhere that people should stand up to their government when it’s doing totally evil things.  But the film doesn’t begin to address apathy.

Natalie Portman is fucking awful.  Her English accent isn’t terrible, but she is.  The torture scenes lack shock value, except at the skinniness of her bald-head, potato sack-wearing body.

Let’s face it.  I found this movie utterly asinine.  But tolerable.  What does that say about me?  Viva la revolucion!

Vampyr

Vampyr (1932) movie poster

(1932) dir. Carl Theodor Dreyer
viewed: 09/02/06

From childhood, I loved horror films, which at the time I refered to as “Monster Movies”, which I seem to have picked up from my mother.  There wasn’t nearly the amount of literature on the films at the time, much less literature that could have been easily accessed and consumed by a child, but there were some.  And I read up on them as much as I could.  I was fascinated with seeing the earliest versions of films that featured monsters and was lucky enough to have seen the silent Lon Chaney versions of The Phantom of the Opera (1925) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923).  I dreamed of seeing The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) (erringly often referred to as “the first horror film”), Paul Wegener’s The Golem (1915), and F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922).  It was quite interesting, taking my first film class in junior college, to discover that the films that I fantasized about seeing as a child were considered serious and important cinema as well.  Expressionism,…indeed!

And over the years, I ended up seeing most of those films and many more of the Expressionist cinema, horror films, etc.  I’ve seen a lot, really.  But for some reason, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr had remained out of the loop.  This probably actually goes back more to the lack of distribution and quality copies of the films that it never achieved at the time I was a kid the same focus as the other films.  I mean, it has many Expressionist characteristics, but is from a later period, and from a different country.

I’d never seen any of Dreyer’s films, though his The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) has often been heralded and he has been the major figure in Danish cinema.  Vampyr is pretty interesting, for many reasons, but one of the things that struck me so was the camera movement.  The camera tracks around corners, through doorways, around bannisters.  The movement is very alive and is so unusual for the period of this film, which came right as sound was changing cinema so dramatically.  Vampyr could easily be a silent film.  It uses intertitles to give text from book that is being read and some portions of narrative that would be difficult to glean otherwise.  The film is intensely visual.

The story is a little hard to follow.  The DVD that I saw of it wasn’t particularly showing a pristine print.  And the whole thing has this Surrealist nightmare of logic and flow, drifting into segments of story without a lot of explication.  The shadows that move unattached are particularly striking.  And later we find out that, I think, they are the shadows of dead criminals who abet vampires in their crimes.   Though the story is austensibly adapted from Sheridan Le Fanu’s novel In a Glass Darkly, who knows?  The film is visually impressive, but in more subtle ways than would offer a fantastic still image to blaze the pages of a book on the subject.  For me, as I mentioned, the movement really sets the tone and the discordance of the narrative.  It’s disconnecting and strange, something I would speculate would have impressed and charmed the Surrealists (though I could be wrong about that).