American Hardcore

American Hardcore (2006) movie poster

(2006) dir. Paul Rachman
viewed: 02/25/07

The documentary American Hardcore is one of the latest attempts to capture music scenes of the 1980’s that I have seen recently.  For me, this one held reasonably high interest because this was one of the musical forms that I first genuinely got into, though according to the documentary, my real discovery of the music in 1984 was at the tail end of the peak period of the genre.  Who knows?  It still seemed pretty big to me at the time, but the malaise that some of the musicians describe also really captures that feeling of the mid to late 1980’s.

The documentary itself is not that great.  It’s an oral history with repetitive graphics of the U.S., showing the different scenes.  They manage to get a lot of the big names, and the two that talk the most interestingly are Henry Rollins and Ian MacKaye.  Some of these guys sound very dumb to be honest.

I think that there is a lot left out of this documentary.  I think it also really doesn’t do a good job at capturing the cultural world of the time, though it does attempt to do this to an extent with shots of fashion styles and Ronald Reagan’s two inaugurations.  Most of the video footage is awful (which isn’t surprising, since this was a low-budget sort of scene, but still…).  There is a lot unaddressed culturally, such as why this was such a suburban white boy scene, and how the Bad Brains, who were totally genius, were totally, utterly unique in the scene, a band comprised entirely of African American Rastafarians.  Actually, a documentary on the Bad Brains alone would probably be fairly compelling.

The film claims that the angry form of “Hardcore Punk” started in LA and then infected the nation by the bands touring.  Black Flag, Bad Brains, Minor Threat are all given their due.  But the scene was a bit broader than that.  San Francisco is given short shrift, with the exception of Flipper.  And why don’t they talk about Maximum RocknRoll and the early comps that they put out of California bands or the awesome Alternative Tentacles release of Let Them Eat Jellybeans, which I would love to find on CD.

But really, there hasn’t been a great documentary made yet about the 1980’s bands of any real genre.  Kill Your Idols (2004) about the No Wave scene was a better film, Made in Sheffield (2001) about the Sheffield scene was a better film, and even We Jam Econo: The Story of the Minutemen was better still.  The best “scene” documentary from this period that I have seen would be Dogtown and Z-Boys (2001), which aggrandized the development of modern skateboarding, and parallels much of the period of the music developed, is the only one of any real merit.  In fact, I hope that someone does manage to capture with more brilliance some of this stuff because it’s worth analyzing and revealing.

Jesus Camp

Jesus Camp (2006) movie poster

(2006) dir. Heidi Ewing, Rachel Grady
viewed: 02/18/07

I wrote about this and then the blog thing published and didn’t get any of it.

I don’t have it in me to write it all again.  Bottom line: Evangelical Christians represented in this film are self-righteous and hypocritical, and this film is a good reminder that this is still a big sector in the United States and that these people vote and love Jesus and George Bush.  They teach these kids some crazy, fucked up stuff.

The movie itself is decent, but not excellent.  It features some commentary on the Evangelicals that is critical, which I agree with, but would rather come to my own conclusions on.  There are some crazy things here, but ultimately, this film really isn’t a documentary of elevated experience.  It’s scary.  God help me, it’s scary.

Blow-Up

Blow-Up (1966) movie poster

(1966) dir. Michelangelo Antonioni
viewed: 02/15/07

Before now, I had never seen an Antonioni film, even though he’s one of those big names in cinema, and this film, which I think was his biggest cross-over hit and was available readily on VHS even in the piddliest video stores in the 1980’s, I never saw it.  I thought about it a lot of times, but never did.  But I often note that nobody has seen everything there is to see, unless they are pure film-geek extraordinaire…and there are those people out there.  Anyways…

What struck me about this film really was the cinematography and framing of shots, which were aesthetically beautiful, but so formalized that they draw a lot of attention to the view, the image.  Also, the use of music and of silence was striking, setting pacing and punctuating the narrative, again focusing on the visual, the images, so much so that it distances the viewer from the narrative in a connective way.

There is a lot going on about vision, image-making, the camera, all assumingly highly self-reflexive.  I can’t say that I’ve made it all out, really.  In one sequence, the act of photographing a model is highly sexualized, rather explicitly sexual.  Then there is the whole aspect of the “blow-up”, the images that the photographer makes and enlarges to look for the mystery that was accidentally captured.  Does the capture create the scene?  Did it exist before?  What happened when it all disappeared?  Because the photographer notably disappears at the end of the film in the final shot.  Is the commentary about the potential of illusion (optical or otherwise) in the act of photography?

The other thing that struck me was the modernity captured in the film.  Antonioni seems obsessed with the modern aspects of architecture, fashion, music.  The camera looks at all of this style, occasionally in stark contrast to the actual city or town aspects of London, which are old and provincial-looking.  The use of the Yardbirds and Herbie Hancock on the soundtrack really lock the period perspective.  It must have seen very modern in its day, 1966.

Now, it’s an interesting and aesthetically fascinating film that I consider provocative in terms of ideas.  It also surprised me because, in reality, I had no sense of how Antonioni films really were.  I liked it.

The Big Combo

 

The Big Combo (1955) movie poster

(1955) dir. Joseph H. Lewis
viewed: 02/13/07

I had a friend who was bugging me for months to see this film.  Then it came and played the Castro Theatre as part of their Noir City festival.  And of course I missed it.  And my friend pestered me again.  So I queued it up in Netflix and got it.

Directed by Joseph H. Lewis, director of the classic Noir film, Gun Crazy (1950), which is pretty damn excellent, and photographed by John Alton, The Big Combo is a rock-solid Noir flick, with some beautiful shots, especially the playful use of shadow, sometimes in the classic sense of menace, but also interestingly used inside the Cornell Wilde, the detective’s office.  The scene is lit from the front so the characters in the foreground throw these huge bulbous shadows as they gesticulate and walk around.

Another classic aspect of the film is the great character acting.  Richard Conte, Jean Wallace, and Cornell Wilde are great as the leads but it also features a young Lee Van Cleef, Earl Holliman, and a great performance by Robert Middleton as the aging tough guy with a hearing aid.

The hearing aid is used in one of the movie’s most bizarre and interesting sequences.  Conte, the villainous Mr. Brown, puts the hearing aid into Wilde’s ear and cranks up a radio playing a really wild jazz drum solo as a form of torture (one that won’t leave a mark.)  One of the more unusual pieces in the movie, but the use of the hearing aid as menace and also as a way of cowing the aging Middleton, it’s pretty funny.

There is a lot of light and shadow work in the film.  It’s probably the highlight, really.  The finale actually plays heavily on Conte being caught “in the light”, the searchlight from the police car, a light he cannot escape, is blinded by, and finally succumbs to.  Hey, this is what Noir is all about, right?

Visitor Q

Visitor Q (2001) movie poster

(2001) dir. Takashi Miike
viewed: 02/12/07

Finally, a movie that shows how sex and violence can redeem the conventional family unit!

For Takashi Miike, probably the most prolific and bizarro director working today, this film is often referred to as his most extreme and taboo-rific work.  Which is saying quite a lot.  This film has all kinds of hilarious “shocking” scenes and visuals: heroin addicted mom who prostitutes for her habit and is abused verbally and physically by her son, the son who is harangued by his peers, beaten and abused and humiliated, a sister who is a prostitute, a father who is anally raped with a microphone and airs the footage on his news show, then wants to make a film about his son’s humiliation, the dad murders his lover and then gets aroused and rapes her corpse, but then gets “stuck” when rigor mortis sets in…

This isn’t one to watch with the in-laws.  But it would be a lot of fun to watch with John Waters.  Actually, this film has a lot of Waters-like humor and flavor.  It’s a rip on traditional nuclear family, dysfunctional reality and even the “cures” or therapies that bring about renewed harmonies.

Visitor Q, himself, is a strange, devil/God-like figure, who appears on the scene of this family and in part of his actions, which include kneading the mother’s breasts until they are spurting milk ludicrously.  He works in mysterious ways, for sure.  He hits the family members on the head with rocks to evoke epiphanies.  The catharses end up with the killing of the three teens who have harassed the son.

And the final scene, of the father and the daughter sucking the milk from the mothers freely-flowing nipples…it’s really pretty hysterical.  Miike is a real kook.  It’s hard to know how to react to this other than as a high-camp comedy, yet it’s critique of family stability and redemption and unity are nothing short of hilarious.

Pan’s Labyrinth

Pan's Labyrinth (2006) movie poster

(2006) dir. Guillermo del Toro
viewed: 02/09/07 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

I’d been wanting to see this movie for ages, even before it actually came out, but for some reason it took me a long, long time to finally get around to it.  So, I left work a bit early on Friday and hit a showing in the late afternoon.  The film surprised me, mainly because it was as good as I had hoped it would be.  I am used to let-down on films that I am excited about seeing.  But, I have to say, Pan’s Labyrinth is excellent.

Writer/director Guillermo del Toro has certainly hit his high mark.  He’s had an interesting career so far.  The first of his films I thought was okay, a strange vampire film, Cronos (1993) and then a couple of weird, semi-interesting Hollywood films, Mimic (1997) and Blade II (2002) and Hellboy (2004), but somewhere in between made a semi-obscure gem, also set in Franco-era Spain, The Devil’s Backbone (2001) which was quite excellent itself.

Pan’s Labyrinth is a real further departure, far deeper in fantasy, but tied into a historical critique of the fascism of Franco’s Spain, embodied by the cruel, heartless Capitán Vidal.  The world of the film is beautifully rendered, rich in character and detail.  I had actually thought before I’d seen it that the art design, being as cool-looking as it was, potentially could overpower the story.  Quite frankly, as entertaining as his Hollywood work is, it’s also not great stuff inherently.  The strength of the narrative in this film is a big part of why it’s so strong.

Ivana Baquero is pretty wonderful as Ofelia, the tragically oppressed daughter of an ailing pregnant mother who has married herself to the cruel Vidal after Ofelia’s father, a tailor, has died.  They are taken to a remote mountain area of Spain where Vidal is leading an attack on the rebels in the area.  She discovers an ancient underground world to which she belongs, a long-lost princess, reincarnated to return to her world and achieve immortality.  She discovers an ancient faun who instructs her on three tasks that she must achieve to enable her to return to her world.

Del Toro parallels aspects of the fantasy world in tune with things that happen in “reality”, images of keys, knives, and ultimately the baby echo each other through the steps of her journey.  As the story unfolds, the connections deepen and mesh.  It’s a nice conceit, and del Toro plays out the balance between the fantasy and reality in a clever and seamless fashion.

This is an excellent film.  Really good.

This Film Is Not Yet Rated

This Film Is Not Yet Rated (2006) movie poster

(2006) dir. Kirby Dick
viewed: 02/06/07

There is something sinister here, the MPAA, its secretive staff and policies that dictate the ratings that films get in the United States.  And while theoretically this organization has no power to do anything in regards to legality, their endorsements (by means of ratings) influence the ability for films to be marketed, distributed, and sold and resultingly, their influence winds up with a implicit form of censorship.  And I am willing to guess that the average American has no idea how this whole thing works.

Kirby Dick plays this with a large tongue embedded in cheek, hiring a private detective to see if they can find out who the actual staff of “reviewers” are and also who the review board turn out to be.  The tone works largely, because otherwise it might be quite a slog about the censorship and challenges to the “art” of cinema.  There is a great deal of hypocrisy in the whole system, which Dick exposes as essentially being a cadre of huge corporations, governmental mentality in Hollywood, and even organized religion.

I guess the realities of all this stuff is nothing overly shocking.  He has a lot of pretty well-spoken directors and actors who talk about the issues with great eloquence, though clearly on a one-sided perspective.  The fact that the organization is so secretive and hidden is almost frightening, but the people who really “suffer” from this are film artists and the American people who might be interested in a less filtered array of feature film art.

There are other aspects of homophobia and the great irony that, in reality, the MPAA filters out sex 4-5 times more often than violence, which is a cultural critique on America in innumerable ways.  It is pretty fucking pathetic that the ultimate review board is made up of CEOs and other corporate bigwigs of studios and distribution companies.  It’s total hypocrisy.  The Kafka-esque responses that the board offer as to how their system works and their awful, awful tone of high-and-mighty-ness is pretty bad too.

The movie itself is good, but not great, though it was an enlightening experiment and investigation.

Jack Valenti be damned.

The Bad Sleep Well

The Bad Sleep Well (1960) movie poster

(1960) dir. Akira Kurosawa
viewed: 02/04/07

Akira Kurosawa is one of the big names in cinema, very deservedly so.  I had a professor at University who was highly critical of the archetypes that he created of the samurais and the tone of Japanese-ness that became so broadly accepted as “truth” as Kurosawa’s films were the primary Japanese cultural export that was broadly known.  I think that is what he didn’t like.  I don’t know.

I have to say that his mastery at cinema is profound and indisputable, like many other of the major figures in cinema.  So many aspects of The Bad Sleep Well demonstrate this throughout, from his framing of shots and construction of narrative to his approach to genre and literature.  Even saying that, The Bad Sleep Well, as excellent as it is (and I do think it is excellent), I wouldn’t necessarily put it up there with his greatest achievements. Still, it’s pretty fucking amazing, an adaptation of Hamlet set in late-1950’s corporate Japan, criticizing blind dedication, ruthless greed, corporate culture, and suicide as an honor of Japanese belief.

A few years ago,…let’s say 10 or more, I saw Stray Dog (1949) and High and Low (1963) and was utterly amazed.  Kurosawa is so well-known for his samurai pictures that his contemporary films seemed a total surprise, dealing with genre and adaptations from European and American sources into utterly Japanese narratives.  His picture of Japan as a place of change, an analysis of the present, is telling and beautifully executed.  The Bad Sleep Well is somewhat of a mystery, somewhat of a noir, somewhat of a lot of things.  But what I would say it is entirely is another testament to the excellence of Kurosawa’s direction and art.  Really cool.