Archive for January 2010

Dance Party, USA

January 8, 2010

Dance Party, USA

Aaron Katz’s Dance Party, USA is not quite a feature but not quite a short at the unusual run time of 106 66 minutes. It’s a contemporary verite style film that fits well with the work of Andrew Bujalski and Ramin Bahrani. It was shot on location on DV with quite a small budget and a very non-professional cast. The film focuses on Gus, a 17 year old living in a Portland, OR suburb and addresses a two or three day period in the summer in which he addresses something rather terrible that he did in his past. In doing so he makes a connection with Jessica, an acquaintance of his who, with her quiet bearing and her ability to see through Gus’ bullshit, is able to elicit from Gus a sort of confession, not just of his actions, but of who he is and who he is trying to be.

Katz has an excellent ear and eye for the way his characters, late high school age inhabitants of a white, middle class Portland suburg, would talk and react to the world. In a scene where Gus and his friend Bill are sitting in Bill’s bedroom drinking bottles of Coors at noon, Bill relates the anecdote that he encountered a woman on the train that day who was severely bleeding from her nose. Gus reacts as if Bill is telling him about something he saw on TV or in a movie, expressing no interest in what caused the injury, whether the woman was all right or what Bill did. And Bill ends the story quickly by relating that everyone else on the train was staring at her…then the conversation changes. This sort of detached, emotionless reaction from both teens struck me as quite genuine. The scene of the older boy ineptly using the temptation of pot to hit on Jessica as she looks away and he doesn’t get the hint. The crassness of the way Gus and Bill talk about women and sex, covering their own inexperience and lack of confidence with words like “clit” and “bitch.”

The most impressive scene of the film is also the central scene, in which Gus’ confronts the girl involved in the aforementioned incident from Gus’ past. Katz’s displays a wonderful sense for pacing and how words can convey so much more than their surface meaning. It’s never quite clear whether or not the girl recognizes who Gus is and they dance around the central issue in such a way that, while the issue and situation itself is not broached and nothing is addressed head-on, it’s clear that in just 10 minutes and with few words something has been resolved for both individuals. This scene also demonstrates the limitations of addressing heavy emotional subject matter with amateur actors. The scene relies on the facial expressions, tension of muscles, pauses and tenor of voice that it demands a cast of higher caliber than Katz acquired, but I was quite impressed by Katz’s ability to direct such nuanced performances out of his actors.

The other real drawback of Dance Party, USA (and the one that is the most unforgivable) is Katz’s use of the cliched technique of the dialogue-free montage shown over emotional piano music, clearly meant to demonstrate the thoughtfulness of Gus and Jessica and the emotional power of the experience they shared. It feels contrived and lends no depth to the film or to the characters Katz portrays.

Overall I was quite impressed with this film. As small and short as it is I definitely felt that there was not quite enough story for it to be fleshed out much more than it was and the note that it ends on is pretty right-on. It’s debt to previous films of this genre, particularly Larry Clark’s Kids, is quite apparent but Katz is able to do something quite interesting and effective nonetheless. I’d definitely recommend this to anyone that enjoys small, unambitious and quiet slice of life films and, hey, if you’re not into it you’ve only lost 1 hour of your life anyhow, right?

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Eating my Vegetables #1: North by Northwest

January 7, 2010

North by Northwest

One filmmaker that is pretty well universally admired and loved by many but whose films have never particularly had resonance with me is Alfred Hitchcock. While pretty much everyone who has ever talked about Vertigo or Rear Window loves them, they never really stuck with me beyond the final frame. This is probably why another of his much loved films, North by Northwest, belongs on this list.

The first thing that struck me was the clear disclaimer at the end of the title sequences stating that the story is fiction and any similarity to anyone or any agency is purely coincidental. This seemed clearly to be a hedge against any pushback by the US government due to the portrayal of the agency in the picture that’s clearly a stand-in for the CIA. This agency is shown to have pretty callous disregard for the Cary Grant character as he gets caught up in a convoluted case of mistaken identity by a nasty and murderous international spy ring that is funneling US state secrets to the Communists.

I think what I took away most from this picture was the way the film addressed the clearly sexual relationship between Grant’s character and Eve Marie Saint’s femme fatale. The references to casual sex were quite open, a far cry from the more veiled innuendo that was necessary from Hollywood fare made during the height of the production code. Moreover, Grant’s character is really shown to be a pretty slimy sort of anti-hero character, at least from the moral perspective of the average American film viewer of 1959. Not only is he a calculating, manipulative and selfish ad-man who isn’t beyond crafting lies to avoid waiting for a taxi, but he is also a twice divoriced bachelor who has no problem propositioning strange women he meets on an overnight train while on the lam. This is the sort of hero of ambiguous moral character that would be seen more in the 60s and 70s.

I was pretty impressed with the tight and twisty storyline, though in the first act as Grant begins to investigate more into the identity of the mysterious “Kaplan” that the spy-gang mistakes him for I was hoping that perhaps Grant would end up being gaslighted. While most of the twists were pretty clever, perhaps it’s just my hindsight and knowledge of common tropes of the thriller genre that I immediately knew that Eva Marie Saint’s character was a sort of double agent working for the CIA-like agency.

Anyhow, I don’t have too many deep thoughts about the film though I did find it pretty enjoyable for a film of it’s time. I find that I have a natural aversion to quite a number of the Hollywood films made between the 40s and the mid-60s due to the very standard, static camera (the great exception to this is the wonderful and rightly iconic scene of Grant in his suit running towards the leading camera through the fallow Indiana field away from the bi-plane bearing down on him.) My modern eyes have perhaps become spoiled by the effective and dynamic camera work of films like Irreversible. And I have to remind myself that it was the same year as this film that Godard released A Bout de Souffle and introduced that now standard editing technique of the jump-cut to the world.

Up next: Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows.

Eating my Vegetables – an introduction!

January 7, 2010

So the new year has come and I’ve made a unique resolution. As those of you who know me may know I got on a kick starting a few years ago wherein I would get movies from Netflix and if I didn’t watch them right away would just copy them (the FBI’s totally goanna bust me!) to watch them later. However, as one may guess, later rarely comes, especially for the films that I like to call “eating your vegetables” movies. Those films that you’ve read about as being amazing and/or important but, when you think “what do I want to watch tonight” always seem to be overshadowed by more immediately appealing (or “easy”) choices. Some of the reputed greatest films in history have been set aside by me, vowing to absorb their uberness at a later date that hasn’t yet come. Some of these films include Jean Renoir’s “The Rules of the Game,” Dryer’s “The Passion of Joan of Arc,” Di Sica’s “The Bicycle Theif” (or Bicycle Theives? I’ve seen the second title used by the Brattle Theater recently) and pretty much all of the most praised films of Akira Kurosawa and Ingmar Bergman.

So, my resoultion for 2009 is to watch at least one “eat your vegetables” movie per week and blog about it here for your enjoyment (or, you know, the opposite of that.) This is sort of my own version of the great film commentary series from the Onion AV club like Better Late than Never. I generally only blog about films that really move me one way or another, but whatever – if I don’t have much to say I’ll probably keep it short.

Last night I saw North by Northwest for the first time, so I’ll start with that and see how it goes. Wish me luck!

The Mighty Boosh

January 4, 2010

(Part Four of This Series)

The Mighty Boosh is the name of a television show (2004-2007), but it’s also the name of the double act of Julian Barratt and Noel Fielding.  This summer saw their initial push to break America (including the most charming panel in the history of Comic Con) and it pains me that Adult Swim has chosen to sell them as a crazy, surreal oddity that only stoners would appreciate because the show couldn’t be more straightforward and old fashioned.  Here, give them one minute:

That’s basically the show.  They go on adventures, but all of the journeying is just a framework for jokey vaudevillian dialogues – if you like that sort of thing, you’ll love this, and if you don’t, you won’t.  Me, I could watch those two flirt and bicker all day.

The rest of the regular cast consists of American Rich Fulcher, Noel’s brother Mike, and Noel’s friend from college Dave Brown.  It’s that kind of let’s-put-on-a show.  The extras get padded out with other friends and family, and Barratt and Fielding write the show and all of the music and create the art design (it’s a beautiful show, and more so with each series).  They’ve been working together on one iteration or another of this project (stage shows, radio series) since the late 90s and they’ve created an entire world that is enormous fun to drop into.

There are ever cycling episodes being taken down and put back up on youtube, but at the moment you can watch Tundra, an episode from season 1 (when Howard and Vince are working as zookeepers) that’s as good an introduction as any – but all three series are available on DVD for us here in the U.S..  Here’s part 1 of Tundra and you can click through for the rest if you’re so inclined:

It’s really a lot like a children’s show, but for a pervasive preoccupation with the threat of rape that would be a sign of something weird in an American man, but which, I think, comes standard in the British male psyche.

Reader note: My bloggies abandoned me

January 1, 2010

So this blog was initially created with the hope that multiples of my friends would post in addition to me but, alas, it appears that the end of 2009 was also the end of this being a more than solo endeavor.

From this date forward all of the posts will be mine alone. Sadly the wonderful contributions of John Flynn and Maura Crowley will no longer appear here and this will be a solo ride for me going forward. I will miss their insights.

John blogs regularly about music here: http://johnrflynn.com/blog/

Maura blogs occasionally about documentary film here: http://ambitiousoutsider.wordpress.com/