Wednesday, April 22, 2015

So Expert, Much Obscure, Wow.

Sometimes comedy hits so close to home it feels like horror. I was a fidgety wreck at Cinemapolis watching one scene in Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young, in which Josh (Ben Stiller) pitches his six-and-a-half-hour political documentary to a hedge fund bro. Trapped in close-up, Josh botches it, sputtering out undergrad filler (“prison-industrial complex,” “power structures in the global economy,” etc.) before closing with a Hail Mary to the heartland (“It’s really about America.”). The investor, bored as hell, asks, “So … what’s it about?” The horror of incoherence, at your ideas and the words you choose to share them with, is one I have felt many a time at home and at Cornell.
The unspoken reality in this movie is that Josh is a mediocre thinker and a lazy filmmaker, still stuck in that arrogant film student mode where the burden is all on the audience to comprehend the brilliance of your pièce de résistance. His documentary is boring (its footage is mostly of a renowned but colorless academic espousing his wide-ranging theory, in front of bookshelves or at an underlit dinner table), and it’s boring because Josh has no mastery of the rhetorical tools of filmmaking — like camera placement, sound or editing — that would involve the viewer, no matter how well-read he or she is, to care about the big issues his film tackles. Baumbach, on the other hand, is a subtle enough filmmaker to disclose Josh’s mediocrity without outright stating it, and one of the funniest, and trickiest, aspects of the film is how everyone lectures about the problems they see around them while remaining oblivious to their own. Can you relate?
Incoherence and obliviousness, together, make a distinctly modern comedic pair. Baumbach is not the first to venture into this subgenre of “cringe comedy,” as the Internet calls it, but he does not have a great deal of predecessors either. Of course we have all seen an intellectual caricatured as removed, dainty or impotent in an older film, book or TV show, but the manner in which Baumbach and Stiller render Josh’s esoteric babble engages more ongoing questions, like pretentiousness and privilege. In sustained, awkward close-up, Josh gives himself more than enough rope to hang any prospect of funding, and the discomfort we feel while watching him is sympathetic, if not empathetic, because words have, presumably, failed us all before. At the same time, Josh can spout this pseudo-intellectual nonsense in part due to his white male/Blue Steel privilege, which gave him an unearned soapbox long ago. He should really be trying harder, but still, damn, is he human.
Every thinker fears incoherence. You stumble upon an idea you think is novel, but then you must secure the argument, with the innumerable steps involved, in order to share it with the world. Otherwise your thought is just an abstract glob of noise. (I should know: I’m revising an honor’s thesis at the moment.)
“Noise-shaped air,” on the other hand, is a perfect phrase from the fourth season premiere of Armando Ianucci’s HBO comedy Veep, and it is used to describe the euphonic, fill-in-the-blank insincerity of a speech President Selina Meyer shares before Congress. Veep explores the other extreme of nonsense language — the political sermon — and how inane it sounds when spoken by someone like Selina, a woman with a preternatural gift for inventive vulgarity. I hope to one day buy a leather-bound book of her and the rest of the cast’s putdowns, because they are what make Veep the funniest show right now, but Selina’s facility with disingenuous but nonetheless effective public oratory elevates the show to conscious, critical heights. In the premiere, she riffs off a teleprompter glitch, which spells her presidential ambitions with the placeholder text left from earlier brainstorming: “FUTURE WHATEVER.” With conviction in herself and the drivel she is about to say, she sells worthless platitudes (“Whatever we have in store cannot be unknown. But given time, it can be understood. The past was once the future … ”) and her esteemed colleagues greet her noise-shaped air with rapturous applause.
In “The Universe,” one of their most popular sketches, Tim and Eric, from Adult Swim, make fun of a kind of language in between half-baked academic-speak and hollow, wowing rhetoric. Tim Heidecker, squeezed into a black turtleneck, talks about the wonders of the universe as intentionally crappy video effects whiz around him. “Picture a hot dog bun,” he says, as a hot dog bun fades on and off the screen. “And throw all the stars, the hundreds of stars, that there are in the universe into a … into a bag, and put the universe into a bag, and you, all of a sudden, they become, um … ” His face crumples into a pudgy frown as his tortured metaphor escapes him. I laugh every single time I see it.
Tim and Eric, premier parodists of white male pastiness, find funny the way self-appointed experts attempt to streamline their ideas, particularly when in extreme close-up. They share their so-called research with can-do cheer, living up to the democratic mission of popular science when they turn to metaphor or when Eric Wareheim says, “And us humans can’t even fathom the concept of that kind of time because it’s really really really really really really really really fun!”
But ultimately, Tim and Eric seem to say, incoherence is inherent to any discipline, if it truly is a discipline. True intellectual work requires logic, evidence and manageable innovation, yes, but it’s unlikely the casual reader can just walk in and comprehend a field written by experts. Communicating those big, important ideas should be done in a respectable way, without off-color humor … which is where Tim and Eric, Noah Baumbach and Armando Ianucci come in.
This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun.

Modest Mouse Concert Review

Modest Mouse
Barton Hall, Cornell University
April 19, 2015

Courtesy of Michelle Feldman // The Cornell Daily Sun

I wrote a review of Modest Mouse's concert at Barton Hall here. Of the three shows I've seen from them (also 2012 Governors Ball and 2014 at The Capitol Theatre in Port Chester), this was the best, though I've been arguing with a few people who disagree...

Thursday, April 9, 2015

It Follows Review

It Follows
Directed by David Robert Mitchell
Released in 2014

Somewhere north of Detroit, Jay (Maika Monroe) is treading water in her family’s above ground pool when she spots an ant crawling up her arm. Her expression is almost blank, lifted by a slight, dreamy smile — she could be thinking of her date with Hugh (Jake Weary) that night. She gently lowers her arm into the water and with it, the ant, which now squirms. Whether or not the filmmakers fished it out after completing the shot, the character that is “Ant” surely drowns. Jay meant no malice, nor is this scene the first in the portrait of a college-age psychopath. She probably meant nothing at all in the mere lowering of her arm. But death, miniscule as it may have been, resulted from that simple motion, and death will soon in turn follow Jay as a meaningless, inexorable force.
It Follows is an unusual and unusually memorable horror movie in that its monster is Newton’s first law of motion. Well, if you’re going to be picky, actual people assume the role of the monster, some of them innocuous in appearance and others not so much, like a creepy old lady in a hospital gown or a seven-foot-tall man without eyes. The monster cycles through so many dissimilar identities that the only constant is the way it walks — slowly but steadily — toward the person it has isolated to kill. It can be easily outrun if that person pays attention to his or her surroundings, and so becomes a paranoid wreck. But the monster cannot be stopped. In lieu of an effective opposing force, the person can pass the curse by having sex with someone else, and even then if it kills — in painful, gruesome fashion —the next person it will come back for the one before.
Jay is the lucky one chosen by Hugh, a handsome out-of-towner always looking over his shoulder, to next bear this terrifying burden. They have tender, consensual sex in the back of his car, gratifying for both involved. After, she talks of love in measured, shameless terms before he crawls on top of her and clasps a chloroform-soaked rag over her mouth. In an agonizing long take, her eyes dart in terror before she falls limp. She awakes tied to a wheelchair in an empty parking garage, where Hugh describes her raw deal. “All you can do is pass it on to someone else,” he says. For proof, he shines a flashlight on a nude woman walking toward her from a distance, and allows the figure to get real close before wheeling Jay, who is wearing only a bra and underwear, to temporary safety.
What may read as a convoluted update of the “Dead Teenager Movie,” to use Roger Ebert’s term for the slasher films primarily concerned with ogling at and then dismembering promiscuous young women, is instead a sly, nightmarish contemplation of mortality. David Robert Mitchell, who wrote and directed the film, suspends his characters in a dreamlike haze that downplays the logic, or lack thereof, of the monster’s behavior and the violent ends its victims meet. Jay’s emotional state, which ranges from bliss to knee-buckling helplessness, takes precedence above all, expressing not just a vulnerable body but also a maturing intelligence that for the first time grasps the inevitable outcome (take a guess) that meets all bodies, not just those stalked by naked weirdos. By foregrounding his protagonist’s inner life and cutting often to the talented, convincing Monroe in close-up, Mitchell instills It Follows with a sense of existential dread that lingers long after the credits roll.
Thankfully, Jay does not struggle alone. As she seeks a way to dispose of the monster once and for all, Jay is joined by her sister, Kelly (Lili Sepe); her friend, Yara (Olivia Luccardi), who snacks and reads Dostoevsky off a clamshell e-reader; the sexy, Johnny Depp-type neighbor Greg (Daniel Zovatto); and Paul (Keir Gilchrist), the boyish childhood friend who has long had a crush on Jay. The film captures a low-key camaraderie between long-time friends who realize they don’t have many more years of bumming around left. That togetherness is what keeps Jay going, as it does for all of us.
A pistol figures prominently in the final act, which is disappointing. Bullets are as fatal as Nerf darts in good horror, as anyone who has seen Halloween knows. John Carpenter directed that 1978 classic, and he is the unmistakable influence behind Mitchell’s style and Disasterpeace’s brooding synth score. Mitchell deigns to one jump scare (hey, Texas Chainsaw has one too), but for the most part he and cinematographer Mike Gioulakis engender fear from staring at still, seemingly (hopefully!) inanimate objects (i.e., a closed closet door) or having a figure simply walk from the background to the foreground. Mitchell finds the most horror in corrupting the familiar, and thus evoking the uncanny, which leads naturally and unpretentiously to questions of mortality, public versus private space and deceptive surface appearances.
It Follows’ creepiness is hard to shake because its world is so close to normal, so open to growth and pleasure without shame. Gun flailing aside, these young adults are smart enough to recognize that this monster is undefeatable. It is a force they must find a way to ignore for as long as possible until they are ready, one day, to face it on their own terms.
This article was written of The Cornell Daily Sun.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Netflix State of Mind

The smart money these days is on Netflix, as both a growing, deep-pocketed agent in the television and movie industry and an attractive new model for how this entertainment can and will be consumed. What started as a mail-order service for movies and some television shows on DVD is now a primarily digital venue for streaming some of the most popular television. It offers movies too, of course, but as far as their quality, The Onion said it best last year with the headline, “Netflix Instant Thinking About Adding Good Movie.” Consider the tendency for movies, especially old ones, to just vanish from the service as TV new and old, from House of Cards to Friends, colonizes the most valuable real estate on its homepage, and we can conclude that Netflix has its own smart money on television rather than movies.
That’s an image Netflix is working to change. This fall, Netflix plans to premiere AAA films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon II and Cary Fukunaga’s war drama Beasts of No Nation the same day they open in select theaters. Chances are you will know full well that Beasts of No Nation is available to stream if you load Netflix around the time of its debut. It’s likely that it, like this year’s Oscar-nominated documentary Virunga, will have a prominent “Netflix Original” logo over its home page banner ad, or some other graphic claim to ownership that can be easily, imperceptibly mistaken for authorship.
But Netflix is not making Beasts of No Nation. Fukunaga has written and directed the film via Participant Media and Red Crown Productions. Netflix bought the rights for day-and-date streaming, but it has no more claim to authoring the film or the Crouching Tiger sequel or Virunga than Fox Searchlight Pictures has for The Grand Budapest Hotel or The Tree of Life, both of which it distributed.
Do you refer to The Grand Budapest Hotel as Wes Anderson’s film, and The Tree of Life as Terrence Malick’s? I do, even if I still wish to stress that Ralph Fiennes and production designer Adam Stockhausen contributed much to the first film, as Jessica Chastain and Director of Photography Emmanuel Lubezki did to the second. But as a cinephile and film student, I prescribe to the auteur theory, which holds the director as the primary author of any given film (even, crucially, the supposed trash). I would gather many people passionate about movies, whether or not they call themselves “cinephiles” (even I hear that word and think “doesn’t get much sun”), prescribe to a general belief in the auteur theory. The Oscars reinforce it — since 1990, 19 of 25 Best Picture winners also claimed Best Director — and the living legend status of someone like Martin Scorsese shows that we recognize and value the voice behind the camera, especially when it’s as open to caricature as his.
For the longest time, the auteur theory has evaded television. Showrunners like Mad Men’s Matt Weiner claim authorial primacy, with their dual head writer and executive producer credits, though premium networks like HBO and Cinemax have lately challenged that notion by hiring distinctive directors like Fukunaga and Steven Soderbergh for full seasons of True Detective and The Knick, respectively. Networks also retain greater visibility than movie studios because they have commercials, watermarks and password-protected streaming platforms to burn into your brain that, hey, this is an AMC (or NBC or HBO) show. Studios get a trumpet fanfare or roaring lion at the beginning, but they all have to share the same theaters, which have their own pre-movie promos to blast their brands and coax you into buying $8.95 tubs of popcorn. Both studios and theaters, however, tend to shut up once the lights dim and let the movie just be its own immersive thing.
Netflix has capitalized on its unprecedented hybrid status — part viewing platform, part big-money financier, part library — to disrupt these rules. But does it fulfill all those roles satisfactorily, or place too much emphasis on one over the others? As a platform, Netflix’s image quality has improved alongside our wireless routers, so there’s little room to complain there. But why have Netflix’s recent spectacles of checkbook-signing been accompanied by a remarkably inconsistent, waning library? Is all this money really going to Adam Sandler and not to securing Woody Allen’s filmography for more than a few months at a time, to say nothing of classics and hidden gems made before 1980?
Regardless of who “made” a streaming TV show or movie, we watch it “on Netflix.” The move away from physical media, as sad as this Blu-ray fanatic may be to admit it, has created a dependency on streaming platforms for both content and the range and history of that content. Netflix being the most powerful of these platforms, it has grown disinterested with history, instead favoring its capacity to shape the future. Ironically, that future resembles the past, the time when a producer like David O. Selznick claimed authorship behind films like Gone With the Wind and Rebecca, films he didn’t direct. But Selznick was so involved in the movie-making process that he can at least claim credit for one of those two (it’s the one not directed by Hitchcock), while Netflix only chooses and bankrolls original properties and has no hand in their actual production.
As we move through this Golden Age of Digital Content we should be able to recall who is really making it. Netflix does not make it so easy, as it zooms out to wave an arm at its other tantalizing offerings once those pesky credits roll. If you click on the director or star of any given film, it redirects you to DVD.Netflix.com, which is blockier and often useless, given how few filmographies are fully available. Given that Netflix is here to stay, that paucity needs to change if the industry wants its backlog to be viewed legally whatsoever. More than that, however, shining a light on the true authors behind these films directs viewers to engage not just with a single movie but with a varied filmography, epochal movement or entire medium. Auteurists may be an obsessive, idiosyncratic bunch, but our gift for disposing income knows no bounds.
This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Ravi Coltrane Quartet Concert Review

Courtesy of Jasmine Curtis / The Cornell Daily Sun
I reviewed the Ravi Coltrane Quartet's Friday night set at Bailey Hall, which will surely be the last time I cover a concert in one of my favorite venues, at least for The Sun. I rarely take up the opportunity to write about jazz, but with this piece and last week's column so close to each other, you might be able to guess that this music has been on mind as of late. Link to the story above as well as here.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Run All Night Review

Run All Night 
Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra
Released in 2015

Blood runs thicker than water in Run All Night, but the water might as well be out to kill you, too. Enraged Irish mobsters, crooked cops and one smooth assassin are merely the humans out for Liam Neeson and his son, as rain, fog and blasts of fire also engulf their surroundings with a hostile agency. The inevitability and omnipresence of violence on display is downright Biblical, and mature in a way that the revenge camp of Taken, the movie that started this whole party, is not. If director Jaume Collet-Serra does not match the smooth classicism of Non-Stop, his genre jewel from last year and the finest Neeson vehicle yet, then he lacquers Run All Night’s unremarkable script with enough grit to make for some essential, elemental action cinema.
Jimmy Conlon (Neeson) must protect his estranged son, Mike (Joel Kinnaman), because he himself killed the son of his best friend, Shawn. The kid (Boyd Holbrook) was about to shoot Mike, and he was a brat who insulted Jimmy on the regular, and Shawn pulled out enough hair over his son’s delinquency to end up being played by Ed Harris, but when your son ends up clipped in a Brooklyn kitchen, you are not too open to being eased by words that start, “Well, in the long run…” So Shawn releases the hounds, so to speak, ordering his people to snuff out Mike’s life first so that Jimmy will feel firsthand the pain of losing a son.
Jimmy and Mike do a lot of running through streets, subway tunnels and the projects, obviously. But the many chase scenes do not grow tedious, because Collet-Serra opted to shoot on location and cinematographer Martin Ruhe knows how to lens New York City. Even when flanked by neon, these men are bisected by shadows, which naturally populate the dingy corners in which they find refuge. Fight scenes draw attention to bloody mouths, trembling heels and the scum on bathroom floors as much as punches swung. The violence is literally too dark and the scuffles too messily desperate for Jimmy’s particular set of skills to provide fodder for “oh, snap!” humor à la Taken.
Brad Ingelsby’s script has only one good line, I think. It’s when a platoon of police cars and helicopters surround the project where the two are hiding, and Jimmy turns to his panicked son and says, “It’s a big building. We got some time. Let’s wait.” The rest is merely serviceable, while many of Shawn’s lines sound lifted from what Don or Michael Corleone once said (“I am a legitimate businessman,” “There’s not enough money in the world to pull me back in”). Of course, Harris makes it all work, embodying through his ghoulish mask and rising cadence the unhinged volatility that comes with grieving while searching for blood.
Playing an unapologetic killer many shades darker than his Matt Scudder from last year’s ace A Walk Among the Tombstones, Neeson can’t do much to make him sympathetic but play up his quotidian flaws: alcoholic, sickly, single. Jimmy remains bad to the bone, and one senses his father bear instinct is conflated with a renewed taste for blood. When pointing a gun, Jimmy hardens his face before taking the shot, leaving a brief pause between reaction and life-ending action. He is so good at killing that he has time to consider and perhaps even savor it, which must cycle back into an unending, bloodletting feedback loop.
While the computer-generated scene transitions that fly over broad swathes of cityscape do their best to distract from this fact, Collet-Serra has a talent for capturing the minute, physical gesture. He wrings suspense from the act of reloading, and how, in the heat of battle, those with empty clips must compromise by using their knees or tips of their fingers to do so. He rarely brings bodies together in proximity or even in the same shot, since everyone is out to kill one another. Only after one character lands a fatal shot on the other, near the end, does Collet-Serra allow the two adversaries to unite again and lean on one another in a heartbreaking display of belated gentility.
The film turns into a horror show when Common pops in as a ruthless, machine-like hired gun, with a night vision eyepiece that hammers comparisons with the Terminator into almost-fact. His character is a cliché, though Common brings the cool, which anyone who saw him earlier this month at Bailey can testify he has in spades. An interesting twist is that the aforementioned fog and smoke screws with his night vision piece, and so multiple times he is forced, mid-fight, to tear it off, making him a chump like anyone else. Maybe God is raining down all that hellfire not to kill the Neesons, but to force his enemies to treat him with a little respect.
3 Stars Out of 5
This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Cornell's Critical History: Whitney Balliett '51


I dug into The Cornell Daily Sun archives this week to discover dozens of great clips by one Whitney Balliett '51, the long-time New Yorker critic regarded for his writing on jazz. Except when he was a Cornell student, during the late 40s and early 50s, he wrote predominantly about film. And his prose, even at such a young age, was vital, terse and precociously sharp. It rewards reading all these years later. I invite you to check out my piece, which includes plenty of vintage Balliett excerpts, here.