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.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Pretentiousness With Purpose

I’m not saying I’m pretentious, but I can understand the misperception. All this babble on form, “being” and international art cinema, to what end? Why can’t I just enjoy movies for what they are and end a review with a thumbs up or thumbs down? Why the need for this loose syntax and suspension of decisive judgment? And why am I writing with the assumption that you’ve been following my column up to this point?
I’ll accept the last question as a potential problem of mine, but I know, from website analytics and reader emails (or lack thereof), that my audience is slim and composed mostly of friends who also have the time to ask questions of aesthetics. So if I write in an excessively familiar style, The Daily Sun Arts section will survive to see another day. Ya feel.
But the other questions are game, since shouldn’t criticism seek to clarify and not further obscure? Deconstruction, which I have been lately exposed to yet again, says no, but let’s limit our discussion here to the kind of cultural writing you’d find in newspapers, magazines and blogs, not academic journals. Is a lyrical tendency in criticism allowed, or should a critic’s prose seek to explain, determine and solve?
Accessible criticism, especially the sorts you’ll find online, has sided with the latter camp as of late. Most reviews dish out plot summary, with requisite compliments or swipes at the acting, script and image-prettiness, and perhaps end with a note about the film’s sociopolitical relevance. The pieces that ‘go long’ (as in long-form) trace a film’s symbolism and propose one-to-one meanings for choice shots, objects and character actions.
The films of Christopher Nolan and David Fincher are exhaustively analyzed along these lines, but as much as I’d like to gender this kind of discourse along ‘white male’ lines, it also thrives in popular progressive criticism. Critiques that claim to uncover a racist or sexist subconscious to mainstream films often raise good points but move so far away from the text at hand or zoom in so close on one aspect, sans context, that they overlook a perhaps resolute, invigorating ambiguity. What if a film embodies not just one stance — say, feminist or anti-feminist — but many of them at the same time? Is this not the age of dismantling binaries?
In her 1996 piece on Pulp Fiction, “Cool Cynicism,” bell hooks set the standard, to my limited knowledge at least, for how to write intersectional film criticism. She uses colloquial language to sneak in innovative theses, like when she starts a paragraph saying, “Tarantino’s films are the ultimate in sexy cover-ups of very unsexy mind-fuck.” That sentence may not make sense when you first read it, but it does if you take your time poring over it and, crucially, reading her supporting evidence.
bell hooks practices a form of criticism veering on poetry, and it is that poetic spirit, and with it an amorphous form, that separates intelligent analysis from superlative, risk-taking work. Yet isn’t poetry kind of antithetical to criticism? Poetry keeps its cards close to the chest, only admitting what it aims to say if the reader focuses, contemplates and re-reads. Which brings me to my central question today: Must a piece of criticism be read once to be appreciated, if not understood?
Methinks those who would say no would also be reluctant to revisit a film that has a reputation, in any way, as difficult. I have not had the chance to review Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice yet, but if I did I would definitely see it once more, maybe twice before attempting to unlock it. I am in the midst of an honor’s thesis on cinema, and repeated looks at certain Thai, French and Iranian selections have divulged details, be they plastic or political, that has increased my respect for these filmmakers a thousand fold. But while I hope to offer some coherent insight on these artistic subtleties, I also shy away from ascribing definitive explanations, opting for a twisty-turny style of prose that may be driving you mad on this very page.
A poetic tendency drives practically all the best critics, from bell hooks to Roger Ebert. “The world as processed by the mind, with finally only the bright bits magnetized by emotion remaining to flash against darkness,” is how Geoffrey O’Brien, a published poet in his own right, describes the sieved reality of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, which is no stranger to charges of obscurantism. Manny Farber, one of the most distinct and byzantine voices in the history of film criticism, offers the following when praising the “underground films” of such old Hollywood directors as Raoul Walsh and Howard Hawks 1918: “In the films of these hard-edged directors can be found the unheralded ripple of physical experience, the tiny morbidly life-worn detail which the visitor to a strange city finds springing out at every step.”
Do these quotes make sense? Not in any clean, easy sense. But they preserve something attractive and — this is most important — intrinsic to the films under scrutiny, and so testify to their merit. In her treatise On Beauty and Being Just, the endearingly esoteric critic Elaine Scarry writes, “Beauty brings copies of itself into being. It makes us draw it, take photographs of it, or describe it to other people.” Criticism will often fail to match the beauty from which it is inspired, but it should at least keep the wheel of appreciation and close attention ever turning. There is, after all, no community when every critic aims to to have the last word.
This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun.