Weekly Round-Up: March 20-26, 2016

  • Beach Party (1963) – The one that started it all. Delightful pop musical introducing us to the cast of kids led by Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello in their prime, with a terrific soundtrack featuring the two leads plus Dick Dale and His Del-Tones. This isn’t a masterpiece, but a wholly enjoyable piece of 1960s kitsch. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • Thor (2011) – I couldn’t believe how much I liked this movie. The arrogant Norse god Thor is stripped of his powers and banished to Earth, but this “fish out of water” story is consistently endearing and compelling. His brother Loki is my favorite Marvel villain to date, and Natalie Portman also delivers a strong performance as a determined physicist. RECOMMENDED.
  • Eating Raoul (1982) – Still in love with this wacky comedy, one of the sweetest and cleanest movies about very adult subject matter. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • In the Realm of the Senses (1976) – A very dirty movie about very adult subject matter. This round (my third or fourth time watching), the musical moments stuck with me the most, melodies underlying the desperate passion the couple has for one another. RECOMMENDED.
  • Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) – Complex and moving story of a “kid from Brooklyn” becoming a powerful hero. Like Thor, this movie is heightened by strong characters and a layered narrative. RECOMMENDED.
  • Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (1999) – I was reminded why people make fun of this one, but several moments (particularly the “Duel of the Fates” climax) are genuinely thrilling Star Wars moments. Definitely worth watching, even in spite of Mr. Binks. RECOMMENDED.

What did you see four weeks ago??

Weekly Round-Up: February 28 – March 05, 2016

I can’t believe I only saw three movies last week!

I watched:

  • The Intouchables (2011) – Based on a true story, this buddy comedy/drama between a debilitated wealthy man and his unpolished caregiver doesn’t really go anywhere plenty of other movies haven’t. NOT RECOMMENDED.
  • The Incredible Hulk (2008) – Nothing quite works in this origin story behind the iconic angry green superhero. Edward Norton doesn’t have enough to work with, and Liv Tyler whispers her way through sappy love dialogue. NOT RECOMMENDED.
  • Zootopia (2016) – Incredibly thoughtful and endlessly entertaining comedy-mystery set in an urban landscape where animals walk, talk, and harbor prejudices. Its complex messages around equality, diversity, and acceptance are profoundly timely in today’s fractured social climate. REQUIRED.

What did you see last week?

Weekly Round-Up: November 29 – December 05, 2015

This past week took things to a prehistoric level, with no fewer than three viewings of dinosaur movies:

  • The Good Dinosaur (2015) – A gorgeously animated, delicately told prehistoric western about a young dinosaur and his pet human finding their way home. (I liked it so much I watched it twice last week!) HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • All That Heaven Allows (1955) – Strong melodrama about the romance between a widow and a younger man, and their struggle against societal pressures. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • My Own Private Idaho (1991) – A young male prostitute goes on an international search for his mother. I must be missing something, because I don’t understand why people like this movie. NOT RECOMMENDED.
  • Pather Panchali (1955) – The story of a struggling family living in rural India. Beautifully shot and genuinely moving. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • Shame (2011) – A sex addict reaches his breaking point when his sister comes to stay with him. Tremendously directed for how seriously it takes takes its subject matter. Certainly not for everybody, but HIGHLY RECOMMENDED if you’re okay with emotionally draining sex scenes!
  • Jurassic World (2015) – Mindless CGI sequel/remake of Jurassic Park. The scenes of Jurassic World as an operating theme park are the film’s strong suit. NOT RECOMMENDED.
  • Youth (2015) – Thoughtful, emotional story of a retired composer and the people close to him. RECOMMENDED.

What did you see last week? Am I wrong about My Own Private Idaho or Jurassic World? Let me know in the comments!

Weekly Round-Up: November 15-21, 2015

This past week was exceptionally Criterion-heavy – between prepping for the Criterion Blogathon and my bi-annual “Criterion binge” (that is, a binge of Criterion movies to know whether or not they must be purchased during the Barnes & Noble half-off sale). As such, this was an especially rich week for film viewing:

  • The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) – Arguably one of the first real horror films (as far as I’ve read — I can claim no real authority on this era of film), Cabinet brings genuinely spooky visuals and inspired set design to a wholly memorable cinematic experience. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • Forget Me Not (1936) – Wonderfully sweet love story – I wrote a longer post you can read here. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • Weekend (2011) – One of the great dramas of the 21st century, and one of my favorite movies, period. Check out my writings on this extraordinary film here. REQUIRED.
  • Day For Night (1973) – Terrifically rich film about film, and possibly my favorite Truffaut thus far. REQUIRED.
  • A Special Day (1977) – This poignant and heartbreaking film brings together a defeated housewife and party subversive on the day Hitler visits Mussolini, circa 1938. Marcello Mastroianni and Sophia Loren at the top of their game. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • Rushmore (1998) – Sweet comedy-drama about a talented, ambitious, yet unfocused adolescent struggling to navigate the world around him. RECOMMENDED.

What did you see last week?

The Musical Pulse of Andrew Haigh’s “Weekend”

This essay is part of the superb collection of pieces in the Criterion Blogathon, hosted by Criterion Blues, Speakeasy, and Silver Screenings. Visit the full roster here for a multitude of insights, commentaries, and reviews on some of the finest in cinema history, by some of the best bloggers around!

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Between my numerous entries on Weekend and studies of the HBO series Looking, I think I’ve written more on the works of Andrew Haigh than just about anything. There is something terrifically addicting about the art he brings us – I’m drawn to his work first because it’s genuinely good, and upon each viewing I uncover something new, and am pulled deeper into the experience. He is absolutely a talent to keep an eye out for, and I eagerly anticipate seeing his latest film 45 Years (if/when it ever crosses the Atlantic!)

With Weekend (my introduction to Haigh), one of the initial draws was the strong musical soundtrack – I downloaded the two John Grant songs almost instantly, and gradually compiled as much of the (unofficial) soundtrack as I could. These songs have swirled in my mind over the past couple years and gradually brewed into the piece you are about to read. (And for the record, Looking has an excellent soundtrack as well!) The below piece is SPOILER-HEAVY so read with caution.

Andrew Haigh’s Weekend exemplifies contemporary neorealism in several regards. One way is through its narrative structure: we follow the main protagonist Russell along every step of his journey – his solitary walks to the bars, his bike rides to work, even him putting on shoes. Each aspect of his life is documented and compiled as part of the experience we share with him. Even visually, this is further communicated through numerous wide shots rather than close-ups, imagery of of Russell in a broader landscape, like the Manchester buses and on his lifeguard station at work. His frequent, though authentically staged, isolation is communicated to us in nearly every scene without Glen.

We not only see elements of neorealism, though; we also hear them. Weekend‘s sound design has a mostly atypical cinematic soundtrack to speak of – few”out-of-body,” omnipresent musical selections that only we, the viewer, can hear. The film opens with virtual silence as Russell gets ready to go out. The only sounds heard are the soft splashes of his bath, the crinkle of his shoebox lining, the tick of his lighter.

Not only does this instantly convey a sense of realism (which will permeate throughout the film through the aforementioned elements), but it also conditions our senses to take notice when music does happen. The songs, while played within some authentic, real-world setting of someone’s house, a dance club, etc., are frankly so few and far between that they carry a noticeable weight and significance all their own. All (good) soundtracks should include musical selections that support and communicate the story, and it’s even more impressive that Weekend can do so within its own neorealistic boundaries of when a song can be heard.

In chronological order, here is a timeline of the musical moments in Weekend:

Song: “William Posters” by Milk.

Jamie recounts a story of when he and Russell were kids getting into trouble. He describes Russell as being “stoned out of [his] mind” as they fled from a massive fire (which, presumably, they started). Russell smokes and sits back as Jamie gives us our first real introduction to his past.

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Song: “Oubliette” by Milk.

Jamie & Russell talk about Lois’s (Jamie’s daughter, Russell’s goddaughter) upcoming birthday party. Jamie asks how Russell has been, since he’s been keeping “a low profile recently;” Russell replies that he may be up for a promotion at work, though he looks like he has more to say.

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Another guest at the party interrupts them and sits between the two, and even takes Russell’s hat to tease him.

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In the next shot, we cut to silence. Russell has left the party and is saying goodbye to Jamie.

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Song: Club pop music.

Russell goes to a club. He and Glen have their first “encounter” and exchange glances, but Glen walks somewhere else – as we later find out, Russell was his #2 choice for that night. Russell is stuck dancing with the “hobbit,” who pathetically keeps trying to kiss him. There is a laugh-oud-loud moment when during the pop jam thumping overhead, the singer sneers, “We, we like to tear it down.” as a clearly disinterested Russell nurses his beer whilst being fondled by the hobbit.

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No music is heard for about 30 minutes. During this time, Russell wakes up with Glen in his flat. They are initially a bit awkward, trying to recount the events of last night. Before Glen leaves, though, they exchange numbers.

While Russell is at work, he and Glen text, meet up after, then head back to Russell’s apartment. Before Glen leaves, he lets Russell know he is leaving for Portland the following day, and invites him to his going-away party that night. The next musical moment is:

Song: “Bang Bang Cherry” by Hook & The Twin.

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“Bang Bang Cherry” pairs a slinky guitar riff with a fire alarm-esque keyboard screech. The natural rhythm of the song progresses in a mostly traditional way, interrupted occasionally by the off-putting keyboard sound.

This complements the action onscreen well – Russell arrives at what he was expecting to be a gay club for Glen’s going-away shindig. As he’s waiting for Glen, he orders two beers, only to find out Glen doesn’t like beer. When Russell asks why he chose this venue, Glen remarks, tongue-in-cheek, that it’s “a bit more fun, isn’t it, than your normal gay bar?”

Much like the song heard thumping overhead, Russell’s arrival and his exchange with Glen does not quite transpire how we would expect. The alarm also (literally) warns us for some of the fires still to come.

Song: “We’re So Light” by Hook & The Twin.

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“We’re So Light” builds up from a pulsating keyboard line, drum machine, ripping guitar licks, and stacked vocals to build an almost-overwhelming whirlpool of sound.

As this song throbs in the background, Russell learns more about Glen’s past from Glen’s roommate Jill. She asks, “Has [Glen] told you about John? […] This is way back when he did boyfriends.” and elaborates on John’s exploits, including cheating regularly on Glen, even getting beaten up after cruising in a public park. The camera remains stagnant on Russell, as the gravity of this bizarre past of the man he thinks he knows weighs him down. He realizes he doesn’t know Glen as well as he thought.

Song: “William Posters” by Milk.

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This is the only song to appear in Weekend twice. The first time we hear it (as mentioned above) is when Jamie is describing an anecdote from his and Russell’s past – a humorous, but not embarrassing, experience Jamie shares with the other guests at his home.

This second instance of this song is a much more private affair. Russell, who logs a diary of sexual encounters, shares this very intimate journal with Glen; we get the impression Russell has never shared this with anyone before.

On another (more narrative) note, it is interesting too that the same song is heard twice within roughly 24 hours of this film’s timespan. It is not unlikely that Jamie and Russell, friends since age 12, be fans of the same band, in this case Milk, especially given that this same Milk song played at Jamie’s house one night and at Russell’s the following night.

Song: “TC and Honeybear” by John Grant

My favorite musical moment in the entire film. Russell and Glen have just had a major argument, spanning marriage as an institution to owning pets to the elephant in the room: what their relationship is now, and what it will be. Russell, upset, steps away to the restroom. While he’s in there, Glen plays “TC and Honeybear” – Russell hears it muffled, coming from the living room.

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This song is a soft, acoustic guitar-driven ballad. As Russell leaves the restroom and walks down the hallway, we hear the lyrics: “Before that, Honeybear had given up. He felt so sad and lonely.”

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As he enters the living room, we hear: “Then one night, he looked up and he saw, he saw his one and only.” And he joins Glen at the window, as they look out into the night.

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One could certainly connect the lyrics of “TC and Honeybear” to Weekend as an essay all on its own. I view “Honeybear” as Russell – a quiet, reserved man lacking confidence, while “TC” represents Glen – a catalyst, someone to bring him out of his shell.

The song slows down with a ritardando and picks back up with a lovely  instrumental interlude with flute. Russell grabs Glen’s hand.

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Song: “Marz” by John Grant

Russell returns, alone, from the train station. He stands in the balcony and opens the package Glen gave him.

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He presses play and hears his own voice. “Um — I don’t know. I can hardly remember anything.”

Glen: “Just start from the beginning, when you first saw me.”

The gloomy piano riff of “Marz” begins. The lyrics tell of longing, optimism, waiting for something better.

This musical moment is particularly striking because of how different it is from all others that preceded it – this is the first and only “out-of-body” piece of the soundtrack. All other songs heard in the film take place within the strict context of the story – played in a club, in Russell’s apartment, at Jamie’s house. We are the only people to hear this song, and it isn’t playing really anywhere (in the Weekend universe, at least).

This is also the first and only song heard when Russell is really alone. Every other piece heard in the film is in some situation where Russell is with others, and even the way the scenes play out illustrate Russell’s character relative to those around him. We know he’s shy from how he lets Jamie speak on their behalf and tell his childhood story, during “William Posters.” We chuckle at the irony of his encounter with the pathetic hobbit in the club as “We like to tear it down” echoes overhead. We observe the tenderness between him and Glen as “TC and Honeybear” hums in his living room. But in “Marz,” we get Russell – just Russell.

So why does this matter? Looking at Weekend as Russell’s story, of him coming to terms with himself and his identity, the musical moments are another element building up to his self-acceptance, and us finally getting into Russell’s head. The film maintains multi-sensory levels of separation between Russell and the world around him – through its wide shots, of Russell as one small piece of a broader ecosystem, to its neorealistic musical soundtrack design, creating a confounding disconnect between action and emotion.

We break both of these barriers in this “Marz” sequence. We get close-ups of Russell, just Russell, alone in his apartment. We hear the song directly, not through an incidental, secondary channel like a radio or DJ, but as the sole audio track heard. The impact is so strong, it feels like the fourth wall has been broken – a surprising push from a mostly subdued neorealistic drama. This finale is a moment of purity, an unclouded look at Russell. It offers a chance for introspection, not only for Russell, but possibly even ourselves.

A weekend is a short amount of time, and a 97-minute movie is even shorter. It is truly a testament to filmmaking, and the emotional impact of music, of how much can change in so short a time.

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If you’re like me and you simply can’t get enough Andrew Haigh, check out the other essays I’ve written on his works:

Greek Pete

Weekend

Looking

Criterion Blogathon Starts Tomorrow!

Something’s cooking!

Very excited to participate in a Criterion Blogathon this week, joining hundreds of other blogs in writing about one of our favorite topics – the films, actors, and directors of the Criterion Collection! My piece on Andrew Haigh’s Weekend (2011) will be posted this Friday.

Can’t wait to see what others in the blogging community have to say about some of the best in cinema– you can follow the full roster available on Speakeasy’s blog to scope out which blogs to follow. Which posts are you most looking forward to?

Margaret (2011)

In college, my film professor once compared experiencing great works of art, whether literature, music, or film, to becoming closer to God. We, as individuals, go through life forging our own sense of morality and the Truth, so our organic connection to works of art we feel reflect this Truth is in fact a spiritual one.

There’s few films I consider meeting this profound, ambitious criteria, but Margaret sure does. It is the effortless, exquisite coming of age story of a high school girl, Lisa Cohen, becoming a young woman after witnessing and playing a role in a devastating tragedy.

I say “effortless” ironically, because this film is anything but; clocking in at nearly three hours (over three if you’re watching the Director’s Cut), this epic tale about one girl seems to encompass all of New York, if not all of humanity. Shots of Lisa riding alone in a taxicab pan out to a cityscape filled with solo cabs, together alone in the streets.

Anna Paquin’s incredible turn as Lisa is anything but effortless as well; she is this movie, pulling us in with her fiery passion, pathetic naivete, and devastating heartbreak. How she got through 2012 without earning a Best Actress Academy Award (let alone a nomination) is truly beyond me. Her performance is one most actresses could only ever hope to achieve.

What does feel so authentic and effortless about this film, however, is its change-over-time plot and the way characters respond to one another. An interesting development to observe is Lisa’s mother’s acting career, and how each performance brings her more bows, more applause, more standing ovations.

One of the film’s more compelling themes, Lisa’s “self-dramatization” of the tragedy onto herself, is well fleshed out through the scenic design; we are experiencing the story through her eyes, but not exactly the world. The caricature adults and peers she encounters are in fully developed, believable worlds, from her math teacher who sublets his unit to the organically messy police department. These spaces all feel real, and the more locations we visit, the more we buy the world presented to us.

Margaret’s most outstanding aspect, though, is its ability to create moments of high drama without grazing exploitation. This is not a film for the lighthearted, with its emotionally wrecking scenes and darker underlying subtexts. The institutional weaknesses of society are hard enough to live with as an adult, least of all through the eyes of a passionate youth. Margaret is a true masterpiece of youth cinema, as both an empowering testament to young naivete and a sometimes-necessary reality check.

“Weekend” and “Looking”: Tragic Love Affairs

Now that the superb first season of Looking has concluded, we can now approach it as a singular, (sort of) complete work. It is so similar in tone and subject matter to Weekend, and of course they are both the brain-children of the brilliant Andrew Haigh, so it’s impossible not to compare the two.

In case you haven’t picked up on it, there’s a great wealth of material to draw on from both these works, so this will likely be the start of a series comparing the two. In order to tether down this can of worms, I’d like to focus first on the love stories these works present.

Weekend is a romantic tragedy due to circumstances beyond the characters’ control. The timing of Russell and Glen’s meeting is simply inopportune, as Glen has already made arrangements to leave the UK for Portland, Oregon to attend art school. Two days wouldn’t be enough time for Russell to drop everything and run away with Glen, nor would it be enough for Glen to justify giving up on his presumed dream.

In contrast, the romantic tragedy between Patrick and Richie of Looking is directly caused by the parties involved. Patrick is at once pushy and uninvolved, and Richie can only take so much of Patrick’s uneasiness. There are no circumstantial, destiny-driven forces at play; this one’s all on them.

It’s important to point out this distinction after the excellent episode “Looking for the Future,” which has been very favorably compared to Weekend; when taken just on their own, Patrick and Richie can make a very convincing couple with real potential. Throw Patrick into the temptations of his everyday life, though, like caving to his friends’ pressure or battling his irresponsible crush on his boss Kevin, and he can’t fight for what he tries to tell himself he wants.

In Weekend, as much as we want the two to find a way to make it work, the looming timeline keeps the clock ticking in the back of our head and we know all along they’ll have to part ways. With Looking, though, without a real time clock (beyond an eight-episode season) and no immediate obstacles in the way, we can’t help but root for Patrick and Richie to make it.

Side by side, this distinct set of circumstances almost makes the failed Looking romance even more heartbreaking. In Weekend, the two men are in love with one another, but it rationally cannot be; in Looking, the two men can be together, and one simply caves out of it.

The romantic tragedies of these works are both moving and thought-provoking in unique ways, simultaneously shaped by their narratives and strengthened when examining them at once.

Every Day’s the “Weekend”

I’ve seen this excellent film about 10 times now, so of course the experience of viewing it has changed since that first fateful and, frankly, life-changing time.

It’s such an exciting film to revisit because every moment of it is jam-packed with depth and little references that wouldn’t make sense unless you are re-watching it. Our knowledge of these characters and their histories aren’t fully developed until the end of the movie (duh) so going through the journey again with this greater perspective makes each viewing that much more weighted and powerful.

Without providing too many spoilers, here are some fun things to keep an eye out (roughly in order as they appear) for when you revisit this modern masterpiece:

  • Listen to the story Jamie is telling about an experience he and Russell had when they were young. Does it sound like the way Russ is now?
  • When does Russell wear his hat? Can you spot a pattern?
  • What are some of the questions Glen asks Russell as they go from the pool to Russell’s apartment?
  • What number is Glen to Russell? What does that tell you about Russell’s love life?

These are just some of the fun tidbits that come to mind. What are “clues” you’ve noticed in Weekend?