People Are Strange

When Barton Fink won the Palm d'Or at Cannes back in 1991, the advance word declared that it was a Coen brothers movie for people who ordinarily can't stand Coen brothers movies (even though, in retrospect, that film introduced numerous stylistic flourishes and thematic concerns that remain major elements in their arsenal). The same can be argued, much more effectively, about their Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men--it's serious, and literary to boot! Which explains both why the anticipation for their follow-up effort was particularly feverish and why many of the critical reactions it's elicited have been lukewarm and rather befuddled.

It's a Coen brothers movie, stupid. Or, rather, it's a "stupid" Coen brothers movie--in the best sense, much like Fargo, their most generally well-regarded film prior to tackling Cormac McCarthy. In fact, Burn After Reading is, in a nutshell, Fargo relocated and re-imagined with real life movie stars, substituting the Greater D.C. area for the Upper Midwest, John Malkovich for William H. Macy, George Clooney and Brad Pitt for Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare, Tilda Swinton for whoever that lady was that played Macy's wife, and Frances McDormand in a blonde wig for Frances McDormand in a pregnant suit. In both instances, the casts are uniformly terrific, but here the Coen's pull off a neat trick that wasn't necessarily available to them a dozen years ago: they've convinced A-listers to play hysterically exaggerated versions of themselves--George Clooney's the say-anything womanizer, Malkovich is the uber-effete intellectual with an explosive temper, Swinton's the chilliest of ice queens--and, arguably, the most famous (and famously handsome) actor in the world to play a full-on dork.

Those who've accused Burn After Reading of being a film about nothing may have a point, but it's clearly not one that eludes its creators. This one is nothing if not ingeniously self-reflexive. J.K. Simmons' CIA boss is an audience surrogate of sorts, sighing and rolling his eyes at the increasingly convoluted and seemingly pointless narrative developments (which play more as digressions, natch). And when Frances McDormand's Linda catches a comedy on a date with a humorless government employee, his stone-faced lack of amusement suggests viewers expecting a more "mature" follow-up to No Country. You might say, then, this a Coen brothers movie for people who love Coen brothers movies, aimed less at folks who Tivo the Oscar ceremony than at the cultists organizing Big Lebowski-themed meet-ups and rewatching Raising Arizona on basic cable for the umpteenth time.

As new territory goes, Burn After Reading is a clever riff on JFK-style conspiracy thrillers, but all their signature touches and concepts are here: desperate people in way over their heads (the film's oft-echoed refrain is "What the fuck?!"), eccentric types congregating in highly specific locations (this time, a chain gym called Harbodies in lieu of a bowling alley), and, above all, Murphy's Law as an omnipotent force of nature.

As in Burn, the narrative momentum in Kim Ki-duk's stunning Time is propelled by an overwhelming sense of you-can't-undo-what's-done anxiety and (incidentally) by a desire for the fresh start promised by major cosmetic surgery. Kim's film centers on Seh-hee, a young woman so jealous of her boyfriend's supposed flirting with other women that she has her face completely surgically altered. From there, things (as in the Coenverse) spin dramatically out of control, as love, sex, fear, and (self-) loathing blur into a nightmare mosaic of modern life.

Kim tosses so much out there idea-wise, and leaves enough of it on the table, tantalizingly unresolved, that Time's lingering effect is ambiguous. In a film defined by the extremes of human nature (if this is ever remade by Hollywood, some game actress just might snag herself an Oscar), the final scene is a harsh stroke of organic poetry. It's also representative of a purposeful formal playfulness that Kim balances deftly with his story's tragic dimensions. The film's most haunting scene, however, comes just before the operation that sets the plot in motion: Seh-hee touches her face--lovingly, wistfully--for the last time before getting a new one, as if she's telling a loved one goodbye for a very long while. For a moment that goes (presumably) someplace most of us have never been before, it feels painfully familiar.


New World Order

In eager anticipation of the upcoming Vancouver International Film Festival and the Fall movie season, Teresa and I decided to take a good, hard look at what's right with contemporary world cinema. In other words--right--we made another list. This time around, we put our heads together to come up with our picks for the best filmmakers working today, and below is the resulting, consensus top ten. Of course, our individual top 25's looked a little different--neither of our top choices (Godard on my list, Lynch on Teresa's) made the other's list and our respective enthusiasm for Spielberg, Kiarostami, and Denis (me) and K. Kurosawa, Tsukamoto, and Kon (her) didn't quite gel either--but we nevertheless stand by the ten brilliant men (Catherine Breillat, incidentally, was the only auteur that we both voted for that didn't make the master list) that we managed to agree on. At the same time, we're sure that there are plenty of superlative-worthy names with whom we simply aren't sufficiently familiar at present. And, hey, it speaks volumes about the robust health of contemporary film culture that directors as good as (for starters) Jim Jarmusch, Lucretia Martel, the Dardenne brothers, Lars von Trier, Mira Nair, Charles Burnett, and Paul Thomas Anderson somehow failed to crack either of our preliminary shortlists.

10. Michael Mann More than Anderson (P.T. or Wes) or De Palma or even Scorsese, Michael Mann has a preternatural understanding of American pop. On the nocturnal L.A. streets of Collateral, in the claustrophobic Big Tobacco office spaces of The Insider, gliding across ocean waves from Miami to Havana in Miami Vice, the tough, elusive, sometimes radical spirit of American pop is a living, breathing force within Mann’s meticulously crafted aesthetic. When De Niro and Pacino square off near the end of Heat, Mann clearly gets that it’s not just a couple of aging movie stars playing cops-and-robbers (as it might well have played in inferior directorial hands): it’s nothing less than the culmination of a couple decades’ worth of meaning in American movie culture.[Josh]

09. Paul Verhoeven Like Cronenberg, his most recent film shows maturity by leaps and bounds—hell, miles even. Black Book was a perfectly pitched WW2 saga to end all WW2 sagas. Suddenly, a sexy Jewish spy girl’s story was the most important thing going on—screw the wider scopes of Schindler’s List of The Pianist—and Verhoeven even managed to add blowjobs and pube-dying to the mix, without ever seeming disrespectful. He also literally dumped a barrel of crap on his leading lady, and she still came out as a kick-ass, empowered feminist role model. You can’t do that without being a master. Or, as Sarah Palin might say, a maverick. Hence, his well deserved position on our list. [Teresa]

08. David Cronenberg Now quite far removed from his cruder, Videodrome and The Fly (or, God forbid, Naked Lunch) days, Cronenberg is poised to stand respectably alongside Coppola, De Palma and Friedkin as commercial-friendly older filmmakers that can still pack in enough edge to draw the college crowd. While one of Canada’s few internationally known directors is possibly toning it down as a means of gunning for that ever elusive Academy Award, our man seems to know the difference between selling out and artistic maturation. That’s a rare and valuable commodity that we should hang onto. [Teresa]

07. Tsai Ming-liang Tsai Ming-liang was probably that cool, brilliant dude in art school that the teacher was always praising and you were always cursing under your breath. The man can frame a shot like the greatest of ‘em, and make you believe there’s genuine emotion and conflict in that same frame, alongside the pretty colors and silhouettes. A force to be reckoned with, even his go-to actor is experiencing Mr. Ripley syndrome in the face of his mad skills. So far everything he touches turns to gold (or “sold,” to borrow a clever turn-of-phrase from one of our local realtors), and he can do no wrong. Also, a gay guy not afraid to film hetero porn scenes but still throw in a man dancing in a penis costume a few scenes later? We should all be as ingeniously ballsy. [Teresa]

06. Hou Hsiao-hsien There’s seemingly effortless mastery – and then there’s Hou Hsiao-hsien, who, feature after feature for the past two and a half decades, has forged the most uniformly impressive oeuvre this side of…well, this side of Hou’s hero, Yasujiro Ozu. Like Ozu, Hou’s films are flawless marriages of form with theme and content, as distinct and accomplished in style as they are understated and sublimely naturalistic. Where, say, Wong or Tsai frame their experiments front and center, Hou takes risks that are no less bold yet seamlessly integrates his inventions into the fabric of his intimate narratives. Had Ozu been alive to view CafĂ© Lumiere (or, for that matter, Three Times, Flowers of Shanghai, The Puppetmaster, or any other Hou masterpiece), he’d no doubt be proud and impressed. [Josh]

05. Jia Zhang-ke Jia Zhang-ke isn’t just the filmmaking world’s greatest talent under 40 (a distinction he holds by a fairly massive margin); he might just be the finest cine-artist Mainland China has ever produced. He can do epic historical pageant (Platform). He can do coming-of-age drama (Unknown Pleasures). He can do wistful romantic longing, meditative sociopolitical snapshot, and subtle surrealism all in the same movie (Still Life). He can offer up a compelling, multi-faceted portrait of the most complicated mega-country on the planet by shooting a documentary on clothing (Useless). It’s high time we recognize that Jia can do absolutely anything (and almost everything better than most of his contemporaries). [Josh]

04. Bela Tarr Bela Tarr makes long, glacially paced, relatively plotless films that exemplify the phrase “not for all tastes.” There, we said it—now, how about we focus instead on Tarr’s ferocious, pitch-black sense of humor? Or his uncommonly firm grasp of history, politics, religion, and their constant, embedded presence in our day-to-day lives? Or, if we must focus on butt-numbing runtimes and eternal static shots, let’s consider Tarr’s unique knack for exploiting the slow-build’s dramatic potential. Think, for a moment, of Werckmeister Harmonies’ stunning conclusion -- and then take a rather longer moment to appreciate how every frame that preceded it led us there and contributed to its indelible effect. [Josh]

03. Olivier Assayas Ambition went a long way for me when selecting my 25 directors—and thus Assayas ended up much higher than I would have expected. With sleek, unplaceable, international aesthetics—often centering around sex, drugs, and double (sometimes triple) crossing femme fatales—permeating the bulk of his work, Assayas has won me over on sheer escapist enjoyment. I enjoy spending two hours in his seedy underbellies every chance I get. While his cinematographer(s) should be praised to high heaven, the acting and clunkily philosophical dialogue also comes together magically each time out. As Tyra once well-meaningly told a model on her mammothly successful reality show: “your awkwardness works for you.” As you can guess, the same can and should be said of Assayas and his films. The trailers for his latest, Summer Hours, seem altogether dissimilar; airy and not at all menacing. We’ll see if this works for him, as well. I’m not too worried. [Teresa]

02. Wong Kar Wai Wong’s position on our list is a touch surprising given we both whole-heartedly found My Blueberry Nights an irredeemable waste of both talent and time. The trend of wondering about the merit of his past (master)pieces because of it, though, is unfair at best. Just because Norah and Jude stunk up the screen mightily, doesn’t mean Maggie and Tony were flukes or Christopher Doyle’s uncanny eye for swooning beauty was the real reason we fawned over the likes of In the Mood for Love or Fallen Angels. I suspect Wong was fascinated by America, and probably should have actually spent some time there before lensing a down-home road trip tale set in the heart of it. We all make mistakes. It don’t mean he can’t poignantly pull at your heartstrings while feeding your sophisticated cinema quota like no one else. Here’s to hoping he returns to Hong Kong with lessons learned. [Teresa]

01. Terrence Malick On the one hand, Terrence Malick has only directed four features between 1973 and the present. On the other hand, all four -- from 1973’s Badlands to 2005’s The New World, with 1978’s Days of Heaven (my personal favorite and one of my three or four favorite movies ever) and 1998’s The Thin Red Line sandwiched very comfortably in between – are legitimate masterworks. Name another living filmmaker (or, for that matter, one deceased) with a perfect career batting average, and we’ll reconsider our consensus number one. Adjectives like “lyrical,” “gorgeous,” and “mysterious” are tossed around pretty liberally by rapt cinephiles, including yours truly; Malick remains the genuine article, a singular filmic poet who has quietly revolutionized a medium typically titled more toward prose yet capable of true transcendence. He’s the Walt Whitman of American cinema, or perhaps the T.S. Eliot. Either way, let’s cross our fingers that he delivers that fifth film sooner rather than later. [Josh]


How My Heart Behaves

Brief notes on some stuff that I've been meaning to write about.

Feist, live in Victoria, 8/4/08 It's pretty cool that the province and the feds enlisted Leslie Feist to close out the festivities for B.C.'s 150th birthday; her appeal is seemingly as broad as any performer in her price range and her music is inoffensive yet seldom bland. It's cooler still that Miss F. played for a solid, inspired hour-forty when she was slotted for just sixty minutes. Reminder cuts like "I Feel It All" and "Sea Lion" rocked more convincingly than I would've suspected, and with 40,000-plus singing along, her Apple jingle sounded borderline anthemic.

Rihanna, "Disturbia"; Pink, "So What"; Lady GaGa, "Just Dance" So summer '08 lacked a single, unifying monster hit--everybody just opted to attend separate parties, that's all. "Disturbia"'s no "Umbrella," but it's nearly as sleek and well-suited to Rihanna's vocal strengths. (Plus, it's nice to see that she's not gonna pull a Fergie and release every damn track off Good Girl Gone Bad as a single before heading back in the studio.) Likewise, "So What" is precisely the sort of thing Pink should be putting out, at this point in her career. Where her edge and attitude appeared calculated a decade ago, they feel fresh here, a little bit cathartic even, as she's seemed to have grown into that pissed-off, grown-up-all-wrong persona. Best of all is Lady GaGa, whom we may well never hear from again but whose invaluable contribution to Western culture may be helping us transition away from "I Kissed a Fucking Girl." "Just Dance" is generic dance-pop in the best sense. As in, "I love this record, baby, but I can't see straight anymore"--and then you take her advice, whoever the hell she is.

Pineapple Express It's my least favorite product of the Apatow assembly line and my least favorite David Gordon Green movie, but it still has its charms. Chief among them are Seth Rogen and James Franco, who are never less than likable while the same can only sometimes be said of the film in general. It's also fun (at least for a while) to hear Green's signature quirky non-sequitirs delivered as stoner speak rather than awkward poetry. Things get increasingly muddled (and needlessly violent) as this one progresses, though it might've cohered better if I smoked weed.

Drive-by Truckers, Brighter Than Creation's Dark Nineteen songs--not one of them a dud (including the wrongly maligned "Bob"), more than half of them pretty great. "Home Field Advantage" is my favorite, for now. But "That Man I Shot" is close. Ditto "Checkout Time in Vegas" and "I'm Sorry, Huston." Heck, if it weren't for Tha Carter III, this would be my album of the year candidate, thus far.

2008 VMA's First off, congrats to Britney--not just for bagging a few Moonmen, but for seemingly making in-roads toward professional stability. Performance-wise, this was probably the best VMA's in years, especially with regards to Weezy and T-Pain, T.I. and Rihanna ("Numa Numa," seriously?!), even Xtina, who must've remembered that "Genie in a Bottle" was the best song she ever sang, so why not dust it off and mime over a real good remix? Kanye's show closer was on another level entirely--intense and hypnotic and completely game-changing. In fact, it might just be the most exciting thing I've heard all year.

2008 DNC Speaking of rock stars, the Dems' convention was something to get genuinely charged up about, from Ted Kennedy's surprise appearance and Michelle Obama's poignant speech on night one to the Clintons' gracious big-upping of Barack. For his part, the next President of the United States (fingers tightly crossed) answered in compelling fashion the question of whether a politician could pack, and totally work, an NFL stadium. The man's the real deal. (Maybe if the Canadian left had a figure with half his magnetism and immediacy, well-meaning voters up in these parts would actually get mobilized enough to vote Stephen "Bush of the North" Harper out of Ottawa...)

And, finally (if you live outside of British Columbia, feel free to stop reading now), a big nasty thumbs-down to CityTV for axing (or failing to renew the contracts of) Breakfast TV co-hosts Simi Sara and Dave Gerry, the most consistently appealing tube personalities in the Greater Vancouver viewing area. Hopefully, some smarter local network will give them new jobs soon. (If Simi and Dave are willing to cross the Georgia Straight, A-Channel should so get on that! BT live from Broad Street!)