Archive for the ‘Film Criticism’ Category


Heaven Adores You is the film Elliott Smith super fans have been anticipating and dreading for 11 years. The first feature-length documentary released about Smith, the film made its New York debut last week at the DOCNYC festival. You’ll find the first few paragraphs of my review below and the entire review at Next Projection. Given my very close relationship to this material, this was one of the more personal reviews I’ve ever written. The film disappointed, but I’m happy it exists.

For a long time, Elliott Smith was just another guy. He traipsed around Portland, his home of many years and the central location of Heaven Adores You, like any other face about town. He did drywall jobs to pay rent and played in a grunge band at small dive bars. He put out records that did OK in his own city. He was a regional darling, if that, within a thriving local scene.

By 1998, Smith was doing interviews on “Total Request Live” and getting mentioned in the same sentence as Celine Dion. How did this happen? To chart his ascent from Portland secret to obsessively beloved singer/songwriter, we can point to two facts. The first: Smith had a superhuman talent for writing melancholic pop songs. The second: Smith lied about the song “Miss Misery” to make it eligible for an Oscar. Smith and director Gus Van Sant claimed he wrote the song for Good Will Hunting – thus qualifying it as a Best Original Song – when it was just another unreleased number he had lying around. That lie lead to an Oscar nomination, a record deal, world tours and a level of fame that left Smith with profound unease.

“I’m the wrong kind of person to be really big and famous,” he says early in Heaven Adores You. The film, now playing at DOCNYC, strives to both celebrate Smith’s music and prove this essential point. Smith entered the world of celebrity on a lie, and his very presence there was a mistake. Heaven Adores You, despite its rather strange collection of shortcomings, makes do as a primer on Smith and the impact his music has on people. It’s a respectful if far too safe first cinematic draft of the Elliott Smith story.

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The following post first appeared on Next Projection. You can read it here.

You’ll find few through lines in the below list of great films released in 2013. They touch on historical drama and science fiction, coming of age and getting old, American greed and Indonesian genocide. 2013 gave us an eclectic collection of films worth discussing. I saw about 40 of them. These are the 11 that occupied the most space in my brain.

Honorable mention: The Wolf of Wall Street

Jordan Belfort received $1 million to have his life story adapted into The Wolf of Wall Street. Think about that. Belfort is a criminal, an emblem of capitalism’s worst impulses. And yet he made more money on this movie than many of us will earn in a lifetime. Belfort didn’t just screw people over as a broker; he’s now monetized the story of him screwing people over. It’s this fact, and not the movie’s deluge of nudity and drug use, that makes The Wolf of Wall Street a borderline immoral picture. Martin Scorsese doesn’t seem to see the irony here. He ends Wolf with an image that scolds cash-obsessed Americans for buying what Belfort has to sell, but didn’t Belfort pull the same trick – parlaying his notoriety into cash – by selling the movie rights to his books? The film itself paints Belfort as a Caligula-like monster, albeit one who’ll inspire the envy of bro-dudes for decades. Wolf is the kind of satire you could squint and interpret as either a celebration or a critique of its subject. Like my 2012 honorable mentionDjango Unchained, it’s a boycott-inducing romp that doesn’t say much but sparks a dialogue worth having.


#10 Blue Is the Warmest Color

Blue Is the Warmest Color is another three-hour epic one could easily condemn for its production details. The film’s (very young) leads have described the shoot as “horrible” and rife with “manipulation.” By their reports, director Abdellatif Kechiche prodded them way outside their comfort zones and became borderline abusive on set. I’m prone to believe the actors. I’m also prone to see the intimacy and volcanic energy on screen. Together with Kechiche, they’ve crafted a grand document on the highs and lows of young love. We get it all: the initial reverie, the sexual awakening, the blissful years, the atrophy, the colossal first break up, and, most gutting of all, the realization that you may never feel quite that strongly again. Save for the sex stuff, Kechiche renders these moments with remarkable care. We also see Adèle grow as an individual, outside of her relationship, as she tries on identities and political beliefs for size. Kechiche mars the film with a male-centric depiction of lesbian sex and several dumb moments intended to justify his obsession with female bodies. It’s a testament to the power of this coming-of-age drama that most of us are willing to forgive these sins. (more…)

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Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise.

Last week, I tag-teamed a feature article with Hubert Vigilla on 12 films that should receive prestige re-releases from the Criterion Collection. The piece appeared in Pop Matters. You can read it in full here.

For this exercise, Hubert and I tried to select films that would tangibly benefit from a Criterion release. This wasn’t a simple (re: lazy) listing of films we like that aren’t in the collection. Instead, we sought to highlight films that are either hard to find or woefully under-appreciated. We stressed rare cult oddities, genres often ignored by Criterion (musicals, animated features), and films that deserve better than the bargain bin. I wrote the entries for Beau Travail, Possession, Phantom of the Paradise, True Stories, Begotten, and Turkish Delight. You’ll find my entry on Phantom of the Paradise below. Here‘s a second link to the Pop Matters piece for good measure.

Though it came first, Phantom of the Paradise has for decades lived in the shadow of that other ‘70s rock opera: The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Now, in 2013, Brian De Palma’s deranged horror-comic opus appears primed for its cultural moment. Earlier this year, the members of Daft Punk hailed Phantom of the Paradise as “the foundation for a lot of what we’re about artistically”. Just look at those masks. Daft Punk’s omnipresent new record even features Paul Williams, Phantom’s costar and the maestro behind its music. All this is to say: Criterion should ride those “Get Lucky” coattails with a re-release of this underseen acid trip of a musical. The company has already resurrected two De Palma films (Blow Out, Sisters), and Phantom’s current DVD is a minimal affair from 2001. Like Rocky Horror, Phantom makes for great group viewing. The film has inspired costumes, festivals, musical covers, and other cult marginalia. An entire community of fans exists around Phantom of the Paradise. That community deserves, at last, a definitive home release of its beloved film.

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(Moderate spoilers below. Discussion is mostly limited to impressions and analysis, not plot description)

I’ve always been fascinated by beginnings and endings. In narrative art, they represent the first and last impressions a work can have on us. The way a film opens, the way an album closes, the way we enter a story — these bookends often interest me more than the works themselves. In bookstores, I like to read the first or last sentence of a novel off the shelves, as if these lines might capture the essence of what lies between them. With music, a great final song can compel me to repeat the album without pause. Or it can compel me to sit in deathly silence, stewing over the last track like the diction of my will.

What resonates more: an album that kicks the door open or one that taxis before it takes off? Like most list-making nerds, I’ve spent far too much time pondering such questions. Prod me for a list of favorite opening tracks, opening lyrics, closing scenes, or last lines, and I should have a draft on your desk by close of business. In this post, I’ll discuss five cinematic endings that approach something like perfection. When I use the word “ending,” I don’t mean plot twists or third-act surprises. You won’t find any twist endings on this list. Rather, I’m referring to the final seconds before the credits roll — the absolute last moments in which a director has our undivided attention. Some are triumphant punchlines, others are ominous ellipses. All of them stir my insides and haunt me the way only cinema and storytelling can.

I’d love to read your contributions in the comments section. What cinematic endings play in your head on slow days at work? (more…)

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*** out of *****

What to make of Cosmopolis, this flavorless layer cake of a movie? Here’s a film that robs us of cinema’s simplest pleasures: escapism, emotionalism, identifiable characters, narrative pull. And it does so, very much, on purpose. Like the financial guru at its center, Cosmopolis lives in the abstract. It’s a relentless blast of ideas, devoid of the meaty goodness that makes human stories stick to our ribs. It seeks to distance us from the characters and actions on screen. And it succeeds. Good for it.

It’s hard to love a film so alienating and artificial. But there’s no end to how much you can admire its radical experimentation.

Unfolding over a single, fretful day, Cosmopolis follows a billionaire financier (Robert Pattinson) as he rides across Manhattan in a sound-proof limo. Pattinson holds a series of meetings in his souped-up habitat; he forces those in his insular world — coworkers, lovers, doctors — to come to him. Pattinson has made a colossal gamble on the yuan, one that drains him of billions as the day progresses. He tries to convince an art dealer (Juliette Binoche) to sell him the entire Rothko Chapel, discusses the markets and human behavior with his “chief of theory” (Samantha Morton), has a sex-charged exchange with his finance director (Emily Hampshire) while undergoing an endless prostate exam, and, all the while, forces his security team to drive through hours of traffic to his favorite barbershop.

A lot flies around the periphery of Cosmopolis, but given Pattinson’s willful seclusion, his headlong dive into the world of currency exchanges, we only catch it in scraps. Protestors have overtaken Manhattan, hurling dead rats in spectacular displays against income inequality. Someone has made a credible threat on Pattinson’s life. Manhattan stands still to honor a deceased Somali rapper (K’naan). This Waiting for Godot-like non-story cascades into a tremendous final showdown between Pattinson and a downright feral Paul Giamatti, a former employee. (more…)

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Tim Heidecker gets his arm cut off in Tim & Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie; Simone Mareuil gets her eyeball sliced open in Un Chien Andalou.

Halfway through Freddy Got Fingered, the supposed abomination from ’90s relic Tom Green, a 28-year-old man serenades his father with a song about sausages. That man, played by Green himself, has designed an elaborate pulley system in his father’s living room. Sausages dangle from the ceiling, the links shooting up and down as Green mashes notes on his keyboard. For good measure, a pair of steaks also hang from his ears. The elements coalesce into perhaps the most demented image ever from a multimillion-dollar, studio-financed movie.

Tom Green asks if his father would like some sausages in Freddy Got Fingered.

Can you deny the inventiveness of a Rube Goldberg-like device that makes sausage links bounce up and down as you play the keyboard? It’s the kind of inspired set piece that earned Freddy Got Fingered a (perhaps sarcastic) rave from the New York Times, when A.O. Scott argued that Green and his sausages “may show up some day at the Museum of Modern Art.” Roger Ebert, in a review as negative as Scott’s was positive, bemoaned the very thought that “the day may come when Freddy Got Fingered is seen as a milestone of neo-surrealism.”

I’m here to tell you that today is that day. But I wouldn’t use the phrase “neo-surrealism.” Freddy Got Fingered, rather, is the godfather of avant-garde bro comedy. Welcome to a marriage of the crass and the absurd. This style of humor, once quarantined to “The Tom Green Show,” is now the go-to mode for many of America’s top comedians. Surrealism spiked with gross-out gags, dick jokes, and comically excessive violence: that’s the secret recipe behind the likes of Will Ferrell and Adam McKay movies, “Tim and Eric Awesome Show,” and “Family Guy.” The movement is, if nothing else, a total sausage fest. (more…)

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Film is a dictator’s medium. It calls for a person who gets off on two things: Controlling a mass of laborers and controlling an audience. If those two desires burn within you, perhaps you should pick up a camera. Film directors, in essence, cut off autonomy for a living. They tell workers, “No, that car must be red, not blue.” They tell audiences, “No, you must watch this scene from this angle, not that.” They dictate orders to one mass so they can effectively manipulate another.

So, really, does it come as any surprise that Kim Jong-il had a lot to say about movies? In 1987, the glorious leader published a dogmatic manual for North Korea’s film directors. “The Cinema and Directing,” available here, is as fascinating, funny, and latently horrifying as you’d expect. You’ll find some of my favorite passages below. For anyone whose interests align with mine — film, geopolitics, propaganda — “The Cinema and Directing” is an essential read.

To begin, Kim’s manifesto has some lovely defenses of publicly-funded art (all emphases are my own).

In the capitalist system of film-making the director is called “director” but, in fact, the right of supervision and control over film production is entirely in the hands of the tycoons of the film-making industry who have the money, whereas the directors are nothing but their agents. (more…)

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