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Wednesday, May 16, 2018

My Fan Mail Message on Zebras in America!

I am a fan of the film podcast Zebras in America, and my fan email to them got read on air! I wrote to them about my enjoyment of the podcast and listed my favorite films, albeit being a bit lengthy, so they read an abridged version of my email. It starts at 49:40, after their interview with filmmaker Amir Motlagh.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Thoughts on Basquiat

I went to Anthology Film Archives last Saturday and watched Basquiat, the 1996 biopic on the Haitian-American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. I hadn’t seen it since my teen years, back when I romanticized late 70’s/early 80’s New York for its graffiti art scene, post-punk music, and No Wave film and art scene. I really liked the film a lot. Jeffrey Wright was fantastic as Basquiat, he really had this whole languid, loose vibe to him, creating art randomly all over the place, with a healthy distrust of people exploiting his blackness for their artistic gain. He just felt like the person, not just imitating him.

The film, directed by Julian Schnabel, was great at capturing the early 80’s look of NYC, of how rough the downtown scene looked compared to its expensive trendiness today. The film had an amazing cast of talented indie and character actors, including Parker Posey, Michael Wincott (whose art manager character irritated me for his use of the n-word to describe himself as a gay man), Christopher Walken, Dennis Hopper, David Bowie in a hilarious portrayal of Andy Warhol as a vacant snob who had this uptalk whine to the end of his words, Benicio Del Toro as Basquiat’s charming yet messy best friend, Gary Oldman, and others.

One of my favorite performances came from Willem Dafoe, who had a cameo as an electrician/artist in one scene. This had been the first film role I had seen of him when I was a kid, and he just had this likable, working-class vibe to him that I liked, with a rough-looking face and a cigarette-stained voice. 

I was also surprised to see Sam Rockwell in a little bit part as some random street thug that beats up Basquiat, I didn’t know he was in this film. 

Claire Forlani, as Basquiat’s girlfriend, was the worst in this film. She has largely dropped off, and I can see why, because she had no screen presence, had a flat and dull voice, and just seemed so vanilla. Parker Posey as a coolly removed art gallery owner and Courtney Love as some random party girl both had way more charisma and electricity to me, and just fit the film much more realistically that she did. 

I also must have had the soundtrack at some point, because the songs felt so familiar to me, not just that I knew them. The Pogues, Tom Waits, Public Image Ltd, etc. it just felt like music I had on tapes and CDs as a teen, it felt so close to my heart.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Thoughts on A Date for Mad Mary

I really liked A Date for Mad Mary a lot, I found it very emotionally touching. It is a small Irish film directed by Darren Thornton from 2016 about a young woman named Mary (Seána Kerslake) who returns home to her small town after a brief time in prison, and is struggling with wanting to be a supportive maid of honor in her best friend’s wedding amidst having a prickly personality and a rough past. She puts pressure on herself to find a guy to take as a date for the wedding on short-notice, but ends up falling for a female wedding photographer, and doesn’t know how to figure her life out post-prison.

I really felt for Mary, and liked how the film had this very intimate feeling with its camerawork, with a lot of close-up shots of Mary done very handheld-style, like literally following her on her path. She was very torn between wanting to be there for her friend and fit into heteronormativity standards while also wanting to punch anyone who looked at her wrong and shake off town gossip.

Then when she falls for a woman, she still doesn’t know if she can call herself a lesbian, she just likes her and feels less defensive, like her face can relax more and show contentment.

This was a really interesting and nice little movie, and it is available on Hulu to watch.

Thoughts on Miami Blues

I just watched Miami Blues last week. I really liked it a lot. It’s a crime comedy from 1990, directed by George Armitage, in which Alec Baldwin plays a con man who goes around impersonating a cop, busting crimes so he can steal from robbers, as well as killing people, and seemingly just running into one crime after another. He was really funny in playing the absurdity of a guy just winging it on his hustling skills with no plan ahead of him.

Jennifer Jason Leigh played his hooker girlfriend, and played her with a sweet optimism and a charming Southern accent, just wanting to live a straight life and to be normal. It was a nice difference to see Leigh play a more comic character that wasn’t jaded by life or having a twisted dark side, she seemed to really dig into playing this sweet young woman who had a very matter-of-fact attitude about her career as a sex worker while wanting to improve her life through college courses and move on.

And Fred Ward as the cop trailing Baldwin had this salt of the earth grit to him that I liked, seemingly more like a regular person than a movie star. There was a running joke of him with his false teeth that never got old to me, his character had a warm sense of humor about it that made me enjoy following him a lot.

I liked how the film had these warm Florida colors of pink and light green that really evoked the heat of Miami. And it was a nice touch that the camera would switch from stationary to handheld whenever there was an action scene, with wider closeups and a looseness to capture the unpredictability of a crime in action. It made me think of Wong Kar-Wai’s later work with Fallen Angels, with his use of wide-angle handheld shots to capture the absurdity of everyday life in the underbelly of Hong Kong.

This was just an odd and fun film to watch, and I really enjoyed it.

Thoughts on You Were Never Really Here

I saw You Were Never Really Here, directed by Lynne Ramsay (Ratcatcher, Movern Callar, We Need To Talk About Kevin), and starring Joaquin Phoenix as a lone mercenary hired to rescue young girls from sex traffickers. I really dug the downbeat feel, the heavy synth music by Jonny Greenwood, how the character would use near-obsolete technology like pay phones in a modern world (I wasn’t sure if the film was taking place in modern day until I saw iPhones), the gritty cinematography, the broken-up action scenes where the editing shows the aftermath through the path of violence, and a standout scene seen through the POV of multiple security cameras. It was really great at capturing a brutality in the underworld, and did fit the kind of low-budget grimy action films that I like. I adored Movern Callar back in the early 2000s, and was happy to see Ramsay back in theaters.

But I didn’t like Phoenix in the role, he seemed heavily miscast. His performance was lumbering and dull to me, and he’s been like that in his recent films. There were times when I just thought, “Why should I care what happens to this guy?” I didn’t really feel for him or his personal life with his mother. I got that he was essentially a hired gun and didn’t get attached to people, but I just didn’t find him particularly interesting. I more just liked the downbeat style and blunt brutality of the film more than its protagonist.

I still highly recommend the film if you like these kind of films. And there isn’t any sexual violence against girls or women depicted onscreen, it’s more implied than seen.

Review of Let the Sunshine In

I liked Let the Sunshine In, a new film by Claire Denis, though I didn’t realize it was supposed to be more of a type of romantic comedy, I was seeing it more as a sad movie about a middle-aged woman lonely for love. Juliette Binoche plays a divorced artist named Isabelle who wants to be in love again, and has a series of trysts with men that keep ending in disappointment, with excuses about why they cannot be together. I kept feeling so much for Isabelle, each time her eyes would light up at the possibility of love, only for them to be brimming with tears when it didn’t happen, as the men would say she was charming and attractive, but they didn’t want to “move too fast” and gently let her down with an “I’ll call you.”

Binoche looks absolutely stunning in her fifties, and she plays Isabelle as a sweet but hopelessly naïve character, a person who gets way too excited over each man she dates, projecting him as her new love. She seems more in love with the romance than an actual relationship, and worries that she is too old and missed her time for another relationship.

There are varied funny moments in the film, like the indecisive back and forth with her and a date about whether or not she should exit his car or continue talking about their feelings; a picky date ordering the bartender around with very particular demands and asking if there are gluten-free olives; and Isabelle snapping at her friends on a nature hike after they are being pretentious about their knowledge of the land to appear intellectual, with her yelling at them across a bridge, “It’s all yours! The trees, the sky, the birds, everything belongs to you!” Those moments broke up the momentum of Isabelle continually being hurt by each broken would-be romance.

I liked how Denis would hold on scenes with slow pans or one-take setups, it felt very languid and free, reflecting real life. This was an interesting film, and I’d like to watch more of Denis’ work, as the only other film of hers that I have seen is 35 Shots of Rum from 2008. I stayed for the post-film Q&A with her, and found her to be really charming and funny and quiet, just an intriguing person. Apologies for the poor quality of my image of the discussion.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Thoughts on Sunshine Cleaning

One of my favorite films is Sunshine Cleaning, a 2008 indie film starring Amy Adams and Emily Blunt, written by Megan Holley and directed by Christine Jeffs. It has this mix of being funny and grim that really appeals to me, and has oddly stuck with me.

The film is about two sisters, Rose (Adams) and Norah (Blunt) who don’t have real career focuses in life, and fall into an unusual career of running a crime scene cleanup company in New Mexico, and find that they are naturally passionate about it. The work also brings them together in a closer bond, developing a deeper respect for one another, and forging a better future for their whole family.

The sisters grew up with a widowed dad (Alan Arkin) after their mother died by suicide, and had a hardscrabble life of just barely getting by. Arkin’s character feels like his character from Slums of Beverly Hills, a single father raising a family on the brink of poverty who is an eternal optimist and always has hustles to keep the family afloat and looking on the bright side.

Rose is a single mom who cleans houses and motels for a living, and talks more about getting her real estate license than actually going through with it. She is also engaging in an affair with her former high school boyfriend Mack, now a married cop with kids (Steve Zahn). She is so in need of intimacy and to feel attractive that she engages in this unhealthy affair, feeling as if they have a special connection for being high school sweethearts, despite that he started a life with someone else.

It is a testament to Steve Zahn’s likability that he can play a man cheating on his wife with his old girlfriend and still come off as a good guy. He helps Rose start her career in crime scene cleanup, giving her tips on places to clean, so that she can make more money to support her son and have her own independent business.

A poignant moment in the film is when Rose lies to Norah about going to real estate classes, when she is really going to see Mack, and Norah cuts through the lie with “Well, Heather’s pregnant again.” Rose’s face is clearly heartbroken while trying to remain calm and neutral, knowing that Mack will never leave his wife but is her only source of intimacy, not wanting to let go of it or be rejected.

Norah is a slacker in a series of short-term jobs, and grows to appreciate being valued in the cleanup business with her sister, seeing it as a service to help people dealing with tragedy. She also feels connected with the deceased people that they are cleaning up after, learning about their lives through their personal belongings and emphasizing with their pain and suffering.

She also forms a friendship with an unsuspecting woman (Mary Lynn Rajskub) who was the daughter of a deceased alcoholic hoarder whose home Norah cleaned, in order to connect over having lost their mothers tragically, and to feel a meaningful purpose in her life. Blunt is great at playing a character who is at both darkly funny on the outside yet, inside, struggling with grief over the loss of her mother.

Clifton Collins, Jr. as Winston, is one of my favorite characters in the film, as a kind-hearted one-armed ponytailed man who runs a hardware store where the sisters get their supplies. He is just so chill and down to earth, and is this likable and warm presence in the film.

The sisters begin as rough newbies, trying to clean blood off of the walls with spray cleaner bottles, putting contaminated sheets in the washing machine, and dragging a mattress formerly occupied by a deceased person to an average dumpster, being completely unaware of the safety and health hazards that they are committing. But it is rewarding to watch them educate themselves, with Rose taking classes in proper cleaning technique and the two of them purchasing a van for their equipment.

It is great to watch a movie about sisters taking more control of their lives and creating a more positive future for themselves and their loved ones.