Suburban Gothic [2014)

Dear devoted fans [chuckles heard offstage],

I am still alive.  Battling a serious case of MBA.  And, as such, I was duped into watching what turned out to be one of the finest films I have seen in awhile.

But how did I stumble across this little gem in the first place?  For that I must thank the inimitable Kat Dennings.  [More about her as we go on.]

Let us first, however, start with Matthew Gray Gubler.  As someone who watches very little TV, I was unaware of this rising star in the acting world.  Gubler plays Raymond:  a newly-minted MBA who can’t even lock down an entry-level job.  His character grew on me…from, at first, an American Apparel model come to life…to a lovable outcast with impeccable comic timing.

Circling back, I was curious how Gubler’s 21st-century archetype (the unemployable MBA) would fare in this comedy.  As I found out, Suburban Gothic is actually a film of great depth masquerading as a campy horror send-up.

It’s really remarkable, but this film actually does speak for me in some strange way.  Perhaps it was because I was listening to The Dead Milkmen this morning. [Watch the film and you’ll understand why.]

Yes, Raymond’s town is a “depressing shithole” to borrow Enid Coleslaw’s pithy diction from Zwigoff’s Ghost World.  And the ghosts here are real–literal.  But what most impresses me about Richard Bates Jr. (who needs a Wikipedia page) as a director is that he manages to evoke the crappiest reaches of America…from the bombed-out city center of Albany, New York to the harrowing motel highwayside of Roanoke, Virginia…from the strip malls of San Antonio to…well, you get the picture.

It’s one of those films…like Ghost World.  It’s Anywhere, U.S.A.  [Well, almost anywhere.]  It’s the fake vomit-inducing magic of Orlando.  It’s the sprawl of Los Angeles.  It’s that suicidal ennui which Arcade Fire so deftly encapsulated on their album The Suburbs.

Pariahs of the American south will especially appreciate the wonderful redneck evocation of Raymond’s high-school-football-coaching father (played magnificently by Ray Wise).  Yeah…

This film hits a lot of themes.  People change.  Fat kids get thin.  Sensitive souls can’t shake the wimp label.  Some places are especially difficult for creative types to endure.

And so if your life consists of frequenting your local Starbucks on the edge of a super-freeway (I certainly don’t know anyone like that…wait?  Nope, no one like that around here.  This very minute.  Right here.), then you just might find Kat Dennings to be especially on-point as the salty crowbar-toting Becca.  This film is more about Gubler’s character, but Dennings is indispensable to this moral play.

And what’s the moral?  The moral is this:  no matter how much you know about demand and supply curves (supply and demand to us lowly folk) there is always a more important line to shift outwards.  It’s more micro than microeconomics.  It is, in a word, empathy.  Respect for the dead.  Paranormal.  And, most of all, conscience.  It is that latter word which sticks in my head…falling from the lips of Godard (forever in my mind) in his whispered Swiss French.

Conscience.

Sure, this film makes Poltergeist look like Citizen Kane, but one senses from the opening credits that such is largely intentional.  No big budget here, and yet…this film is frightening and laugh-out-loud.  And like a good Simpsons episode, it is more touching than anything Hallmark rolls out of their platitude factory.

John Waters makes quite a fine cameo, but the lion’s share of credit goes to Gubler and Dennings and their auteur-in-the-making Richard Bates Jr.  Really a worthwhile flick!  Thank you.

-PD

To Write Love on Her Arms [2012)

This film goes beyond film.  Which is not to say it doesn’t have its problems.  Like the protagonist, it does.  But let me tell you why this film is worth it.  No…you know what?  This is fucking bullshit!  That’s not the way to review a film.  This is.

It’s gotta come from the heart and mind.  Depend too much on the mind and you miss the beauty.  Secrets make you sick.  Must be a whole lot of sick people in Langley, Virginia and Fort Meade, Maryland.  Go on, look it up.  It’ll do you good.  But for you lazy bums, that’s the CIA and NSA.

I read about the CIA all the time.  Why?  I’m only answering limited questions today.  But suffice it to say that both of these spy agencies are pretty interesting.  Don’t you think?

Well, so that’s one of my secrets.  It’s not really a secret.  It’s pretty transparent.  But maybe not.  So, there.  Like Robert Creeley said.  There you have it.

It’s very hard to not drop into John Berryman testimonial mode when talking about this film (oh yeah, this is a film review…duh!).

First things first:  you gotta love a film that premieres at the Omaha Film Festival (!)  Just knowing that Omaha has a film festival makes me feel a little less depressed about my life and the shitty town I live in (San Antonio).

And so…our setting:  Orlando.  It’s like an outtake from Mister Lonely–Cinderella smoking a cigarette at the bus stop.  Headed to the theme park presumably…  It’s certainly begging for a Harmony Korine touch, though director Nathan Frankowski does a nice job handling this priceless aside in more of a Terry Zwigoff way.

Wow.  Somebody needs to give the Wikipedia page for TWLOHA (the movie) some love.  I mean, Jesus!  A three-sentence plot summary???  There’s lost silent films which have more detailed synopses on Wiki than this!

So I guess my first inclination was correct:  speak from the heart.

Well God damnit!  There are some priceless moments in this film.  The secret weapon is Rupert Friend.  I’ll be damned if he doesn’t strike a stake right to my heart…fondling that pocket watch…  It’s no jive-ass MC5 John Sinclair rave-up testifyin’ going on.  This is some real shit.

For all of the snobs (like me) in the audience:  you gotta give this film time.  Clear from your mind the unpleasant parallels to the CGI of What Dreams May Come and The Lovely Bones.  IT GETS BETTER.

That said.  How?  Well, once again Ms. Kat Dennings hits a home run. This is no easy role.  It’s a tough, tough, TAXING role to embody with anything even approaching Method Acting.  But I have a sneaking suspicion that Dennings felt this role naturally (to a certain extent).

How does this film go beyond film?  Because.  Ghost World was a masterpiece.  Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist was perfection for its genre (young adult comedy romance).  Charlie Bartlett was a mini-masterpiece…a damn good film.  Hell!  Daydream Nation was pretty fucking good too.  But TWLOHA moves into the social realm…because it touches on depression and substance abuse (not to mention the cutting words of the haiku title) in a real, sobering way.  No pun intended.  At least not the sober one.

Yeah.  What does this mean for you, dear WordPress blogger…or for someone who stumbled across this article?  It means you are powerful beyond your wildest belief.

Every time you commit your precious thoughts to the page and share them with people (comma) you are saying the only stuff that people believe anymore.

It doesn’t mean you can talk about reptilians and be taken seriously (no offence to my reptilian theorist brothers…and sisters).  No, it means that the only people who have CAPITAL in SINCERITY are everyday people like me…and YOU.

We don’t believe the lies anymore.  We’ve swallowed so many damned secrets that we’re sick to death.  We can’t sleep.  But we are fucking powerful!  Hillary Clinton knows it.  Zbigniew Brzezinski knows it.  I’m not sure if David Rockefeller knows it.  Nor George H.W. Bush.

That’s ok.  They came from a different generation.  Hell…I’m not even a “digital native”…  Not a Millennial.  I guess I am part of that lamentable flannel fuzzed Generation X.  I hyphenate when I damn well please.

I make inside jokes that only I get.  I don’t have any friends.  Not anymore.  But I have family.  I have cats.  Some days I think my best friend is an extraterrestrial in Turkey.  Or a classmate from Iran.  But most days my best friend is an actor or an actress.

So to Kat Dennings (and Renee Yohe)…wherever you are.  Thank you.  It makes a big fucking difference.  That you exist.  My sentence fragments and idiosyncratic punctuation are yours.  Mi casa es su casa.

-PD

Death Defying Acts [2007)

It is shameful.  No, she says.  Who taught you that?  My first review of a film by a female director.  A director who happens to be female.  A nearly perfect film.

Silly me.  Gillian Armstrong is a very different person from Kathryn Bigelow.  Born almost exactly a year apart.  One making art films.  The other shilling for the cocksuckers known as the New World Order.

Zero Dark Thirty.  It is shameful.  9/11 Commission Report.  Shameful.  War on Terror.  Shame.  Shame.

The last words of the mother of Western civilization.  What were they?  Maybe Oswald Spengler was there by her bedside.  What did she whisper?  What were her worries?  Her aspirations for us?  Will she forgive us for throwing away our gifts in an endless magic show?

To be forgiven, perhaps one must repent.  Western civilization is balls-deep into a fabricated war against Islam.

Forgive me.  I have gone off track.  Good films bring the sediment to the surface.

And thus I close the window on Kathryn Bigelow.  She’s made her buck on a story.  Fanciful.  Opportunist.  More likely spawn of Satan than complete moron.

But Gillian Armstrong has no such agenda in Death Defying Acts.  We get a Welsh lady (Catherine Zeta-Jones) playing a Scot.  We get an Irish girl born in the Bronx (Saoirse Ronan) playing a Scot.  And finally we get an English-born Aussie (Guy Pearce) portraying a Hungarian-American escapologist from Appleton, Wisconsin.

Ahh, Appleton…  It was not so long ago that I spoke of thee.  Terry Zwigoff.  Ghost World.  Trying to make sense out of the final scene, I imagined Thora Birch journeying back to Zwigoff’s hometown.  Houdini’s hometown.

It’s all a trick.  Until it isn’t.  Es tut mir leid.  Wo bist du?  Kaddish.  Yes, Leonard Bernstein famously noted that God was/is in this [pointing] glass of orange juice.  Kaddish.

This is truly the age of anxiety.  Auden.  May His great name be blessed forever, and to all eternity.

It is Thanksgiving with soaked acorns.  bon appétit!

When there is seemingly nothing to praise, and then we realize how much we have.  And we do not begrudge the loss.  We give thanks for all the times of presence.

Ah, but we must face Montreal.  Yanqui U.X.O.  Leonard Cohen.  Philip Guston.

Maybe it was a famous blue raincoat draped over his shoulders.  There in the graveyard.  Where they have been living a bit prematurely.

No, I think rather it is a bird on a wire.  Harry had saved all his ribbons…for thee.  He was the partisan battling himself.  Push.  Push.  Harder.  Be perfect.  Be superhuman.  And then let his guard down for a moment…

“I was cautioned to surrender.  This I could not do.”

No.  Fuck you.

“I’ve lost my wife and children.”  You stole my country, he says.  Your country stole my youth.  I chose poorly.

“She died without a whisper.”  Tarantino is the worst filmmaker working today.  For that he deserves some credit.

“There were three of us this morning.  I’m the only one this evening.”  Double suicide on the Left Bank.  Guy Debord.  And who?  And who else?

An old man in the attic.  Hid us for the night.  […]  He died without surprise.

Thank you.  ברוך שם כבוד מלכותו לעולם ועד

طيب الله اسمه العظيم إلى الأبد، وإلى الأبد.

J’ai la France entière

-PD

Charlie Bartlett [2007)

There is a battle on between history and life.  And one of those battlegrounds is at the movies.  It is a storied fight between the little punk shit Bob Dylan and bearded, august Johannes Brahms.  1955 brought us Rebel Without a Cause which displayed what is truly at issue.  Can a piece of art (an artifact) speak to teenagers and still be timeless?  The history of cinema has proven the answer to be a resounding “yes.”

Nicholas Ray was one of the directors most admired by the French New Wave…particularly by Jean-Luc Godard.  Wim Wenders would celebrate the brave auteur as he passed from one world to the next in Lightening Over Water (1980).  But what is most enduring is the spirit Ray and other prescient filmmakers evinced–that spirit which lived on in John Hughes’ cult film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986).

That brings me to the film in question.  When I first saw Charlie Bartlett I had a pretty unspectacular life.  I had just seen Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist and fallen in love with Kat Dennings.  I had to see more.  I even went so far as to buy The House Bunny as a new release…just to get a few more minutes of this enigmatic actress.  Now that I have blown whatever street cred I had remaining as a film critic, I might as well fess up to having done a similar thing when I fell in love with Thora Birch after seeing Ghost World.  Yes, I forked out to buy Dungeons & Dragons (2000) on VHS.  Yikes!

When I first saw Charlie Bartlett, the teenage drama-comedy genre conventions struck me as mostly trite and hackneyed.  In a word:  hollow.  But my reappraisal of this film couldn’t be more different from my first impression.

The world of art films tends to speak its own cinematic language on screen.  At times, the overly-precious, self-conscious products come off as caricatures of better films.  In Ghost World, a classic awaiting its proper place in film history, Terry Zwigoff perfectly frames this empty art film posturing by referring to a nonexistent picture called The Flower That Drank the Moon.  It sums up the disconnect between the world of Cannes and the world at large.  Want to see Godard’s new film Adieu au langage at your local movie theater?  Good luck!

And so my assertion is this:  Charlie Bartlett is a masterpiece.  Is it as good as Ghost World?  No.  Is it as good as Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist?  Not to these eyes.  But is it a classic which got swept unjustly into DVD cut-out bins?  Yes.  And here’s why.

Jon Poll kept a million pieces in balance.  His direction, while not perfect, should be commended with the highest accolades.  The screenplay by Gustin Nash goes a long way towards giving this film in a daunting genre a chance at being timeless.  The fact that the movie grossed just under half of its budget (a $6 million loss) should be welcomed by MGM as a blessing.  This film will be reborn in the history yet to be written.

Hope Davis gives a nuanced, touching performance as Charlie’s mother.  Anton Yelchin, as Charlie, is beyond fantastic.  It is a performance which requires multiple viewings to appreciate.  Robert Downey, Jr. gives a real piece of his soul to this film which was unjustly overlooked by the world.  Tyler Hilton manages to channel Adam Baldwin from another criminally underrated flick My Bodyguard (which just happened to feature Joan Cusack’s first substantive role).

Kat Dennings is remarkably good at such a young age.  She manages to cheer the hearts of all of us who perhaps identify a little too much with Kip Crombwell (Mark Rendall).  Rendall is shockingly adept in his miniscule role.

Perhaps the funniest aspect of this review is that I am clinging lustily to a piece of nicotine gum as I write this.  That’s just how life works.  Though it only figures into Charlie Bartlett as a mini-MacGuffin, it sets up a pivotal scene.  But nothing measures up to Downey and Yelchin by the poolside.  What to do when life has gone to shit…  A single father losing his teenage daughter…  The overtones are almost right out of Knut Hamsun (though the subject matter be unrecognizably morphed).

Substance abuse is at the forefront of this film, yet it is alcohol which finally precipitates a climax.  The emotional lift is brought via Dennings singing a song in the school play.  It is delicate and honest.  We have been made to relate to Downey’s struggle to find himself.  He just wasn’t cut out to play “bad cop.”  And that is the overarching crux:  the bad cop (Downey) jealous of the good cop (Charlie).  The wrong career can destroy you…and it does so from the inside out.  It’s not worth the extra money.

But the most important role (and element) of this entire film?  Dylan Taylor as Len Arbuckle.  You see, Charlie rides the short bus to school.  Bartlett is seemingly oblivious to the differences between the mentally and physically challenged and himself.  Peas and carrots.  Charlie Bartlett has a good heart…and an angel notices.

-PD

Ghost World [2001)

“I have to admit…things are really looking up for me since my life turned to shit.”  If only.  The consolation?  This is a perfect film.  There’s no use in denying that any longer.

Back in the watershed year of 2001, this film hit me like a bolt out of the blue.  Just how I ended up in that movie theater in Austin, Texas I’m not entirely sure.  The important thing is that this film stood my world on its head.  There was a new tilt to the cosmos after seeing Thora Birch personify everything I was looking for in a girl…everything which I couldn’t articulate.

Brice Parain puts it so simply in Vivre sa vie:  thought cannot be separated from language.  And if we say “goodbye” to language?  That still involves a word.  Perhaps we can simply gesture?

“Waving goodbye…I’m not saying hello.”  Just three years earlier an album had put my world on edge.  I was studying music composition as an undergrad when a rock and roll record called into question everything for which I was striving.  That record was Deserter’s Songs by Mercury Rev.  As I slipped the virgin vinyl onto the turntable in my vacated music lit classroom, I was astounded to hear a noise rock band coming back through the speakers as an autumnal, symphonic opus.  Opus 40…

And so three years later at that little arthouse cinema in north Austin I clamored into an open seat with a couple of friends…  Friends…  It seems so long ago since I had friends.  Some statements are infinitely sad, but others are like old faded pictures.  I don’t really recognize myself anymore.  I’m too young to be old, but…

Ghost World.  It is the world I live in.  Terry Zwigoff made a perfect film.  He learned the nuances from R. Crumb…and then applied the secrets to Daniel Clowes.  The secret is in the power lines…the sprawl…the daydream nation which American Beauty tried to capture but failed in comparison to Ghost World.  If the Palme d’Or was fair, Terry Zwigoff would have one sitting on his mantle.  So would Jean-Luc Godard.  So would Thora Birch.

It’s kinda like the Nobel Prize in Literature.  Where’s Joyce?  Where’s Pynchon?

Enid Coleslaw.  There’s no I in end.  End.  I…is someone else.  So says Nana Kleinfrankenheim.  Thora Birch.  Anna Karina.  The Louise Brooks wig.  Brigitte Bardot.  Initials B.B.  Bertolt Brecht.  B.B. King.  Devil got my woman…

“…since my life turned to shit.”  I’d rather be the devil.  Me and the devil.  Nick Tosches.  Emmett Miller.  Henry “Ragtime” Thomas.

Skip James.  Gossamer-perfect.  Thora stands in a daze…perhaps after a long day of shooting.  We get The Buzzcocks, but then we get D-A-D-F-A-D…that deep, hollow sound from 1931.  Like the high, lonesome Hank Williams.  Somebody’s in a world of hurt.  “Nothin’ but thee devil/change my baby’s mind.”

She is the girl we can’t have.  And you can’t have me either, world.  Not for free.  Few artists got this.  Alex Chilton got it.  Affonso Beato captured its fleeting presence at twilight in his cinematography.  A bus.  Bus stop.  Joshua Logan.  No, Thora Birch.  Yes.  That route was cancelled in 1956.  Cancelled in 1962.  Mensan I.Q.  Cancelled in 1967.  And still, Thora boards the bus and does the impossible in a magic realism which takes her back over the Mississippi at Baton Rouge…back to Appleton, WI…back to Los Angeles.  The nighttime bores the daylights out of me.  We’re in exile with the Radio Shack and the Allstate and the Chevron and the Shell…  R.I.P. Brad Renfro.

-PD

Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist [2008)

The great director Samuel Fuller said in a cameo during Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le Fou that, “Film is like a battleground.  Love.  Hate.  Action.  Violence.  Death.  In one word…emotion.”  Writing about film is often an intellectual parlor game.  Drop the right reference.  Sound erudite.  But one must confront the emotion of film with the emotion of criticism…in a harmony of pathos.

This film makes me cry.  We’ve all heard a similar phrase, but perhaps never applied to this new classic from director Peter Sollett.  When this film came out, I needed this film.  It restored my faith in the romantic quest–to find a soul mate.

From the opening titles this film hits all the right notes.  Much has been made of Sofia Coppola’s prescient use of music in her films.  To not only employ the proto-shoegaze of 10cc’s “I’m Not In Love” (The Virgin Suicides), but also follow it up with some MBV (Lost In Translation) before Kevin Shields and company mercifully reformed a few years later is, in a word, genius.  However, Peter Sollett and crew (editor Myron Kerstein and music supervisor Linda Cohen) score a coup right off the bat which sets the stage for a brilliant cinematic experience…intertwined with the trappings and longings which a life in music (whether as performer or enthusiast) weaves into our thoughts and very being.

Simply put, “Speed of Sound” by former Big Star member Chris Bell is my favorite song off of his posthumously released masterpiece I Am The Cosmos.  To know that someone else felt the same way about this particular composition is really what Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist is all about.

Chris Bell was a homosexual heroin addict in the deep South (Memphis) who got kicked out of his own band, ended up working at his dad’s hamburger restaurant, and (like Marc Bolan) died when his car collided with a tree.  That such a sensitive soul was subjected to such unbefitting circumstances and then layed down the tracks at Château d’Hérouville for the sublime strains which open this picture is truly touching.  Sure, “In The Street” by Big Star (from his time in the band as co-writer) was used as the theme for That ’70s Show, but the song placement for “Speed of Sound” long after his death is a tribute to both his genius and the artistry of Peter Sollett and his team.

But here I have up and gone on a tangent…and deviated from my goal of emotion for emotion.

Reset.  A few days ago.  My birthday.  I walk into Barnes & Noble with a fistful of dollars.  I look at almost every DVD in the joint.  Criterion, action, sci-fi/fantasy, thriller, drama, comedy…even family!  And I come out of the place with one film:  the one under review.

The reason is simple.  Kat Dennings is an acting goddess among (mostly) prattling girls.  With this film she took up the reins which Thora Birch strangely released after Ghost World.  Peter Sollett has made a timeless film of equal to the cinematically stunning aforementioned Terry Zwigoff gem.

But back to Dennings.  There are moments in this film (very few) where her acting might be termed hesitant, but in retrospect I believe this to be part of the Norah character which she was conveying with the utmost thespian delicacy.  For the vast majority of her screen time, she shines like the new star which she is.  I imagine that I’m not the only one who came away from this film wishing that her character was real and that I might meet a Norah around the next corner (just as Thora Birch had made me believe that Enid Coleslaw was really out there somewhere).

A word about Michael Cera.  I didn’t think much of his acting on first view, but I realize now that his droll comic timing might just presage his emergence as the Woody Allen of this generation.  He is, without a doubt, talented beyond many of his peers.

Kudos to writers Rachel Cohn and David Levithan (as well as to screenwriter Lorene Scafaria) for working the Where’s Fluffy? idea into this tapestry (almost like a nod to The Residents…mysterious anonymity in rock music).  Likewise, the supporting cast here is essential and outstanding (particularly Aaron Yoo and Rafi Gavron).  Also indispensable is Jonathan B. Wright in the small role as Lethario.

Two final bits about this music-infused juggernaut…  The Electric Lady Studios portion (particularly the potentially unwieldy orgasm segment) is director Sollett at his finest.  As the VU meters monitor a keyed mic in the main room we are brought the irresistible symbology which the auteur has been tracing throughout this hipster Easter egg chase in a yellow Yugo…perhaps zipping past the parking garage where Warhol’s Factory used to stand…speeding with exhilaration over the Velvets’ old stomping grounds…the deli where Max’s Kansas City once stood (but now with a mile-long sneeze guard around its salad bar)…maybe past the empty hole where the Mercer Arts Center once stood before it collapsed.  Director Sollett takes us “into the red” at just the right moment…just as Lou Reed knew when to step on the stompbox after delivering the line “and then my mind split open” in the song “I Heard Her Call My Name” from the classic angst-fueled White Light/White Heat album (1968).

Last bit…Mark Mothersbaugh delivers just the right dose of simpatico for this journey to the end of the night.  Thank you friends.  I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for you.

-PD