Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Fantasy Double Features of 2015

Over at MUBI Notebook, I and many other cinephiles, posted our dream double bills. The object was to pair a new film with an older film, one that you saw this year, thus highlighting contemporary cinema's connection with film history. Some of the ties that bind these films are obvious, while others are more obscure.

As a supplement to the post, here are screenshots from the films that make up my double bills. I'd pay to see these programs!

Monday, December 28, 2015

Criticism in the Year 2015

Like last year, I'm highlighting ten pieces of film criticism and commentary that I've been reading throughout 2015. This is writing that I've carried with me through the backroads and byways of my mind as I go about by daily life. There's lots to learn and lots to discover, and I'm eager to read the insights and ideas critics bring to their writing in 2016.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Thursday, December 10, 2015

The Trouble with Big Trouble

A product of my time in Richard Porton's class, here's a piece on a "bad" film -- John Cassavetes' Big Trouble (1986).


John Cassavetes ends his career as a filmmaker with an embarrassment that’s best left unsaid. That snap assessment is what most critics and cinephiles believe. Even Cassavetes believes it; he hated the film. Many would like to consider Love Streams (1984) as the proper conclusion to his oeuvre, one that features tender and emotionally raw works. Like the studio that released the film, Columbia, they would like to bury Cassavetes’ final work, Big Trouble (1986), so that no one would ever know that he directed this oddball picture.

Mild-mannered insurance salesman Leonard Hoffman (Alan Arkin) is having a bad day. He did not get the scholarship that would’ve financed the tuition for his triplet sons—all of them gifted musical prodigies—to attend Yale. At the behest of his anxious wife (Valerie Curtin), he meets the head of the insurance firm (Robert Stack), a Yale man himself, to see if he can pull some strings. Alas, strings are not pulled. Business calls, however, and Leonard goes to the home of a housewife (Beverly D’Angelo). He tries to sell her car insurance, but she informs him that her husband (Peter Falk), with a wink and a nudge and a sly suggestion, is sick and could die any day now. “His heart is surrounded by fat,” she says. Leonard sells her life insurance instead.

“If this sounds familiar, it's supposed to,” remarked Vincent Canby in his New York Times review. Big Trouble pastiches Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice, with a dash of The Big Sleep, and—for the curious part—pitches the brew as a screwball comedy. The film isn’t really that funny though. That racist joke about a truck full of hungry undocumented Chinese migrant workers pulling faces at the suggestion of eating McDonalds sure hasn’t aged well.  To name more boils besmirching the film, Big Trouble has a soundtrack that’s even more odious than your average studio film from the Eighties. It manages to merge Wang Chung-esque Muzak synths with recognizable pieces such as excerpts from “La Bohème,” and Mozart’s “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.” Leonard’s triplets must’ve made the score.

 Despite its blemishes, Big Trouble is still a Cassavetes film, and traces of his touch are apparent. Although the studio tinkered with Cassavetes’ edits, molding the film to fit conventional continuity editing, his use of close-ups remains intact, capturing a variety of, often fleeting, facial expressions in shot reverse shot volleys. As one would expect from the filmmaker, the performances by all the main players (the odd man out, however, is terse and one-note Stack) are sturdy, able, and—for the material warrants it—broad. Although they’re doing nothing to stretch themselves, something Cassavetes did in his previous work, they’re competent. They seem comfortable in this romp. Poor D’Angelo though—Arkin and Falk’s dynamism overshadows her daffy, un-seductive seductress. Falk plays a blissed out fool, a “salt of the earth” type (who just so happens to live in a palatial estate) always trying out a get-rich-quick scheme. Arkin is the straight man who’s periodically stunned, catatonic, even apoplectic when rushed along on these hijinks with Falk.

If Big Trouble’s only flaws are its score and being an unfunny comedy (a deal breaker for some), why is the film forgotten, swept into the dustbin of history? Part of the reason has to do with its troubled production history and initial theatrical release. Andrew Bergman, who penned the earlier bloodless Arkin-Falk film, The In-Laws, wrote the script for Big Trouble and intended to direct it. Columbia fired him and Bergman removed his name from the credits, replacing it with Warren Bogle, a pseudonym derived from a W.H. Fields character. In 1984, the studio hired Cassavetes to direct. Skittish about the poor test previews, Columbia put the film on the shelf. Only later, in 1986, did Big Trouble get a small run, limited to New York initially and then eventually playing at other major cities, conveniently coinciding with its VHS release. Critics at the time gave Big Trouble lukewarm reviews, which did virtually nothing to extend the film’s theatrical life.

Although slight, Big Trouble doesn’t deserve complete neglect. It has qualities of legitimate merit. For the auteurists who abandoned this film during its release, they should give Big Trouble a look because the film bares his signature—it may be smudgy, but it’s there—especially when comparing the director’s aesthetic with Arthur Hiller’s hackwork in The In-Laws. Finally, Big Trouble mutates canonical noir films in surprising ways, which is something that cannot be said for the sleazy, blunt, literal-minded neo-noirs, Body Heat and Bob Rafelson’s The Postman Always Rings Twice.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Mistress America x 3

Inspired by Jonathan Rosenbaum's "A Few Ways of Looking at Midnight Run," and a product of my time in a course on film criticism taught by Richard Porton, here are three complementary takes on Noah Baumbach's Mistress America (2015).


Review # 1

In which Noah Baumbach embraces genre and creates his best work yet. Call it screwball, call it neo-screwball, call it whatever, but his latest film has a level of stylization that infects and melds well with his metropolitan sensibility. He uses his acrid temperament in a comedic register, creating not only laughs, but discomfort as well. It’s the B-side and the better side of Frances Ha.

Tracy (Lola Kirke) is off to college. She arrives at Barnard and isn’t getting into the whole college experience. Save for a guy (Matthew Shear), whom she has a crush on in her English class, she has no friends. Her mom suggests reaching out to the daughter (Greta Gerwig) of the husband she’s going to marry. Reluctant at first, Tracy calls Brooke, and they hit it off. Brooke acts like a big sister, as well as a debonair, jack-of-all-trades. Tracy tags along with her as Brooke tries to get her hip Williamsburg restaurant off the ground.

“You make me feel really smart,” Brooke says about having Tracy around. Meanwhile, Tracy writes a lightly fictionalized version of Brooke in her short story, “Mistress America,” that she submits to her school’s literary journal. This is a film about the influence of friends, and how, taking advantage of such intimate relationships for art or for life, can potentially rupture them.

As with his prior work, Baumbach prioritizes language, character, and character development in his aesthetic. Phrases such as “get out of town sister, and “you got a honey,” point to the shrill, odd, synthetic quality of the script, as synthetic as Alan Vega crooning “Dream Baby Dream” on one snippet of the soundtrack. Characters speak like pop culture-literate teenagers, delivering dialogue with little to no pauses between sentences, which reaches an apotheosis with a surprise trip to Greenwich, Connecticut.

Review # 2

Mistress America is another film infected with the tics of American independent cinema of the Joe Swanberg and Andrew Bujalski variety: a richness in performance and character development at the expense of formal experimentation with, among others, camera movement, mise en scène, editing, sound. Unlike, say Patrick Wang or Nathan Silver (indie filmmakers working with even smaller budgets), these directors render inconsequential many formal elements in order to prioritize their characters. There’s more to cinema than characters and plot! When it comes to aesthetics, indie cinema is conservative cinema.

In terms of conservative cinema, this one is pretty good, for Mistress America is a film that pushes the formal elements it values to abstraction. Characters deliver lines in staccato. Editing, at one point, mimics dialogue volleys with a rapid-fire shot-reverse-shot. Baumbach makes the language in the film punchy, odd, and a bit synthetic with lines like “get out of town sister” and “you got a honey?” which only makes the dialogue more noticeable. Critics are labeling this as a screwball, but to this reviewer, Nineties indie cinema is Mistress America’s reference point. It falls somewhere between Hal Hartley’s telegraphic and Whit Stillman’s acerbic lines.

While the narrative structure is conventional (segmented into three acts bookended with a prologue and epilogue), Mistress America has a whirlwind flow to it—no doubt due to its editing and use of language—a rhythm reminiscent of Frances Ha, but without that former films sense of stifling torpor tied to its subject matter.

Mistress America is another Baumbach film in which upper middle class privileged (mostly) white people make up the cast. They spew pop cultural references as a way of making themselves intelligent. It’s a “first world problems” film about friends taking advantage of friends by using their relationship for art fodder. Baumbach seems critical of this, satirizing it by having all his characters speak like perky posturing high school teenagers.

Review # 3

With Mistress America, once again, Noah Baumbach crafts a comfortably, secretly middlebrow film that’s palatable for general audiences. Once again, he’s created a wordy film, chock-full of “nuanced” characters. He’s made a film that’s catnip for critics. Mistress America graces the cover of Film Comment’s July/August 2015 issue, one in which you can find Alex Ross Perry—another wordy, critical darling—interviewing Baumbach. Richard Brody calls the film a “masterwork” three times during his gushing New Yorker review. And once again, Baumbach makes a film that ignores the cinematic in cinema.

In his review, Brody labels Mistress America “literary cinema,” and “a work of brilliant writing, one of the most exquisite of recent screenplays.” Fine. I’ll add that it’s the best Baumbach film that I’ve seen when it comes to language, toying with its plasticity and rhythm.

One critic’s literary cinema is another’s conservative cinema. The film follows an uninspired, conventional narrative structure: three acts along with a prologue and an epilogue. A fresh-faced student, Tracy, (Lola Kirke) is bored during her first days of college. She hooks up with her soon-to-be stepsister, Brooke, (Greta Gerwig), a jack-of-all-trades and woman-about-town 30-year-old looking to start up a Williamsburg restaurant. Mutual inspiration ensues: the student writes the sister into her short story, and the sister gains confidence to pitch investors on her restaurant idea. The friendship strains, however, once it’s revealed that Tracy’s using Brooke for art fodder.

The story is fine and dandy, but where are the visuals? Like countless other American indie filmmakers (notable exceptions include Patrick Wang, Bingham Bryant and Kyle Molzan, and Nathan Silver), Baumbach suppresses experimentation with camera movement, mise en scène, sound, and editing in order to amplify narrative, character, character development, and performance. Baumbach is a modern day Joseph L. Mankiewicz and Mistress America is his All About Eve.