A Quick Braindump on the State of Superhero Movies

I remember sitting on the steps outside the¬†Capri movie theater in Barranquilla Colombia at the age of five, bawling my eyes out because the screening of Batman Returns that I was so excited for had completely sold out.¬†My Grandpa sat along with me. When most adults would’ve tried to talk me out of my despondency, growing increasingly exasperated as they explained¬†how it was silly to cry because there was going to be a screening just a few minutes later, my Grandpa understood the extent of the heartbreak. He knew what it meant, and that it was important for me to feel it at that moment. When we finally made it into the theater (thanks to a friendly theater manager who witnessed the sad scene), the feeling was rapturous. The movie itself was almost secondary to the sheer act of being there, of bearing witness to this superhero with whom I felt a profound personal connection. In my five-year-old mind, it was a bit¬†like going to church.

This marked the start¬†of an intersection of interests that would remain with me throughout the rest of my childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. My interest in Batman bloomed into a full-blown fascination for everything related to comic books, and my interest in superhero movies became a lifelong devotion to the art of film. Even all these years after I stopped reading comic books, comic book movies have thus become an integral part of my movie fandom, taking up about as much of my attention as Award-season prestige juggernauts and brainy arthouse festival fare. It feels weird to compare those categories, but I’ve gotten good at meeting movies on their own terms, and recognizing that I don’t seek the same things from each film genre, same as how I don’t seek the same thing from different music genres; they each a different each, although ultimately I seek an emotional response from anything I watch.

I realized that I don’t really write about this aspect of my movie fandom very often. Mostly that’s because I feel like I have very little to say about the topic that hasn’t been covered to death on all manner of Internet “geek” blogs. But I have had a lot of folks ask me about where I stand on the Marvel vs. DC thing, so I’m going to try to lay it all out as plainly as possible.

Through the years I’ve seen various iterations of the comic book movie; from soulless pablum designed solely for cross-marketing opportunities to genuinely affecting stories featuring characters who happen to be wearing tights. With over a dozen movies in its roster since 2008, and having established by far the most successful cinematic “shared universe” since John Hughes, Marvel Studios is the current reigning champ of the comic book movie. And what they do, they do well; they know the characters inside and out, they know what their audience wants, and they know how to meet the nerds halfway in terms of creative concessions and not surrendering completely to comic-book silliness. The serialized shared-universe approach can come in detriment to an overall sense of catharsis and thematic exploration, but Marvel doesn’t seem to be particularly interested in those things; it wants to replicate the feel of a comic book — which are serialized and steeped in continuity by definition — on the big screen. It can be messy, and it can make the whole endeavor feel ultimately senseless (especially when each movie seems so goddamn concerned with setting up the next one– I see you,¬†Age of Ultron), but it seems to be completely in line with their stated goal and the template they are working with. It may not be to everyone’s liking, and some cinema purists may scoff at what they’re attempting to do. These movies do lack depth, they are often very messy structure-wise, and they do often devolve into iconography porn. But what they do, they do well.

My main source of frustration with Marvel movies has to do with the uniformly boring aesthetic choices in their films. Through bad color grading and prosaic cinematography choices, most of everything looks TV-flat, boxy and dull. The fact that they hire so many TV directors has a lot to do with this, as they direct in service of the writing; it’s a “cinematic universe” that’s sorely lacking in any sort of truly cinematic visual. And this works directly against their attempt to create big-screen versions of comic books; comics are a visual medium, often an incredibly exciting and creative visual medium, and shooting these stories with all the panache and visual excitement of a Party of Five dinner scene feels like an enormous missed opportunity.

On the other hand, there’s DC, everybody’s favorite punching bag. I was always much more of a DC fan than a Marvel fan when I was an avid comic book reader. My early connection to Batman led to Superman which led to other members of the Justice League. I even got way hooked on VHS copies of that Flash TV show from the 90s.

Look how fast I’m going.

For many years, they completely dominated the comic-book movie genre. Nolan’s Batman series, for all its unevenness, set the benchmark for what a comic book movie could be– visceral, thrilling and “smart”. But their latest forays haven’t exactly endeared them to the public. And I must admit that they are a punching bag for good reason: they have made some truly horrendous choices in their movies so far. I think DC’s main fault has been their inconsistency and general flakiness in sticking to their convictions; the universe, as initially announced, was to be the flipside to Marvel’s genericness. Auteur films made by visionary¬†filmmakers who would apply their own ideas¬†to the franchises they were to helm. And, love him or hate him, Zack Snyder’s two DC entries were exactly that: 100% his vision. And what a vision it is! Contrasted with Marvel’s aversion to any kind of directorial flair, Snyder’s DC entries are an embarrassment of riches from a filmmaking standpoint. His painterly style really captured the highly operatic, gods-and-legends feel of the characters on the screen. Batman V Superman, in particular, is an absolutely gorgeous movie to look at, with a huge amount of¬†powerful moments that resonate on a visual level. But it is also an impenetrable mess; it¬†features unclear¬†character motivations, a wonky dramatic structure that feels haphazardly slapped together, and some truly baffling writing. More than anything else in the “comic book movie” genre, it feels like an enormous missed opportunity. This film could’ve been great.

As everybody knows by now, audience and critical reactions were not kind; most alarmingly, the film fell short of financial expectations, causing DC/Warners to radically re-think their approach. David Ayer’s¬†Suicide Squad was botched in a big bad way during post-production, by hastily scrambling together some¬†re-shoots that amped up the quips and “fun” tone of the film. Most catastrophically, WB hired a trailer house to help edit the final film– again, an agency that makes movie trailers— resulting in one of the most comically unwatchable films in modern memory. I get the feeling that if Warners would’ve given Ayer enough time to flesh out the story and write a better script, and actually stuck to their guns with the tone and ideas they were going for before the tepid reaction to Batman V Superman soured things, this could’ve been a good movie. It could’ve been so good.

And yet. The worst thing about these movies– both Marvel and DC– isn’t subpar visuals or story problems. The worst thing about these movies is that they barely register on an emotional level. None of these movies feel like the gut-punch I want to feel when I see a great film. Some of the shots in Batman V Superman come close to true cinematic beauty, but they ultimately ring hollow. Meanwhile, Fox’s underdog Logan– a movie I had absolutely no interest in watching, about a character I never really cared about, by a studio whose comic book offerings oscillate between complete garbage and sheer mediocrity– is one of the most profoundly affecting pieces of cinema I’ve seen all year. It eschews the “superhero movie” tropes to instead tell a small story about refugees, legacy, and the indignities of old age. It’s not without its problems (again, there’s a serious lack of visual panache) but it is a gorgeous story that resonates profoundly. Particularly near the end. It was the first superhero film in a long, long time that reminded me of the profound power of the medium.

Can DC or Marvel come close to that? I don’t¬†know. I doubt very much that Marvel wants to change anything, considering how wildly successful their formula has proven to be. Snyder’s Justice League might be what breaks their losing streak– the film is already looking like it’ll surpass its predecessor financially, at least– but will a filmmaker like Snyder be able to find a compromise between operatic visuals and effective, engaging storytelling? This has been a constant problem with him. The rest of the DC slate is starting to feel very Marvel-y; the reshuffling of their slate has resulted in the hiring of Matt Reeves– the most boring blockbuster director working today– for the solo Batman movie, and Joss Whedon for a Batgirl film. But this is all starting to feel a bit stale. A bit formulaic. A bit like a weightless nothing. Empty calories.

I love these characters. I want these films to be good. I want the filmmakers to care about making good movies. And I want them to show me something real. Admist the talking raccoons and flying Gods and superpowered aliens, I want to find a little nugget of beauty that reminds me that our own nonsense, fragile, non-superpowered existence means something. I want to feel like that little kid felt when he was finally let into the movie theater after crying outside with his grandpa. ¬†Is that too much to ask of a superhero movie? I don’t think it’s too much to ask of a piece of art to move me, to show me something real, regardless of the very obvious artifice it operates with. I think it says something about the kind of mediocrity we’ve been acclimatized to that this is some kind of controversial stance. Logan, in its own imperfect way, is a reminder that it can be done. I hope the right people learn the right lessons from it.

2016 Golden Jorge Awards

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the annual Jorge Farah Awards (colloquially referred to¬†as the Golden Jorges). An ill-informed and insulated look back at the year’s highs and lows. Here are this year’s winners!

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES OF THE YEAR:
1. Arrival
2. Nocturnal Animals
3. Hidden Figures
4. Hail, Caesar!
5. The Conjuring 2
6. Karaoke Crazies
7. The Neon Demon
8. The People Garden
9. The Witch
10. The Nice Guys

MOST VISCERAL AND GUTWRENCHING MOVIEWATCHING EXPERIENCE OF THE YEAR (OF A MOVIE THAT CAME OUT JUST BEFORE 2016):
The Demons

MOST FRUSTRATING SUPERHERO MOVIE THAT LOOKED AMAZING AND I WANTED VERY BADLY TO LOVE BUT WAS BOTCHED IN A SPECTACULAR FASHION OF THE YEAR:
Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice

MOST SURPRISINGLY DELIGHTFUL LIVE-ACTION ADAPTATION OF A BELOVED ANIMATION CLASSIC OF THE YEAR:
The Jungle Book

TOP TEN FAVORITE ALBUMS OF THE YEAR:
1. Nels Cline – Lovers
2. Mitski – Puberty 2
3. Vijay Iyer and Leo Wadada Smith – A Cosmic Rhythm with Each Stroke
4. Rihanna – ANTI
5. Violenta Josefina – El Ejercito del Aire
6. Bon Iver – 22, A Million
7. Julianna Barwick – Will
8. Lisa Hannigan – At Swim
9. Tegan and Sara – Love You to Death
10. Camp Cope – Camp Cope

BEST LIVE ALBUM OF THE YEAR:
Kate Bush – Before the Dawn

MOST INITIALLY IMPRESSIVE BUT EVENTUALLY UNDERWHELMING ALBUM OF THE YEAR:
Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
(RUNNER-UP: Kanye West – The Life of Pablo)

FAVORITE ALBUM TO BE RELEASED ON NEW YEAR’S EVE IN A CONSCIOUS EFFORT TO FUCK UP MY OFFICIAL TOP TEN LIST BUT IS TOO GOOD NOT TO MENTION OF THE YEAR:
Sean Eldon – You Didn’t

MOST OBSESSIVELY LISTENED-TO POP ALBUM FROM BEFORE 2016 THAT SERVED AS A SORT-OF HEALING BALM FOR THIS STUPID GARBAGE YEAR:
Carly Rae Jepsen – Emotion

TOP FIVE FAVORITE SEASONS OF TELEVISION OF THE YEAR:
1. Better Call Saul season 2
2. Veep season 5
3. Lady Dynamite season 1
4. Mr. Robot season 2
5. Bojack Horseman season 3

FAVORITE SEASON OF TELEVISION THAT PURPORTED TO BE A VERY DEEP AND INSIGHTFUL SOCIAL CRITIQUE BUT AMOUNTED TO LITTLE MORE THAN THOSE “YOUNG PEOPLE WITH FACES BURIED IN THER PHONES” MEMES YOUR OBLIVIOUS AUNT SHARES ON FACEBOOK, AND YET STILL MANAGED TO DELIVER ONE EPISODE OF TRANSCENDENTAL BEAUTY (SAN JUNIPERO):
Black Mirror, season 3.

MOST FEVERISHLY REWATCHED SHOW FROM BEFORE 2016 TO REMIND ME OF WHAT IT FEELS LIKE TO BE ALIVE:
The Sopranos

MOST THOROUGHLY DEBUNKED BELIEF OF THE YEAR:
That humans are generally good and kind and capable of empathy

FAVORITE MONTH OF THE YEAR:
April.
(RUNNER-UP: December, which was pretty alright)

FAVORITE LIGHTWEIGHT CULTURAL DEBATE OF THE YEAR:
Does Ken Bone’s Vaguely Creepy Reddit Comment History Make Him a Fundamentally Bad Dude?

LEAST FAVORITE LIGHTWEIGHT CULTURAL DEBATE OF THE YEAR:
Does Bob Dylan Deserve the Nobel Prize for Literature? (he does, but it’s weird)

FAVORITE FAILED BLOG RELAUNCH OF THE YEAR:
This one!

FAVORITE ELVIS COSTELLO BLOG OF THE YEAR:
The one I write with Kevin Davis. Every week on Trunkworthy!

MOST DEVASTATING CELEBRITY DEATH OF THE YEAR:
Alan Rickman. (Prince and Bowie and the rest were sad, but Rickman wrecked me)

SADDEST CELEBRITY DEATH THAT IS INFURIATINGLY ABSENT FROM MOST YEAR-END ROUNDUPS:
Merle Haggard

FAVORITE CELEBRITY OF THE YEAR:
Amy Adams, fifth year running

LEAST-FAVORITE INTERNET REACTION TO SOMETHING:
The hoopla surrounding the Ghostbusters reboot

MOST ANNOYING INTERNET PRESENCE OF THE YEAR:
Scott Adams
(RUNNER-UP: Milo Yiannopoulos)

MOST STUNNING DISPLAY OF MY OWN INCOMPETENCE OF THE YEAR:
The time I tried to make eggs benedict

FAVORITE VIRAL CHALLENGE OF THE YEAR:
The “Keep Your Chin Up and Try to Maintain a Sunny Disposition Even Though the World is Literally Crumbling Into a Hellish Funeral Pyre All Around You” Challenge
(RUNNER-UP: The Mannequin Challenge)

BONUS! A Spotify playlist of my 40 favorite songs of 2016 (that can be found on Spotify, anyway):

Congratulations to all the winners! 2016, you were a year-long garbage fire. I’m happy to see you go. 2017, you don’t have much to live up to. Do your worst.

Everyist Blogcast: The Co-Hosts that Never Were (with guest Nate Dunaway)

natedunaway

Boy, it’s been quiet in here, huh? Call off the search parties, though, rein in the hounds; I’m just a little busy. And busy is good. Busy means money. Busy means I’m out there doing more than just lie¬†around in bed all day weeping while I listen to In the Wee Small Hours for the 5032nd time– which doesn’t sound so bad, but money is better.

In this edition of the blogcast, we continue our exploration into the minds and ears of a wide array of music listeners from all over the music spectrum. Last time around, Rease Kirchner served us a hefty dose of guitar-laden indie rock. This time, I’m chatting with Austin’s own Nate Dunaway, a thespian with a proclivity for the rap genre.

A long time ago, Nate and I had the idea of starting a podcast together. Now, unfortunately, we’re both pretty creative people, and creative people are often kind of flaky. After weeks of deliberation, we couldn’t come up with a compelling enough premise, or more specifically, something that hadn’t been done to death in the already overcrowded world of podcasting. We thought about it real hard. So hard, in fact, that we wound up not doing it. So this here pod is¬†a taste of what could’ve been.

I tasked Nate with coming up with his idea of a perfect playlist, and Nate wowed me by producing perhaps the most gloriously disparate list of songs I’ve ever had the pleasure of listening to.

Here’s Nate’s playlist:

Danny Brown ft. Purity Ring- “25 Bucks”
Animal Collective- “What Would I Want? Sky”
Death Grips- “Takyon”
Talk Talk-¬†“Inheritance”
Jonny Greenwood-¬†“Sweetness of Freddie”
ASAP Rocky-¬†“LVL”

Click the embedded player below to listen to Nate’s soothing southern tones as we discuss my precarious knowledge of the hip-hop genre, sing the praises of Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2012 masterpiece, whine¬†over our failed podcast pilot, and talk over each other a lot. All of this, and the songs listed above, for the low low price of one mouse click. Hit it:


Download: https://jorgefarah.files.wordpress.com/2014/05/natepod.mp3

BAFICI Report: Days Four, Five & Six (The Mid-Festival Slump)

baficicrowd

A festival like BAFICI, which prides itself in its wild eclecticism and its ability to signal-boost tiny little art films from far-off lands, is clearly going to have some clunkers as part of its vast lineup.¬†But the disappointments are part of the joy of a film festival like this, a veritable smorgasboard of cinematic expression– the “disappointments” are as much a part of the experience as the amazing discoveries that were smattered throughout its impossibly wide (500+ films!) selection. I never really walk out of a BAFICI screening thinking “wow, that was a waste of time”, even if the movie was absolute garbage. I’m glad for the experience of being exposed to accidents and misfires and risks that ultimately don’t pan out. It’s a wonderful freak show.

It just so happened that days four, five and seven of my BAFICI experience this year were littered with these aforementioned clunkers– a couple of flat-out bad films, a couple of underwhelming “meh”s, and one astounding discovery. Days seven, eight, nine and ten were much better– we’ll be covering those next. For now, here’s what was on deck for my second batch of films (following the first three days, which were covered in this post).

Downloaded

downloaded

I should start out by saying that the above picture is not a still from Downloaded. I couldn’t find any good ones online, so I decided to simply honor the director by putting up a picture of Bill & Ted. And I know, I know, the whole film is actually posted online, I could’ve gone on the stream and simply captured a screenshot from it… but I just kinda wanted to post a picture of Bill and Ted.

Look, whenever you’re dealing with a topic as complex and as polarizing as “downloading culture”, you’re going to face the challenge of whether to give your film an ideological bent at all. Does your documentary have a thesis statement, or do you aim to simply present the facts and perspectives as objectively as possible from both sides of the argument? One is infinitely more entertaining and engaging than the other.¬†Of course, it would be a terrible thing for documentary cinema in general if the filmmakers’ only concern was to push an agenda onto the audience, but with a topic as (relatively) banal as illegal downloading? Take a stance, man. This film is fine– it’s entertaining, it’s incredibly informative, it’s most definitely worth a watch. But it’s not particularly gripping, it’s not particularly powerful, and it doesn’t tell me anything I haven’t already seen in the comments section of a Trichordist blog post. Solid, but you could reasonably expect better from Alex Winter.

How to Disappear Completely

htdc

Harmony Korine’s 2008 experimental VHS film “Trash Humpers” is the last time I remember leaving a screening feeling so bewildered, confused and ill at ease… and that’s a film about old men having sex with trash cans in a post-apocalyptic future. That now-overused message board expression “what did I just watch?” is completely apt for something like this. An absurd, decidedly surrealistic, sometimes claustrophobic mood piece that weaved oneiric passages into traditional narrative in a way where they seemed to struggle for dominance. This film is visually stunning, but ill at ease; compelling at times, but ultimately tedious. I’d like to watch it again, though not exactly for pleasure. Mostly I just want to make some sense out of it.

Gente en Sitios

gente en sitios

Semi-improvised slice-of-life reenactments by sundry Spanish pseudocelebrities. Platitudes and self-conscious quirkiness. On a bad day, I’d call this tiresome, gimmicky bullshit. But there are a few things I enjoyed about the film: the theme of a “country in crisis” removed from the realm of the abstract and presented in the form of real people, which makes for a powerful statement. Also, there’s a palpable warmth to the proceedings, like a group of friends putting together their annual talent show. There are bemused chuckles scattered throughout, like a less clever Jarmusch film. But yeah. Tiresome. Tiresome is the word.

The Wait

the wait

Execrable. Easily the lowlight of the festival. A film so dull, so clumsy in its execution, so flimsy and inconsequential and empty that I’d almost completely forgotten about it the next day. Awkward, pointless and excruciatingly dull, its only saving grace being its cast. I’d almost prefer an offensively terrible movie to something so staggeringly mediocre; at least I’d have been entertained, rather than just feeling like I’m watching a work-in-progress where the final act is missing. The final act where¬†something actually happens.

Mistaken for Strangers

mistaken

Talk about a sharp contrast. This was easily the best movie of the “mid-festival slump” and perhaps one of my favorite films of the entire festival. This movie is an embarrassment of riches: laugh-out-loud hilarious, deeply affecting, incredibly clever and poignant and real.¬†A film that had every opportunity to be a run-of-the-mill “rock doc” about a band on the road, but through luck and consequence ended up being something much more engaging, much more honest.

The premise is simple: The National, one of the most successful “indie rock” bands around, is going on tour. Lead singer Matt Berniger brings his brother Tom along to help as a roadie. Tom is an aspiring filmmaker and decides he wants to take the opportunity to make a documentary about the band, but he also happens to be an oafish manchild who straight-up¬†sucks on just about every level. It becomes instead a documentary about this really lonely guy, with huge potential, who simply let every opportunity pass him by, and his resentment towards his brother’s success. It’s a sweet, sad, hilarious and poignant story about disappointment and anger, with The National and their music as a framing device. I don’t want to write much more about this film now, as I’m going to be including it in a future installment of Music Documentaries About Failure & Disappointment (read the first installment here), but this is genuinely one of the greatest documentaries I’ve ever seen. Just beautiful.

Un Chateau en Italie

chateau

A mostly lighthearted, mostly inoffensive little movie with some nice dialogue and some genuine familial warmth. Pleasing cinematography, likable characters, delightful humor, whimsical plot, some dashes of piquancy and melancholy– not too much of either, just enough¬†so that it doesn’t feel too much like a family film. I have nothing negative to say about this movie– it’s well-meaning and well-made, if perhaps a little too cutesy? I don’t know. Not exactly what comes to mind when I think of modern independent cinema, but maybe that spectrum is a lot wider than I give it credit for. Hey, I liked it. It put a smile on my face. The older ladies in the audience were absolutely smitten.

Algunas Chicas

algunas chicas

A meandering rumination on… what? Man’s carnal nature? Excess? Violence? The futility of human relationships? The darker corners of our psyche, where we fear to tread unaccompanied? I’m not really sure. Whatever it is, it was glamorous as all hell, and it looked absolutely gorgeous.¬†But then foreboding doom and listlessness have always looked great on camera.

Days seven, eight, nine and ten will be posted soon. It got a lot better!

BAFICI 2014 Report: The First Three Days

baficike

BAFICI actually¬†officially started on April 12th, which I don’t understand because nothing really happened that day except for an opening ceremony and a single free outdoor screening of some animated movie (I think?). To me it’d make more sense to open the cinema doors that same day instead of making a big announcement and then waiting a full day before people can start bingeing on indie films from all over the world. Anyway, here are the films I watched during those first three days of the festival– my hope is to jot down my thoughts on every single festival movie I catch this year, so they don’t slip through the cracks of my increasingly dilapidated mind palace. Yes, I have a mind palace. Like Sherlock. Except mine is just crowded with useless movie¬†trivia and empty boxes of Chinese takeaway. Don’t judge.

(Also, full disclosure: I missed my first screening of the festival– Laura Checkoway’s documentary “Lucky”– due to waking up with a mystery hangover. I call it a “mystery hangover” because I didn’t have a drop to drink the night before. What a ripoff. Anyway, it doesn’t matter, on with the bleating.)

Planta Madre

plantamadre

A narratively disjointed Argentine film that has a lot going for it, but even more working against it. The plot follows Diamond Santoro, a washed-up former rock star who travels through life in a sort of catatonic haze, reacting to everything from a distance. He travels to Peru to complete a journey laid out by his younger brother Nicolas, whose death at the height of their success pushed Diamond into early retirement. He reconnects with his brother’s former girlfriend, who has taken up residence in Peru, and heads into the Amazonian jungle in search of a mystic shaman to perform an ayahuasca ceremony… for some reason. On the way, he finds himself involved in a bizarre, genuinely over-the-top tale of drug trade, murder and revenge that feels plucked out of an entirely different movie.

This is one of those movies that take some time to process. That sit and stir inside of you, like the mystical brew that serves as both a McGuffin and a deus ex machina¬†for our troubled protagonist. The good: this film is gorgeously shot. The crew made the best out of the natural scenery, every shot in the jungle¬†is rich and vibrant with color. The cinematography makes this a genuine pleasure to watch. Also, the film’s outstanding sound design makes for an intoxicating and surreal experience, at times bleeding the sounds of the Peruvian amazon with rock, cumbia and the cacophonous¬†thumping inside our protagonist’s brain. The bad: the plot is idiotic, unbelievable and ninety shades of campy. The dialogue is terrible–¬†stilted, melodramatic and awkward. The acting is absolutely horrendous, especially from the lead, who is wooden, stiff and deeply unlikable¬†throughout. All in all, I guess this is a worthwhile watch, but fails to connect as anything other than a novelty. Not a good film to start the festival on. It’s a shame, too, because it really could’ve been great with a better cast and without all the ridiculous plot contrivances.

20,000 Days on Earth

20000daysonearth

There are a few things that I am simultaneously deeply interested in¬†as well as¬†incredibly annoyed by: Cats. Pearl Jam. Essay-length dissections of classical pieces. Tumblr. The ongoing tug-o-war between Perenially Indignant Social Justice Internet Activists and the Idiotically “Edgy” White Dudes of the World. But the one thing that I find most irritating, yet can’t ever resist listening to, is musicians talking about the creative process. Seriously, if you ever find yourself thinking “hm, I just really feel like listening to some overblown pretentious psychobabble right now“, go look at youtube videos of songwriters discussing how songs come to them: it’s always a¬†cavalcade of self-aggrandizing, utterly meaningless platitudes, describing absolutely nothing at all; a desperate attempt to add a layer of mystique to what they know in their heart of hearts to be a very mundane, very boring process. Most musicians just lack the eloquence to describe why songs form the way they do, why the melodies hang or bend in a certain way, why this particular combination of chords sounds like the world is about to crumble beneath the singer. Most musicians can’t explain where it all comes from. Most musicians aren’t Nick Cave.

“20,000 Days on Earth” is an examination of Nick Cave’s career, weaving together strands from the many lives he’s led into a rich tapestry of ghosts, songs and memories. But it’s also a Nick Cave mixtape– not a literal one, of course, but feelings and ideas and themes and concerns plucked together from throughout his career and made into a kind of demo reel of neuroses. And it’s also an examination of the process of songwriting– where the ideas come from, how we stomp them down, how a song takes shape, how we can stretch them some more, why they matter, why they take hold. And it’s about performance– the fleetingness of it all, the theater, the sexuality. And it’s about memories. And it’s about dreams and actions and reactions and consequences. But more than any of that, it’s a breathtaking film, deeply inspiring and satisfying. Just absolutely amazing and revelatory and thrilling throughout. So glad I saw this on the big screen.

Kathleen Hanna: The Punk Singer

kathleen hanna

My first exposure to Kathleen Hanna was actually through a pretty vicious put-down in the form of the NOFX song “Kill Rock Stars”, from the album So Long and Thanks for All the Shoes. This song painted her as an embittered, hateful “feminazi” (a term I grew to loathe, but which made a whole lot of sense to my 14-year-old self) who saw no solution to the world’s problems other than exterminating the male species. I now realize this is pretty much the same caricature that virulent Men’s Rights Activists try to paint feminists as– which is not to say that Fat Mike is an MRA (he’s clearly far from it), but back when the record came out, that was the level of discourse surrounding gender issues in the punk world. At 14 years old, I took Fat Mike’s words to be gospel truth– after all, he was pretty much the king of that small group of punk bands I found myself obsessed with during my early teens.¬†And for many years, that’s the image I had of her: a humorless man-hater with nothing productive to say. Man, fuck you Fat Mike.

“The Punk Singer” is not a “rock doc”. It’s an honest look at the life and times of a polarizing figure in the music business who dared to point a finger at the hypocrisy in a subculture which claimed to be about freedom, inclusion and justice, and was deemed a killjoy and a pariah. It’s about empowerment, about activism, about anger, but mostly (and most effectively) it’s about the sheer devastating awesomeness of the music she made (and continues to make) and the causes she agitated (and continues to agitate) for. Perhaps a little too adoring of its subject matter, but nonetheless as magnetically compelling as she is. A fantastic film.

Mujeres Con Pelotas

mujeres con pelotas

I really shouldn’t try to speak for every festival enthusiast on the planet– I’m sure most of them are careful and thoughtful when they assemble their film festival itinerary. And hey, I am too, for the most part. But every once in a while I’ll buy tickets to a movie for no other reason than it happens to fit a movie-sized hole in my schedule, and it’d be awkward to just sit around and wait for 90 minutes in between features drinking coffee or something. This is why I bought a ticket to “Mujeres Con Pelotas”, an Argentine documentary about women’s football (that’s “soccer” for you Americans). Not really a topic that would’ve inspired much interest in me, but it fit my schedule nicely, so I took a chance. And taking a chance on an unknown movie, unsure of what you’re about to step into, is one of my favorite things about this film festival. Sometimes you strike out. When that happens, it’s kind of a bummer, but it never really feels like a waste because at least you got a story out of it. When it pays off, though, it’s a wonderful surprise. And this one paid off.

The story of women’s football in Argentina is actually pretty fucking interesting. There’s a lot of punk rock, DIY spirit in it. Argentina, of course, is a famously football-obsessed country. It also happens to be a woefully chauvinistic country. Women’s football is seen as an oddity, a novelty, even an abomination, and the talk surrounding it is laced with thinly veiled misogyny. This zestful little documentary sheds light on a part¬†of Argentina’s sports history that is seldom televised, often dismissed and inevitably derided. It does so with humor and heart. A real treat. Glad to have caught it.

Tres D

tres d

… And then sometimes the gamble¬†doesn’t¬†pay off. Sometimes you walk into a movie theater without knowing much about what you’re going to see, but sort of expecting to at least derive some measure of enjoyment, or at the very least bemused confusion, out of the screening. And sometimes you feel your heart start to sink as you realize with horror, within 10 minutes or so, that the movie you’ve stepped into is just an incredibly fucking tedious, laboriously mediocre piece of work. You yawn and you roll your eyes and you groan as you see, with stunning clarity, what the filmmaker was shooting for, and how badly they got it wrong with their ham-handed approach. But¬†you’re pot committed at this point, you’ve psyched yourself up for it, so you sit there and you power through a story so tepid and inconsequential, you might as well just see where it goes.

And maybe it’s when you’ve let go of the notion of actually watching a¬†good movie¬†that you can start to appreciate the quiet, unassuming pleasures of a film¬†like this. “Tres D” is an Argentine movie– from Cordoba, to be precise– which tells the story of two friends who work as press for a film festival in Cosquin. My first impression of this film was that it was unbearable film-festival navel-gazing, punctuated by incredibly tiresome conversations between world-weary film snobs talking about the nature of film festivals. It’s a masturbatory affair, with little in the way of an actual, discernible story, but after a while I kind of surrendered to its quiet charm. The lead actress, Micaela Ritacco, is a veritable charm factory, and genuinely fun to watch on camera. Even if we’re watching her do absolutely nothing. Perhaps after a little while it just starts to feel like you know these characters, in their permanent stasis, so it just feels like hanging out with old friends. There’s a strange comfort in that. In the end, this didn’t feel like that much of a waste of time… but I wouldn’t watch it again.

Jay and Silent Bob’s Super Groovy Cartoon Movie

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What I used to love about Kevin Smith films when I first got into them, back when I was 13, was that they were¬†clever. At least that’s how they came off to me at the time. Every character had an impressive lexicon, they spoke in long uninterrupted monologues peppered with pop culture references and a dash of stoner philosophy,¬†they shared a common universe– characters from one movie would reference characters from another, which appealed to the comic-book continuity geek in me. It was¬†fun to keep track of those interactions. And the ancillary backbone of Jay and Silent Bob, even at their stupidest, were like a Greek chorus of sorts. They never struck me as unnecessarily idiotic, even though they clearly were, because they were surrounded by other elements that had more depth to them and balanced it all out.

Left to their own devices, though, the shtick wears thin fast. And I understand, that’s the point, this is a movie based on a comic book that was supposed to be about these two idiots becoming superheroes; it’s¬†supposed to revel in its idiocy, but this was just way. too. fucking. much. The jokes were painfully, excruciatingly dumb, the animation crude and amateurish, the voice acting… um… functional, I guess? Listen, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy myself. I laughed a few times (mostly at Ralph Garman’s over-the-top performance as a supervillain¬†who is literally just a giant, talking penis). But it veered a little too heavily into the obnoxious, irritatingly sexist and homophobic side of Smith’s¬†oeuvre, which the character of Jay embodies perfectly– which I guess means that’s the point? And I guess it means it’s effective? I don’t know. It was dumb. I laughed.

Afternoon Delight

afternoon delight

Oh, God, this one hit me hard. A movie that is confident enough to let itself take sharp turns from comedy to drama and back again, and to stray into the murky waters of absolute despondency and take up residence there for extended periods of time. Where characters don’t exist merely¬†to serve a dramatic function but to inhabit moments, and to let these fully-formed surprisingly-realized personalities¬†(personalities which would be cardboard cutouts or caricatures in lesser films) react to their surroundings, and let that be the movie instead of trying to manufacture drama. This movie is real, it’s honest, it’s uncomfortable, it’s incredibly fucking sad and it’s also laugh-out-loud hilarious, and it can be all those things and not feel like a nightmarish mess because of three main factors: 1) the script, which is clever and thoughtful and thoroughly lived-in, 2) the direction, which allows for some breathing room amidst the darker passages and never loses sight of the “comedy” part of its description, and 3) the cast, overflowing with warmth and charisma.

There’s a general sentiment, often repeated by so-called screenwriting gurus, that your movie shouldn’t try to be¬†everything to¬†everyone. And, you know, that’s good advice, for the most part, a lot of writers would make an absolute mess of things if they tried to truly capture the vastness of the human experience in 90 minutes. But when a movie can be as¬†relaxed as this one, when the emotional palette of a film is¬†so wide to actually approach the dynamic range of real life and it¬†really does feel like you’ve been given¬†a glimpse¬†into the life of a¬†real group of people, it’s a powerful thing. I can’t recommend this movie enough. Absolutely beautiful.

The Image Revolution

image revolution

Not really sure what I expected out of this other than… I dunno… something better. This lightweight, utterly characterless documentary about one of the most overhyped comics movements in the medium’s history falls flat on its stupid face. It looks and feels like a DVD featurette, with little in the way of creativity in its storytelling: basically just a bunch of talking heads with some archival footage and a scarce few artistic flourishes. Nothing about why Image resonated with people when it did, nothing about its style-over-substance approach, nothing about the lasting impact it left on the industry (if it did leave an impact at all). Also, I counted a total of¬†one woman on screen– at least, one woman who wasn’t a brightly colored illustration.

Kumiko the Treasure Hunter

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Breathtaking. Probably my favorite festival movie so far. A really interesting story told in an unconventional, but powerful way. This is par for the course for the Zellner brothers, whose brand of offbeat humor and startling fatalism have always resulted in very effective and memorable films, but this is a gigantic step forward for them in terms of execution, production values and scope. It tells the story of Kumiko, a timid office girl in Japan, who is something of a scavenger, rummaging around the city for treasures. One of the treasures she finds is a VHS copy of the Coen brothers’ classic film “Fargo”. Upon watching it, she develops and obsession with the money that Steve Buscemi’s character hides in the snow, and, not quite able to tell the difference between fiction and reality, decides that it is her destiny to travel to Fargo and find that hidden “treasure”.

Like other films in this festival, this one is quiet, sad, but oddly beautiful in its own way. A pleasure to look at, with lush sceneries that the Zellner brothers had never really approached before, rich with humor and a sweetly sad tale at the heart of it, It’s the kind of movie I hope to find every year in this film festival, and, like the titular character, it’s worth rummaging through the garbage to find something this beautiful.

Getting Lost in BAFICI 2014: The Beautiful Trudge Back Home

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April is my favorite month, man. I realize my birthday is April 11th and picking your birth-month as your favorite month of the year is predictable and boring, but it’s not about that. See, I don’t like getting older. I don’t like being reminded that I’m getting older. I don’t enjoy having to continuously re-evaluate my station in life every 365 days, reflect on successes and failures, project new goals and deliverables, and make a bunch of false promises to myself. That’s what New Years Eve is for. And yet, every April 11th, that’s exactly what I find myself doing. Again.

Yes, April is my favorite month, but it’s not because of my birthday. It’s because every April I get to participate in the chaotic, unpredictable, sometimes terrifying but always exhilarating celebration of cinema known as the Buenos Aires International Independent Film Festival (Buenos Aires Festival Internacional de Cine Independiente— which is a mouthful, so it will henceforth¬†be referred to as BAFICI). Each year, hundreds of movies from all around the globe are showcased in this rich and eclectic festival. It features all kinds of styles, approaches, tones and genres– from side-splitting comedies to arduously paced dramas to outright bizarre, inexplicable experiments. There’s a wealth of treasures to be found, some garbage to be scoured¬†through, and a lot of fun to be had in the process.

I am never quite as creatively charged, never as genuinely excited to sit down and just¬†make stuff, as I am immediately after a festival screening. It sounds ridiculous, but it’s true; I get a weird high from the whole festival scene. I leave inspired and empowered, aching to vent, ready for the challenge¬†of the blank canvas. That creative boost is enormously beneficial and stays with me for weeks. It dissipates after a while, sure, like every high, but you have something to show for it. It’s gotten to the point where I cherish these walks back home after a film almost as much as I do the film itself. This is especially true about the last screening of the day, when it’s late at night and I’m making my way through lonely¬†streets which would be bustling with activity in the daytime. I soak up the silence; in my every day life, I’d be hooked up to my iPod. Each year during the festival, I leave it at home.

afternoondelight
Juno Temple in Jill Soloway’s “Afternoon Delight”

Because of the sheer vastness of the festival, I’m not able to watch every single film. Hot tickets can sell out in a manner of minutes, and I end up missing out on some movies I really want to see. I usually figure¬†out some sort of itinerary that¬†fits my work schedule and allows me to watch around 30 movies. I realize thirty movies in ten days sounds obnoxiously ambitious, but the sheer excess is part of the appeal for me– jumping from screening to screening, navigating in and out of diegeses, submitting to a new film experience¬†while you haven’t quite finished processing the previous one. It’s an exercise in endurance, yes, but it’s also a thrill in of itself, akin to that weird feeling you get after you’ve stayed up for over 48 hours with no sleep.

So I pick my movies based on what works for my schedule, which means sometimes I’ll walk into the theater without knowing a lot about what I’m about to watch. As you can imagine, this leads to some interesting experiences– I once suffered through an experimental Italian film about a bunch of people just hanging around naked for two hours (not nearly as enticing as it sounds). This year, the lineup includes new movies by Jim Jarmusch, Hong Sang-soo, Lav Diaz and¬†Denis C√īt√© among others. The films I’m most looking forward to are probably 20000 Days On Earth, Mistaken For Strangers¬†(the documentary that’s sort of about The National), Afternoon Delight¬†and¬†Fifi Howls from Happiness.¬†The films I’m most bummed out to be¬†missing are Rebecca Ziotowski’s¬†Grand Central, Kelly Reichardt’s¬†Night Moves and Gabe Klinger, James Benning & Richard Linklater’s¬†Double Play.¬†Also, for some bizarre reason,¬†The Muppets: Most Wanted is playing as part of the festival, which is odd because 1) it’s not an independent film (what with it being MADE BY DISNEY and all), and 2) it opens properly in Argentina in a month.

Anyway. I’m just psyched, man. This is gonna be fun. And sure, I may kind of resent the fact that I have to turn a year older, but at least I’ll be spending my birthday doing what makes me happy. That feels like a pretty sizable victory to me.

Below is my festival lineup for this year’s BAFICI. Continue reading “Getting Lost in BAFICI 2014: The Beautiful Trudge Back Home”

How to Be a Jackass (or: Why I Probably Don’t Want to Talk About the New Thing I’m Writing)

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About a year ago I was riding the Amtrak train from Penn Station to Rensselaer,¬†on my way to my sister’s house in Lake George, New York. This was after a grueling flight from Buenos Aires with a layover in Atlanta, on absolutely no sleep. I was beyond tired, nodding out in my seat, not really making much sense out of the chaos surrounding me, but somehow getting by on sheer mechanics. I’ve long been under the impression that my creativity thrives in such precarious states of exhaustion. That the drowsiness and fatigue and general inability to focus somehow result in drawing associations that would’ve otherwise been obscured by the fog of common sense. I don’t know if there’s any science to back this up or if it’s just a holdover from years and years of cognitively reframing my chronic procrastination.

So as I was fading in and out of consciousness in my seat, my creative side was concocting all sorts of strange scenarios incorporating the bits and pieces of information that I was able to discern during each brief moment of lucidity. I suddenly took notice of the train attendant– this waifish, auburn-haired, remarkably attractive young woman wearing a comically ill-fitting uniform. I started to draw up ideas about who she was. What she came to New York to do. Why she was a train attendant. I started to wonder about her family, about her environment, about what she did every day after work, and about all the crap she probably had to put up with on the job. I wondered if she’d ever met any weirdos who developed unhealthy obsessions with her, or if she developed any strange obsessions of her own. If she was perpetually tormented, or a tormentor herself.

She looked nothing like this.
She looked nothing like this.

Within just about 10 minutes, I had developed a rough outline of a story: a farcical comedy-adventure about love and misery and mental illness and trains. It had laughs, romance, international criminal rings, gunfights, sex and all kinds of wackiness. When my sister Cristina and my brother Jonathan picked me up at the train station, I excitedly guided them through this Coen-esque adventure, throwing in ideas as I thought of them, egged on by their positive response. That very night, I typed up a version of this rough treatment and proceeded to send it along to various friends (industry and otherwise). For the rest of my stay in New York, I’d talk about it at social gatherings. I’d bring it up in conversations with new acquaintances, fine-tuning and rearranging the story with every reading. The response was unanimous. Everybody thought it was just great. Everybody thought it was sweet and funny. Everybody was excited. Everybody encouraged me to keep writing. It was great.

A year or so later, that rough outline has built a cozy little nest for itself in the Incomplete folder of my computer documents, with no immediate plans to move out. Stalled, stagnant, flatlined. The momentum had dissipated into a halt. The moment had passed. Why? Why was that initial flurry of creativity suddenly exhausted? What sucked the wind out of my sails?

With screenwriting, as with any art– be it song, painting, poetry or interpretative dancing– there are many possible reasons for coming up with an idea, and many other potential reasons for following it through to completion. Some are guided by whimsy, others respond to patronage, some get a thrill out of audience reaction, others feel this burning sensation from the pit of their stomach which tells them that this thing they’re making is important and absolutely needs to be said, and that it needs to be seen by the world– that foolish but admirably resilient (and remarkably powerful) conviction that there’s nothing more important than making it happen, and that you’ll just implode if they don’t get it off their chest somehow. There are all kinds of variations and permutations and combinations of these motivators, and they’re not specific to the artist as much as each individual project.

Some are motivated by hanging out with their famous friends, like me here with my buds. Look, there's no real use for this picture here, but there's a lot of text and it's a funny picture. Deal with it.
Some are motivated by hanging out with their famous friends, like me and my buds. Look, there’s no real use for this picture here, but there’s a lot of text and it’s a funny picture; deal with it.

The last screenplay I completed and sold was one of those projects that had to be completed, it just had to. I had to get it out, like my chest would start to cave in if I held it in for too long. So I wrote this deeply personal story, redrafted it a few times, then handed it on to languish at some executive’s desk. Boom. It’s out of my hands, but I got through it, and I was able to sell other people on it. This new idea? Nothing like that. It wasn’t tied to my sense of identity in any way. It wasn’t making grand proclamations about the world as I saw it. It didn’t even transmit a clear message. It was just a silly idea I came up with when I was riding the train, and I didn’t feel that deep-rooted sense of responsibility to finish it. Why was I so excited about it at first, then? If it was such a dumb idea, why couldn’t I stop talking about it for weeks? What got me all riled up, drafting outlines and talking about it at length with pretty much everyone I knew?

It was their reaction. It was their positive reinforcement. It was, in essence, the attention.

By talking at great lengths about an idea that I had, but hadn’t actually seen through to completion yet, I was awarded with a barrage of “oh wow how cool!”s and “you’re so creative!”s and “wow, I couldn’t possibly have thought of that myself!”s. Basically, I got the adulation from having made something great without all the hassle of actually having to make it. And once I get that, I am sated, and the desire to actually make the damn thing quickly fades away, like the last remnants of a dream upon waking.¬†Since I’m describing it in the most hyperbolic ways possible, I’m avoiding the risk of nitpickers or negative feedback focusing on the details. As far as positive reinforcement goes, I get all the reward without actually risking a misfire,¬†kind of like cheating. Well, not “kind of”, that’s exactly what it is– it’s basking in the glow of my supposed genius based on a hypothetical, an unfinished draft. Except when I’m talking about it, I’m not actually aware that that’s what I’m doing. It’s an obscure negotiation that goes on in a shady room somewhere in my subconscious. And upon realizing this, I started to think of dozens of other instances of this in my life– ideas that are entertained for a bit, talked about at length, reveled in the positive feedback, and then abandoned. That’s no way to treat a friend.

I didn’t have this problem with the last one because, well, that one was just too big, too important, too me. This one was a passing whimsy. But I want to be able to pursue those, too; if everything I wrote had to come from some place deep in my very being, I’d never come up with anything. I just don’t have too many important things to say. Big or small, I want to be able to chase that elusive muse where it takes me instead of taking shortcuts and detours to get some cheap praise. C’mon. How gauche is that? First you write the thing, then¬†you bask in the glory of your unrelenting genius.¬†So I think, for the time being, I’m done talking about what I have in the pipeline. Wanna find out? Good. I’ll tell you when it’s done.

You can proofread it if you want. Just go easy on the praise, I might never get around to pitching it.