Friday, August 19, 2016

Quick Take: Tumbledown (2015)

There's a sadness, an ache both acknowledged and unacknowledged, in Tumbledown (2015), the story of the pained interactions between Hannah (Rebecca Hall), a widow whose husband Hunter Miles was a punk-turned-folkie cult icon, and Andrew (Jason Sudeikis), a pop culture academic who turns up in her Maine hometown to work on a book about the late musician.  This sadness isn't readily apparent in Tumbledown's first 30 minutes, which veer uncomfortably between melancholy and a kind of forced quirk, as if the movie can't decide whether it wants to follow the path of an painfully observant family dramedy like Rachel Getting Married, or the ain't-small-town-folk-wacky (but oh so wise) tone of...well, take your pick of the many, many rom-coms that have used that template in the last 20 years. If we think of the movie as a pop song, that quirk is its production sheen, layered on with all the subtlety of Phil Spector going through the Let It Be tapes. This grates, because we can hear the delicate relationship between melody and harmony underneath that sheen-- or rather, we can see it.

When the writing stumbles, and the direction occasionally makes regrettable choices, what Tumbledown has is its cast, singing and playing and finding changes on chords familiar and unfamiliar. They are the movie's timbre, the place where the magic really exists, beyond the banality of the lyrics and repetitive choruses. We hear the notes when Hall twists her waist and shrugs a shoulder while simultaneously turning her head in the opposite direction, her body expressing the jumble in Hannah's head as much as the musicality of her tossed-off mumbles. We hear them in Sudeikis, whose confident snarkiness as Andrew feels so movie-familiar early on (Sudeikis uses a cocked head like a weapon), but ultimately acts (in Hannah's words) as an "exo-skeleton" he sheds to reveal wounded anger. We can hear it in the interplay between Hannah's parents (Blythe Danner and Richard Masur): Danner feels like she's chewing the scenery, until the narrative reminds us of how much that over-doing covers up, while Masur does just the opposite, his underplaying and dry wit drawing us in, only to bite like a cobra. It's there in Griffin Dunne's warm bookshop owner, with his anxiety-ridden sighs, and it's there in the underused Dianna Agron, as Andrew's music industry girlfriend, Finley. Agron's not in in the film nearly enough, but when Andrew interrupts a dinner party conversation to play a Hunter Miles song (on vinyl, of course), Agron's face becomes a frozen smile, her eyes get a faraway look, and her hand subtly-but-impatiently shakes her wine glass, as if she's experienced this kind of Hunter seance many times, and just wants to get through it again with her patience intact. It's a brilliant little moment, and it makes you want to know more about Finley, and why she's put up with this for so long.

"Putting up with" is the problem/curse/balm that all of the characters are grappling with in their own ways. "I'm just here for everyone to work through their issues on," Andrew exclaims, with a by-then familiar form of charming passive-aggression, but he's not wrong. Underneath its unresolved romanticism about pop music martyrs and the Curse of Elliot Smith (who, along with David Foster Wallace and Jeff Buckley, the film incorporates into a litany of too-young dead artists, as if longing to diffuse potential criticism), Tumbledown is actually about the unresolved rage of family dynamics, and all the guilt, resentment, love, and longing that fuels them. No one knows exactly how or why Miles-- found dead from a presumed fall at the bottom of a mountain--died at the moment and in the way he did, and even questioning its accidental status is taboo. Everyone in Tumbledown is using everyone else-- for catharsis, for career advancement, for the "next stage" in their presumed personal arcs (in one rather remarkable scene, Danner's Linda sweetly-but-bluntly informs Hall's Hannah that she expects a grandchild from her because she's experienced "all the other juicy stuff in life" and doesn't want to be denied this final thing).  They often use unknowingly, but it's no less devastating for that, and often so quick and casual that its impact only occurs to you later, as you turn the movie over in your head. Every character has their turn at truth-telling, even as they simultaneously use their declarations to lie to themselves. Homilies about life and energy carry with them a heavy dose of irony, like they're shibboleths repeated in desperation. Some of the lying is intentional, and some is not, and the film is wise to leave much of its impact hanging in the end (even the kiss that closes the movie is beautifully tentative, a literal pause between lean-in and lips undercutting the genre's normal sense of triumph). But it's in those moments of quiet exchange, as the film slows down to let the everyday in, that Tumbledown really sings.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Notes on the Auteur Theorizing in 2016 (or, The Return of the Quizzical Sergio Leone)

It can't be the end of summer already, can it? Even as the temperature's been spiking into the mid-90s here in sultry Ohio, the threat opportunity of the classroom beckons in just a few short weeks, bringing with it students, syllabi, papers, and (of course) movies. So what better time to peak into that cathedral of cinephilic higher learning, Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule, whose kindly proprietor, Dennis Cozzalio, has turned over the student union to a fearless vampire killer? That's right-- it's time for some last-minute summer reading, with  PROFESSOR ABRONSIUS'S ROBUSTLY RANDOM, ECCENTRICALLY INQUISITIVE, GARLIC-INFUSED MID-SUMMER BACK-TO-SCHOOL QUIZ. As always with a SLIFR quiz, the questions look like challenging fun (even if it's clear I should have done a bit more studying beforehand), and I extend Dennis's invitation to play along at home, via my comments section.  So, raise your stakes, grab your garlic, and let's hit the hills, kids!

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Watch The Skies: Empire of the Sun

When I was fourteen, Steven Spielberg's Empire of the Sun opened at the new UA theater in my hometown of Kalamazoo. It would be a key moment in my budding, teenaged cinephilia, and I explore the film, and trace out my shifting responses to it over the last (nearly) 30 years in a new piece up at Bright Wall/Dark Room. Thanks again to the editors there for all their great work, and to Google Doodle artist Sophia Foster-Dimino for her beautiful accompanying illustration!

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Super Americana: The Rocketeer 25 Years Later

"I’ve bought a ticket in a lottery, the grand prize of which amounts to this: being read in 1935."—Stendhal

Released 25 years ago this month, The Rocketeer—director Joe Johnston and screenwriters Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo’s adaptation of Dave Stevens’ acclaimed indie comic—was pitched as Disney’s second attempt (after the previous year’s equally stylized, period-set Dick Tracy) to compete with Batman, after that film stormed theaters in 1989. It had rising stars like Billy Campbell (making his film debut after gaining good notices for work on TV shows like Crime Story and Dynasty) and Jennifer Connelly; a marvelous villain portrayed by the most recent James Bond, Timothy Dalton; well-regarded character actors like Alan Arkin, Paul Sorvino and William Sanderson in key supporting roles; a screenwriting team who’d just show-run a well-received adaptation of The Flash for CBS; and a director coming off the surprise hit of Honey, I Shrunk The Kids. The gorgeous, painted Art Deco poster captured the look of Stevens’ comic brilliantly for longtime fans, while grabbing the eyes of those (like 18-year old me), who’d never heard of the Rocketeer in 1991, but were certainly curious to see what this flying helmeted man was all about.

But the film failed to take off that year, garnering good reviews but doomed by a summer scheduling that dropped it smack-dab between the season's two biggest hits, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and Terminator 2. It sunk at the box office, and only found commercial success later on home video. And yet, looking at it now, its retro optimism feels like a road-map to the future, a presaging of precisely the blend of action, wit, nostalgia and pathos that drives the Marvel blockbusters currently dominating the marketplace (released, ironically enough, through parent company Disney). Like Stendhal, resigning himself to contemporary failure in order to find posthumous glory, The Rocketeer has outlasted Costner and Ah-nuld as a model of all-ages action filmmaking.

Over at, I take a long look at the movie, its genesis, and the lasting impact of its retro vision on contemporary pop culture.  I'd be grateful if you'd give it a read, and even happier if you'd take a look at the the film-- I assure you, you won't regret getting caught up in its tailwind.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Apocalypse, Then: The Bed-Sitting Room

I've long been interested in writing for the excellent online film magazine Bright Wall/Dark Room, so I'm thrilled to be in their new "sci-fi" issue, which went online Tuesday afternoon. My piece is about Richard Lester's brilliant, bleak, and brutal 1969 apocalypse comedy The Bed-Sitting Room, which pulled together several threads of sixties British satire and themes from all of Lester's previous films, and put them at the service of a vision so unrelenting in dystopic tone and imagery that it might have made Brecht reconsider alienation. My piece can be found here, but I urge you to subscribe to the whole magazine and read everything-- the folks at BW/DR are doing wonderful work that deserves your ongoing support.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

I Wish U Heaven: Prince, R.I.P.

I genuinely believed I'd never have to write this blog post.

When my wife came upstairs this afternoon and told me Prince died, it didn't actually register at first: I thought of John O'Hara writing of George Gershwin's death: "I don't believe it if I don't want to." It's not an exaggeration to say I feel like a whole chunk of my universe has been ripped away-- aside from the Beatles and Miles Davis, no musician meant more to me, or did more to transform my life, than Prince. I wrote about it a couple of years ago in this blog post, which was not even about Prince, but about the comic book THE WICKED+THE DIVINE (which, I could not have known then, was going to add a Prince-like character to its pantheon of warring pop gods):

 It was a few nights ago, and while talking about pop music with my wife, I was trying to explain the impact Prince had on my teenaged self. Finally, after talking about the playfulness of his persona, the powerful contradictions in his lyrics, the energy of the music, I settled on the most expressive reason: "Prince taught me how to walk."

I wasn't sure what that meant, exactly, except that I felt it very deeply: vivid visual memories of high school hallways, being sixteen, understanding that there was such a confidence to Prince's work that you literally felt it, that it transformed your body. Hundreds of songs exist about dance floors and nightclubs, but the best pop music gets under your skin everywhere, transforms the everyday into a song. It's alluring and liberating and addictive, and Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie get it down to their bones. When, in one of his patented end-of-the-issue essays at the back of issue two of The Wicked + The Divine, Gillen alludes to his own experience with the physicality of pop-- talking of how Hole's "Beautiful Son" made him "...walk better. I wasn't uncomfortable, but now I'm beyond comfortable. It's the first time I've felt like a shark in any waters. Whatever this is, I'm at home here, and I'm powerful here."--I smiled and nodded in recognition.

There are pop artists that speak to you so deeply that it's like you've known them your whole life, that they were buried in your subconscious, and each new work is less an act of consumerism than one of self-recognition, another part of their body of work intersecting with yours, and everything moving together.


I spent the rest of the past several hours in a kind of haze, tweeting incessantly about Prince as a kind of catharsis, as if I was subconsciously building a wall of remembrance, as if sharing images and song lyrics and memories (and cross-listing and re-posting other people's similar tweets) could both expunge the confusion at his sudden death and perhaps work like a sort of seance. But mostly it's because I wanted to say something, but lacked the words (at least on first hearing the news). Talking about him, reading about him, listening to the music was and is both a gesture of mourning and a joyous act, similar to what Shawn Taylor says in this lovely piece:

Losing Phife, David Bowie, and now Prince in the same year is devastating. Not because of an unhealthy relationship to pop stars, but because art matters. It matters differently to each of us, but it matters. But out of all forms of art, music, I feel, matters the most. It can speak for you when you’re tongue tied. It can describe what you’re feeling when you can’t get your mind right to identify it. It can get you out of bed, dancing across the floor, shaking the blues from your fingertips and swaying hips. It can help you find the tears that don’t come when you need them to.

I hope to say more about Prince and his work, and what it meant to me, in the coming weeks. But for now, I just want to re-post a link to something I wrote three years ago for the late film journal Cinespect. It's called "The Curious Case of Christopher Tracy." It's nominally about his criminally underrated movie Under the Cherry Moon (and its relationship to the Baz Luhrmann Gatsby adaptation that was about to be released), but it also takes a wider view of what Prince meant in a particular cultural moment, and what his work still means to me, and it says a lot of what I would want to say in the immediate wake of his death. In particular, this part feels resonant for today:

When Christopher is killed by Issac’s thugs at the end of the film, he ascends to heaven, or at least that’s what the music tells us: The fragile acoustic ballad “Sometimes It Snows in April” offers a vision of Christopher from Tricky’s heartbroken perspective, while the appearance of the actual Prince and the Revolution on the credits, singing “Mountains” while floating in the clouds, suggests a witty play on myths of rebirth, the ending Gatsby didn’t get. Is it possible that this is also the “heaven” that Duke Ellington wrote of in his work, the code word for Harlem, with all its political and artistic possibilities for a burgeoning black artistic class, one more historical nod to the past by the director, even as his funk closes the film out in the musical future? Or has the green light moved out of the bay and across the continent? At a key moment in “Under the Cherry Moon,” Tricky sports a cowboy hat; it’s an ironic play on a key signifier of American masculinity, since Tricky is wearing it during a breakdown, but also a reminder of where Jerome Benton and Prince are from—the Midwest that Fitzgerald (himself a St. Paul native) refers to throughout “Gatsby” as “the West,” without any qualification. For Nick Carraway, it’s a space of retreat from an East he no longer wants any part of; for Fitzgerald, a space he escaped. But for Prince it remains the frontier in all senses, the center out of which stretches his endless creative horizon, where concentric circles of style, image, and history float like cherry moons. It’s Prince’s final reversal on the Fitzgerald dilemma: “to be borne back ceaselessly into the past” not as nostalgia trap or defeat, but as a postmodernist call to arms.

R.I.P., Prince.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

CIFF40: Chronic (2015)

Chronic opens with a long take, framed with the interior of a car, as we peer through a windshield at the front of a house, the driveway and lawn seen in pieces, an unidentified person seen locking the door. The shot lingers for a minute, really allowing the eye to wander, to observe the person close the front door, fumble with keys and then walk to the car. There's no cut to a close-up, no music on the soundtrack, no indication of where we are or why this moment is important. Nothing is explained or justified. It's an act of seeing, a glimpse out of time. It is banal, and it is riveting.

Introduced at the Cleveland Film Festival's March 31 afternoon screening by hospice workers from Cleveland and Ohio City, Chronic details the life of David (Tim Roth), a professional care-giver working with different patients in Southern California. I saw this film more than a week ago, loved it, and yet have delayed writing about it, for reasons I can't quite ascertain. In part I think it's due to the personal, often-difficult nature of the material, but I think a bigger reason is its tone and approach to David's story. This is a film full of long takes like the one I described above, long extended shots of space whose duration and stillness generates a paradoxical response (at least in me): the often-immobile camera's unshakeable, intense focus on what the frame has cut out of its world at a given moment lets the mind wander and observe, drift and make connections to what is unsaid, even as we observe the rich and sad detail of David's work routines. Director Michel Franco allows details to pile up (the way that David shifts a resting body in bed, how he bathes a patient, the exquisite sensation of tiny things like the smell and texture of parsley in the kitchen), and the immersion in the everyday feels vital.