Thursday, March 31, 2022

déjà vu

I think I'm free / but I'm tied down

Eclectic, electric, guitar-buzzy tune from Toro y Moi.

New album comes out 4/29.

revisiting 'the player'

After this year's Academy Awards ceremony, I was feeling somewhat depressed, not only by the waning state of the industry and--especially ABC's--lack of emphasis on artistry, but also the continuing tacit support of toxic masculinity and fear of powerful men. Luckily, a re-examination of Robert Altman's 1992 The Player, ended up being a perfect antidote. Adapted for the screen by Michael Tolkin from his novel, it's a movie that skews the unsavory elements of the Hollywood business, but also embraces the thrill and craft of movies at the same time. In essence, it's a movie for movie-lovers, that is also unsparing in its criticism. 

Centered upon the floaty point-of-view of a vain, shallow studio executive Griffin Mill (played by Tim Robbins, with an understated sense of reprehensibility) who drives a Range Rover, and is particular about his bottled water brands, The Player wavers between threads of bland corporate bureaucracies, yuppy character study, mystery and the inherent paranoia of a "from-hell" thriller (a popular genre of its time). Mill is soulless, flat, and money-driven and has rejected hundreds and hundreds of scripts and pitches, rarely doing callbacks. This is, and has long been, the sad, chilly reality of business pertaining to any artform, and it's humorously evoked here by Altman and his team. As Griffin lives in his surface existence of lunches, benefits and innocuous chitchat with famous actors, in the meantime, a rejected writer is terrorizing him, sending him cryptic postcards.

The sinister stranger sending ominous notes are also plot-points in two films that also take place within the entertainment industry--both Edward Bianchi's 1981 lurid Lauren Bacall slasher The Fan and Mick Jackson's 1992 Whitney Houston romantic thriller box office smash, The Bodyguard, released several months after The Player. Curiously, The Player and The Fan share similar posters: The Fan with the white shirt of a tuxedo mimicking a descending white dagger; The Player with a dangling noose made of film reel. Instead of an adoring-to-the-point-of-sick- obsession tale, The Player's stalker is one of revenge. The yarn within the film is delivered with creepy, but also lightly comical-framed touches (1930s and 40s film posters, Hitchcock headshot, Death Valley rattlesnakes, and all). This planted plot was much more tense, eerie and unsettling to me on first watch; on re-watches, I see it as more mild and knowing. Even though Griffin is a repulsive person, the simultaneous tightness of point-of-view and the camera-drifty portrayals of power structures swirling around Griffin--a man likely to be ousted out of his job soon--alongside Robbin's sly, almost deceptively tender performance, makes Griffin's predicament an engaging one. Will yuppy scum get their comeuppance? 

However, Altman and Tolkin do not offer up pat conclusions in almost any fashion--the film frequently upends expectations: beats go on a bit longer than anticipated, mysteries remain unsolved. The Player, like business itself, is an unwinding film of constant molehill bumps, frustration and lingering dissatisfaction. It also renders opposite emotions and reactions of the "products" the industry produces. The film references Fatal Attraction as a famed, and financially successful, test-audience script change to its ending (it is, admittedly, in fact, a pretty rousing finale--and the film is a near-masterpiece, especially in comparison to what Hollywood churns out today); a test-audience change is also amusingly wrought in Habeas Corpus, the film within the film of The Player; a "happy ending" tacked onto The Player itself feels vacant and hollow, especially since our antihero literally gets away with murder. 

Much of the moods and tones of this satire are created by Thomas Newman, a score I really hadn't paid attention to on prior viewings, but found it to be a completely vital element in The Player's unusual textures. Newman is known for minimal, icy piano and percussion riffs (most memorably in American Beauty)--and his stamp is familiar. It's not quite muzack, but the score has a sort of lackadaisical, metallic and subdued busyness throughout, except when it flourishes extravagantly (like a "traditional" film score) during a murder and the sardonic ending.

Altman's films often teeter upon congruent relationships: grounded in a sense of realism--the dialogue rhythms and behavioral observation--and also a sense of "movie-ism" (the starry ensembles, the cinematic homages, the use of framing, music and virtuoso editing). In The Player, the obvious falseness of the film's fictions and the sense of semi-reality are constantly in tandem with one another. The movie even moves to a mode of near surrealism, especially with the character of June (Greta Scacchi, who played the murder victim and ghostly golden object of affection in the then-popular Presumed Innocent), a painter, uninterested in the gallery scene or in the business of selling her work, is someone whom Griffin pines for, and who is often placed in dreamy planes: her studio room is full of abstract paintings of white and blue hues, as if she exists literally "in the clouds"; a trip to Mexico finds the couple in secluded luxury. Despite the seemingly ideal set-ups of their scenes, their coupling never feels quite right or at ease, especially as June is the roommate of Griffin's victim (played by Vincent D'Onofrio), her reaction to his death and to Griffin himself, almost equally apathetic. 

The film is studded with stars, especially in its hobnobbing scenes. Cher is memorable in her "fire engine red" dress at a black & white attire event--described to us by Leeza Gibbons' voiceover from Entertainment Tonight. On his Criterion commentary track, Altman notes he directed the actors playing themselves to behave like themselves. This includes Burt Reynolds calling Griffin an "asshole" as Griffin walks away from his table. These sort of bits of familiar actors in their "environments" feel like intimate peeks into the banality of stardom--their salad and bottled water lunches--but at the same time, they perk ourselves up in knowing recognition and allure of their famous faces. In fact, throughout the movie, the star system is constantly emphasized and skewered. In pitches, industry folks are constantly trying to cast ridiculous projects (like Julia Roberts in The Graduate Part 2... though this sounds like a better and more intriguing movie to me than the last tedious Spider-Man movie I saw). There are also famous people playing characters, like Whoopi Goldberg, as the crackling detective on the film's murder case. It's sort of an absurd character and Goldberg plays the absurdity with her usual wit and finesse. Absurd, too, is another detective on the team, Lyle Lovett, following Griffin around. In a police office scene, he invokes the "one of us" chant from Freaks, almost fantastically, illustrating Griffin's whirring fear of being a just a lowly nobody. Bruce Willis figures too, and seeing him here as the brawny action hero, swooping in at the last minute, there's now an added melancholy given his recent health news. 

Some have said that movie stars are over, and it's true, that the industry has splintered in a way that The Player couldn't have ever imagined. This time, when I saw the studio's cringey motto "Movies, Now More Than Ever!" I immediately could only think of Nicole Kidman's AMC ad I've seen too many times, "We Make Movies Better"--her solitary screening in heels and a glittery slate suit in a dark theater as a sort of delicate summoning to get us audiences back into the theaters in the wake of COVID and the ubiquity of streaming at home and its plethora of options (including this year's Oscar-winning Best Picture, not from a typical studio of film yesteryear, but Apple TV). Even in celebrating emotional and well-meaning films like CODA, one has to remember the wheeling and dealing, the acquisitions of getting a project like that to screens and into heated (and pricey) award campaigns. Glimpsing CODA's Marlee Matlin in The Player briefly here, was a reminder just how long she's been working--and perhaps, how unrewarding so many years have been for her career-wise. So there are still movie stars (undoubtedly the mash-up of Sandra Bullock and Channing Tatum with slapstick bantering pulled many to the movies last weekend), but there's also more of a blurred line between movie star and celebrity. And property, especially corporatized properties and franchises, seem to have eclipsed the movie star. In effect, unwieldy power remains and unwieldy power structures remain. And power players, especially within a social media culture, can fall fast (Harvey Weinstein was the ultimate kingmaker at the Oscars decades ago, now he is the nadir, the butt of a joke within the most recent ceremony). 

In The Player, characters that seem cockily on-top-of-their game are slowly  whittled down. I was drawn on this viewing to Griffin's script-editor girlfriend Bonnie (played by Cynthia Stevenson). Is it merely aesthetics? The bang-centric bobbed haircut and skirt suits, the breaking of her heel? The way she treats her assistant (Gina Gershon) with simmering disdain (and fear?). The sad and cruel way she is disposed of by Griffin. The sincerity of her sadness and gall when she is surprised by the studio-tested changed ending of Habeas Corpus ("But you had an ending which was true," she emotes emphatically). In essence, she's one of the tragic characters in a picture of characters playing and being played / exploited, and to what end? ****

-Jeffery Berg

when you're gone


OK, so I kind of like this bubblegum angst pop tune from Shawn Mendes.

Music video here:


Friday, March 25, 2022

american pie

The remix EP of Madonna's somewhat derided cover of Don McLean's "American Pie" has been released on all digital platforms.

It holds a special place in my heart--a sort of pop melancholia of Spring 2000.

I'm partial to the Richard Humpty Vission mixes.

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

leave the room

Vibrant, catchy synthpop tune from San Fran duo Frank and Milan's Moxxy Jones.

Per keyboardist Frank:

The genesis of this track started when I was listening to some guitar- and synth-driven pop/rock from the early 2000s (Justin Timberlake, Moby, Daft Punk). This got me inspired to take a basic song structure and add some jazz chords that seemed to provide the right amount of movement and tension into an otherwise straight-forward progression. I wrote that on a baby grand, and then presented it to Milan. We then built on this musical base and quickly started playing with different sounds and rhythms, added several hooks, and finally resolved the song into a chorus that is both familiar and entirely new. Then, when Trent got his hands on it and wrote the vocals, we knew it was perfect. The most fun part of this writing process came after the vocals were layered on top, because we then could find new and interesting ways to further complement the vocal melody with additional melodic hooks, harmonies, and other flourishes...

Friday, March 18, 2022

the outfit

With The OutfitGraham Moore, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of The Imitation Game, dips his toe in his directorial debut (also written by him and co-writer Johnathan McClain) with a film wildly ambitious in its modesty. It's an impressive feat in a slew of CGI-ridden recent films that are so, so busy yet ultimately empty and tedious. The Outfit all takes place within the confines of a bespoke store in wintry Chicago 1956--its elegance and craft of the highest order of menswear (neatly folded silk and shears clipping through fabric)--and its owner, Leonard (Mark Rylance), takes his trade and artistry extremely seriously. Mable (Zoey Deutch) is his front of store clerk and assistant who has dreamy aspirations of leaving Chicago--for international cities captured in her collection of snow globes. Amidst this unassuming team, the local mob periodically comes in to drop off mysterious envelopes, to which Leonard has been directed to turn a blind eye. Soon, his unostentatious existence gets intertwined into the bloody violence of the mob which leads to a long, tense night. 

Moore's textured film, handsomely shot by Dick Pope and edited with flair by the skilled William Goldenberg, is a Hitchcockian yarn that rises above its potential to be merely movie as experimental exercise. Alexandre Desplat's score seems a bit intrusive at first, but its vibrating strings and winking melodies, add to the dark humor and unease. In addition to its lovely crafts (including costumes by Sophie O'Neill and fashion designer Zac Posen), a well-cast ensemble deliver intriguing and believable attributes--keeping the movie taut and visually engaging. In particular, Johnny Flynn shines in a villainous gangster role: his hat askew, oscillating between coolness and agitated testiness--akin to noir-era Richard Widmark. The chemistry between him and Rylance, a very studied and mannered performer, are some of the best, most wickedly involving moments in the movie. The Outfit is an obvious double-meaning title: the menswear outfits Leonard "cuts" and one of the mobs in the movie. It's a fairly corny pairing of course, but Moore's movie so fondly recalls and samples Hitchcock (Rope and Dial M for Murder among them) and is so well-delineated and acted on its modest means, the movie ends up being a sly, twisty, and pleasurable treat. ***

-Jeffery Berg 

Friday, March 4, 2022

the batman

Even though it goes back earlier from the many different incarnations, the commercialization of the Batman universe is something I remember distinctly as a kid in the summer of 1989. That yellow and black iconography was ubiquitous and almost like a permanent tattoo upon America's moviegoing soul. After decades and decades of Batman movies, Matt Reeves' moody dirge arrives in a particularly fraught time in America and throughout the world. Even though we've been bombarded with superhero movies about good triumphing over evil and / or the ambiguities of good and the ambiguities of bad, it doesn't seem like it's made society any better--even as we've watched buff, caped crusaders save universes  and topple hammy villains on the grandest of scales. And perhaps that's why these movies remain part of the zeitgeist, even if it seems impossible there could be any steam or public interest left in the constant recycling. Before my screening of the Reeves picture, cutesy, overt attempts at tying Batman into the Sonic 2 trailer and an ad for Little Caesar's Pizza (a bat-shaped pepperoni calzone gleaming on-screen) conveys the film universe's wobbly delineations between packaged commerce and cinematic takedowns of capitalistic greed.

Alongside Greig Fraser's (Dune) excellent, ghostly photography, Reeves' The Batman harnesses the atmospheric rain-soaked gloomy metros of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner and Christopher Nolan's portentous Dark Knight trilogy and sprinkles in a few horror homages to Hitchcock and Carpenter for good measure. As one moviegoer noted after my screening to his companion, "It looks like that movie based on Stephen King about the killer car." Indeed, The Batman, a yarn of Bruce Wayne / Batman (a glum Robert Pattinson) entangled in a detective search for the murderous The Riddler (Paul Dano--no-holds-barred in mournful fury, donning creepy clear-framed glasses), often feels more like a horror movie than a superhero one. There's a bit of a Saw-like mischievousness as we witness the Riddler's trickster death traps. 

As someone who struggled through the corny humor of the trite, tedious, seemingly never-ending Spider-Man: No Way Home, The Batman is a commercial film that's more in my lane of a sinister thriller. It doesn't flounder as a static villain character study like Todd Phillips' Joker, though it takes cues from its tone and style. The movie burns through some thrilling action sequences, aided by dynamic sound design and a grandiose Michael Giacchino score (its main horn theme sounding as if it's about to break into John Williams' "The Imperial March" from the Star Wars saga; another motif is a minor key invert of "Ave Maria"). A key song cut is Nirvana's "Something in the Way," a strikingly lonely tune, which drones on as a reminder of what these early 90s kids were borne out of in this parallel Gotham City world.

Like most films of its kind, the cast is a mixed bag. Pattinson is lifeless--emanating a gray, wooden emo blankness that somehow male actors are able to get away with without much criticism. I still prefer and enjoy Michael Keaton's layered mysteriousness and Tim Burton's finely-tuned balancing of pop comic colors with shades of gritty gloom in comparison to all the latter Batman cinematic versions. This is glaring as well with even beginning to compare Michelle Pfeiffer's vibrant, scintillating Catwoman with the talented Zoë Kravitz's dour portrayal. None of this is really the fault of the actors per se, but what seems to be the director's vision for these characters. The scenes (and there are a lot of them) between Pattinson and Kravitz in particular are all a bit of a snooze. Still, the sweeping techs and visuals, the tense horror kills, and some of the supporting characters, particularly the always-strong Jeffrey Wright, make The Batman an occasionally compelling and worthwhile film. It's also a deeply political one that speaks to our times: the rampant apathy and discouragement of being able to get much done progressively in the post-Obama years; the scrutiny upon political leaders as imperfect, and at worst, horribly corrupt; the proliferation of tech and its ability to connect radical agents of violence. Here, a torch is raised to guide souls through this flooded, broken world. It's one of the more simultaneously hopeful and cryptic images of the movie--a movie that ends up ending too many times. ***

-Jeffery Berg

Wednesday, March 2, 2022

sunny room

Here is Maia Friedman's (of Dirty Projectors) affecting acoustic recording of "Sunny Room."

Per Maia, "The search for my sunny room - my internal place of peace, comfort and calm - is a daily endeavor, and sometimes feels like a tug-of-war. This song is a wish that the comforting space within one’s self is bright enough to outshine moments of darkness. As someone who has struggled with depression and anxiety, I know that these sunny rooms can often be difficult to find, and yet I do my best to renew the search time and time again."

Order Maia's new record, Under the New Lighthere.