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FILM: Il Divo: If Scorsese Married Welles… April 30, 2009

Posted by Aymar Jean Christian in Uncategorized.
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Il Divo is the best political mafia movie in years. (Grade: A-)

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It’s a cliché to label directors as sons and daughters of other ones, but it seems appropriate in the case of Paolo Sorrentino, because his films are so concerned with style—lighting, framing, camerawork—and creating a viewing experience that his technique instantly recalls classics. Sorrentino is the celebrated director from Europe you haven’t heard of. After you see Il Divo, out this week in only one theater, and I hope with plans for more, you’ll remember his name.

Most people compare his style to that of Martin Scorsese. It’s an appropriate comparison. Sorrentino loves to swoop into scenes with a dramatic flourish, zooming into characters’ faces clockwise and counterclockwise. His focus on bad men and the mob also begs the comparison to Scorsese and Orson Welles, perhaps also Brian DePalma. All three know how to depict the rage and angst of men whose worlds are filled with chaos, violence and misdeeds. His prior films—including L’uomo in piu (Man on Top), The Family Friend, andConsequences of Love—showcase leading men who have committed a wrong or whose lives are surrounded by despair. Sound dreary? None of them are. One word consistently applied to Sorrentino’s work is “stylish.” You will never be bored watching his films. He has the gift of Scorsese and Wes Anderson: he’s able to create a film technically sophisticated and wildly entertaining. Sadly, many are not available in US-formatted DVD.

Il Divo is the story of Giulio Andreotti, one of Italy’s most notorious politicians who has held numerous top positions in the government, including prime minister, and whose tenacious hold on power and connections to the mob (and high profile deaths and assassinations) make him a figure readymade for the Citizen Kane treatment. Sorrentino has fun with Andreotti, as much fun as can be had with a murderous and power-hungry despot; he films Andreotti’s inner circle, mostly political henchmen, in mob movie fashion, using red subtitles to announce their names and nicknames.

But the movie is ultimately serious. Andreotti (Tony Servillo, who has starred in many of Sorrentino films) is stoic, near emotionless throughout. He is banal, like a German SS guard, and, like those guards, evil. Weighed down by years of wrongdoing, Sorrentino—who writes and directs most of his movies—suggests he’s grappling with guilt: an opening shot zooms into Andreotti with acupuncture needles in his face. Another memorable scene has Andreotti pacing about his house like a madman, driven to insanity by his crimes.

Andreotti is the apotheosis of Sorrentino’s maddening protagonists. In The Family Friend, a loan shark similarly feels enslaved by his crimes—rape and usury chief among them. Not as impenetrable as Andreotti, the loan shark is a monstrous old man—almost literally a hunchback—who we manage to pity for his incredible loneliness and allergy to virtue. In Consequences of Love, Sorrentino brings us a man enslaved by his own trials with the mob who must learn to open his life to other people. We never really “know” these men, but Sorrentino draws us into their stories visually and makes us care, at least, about what happens to them, even if we hope they fail.

Il Divo is infectious; the music is fantastic, diverse and stimulating, the editing sharp. It has a major flaw, but one with a solution: for American audience members new to Andreotti’s story, the film can be irritatingly unclear: Sorrentino assumes his audience is generally familiar with main characters and the general story. I had a terrible time following the jumps in time and certain plot details. I strongly suggest anyone planning to see the movie spend 30 minutes with Google and Wikipedia to become familiar with Italian politics and government, Andreotti, his history and his close associates. It is a must.

That said, Il Divo is the most exciting political drama I’ve seen in years. Inventive and bracing, it is latest installment from one of the best filmmakers working today.

FILM: The Soloist (review) April 24, 2009

Posted by Aymar Jean Christian in Uncategorized.
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Save Journalism and This Homeless Guy

Do your duty and see The Soloist.

(Grade: B-)

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Here in Philadelphia, it feels like The Soloist has been on our minds for months. Los Angeles Times reporter Steve Lopez’s book has been this year’s “one book, one Philadelphia” choice—citywide book club—and so the movie has enjoyed a sustained manufactured buzz campaign.

Imagine my surprise then when I walked into the theater for the advance screening and it wasn’t even full. Foreseeing a Slumdog-like bonanza, I’d arrived extra early, but my friends and I got a seat without so much as a quibble. Part of this was location (they picked a theater farthest from Philadelphia’s African-American community), but part of it is about the movie itself: The Soloist is one of those movies you don’t really want to see. You feel you should see it, so you go and do your duty. Maybe this is why the distributor delayed its release twice, pulling it out of last year’s Oscar race. Times are tough and no one wants to spend two hours watching a homeless guy.

The Soloist turns out to be a fine movie, one that could have earned Jamie Foxx an actor/supporting actor nomination—it may still—but one that, the morning after, fails to inspire much more than quiet reverence. Like State of Play, it is a film as much about the newspaper as its sources, though it is mostly concerns our society’s demands to see individual talent rewarded with an apartment and stable livelihood, rather than on the street playing for hobos and passers-by, who apparently really need classical music.

The writing, adapted from Lopez’s book based on his “reporting” of homeless cellist Nathanial Ayers (Jamie Foxx), is mostly solid. Ayers, who attended Julliard before dropping out in the 1970s, sounds as funny as he is insightful and haunting, despite having some form of schizophrenia. His endless streams of dialogue offer up hard-to-believe quips and wise nuggets of truth like, “I used to sleep on Wall Street but it was too dirty” and “God is on the other side of that wall.” Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr.) on the other hand writes for a living, so we expect his lines to be good. He narrates the movie through the columns he writes for the Times, which allows the director to class up the film with some semi-pompous language.

Downey’s Lopez is lonely, nearly homeless himself. He’s unshaven. He hasn’t unpacked his fancy L.A. home. There are two incidents of him covered in urine. He’s a rich, lonely hobo, which makes him perfect for Ayers and fits into a nice narrative about how Ayers changed him, not the other way around: “To be there with him [listening to an orchestra for the first time in 30 years] like that…I’ve never loved anything the way he loves music.” Kind of cheesy.

Of course with the LA Times going down in flames he might be a hobo soon. Throughout the film we see reporters leaving the office with boxes and editors delivering exit packages. Unlike State of Play, this isn’t an exaggeration. The Tribune Company really was gutting the Times then. Yet while State of Play has an argument that journalism needs newspapers for expensive, source-heavy reporting, it’s simply untrue that long-form human-interest stories like the “homeless Julliard alum” are in danger. That’s crazy; it’s cheap and entertaining reporting.

Director Joe Wright, whose Atonement was one of the most crisply and assuredly directed Hollywood films of last year, does a fine job too. Yet I agree with some critics that his slick style might have detracted from the film’s emotional rawness—I didn’t see anyone crying. He does a good job bring home core themes: the solitariness of bourgeois life versus the communal—though horrible—nature of the street; how Ayers’ schizophrenia is made worse by his racial difference; the juxtaposition of high culture with Los Angeles. At times Wright lays it on too thick: when Ayers plays a good cello for the first time, his camera follows pigeons from Skid Row as the fly around the city like doves. But he gets points elsewhere, especially in his visual and aural presentation of schizophrenia.

So The Soloist will not blow you away, but it won’t bore you either, which is the real danger in sentimental movies like this. Without a grander story, director Joe Wright’s technique is underserved, making the only draw Jamie Foxx, who assured me once again that he actually can act. After The Kingdom and Miami Vice, a guy can forget.

ART/VIDEO: Kalup Linzy, Ryan Trecartin Important to Saltz April 22, 2009

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Circulating the blogosphere is a list art-critic Jerry Saltz composed (on Facebook) of notable artists emerging after 1999 (last ten years). Lists are always problematic, and many of these I don’t know because I haven’t been living in New York, but I was happy to see Kalup Linzy and Ryan Trecartin, two video artists who use YouTube to distribute their art and about whom I’m eager to write an article! There are a lot of meaningful connections between the two. (I saw Linzy’s Studio Museum show this past weekend and I’ll post thoughts soon).

Saltz’s List (Art Fag City’s commentary here; thanks for the link):

Jessica Jackson Hutchins
Klara Liden
Tamy Ben-Tor
Dana Schutz
Laurel Nakadate
Huma Bhaba
Juliette Aranda
Kerstin Brätsch
Liz Glynn
Orly Genger
Xylor Jane
Valerie Garlick
Lisa Sanditz
Karin Oliver
Kate Gilmore
Aki Sasamoto
Sara VanDerBeek
Leslie Hewitt
Fia Backstrom (last two in 2008 Whit. Bi.)

A FEW GOOD MEN:
Sterling Ruby
Jeffrey Wells
Ohad Meromi
Brain Belott
Robert Melee
Leidy Churchman
Peter Coffin
Alexandre Singh
Garth Weiser
Kalup Linzy
Andrzej Zielinski
Ryan Trecartin (in 2006 Whit. Bi.)

FILM: “Il Divo” Out Next Week April 16, 2009

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Paolo Sorrentino’s “Il Divo” is out next week! Just make sure you read up on Giulio Andreotti before you go. I’m serious!

Click here for an English-language trailer.

FILM: PHILLY Legend on Film April 14, 2009

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I’m sure a lot of people in Philly will be excited about this. Won a lot of awards, including at the Philadelphia Film Festival and SXSW.

Description: “Over the past four decades, artist Isaiah Zagar has covered more than 50,000 square feet of Philadelphia with stunning mosaic murals. IN A DREAM is a documentary feature film that chronicles his work and his tumultuous relationship with his wife, Julia. It follows the Zagars as their marriage implodes and a harrowing new chapter in their life unfolds. Featuring music by the Books, Explosions in the Sky, Efterklang, and Kelli Scarr.”

YOUTUBE: Project: Mr. RED April 11, 2009

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In these projects I assume the identity a particular political slant and perform it.

RED: Left/Socialist

GREEN: Capitalist/Libertarian

BLUE: Right/Zealous

WHITE: Whatever I feel like.

YOUTUBE: Better Off “Fred” April 10, 2009

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Better Off “Fred”

By Aymar Jean Christian

What can network TV learn from the runaway success of a no-budget YouTube sensation?

 

I have six subscribers to my YouTube channel, so you can imagine my jealousy when the news broke that the most popular YouTuber, “Fred,” became the first vlogger on the site to reach one million subscribers. When I last gave a presentation on YouTube at a conference, he was at 950,000, so it was only a matter of time, but I didn’t think it would happen this quickly.

Not enough has been written about Fred, the ADD-afflicted six-year-old character who reached this milestone in less than a year. Sure, CNN hascovered him, as have a few other blogs, but Fred is, at this moment, a sensation who is rewriting the rules of online television, marketing and promotion.

Excuse the pun in the title of this article, but it is interesting to contrast “Fred’s” success with a program like ABC’s Better Off Ted, a well-liked show that seems destined for the chopping block. Once compared to Arrested Development in the Chicago Sun-Times, and deemed “clever satire” by The Hollywood ReporterBetter Off Ted is a good show whose failure makes little sense unless you understand the changing nature of comedy and media production.

Like most network TV shows, Better Off Ted is merely a pastiche of other shows we’ve seen before: zany workplace comedies like Scrubs30 Rock, and Ally McBeal, mixed with the witty slapstick of more avant-garde TV programming like Arrested Development. I can imagine the network’s pitch meeting right now: “It’s Ally McBeal meets Arrested Development, and we can get Portia de Rossi! She hasn’t done anything since we cancelled those two shows faster than our subscription to the Times.” This is everything that’s wrong with television, and that’s coming from someone who watches an embarrassingly high number of shows. Television has become so derivative that ABC actually redid a once-cancelled comedy, Cupid, which unfortunately might get cancelled as well.

Television networks are doing some interesting things, I’m the first to admit, but mostly in drama and not often enough. The now-cancelled Kings is evidence of a network taking a huge chance. But innovative comedy is hard to find, and if I hear of another cop show I’m going to vomit on my remote. Of course, pay cable is doing better. Contrast In the Motherhood and Cupid with Showtime’s United States of Tara—a show easily adaptable to network primetime—and the difference becomes clear. Reviving TV comedy is a top priority in the business, as nearly half of the pilots being produced for next year will be comedies.

So back to “Fred.” Fred, played by 15-year-old Lucas Cruikshank, has created a genuinely new entertainment form. His high-pitched, accelerated voice is addictive. The show’s fast pace and short length are guaranteed to hold any young person’s attention span, and his obvious idiocy is ironic enough to deflect criticism. Moreover, Cruikshank has reinvigorated traditional promotion models—releasing videos late in the week to encourage weekend buzz among his audience of tweens. His hard work has paid off. Between product placements—the film City of Ember and mobile device Zipit have appeared—and revenue from YouTube’s partner program, Cruikshank reportedly makes well into six figures a year, tens of thousands of dollars a month. 

Filmed in his house in the Midwest, I imagine Fred costs virtually nothing to produce. His filming techniques are rudimentary. Unlike network TV shows, whose production costs start in the millions and increase as bigger stars are included, Fred is cheap entertainment. But he has done something new, and the TV world would be wise to pay attention (though there are unsubstantiated rumors of show or movie in the works).

Conservative by nature, corporations do not like to take huge risks, but in order to retain their dwindling audiences, they’re going to have to go crazy and stop taking their meds, just like Fred.

FILM: The Brothers Bloom April 1, 2009

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Con Artists fall in love. Sound familiar?

 

 

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By Aymar Jean Christian

If you want to know whether you’ll like The Brothers Bloom, ask yourself if a character aroused by routine weather patterns would annoy or excite you.

A bolt of lightning strikes outside the train car window. The young woman, visibly drunk and lying on a bed next to our sad protagonist, exclaims: “I love thunderstorms!” She starts to gyrate. She starts to yell. Lying on her stomach, she states, flatly: “I’m horny.”

If the above scenario doesn’t make you chuckle, pique your interest or at least make you think “what the hell?” in a good way, then maybe The Brothers Bloom is not for you. If on the other hand, you have a zest for the picaresque and the peculiar, then The Brothers Bloom is the quirky adventure film you’ve been waiting for since the The Darjeeling Limited

Director Rian Johnson (Brick) has executed a taut and brisk film about a team of con artists and their winsome mark, Penelope (Rachel Weisz). The whole charade works, of course, only if you like movies that wink and smile at a rate of one quip per minute. I do!

Unlike Brick, a similarly stylish movie filled with characters who were smarter and more cunning than you, The Brothers Bloom takes almost nothing seriously. The film is filled with well-constructed shots and visual gags. In a running gag, something ridiculous happens in the background—a falling tree, aimless camel, towed car—while something serious occurs in the foreground. One clever shot had Bloom’s (Adrien Brody) head superimposed over a graffiti sketch of a man aiming a gun to his head; his brother, Stephen (Mark Ruffalo), opens the graffitied door and slams it, setting off a “bang!” like a gunshot. Trust me, it’s smart. Throughout the film there are innumerable nods to Scorsese and Wes Anderson, enough to keep even the most ADD-inflicted viewer entertained.

Even with all this going on, though, Bloom lacks suspense. What holds our interest is not so much the plot—which is forgettable—as the characters’ hijinks and snappy interactions. Every time we think the movie is beginning to drag, get too serious or become predictable, Johnson pulls us back in with some visually pleasing or otherwise diversionary spectacle.

The ruse works well until the end when our eyes have become accustomed to the bright flashes of virtuoso filmmaking and we realize that we have no real attachments to the characters. It’s not the actors. All the actors are what they need to be: Weisz is adorable and sympathetic, Brody is brooding, Ruffalo is commanding, and Rinko Kikuchi is devilishly imperious. They aren’t much more than that, but for most, that’s all they will need to be. The movie is so clever—more in style than in plot—that their existential crises function only as icing on the director’s lavishly constructed cake. 

Bloom is a filmmaker’s film. The lighting, the editing, the camerawork, even the costumes are all supremely planned. Everything pleases the eye. Not a moment is drab or sloppily put together.

The Brothers Bloom is fun, which, like Duplicity, makes this con-artist caper a recession-ready bonbon tossed deftly into the eager mouths of gluttonous moviegoers like myself. Empty calories, yes, but there’s a reason we eat sweets.

The Brothers Bloom, directed by Rian Johnson. Now doing the festival rounds; out in wide release May 29.