Infamous bad movie Can’t Stop the Music is perhaps one of the strangest pictures ever made. Watching it today, whether for the first time or the seventh, it is impossible to look at it without the filter of dated camp. Even in 1980 its time had passed, what with the famed ‘Disco Demolition’ derby of 1979 still fresh in the memory, and The Village People’s success winding down. It’s such a ludicrously mounted production that it thrills me to no end that it was a hit in Australia and nowhere else. The soundtrack album, too, which went to no. 1 on the Kent Music Chart and has since become a late night television staple, typically on New Year’s Eve because networks expect drunken idiots to sit around and watch.
The film opens with Steve Guttenberg (ding), working in a record shop (ding ding) on roller skates (ding ding ding) as mad hordes of customers fight their way to the register to purchase the latest, hottest, chicest disco vinyl (ding ding ding ding we have a winner!). Quitting his job to become a composer and rolling down Broadway to the beat of David London’s “Sound of the City” as glitter-sparkle credits fly across the screen. It’s patently absurd and how anybody thought it was a good idea even then is mind-boggling. Still, Can’t Stop the Music is a curiously fascinating film to watch, which certainly helps explain its cult status. Much like the other famous terrible musical of 1980,Menahem Golan’s The Apple (which received zero Razzie nominations compared to Music‘s seven; explain that!), there’s a genuine sense of awe to be found in its ugly, chintzy excess and tone deaf style. To be a fly on the wall of this production would be an eye-opener.
Visually, it’s easy to see what they were attempting. It’s full of bright colours and bustling energy, juxtaposing its pulsating disco beats with the working class that were (supposedly) buying these records as escapist fantasy: New York City as a musical utopia unlike any other. The Village People may have told gay men to “go west”, but Can’t Stop the Music attempts to lay claim to New York as the place the be if you want to make it big, whether you’re a retail lackey or a construction worker. It’s a city where artists mingle and can be creative, where even amidst the skyscrapers and the office workers strolling to lunch meetings and coffee breaks the sound of a disco record can make it feel like a wide-eyed wonderland. I mean, there’s a scene where the Indian village person crawls through the window of his friend/neighbour/stranger and she says, “This is neighbourly New York.” This was the New York City that many wanted, when really they were getting The Equalizer.
Listen to the sound of the city, listen to the cars on the street
New York is the fans of the Yankees, New York is a cop on the beat
Listen to the sound of the city, listen to the steeple bells chime
New York is a city of magic, New York is a hip state of mind
If the enemy of my enemy is my friend then what do we make of Enemy? When your enemy is yourself, does that mean you’re your own worst enemy and best friend? Thankfully for a film made of such origami-esque folds in logic as Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy, it’s never as convoluted as one might expect. In fact, the efficiently put together puzzle box – it’s 90-minute runtime is sweet relief compared to Prisoners’ 150 – is actually rather easy to follow, with its more mind-bending aspects better left dangling as ominous, lingering threads of unease and macabre menace. If you don’t fall under the quiet spell of this José Saramago adaptation then its occasional moments of excessive outré imagery will likely fall on deaf ears, but I found it captivating.
Perhaps the film is an allegory for Villeneuve’s own creative to-and-fro between the more mainstream-oriented worlds of Incendies and Prisoners and that of his more experimental artistic endeavors such as Polytechnique and his wonderfully grotesque short Next Floor. As duel Jake Gyllenhaals traverse around a murky Toronto – looking as it does as if it has been slathered with amber and frozen in a not-too-distant and not-quite-real time and space – fighting a soft-spoken battle for supremacy, its mysteries only deepen and its director’s whims get more refined. Villeneuve, working from a screenplay by Javier Gullón, has never felt this unobscured and singular in his vision. All of the elements work in perfect harmony, which is something I certainly didn’t think about PolyTechnique or Prisoners (the latter of which I really liked; the former not so much), which had elements that stuck out like sore thumbs amidst the world he had created. The dreaminess that Enemy revels in is perfectly in sync with the aforementioned darkened honey hues of cinematographer Nicolas Bolduc (nicely described as “uretic” by Guy Lodge), the austere production design of Patrice Vermette that appears as if it could unfold at any moment into a parallel dimension, and the blunt, discomforting score of Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans.
I guess I should do this, yeah? I saw more films in 2013 than any year before – both films from 2013 and just films in general – so I at least feel like the following “ballot” is a more comprehensive list than I may have given years prior. All of that, of course, has to do with my moving to America and, most specifically, New York City. I got to see more new release films in cinemas than ever before, including obscure, little-known and all but invisible titles that Oscar voters likely have little time for. I was also able to attend various film festivals including Tribeca (within days of arriving in New York), San Francisco, and New York. It all allowed me access to films that in Australia would only be seen if you were lucky enough to pick the right festival schedule. Many of the films I saw in 2013 will never get a release in Australian cinemas, and will instead be relegated to home entertainment and direct-to-TV releases at some point over 2014.
I thought 2013 was a great year for cinema, although I don’t think my own personal tastes have aligned less with the Academy’s before (again, maybe just symptomatic of seeing more movies than usual). With the Oscars this Sunday (Monday in Australia) I thought it was finally time to publish this “best of” list that is in no way definitive and final. I will add to it over the years if I catch films that went under my radar (or, in the case of Asghar Farhadi’s The Past, rather inexcusably missed). But, as of now, this is a very good look at my time at the movies in 2013. These are the performances and technical achievements that I will associate most fondly with the past year. Some of my eligibility rules may appear lax: Oscar-qualifying runs count, Australian films released in 2013 (but 2014 in America) count. Some categories have six or seven because I thought they all really deserved it, plus it’s my blog I can do what I want to. Some of the best films I saw in 2013 - Hide Your Smiling Faces for instance – won’t get official releases until 2014 so they’re not featured. Films that I saw in 2012, but didn’t get American releases until this year - Lore, Berberian Sound Studio – are not included here.
* Image choice doesn’t necessarily denote who I’d pick as the winner. I’m not choosing “winners” apart from the top ten.
1. The Missing Picture (dir. Rithy Panh)
2. Spring Breakers (dir. Harmony Korine)
3. The Place Beyond the Pines (dir. Derek Cianfrance)
4. Laurence Anyways (dir. Xavier Dolan)
5. A Touch of Sin (dir. Jia Zhangke)
6. Gravity (dir. Alfonso Cuaron)
7. No (dir. Pablo Lorrain)
8. Una Noche (dir. Lucy Mulloy)
9. In the House (dir. Francois Ozon)
10. You’re Next (dir. Alex Wingard)
2o13 Oscar Prediction: 12 Years a Slave
Like many modern films that fall into the niche genre game, Grand Piano and Blood Glacier owe much of their inceptions to other, old films. Thankfully, these two wonderfully audience-baiting flicks find new rhythms and maneuvers to allow them both to step out of the shadows of their obvious forebearers and become entertaining, even original, works. Despite indulging in the horror and thriller tropes, they become more than mere copying, spinning off into directions that are inspired by, but not beholden to, the classics.
Eugenio Mira’s Grand Piano has a thoroughly ridiculous premise that borrows liberally from films such as Jan de Bont’s Speed, David Fincher’s Panic Room, and, most strikingly, Joel Schumacher’s Phone Booth. Much like that 2002 thriller with Colin Farrell as a man stuck in a telephone booth with a sniper’s rifle fixed on him, Mira’s films features a more-or-less single location with a lone man aware of the stakes and an escalating tension that is seemingly at odds with its intimate focus. Needless to say, it is a better film than Phone Booth, but that may be because the Spanish director (Grand Piano is in fact a Spain/US co-production) decided to reference Brian De Palma more than his most direct influence, Alfred Hitchcock.
Marco Berger’s Hawaii is essentially 100 minutes of mental foreplay. A game between two men filled less with heated physical battles of strength and stamina, but rather secret glances, escalating desire, and heated eroticism. The kind of temperature rising sport that comes from sneaking a look at the object of affection when they least expect it. The thrill that comes from feeling like one has gotten away with a trickily maneuvered flirt. The boiling yet unspoken passion that can rise from the mere touch of flesh on flesh. The almost unbearable sexual tension that can emerge when we least expect it.
More impatient viewers may find the seemingly endless psychosexual flirtation of Berger’s protagonists, well-off Argentine writer Eugenio and homeless drifter Martin, too much. The yearning for release therefore extending beyond just the characters on screen, but to the audience where breathless heckles may make way for frustration. Others will find its gentle, melodic take on rekindled friendship to be sumptuously handled and deeply involving in spite of its long stretches of silence, meditative scenes of potentially one-sided lust, and unspoken love.
It’s Laura Dern’s birthday today, which is cause for celebration. Hell, it should be a national holiday! On my old blog I used to have a tag labelled “The Facial Expressions of Laura Dern” because, well, nobody gives face quite like Laura Dern (Madonna would have to chance the lyrics to “Vogue” if it were made today). I met Laura Dern just last year at a luncheon to celebrate her father, Bruce Dern, and his eventually Oscar-nominated performance in Nebraska. She was a pleasure and a delight and allowed me to geek out about all things Lynch and Enlightened as we sat one-on-one after everybody else had left. She sipped on a coffee and I desperately tried to control with my mind the allergic reaction I was having to the the W 54th Street restaurant’s tree nut-tainted fondant dessert. I spoke of how I had visited the Twin Peaks convention in Seattle that past August and she spoke of potential new developments in the world of David Lynch. I mentioned I watched all of Enlighened in two days and purchased a copy of Wild at Heart on VHS when I found it in an antique store in the town where Twin Peaks was filmed. I even got a photo of her that you can see to your left. It has been my social media profile picture ever since for obvious reasons.
Anyway, as proof of Dern’s amazing face – and general amazing everything – here are 11 more of the best Laura Dern gifs.
Gosh, remember that opening scene of Enlightened? What a way to start a new series. And how about the weird spotlight sequence from Inland Empire. Somebody should host a Halloween party and just have that video sequence playing on a loop for hours on end. And I end on this amusing capsule gif from – again - Enlightened that is basically the exact opposite of all the gifs above, utilising Dern’s still face to just as good comic effect as the mascara-stained, frazzle-haired one above. Such a damned shame that show only lasted two season, but those two seasons are two of the most perfectly complete seasons of a show you could possibly get. It ended on such a great moment that in some ways it’s a good thing it finished when it did because there was no chance of the series’ magical spell ever getting lost or diluted. Laura Dern is 47 today and if directors like Mike White, David Lynch and John Curran keep being brave enough to cast her then we should have the sight of her face contorting and twisting itself into brilliant shapes for years to come.
Most of the images were sourced from the Laura Dern Face tumblr. A treasure-trove of beauty.
In Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s Mother Joan of the Angels, the director places his camera in the figurative and literal position of God. In this Cannes-winning title from 1961, Kawalerowicz’s stunning, evocative images made of starkly contrasted black and whites – in a nicely twisted spin on the old black = evil, white = good cliche of symbolism – takes on the POV of a divine entity, suggesting a directorial statement that places the physical camera above all. In the 110 minutes of this arresting film, Kawalerowicz and his collaborators certainly worship the camera, making for one of the most visually ravishing films I can recall.
It’s perhaps an easy stretch to make when the film itself deals with the fracturing realities of religion and, perhaps even more importantly, faith. Kawalerowicz’s film follows a priest on his mission to a convent that is believed to have come under the possession of a demon, with his (both the priest and the demon/s’) attentions focused most intently on that of Mother Joan, the leader of the convent and the one believed to be the most possessed of all. Questions of whether the nuns are possessed at all are raised by the film, as if its characters are attempting to reveal their lying sins to the camera/God by performing acts of so-called possession that could be explained away by simply physics or logic, and many of Kawalerowicz’s recurring visual motifs give the illusion of a God-like presence.