Monday, December 31, 2012

Top Ten Movies of 2012 - Not from 2012

In alphabetical order, here are my favorites from the cinema past.

Blue (Krzysztof Kieslowski, France, 1993)

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (Sam Peckinpah, USA/Mexico, 1974)

Chuck & Buck (Miguel Arteta, USA, 2000) - If you ever feel like you are missing a chapter in American independent cinema, this might be the film you need to see.  This movie was made for one reason - Mike White had something he needed to say.  In today's flooded indie market, I wish more films would channel such purpose.

Identification of a Woman (Michelangelo Antonioni, Italy, 1982) - As anyone who knows me will tell you, Antonioni is my guy.  He is in top form with this film.

Juvenile Court (Frederick Wiseman, USA, 1973) - "If you love me, you'll come and get me."

Make Way for Tomorrow (Leo McCarey, USA, 1937) - I first read about this movie in my film history textbook in college.  Ozu's Tokyo Story is said to be based on this film.  It was not available on any format at that time.  I later saw it on Jonathan Rosenbaum's alternative Top 100 Best American Films list, which he created in response to the AFI Top 100 films list.  I've been waiting nearly a decade to see this film and thanks to the Criterion Collection, we all can now.  It is every bit as good as the history books say.

Possession (Andrzej Zulawski, Poland/Germany, 1981) See my previous blog post.

The Reenactment (Lucian Pintilie, Romania, 1968) - Billed as the greatest Romanian film of all time (like USA's Citizen Kane or France's The Rules of the Game), it's the story of two young men who are sentenced by the government to recreate the drunken brawl for which they were arrested.  The recreation is filmed and will be released as a PSA to promote sobriety.  It takes place over the course of one day at one location.  Write your Congressman, or better yet, write Criterion and have them rush this movie to the presses.  It is brilliant.

Rocky (John G. Avildsen, USA, 1976)

Under the Sun of Satan (Maurice Pialat, France, 1987)

Honorable Mention:  Ryan's Daughter, Little Fugitive, Les Anges du Peche, Drive, Blonde Venus, Videodrome.

Friday, December 14, 2012

2012 Top Ten

2012 Top Ten

For my Top Ten list this year, I thought I would take a different approach.  Instead of confining my choices to movies, I opened up the categories to include anything and everything. 

1. Possession (dir. Andrzej Zulawski; Starring Isabelle Adjani & Sam Neill) – It figures that my number one would still be a movie.  Well, this was a momentous movie for me.  I saw it twice in two days at the Siskel Center.  Now, I don’t want to oversell the movie.  In previous years, the only movies I remember watching back-to-back were Haneke’s Code Unknown and Wong Kar-Wai’s Fallen Angels.  I don’t consider these the greatest films ever made, but there was something about each one that made me want to revisit them immediately.  For Code Unknown, I wanted to deconstruct it and reassemble it myself, like a Milton Bradley puzzle.  With Fallen Angels, I wanted to hear “Only You” play again as the characters sped towards me on a motorcycle.   Possession was no different.  After my initial shock and awe, I desperately wanted to decipher all the clues inside the movie.  God, sexuality, infidelity, a divided Germany, bodily fluids, marriage, squid – it was making some statements.  That second viewing may not have answered all my questions, but it was worth it.  I have seen few movies like Possession.  It somehow combines The Cranes are Flying, Wings of Desire, The Evil Dead, and A Woman Under the Influence.  Someday, I hope to make a movie in that spirit.  You can track the movie's (on 35mm) location on Twitter by following @BleedingLightFG.

2. The Moth – This is a live storytelling event that has a more well-known podcast.  If you live in Chicago, it’s every last Tuesday of the month at Martyr’s on N. Lincoln.  Admission is $8.  I’ve been twice now and I can see myself becoming a regular.  The stories I’ve heard can be touching or funny, crazy or quotidian, raunchy or vengeful.  Before you hear each story, remember it was probably told to someone’s best friend or co-worker or parent before you.  It’s like stepping into the telephone receiver of someone you do not know and happening upon a riveting five-minute story.  I'm reminded of the judge in Three Colors: Red eavesdropping on all his neighbors.  Like the subway, The Moth levels the playing field between us all.  There are no movies here, no TV shows, no record deals, or lottery tickets.   It’s an AA meeting for story addicts, and all of humanity is encompassed.  It reminds me that every person I walk by on the street is passing down stories somewhere, at some time.

3.  New Mexico – I struggle with believing in signs in life.  My friend Jen says I should listen to the signs.  Believing in that means you believe in fate, I think.  And I don’t think I believe in fate.  Anyway, if I did believe in signs, I’d consider relocating to New Mexico for a time.  Work took me there for about a week in September and I stayed in a small resort out in the desert outside Albuquerque, home of the minor league baseball team the Isotopes.  A mountain was to the south, a river in its shadow.  A pair of coyotes traveled past me while I was out for a walk one day.  They hopped in the tall grasses like kangaroos.  I loved the trip - sign number one.  The next sign was when I read Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost, which I adored.  These are personal essays she writes, like Hannah from Girls, only Solnit's are not mean to be funny.  In one essay, she mentions traveling in the desert in the American southwest.  Everything I had just seen came back to me: the heat, the dry grasses, the snakes, the cottonwoods, the dry air, the open spaces and worn down walking trails.  She changed my mind about being lost.  Sign number two.  Thirdly, New Mexico features prominently in the book Brave New World.  Imagine that!  John, the book’s Savage, hails from there.  The last science fiction book I read was probably some Robert H. Heinlein novel in high school.  I don’t read it much because I’m not much interested in Delta-Minuses and Malthusian belts.  But beyond all the silly contrivances of future civilization is a probing book about freedom and civilization, in thought and in action.  New Mexico is home to the ‘Savage Reservation’, a vacation spot for the civilized elite to see what the world used to look like – a place of Native Americans, adobe houses, polytheism, corn dances, strange tongues, and living off the land.  The Savage, despite thinking he wants all that civilization has to offer, finds that he preferred his old way of life.  In the book’s conclusion, he turns in one direction, then another, in a perfect, sad metaphor for the two worlds he has seen.  Sign number three.

4. The San Francisco Giants – I might catch hell from my good friend Devin (a Detroit native), but to any Braves fan, they were our last hope at payback for that ignominious loss during the great game’s first one-off Wild Card playoff matchup between my beloved Braves and the St. Louis Cardinals.  Down three games to one, the Giants fought to take the series back to Frisco and humiliate a team that had seemed unstoppable in the post-season since their historic, mind-blowing win over the Rangers in the 2011 World Series.  I’m sorry, St. Louis, you are a great team, but during this post-season, I cursed your name more times than I can remember. 

5. Cooking – All those years I blindly passed by my mother cooking dinner for us kids; all those times I blindly consumed nut bread, mac and cheese, sugar cookies, chili and biscuits, chicken and rice; all those Thanksgivings that I played Legos or vacantly watched football; all those times, I wish I had stopped once and said, “Mom, show me how to do that.”  Better late than never.

6. Hot Doug’s (Sausage Superstore) – Working on Joe Swanberg’s Drinking Buddies, I discovered this gem on N. California, just a short walk from Revolution Brewing.  I make exceptions for my vegetarianism once a while:  a Cuban sandwich in Miami, handmade tagliatelle with duck, and of course, hot dogs.  Dr. Seuss once said in an interview that he wanted to write a story about hot dogs.  Sadly, he never had a chance to.  What poetry that would have been.

7. Juvenile-in-Justice, Photographs by Richard Ross – I saw this exhibit at Roosevelt University in Chicago and to see it in person is preferable to the online resource, which is surprisingly comprehensive.  However, you don’t get the size and the detail of the photos online.  In person, you can lean in close.  I almost leant into the photos themselves. I wish I could have.  You can pick up details, like the names of books the kids have on their desks, the graffiti on the walls of the cell, the rust and dirt of the ceilings, or the frigidity of the cinderblock walls.

8. Mrs. – Founded by Sara Gaare, Ryan Asher, Susan Glynn, and Mary Catherine Curran in 2012, this sketch comedy group is less than a year old.  I’ve attended two of their shows and I think they have something special, a je-ne-sais-quoi.  There is chemistry, intelligence, and above all, comedy.  Their next show is at Chicago Sketchfest in January 2013.  What a perfect inauguration for the new year.

9. Facets Chicago – On any given week, on any given day in Chicago, you have great movie-going at your fingertips.  I’m chronically overwhelmed with choices.  In order to maximize my consumption of these events, I became a member of Facets this year.  It’s my first video store membership in years; it’s also a cinematheque.  At any rate, I’m afforded year-round access to hard to find movie rentals (Maurice Pialat’s Police on VHS, Antonioni’s epic China doc on DVD, etc.) and exotic film screenings (Lucien Pintile’s Reenacment).  I daresay Facets proves that video stores are still relevant and necessary to any film community.

10.  Beer – My dad brews it.  My friend Eddie peddles it.  Nearly everyone drinks it.  I never used to like the taste up until about two years ago, but I’ve turned an important corner of late.  It’s generally my first drink of choice at a bar.  It’s nice to know that my palette can still evolve, that I can still learn.  Lately, winter has drawn me to the darker brews and here I might stay for a while.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Saturday, June 09, 2012

Maurice Pialat

I've been watching quite a few Maurice Pialat films lately and Passe ton Bac d'abord struck a chord with me.  Thank you to Masters of Cinema and Eureka for putting out a nice DVD with a great booklet that features an essay by Craig Keller.  Thanks to Joe Swanberg for letting me borrow it.  Here is Craig's final paragraph in that essay.  I am a sucker for this kind of stuff.

And that's the cinema.  Films play back the same way every time.  We return to them over and over again, even when they reveal unpleasant truths - or pose insolent questions the answers to which it's up to us to formulate (not regurgitate), to construct with our own battered material.  The movies are mentors: we keep coming back out of admiration for their moxie.  They're a conversation, a sitting for a self-examination.  The 'characters' don't have a destiny because they don't need one.  We do.  For better or for worse, we are the cinema.

Well said, Craig.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

David Foster Wallace Discusses Skittles Blenders

David Foster Wallace was an avid candy lover.  These essays were found in a drawer underneath the final manuscript of The Pale King along with a personal note to his longtime editor.  It concisely states, "When will candy be discussed on the same level as religion or ethics?  Isn't it worthy?"    

I am in the passenger's seat of my companion's 2001 Honda Accord driving down Interstate 57 towards Southern Illinois University in Carbondale.  This interstate is one of the many concrete afterthoughts of the US Highway System, beginning (or ending) near Chicago and dying just inside the border of Missouri where it literally shrivels into state route 60 and spends its retirement snaking through the Mark Twain National Forest(1), the namesake of which probably saw the forests at one time but never the sign bearing his name.  I've been scheduled to appear at a Literary Arts Festival and my companion is visiting a friend at one of southern Illinois's many wineries.

For this ride I've packed Skittles Blenders, a new candy in a neon-yellow package which glows in the opaque black canvas of my messenger bag.  I like to have something to munch on during the three and a half hour trek from Bloomington and the sugar rush sustains my conversational duties as passenger.  This is a new release from Skittles and for this edition(2) they've engineered different fruits (and an alcoholic drink) together in hopes of breaking new flavor ground in the ongoing confectionary war being waged adjacent to America's checkouts, about eye-level with America's toddlers.  Comic books call these crossovers and the history in that medium is legendary.  Examples include Archie meets the Punisher(3), Robocop vs. Terminator and Superman vs. Muhammad Ali.  This is a baby step for the Skittles brand in what hopefully will jumpstart a dynamic and revolutionary movement in candies.  Imagine the media explosion to follow the unveiling of Skittles Twix, Almond Joy Double Bubble or Twizzlers versus Kit Kats(4).

This first Skittle I taste is Mango Lemonade.  It tastes more like peach lemonade than mango lemonade and is about the color of the peach crayon.  The makers were clearly intending for the sour taste of lemonade to carry the flavor burden but it overpowers any attempt at complexity.  This is not a good start.  Next is Watermelon Green Apple Freeze, which is probably the most complex and successful of the Blenders.  When your teeth break through the candy coating, it clearly tastes of watermelon(5); and yet, the tartness of the green apple doesn't surface until the after-taste. In some cases, it happens slightly before that.  Tart green apples and refreshing watermelons epitomize what the Blenders seem to be aiming for - a proper marriage of two flavors with irreconcilable differences.  It's a smooth combination.  Why they've tacked the word 'freeze' onto the name is both baffling and disconcerting.  Nothing is cold or frozen about the flavor and neither apples nor watermelons are regularly frozen, at least not in any kitchen I've ever visited.  Skittles is clearly hoping to capitalize on the trendiness of the word 'freeze', which evokes the frozen gas station drinks commonly known as slushies(6).

This brings us to Skittle Blender number three of five: Cherry Tropicolada.  It's worth acknowledging because they've successfully combined these two flavors into one, but it has one fatal flaw: excess cleverness.  It's too clever by half(7).  This portmanteau of tropical and colada would probably find favor with Louis Carroll.  I imagine they brainstormed the name before they had a Skittle for it.  Cherry Tropicolada fails mainly because four flavors, not two, are being combined into one.  A pina colada is pineapple juice, cream of coconut and rum.  Rum is absent from the ingredients list though it could be found under the blanket of 'Artificial Flavors'.  Nevertheless, you have cherry, pineapple juice and coconut all blended together in a hard candy.  These all sound like tasty morsels, but united they fail. Pina colada does not have as storied a candy flavor history as cherry or strawberry or even coconut, so it might be ahead of its time.  Or maybe it is just more successful in a tropical climate.  But then why not have a real, slushy pina colada?

Melon Berry Burst - Like most berry-flavored consumables, manufacturers just seem to toss in arbitrary quantities of different berries and then hope for the best.  This laziness is often represented by clusters of berries and a few melons happily coexisting on the labels of said consumables.  Advertising can be a misleading fairy tale.  It's like a high school photograph where the cool kids (read: berries) stand in front while the oversized and overweight melon kids are pushed to the edges or the back, nearly falling off the picture - always second fiddle to the vibrant sweetness and tartness of berries.  To pour salt on the wound, melons are really not even properly represented in the color of the Skittle.  Outside on the packaging, melon berry burst is purple; inside, the actual Skittle is blue.  Both colors are primarily found in berries.  It's hard not to imagine some parallel with the civil rights struggle here, but I won't bore you or my companion with that.

Strawberry Lime Blast - This is definitely heavy on the lime and light on the strawberry.  Again, I'm puzzled as to what this alleged blast is.  Is it supposed to happen TO me?  Am I supposed to physically feel blown off my feet or ejected from the seat of the car?  Is it referring to the process by which the Skittle was made?  Maybe it's a reference to the personification of the Skittle as a brash and loud candy.  Or perhaps it refers to the collective act of the Skittles Blender brand coming onto the confection stage?  And how is it different than the burst of Melon Berry?  How can one Skittle be a burst and the other be a blast and one be a freeze and one a lemonade and one a tropicolada?  Is each Skittle a different species?  As I become frustrated, I pour the rest of the bag into my cupped hand and throw them back into my mouth.  My cheeks bulge.  I chew and chew and chew and chew.  I guess now it's a blastburstfreezelemonadecolada.  

1.  Mark Twain National Park seems to have been christened in 1938 to preserve the remaining forests in Missouri from logging, timbering and excessive wood consumption.
2.  Past editions of Skittles include Wild Berry, Tropical Skittles, Crazy Cores, Skittles Sours and the poorly reviewed and rarely consumed Chocolate Skittles.
3. In this crossover, The Punisher is asked to go undercover in Riverdale to apprehend a drug dealer WITHOUT using lethal means.  Please refer to Wikipedia entry for complete plot synopsis.
4.  This final battle would be presented by Dark Horse comics, whereby Twizzlers resemble Wellsian Tripods and land on Earth hoping to exterminate candykind.  The Kit Kats, taking the form of flying battering rams, counter attack and a gooey, chocolatey-licorice battle is waged.  Soon enough, the Twizzlers locate the manufacturing center of the Kit Kats and melt the chocolate with their heat rays.  An underground Kit Kat resistance forms, but they have a difficult time keeping the chocolate from melting and eventually become extinct.
5. I do not mean actual watermelon, but the flavor of watermelon as conceived by the flavor scientsits in the candy industry.
6. Over the past decade, there has been a quiet and steady march by gas station drink producers toward renaming their frozen drinks freezes in lieu of slushies, e.g. Coke Freeze.  The word 'slushy' (or slushie) evokes a cheapness associated with beverages sold at gas stations, historically a proving ground for drinks that in any other setting would be considered radioactive.  Slush, to anyone living in a region that sees significant snow, makes you think of the thick, brownish-black liquid in the area where the crosswalk meets the gutter.  Ironically, this is the same color as a Coke Freeze.  Now, the word 'freeze' conjures a much more natural image: water freezing, the Arctic, the transparence of ice, etc.  Additionally, 'freeze' is monosyllabic where 'slushie' is on the hefty side of two syllables.  This rebranding movement is also sad because 'slushie' is one of the more nifty autonyms.
7. 'Too clever by half' is a chiefly British expression which refers to something whose excessive cleverness has undermined the result that the cleverness was intended to achieve.