Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Joe Versus the Volcano

A review of Joe Versus the Volcano is very difficult to write. It is at once epic and intimate, ambitious and silly, humorous and melancholy, ridiculous and thought provoking. It is a movie that has a passionate fanbase, but a movie that has divided critics and audiences since it was released in 1990. On IMDb it has a user rating of only 5.7/10, on RottenTomatoes a "rotten" critics score of just 58% (and an audience score of 54%), a thumbs down from Gene Siskel, New York Times film critic Vincent Canby wrote "Not since Howard the Duck has there been a big-budget comedy with feet as flat as those of Joe Versus the Volcano. Many gifted people contributed to it, but there's no disbelieving the grim evidence on the screen." Yet it had some staunch defenders like Roger Ebert who called it "new and fresh and not shy of taking chances" upon its original release. Obviously, since I’m writing this review, I’m on the side that Ebert is on. This movie is full of life and invention, warmth, whimsy and insanity, and even Tom Hanks has referred to it as something of a Hidden Gem in his filmography.

Joe Versus the Volcano was written and directed by John Patrick Shanley, who was coming off his Oscar win for writing Moonstruck and making his directorial debut. He enlisted two key collaborators in cinematographer Stephen Goldbatt and production designer Bo Welch. Goldblatt had started as a photographer, taking many famous photos of The Beatles during the White Album years. He’d also just come off shooting the first two Lethal Weapon movies and would go on to be the DP of choice for Mike Nichols at the end of his career. Bo Welch had made a name for himself working for Tim Burton, so this was just coming after his extraordinary work in Beetlejuice. These three worked together to create a movie of distinct visual invention and thematic relevancy, as there are production elements tying things together throughout the movie in a way that you rarely see.

We begin with the classic “Once upon a time” but continue with “there was a man named Joe who had a boring job” and we watch Joe Banks (Hanks) sulk into work at the American Panascope Corporation (home of the Rectal Probe!) where he works in the advertising library. He walks pathetically into the building alongside innumerable fellow zombies going to work at this place that looks like it would steal your life away. It’s doing exactly that as we hear Eric Burden’s version of “16 Tons” on the soundtrack “Sold my soul to the company store”. Joe pines after Dede (Meg Ryan) who works in the office as well. We find out that Joe is a hypochondriac who gets berated by his boss (Dan Hedaya) for needing to take off again for yet another doctor’s appointment. But when Joe sees the doctor (Robert Stack), he’s told he has a very rare condition known as a brain cloud, which was only discovered by Joe’s insistence on doing a barrage of tests. Joe’s given only about 6 months to live, and rather than view this as a death sentence, he’s awoken from the slumber in which he’d been living his life for so long.

Joe asks out Dede, and is later approached by a wacky billionaire named Samuel Graynamore (a wild eyed and hilarious Lloyd Bridges) who wants to hire Joe to help him out. A tiny Pacific island called Waponi Woo has a rare mineral deposit that the islanders won’t give Graynamore access to mine for his business unless he gets someone to act as human sacrifice to the fire god by jumping into the island’s volcano. Since Joe is going to die anyway, why not have him do it, right? Graynamore will give Joe a ton of money to live like a king until that fateful day. He even has one of his daughters, Angelica (also played by Meg Ryan) pick him up at the airport in LA, before his other daughter Patricia (also also played by Meg Ryan) sails Joe to the island.

There are plenty of side characters Joe meets along the way, including a philosophical limo driver played by Ossie Davis, and the island chief played with hilarious understatement by Abe Vigoda. But one of the things that makes this movie work, and I think something that turns people off, is that these people don’t quite act or talk like movie characters, and especially not like real people. They speak in dialog that’s subtly stylized, sometimes using odd words, or just saying things in a way that doesn’t sound like everyday speech. To the movie’s fans, this is all part of the fairy tale ride you join the movie on. Anjelica referring to herself as a flibbertigibbet is funny in its use of an almost archaic word that nobody actually uses anymore. I’m sure the detractors look at it as annoying or pretentious or any other negative thing, but this movie has whimsy and also a sense of heart that really connects with me. I’ve not heard him talk about it as an influence, but this feels like a Wes Anderson movie, but made when Anderson was still in college.

The recurring motifs in the movie help tie things together even though it’s really an episodic journey. The distinct lightning bolt pattern, which is the shape of the walkway into Joe’s work, as well as a crack in his wall, the shape of an actual lightning bolt that sinks a boat, and ultimately the shape of the walkway up the volcano. Joe refers to the crooked road we all have to travel, and this subtle visual repetition helps underscore that. Again, it’s to the credit of Shanley and Welch’s planned production design that they were able to pull this off visually. Shanley has said the movie was meticulously storyboarded, with his goal that even though there’s not a ton of camera movement the frame will be beautifully packed to the brim with many interesting pieces. There are things in the script like that as well, such as the three books Joe has in his office being Romeo and Juliet, Robinson Crusoe, and The Odyssey, all of which inform his journey.

But still, a movie must grab us with its story. Like the movie as a whole, Joe’s story is a mashup of a lot of things. It’s part the classic heroes courageous journey, part romantic comedy, part lonely character study, and part self-help style “waking up and appreciating life” kinda story. Joe faces his imminent death by embracing life. Ryan’s Patricia, as she and Joe are falling in love, tells Joe “My father says that almost the whole world is asleep. Everybody you know. Everybody you see. Everybody you talk to. He says that only a few people are awake, and they live in a state of constant, total amazement.” And that’s Joe. Once asleep like the rest of the masses, now awake and in awe of what he finds. In the movie’s most beautiful and transcendent moment, as Joe and Patricia are floating in the ocean, Joe, battered, sun baked, and weakened by dehydration, looks over the horizon at the giant rising moon. He’s been on his journey of appreciating life again and almost begs to the moon, prays to it, “Dear God, whose name I do not know,” his arms outstretched in an almost religious surrender, “Thank you for my life. I forgot how big... thank you. Thank you for my life.”

Now that I think about it, this would make a great double feature with Albert Brooks' Defending Your Life. Both are about not letting fear rule your life. About how you need to follow your desires and only then can you achieve something worth achieving. Only by being true to yourself can you get to somewhere bigger than yourself. Both skirt around religion by not mentioning it, but tackling the themes and elements at religion’s core. Both are also, of course, brilliant and funny and thought provoking and we’d be much better off if everyone saw them. If I owned a theater, this would totally be a double feature I’d set up.

I believe I saw the movie opening weekend, for my brother's 10th birthday. Of course I would’ve only been 7 at the time, so I didn’t really appreciate the movie. Two things that stuck out in my memory as things I liked, Joe catching a hammerhead shark while fishing and the island people’s love of orange soda, now are among the things I’m not sure quite work, at least not as well as the rest of the movie. Still, this movie is so singular that I agree with Ebert saying "Gradually during the opening scenes of Joe Versus the Volcano my heart began to quicken, until finally I realized a wondrous thing: I had not seen this movie before. Most movies, I have seen before. Most movies, you have seen before. Most movies are constructed out of bits and pieces of other movies, like little engines built from cinematic Erector sets. But not Joe Versus the Volcano." He later added “I continue to believe it deserves greater recognition, and cannot understand why I gave it 3.5 stars instead of four.” It’s a movie that deserves to be seen by more people. And even if you saw it when it came out, time is often kind to movies that try to be different than everything else. I believe time has been kind and will continue to be kind to Joe Versus the Volcano.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Begin Again

Writer/director John Carney's 2013 film Begin Again is kinda like a spiritual sequel to his surprise 2007 hit Once. Again it's about struggling musicians who make a record, but Begin Again is bigger, flashier, more produced, and wonderful. It stars Mark Ruffalo as Dan Mulligan, a disgraced (by his own drunken behavior) producer looking for the next big find, and Keira Knightley as that find, a singer/songwriter named Gretta who has just recently broken up with her ascending rock star boyfriend Dave (Adam Levine). In addition to those 3 stars, the movie's cast also includes Catherine Keener, James Corden, Cee Lo Green, Hailie Steinfeld, and Mos Def. It's a terrific cast who all do great work, and Carney has also boosted the movie with music by super producer Gregg Alexander, whose music really helps the movie shine.

Ruffalo's Dan is awoken from his drunken stupor by the double whammy of being fired by the partner he started his record label with (Mos Def), and seeing Knightley perform a song at an open mic night in the bar he only went to to drink his troubles away. In a slightly ridiculous, but magical and effective sequence, Dan sees and hears the other instruments on the stage come alive and fill out the sound of Knightley's sparse song. A bow picks itself up and plays the cello, same for the violin, drums, and piano. It's a moment of dreamy whimsy in this otherwise earth bound movie, but it works and had me smiling wide.

Another of my favorite sequences is the breakup between Knightley's Gretta and Adam Levine's Dave. He comes back to NYC after a week long trip to LA with his record label, excited to show her a new song he wrote. Seeing as they're both songwriters, Gretta knows, without dialog (a wonderful choice by Carney), just by listening to the song and Dave's refusal to meet her gaze, that it's about another woman and not her. The subsequent moment when Gretta meets up with her friend Steve (James Corden) busking on the streets, and he stops in the middle of his song (not that anyone was around or even paying attention to him) to come grab her in a loving hug was a moment that brought tears to my eyes.

Every one of the cast members sells their characters quite well. I thought at first that Levine and Cee Lo might be out of their elements, but Cee Lo's character is meant to be a sort of larger than life hip hop star, so his not quite grounded persona actually works perfectly. Levine's inexperience as an actor strangely helps Dave feel a little more fake and self consciously dramatic. Especially in contrast to Knightley's wonderful and winning charisma. She has that same quality she has in her best work. I'm thinking of the equally underseen and terrific Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, another movie where she shares chemistry with a much older man, Steve Carrell in that case, Mark Ruffalo here. Other than the music, she and Ruffalo are the stars of the movie and it works because of their great performances.

Just like he did in Once, Carney is able to transmit the giddy feeling of being a musician playing music. The joy and chemistry between seemingly different people. This is probably because Carney himself is a musician, starting out as the bass player in the great Irish band The Frames (led, of course, by Once's Glen Hansard) before becoming a filmmaker. Knightley learned how to play guitar and sing for her role, both of which she does well and helps sell the music. Some others play their own music (Corden) while some fake it well (Steinfeld) and others you're not sure of (Ruffalo). As a guitarist it usually bothers me to see music movies because you can tell when people are faking it. Here, I was caught up in the terrific songs, charming performances, and just overall terrific movie.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Top 10 Prince songs

"Dearly beloved, we're gathered here today to get through this thing called life"

Sadly, we lost one of the true musical geniuses yesterday when Prince passed away at the far too young age of 57. Born Prince Rogers Nelson on June 7, 1958 he changed modern pop music with his blend of Jimi Hendrix and James Brown filtered through one of the most singular talents we've seen in modern music. The word genius is overused in our society and especially when talking about musical talents. In my mind there are less than ten and maybe even less than a handful. Surely, Prince was near or at the top of the list (his album credit generally read "all songs written, produced, composed, and performed by Prince, like McCartney and Stevie Wonder, he was genius enough to be his own completely brilliant band). He's been a favorite artist and an influence and inspiration to me in my own music for a long time. Here in tribute to The Purple One is my list of his top ten songs.

1. "Gotta Broken Heart Again"

I was at one point so obsessed with this song that I listened to it over and over again on my drive to and from work. I had a 40 minute drive and this song in only 2 minutes, so you can imagine how many times I've heard this song in my life. A simple song about losing his girl to his best friend, this is just a perfect pop song, culminating in Prince harmonizing with himself at the climax of the song so beautifully that it still gives me chills. Off his first masterpiece, 1980's Dirty Mind, it's my favorite Prince song.

2. "Purple Rain"

Rare is it that an artists most famous song actually might be their best, but "Purple Rain" is certainly Prince's defining track, serving as an enduring classic song, the name of his best movie and the accompanying mega-hit soundtrack that helped define the sound of 1980's pop for better or worse. It's a slow building ballad, mostly recorded live, with Prince's best and most impassioned vocals and some of his best guitar work. Every time I hear the break and Prince's pained "Honey, I know, I know, I know time have changed" I tear up a little bit simply from the power of his voice and song construction. Maybe I should've put this song #1.

3. "Bambi"
My favorite Prince guitar solo is the scorching one he gives us on this Chasing Amy-esque song, a song telling a lesbian that sex is better with a man and Prince wants to prove it to her if she'll let him. You know, standard stuff from a 21-year-old in 1979. It's a hard rocking song with a funky and distorted guitar riff and high pitched yowls that would become a trademark. It all builds to a song ending, face melting solo before the fade out.

4. "Call My Name"

A later years Prince tune, the soulful R&B love song, showcasing Prince's underrated voice as well as his way with an ear worming chorus. A song about the beautifulness of monogamy and sex, it's a mature Prince, showing that just because he got more into his religious beliefs as he got older didn't mean he'd abandoned those sexy parts of his soul, and this song is wonderful proof.

5. "When You Were Mine"
A big hit when Cindy Lauper covered it in the 80's, this is another (like its album mate "Gotta Broken Heart Again") of Prince losing his girl to another man. Lauper's version is famous for not changing the pronouns in the song, indicating that she lost her boyfriend to another man. But Prince's original is full of yearning and passion and hurt. He loves this girl even more after he's lost her, but doesn't know what to do. Another brilliant, simple, short pop song from one of the best to ever make them.

6. "Let's Go Crazy"
One of Prince's most famous is this Purple Rain kick-off song. When I first began exploring Prince's music in earnest, this was the first song I heard, since naturally I decided to start with his most famous album. I thought the song was pretty good and I liked it a lot, then the teenage guitar player inside me found a new hero when everything stops and Prince delivers one of his best solos. Drenched in his wah wah pedal and at the height of his power, this was the song that hooked me into his music.

7. "Kiss"
Another of his most famous songs is this all-timer of a dance number. Prince was a particular kind of genius at creating every possible type of song. This one had no bass line, funky guitar, and Prince's high pitched vocals that are so high in his falsetto that they break sometimes. And somehow Prince made it all work. I'm still not quite sure how, but I listen to this song over and over again and never tired of it or really ever figure out why I love it so much.

8. "Raspberry Beret"
Maybe Prince's best set of melodies, "Raspberry Beret" is also just a terrific pop song. Not one of his most musically innovative or even interesting songs, it's really a testament to his genius of arranging his band and utilizing all of their talents as well as his own. The harmonizing vocals from Lisa are wonderful alongside Prince's easy chorus.

9. "When Doves Cry"
This was where Prince first really experimented with having no bass in a song. Prince was a tremendous bass player, capable of beautifully melodic of funk slapping brilliance, but here he tried something new and it worked like crazy. The lack of bass, something most listeners hear but aren't really paying attention to, gives the song an almost otherworldly tenor that makes it feel off balance. Prince contrasts that against heavily effected guitars and his famous yelping vocals tics evoking the crying birds of the title.

10. "Musicology"
Another of late era Prince that I adore, this was the starter track for Prince's comeback album in 2004. This title song is simply a funky, fun jam that you can't help but smile and dance to. Showing off his great bass skills and his always impressive and never praised enough vocals, this song is just fun and Prince having fun was always infectious.

You could make another top 10 or top 20 songs and not have a single dud in there. Like how could I make the list and not have "I Wanna Be Your Lover" "Darling Nikki" "Little Red Corvette" or "Head" (a song one of my bands used to play at gigs to great delight for all)? Because Prince was brilliant. Like Frank Zappa, he simply released too much material (and if legends are to be believed, his vault has many years of new music that we may get to hear now after his passing) so it can be daunting to dive in, but on every album there's something worth loving. If you wanted an intro into his genius, here you go. If you just wanted to relive his memory, I hope I helped. RIP you beautiful one.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Top 10 most beautiful movies

Now, I guess I should start off by saying that when Clint and I decided to end our lists with this one, we didn't set out any criteria on which to base "most beautiful", we left it up to interpretation. So I've turned mine not into "most lush cinematography" or "most beautifully costumed and set decorated" but more into "most visually impressive for all of those previously mentioned reasons and maybe some more too." So these aren't always going to be images you'd want as your serene desktop background, but they are the movies that I find most visually interesting, inspiring, and fascinating. The last bit I will add is that I don't love all of these movies. There's only one I actually dislike, a couple more I'm just "meh" on, but the majority are ones I'd recommend both for their visuals as well as their overall merits as films. Okay, enough stalling, onto the list! Oh, and check out Clint's list too, it's terrific.

1. Heaven's Gate

I said in my initial negative review of the notorious Heaven's Gate that it was the most beautiful movie I'd ever seen, and that's what got me through the ass-bustingly long run time. I stand by that, both parts, the gorgeousness of the movie, and the fact that I don't think it's a good movie.

It's the only movie I can think of that I don't like, but would recommend for people to watch. These photos don't even come close to doing the movie justice.
Director Michael Cimino ruined his career with the notorious budget and schedule overruns of this movie in addition to its commercial failure (3.5 hour slow moving westerns aren't typically box office gold).

Legendary cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond had just won an Oscar for his work on Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and had already worked his sepia toned western genius on Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller, but this movie, this movie is his masterwork.

It's been said that Zsigmond went into a deep depression over the critical and commercial drubbing this movie took, because he was so proud of the work he'd done. He deserved to be, it's the most beautiful movie I've ever seen.

2. Days of Heaven

Terrence Malick makes beautiful movies. Each one of his movies could've been on this list, and in fact many would probably choose The Tree of Life over this one, but for me it's gotta be Days of Heaven.

Texas never looked so good, and neither did any of the actors, including Richard Gere and Sam Shepard.

The astounding work from cinematographers NĂ©stor Almendros and Haskell Wexler (both already legends in their own right, working together here) is some of the best photography ever put on celluloid.

Malick is a wonderful filmmaker, and I think this is his best movie, both narratively and visually.

3. The Assassin

Hou Hsiao-Hsien has long given us wonderful images to look at. Until last year, my favorite were those in his 1960's set first section of Three Times. But when he made The Assassin, he topped everything else he'd done put together.

His command of framing, how it influences the story, and the sheer beauty on display in the landscape, set design, and costuming created some of the greatest visuals we've ever been given.

It never hurts to be filming beautiful people as well, but Hou's ability to show us gorgeous nature as well as man-made beauty is impeccable.

This is, surprisingly, a movie that comes across just as beautiful watching at home as it did on the big screen. Hou's images are amazing no matter the size of the screen. Be prepared for a slow moving journey if you watch it, but the pace lets you soak in that visual glory all the better.

4. Barry Lyndon

Stanley Kubrick was one of the most visually exacting talents we've ever had, and his movies were always the better for it. Here in Barry Lyndon I think he achieved his greatest visuals, but surrounded it with a sadly unengaging narrative.

Barry isn't an interesting character, nor is anything that happens to him particularly exciting. There's also an awful narration that robs any dramatic tension that Kubrick might've built up to begin with.

Still, when Kubrick set out to make each frame look like an oil painting, he succeeded.

So no matter what I think of the movie as a whole (and it's still worth watching, even as it's too long and only holds my interest in the story at the very end), it must be on this list, and high up too.

5. Blade Runner

Another that I find overrated as a movie, but not as a visual experience is Ridley Scott's Blade Runner.

I find the movie itself to be much more shallow than its admirers would ever admit, and overall every time I watch it I think "this is just a crappy action movie wrapped up in some of the most amazing visuals we've ever seen." But since this list is about the visuals, it's gotta go on here.

There's no doubting the kind of influence this movie has had on science-fiction over the years. The visual world building that Scott did is truly extraordinary and made a sizable impact.

So I don't think it's terribly successful narratively, but do give it a positive rating as a movie, still the real draw here anyway are the images. And that's fine by me.

6. Lawrence of Arabia

I said upon my first viewing of Lawrence of Arabia that I didn't care much about the movie, we spend 4 hours with TE Lawrence and yet we really know nothing about the man or why he was the way he was. But I said immediately that it was one of the most visually splendid pieces of cinema I'd ever watched.

The large desert landscapes, sandy battles, and just overall visual brilliance on display from director David Lean is extraordinary.

I've not softened on either position. I don't think much of the movie as a narrative or as an experience even, but the visuals are undeniable.

It's not Lean's masterpiece as a movie (that's probably Brief Encounter or Bridge on the River Kwai) but it certainly deserves a high placing on this list.

7. Dark City

Probably despite being one of the shorter movies on the list, I'm guessing Dark City has the most actual shots in it. The average shot length of the movie is something like 1.8 seconds, meaning that for a 100 minute movie there are well over 3,000 shots.

But director Alex Proyas had his background in music videos and knows how to make a big impression in a small window of time.

I've actually watched this DVD in slow motion before and come across images so perfectly framed that I didn't want the next one to come yet.

The frenetic pace of the editing has a narrative purpose, to put us into the fractured mind of the protagonist, but it also serves to give us an innumerable amount of wonderful images on which we can feast our artistic souls.

8. Pan's Labyrinth

Guillermo del Toro is one of my favorite filmmakers as well as one of our best visual stylists. His movies are always impeccably made, even going back to his feature length debut Cronos. But his magnum opus as a stylist (as well as a writer and an overall filmmaker) is 2006's Pan's Labyrinth.

Fantasy is ripe for great visuals, but Del Toro takes things to an unexpected level in his dark fairy tale world.

Alternating between colder "present day" (present day 1940's Spain at least) and more lush fantasy landscapes, Del Toro gives himself even more room to play in visual brilliance. The flawless way he transitions, often having foreground objects act as a wipe to the next scene, is a Del Toro trademark and one I never tire of.

I've seen the movie many times and, like the previous entry, not once failed to be blown away by some new image I'd not really paid attention to before.

9. The Hourglass Sanatorium

By far the least seen movie on the list is this 1973 surreal work from Poland's Wojciech Jerzy Has. It is the most unseen because until recently it didn't have a DVD release in this country. Now it sort of has one, as part of a limited edition box set for Martin Scorsese's Masterpiece's of Polish Cinema.
While I may have had slight problems with the storytelling, which is something that happens for me with surrealism, since narrative can often take a backseat to image and tone, I still loved this movie and when I saw it on the big screen was astounded at the sets, costumes, cinematography and Has's mastery of camera placement and movement.
Even more visually assured than his more narratively successful masterpiece The Saragossa Manuscript, The Hourglass Sanatorium is filled to the brim with unforgettable images. I said in my initial review of it "The way Has moves from sequence to sequence has an incredible flow to it, as sets seem to almost disappear, or open up into the next segment. It's truly astonishing filmmaking on every technical level. I am not always one to say go see a movie just for the visuals, but if you can see this movie, do it, even if it's only for the visuals."

I believe it's available to watch with English subtitles on YouTube, but if you do, please, for your own sake as well as the movie's, please watch it on the biggest and best screen possible. You'll thank me later.

10. Stalker

Andrei Tarkovsky is often thought of as one of the greatest filmmakers in cinema history. While I don't personally hold him in that high esteem, his movies are always fascinating to watch. Of the three I've seen, Stalker is the most extraordinary in its visuals.

There are moments in Stalker that I won't ever forget, simply because of Tarkovsky's care in creating the most astounding visuals.

I think his movies are too long, but there's a command of tone and narrative in them that never lets me wander very far away before being brought right back. Honestly, I would sit down and watch this movie again right now if only to experience the visuals again.

I really like the movie a lot as well, but it deserves a place on this list for bringing us these unforgettable images.

This was probably the hardest list to whittle down, so here's another 10, unranked, in honorable mention form:


The Wizard of Oz

The Fountain

What Dreams May Come

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind


Cloud Atlas


Night of the Hunter

Road to Perdition