Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Watsky (w/ Dia Frampton) - Sarajevo



George Watsky gained fame because of his ability to rap fast, but his background as a spoken word poet can lend his rhymes a depth and maturity that other rappers don't have. Of course, he can be gloriously sophomoric or nerdy or anything else, but when he teamed up with former The Voice finalist Dia Frampton, they created Watsky's best and most provocative song, "Sarajevo".

When I first heard "Sarajevo" I was moved simply by the lyrics, thinking Watsky had created a remarkably evocative picture of tragedy using the war torn connotations that Sarajevo evokes in our memories. But I found out through a little bit of research that the story he tells is that of Admira Ismić and Boško Brkić, also known by the title of the award winning PBS documentary about them, Romeo and Juliet in Sarajevo. Both 25, he was a Christian. She, a Muslim. Traditionally Sarajevo was a remarkable city and a beacon of acceptance and diversity as Christians, Jews, Muslims, and followers of the Eastern Orthodox Church lived in harmony (even at one time being the only city in Europe with a synagogue, mosque, Catholic and Orthodox churches in the same neighborhood). But some time during the 20th century, things began to erode. During the Siege of Sarajevo the couple was trying to flee the city when a sniper gunned down first him and then her as they tried to cross a bridge out of the city on which they should've had safe passage as civilians. They became symbols of the atrocities of war, their pictures posted all over media outlets in 1993. Watsky starts their story with the first verse:

And they wonder what our parents say
And they wonder how we'll raise our children
And they tell me that I'm living with a monster
And they whisper that she took up with a villain
But I don't see dragon's scales
And I don't see claws and fangs
All I'm looking at is arms that hold me
Brown eyes that understand
And when she closed those eyes one final time no pipers came
But I know we got a love that's truer than a military sniper's aim
But we won't die in vain
Tie that chain round my waist
And pull me from the bottom of the pit of hell up to your final resting place


Followed by Dia Frampton's singing of the chorus

Sarajevo, Sarajevo
You're the altar that I pray to
God is love and love is all we have


Establishing the love between the couple, the dedication, the religious conflict from society, and the horrible deaths in just a few words is remarkable storytelling from a poet like Watsky. The minimal music helping underscore the story and keep the focus their rather than on the production. The second verse, for my money possibly the best in hip hop history, then goes like this:

We were trying to run from the city
Had the hope and the pride of the kids
People wanna put up walls to divide us
Kinda fitting that we died on a bridge
Same souls, both sides of the banks
They say we're different and they're fillin in the facts
But they put the same metal in the bullets
And they put the same bullets in our backs
Kinda love that we got is one in a mill
Ain't no God that I pray to would wanna kill
It's not God but it's fear and it's politics
And a molotov that was lit with a dollar bill
Don't say that all is lost
Escape this holocaust
My God, Allah, my darling, star and crescent and my cross


Closing a powerful verse with the imagery of their religions, God and the cross for his Christianity, Allah and the star and crescent for her Islam. The couple wasn't consciously trying to bridge religions or make a statement, but they did anyway just by living their loving lives. Watsky points out that the God they pray to would not support taking the lives of others (life being God's most precious gift), and showing that war, even religious war, is always, at its heart, not about religion at all but about fear, politics, and money. The final verse ends things like this:

Where do we come from? Where do we go?
You could fill up the sea with the things I don't know
But I know what I feel and I know when it's real
And I hope that we heal
We're two drops of the blood and tears
Over thousands of years of the clash of the steel
I'm not blind to the cycle
We’re pressed in spine of a Bible
They define the divine by the title
But what did Christ say? To be kind to my rival
You're my kind of revival
It's true ya, my favorite Hallelujah
You my you my favorite Hallelujah


Ending things on a beautiful note of transcendence and uplift, though we can't forget the bloody journey it took us to get there. Dia closes out the song with an extended chorus, leaving the song on another emotional and powerful note. One of the great songs in hip hop, by its most talented young mind. One to make us think and feel and love.

God is love and love is all we have.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Why do we love the movies?

This question has been nagging me lately. "Why do we love the movies?" What is it? Unlike some, I don't go the the movies for escapism from the pressures and horrors of the real world. So what is it? I've always said that I love storytelling, but that doesn't really get to the heart of the issue. Why do I love storytelling? It wasn't until this morning when I was watching the great Steve James documentary Life Itself, about Roger Ebert, that I got an answer. Ebert says in the opening passages of the movie that he loves the movies because it's an empathetic experience. We get to be dropped into the lives of other people. People of other nationalities, races, or genders, and see the world how they see it for a little while. I'm an empathetic person and this explanation struck me as remarkably true. Movies, and all art really but movies moreso than other forms, require us to empathize with characters and situations that are not our own. The great movies especially work a particular magic that gets us to connect more deeply than some others. That's probably part of the indefinable thing that elevates some movies over others, the ones that get us to connect more. But maybe that's a discussion for another time. I'm content now to have a better answer to the question of why I love the movies so much.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Whiplash

"There are no two words in the English language more harmful than 'good job'"


So says Terence Fletcher (JK Simmons) to his student Andrew (Miles Teller) as justification for his abusive and manipulative teaching style at the Shaffer Conservatory of Music in Whiplash. Andrew is a 19-year-old, Buddy Rich worshipping, aspiring jazz drummer at the fictional academy (obviously meant to evoke places like Julliard). When he catches the eyes and ears of the notorious Fletcher, who conducts the prize jazz band of the school, he feels like he's made a break on his way to being a legend like Charlie Parker. But things aren't easy in the hyper competitive world, and Fletcher doesn't make anything easier. He flings many things at his students (racial and homophobic slurs, general insults, even occasionally furniture) in relentless pursuit of perfection.


We see Andrew, through the confidence gained by being accepted as an alternate in the band, ask out the pretty girl that works at the concession stand of the theater he frequents with his dad. Melissa Benoist is charming and cute as the girl, Nicole, while Paul Reiser is wonderfully real and loving and supportive as the dad. Andrew progressively uses Fletcher's motivation to push everything but drumming out of his life, even to the point of getting rid of the bed in his dorm room for a drum set so he can after hours and all hours practice. The movie asks us (and its characters) if a single minded pursuit like this is good for the musician or the person who's doing it. Certainly Andrew achieves more under Fletcher's exacting demands than he would have otherwise, but does he actually gain any creativity or artistic understanding? Or is it merely an athletic feat of becoming a human metronome. The movie's moving finale leaves us with this question. Is it a triumph? A descent into madness and inhumanity? Is it a talented slap in the face to Fletcher as a teacher, or an endorsement of him?


Miles Teller and JK Simmons could not have possibly given better performances. Simmons is all bulging veins and muscles and intensity, while Teller strikes a remarkable balance of shy self doubt and growing confidence and even arrogance. Teller also does the majority of his actual on screen drumming, a body double being used only for insert shots and whatnot. This gives a real lived in feel to the character, as they aren't forced to cut around the fact that the star isn't actually playing the instrument we believe he is, as is usually the case. It also gives Teller a chance to really imbue Andrew with telling physicality, so that we don't even need a lot of extra dialog because we can read his body so obviously. Simmons is likely soon to hear his name announced as Best Supporting Actor at the Academy Awards, and it will be with great reason. It will go down as the defining role for the great character actor, even above his lovable Mac MacGuff from Juno, his loudmouth J. Jonah Jameson in Sam Raimi's Spiderman movies, or even his terrifying white supremacist prisoner on the TV show OZ. He finds a humanity and sense of really caring about the students he's abusing, giving us at least some sympathy for his extreme approach to teaching.


Finally, the work of the filmmaking team of writer/director Damien Chazelle, editor Tom Cross, and cinematographer Sharone Meir make this personal drama in the world of school jazz bands into a psychologically and viscerally thrilling movie. They get the camera right in there with the action of the band, while often cutting to the rhythms of the music in a wonderfully propulsive manner that often has the same effect on us in the audience that a car chase or a shootout has on us in a traditional action movie. Chazelle, in just his second time behind the camera, has made a truly personal and affecting movie and announces himself as a filmmaker to really watch.


Though I have many movies to catch up to from 2014, I have a hard time imagining that Whiplash won't top my list of the best movies of last year. It is an inspiring, thought provoking, often funny, horrifying, thrilling time at the movies.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Margaret

Kenneth Lonergan's Margaret is a fascinating movie. The director's cut that I watched was just over 3 hours with credits, and I wasn't bored for a single minute of the movie. It contains an all star cast (Mark Ruffalo, Matthew Broderick, Matt Damon, Allison Janney) led by Anna Paquin's Oscar robbed lead performance as Lisa, a teenager in NYC who witnesses a tragedy within the opening minutes of the movie that sets the stage for everything that happens after. It's really a remarkable movie, but why didn't I love it? It's a humanist epic with flawless acting, but the narrative was so messy and unfocused that I'm not sure I really felt anything by the end for Lisa other than relief that she was experiencing life and growing up.


A recount of the plot wouldn't do any service because there really isn't a plot through line to the movie outside of Lisa's quest to right the wrong of the opening tragedy. But that's maybe half the runtime, as the rest of it is devoted to her mom, Joan (Lonergan's wife, J. Smith-Cameron, who is brilliant in the role), an off-Broadway actress going through previews of her show while also developing a relationship with Ramon (Jean Reno). Lisa also goes through feelings for her good hearted friend Darren (John Gallagher, Jr.) and burnout Paul (Kieran Culkin) as well as her crush on her math teacher, Mr. Aaron (Matt Damon).


I'm gonna stop right there describing anything plot related because it could easily take up the whole page just describing what happens. But Lonergan isn't interested in a standard narrative film, so why treat it that way? The movie is told chronologically and not surrealistically or anything like that, it's just that Lonergan wants to spread things out and really get a sense of Lisa's life as she swings through her emotions (good, bad, and indifferent) and relationships. And it's here that he really lets Anna Paquin shine as she embodies each of those emotions and never makes Lisa feel like anything other than an intelligent teenage girl struggling to find her way in life and making many, many mistakes along that way. It's one of the great performances of the decade and should've swept every award show in 2011.


One complaint about the actors is that we know many of the names, but that doesn't correspond to their screen time. Allison Janney has one scene, Mark Ruffalo has about one and a half, I'm not sure why Matthew Broderick was cast in the small and unimportant role he was cast in, etc. It's not distracting like The Thin Red Line is when John Travolta, George Clooney, Adrien Brody, and others step on screen for a few seconds to distract us from the movie. So it's not a big complaint, but it's still there.


You might be thinking "isn't Anna Paquin in her 30's? Too old to believably play a high schooler." And you'd be right thinking that in 2014, or even 2011 when Margaret was released and Paquin was 29. But the movie was actually shot in 2005, when Paquin was just 23 playing high school age, much more acceptable. Lonergan had final cut, so the studio couldn't take the movie away from him and cut it themselves, but the director and the studio could never agree on a length of cut. It wasn't supposed to be longer than 150 minutes, so even when Lonergan's friend Martin Scorsese and his 3-time Oscar winning editor Thelma Schoonmaker came in to help out, their cut was 165 minutes, a cut Lonergan approved but the studio thought was still too long. Lawsuits ensued between the studio, filmmakers, financiers and probably more we haven't heard about.


Ultimately we got the movie in 2011, and I'm glad we did. While I'm not one of those many people saying it's one of the best films of the decade, it's well worth watching because it's so interesting and impeccably acted by the entire cast. And the more I think about it, sometimes movies like this that I don't think make a big impact on me, because of their lack of narrative, actually keep haunting me with their perfectly drawn characters and situations. Ramin Bahrani's Man Push Cart (ironically released the same year Margaret was shot) was a similar example that kept coming back to me as I thought about Margaret in that way. Anyway, if you even have a passing interest in seeing the movie, I'd encourage you to. You won't be disappointed.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Batman

Jesus, what a bore. I knew Burton didn't know how to shoot action, but it'd been so long since I'd seen this that I'd forgotten what garbage it is. Burton shoots in his usual static shots of everything, which to me give the movie a feeling of the world not existing beyond the frame of what's currently on screen. I felt this a little in Zack Snyder's devotion to the frame of the comics in Watchmen, but this is a whole other level of lack of vision. Also on Burton is the movies awful pacing, as Bruce Wayne isn't even seen until 20 minutes into the movie when every other major character, and many minor ones, have long been established. Even Batman himself has only been on screen for maybe 90 seconds at this point.

Nicholson's Joker is nothing menacing and his characterization is really just a gangster who laughs too much. I watched many of his villainous things like destroying the art museum, the clown gags and whatnot thinking "Why is this guy a villain? He's not remotely frightening. Batman is scarier, and that's not how this should be working." None of the character's humor is funny, and none of his bad deeds are scary. So what is the point of him? Hugo E. Blick, who plays the young Jack Napier in flashback, was much more menacing and interesting in his seconds of screentime.

Very few things come out of the movie unscathed. Michael Keaton certainly does, and I liked him even more now than I did then. His humor comes through in the same way Kevin Conroy's did in Batman: The Animated Series (which is what this movie wanted to be, but of course the series wouldn't exist without this movie) and is a big part of what makes him great. The design of the Batmobile is just sofa king cool. It really is awesome, and the Batplane is as well (though the cheesy ass part where he flies above the clouds just to make the Bat-symbol in the moon was cringingly bad). I liked Kim Basinger more than I expected to, seeing as I didn't remember her in the slightest going into it.

But mainly I put this movie's failings at the feet of Tim Burton and Jack Nicholson. I supposed the screenwriters as well, since they're the ones who wrote such an uninteresting villain into the main character of a Batman movie. Actually, come to think of it, a big part of it has to go to Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren as the writers, because Batman/Bruce Wayne only becomes the main character in the second half of the movie. Up until then, he's 4th lead behind Jack, Basinger, and for God knows what reason Robert Wuhl, who is simply awful. But still, with some directorial panache the movie could've been truly impressive. Sadly, Tim Burton is a production designer and animator that has never really figured it out as a real filmmaker.

Previously I'd rate this a 4/10 or so. But I'd lower it now to a 3/10. Not as bad as the truly unwatchable sequel, but not something I will probably ever revisit.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Ashes and Diamonds

Andrzej Wajda's 1958 masterpiece Ashes and Diamonds was a really terrific time at the movies. It stars "The James Dean of Poland" Zbigniew Cybulski as Maciek, an assassin at the end of WWII tasked with taking out communist leaders in Poland, alongside his friend/mentor/superior officer Andrzej (Adam Pawlikowski). However, Maciek soon falls for the sexy barmaid Krystyna (Ewa Krzyżewska) at the hotel in which they are staying. The man they're supposed to kill is staying there too, and there are a lot of close calls as Maciek and Andrzej try to figure out how to assassinate this man, or if with all the killing done in the war if it is even worth it (in this way it's very much a precursor to Spielberg's brilliant Munich).


Shot like the noir films that had lost their popularity at the time, but with a realism in acting and setting that really grounds everything as much as possible. It's a beautiful movie to look at, one that Martin Scorsese has listed as one of his 10 favorites ever made. I would and will watch this masterpiece again over the years, as there really isn't a single weakness in it. It's a pretty perfect movie.

The Hourglass Sanitorium

Wojciech Jerzy Has' 1973 surreal opus The Hourglass Sanitorium is one of the few Polish movies I've seen. Despite my local Museum of Art hosting a series of 16 films Martin Scorsese selected as "Masterpieces of Polish Cinema", I've only been able to go see 2. I'd only previously known this movie by its odd and amazing poster. When I read more, it sounded intriguing even though I'm very hit and miss on surreal art. I must say that while this suffers from some of the drawbacks of all surreal films, it is one of the most beautifully shot and put together movies I've ever seen and one that I'd happily see again any time.


The "story" as much as one exists, is that of Joseph (Jan Nowicki) riding a train to visit his ailing father Jacob (Tadeusz Kondrat) in a sanitorium. From there we are led on a series of surreal adventures such as being arrested by soldiers for having a dream, confronting living plastic mannequins of historical figures, reliving childhood memories of many different things. All with Joseph leading us through, even through the childhood segments, the adult stands in for his younger self.


Unfortunately, like too many surrealist films, we're not given a base to go from for Joseph as a character, so we don't know why things are happening (sometimes what is happening at all), or what it means to anyone or anything. If they're not relative to the main character leading us through them, and the sequences are meant for the audience and not the character then what's the point of the character in the first place? Just string the segments together like a book of short stories (which is how this movie was adapted in the first place). Another side of this is that there's no narrative momentum leading us from piece to piece, so even though the movie is only 2 hours long, it feels much, much longer.


However, this is easily one of the 5 or 10 most visually splendid films ever made. Though I wasn't always engaged narratively, there wasn't a single second I wasn't fascinated visually. 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.