Monday, February 28, 2011

PHIL OCHS: THERE BUT FOR FORTUNE - Staff review by Dave Paiz

By now it's safe to say that there are probably tribes in the Amazon who know who Bob Dylan is, but you'd be hard-pressed to find many people here in the states who've even heard of Phil Ochs. I thought I'd seen just about everything there was to see about the music and sociopolitical upheavals of the '60's, but Kenneth Bowser's new documentary Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune revealed that I was woefully oblivious to a fairly substantial chunk of what went down at the time.

The world can often be a bitterly cruel and maddening place for idealists.  And like many of his generation, Phil Ochs was an idealist who believed that music had the power to change the world. After emerging from the turbulence of the 1960's as one of America's most passionate voices for social change, Ochs spent his all-too-brief life writing and performing music that challenged the injustices and foundational myths of the day.

Maligned by Dylan as more of a reporter than a folk singer, Ochs wrote songs about segregation, racism and war in stark, unflinchingly confrontational terms that differed sharply from Dylan's metaphorical ramblings about watchtowers and answers blowing in the wind. From the anti-war anthem "I Ain't Marchin' Anymore" to his cynical ode to Left-wing hypocrisy "Love Me, I'm A Liberal" - Ochs was fearless in confronting absurdity, regardless of which end of the political spectrum it came from.

Through interviews with family, friends and contemporaries ranging from Tom Hayden, Joan Baez, Christopher Hitchens and Jello Biafra, as well as interview and performance footage from Ochs himself, the tragic arc of Och's life is traced against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, the Kennedy and King assassinations, and the Chicago riots of 1968. The picture that emerges is that of a man torn between his desire for fame, and his desire to bring about social change.

Eschewing commercialism in favor of charity and benefit work, Ochs was a tireless advocate for unions, the working class and others who were confronting social injustice, and organized countless charity concerts in support of various causes. Along the way he continued to expand his musical horizons and inadvertently planted the seeds for what would eventually become the world music genre. Through protests, demonstrations, absurdist political theater, and the formation of a new political party, Ochs repeatedly threw himself headlong into the teeth of the establishment and was gradually ground down in the process. Over time, the horrors of a seemingly endless war, and the violent deaths of his generation's most inspiring leaders sent him into an emotional tailspin that he never fully recovered from.

An identity primarily defined in opposition to something eventually devours itself when there is nothing left to oppose. Once the Vietnam War was over, Och's focus turned inward, and he soon buckled under the combined weight of his steadily worsening manic depression, and the guilt and regret he carried regarding his wife and child. By the time he took his own life at the age of 35, Och's passionate idealism had tragically given way to bitterness, alcoholism and madness. A deeply moving and lovingly rendered portrait of a true rebel voice whose influence still resonates today, Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune is both a cautionary tale and an inspiring call to arms for those who continue to confront injustice wherever it rears its ugly head.

Review by Dave Paiz, Loft Cinema Facilities Manager and host of "Bat Country Radio" Saturdays from 2-4 a.m. on 91.3 FM KXCI.

PHIL OCHS: THERE BUT FOR FORTUNE plays Wednesday, March 2nd at 7:30PM at The Loft Cinema.

Friday, February 18, 2011

The One Film We Could Watch Every Day for a Year

81 days ago, a guy named Lawrence decided to start a blog about a singular cinematic project:  he is watching the film Julie and Julia every day for a year.  We floated this idea around The Loft and came up with the following films that we could, if forced, conceivably watch for 365 consecutive days.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

THE ILLUSIONIST / Staff review by Evan Salazar

Melancholy and poignancy are never more potent than when found in animation; in fact, the presentation of those ideas in an animated feature is almost a subversion of the art form. We are trained to believe animation is child’s fare: simple, routine, loud, and without a dash of subtly. Bugs Bunny isn’t the most restrained of creations. Although the rules of animation don’t say that melancholy can’t exist in two dimensions, their inclusion is perhaps disquieting, or odd. Those are the precise reasons that poignancy is that much more palpable and resolute when presented in animation: it feels as if it shouldn’t be there, and its addition is disarming and emotionally penetrative. Look at Pixar’s UP for instance: what do most people talk about when they mention the movie? The first ten minutes of it.

And if ever there were an award for a film that breaks hearts in the most tender of ways, Sylvain Chomet’s THE ILLUSIONIST would win, hands down. It is the new quintessential example of emotional animation: its elegantly somber and beautiful score, its understated and lovingly-crafted mannerisms it assigns to each character, and its solemn, muted color palette that physically awakens forlorn sighs – they all culminate in an almost Stendhalian daze of pure emotion. The film invites you to reflect along with it, and it asks you with gentleness and care. By the film’s end you feel as if you are the eponymous Illusionist, wondering how the world started turning so fast when you were just getting the hang of its rotation.

The story is simple and delicate, based upon an unproduced screenplay by French cinema legend Jacques Tati (best known for his films M. HULOT’S HOLIDAY, MON ONCLE, and PLAYTIME) and concerns an illusionist based upon Tati himself who even goes by Tati’s original surname, Tatischeff. Tatischeff is an old-school magician, pulling rabbits out of his hat and revealing coins from behind little boys’ ears.  He goes from club to party to pub performing for anyone willing to look, and even for those who don’t. While staying in a small Scottish village, Tatischeff meets a young woman who truly believes that magic is real and that Tatischeff can make things materialize from thin air. She follows him to Edinburgh where they live in a hotel populated by eccentrics and strike up a loving, father-and-daughter relationship. The original screenplay by Tati is allegedly an apology to his daughter Sofia whom he spent much of his life away from (although this is a debated issue since Tati was also father to an illegitimate daughter who claims the film is meant to be an apology to her) and this invites a sad, desperate reading of the relationship between the illusionist and the girl he befriends: Tatischeff finds in the girl someone who still believes in him and someone he can look after, someone to give him meaning and purpose. But as I mentioned before, this film has something less life affirming and more melancholic in mind.

I don’t mean to paint this film as completely sorrowful and bleak – it’s not. The film had me laughing throughout, whether it was from the Scottish drunk’s incoherent mumblings or the acrobatics’ flamboyant jumping to and fro or Tatischeff’s look of pure befuddlement throughout. The film’s humor is subtle, quiet, and sweet-hearted (although there are some darkly hilarious parts I wouldn’t dare spoil). The film is mostly dialogue free, and its humor comes from the silent interactions between each character – fans of silent cinema like Chaplin, Keaton, and Arbuckle will be in for a modern treat. Its silence also adds to its depth: as anyone who has seen Chaplin’s classic film CITY LIGHTS knows, emotion that is gained so deftly from silent cinema is the most rewarding emotion of all. Its heart surpasses the need for words and connects with you on the most human and immediate of levels. THE ILLUSIONIST’s humor and feeling are skillfully reached through almost-complete silence – it makes you embarrassed for modern films that so badly want to go for your heart with a barrage of words when just a facial expression will do. It doesn’t hurt that the score, written by Chomet, is wonderfully tranquil and sincere. At times it echoes Vince Guaraldi’s score for A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS, and no, I promise that is not hyperbole. It’s that good.

THE ILLUSIONIST has massive heart, but be warned: it is intent on breaking yours. However, you’ll be glad you experienced the film – a film which is unlike so much of what we get today in movie theaters. It is quiet, kind, funny, unassuming, and painfully honest. It’s an achievement in itself that it even got made, and made with such panache for that matter. And lastly, as a huge fan and supporter of all things animated, I feel obligated to tell you that you will be doing yourself a huge favor by seeing this film’s beautiful animation projected on the big screen in 35mm. Nothing beats seeing hand drawn animation on the big screen, and nothing beats the melancholy of a fantastically realized animated film. Absolutely nothing. 

By Evan Salazar, full-time student, part-time Floor Staffer, all-around cineaste extraordinaire. 

Friday, February 11, 2011

STRANGE POWERS: Staff review by Dave Paiz

Those with a willingness to defy convention and elevate substance over style are rarely rewarded in American society. This is especially true as it pertains to music. How Stephin Merritt has managed to find success in the face of such depressingly bleak realities is the subject of Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields - a new documentary from Kerthy Fix and Gail O'Hara.

The Magnetic Fields first emerged in the late '80's, during the seismic shift that marked the end of the hair metal era, and the musical renaissance that produced bands like Jane's Addiction, Nirvana and Pearl Jam. Unlike the distortion-drenched, guitar-heavy grunge that dominated the airwaves at the time, The Magnetic Fields' minimalist synth-pop failed to garner much attention outside the realm of college radio. Despite such daunting odds, Merritt and The Magnetic Fields have quietly persevered, and, over the past two decades, become something of a minor cult phenomenon who now include the likes of Peter Gabriel, Neil Gaiman and Sarah Silverman among their biggest fans.

The film focuses on Merritt, longtime collaborator/bandmate/manager Claudia Gonson, and the symbiotic, if not codependent dynamic that lies at the heart of The Magnetic Fields' distinctive sound. Together with cellist Sam Davos and guitarist John Woo, Merritt and Gonson weave a meticulously crafted and constantly evolving web of sound around Merritt's deeply poetic and often cynical odes to love, heartbreak, and loss.

Unlike most music documentaries that reveal their subjects in great detail, and perhaps due to Merritt's guarded, reclusive nature, Strange Powers takes a more scattered, indirect approach in delineating what makes Merritt tick. Through scenes ranging from his cramped apartment in New York City where the Magnetic Fields have recorded much of their music, to the neighborhood gay bar where Merritt channels his lyrical muse, it's quite clear that he is a very private man who prefers to let his music do the talking, rather than engage in cheerfully pithy discussions about his creative process.

In an age increasingly defined by an endless array of plastic pop stars devoid of much substance or depth, Stephin Merritt is one of the few who has chosen the narrow path less traveled by. Strange Powers should appeal not only to longtime fans of The Magnetic Fields, but to music fans in general, and creative spirits everywhere who dream of marching to the beat of their own inner drum.

Review by Dave Paiz, Loft Cinema Facilities Manager and host of "Bat Country Radio" Saturdays from 2-4 a.m. on 91.3 FM KXCI.

STRANGE POWERS: STEPHIN MERRITT AND THE MAGNETIC FIELDS plays Friday, February 11th and Saturday, February 12th at 10:00PM at The Loft Cinema.

Friday, February 4, 2011

MESRINE: PUBLIC ENEMY #1 (PART TWO) / Staff review by Evan Salazar

A recent trend in foreign films is to allow those who are historically usually considered “the bad guys” to tell their side of the story. THE BAADER-MEINHOF COMPLEX, CARLOS, and CHE have all been critically-acclaimed films about revolutionaries, terrorists, and depending on who you ask, just plain ol’ thugs. The films sometimes walk the fence between giving any definite opinion on their subjects, but the films do not deny that these people had strong ideas and statements. Maybe the idea got away from them, or maybe it was fully realized. Regardless, it’s hard to deny that the groups or people these films focus on stood for something.

Enter Jacques Mesrine (played by the fiery Vincent Cassel), the titular subject of PUBLIC ENEMY #1, a continuation of the MESRINE saga from KILLER INSTINCT. Jacques Mesrine was not a revolutionary, but he certainly wanted to be one. His crimes were not backed by any sort of ideology and the film suggests this was his one insecurity. Mesrine kidnaps a French billionaire and claims that the Palestinian Liberation Front is holding him hostage. “I’m not even Jewish!” the hostage yells back. Frustrated, Mesrine barks ransom orders at the man and storms out. His bluff has been called. Yes, Mesrine was a master of escaping prison and robbing banks, but an intellectual and a radical he was not.

Mesrine was not an anarchist nor a nihilist, but his actions were anarchic and nihilistic. Coming off the high from escaping back to France, Mesrine trolls its streets, firing haphazardly and making up the plan as he goes. The film explores Mesrine’s insatiable need for destruction and respect; “Who is this Pinochet?” Mesrine, reading a newspaper, yells at a prison guard. “Why is he on the front page and I’m not?” So angered by this, Mesrine decides to write a book about his criminal life -- whatever he can do to be relevant and acknowledged.

Meatier than the one before it, PUBLIC ENEMY #1 shines the light more intensely on Mesrine the person as opposed to Mesrine the criminal. He doesn’t have the smarts of fellow thug Francois (played by French cinema mainstay Mathieu Amalric, who has been popping up in practically every French film brought over to America, from THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY to A CHRISTMAS TALE), or the radical idealism of friend Charlie (played by Gerard Lanvin). Mesrine is a criminal in a rapidly progressing world, where idealism is winning out over gratuitous cruelty.

But don’t mistake these philosophical musings for being all the film is about. At 133 minutes, the film spends just as much time in the midst of car chases, gunshots, and jailbreaks. One would most likely call this an action film before they’d call it a drama. Mesrine, now a bit plumper and sporting a mullet, is still a menace; the film opens with a spectacular botched robbery that sets the bar high for the action sequences to come. Action junkies will not be disappointed. The photography is also immaculate: the camera swoops cleanly and coherently through the madness, capturing it all in bloody detail. The film is visually rich, playing with multiple styles and locations that all cohere to create a visceral, gritty mise-en-scene. It is razor sharp and exact.

Looked at as a four-and-a-half-hour epic, MESRINE is a story of dreams that are, inevitably, bigger than the man – no matter how big the man is. Mesrine’s shadow loomed large: he had beautiful women, charisma, and the fear of France in the palm of his hand. But as man is wont to do, he squandered it. The filmmakers, however, did not squander the rich material mined from Jacques Mesrine’s life. They have created a pair of films that are assured, tenacious, and exciting as all hell. Mesrine would have been happy to be paid the honor.

By Evan Salazar, full-time student, part-time Floor Staffer, all-around cineaste extraordinaire.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

MESRINE: KILLER INSTINCT (PART ONE) / Staff review by Evan Salazar

Paced like a freight train, MESRINE PART 1: KILLER INSTINCT (based on the book by the eponymous criminal) is proof that not all French films are existential navel-gazing or romantic strolls down the Champs-Elysees. From its Brian De Palma-esque split-screen opening credits to its sex-and-guns fixation to its boorish, arrogant lead in famed French criminal Jacques Mesrine (played by Vincent Cassel), KILLER INSTINCT is ostensibly the most “American” French movie you are likely to see this year – and that is no way a bad thing. Director Jean-Francois Richet has crafted a rich, engrossing, and exceptionally well-constructed gangster film, and he has made it better than any American has in a long, long time. He hasn’t done this through some sort of subversion of the genre, however: it’s just that KILLER INSTINCT soaks the screen with blood with such ferocity, paints its title character so lovingly, and relishes in its wonderful source material so giddily that calling it a “gangster film” almost feels like one is delegitimizing it. And while the argument of “art vs. genre” films is one that opens up too many cans of worms, KILLER INSTINCT finds itself nestled just fine between both worlds.

KILLER INSTINCT tells the story of infamous French criminal Jacques Mesrine, a former French soldier who didn’t know where to put the aggression he learned in the armed forces after the Algerian War. So, after meeting up with an old friend, Mesrine starts to live a life of crime – prostitutes, gambling, bank robbery, and even murder. He falls in and out of love, goes in and out of prison, and his reign of crime spans continents. KILLER INSTINCT follows our anti-hero along the first half of his odyssey through crime, and the film is quick, sharp, and doesn’t waste a second telling the story. So much happens in the almost two hour running time that the film is kinetically hypnotic.

And despite being spread over two movies, it is expected that some details are skipped over or completely dismissed. This does not hurt the film, however: the story we are presented with is fleshed out and has a bite sharper than most 90 minute films. That is saying a lot considering even a few minutes of un-needed material can bog a movie down. KILLER INSTRICT, on the other hand, is bursting at the seams – but it doesn’t completely break the seal. There’s just enough there.

The film is clearly working in broad strokes; this is not a character study. That’s not to say that Cassel’s performance as Mesrine isn’t bombastic or charismatic or whatever other word you’d like to use to say how simply fantastic he is, though. Cassel makes Mesrine into a larger-than-life character: he explodes with rage, whether he is sticking a gun into his wife’s mouth or crippling a man who talked to a bartender with the wrong tone. With these sorts of films, as well, one has to be careful when portraying a real-life character as nefarious as Mesrine. Does the film condone his actions? Condemn them? Does it matter? I believe KILLER INSTINCT finds a nice grey for it, portraying Mesrine as a troubled man, uncouth and vile… and yet also appearing decidedly human. His charisma is undeniable; his anger is ugly and childlike. Cassel didn’t win Best Actor at the Cesar Awards (The French equivalent of the Oscars) for nothing.

With his moustache, greased back hair, and penchant for wanton violence, Mesrine owns the screen in every frame of this high-octane, full-fledged crime epic. Let it be known, though: KILLER INSTINCT only works okay as a stand-alone film. The story’s conclusion, found in the film PUBLIC ENEMY #1, is needed to give KILLER INSTINCT its proper weight. Sure, KILLER INSTINCT works fine as a stand-alone action film, but the depth the material so deserves is truly found in PUBLIC ENEMY #1. This is not to say that PUBLIC ENEMY #1 is a more nuanced film, but rather that the first film is only half the story. PUBLIC ENEMY #1 is not a sequel: it is a continuation. All that aside, KILLER INSTINCT is a punch in the gut that is so self-assured, it knows you’ll be sticking around for part two, anyhow.

And you thought French films were all just Audrey Tautou and je t’aime this and je t’aime that.

By Evan Salazar, full-time student, part-time Floor Staffer, all-around cineaste extraordinaire.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

LEMMY / Staff review by Dave Paiz

You know I'm born to lose
And gambling's for fools
But that's the way I like it baby
I don't wanna live forever

- Motorhead, "Ace Of Spades"

If Charles Darwin were alive today, it's a safe bet that he'd be wracking his brain over how to fit iconic British rocker Lemmy Kilmister into his theory of evolution. For if you threw Johnny Cash, Hunter S. Thompson, Keith Richards and Sonny Barger into one of Seth Brundle's nifty teleporters from The Fly along with a thimbleful of dinosaur DNA, the end result would still be a pale shade of a man who casts a very long shadow indeed.

Greg Olliver and Wes Orshoski's new documentary Lemmy explores the life and legacy of the 65-year old legend, who has survived nearly 4 decades of rock 'n' roll excess on a diet of little more than speed, cigarettes, Jack Daniels and sheer, take-no-prisoners reptilian attitude.

From his less-than-humble beginnings as a roadie for Jimi Hendrix, through his tenure with '60's Kinks contemporaries The Rockin' Vickers, the '70's space-rock outfit Hawkwind, and the formation of the hugely influential 36-year-old metal juggernaut that is Motorhead, the film is an affectionate and unflinchingly honest portrait of a man who staunchly refuses to go calmly or quietly into that endless winter night.

Having been a Motorhead fan since the early '80's, I was immediately struck by Lemmy's casual, soft-spoken demeanor and seeming absence of ego. Authenticity and humility have always been rare commodities in the music industry, but the grizzled veteran genuinely seems to possess immense reserves of both. In an increasingly hollow, plastic age that seems to fall away faster with each passing day, Lemmy is a walking anachronism and a testament to the power of sticking to your guns no matter what.

While some will likely be put off by his embrace of certain vices, he makes it clear that his choices are his alone, and that he doesn't want to advocate a lifestyle that has claimed the lives of many of his contemporaries. More troubling perhaps is his penchant for Nazi war memorabilia, which some have taken as evidence that he is some sort of a closet Nazi. Lemmy dismisses such concerns with an unapologetic shrug, and leaves the question for the viewer to decide.

Whereas many bands and artists are punch-drunk on ego and image, Lemmy comes across as one who talks the talk and walks the walk without a single shred of pretension. Whether on stage or off, with Lemmy, what you see is what you get. No fakery. No phoniness. Just pure Lemmy. Take it or leave it. Rather than a lavish country estate, Lemmy chooses to live in a tiny, cluttered apartment just off the Sunset Strip that's probably smaller than Mick Jagger's laundry room. And while most in his position choose to wall themselves off from their fans, when he's not on the road, Lemmy can often be found sipping a Jack and Coke, playing video trivia and signing autographs at the Rainbow Bar & Grill.

The film blends current and archival video footage with interviews from a veritable who's who of rock royalty including Alice Cooper, Slash, Metallica and Ozzy Osbourne. Watching these music giants gush over Lemmy's influence really underscores the fact that, rather than just another rock star, Lemmy is the missing link that bridges the gap between early rockers like Buddy Holly, Elvis and Little Richard, and bands like Metallica, Megadeth and Anthrax.

To those who might roll their eyes at the thought of yet another decadent rock star baring all for the camera, this isn't the story of just another rock 'n' roll badass, it is the story of THE original rock 'n' roll badass - a lurching Tyrannosaurus Rex of a man who has chunks of guys like Slash and Keith Richards in his stool, and who will likely be gnawing on all our skulls long after the human race is swept into the dustbin of history.

Review by Dave Paiz, Loft Cinema Facilities Manager and host of "Bat Country Radio" Saturdays from 2-4 a.m. on 91.3 FM KXCI.

LEMMY plays Wednesday, February 2nd at 7:30PM at The Loft Cinema.