Thursday, June 28, 2012

All Rise for the "National Anthem"

I just watched something that rattled me, and it was the furthest of reactions I was expecting. What I watched was not Eating Out 5: Open Relationship (although I did watch that earlier this evening and it was disturbing to say the least), but the video clip for Lana Del Rey's "National Anthem". Amongst an album that was already filled with cinematic, almost operatic, songs that aimed for a haunting anthem status far beyond their puffy-lipped ingenue singer's debut limitations, "National Anthem" was a stand out and an early contender for song of the year. With grand, sweeping strings, a pulsating bass that echoes Queen Latifah's hip-hop classic "Just Another Day", and vocals that flirt between breathy Lolita whispers and crying-on-the-inside patriotic cries, "National Anthem" was already a stunner and then she had to go and release the video.

It's a curious video for sure, although one that certainly keeps in line with the themes she navigated with "Video Games": Loss of innocence, fame, the nature of nostalgia and how what we choose to look back at can give a good image of what we're at as a collective people. One could cynically look at Del Rey doing a video for "National Anthem" that revolves around the imagery of the 1960s, specifically John and Jackie Kennedy, as a ploy to plug into Mad Men fever, but a simplistic video aiming for little more than pop culture points would never go as far as the Anthony Madler's "Anthem" video does. I can see people getting upset of this video and its re-appropriation of the famous Zapruder video of JFK's assassination, but at least she's not getting her tits out and spending the four minute and forty second song parading about in front of mirrors and strobe lights so that's a win.

Still, there was something utterly captivating about the video. Something almost upsetting and unnerving. Something that, to use her own lyric, blurs the line the between the real and the fake. As strange as it sounds, I was actually moved by this video. Watching 26-year-old Lana here, her face seemingly plumped and buffered and looking like a youthful version of Cher, I couldn't help but be transfixed. No matter what she's done to it, her face, her body language, her voice, all demonstrating crippling pain with a steel-braced rigidity as she stretches out over that animal carcass rug. As filtered through 8mm instagram filters she turns luminous sitting amongst a garden of flowers or when cradling her (black President) husband on the lawn or poolside with their giggling daughters in tow. Meanwhile, in recreations of the presidential assassination she shows paralysed fear. The moment at 7:11 just blows me away that it's in a music video and not something far more glamourous. If there was an MTV Music Video Award for acting performance then she'd win for sure. She even threw in a Marilyn Monroe impersonation for wowser effect.

The video got me thinking that maybe Lana Del Rey could be a genuine film actress in the making. She obviously has the determination and gut to do it - you don't get through the year she's had without earning some mental steel - and given the right role, I can see her being incredibly effective. Unlike, say, Rihanna who wanted to take the easy path and capitalise on her fame to earn easy money with a lame-brained movie like Battleship, there appears to be actual emotions behind this performer's eyes and I can see that translating to the big screen. And that's to say nothing of the way she looks in those sumptuous outfits and with her hair styled so high it matches her lips. I'd be willing to bet that she'd be impossible to take one's eyes off of.

Whatever one thinks of Lana Del Rey - and lord knows everybody certainly An Opinion on Lana Del Rey - and her "National Anthem" video, I find it impossible to see how anybody could deny she's not at least an interesting persona in the world of music at the moment. Certainly one of the strangest and most undefinable. We've seen time and time again that it's the undefinables that tend to make the better leaps into the world of acting so I wouldn't be surprised if we hear of Del Rey making the cinematic leap sometime over the next few years and I look forward to day it happens. Until then I'll just have to watch Elizabeth Woolridge Grant do her daily performance as Lana Del Rey and hope somebody can come along and do something with her that feels as unique and provocative as she.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Don't Feel Bad About the Neck: RIP Nora Ephron

That isn't the news I care to stumble across so early in the day, but Nora Ephron has died at the age of 71. I know it's probably hopelessly uncool to think so highly of Ephron and her contribution to cinema since she primarily worked in very female realms of romantic comedies and "what it means to be a woman". Any woman who strives to break the stereotype of "women aren't funny", or to have their own voice heard, owes a lot to Nora Ephron, and there's a lot about her to be thankful for.

We're all very much aware that the romcom genre is basically dying on the vine, but her trilogy of collaborations with Meg Ryan in the ten years between 1989 and 1998 are without a doubt the three best romantic comedies of the last 30 years (My Best Friend's Wedding would be #4, but she had no involvement with that). When Harry Met Sally... in 1989, Sleepless in Seattle in 1993, and You've Got Mail in 1998 is like some sort of magical romcom trilogy that I kept hoping Ephron would get to add to one day, but sadly that will never come to be. I don't know if she intended it, but I like how Sally is about two people who have known each other for years, Seattle is about two people who have never met, and Mail is about two people who've known each other, but don't realise who each other is. Really does make it feel like a connected series of films and not just three nice films made by the same person.

Nora Ephron's "What I Will Miss", photo courtesy of Sandi Sieger.

Those three works with Meg Ryan look more and more perfect every time I watch them. And I watch them all very frequently, so I know. They are all so smartly structured, intrinsically intelligent, and full of delicious observational wit - Ephron was Oscar nominated for the screenplays of the first two, alongside Silkwood in 1983 - but made so keenly made that they make for effortless viewing. They are modern day mainstream cinema at their finest and those screenplays, as wonderful as her books and essays, brought out the best in the actors. Tom Hanks may have two Oscars for Forrest Gump and Philadelphia, but the charm he exudes in Sleepless in Seattle in just beyond. Meg Ryan, no matter what she's done to her legacy and her face, will always be remembered for these works. Billy Crystal, too. Last year I wrote of rewatching You've Got Mail and falling absolutely, intoxicatingly in love with it again. These films are special to me and Ephron is the reason why.

I couldn't not mention the terrifying Silkwood, or the delightful and insightful Julie & Julia (I know a lot hated the Amy Adams segment, but I thought it had some great things to say about the life of a writer, especially given it was written by a woman in her late 60s). I'm even the one person on Earth who likes Mixed Nuts. I haven't seen all of her films - Heartburn is supposedly quite good; Hanging Up not so much - but even her failures, like Bewitched, tend to have buried gems of dialogue and character buried within them.

Of course, no matter how many fabulous movies she wrote and/or directed, no matter how many books she wrote (much like I enjoy The Golden Girls' observations of the lives of women in their 50s, Ephron's I Feel Bad About My Neck remains a hilarious read no matter the age or gender of the reader), I don't think anything she could do could possible overtake her three minute performance at the AFI's salute to Meryl Streep. Reeling of a dazzling list of A-grade gags, it's the sort of thing that could - and do - watch over and over and over again.

RIP Nora Ephron. Your wit will be missed, but I'm currently watching Sleepless in Seattle as I type this so it won't be forgotten.

Half and Half: The Best Posters of 2012 (so far)

We're just about to reach the half way mark of 2012, so now is as good a time as any to take a look back at the film posters we have seen so far this year and see where we're heading. Is this a good year or a bad one? Neither, really. It's hard to gauge at this stage since, well, there is still an entire six months left for Hollywood to lift their game, and with the upcoming awards seasons about to kick into gear, we can be assured of some eye-catching designs along the line (of both the good and bad variety, like clockwork).

Hollywood, at least from the first six months of the year, appears to have ditched all ideas about creating unique and visually striking ways of selling their product. Of my long list, very few have or will receive a wide release, and most are in fact designs of festival films and independent releases. Some of these films I had honestly never even heard of before (The Color Wheel, Neighbouring Sounds for instance) until I saw their poster designs pop up in one place or another, but I'm glad I know them now since they're bright spots worth highlighting.

Cannes 2012
The annual film festival in the south of France produced a larger-than-normal amount of quality designs for its competition titles. The finest are surely those for Lee Daniels' The Paperboy (love the pink retro chic), Jacques Audiard's Rust and Bone (its title carved over an image of its stars like a love heart into a tree), and Carlos Reygadas' Post Tenebras Lux (childhood glee at sunrise).

There is also great poster fun to be had with Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom, Killing Them Softly, the duel-play of Haneke's Amour, Holy Motors, and You Haven't See Anything. I look forward to what these films will be sold as when it comes to their international releases.

The defining look of posters from 2012 will be "the Instagram effect", an aesthetic that replicates the hyper-filtered look of smart phone app Instagram. Sometimes it doesn't work at all and winds up looking like needless noodling with Photoshop, but sometimes the use of colour, light, shadow, contrast and layering can really make a poster pop when it otherwise would have been little more than a movie still blown up to size. Some of my favourites from 2012 have included ballet documentary First Position and french dramas La Pirogue and Renoir.

UK Quads
As usual, some of the best designs have come from England. Routinely throwing away default designs for their own unique takes, UK quads have the distinct advantage of being able to work within a completely different space to the rest of them that allows allows for concepts that otherwise wouldn't work, as well as truly unique uses of space. There have been some great ones this year including a wonderful use of wide space on Anna Karenina, retro Californian heat with Rampart (a 2012 release in most of the world), plus two beauties for, er, Beauty!

I should mention that, in my travels, I across a designer named Sam Ashby. He designed the tiled poster for Beauty as well as a bunch of BFI re-releases like Days of Heaven and Meet Me in St Louis. I must keep an eye on his work as it's most impressive. England's answer to Jeremy Saunders, perhaps?

No, not actual animated films, but animated posters. This seems to be a quick way to get noticed due to the lack of similar designs, so why not? They can come off as a bit desperate sometimes (I was not a fan of The Savages' poster that everybody loved just because it looked like a cover to The New Yorker or whatever), but titles like Gayby, The Color Wheel, and the horror anthology ABCs of Death are all visually striking and lovingly crafted.

I didn't see Project X or Act of Valor - I am sure they're terrible, but I doubt I'll watch them on DVD to find out - but I liked their posters for what they were. I know many were high on Cabin in the Woods' rotating blocks poster(I'd choose the unofficial Mondo design over it), but if I had to pick a third big budget title to include I would go with the upcoming animated flick, Paranorman. I like it's spunky retro charm through kid-like eyes.

The Others
There have been a few others that I've grown particularly fond of, but which don't necessarily fit into any one group. They obviously won't all last until the end of the year, when I do a top 50 list of the year's posters, but for one reason or another they grabbed my attention in a good way and that's more than I can say about

I'm sure I have missed a few from the first half of the year, and we'll try and fix that by the end of the year, but until then... how's it looking from your end?

Monday, June 25, 2012

A Pride Kiki

It has been Pride Month in America recently, culminating in this past weekend's pride marches around the country. Or, that's what I presume this whole Pride thing is about in the USA since Australia doesn't so much have an entire month devoted to it, but more a few individual days scattered about the year when big city counsels allow for crude displays of homosexuality right there on the streets. Okay, so maybe I'm a bit cynical about Australia's merry-go-round pandering of the issue, but yay for America having gay pride so out in the open for such an extended period of time (even their government supports it!) and not just whenever the Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras (which doesn't even use the "Gay & Lesbian" part of its original title anymore) decides to shoot glitter on everyone.

I bring this up because, oh my lord, have you seen the new Scissor Sisters video clip? Actually, I'm not really sure what it is exactly. I don't think it's an official video, but it does feature original content? It's most just a video montage of all things gay that acts as a video to the Sisters' "Let's Have a Kiki". The song is a delight and is the exact sort of song that I would expect to get a video like this. Featuring clips from dozens of films like Paris is Burning, Showgirls, The Boys in the Band, All That Jazz, Cruising, You Can't Stop the Music, Dressed to Kill, Cruising (which we just discussed earlier today!), Staying Alive, and Perfect, as well as old music videos, drag balls, Cher work out videos, TV clips, and even a McDonald's commercial. It's an enthralling mix and a total riot.

Dressed for Success, De Palma's Manhattan Murder Mystery

"Why remake Psycho?" is something I've heard a lot in relation to Gus Van Sant's deliciously evocative experiment of 1998. My affections for that film are already quite known, but did people realise that Alfred Hitchcock's horror masterpiece, Psycho, had already been remade some two decades earlier by Brian De Palma. Not one to shy away from wearing his influences on his sleeve, De Palma has routinely courted the Hitchcockian vibe in his films. Vertigo, Rear Window and Psycho - arguably Hitchcock's three most famous films - are like a revolving door for De Palma as he swings in and out of them taking bits and pieces wholesale for his own productions.

With Dressed to Kill, however, he all but remade Psycho of 20 years earlier with this kinky, high-gloss mystery. There aren't just references and parallels, but the entire film follows the exact same structure. There's a woman with a secret whom we're meant to believe is the lead character before she gets offed in a tiny space by a mystery woman. The film then follows one of the murdered woman's relatives as they try and track down who did the crime, seemingly centered around the office of a lonely man who has an unseen family and some serious issues. Considering Dressed to Kill is over 30 years old, and Psycho some 50 years, I don't think it's particularly poor form to reveal that the seemingly innocent loner at the centre of the film - Michael Caine's Dr Robert Elliot - dresses as a woman to prey on his victims and the blueprint of Psycho is well and truly copied. There's even a "shower scene" - albeit placed at the end - and the film's marketing didn't exactly shy away from the angle.

Not that that is necessarily a bad thing. In fact, I think Dressed to Kill is rather incredible. And, hey, Psycho works for a reason so why not copy it? De Palma's version is, obviously, not even close to Gus Van Sant's work from '98, but together they share a fascination with Psycho - my personal favourite Hitchcock title - and work fabulously side by side as blatant, yet mischievously playful, copies of the thriller master's work. Add a slinky, beguilingly orchestral score by Pino Donaggio, an ace and almost comical performance by Angie Dickinson, and great use of Manhattan locations and I can definitely say I found Dressed to Kill a great success.

It's certainly easy to see why some audiences - particularly those uncomfortable with such open displays of sexual acts and dialogue, as well as those in the gay community who thought its representations of transsexuals was offensive - were turned off, or even angered, by the material. However, what is undeniable is that Brian De Palma's filming of New York City is wondrous. Much like Los Angeles in Body Double (1984) and The Black Dahlia (2006), De Palma's eye for the isle of Manhattan is meticulous and artfully smart. He uses well known imagery to produce chills and places entire setpieces in famous locations for seemingly no reason other than he can. A masterful scene early on as Angie Dickinson's fastidiously made up housewife chasing (and being chased) around a museum moves to outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art for a hilariously strange seduction Further scenes appear to be located in one place or another for no particular reason other than the East Village look great? The apartment of Dickinson's museum cruise is just down the road from the World Trade Center at (I think) Maiden Lane; Nancy Allen's high class prostitute makes a public telephone call from Battery Park and is later chased throughout the New York subway system; the office of Michael Caine's psychiatrist is located on a picturesque stretch of East 70th Street... it's all just De Palma having a lot of fun, I suspect, but he makes it all very exciting rather than the wank that some may have perceived from such a heavy-handed project.

It's an absolutely gorgeous film to look at from that perspective. Reflecting little of the urban decay that the city was known for at the time - only the subway sequence shows it, and even then the platforms and the trains are virtually spotless compared to, say, Beat Street, Maniac, or even my favourite film of all time, All That Jazz (a few titles that just popped into my brain) - Dressed to Kill is filmed in a high-gloss sheen that apes television soap operas. The pink hue that rises from the skin tones, costumes, and even the sets, is perfectly in tune with the soft focus cinematography of Ralf D Bode that strives for a fantasy version of perfection. New York City was far from this halo-lit in 1980, but you'd be forgiven for thinking otherwise after watching this. The softcore gaze of De Palma's camera is hypnotic and uncomfortably sleazy. It's dirtiness isn't hidden away under dark lighting and grimy sets, but right up out there in the open for all to see (see also Body Double's porno strip tease in the Hollywood hills, or basically any other De Palma film of the 1970s and 1980s). When your film opens with a woman masturbating in the shower and then being raped, you know you're watching the work of a director who isn't concerned with being polite.

Dressed to Kill certainly works better as an entire film than, say, Body Double, which descended into a lunacy that the film around it hadn't otherwise built towards. Kill is always its own crazy creature, a sort of weird queer camp take on Hitchcock's Psycho raised on daytime television (even Phil Donahue's talk program plays an integral part). It's probably true that De Palma was just trying to shove a whole lot of taboo topics into his film because he wanted to, but when it does it on such a grand and weird level I don't really mind. Take, for example, the scene involving a venereal disease that means nothing to the plot since the character is about to die, or how about in one of the closing scenes of Nancy Allen and Keith Gordon discussing a penectomy over lunch (inside the World Trade Center's "Windows on the World" restaurant, naturally) as an elderly lady behind them scoffs in discuss and another table carries on with business as usual. Perhaps that was De Palma's way of saying the social stigma attributed to gender and sexuality issues were undergoing a changing of the guards, I'll never know. It comes as little surprise to read that De Palma tried to attain the rights to the article that eventually became William Friedkin's Cruising and that parts of his screenplay were supplanted into Dressed to Kill. They share a lot in common, and not just aviator sunglasses. What a strange double feature they would make! Who wants to get on that?