Sunday, March 27, 2011

Countdown to nirvana

In a career that spans nearly four decades, reclusive filmmaker Terrence Malick has made only four feature films: Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line and The New World. The fifth, The Tree of Life, will be released to U.S. theaters on May 27, 2011 – two months from today. Count me among the legion of fans who CAN'T FUCKING WAIT.

The Thin Red Line knocked me out when I first saw it as an 18-year-old college student. That's the best moviegoing experience of my life. The first 10 minutes – showing Private Witt (Jim Caviezel) living with the natives on an island in the South Pacific – are among the most beautiful in the history of cinema. I'm not alone in this assessment; filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and David Gordon Green speak about this movie with reverent awe.

I'm also a huge fan of Badlands, while I merely admire Days of Heaven and The New World. We don't know a whole lot about The Tree of Life, but judging by the trailer and what some of the filmmakers involved have had to say, I'm confident the film will be on the same level as The Thin Red Line.

From the trailer, we know the main action will take place in the Midwest in the 1950s, with Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain playing the parents of an 11-year-old boy, Jack (Hunter McCracken); Jack will be played as a grown-up by Sean Penn. The trailer includes jaw-dropping cutaways to outer space, and comes tantalizingly close to confirming rumors that the film will incorporate prehistoric scenes featuring dinosaurs. We also know the characters will speak in the kind of poetic narration/internal monologues ("Unless you love, your life will flash by") that have become one of Malick's signatures.

Malick has brought iconic special-effects supervisor Douglas Trumbull out of retirement, after a 30-year absence from the movies. Trumbull is responsible for the groundbreaking FX in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey and Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, and his work on The Tree of Life suggests this may be Malick's most visually ambitious movie to date. Trumbull recently spoke with Mark Juddery of the Australian about teaming up with a fellow film legend.

The film will feature an original score composed by Alexandre Desplat. The French composer (Birth, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) spoke with AlloCine about Malick's unusual approach to film editing; you can read the English translation here.

This is pure speculation on my part, but I'm hoping The Tree of Life is actually Q, a screenplay Malick wrote in the late 1970s after he finished Days of Heaven. In one version of Q, the story begins "with a sleeping god, underwater, dreaming of the origins of the universe, starting with the big bang and moving forward, as fluorescent fish [swim] into the deity’s nostrils and out again." Peter Biskind discusses Q – and Malick's other pursuits during his 20-year hiatus from filmmaking – in this Vanity Fair article that ran shortly before the release of The Thin Red Line, The Runaway Genius.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Music of the heart: Sampling Gregg Araki's film playlist

Time magazine recently named the 25 Best Movie Sound Tracks. Lots of musicals made the list, like Singin’ in the Rain, West Side Story and The Sound of Music. The list also includes several movies by directors who are famous for giving us that perfect song at the perfect cinematic moment, like John Hughes, Quentin Tarantino, Cameron Crowe and Wes Anderson. Missing from that bunch (and the magazine’s list) is indie filmmaker Gregg Araki, who, in my humble opinion, has given us some of the best soundtracks ever. His omission (plus the recent release of his new film, Kaboom, which I reviewed in a previous post) is as good a reason as any to listen to some of the tracks he’s chosen over the years.

Araki has said his film ideas are primarily inspired by music, and indeed his soundtracks always seem like an integral part of the finished product. The music – dreamy, atmospheric songs by late '80s/early ‘90s shoegazer bands like the Cocteau Twins and Slowdive – often contrasts with the imagery, which can be extremely violent and disruptive. That contrast gives the films their heartbreaking quality. To quote the filmmaker: "My films [share] this longing for tenderness and affection. That's what makes [Mysterious Skin] so heartbreaking, because it's set in a world that's incredibly chaotic and hostile."*

Totally F***ed Up (1993)

Part I of the Teenage Apocalypse Trilogy, Totally F***ed Up goes out on a semi-hopeful note with A Thousand Stars Burst Open by Pale Saints. It’s interesting how the climax of this movie seems dated if you watch it today. Today’s teens have numerous ways of contacting their friends; they probably wouldn’t have to resort to drinking Drano if they got a bunch of busy signals while they were having a crisis.

The Doom Generation (1995)

One of the most cherished tracks by Slowdive, Alison plays in the background as troubled teen Amy Blue (Rose McGowan) attempts to deflower her boyfriend, Jordan White (James Duval) in the front seat of her car. This scene includes the immortal lines: “I’m afraid of catching AIDS.” “But we’re both virgins!”

Like Totally F***ed Up, The Doom Generation has a very bleak climax. Here, Araki approaches the material with ironic detachment. Nihilistic drifter Xavier Red (Johnathan Schaech) offers Amy Blue a Dorito, we catch a glimpse of a smiley face etched on top of her car, and Blue Skied An’ Clear brings the road picture to its devastatingly pointless conclusion.

Nowhere (1997)

Scored to Avalyn 2, the sex fantasy that opens Nowhere exudes the kind of open-hearted yearning for affection often found in Araki’s work – a quality that would find its fullest expression in Mysterious Skin.

Dark Smith (Duval) is 100% monogamous, while his girlfriend, Mel (Rachel True), believes human beings were built for sex and should dole out as much as possible. His post-coital marriage proposal is made all the more sweetly naïve by Trying to Reach You, an achingly beautiful track by Mojave 3.

Splendor (1999)

Araki’s lightest outing by far, Splendor is like an extended episode of Blind Date, complete with confessional cam. Mesmerise by Chapterhouse sums up the feelings of mutual affection between Veronica (Kathleen Robertson) and Abel (Schaech), as she tries to explain how much she likes him… and how much she likes this other guy she just met, too.

Bizarre Love Triangle could have been an alternate title for this film, which romanticizes three-way relationships in a way that's not all that dissimilar from Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona.

Mysterious Skin (2004)

Some of my favorite moments in Mysterious Skin feature original music by Robin Guthrie and Harold Budd. This track, Snowfall, plays when Neil (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Wendy (Michelle Trachtenberg) listen to the voice of God at the drive-in movie theater.

Neil has just moved to New York and started turning tricks. As Wendy tells him to be safe, we hear Dagger on the soundtrack, a song that speaks to the deep bond between this boy and this girl, his “one true partner in crime.”

Araki knew long before post-production that he wanted to use Samskeyti by Sigur Ros for the finale, when Brian Lackey (Brady Corbet) uncovers the awful truth of his childhood trauma. It was a real struggle to retain the rights for this song, because at the time the dreamy post-rock band was resistant to the idea of having their music played in movies. (Not so much now.) Thank God those brilliant Icelanders relented. On the DVD commentary track, Gordon-Levitt says the song “sounds like what’s going on inside of you when you’re eight years old.” The director adds: “There’s something about this song that’s so childlike and so innocent. It’s almost like a little kid’s piano.” I love how Araki grants the characters the grace denied to them by the story. Neil wishes with all his heart that he and Brian could escape, “rise like two angels in the night and magically disappear,” and the filmmaker grants that wish with an unforgettable fade to black.

*From an interview conducted by Damon Young and Gilbert Caluya

Friday, March 18, 2011

Quote of the day, 03/18/2011

Mystery Man: We’ve met before, haven’t we?
Fred: I don’t think so. Where was it you think we met?
Mystery Man: At your house. Don’t you remember?
Fred: No. No, I don’t. Are you sure?
Mystery Man: Of course. As a matter of fact, I’m there right now.
Fred: What do you mean? You’re *where* right now?
Mystery Man: At your house.
Fred: That’s fucking crazy, man.
Mystery Man: [takes out a cellular phone] Call me. Dial your number. Go ahead.

[Fred dials his number; we hear a pick up]
Phone Voice of Mystery Man: I told you I was here.
Fred: How’d you do that?
Mystery Man: Ask me.
Fred: [into phone] How’d you get inside my house?
Phone Voice of Mystery Man: You invited me. It is not my custom to go where I’m not wanted.
Fred: Who are you?
Mystery Man: Hmm.
[both Mystery Men laugh maniacally]
Phone Voice of Mystery Man: Give me back my phone.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Quote of the day, 03/16/2011

Tom: Who’s the war paint for?
Verna: Go home and dry out.
Tom: You don’t need it for Leo, believe me. He already thinks you’re the original Miss Jesus.
Verna: What the hell’s the matter with you?
Tom: What’s the matter with you? Afraid people might get the right idea?
Verna: Leo’s got the right idea. I like him. He’s honest and he’s got a heart.
Tom: Then it’s true what they say – opposites attract.
Verna: Do me a favor. Mind your own business.
Tom: This is my business. Intimidating helpless women is part of what I do.
Verna: Then find one and intimidate her.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Teenage apocalypse redux

Back in the ‘90s, Gregg Araki directed the Teenage Apocalypse Trilogy. Filled with doomsday scenarios and showing exceptionally good taste in clothes and music, this unholy trinity (comprised of Totally F***ed Up, The Doom Generation and Nowhere) established Araki as an unpredictable gay filmmaker who refused to be pinned down by the conventions of New Queer Cinema. In 2004, he had a breakthrough with Mysterious Skin, a heartbreaking and startlingly gorgeous adaptation of Scott Heim’s novel. Some critics heralded Mysterious Skin as the dawn of a new, mature phase in Araki’s career, but the Japanese-American director continued to defy expectation. In 2007, he made the stoner comedy Smiley Face (featuring a seriously funny lead performance by Anna Faris). His new film, Kaboom, is basically Part 4 of his teenage apocalypse series. It’s a lot of fun to watch, even though there’s something a little irksome about a filmmaker who’s so clearly regressed.

Like The Doom Generation and Nowhere, Kaboom is 20% sex, 80% movie. Much of that sex involves two couples: College freshman Smith (Thomas Dekker) and his new fun buddy, London (a spectacularly exhibitionist performance by Juno Temple); and Smith’s BFF, Stella (Haley Bennett), and her girlfriend, Lorelei (Roxane Mesquida), who may or may not be a witch. Smith’s non-mating rituals include pining for his himbo-surfer roommate, Thor (Chris Zylka), and avoiding the members of a cult who like to wear animal masks.

The movie sometimes resembles This Is How the World Ends, an MTV pilot that Araki directed a decade ago. The heroes of both films confide in a lesbian BFF, and both are motivated by recurring dreams involving beautiful women. Given its title, This Is How the World Ends presumably would have developed an apocalyptic plot if it had lasted longer than a single, 30-minute episode, and Kaboom is very much about how the world ends. These similarities may explain why Araki has returned to familiar territory; he may have wanted to finish what he started with his failed MTV series.

Still, the movie definitely represents a step backward. Smith doesn't have the heart of Dark Smith and the other soulful teenage heroes played by James Duval in Totally F***ed, The Doom Generation and Nowhere. Kaboom also lacks the unforgettable imagery of those films – think of the surreal design of the bedrooms in Nowhere, or the Quickie Mart massacre in Doom Generation – and it closes on an inexcusably cheesy special-effects shot. Fans won’t be disappointed by the clever dialogue (“It’s a well-known fact that dreams are just your brain taking a dump at the end of the day; they don’t mean anything”) and the music (including Cut Copy, Ladytron and Explosions in the Sky), but they might get an uneasy sense of déjà vu.

The film has been called “the gay Donnie Darko,” a comparison that has a certain kind of symmetry. It’s hard to imagine Richard Kelly’s 2001 cult phenomenon without the Teenage Apocalypse Trilogy. (Kelly even acknowledges Araki’s influence by casting Duval in the role of Frank the Giant Bunny Rabbit.) But I doubt Kaboom will inspire endless debate about the intricacies of its plot in the same way that Darko did; the conspiracy surrounding Smith isn’t meant to be taken that seriously.