The Look Back: In the Mood for Love is a Thing of Beauty

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In The Look Back I will be looking at movies and television series/episodes with fairly recent anniversaries and writing about why I love them so. Basically it’s a desperate attempt to write about things that would normally have very little relevance at all.

Fourteen years ago, Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love premiered at Cannes. In the Mood for Love did not go on to win the Palme d’Or, as that honor went to Lars Von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark. It’s interesting that the film wasn’t awarded the festival’s most prestigious honor, because today, if you seek out a credible list ranking the best films of the 21st century, In the Mood for Love will be at its top. I don’t consider myself a slave to lists like Sight & Sound or TSPDT, but I would be very much inclined to agree with their placement of the film. (The only other option? Mulholland Drive, obviously.) This is because In the Mood for Love is clearly a thing of beauty.

In the Mood for Love is set in 1962 Hong Kong and focuses on the budding relationship between Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung, who did manage to win Cannes’ Best Actor award) and Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung). Both Chow and Su are married and live in neighboring apartments, which causes them to only interact in the day-to-day sense.

These everyday interactions (passing by each other in hallways, going out to get noodles) might seem mundane or unnecessary, but they are absolutely essential in In the Mood for Love. Exquisitely shot by cinematographers Christopher Doyle and Ping Bing Lee (who, along with editor William Chang won Cannes’ Technical Grand Prize), the sequences luxuriate every fleeting moment Chow and Su share together. In reality, they’re just scenes of characters walking, but in In the Mood for Love, the scenes are visually sumptuous filmmaking.

Working as writer and director, Wong puts so much emphasis on the little time Chow and Su share together for a reason. Wong often obscures our view when the characters share moments together, and in result we, the audience function more as a secret observer rather than a viewer. The camera is telling us something that the characters are not.

Once Chow and Su do spend actual time together talking, it’s under the worst of circumstances. They have realized that their spouses are cheating on them, with each other. Chow and Su are left on their own, and Su tells Chow “On your own, you are free to do lots of things.” Left to themselves Chow and Su recognize an attraction that they share for each other, but they soon realize they would be no better than their cheating spouses. So the camera explores their romance for them.

In the Mood for Love’s visual language speaks multitudes to Chow and Su’s romance. The sequences of the two together are often filmed in slow-motion, and they soon become a rumination on the nature of human connection. This also instills a sense of longing that neither Chow nor Su can express to each other. When they aren’t together, Chow and Su are in their cramped apartments and workplaces. When they are together, Chow and Su are in wide open places, and their time together becomes something of a separate, freeing reality.

Other formal elements of the film also inform Chow and Su’s romance. When together, almost every frame is flooded with color. Most often it’s red, the color of love and passion, and this warm, lush emotionality elevates every moment Chow and Su share together. There’s also the expressive, impactful use of music. The film’s score (by Michael Galasso and Shigeru Umebayashi) is yearning and aching, and the film also makes great use of Nat King Cole’s “Quizás, Quizás, Quizás” and “Aquellos Ojos Verdes.” It’s incredibly powerful, and perhaps the most successful use of music since Casablanca.

All of these formal elements bring Chow and Su together, even when as characters they explicitly do not. Every shot holds meaning, and the impact is never lost on the viewer thanks to Wong Kar-Wai’s evocative aesthetic artistry. In the Mood for Love is an emotionally expressive film in the grandest sense, and is entirely successful through pure filmmaking. That’s why it’s not only the greatest film of the 21st century, but is a thing of beauty.

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The Look Back: David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive is Experiential Filmmaking at its Finest

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In The Look Back I will be looking at movies and television series/episodes with fairly recent anniversaries and writing about why I love them so. Basically it’s a desperate attempt to write about things that would normally have very little relevance at all.

The highest praise any given film can receive is that it’s an “experience.” When a film surpasses the ordinary expectations of storytelling what is remembered is not the experience of watching the film, but the actual experience the film becomes.

Thirteen years ago, when it premiered at Cannes, David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive exhibited how pure of an experience a film could really be. Everything about the film works towards crafting a wholly unique experience that can only be described as Mulholland Drive.

The two characters who guide us through the film are “Rita,” an amnesiac, and Betty, a Hollywood newcomer who knows nothing about show business. At the film’s core is a mystery. “Rita” isn’t Rita, so Betty decides to help her find out who she really is.

What’s even more of mystery though, is how the film’s narrative develops. The film is a “mystery,” but rather than being a traditionally told one, the film’s plot functions more as a series of surreal events told through fragmented pieces. This adds a dreamlike quality to the film. Hollywood is where dreams come true, but in Mulholland Drive is it really just a dream?

On the outside, Hollywood is a place where up-and-coming actresses like Betty come and give auditions and sing doo-wop songs, but what lies beneath is much more darker than it seems. As Rita and Betty venture deeper into the mystery that encompasses their lives, more layers are peeled back, revealing things like terrifying dumpster monsters, secretive and controlling organizations, contract killers, dead women, deception, betrayal, heartbreak, and suicide. None of this is ever outright explained, and what becomes most mystifying is the unknown.

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Because Lynch ventures so deep into the unknown, the audience doesn’t really ever understand what the “known” is. Our guides through the film’s world are blank slates, and experiencing everything they do is perplexing for even the most prepared viewer. We’re even faced with what Rita and Betty encounter on a literal level, through Lynch’s liberal use of hand-held and P.O.V. camera work. The audience is put in the place of the film’s characters constantly, and we can make as much sense of their incomprehensible world as they can.

Through Lynch’s experiential filmmaking, we become Rita and Betty. And just like Rita and Betty, we are so often confronted with the unknown, and it becomes the most terrifying thing you can think of. What’s scarier than not knowing your name, your world, and yourself?

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But as the unknown becomes known for Rita, but mainly Betty, it still remains unclear for the audience. Was Rita and Betty’s time together (spoiler alert for a 13 year old movie) really a dream? What does Diane’s transformation into Betty say about herself? What does it say about good and evil? What about truth and deception? What really is reality, and what are dreams?

Because this film leaves the audience with so much to think about, there’s no other way to describe Mulholland Drive than as an experience. But, being an experience, was the entirety of Mulholland Drive the audience’s own escape from reality?

Just listen to what the band leader of club Silencio says in the film’s most pivotal scene:

No hay banda. There is no band. Il n’est pas de orchestra. No hay banda. And yet we hear a band. It is an illusion.

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Mulholland Drive is as much as an escape for Diane to become Betty as it is for the audience to become an active participant in the experience. Through David Lynch’s experiential filmmaking, Mulholland Drive is the most fully formed escape cinema has to offer.

No hay película. There is no film. Il n’est pas de film. No hay película. And yet we see a film. Mulholland Drive is an illusion.

Excess Makes The Wolf of Wall Street One of the Best Films in Years

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My name is Jordan Belfort. The year I turned 26, I made 49 million dollars as the head of my own brokerage firm, which really pissed me off because it was three shy of a million a week.

If I had to describe The Wolf of Wall Street in one word, it would be excessive. Everything about the film embodies the term; Jordan Belfort and almost every other character’s behavior is consistently reprehensible, and the running time clocks in at nearly 3 hours long. These things, along with pretty much every other aspect of the film, make The Wolf of Wall Street a very hard sell, which has been reflected in the film’s C grade from Cinemascore, and the long drawn out firestorm of think pieces. But, the excess that The Wolf of Wall Street epitomizes is excess with reason, and reason that makes the film one of the best in years.

Richard Walter, co-chairman of UCLA’s graduate program in screenwriting and author of The Essentials of Screenwriting, coined the term “integration” and has cited it as one of the most important things in a successful screenplay. Walter’s definition of integration is when every part of a script has a purpose and meaning to the film’s core, and thus is “integrated.” Integration can apply to entire scenes, small bits of dialogue, or a character’s name, as Walter cites everything having importance in a film’s script. Utilize integration to its fullest, and according to Walter, you have a successful screenplay. Now, this idea of an integrated script is one that I haven’t intently payed attention to when analyzing any film’s success, but The Wolf of Wall Street is one of the most clear examples of integration lending to a film’s sheer success.

You wanna know what money sounds like? Go to a trading floor on Wall street. Fuck this, shit that, cunt, cock, asshole. I couldn’t believe how these guys talk to each other. I was hooked in seconds. It was like mainlining adrenaline.

The Wolf of Wall Street is one of the most successful movies I have seen in establishing the type of universe it’s set in. The film does this through the language that its characters use. Yes, you’ve probably heard a bit about the number of “F-Bombs” that are uttered throughout the film’s 3 hour runtime. Initially it was 414 utterances of the F-word. Then it was 506 F-Bombs, at 2.8 a minute. Next it was 544! Finally it was settled at 569. (For those of you who would prefer to count yourselves, there’s a handy video that allegedly includes them all.) The bottom line is that fuck is said a lot in this movie (the most ever in a wide-released mainstream studio picture) and it’s for a reason: integration. All of those fucks, motherfuckers, fuckfaces, and fuckheads are included to establish the nature of not only this world, but of the characters themselves. Excess isn’t just shown in behavior, but also through dialogue.

Good luck on that subway ride home to your miserable ugly fuckin’ wives. I’m gonna have Heidi lick some caviar off my balls in the meantime.

But this isn’t to say that integration isn’t utilized brilliantly in the behavior featured in The Wolf of Wall Street. Next to the film’s use of language, the film’s questionable use of nudity has been the second most publicized aspect of The Wolf Wall Street. In seemingly every other scene of the film, there is either a fully nude prostitute, a fully nude secretary, a fully nude spouse, or a full on orgy. The overflowing amount of nudity in the film is much more than your standard R-rated sex romp, as full-frontal nudity is a penchant of the film (which was originally rated NC-17, but has ben cut down to a barely passable R rating). The nudity could easily be deemed unnecessary or superfluous, but that’s exactly the point. Our characters are sex-crazed lunatics who are used to paying excessive amounts of money for excessive amounts of sex, because it’s their lifestyle, and the film helps us understand that through integration.

On a daily basis I consume enough drugs to sedate Manhattan, Long Island, and Queens for a month. I take Quaaludes 10-15 times a day for my “back pain,” Adderall to stay focused, Xanax to take the edge off, Pot to mellow me out, Cocaine to wake me back up again, and Morphine… well, because it’s awesome.

And what would these characters’ lifestyles be without drugs? The use of various narcotics at various times throughout the film crystallizes the utilization of integration through bad behavior in The Wolf of Wall Street. The film itself feels like a thoroughly coked-up version of your standard Wall Street movie, a quality that makes it much more than a film. The Wolf of Wall Street is an outright experience. Integration brings us deep into these characters’ lives, be it by language, visuals, or behavior, and we experience the exact same excessive type of lifestyle they do. The highs that the characters experience help us, the audience, experience everything they do, and their drugged-up nature only helps accomplish this better.

Integration that helps make The Wolf of Wall Street more of an experience isn’t just present in the film’s script. Perhaps the clearest example of this is the film’s editing. You might think that I’m referencing the film’s obscene 3 hour runtime, or how almost every scene in the film overstays its welcome, but I’m not (though these aspects do contribute greatly). Rather, I’m speaking to the direct continuity of the film. If you pay close enough attention, you might find that there’s very little continuity between shots. Director Martin Scorsese and Editor Thelma Schoonmaker have said that theses errors are intentional, as they help create a certain kind of atmosphere for the film. It’s an incredibly jarring effect that helps the atmosphere emulate Scorsese’s coke addict days, and help cement these characters’ lifestyle. When you’re only concerned with excess, nothing else really matters in life.

(Warning: Some vague plot specifics about the end of the film, which is based on a true story, follow from here on out.)

Was all this legal? Absolutely fuckin’ not!

In order to achieve a true sense of Jordan Belfort’s excessive lifestyle, it’s necessary to experience what “real” life is like outside of being the wolf of Wall Street. And boy, does Scorsese let us know what it’s like. After around 2 and a half hours of pure excess, there is a very, very hard pull back down to reality. There isn’t a single scene of “entertainment,” as Scorsese quite literally forces the audience to see the gravely serious moral complications of this lifestyle in gut-wrenching scenes. But for some reason, Belfort himself doesn’t recognize the complications as we do. He adapts to his circumstances, but still manages to live on excessively (see: the country club style prison he is placed in, or how after prison he makes a living by conning people). In a normal film, this type of character stasis would be out of the ordinary and outrageous, but because we’ve lived through this life filled with uncontrolled excess we get why Belfort is able to continue being such an asshole, because for a while we were Belfort.

This (and many more reasons including a bravura performance from Leonardo DiCapprio, who I somehow haven’t mentioned until now) is why The Wolf of Wall Street is one of the best films in years. The film transcends the normal and expected type of biopic and becomes something incredibly different: an experience. The obligations that might restrict a normal film akin to this one, such as the need to recognize real-life victims, don’t apply here because The Wolf of Wall Street is so much more than a “normal film.” The Wolf of Wall Street is immersive filmmaking at its best. The Wolf of Wall Street is excess at its finest.

The Wolf of Wall Street is out on DVD and Blu-ray March 25th, 2014.

Cousins, Critically: 2013 In Film and Music

Cousins, Critically: The Best of Series was explained in part 1 of the series. J.T. Moore would like to thank all those involved in the cumulative effort of Cousins, Critically, and all those who have taken time to read the exhaustive posts. It’s been a great year for television, film, music, and groundbreaking familial blogging, and Cousins, Critically proves it.

J.T. and M. Liam Moore Discuss The Year in Film and Music

J.T. Moore: This might sound weird coming from someone who runs an amateur blog about television, but movies are probably my favorite form of storytelling. In 2013. I saw maybe 5 or 10 movies that were released this year. Does that make me qualified to talk about the year in cinema? Yes, because the majority of those 10 movies were so damn good.

Gravity swept the nation, and for good reason. The film is an astounding achievement in technical filmmaking, and is an outright experience. As long as I’m talking about experience movies, I have to mention All Is Lost. A.O. Scott equated All is Lost to “an action movie in the most profound and exalted sense of the term,” which is the best way to put it. The amazing Robert Redford maybe speaks three times throughout the film’s entire 90 minute running time, and yet it remains captivating all the way through. But in 2013, I saw 2 movies that elevated themselves above all other movies in 2013.

My second favorite movie of 2013 is Spring Breakers. I’m of the mind that Harmony Korine’s movie about four neon bikini-clad girls who let loose on Spring Break is a modern masterpiece. Or maybe a contemporary classic. Whatever you want to call it, Spring Breakers is a fantastic movie for the here and now. It might seem like Spring Breakers is some sort of perverse, morally depraved film made so creepy guys on the internet (not us) can see their favorite former Disney star in scantily clad clothing go crazy. It kind of is, but the film also functions as a brilliantly twisted social satire of our society’s obsession with things and how far we will go to get them (the film sums this up in James Franco’s glorious “Look at all my sheeyit” monologue). In twenty years, this movie will probably not be as good as I think it is now, but in the moment, Spring Breakers is smart, dark, profoundly unsettling, and will definitely make you think.

What’s that? You want a long-lasting, all-time classic that will make you think for the rest of your life? Look no further than 12 Years a Slave, my “favorite” movie of the year. I say “favorite” because it’s kind of hard to “like” this movie. 12 Years, which is the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man from the north who gets kidnaped and sold into slavery, is much easier to think about than to “like.” The film is a brutal, unflinching look into Northup’s titular 12 years, and is so utterly different from any other American telling of slavery. There is no peace, restraint, or happiness in 12 Years, just sadness, regret and thought. In my short time on this earth, I have never experienced a more thought-provoking piece of art. Why haven’t we seen anything like it before? And how is one film able to embody the terrible and dispiriting struggle of one community? I will probably grapple with these questions for the rest of my life as a film-lover, and for good reason. 12 Years a Slave pushes the boundaries of what a film can be and can say, and is the best movie I’ve seen all year (and possibly decade).

What about you, M. Liam? Did you see any movies of note this year? If not what about music?

M. Liam Moore: I went to three movies this year, not counting holdovers from 2012 I saw at the Riverview. They are Gravity, The Hunger Bone and a horror film so nondescript I couldn’t even cull its title from a Google-provided list of the genre’s 2013 offerings. But on the basis of your description alone, J.T., I’m willing to crown Spring Breakers the Film of the Year. It’s a comfort to know I’m not the only one driven to mine the subtleties that yield a finer critical appreciation of these timeless, frolicking romps. I can’t wait to see if it stands up to my personal favorite, Bring It On, a turn-of-the-century look into the subculture of competitive cheerleading that featured pillow-fighting and, yes, a bikini car wash. There were moments I felt like I was sitting in the director’s chair.

I liked Gravity, and I’m glad I saw in the theater. Still, I’ve grown a little weary of watching George Clooney play the most interesting man on the planet 20 years before he was in Dos Equis commercials, and Sandra Bullock play the sheepish, smart, pretty-in-a-homely-sort-of-way heroine who struggles to overcome her self-doubt. It works in Gravity, of course, because the filmmaking is so innovative and breathtaking that the story is almost secondary to the experience.

I thought 2013 was a great year for pop music. Some of my favorite established artists – The National, Vampire Weekend, Arcade Fire – released new material, none of which disappointed. The Twin Cities hosted a slew of concerts I was excited to see, and I discovered all sorts of new sounds. Or sounds new to me, anyway; I’m always a little late to the party when it comes to music. What got your feet tapping in 2013, J.T.?

JTM: My favorite album of the year was Kanye West’s Yeezus. In my mind, the album has to be one of the most audacious popular rap albums ever produced. Of course, I am biased since I worship the altar of Ye, and think that Yeezus is his fourth perfect album. Even if he deemed us a flyover state on the Yeezus tour, I keep coming back to the album and every time I am completely taken aback. The beats and sounds on the album blare abrasively, and the lyrics are nasty and often times downright sickening, so Yeezus just shouldn’t work, but it ultimately takes control of you and doesn’t let go.

Admittedly, Yeezus most likely isn’t the foot-tapping type music you were looking for, because it’s its own type of thing. “Black Skinhead” might come closest to a radio hit, as it is the most rousing and energetic song on an album devoid of positive feeling or pleasant sounds. But it’s those unpleasant sounds that I find the most interesting. “Blood On The Leaves” is a very, very dark journey into Yeezus‘s nadir of dark descent, and “I Hold My Liquor” is a depressing, churning and almost profound experience, even if it finds the album’s truly awful explicitness at its peak.

I know I’m doing a terrible job pitching this album, and probably no one else besides myself enjoys listening to Kanye West writhe in his own musical nausea. This is because I’m interested in what Yeezus actually means to Ye himself. Is it performance art? Was he purging himself of all negative feeling before his impending fatherhood (maybe a technique you should try)? Or is the man at a point in his life where he actually thinks he is a god? All of this introspection, speculation, and stimulation comes from listening to a short 40 some minute trip called Yeezus, and that’s why it’s my favorite album of 2013.

M. Liam, I’ve noticed that one of your favorite albums of the year, Reflektor, has seemed to have been lost in the conversation in 2013. As we wrap things up, do you care to put up a defense for it?

MLM: The best defense is a good offense, J.T. The question, for me, isn’t whether Reflektor is a worthy album, but whether Reflektor is Arcade Fire’s best album yet. I think it might be. More than any of the band’s previous offerings, Reflektor distances Arcade Fire – in a sonic way, for sure – from its previous work. (Do you like rock ‘n’ roll music? Does James Murphy? Does it matter?) Reflektor also makes clear this isn’t a band that finds inspiration in success or comfort. The songwriting maintains an edgy sense of urgency, gnawing away at the album’s playful vibe. And that’s no accident. Contrast is Arcade Fire’s calling card. Previous albums transform loss into joy, extract triumph from hopelessness, find identity in suburban sprawl. Reflektor looks back – on colonization, on globalization, on the Greeks! – and celebrates the life, spirit and identity that survive in an increasingly sterile global cutlure. And best of all, it’s got a great beat that you can dance to.

The reviews I’ve read against Reflektor boil down to it being too long (a criticism lobbed at every double album) or too pretentious (a criticism lobbed at every Arcade Fire album). Minus the bonus track, Reflektor is shorter than The Suburbs. Sure, it’s pretentious, but do I really have to combat that charge in a series whose title includes a thoughtful pause? I don’t find it terribly overblown or preachy. Perhaps best of all, it captures some of the buoyancy Arcade Fire delivers to live audiences better than any band I’ve ever seen.

Speaking of concerts, Vampire Weekend’s brisk, jaunty show at the Orpheum this summer was the best one I saw all year, and their Modern Vampires of the City is undoubtedly their best work to date. Unlike Arcade Fire, this is a group that has taken a trademark sound – the world rhythms and neoclassical instrumentation, the hijacked hip-hop lyrics, the echoes of Buddy Holly and Paul Simon – and refined it, matured along with it. Modern Vampires is more contemplative and a little less ironic than the band’s previous albums. Bathed in a variety textures and sounds, it gets more rewarding with every listen.

I’m always late to the party when it comes to music, so my top 5 includes a lot of artists I already knew: The National’s Trouble Will Find Me is a hauntingly beautiful album that continues the band’s arty descent into Sad Dad Rock. Yeezus is egomaniacal brilliance, and for an album everyone sums up as “abrasive,” I found it surprisingly easy on the ears (albeit if you ignore some of the lyrics). Phosphorescent’s Muchacho is the kind of music I imagine Raylan Givens would play on his hi-fi.

And just for kicks, here’s in list format M. Liam Moore’s Top 5 Albums of the Year

1. ReflektorArcade Fire

2. Modern Vampires of the City, Vampire Weekend

3. Trouble Will Find Me, The National

4. Yeezus, Kanye West

5. Muchacho, Phosphorescent

And J.T. Moore’s Top 5 Songs of the Year

1. “Night Still Comes”, Neko Case

2. “I Should Live in Salt”, The National

3. “Blood on the Leaves”, Kanye West

4. “Step”, Vampire Weekend

5. “Get Lucky”, Daft Punk

Brendan Stermer Presents 2 Great Alternatives to 2013’s Musical Offerings

While far too many R&B “innovators” spent 2013 sulking in a cold soup of tired electronics and Drake-wave moodiness, Laura Mvula’s unclassifiable debut, Sing to the Moon, immediately set her aside from the crowd. The sound of the album is lush, organic, and fully-formed- but any honest description of Mvula’s unique style would contain far more hyphens than I’m willing to type. A graduate of the Birmingham Conservatoir, Mvula is a church choir director with a keen ear for jaw-dropping vocal arrangement that shines through at the most unexpected times. One moment impossibly tender, the next downright intimidating, Mvula’s mesmerizing vocal style sounds neither mainstream nor completely unfamiliar. “When the lights go out and you’re on your own/How you’re gonna make it through to the morning sun?” she questions on the album’s title track. Mvula, on the other hand, is rarely ‘on her own’ throughout the album’s 50-minute run-time, often accompanied by countless layers of “oohs” and “aahs” that weave through the spaces in sweeping orchestral arrangements. Even after months of near-weekly listening, Sing to the Moon still feels like the most captivating and imaginative record of the year.

Danny Brown is carrying around a ton of heavy mental baggage, and he does not hesitate to share even the most harrowing details. Throughout the first half of Old, the 31-year-old rapper teeters on the brink of insanity as he recollects horrors from his Detroit upbringing and confesses to deep insecurities about reckless lifestyle choices. Then, just as he vows to clean up his act, “Side B” tosses listeners head-first into a wacko, drug-infused clusterfuck of XXX-era proportions. This disorienting change of pace gives Old an element of riveting complexity, which defines the remaining tracks. What begins as an honest and thoughtful reflection transforms quickly into a whirlwind of graphic sex and drug abuse. Who is the real Danny Brown–the insightful and intelligent storyteller, or the rattlebrained drug fiend? Old is a fascinating documentation of Brown’s unfiltered, mid-life self-exploration. While Brown remains uncomfortably indecisive, the music that results is decisively unforgettable.