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Can't Stop the Movies

Wish I Was Here (2014)

The real brat pack

Aidan can't get any work as an actor, his father is dying of cancer, and no longer has the funds to send his kids to private school.  These events trigger his need to rediscover what he has to share with the world.  Zach Braff directed and co-wrote the screenplay for Wish I Was Here, his directorial follow-up to 2004's Garden State.

The real brat packWish I Was Here is terrible.  There's no need to belabor the point for a film that's already as tedious and cloying as Zach Braff's latest indie rock party for one.  Braff's fictional creations tend to place themselves at the center of the universe and expect, in some way, for all existence to pivot around their actions.  Now he just proclaims a sort of guru of desert epiphanies and hopes that he and his fictional families antics throw the cosmic scales of comedy and drama into storytelling harmony.

What makes Wish I Was Here so frustrating is that Braff is a good director.  He's worked with some of the great minds of television comedies and tremendous cinematic talent and it's worth remembering that he started his film career in Woody Allen's Manhattan Murder Mystery.   So I'm not surprised that Braff's films have, so far, been an open question about why an upper-middle class man can be so sad.  What I'm surprised at is none of Allen's self-depreciation rubbed off on Braff and this is what gives Wish I Was Here such a nauseating taste.

The failure of Wish I Was Here is in Braff's screenplay which he co-wrote with his brother Adam Braff.  Allen's comedy, and really almost all comedy, works because it does not assume a position of superiority over the people that are being made fun of.  Braff's film comes from a position that if you are born an upper-middle class man and give the most cliched advice possible that everything will work out ok in the end.  That's barely a starting point for basic character growth, let alone a feature-length comedy, and as a result Wish I Was Here carries this undeniably smug sense of self-satisfaction as Braff brings the camera close for each revelation with the growing expectation of "Isn't this deep?" to appear on the bottom of the screen.


Stan Brakhage: Study in Color and Black and White (1993)

Study in Color and Black and White - 1993

Unlike previous entries, today's Stan Brakhage film is not readily available online but can be watched as part of The Criterion Collection's first "by Brakhage" volume.

Study in Color and Black and White - 1993Before I sit down to write these pieces I always try to find a video of whatever Stan Brakhage film is on the docket for the day and post it online in advance of my thoughts.  Brakhage was open and generous with his art and made it as widely available as he possible.  Had I not already watched Study in Color and Black and White this would have surprised me.  But I did indeed watch Study in Color and Black and White before I searched for the video and its exclusion from the internet comes as no surprise.

Study in Color and Black and White (SiCaBaW from this point on) is not a stinker, like Brakhage's terribly overwrought The Stars Are Beautiful.  But SiCaBaW is so slight that if this serves as someone's introduction to experimental film and comes away with no impression then I could not blame them because there's little case to be made for the quality of SiCaBaW.  It's composed primarily of darkness with the sparest amount of color, or black and white, rarely scattering in on the frame.


Begin Again (2014)

Typical moonlight conversations

Dan lost his job at the record label he started after an ill-advised tirade.  Gretta still hurts over her ex-boyfriend, who attained rock stardom on the wave of a song she helped write.  Are the two a perfect match, or a dreamy failure waiting to happen?  Begin Again is the spiritual follow-up to John Carney's hit 2007 film Once.

Typical moonlight conversationsJohn Carney's 2007 film Once was a blend of superb songwriting from stars Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova and an intimate camera that rarely moved away from the two young artists as they flirted with one another.  It was the best kind of chemistry made from a tiny budget and marred only with some of the most nauseous cinematography that made the intimate camera wobble throughout the picture.  Hansard and Irglova were not actors, but superb performers who had great chemistry together, and Carney captured their awkward flirtation so exquisitely that he ended up with a surprisingly robust hit.

Begin Again finds Carney returning to the role of screenwriter and director in what is a spiritual follow-up to Once.  Carney helped write and direct one other feature-film - 2009's Zonad with his brother - but for all intents and purposes Begin Again is the proper follow-up to Once.  One look at the poster makes this clear, with stars Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley both shooting bright smiles at one another while a guitar nestles between the two.  As charming as the image is, it bears the uncomfortable subtext that this film is going to be more of the same, and Begin Again spends the next ninety-five minutes proving my hunch correct.

Carney's Begin Again is not a failure, just underwhelming.  After the carefree Once it's unfair to expect that he would be able to replicate the alchemy that made his earlier success so refreshing.  But what I did not expect him to do is take the basic plot of Once, remove almost everything that made it unique,  and place stock ingredients that have been around almost as long as storytelling.


Stan Brakhage: Black Ice (1994)

Black Ice - 1994

Many of Stan Brakhage's films are available for viewing in multiple venues.  You can watch Black Ice here.

Black Ice - 1994While going through Stan Brakhage's films I've felt surprise, delight, boredom, disgust, anxiety, and many other active emotions - but rarely the simple sensation of letting the film wash over me.  It's partly because his films don't exactly need a close reading but can't be watched passively.  No matter what I'm on edge, but not enough to completely disrupt my emotional bead of the film.  Now that I've seen Black Ice I know what comfort feels like in a Brakhage film, and it's a reassuring sensation.

Brakhage, at the end of  Black Ice, says that the film is a collaboration with Sam Bush, an optical printer.  In Brakhage's many films he has not openly acknowledged an influence or partnership like this.  Even in Window Water Baby Moving, where Brakhage quite clearly could not have made Window without the help of his then-wife Jane.  But even in the case of Window Brakhage's style is obvious.  Many of his films that rely on human figures don't layer the action, are filmed as though taking place on a limited plane, and split shots between intimate close-ups and from a long distance.


Big Bad Wolves (2014)

Tzahi Grad in Big Bad Wolves

In Big Bad Wolves, a bleak black comedy/thriller from Israel, the suspect in a series of child murders is kidnapped and tortured by a disgraced detective and the father of one of the victims. As the interrogation progresses each man's true character begins to show, in what is alternately a sleek critique of revenge genre tropes and a disappointing exercise that lacks the courage of its convictions.

Big Bad Wolves - Aharon Keshales and Navot PapushadoKyleDislikeNew

The opening sequence of Big Bad Wolves sets the tone for the movie as one of impending but distanced violence. Three children play hide and seek in the woods, running through the trees, old playground equipment, an abandoned house—all of which unfolds in slow motion under dramatic music building in volume and generic-thriller dread. As the seeker begins to find the other kids, it's revealed that one, a young girl, is missing from her hiding place, and the music hits a brass-filled climax as the camera pans up and out to reveal the film's title spelled in shingles atop the house the girl has disappeared from.

There are echoes of last year's Prisoners throughout this segment—the disappearance of a young child while playing, the setting of an abandoned and mostly torn apart house—but the scenario is rendered in such an overly stylized and familiar way that we're never sure how seriously to take it. In line with the film's title, this all seems like something out of a cautionary fairy tale, the details and presentation exaggerated to a precise, conscious extreme.