(2021) Avant Garde (Arrow) Noel David Taylor, Ben Babbitt, Danny Lane, James Canto, Robert Manion, Alisa Torres, Frank Perry, Sarabeth Tucek, John Edmund Parcher, Katy Fullan. Directed by Noel David Taylor
Hollywood is a place of contradictions. A place built on creativity yet creativity is actively discouraged there. A place where the more pretentious and self-promoting you are, the likely you are to make an impression that you are important (even if you’re not). A place that espouses liberal progressive values in every avenue other than how it treats the people who work there.
Noel David Taylor, a filmmaker who has to this point produced a number of peculiar but funny shorts, comes up with a peculiar but funny feature. In it he plays Guy, a screenwriter in a dystopian neo-futuristic El Lay where the pollution has become almost as toxic as the gladhanding. He is working on a screenplay, but is somewhat put out that his acquaintance Jill Custard (Fullan) has become an indie darling based on an overwritten, pretentious film – could she be related to Lars von Trier?
In any case, Guy gets sucked into assisting on a new project by Gerald (Parcher) whose scenes seem eerily familiar. In the meantime, Guy is beset by executives wondering if his new script is political. They are certain that identity politics is “in” although what that means is anybody’s guess; there is an awful lot of doublespeak in the rarefied air of the film industry. George Orwell would have had a field day there.
Guy describes his script as “not really a movie, just a bunch of scenes about some random guy.” The joke is that the character’s name is Guy. There are a lot of visual puns as well; sometimes Guy is glimpsed under pictures of tables (as well as under literal tables), giving the film its name. Taylor, who starred in, directed, wrote and produced this puppy, has definitely a sense of humor that might not appeal to everybody. The movie doesn’t move in a linear direction per se, although there is a story (of a sort) that it follows (usually but not always).
There’s no doubt that Taylor has a wicked imagination; some of the visuals are really quite wonderful, albeit made on a budget that would befit what Tom Cruise makes in about forty seconds on the average movie he stars in. And while the movie takes aim at the vapidity of the Hollywood indie scene, those who aren’t interested in such things are likely to find this a waste of their time.
This isn’t going to appeal to a large segment of the audience, nor is it meant to. Those who like their movies a bit offbeat, a little more risky than the average Hollywood production are likely to find this intriguing, or something worth obsessing over. In all honesty, that’s not me, but I can see how those who like the movies of Wes Anderson might be caught in the delights of this one.
REASONS TO SEE: There are definitely some imaginative aspects to the film. On-target with its skewering of Hollywood pretentions.
REASONS TO AVOID: Often feels like a grouping of disconnected scenes strung together. Too quirky for its own good generally.
FAMILY VALUES: Some profanity and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: This is Taylor’s first full-length feature.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Arrow
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/13/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPINGM: The Player
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: The Macaluso Sisters
(2019) Art (Tropical Grey) Carrie Getman, Tomas Spencer, Christian Serritiello, Daniel Brunet, Jade Willis, Simone Spinazze, Joulia Strauss, Arthur Patching, John Keogh, Melissa Holroyd, Julie Trappett, Myra Eetgerink, Ben Posener, Seumas F. Sargent, Laura Wilkinson, Mike Davies, Darren Smith (narrator), Wencke Synak. Directed by Arthur Patching and Christian Serritiello
Art isn’t easy. It isn’t meant to be spoon-fed to the observer; it is meant to engage them. It requires thought, emotion, whimsy – sometimes all at once. Making art requires focus and determination, a willingness to leap before you look, and a very thick skin.
There’s no plot here per se and I guess it would be fair to say there’s not really a concept either unless you choose to supply one of your own. The main “storyline” here – an artist is given a show at a gallery on a remote island and ships her art there. When she doesn’t hear anything for months, she becomes alarmed and sets out to the island to find out what happened to her artwork. There…stuff happens. Eventually, the movie ends.
The storyline I speak of doesn’t kick in until 35 minutes into the film. Before that there are a series of vignettes – a guy (Serritiello) on a train to Zurich with a girlfriend he no longer loves (and who no longer loves him) and whose face he no longer can see clearly gets off the train and finds himself in a weird, strange place. He ends up dealing with his past which isn’t all rose-colored; when in a jazz club he sees a jazz vocalist there who was once as close as a brother to him but whom he abandoned. When confronted, all the man can do is murmur “I’ve changed.”
A performance artist uses a real gun n her performance art. A party engages an Italian speaker to speak to them, even though none of them speak a word of the language. Apparently, that’s a thing there as there is a Speaker’s Agency from which you can rent foreign language speakers. People eat. People scratch. People laugh. People move about until the man’s story is left behind and we follow the artist and her journey – which starts out as an animation.
The directors are apparently fond of extreme close-ups; they are employed relentlessly throughout the film. The thing about extreme close-ups is that they tend to distort features and make even the most beautiful people look ugly. It gets to be repetitious.
But then, repetition seems to be a theme here. Lines of dialogue are repeated several times (and sometimes more than that). Lines are repeated by Greek choruses of background performers. There is something very La Dolce Vita about the whole thing. A secret, though, about repetition; sometimes it’s not creative; it’s just repetitive.
I’ll be honest with you; my taste in cinema tends to be a bit more mainstream and so it was difficult for me to sit through the film at times. I can say in defense of the filmmakers that there is a great deal of imagination shown throughout; in one scene people are caged like birds and instead of voices coming out of their mouths, chirping and birdsong comes out. I found that to be funny in a renegade kind of way.
I can’t say this is for everyone. The average viewer will find it unfathomable and difficult to watch, and they aren’t wrong. All I can say is it requires a commitment on the part of the viewer to actually use their brains and any opportunity to do that in this day and age where stupid really is as stupid really does is welcome.
Gelateria has yet to play on an American screen although there are plans to take it onto the festival circuit once theaters reopen and film festivals are up and running again, so those who are fond of the avant garde may want to keep an eye out for it. While the filmmakers are concentrating on Europe, there are plans to have it in North American festivals and eventually, on a streaming service of some sort.
REASONS TO SEE: At times, very imaginative with a subversive sense of humor.
REASONS TO AVOID: Falls prey to needless repetition.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, violence and disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: According to their iMDB entry, the movie has played exclusively at European film festivals to date.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/120/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Un Chien Andalou
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
(2012) Romance (Self-Released) David Arquette, Bai Ling, Nathan Keyes, Nathalie Love, Brian Wasiak. Directed by Jefery Levy
What happens within a marriage can be a delicate thing. We assume that the private life is a mirror of the lives they project to the public, but behind the bedroom doors of any couple can be any one of a million things – joy, kinkiness, exquisite sorrow, tragedy and yes, even love but love expressed in ways that you and I can’t even begin to fathom.
The Nobel laureate Japanese author Junichiro Tanizaki brought that onto the printed page with his 1955 novel The Key in which the husband deliberately leaves the key to the desk drawer where he keeps his diary within sight, almost daring his wife to turn the key and read the contents of his diary, which he has decided to make all about the sex life of the couple which has become rote and to him, insufferable. The couple has essentially ceased communicating with each other and this is the only way the husband knows to get his wife’s attention.
The husband, Jack, here is played by David Arquette, the wife Ida by Bai Ling and their home transplanted from Japan to Southern California. The structure of the film is that the two main characters read the contents of their journals while onscreen a series of images – some germane to the dialogue, some not – flash on the screen, generally oversaturated and scratched in order to approximate old movies which as it eventually turns out, they are somewhat like. One of the things I like about the movie is upon retrospect you realize that you are unstuck in time as you’re watching this; all of the events have already happened and you’re merely watching them unfold as in an old movie. I could be overthinking this, of course.
This is not a movie that is safe viewing. For one thing, sex is really a major part of the movie, or rather the obsession of sex. Ida is naked a lot of the time and she and Jack are often engaged in sex, not all of it consensual strictly speaking. Also in the cast is Kim (Keyes) whom Jack is trying to push into an affair with his wife, and Mia (Love), the couple’s adult daughter.
I’m all for movies that push the edge, but this one does so in a way that seems almost juvenile to my sensibilities. The readings of the journals is done in the breathless manner of 13-year-olds reading their father’s Letters to Penthouse out loud. In that sense, I suppose Levy might be doing that deliberately to give us a sense that the marriage between Jack and Ida has lost all its passion, but it goes on and on. The. Whole. Freaking. Movie.
A note about Bai Ling. She’s an actress who has always shown flashes of amazing potential but has never gotten a role that really allows her to achieve it. I keep hoping that each movie she’s in will be the one that really showcases her talents but she always seems destined to get roles that allow her to show that genius but never let it fly free. Here she is quite often touching in her various facets – Ida’s venality, her repressed sexuality, her regret – but the moments of genuine connection are abruptly severed by some absurd business that turns the movie into an hour and nineteen minutes of non-stop non-sequiturs.
Arquette is operating way outside the usual parameters that he is cast in and for that I tip my hat. He’s come a long way since the Scream franchise. This is definitely a more mature work for him, although again there’s that feeling that we should be titillated but instead we are tittering.
I haven’t read the book in 30 years so I’m a little bit rusty on the prose but to my ears it sounds like very little of it is Tanizaki. Perhaps the filmmakers are working off a different translation than the one I read, but this doesn’t sound like the way human beings write in their diaries about their sex lives. Perhaps I need to be reading more private journals but the prose is flowery here, and sometimes seems to use words for their own sake rather than to contribute to the viewers understanding of the story. There are some passages though that are dazzling, which is what I remember the book’s language to be, more simple but elegant.
The images are almost headache inducing, not unlike what you’d see projected on the walls of a nightclub circa 1995 and no, that’s not a good thing. After a short time it becomes almost annoying and I found myself looking down at my phone and reading e-mail while listening to the narration. That was something of a defense mechanism because my head was beginning to pound. Yes, some of the images here are beautiful and some out there but most of it is the visual equivalent of white noise, to be filtered out and ignored and is that really what you want in a visual medium?
Experimental cinema can be exhilarating, provocative or both. It can also be frustrating, pretentious or both. This is I suppose what passes for avant garde but either this is not the effect the filmmakers are going for or it’s way too avant for my garde.
Incidentally, the movie is on the festival circuit currently. If you’re interested, keep an eye out for it there. No word on a streaming release just yet but it’s likely to turn up in that format as well.
REASONS TO GO: Mind-blowing ending. Some fascinating images.
REASONS TO STAY: Holy pretentiousness Batman! Intrusive score. Takes too long to get going.
FAMILY VALUES: A ton of nudity and sex. Adult themes as well as some smoking and a fair amount of expletives.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Levy received a law degree from Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/1/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Eyes Wide Shut
FINAL RATING: 4.5/10
(2011) Documentary (Kino Lorber) Ferran Adria, Oriol Castro, Eduard Xatruch, Eugeni de Diego, Aitor Lozano, Katie Button. Directed by Gereon Wetzel
About a two hour drive outside of Barcelona on a picturesque cove called the Cala Montjoi sits the best restaurant on the planet. It is small and unassuming, seating only fifty at a time. You do not order off a menu; meals last approximately 4 hours and are taken up by 35-40 courses. No, not full plates – more like a lot of little tasting plates, some no more than two or three bites.
The food that was served there was magic, a symphony of texture, taste, form, and appealed to all of the senses, not just taste. Flavors that shouldn’t have gone together blended like they belonged that way all along. Unexpected surprises would dot the meal like little bombs going off.
With only 50 seats, the demand to get into the restaurant was intense. Two million reservations were received annually for the season – yes, the restaurant was open only six months out of the year. The other six months, Executive Chef Ferran Adria and his team would repair back to Barcelona in their lab where the team would come up with new ideas, new creations for the coming year.
Every facet of the meal is examined, from the cocktails to the pastries and nothing that is normal or usual is considered. In fact, Adria snaps at his right hand head chef Oriol Castro “Don’t bring me anything that doesn’t taste great.” Adria is not generally the one executing the creations; he is more of a creative overseer and it is his vision that guides everything.
He is constantly on the phone, being summoned by one chef or another to sample the creations and he gives his feedback. He argues with Oriol who is as passionate as Adria is in his own way. The two go back and forth but at the end of the day, what they come up with is amazing.
When it comes time to re-open the restaurant, there is a small army of chefs and servers (nearly one chef per diner, one of the reasons the restaurant eventually closed its doors in July of last year, apparently for good). Watching Adria orchestrate all of this is like watching a general execute a battle plan. The complexity is amazing but when it works in harmony, is something beautiful.
This German documentary was recorded in the 2008 and 2009 seasons, including the off-season while the restaurant was closed. It’s a good looking documentary, what Anthony Bourdain sometimes calls “food porn,” as the filmmakers lovingly dwell on images of food being prepared and served.
However, there are almost no interview segments here; we are strictly flies on the wall, watching the process without getting any insight from those in the process. Who decides to make a cocktail with hazelnut oil? How many times is a dish prepared before it’s presented to Chef Adria?
We hear none of that. We simply observe so in many ways the documentary violates the spirit of El Bulli; it appeals to a single sense, that of the observer, the voyeur. It is watching without understanding and that is much like eating without tasting.
REASONS TO GO: An interesting look at the creative process. Adria and Castro have an interesting dynamic.
REASONS TO STAY: Somewhat dry and doesn’t give you much more than an idea how the process works; you never really get into the minds of those doing the creating.
FAMILY VALUES: Nothing here that you couldn’t share with the entire family.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: El Bulli operated at a loss from 2000 onward. During that time Restaurant Magazine named it the #1 restaurant in the world an unprecedented five times.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/30/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 58% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100. The reviews are decent.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Food Fight
FOOD LOVERS: The dishes here look incredibly strange – and incredibly delicious.
FINAL RATING: 6/10
TOMORROW: The Grey