Thursday, May 28, 2015

Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy Talks AMERICAN MOVIE For Film Acoustic

Last weekend, possibly my favorite installment so far of The Modern School of Film's series, Film Acoustic, went down in Durham: Jeff Tweedy of Wilco screened and discussed Chris Smith's 1999 cult favorite documentary AMERICAN MOVIE.

The film was well received by the audience at Fletcher Hall at the Carolina Theatre - many of whom had raised their hands when MSOF founder and moderator Robery Milazzo asked afterwards how many had never seen it before - and I enjoyed seeing it on the big screen for the first time, especially considering it was an original 35 mm print.

AMERICAN MOVIE focuses on aspiring Milwaukee filmmaker Mark Borchardt's attempts to complete his short horror film COVEN, so that he can finance his dream project, an epic full-length feature named NORTHWESTERN.

Borchardt's sidekick, the lovably sclubby Mike Schank, who composed the music for movie, got a lot of laughs, but it was the director's Uncle Bill, who skeptically financed the project and is recruited to act, that most got the crowd rolling. 

After the screening ended, Milazzo relayed a message from Schank: “Happy Memorial Day. Thank for showing the film and thank you, Jeff Tweedy.” Milliazzo then added, “An hour later he texted me back and said ‘Oh, if there are any hot girls in the audience that would like to call me, you c an give them my number.’ And then he texted me a half an hour later – ‘Girls only though.’

Millazzo introduced Tweedy as “former lead singer of Land Ho! And Black Shampoo,” and the Wilco singer came out to rousing applause. 

Tweedy discussed the film and several other subjects with Milazzo, including the Wilco rock doc I AM TRYING TO BREAK YOUR HEART, his contribution to the BOYHOOD soundtrack, and his mother's love of movies. Tweedy's 15-year old son Sam also came on stage for a brief bit and answered some questions.

But the best news for fans was that Tweedy had brought his guitar and performed solo acoustic versions of “Less Than You Think,” “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” (see video below), “The Losing End (When You’re On)” (Neil Young cover), “One By One,” and “You Are Not Alone.”

Here are some other highlights from the excellent evening:

On why he choose AMERICAN MOVIE:

Tweedy: “One of the reasons that we wanted to watch this movie together is the idea that making things and immersing yourself in making things is an incredibly healthy and sustaining thing to do. I really have this fantasy that if everybody in the world were given the opportunity to make things, uh, it sounds pretty naïve and simple saying it out loud, but I think the world would be a much better place. Everybody would be on the side of existence as opposed to destruction. Creation as opposed to destruction.

That’s the main focus in our house that it’s ‘study hard, do good, try to be kind to people, and try to make stuff – it makes you happy.’”

“I see him (Borchardt) as a very optimistic and vocal person. He preaches it to everybody around him. To Bill, to everybody in the community, you know ‘Do something! You gonna die and not do something? Do something!’ 

I think people might, on one hand might be sort of cynical in indulging him, On the other hand I think that there’s a deep sense that they have to honor that. They have to honor that least there’s somebody in their midst that doesn’t feel like giving up.

Milazzo: “You guys are roughly the same age, you and Mark, I think there’s a year apart – what separates you from Mark?”

Tweedy: “I ask myself that question all of the time. I think that anybody that has had any modicum of success whatsoever asks themselves that question periodically. ‘Why me? Why not a lot of other people that have worked very very hard or our very talented people.”

On Sam Jones' 2002 documentary I AM TRYING TO BREAK YOUR HEART:

Was it a big decision to kind of open yourself up that way?

Tweedy: “No, I can honestly say it was a naïve decision. I didn’t feel like Wilco had a persona worth any spending any amount of effort to prune or shape, I just didn’t think there was anything that could come from it that would be that, I don’t know. I felt that a lot of people who spend time on their personas, and their image, were people like Madonna, and I don’t know, maybe Bob Dylan, somebody like that, but it has never been a part of how I view what it is that I’m doing.

But I learned a lot - after the fact I realized that I would’ve never done that again. We basically just let him make the movie, and we didn’t have any say. Well, I mean, we probably could’ve pulled our songs from the movie, you know, so we could have some control if it was really really terrible, but we didn’t. We didn’t do anything. We just saw it when it was done, and said ‘oh, that’s uncomfortable.’ Imagine how very similar Mike and Mark might’ve felt if they went to a screening of this when it first came out.”

Milazzo: “What did you learn about yourself though? You know, in the sense of watching the documentary of Wilco, did you ever have a moment ‘oh, that’s my response’ or ‘that’s my process’? In a sense worrying that you don’t want to put yourself in that again, did you see yourself differently?”

Tweedy: “Yeah, there are…I haven’t seen it in a long time, but there were a lot of moments watching that movie, well, there were a lot of moments during the filming of that movie where, uh, the first time there was an observing ego in the room – the camera…”

Milazzo: “Camera – you do such a beautiful song called ‘Kamera,’ which speaks to that…

Tweedy: “It just felt like, I don’t know if I’ve ever been able to put myself outside of myself enough to see what a camera might be seeing. And so there were a lot of moments during the process of making that record where I was like ‘oh, no – oh, no, that’s what the camera is seeing.’ Obviously, this is not – our relationship with Jay (Bennett) for example was made painfully obvious that there was a big problem in the way we were interacting, the way he was interacting with the band. And it’s really sad that it took a camera to do that or that we weren’t together enough, or grown up enough as people to see that without a camera.”

On Tweedy's mother, Jo Ann Tweedy, who passed in 2006:

Milazzo: “One thing I thought was interesting about your cinema DNA is how it connects for your Mom, and Judy Garland of all people. Because when we asked about a movie I thought we’d be getting a Judy Garland film, not that that would’ve been wrong at the time. But what about when you were young and your Mom watching films with you or around you…”

Tweedy: “My mother was a night owl. She was a high school drop-out who had my sister when she was 16 years old, and I was born much much later than everyone else in my family. I’m 10 years younger than my youngest brother. And so by the time I came around, she had really given up on parenting. You know, there weren’t a lot of boundaries so I was up all night watching movies while my Mom fell asleep with cigarettes in her mouth. 

Yeah, right, it sounds like a terrible parenting thing – it is. But my memory of it looking back is actually really warm. It’s a warm feeling. It’s actually one of the images that comes to mind when I miss my mother. But in St. Louis, the St. Louis TV stations had a movie program, or a late night movie called the “Bijou Picture Show.” I think that’s kind of a Midwestern thing. There were a lot of Judy Garland movies that they would show, a lot of black and white, now it’s Turner Classic Movies – it’s the same thing.”

Milazzo: “If performance cures a sort of anxiety, what does writing cure for you?”

Tweedy: “Well, I think that, I have a lot of thoughts about this. Because I can’t help myself, we’re pretty philosophical in our house and we end up talking about a lot of things like this. I think the best that I can come up with, is that it’s like a really really healthy way of killing time for me. It’s actually, uh, I don’t know, I like not being there. I like to be gone, unburdened enough of having an ego. Which is like what happens when I get completely immersed in the process of making a song. Or making something – it becomes, you become this thing – it’s a maker.

But it’s not necessarily…in fact the more the ego gets involved, the more it suffers. It really suffers when you start to think ‘well, are people gonna think I’m cool because this is so great?’ Then you’re done. The song is done and you can’t return from that. You should put it away until some other time when you can get lost in it again. 

That’s why I said ‘once a song is done, it’s on a record, or finished recording it, or finish writing it even, it’s already done all the good stuff that it was going to do for me. After that it’s all pain and suffering. Because even if people like it, it’s never enough. Or they see it somehow different, or they’re indifferent – that’s the worst of all. ”

On his songs in BOOYHOOD:

Milazzo: “BOYHOOD, the great Richard Linklater film, which to me was the best film of last year…”

Tweedy: “I think it should’ve been called ‘Motherhood.’ (Audience applauds) I think the most compelling character in the whole movie was Patricia Arquette. Beautiful.”

Milazzo: “Speaking of beauty, one of your songs is in it. How did that come about? Could you demystify that process? What’s it like to hear your song in a really killer movie in a really killer moment?”

Tweedy: “Well, in that movie there’s a Wilco song “Hate it Here” is in a scene, an actual scene where they’re talking about the song. And I didn’t know it was in there, so it was a little, it actually took me out of the movie a little bit which is kind of a drag. I was like ‘Abbey Road’?”

But anyway, and then the song ‘Summer Noon’ is in the movie also, but it’s kind of on the radio in the background, and I think they wanted something that would be really contemporary when the movie came out. And so they asked me to write a song for the movie and I was working on ‘Suikerae’ so we sent them that. ‘How about something like this?’ Then they said ‘great,’ and they put it in the movie. And then for some reason it was disqualified for an Oscar though. So Maybe you could talk to somebody about that.

“Summer Noon” is basically cut and pasted like a Warhol, like Zerox. I thought, people do that with art, why don’t they do that with songs? I had a minute and a half long song, and I thought, why don’t I just put it on the record twice? Back to back.”

On Wilco’s breakthrough album “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot”:

“The first attempt at a release was at an interesting moment in history, because the first attempt at release was…”

Tweedy: “‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,’ the original release date was September 11th, 2001. The artwork, the entire package, everything was done. And we were dropped so we lost that release date. Obviously, over time it’s weird that it’s become associated with that.

“The lyrics on the whole record were really meant to be…I was thinking a lot about America, and I really wanted to know what I thought of America. Having grown up being somewhat skeptical of America, growing up in a time where I was heavily influenced by punk rock as a young teenager. Very, I don’t know, not willing to submit to the party line of America. I don’t know, I just really, I think a lot of things, ‘oh, there’s a cash machine, is that evil? Is a cash machine evil, or is it just blue and green. You know, what actually is the evil part of America? Because I really don’t think like anything I grew up seeing was particularly evil, but I also knew a lot of things weren’t right.

Anyway, lyrics aside, I don’t know how cinematic they might be, but the actual construction of that record, very very consciously constructed with the idea of cinematic pacing.

Milazzo: “And the transitions, the lack of thereof…”

Tweedy: “Everything was recorded in a lot of different formats, and what we would end up doing is we would mix the first verse of a song and then completely wipe the board and everything completely clean, and start all over for the second verse. And then splice those two together. So we could never remix that record if we wanted to – it doesn’t exist.

And one final thought from the evening:

Tweedy: “It’s one of the weird things about rock music – it’s a youth obsessed culture within a youth obsessed culture, and it’s disheartening sometimes when you start to become known as ‘Dad Rock.’ That doesn’t help.”

The next installment of Film Acoustic, on Monday, June 22nd, looks like another winner: Will Butler of Arcade Fire screens and discusses Terry Gilliam's 1996 sci-fi thriller TWELVE MONKEYS. Tickets are on sale now.

More later...

Saturday, May 23, 2015

TOMORROWLAND: The Summer's First Big Spectacular Dud

Now playing at a multiplex near you:

TOMORROWLAND (Dir. Brad Bird, 2015)

After his phenomenal winning streak consisting of THE IRON GIANT, THE INCREDIBLES, RATATOUILLE, and MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: GHOST PROTOCOL, Brad Bird gives us his most ambitious, and most personal feature yet: an epic adventure that shares its name, vision, and production company with one of Disney’s most popular amusement park rides.

Sadly, it’s also Bird’s most disappointing, and most thematically messy film. One which shares a lot in common with last year’s INTERSTELLAR, Christopher Nolan’s cosmically-minded misfire, in that they both aim for futuristic inspiration with the help of an A-lister, a few cute kids, and wall-to-wall special effects, but come up incredibly short in the movie magic department.

It begins at the 1964 World's Fair in Queens, New York where we learn via an 11-year old inventor wannabe named Frank Walker (Thomas Robinson), the kid in this world who’ll grow up to be George Clooney, that there’s a portal to another dimension accessible though the “It’s A Small World” ride.

Frank was let into the alternate realm which encases an elaborate CGI-ied shiny city full of jet packs, flying cars, and gravity-defying wonders (like floating pools) of all kinds, by a young girl (Raffey Cassidy) named Athena, but he's discovered and kicked out by the Governor of Tomorrow, David Nix (Hugh Laurie).

Flashing forward to the present we meet Florida teen Casey Newton (Britt Robertson), the daughter of a NASA engineer (Tim McGraw), who finds a mysterious pin with the Tomorrowland logo. When she touches the pin it transports her to the same parallel dimension we saw previously, but, trouble is, when she moves forward she walks into the walls of the real world.

To figure out what’s going on with this alternate realm and to save both worlds from, of course, impending destruction, Casey teams up with the grown up and Frank (Clooney) and Athena. Our heroes are chased by black-clad MATRIX-style robot bad guys led by the slick Matthew MacCaull, through a few explosive set pieces that have some instances of violence that are a bit surprising for a PG-rated family film.

My friend Will Fonvielle, of the blog Filmvielle, joked that INTERSTELLAR could’ve been named EXPOSITION: THE MOVIE, but this film could easily win that title as there’s so many talky passages between the fights and the chases bogging the pace down. And that dialogue is so full of earnest yet infinitely tedious clichés, about how mankind has invented its own doom, and how if we have faith we can change things, that even Clooney’s charm can’t elevate or make gel any of this mediocre material.

Bird, who co-wrote the film with Damon Lindelof (Lost, STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS, WORLD WAR Z), cinematographer Claudio Miranda (LIFE OF PI), and scores of visual design artists craft an immaculately vivid landscape, but it’s not anything we haven’t seen before. The imagery that they keep trying to wow us with is the kind of stuff that whizzes by in the background in like say, the city in GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, but here as the main attraction it loses my interest pretty quickly.

That’s not to say there’s no fun to be had here. Several sequences have supreme watchability (I stole that from a Bud Light ad: “supreme drinkability”), like one involving a hidden rocket inside the Eiffel Tower. But the film speeds through its best ideas such as that there was a secret society founded by visionaries Gustave Eiffel, Tesla, Thomas Edison, and H.G. Welles at the 1889 World’s Fair, while it lingers on its worst ones - i.e. the inconsistencies of how this alternate retro-future dimension and our world intersect.

There’s also the factor that there folks like Keegan-Michael Key and Kathryn Hahn, as the proprietors of a sci-fi toys and comics store called “Blast from the Past,” (full of Easter Eggs like IRON GIANT memorabilia), in a big shoot-out/fight scene that doesn’t play at all to those comic actors’ strengths. Same could be said for Laurie in the extremely finale, though he at least gets the obligatory speech in before the end.

After the heights of AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON and MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, Bird has the first big spectacular dud of the summer on his hands. As much as I admire the ambition, and all the attempts at mind-bending spectacle, this film's ultimate message of hope rings hollow.

Upon seeing that it all comes down to the exclusionary notion of a select group of visionaries being chosen by the superiors from an unknown dimension to save the world, I couldn't help but wonder how all those folks popping up in the vast fields outside the art deco streamlined utopian city won't just be walking into the walls of the real world over and over.

More later...

Friday, May 15, 2015

MAD MAX: FURY ROAD: A Bruttally Brilliant Western On Wheels

Now playing at multiplexes everywhere:

(Dir. George Miller, 2015)

Believe the hype. The return of the iconic post-apocalyptic world of Mad Max to the big screen is a brutally brilliant blast - an exhilarating experience that majorly ups the action epic ante for this summer movie season.

After a 30-year absence, series creator George Miller re-ignites the franchise with this fourth entry that while connected to the original trilogy’s spirit, and over-the-top tone, it doesn’t feel like yet another re-boot, remake, or sequel. No, MAX MAX: FURY ROAD feels like a reclaiming of the genre it helped create.

Tom Hardy is a good fit in the role originally played by Mel Gibson of Australian badass Max Rockatansky, who we first meet as he is captured by the War Boys, the white-painted minions of the movie’s tyrannical villain, Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). Incidentally, Keays-Byrne is the only actor here who appeared in the original 1979 MAD MAX.

Then the movie’s real protagonist bursts on the scene: Charlie Theron with a shaved head covered in grease-smeared war paint, and a CGI-ed mechanical arm, as Imperator Furiosa, Furiosa has rescued Immortan Joe’s five wives , his young, pretty “prized breeders” (all played by supermodels), and is driving them to freedom in her big ass “War Rig,” a heavily armored tanker truck.

Immortan Joe and his War Boy army take off after them, including the sickly Nux (Nicholas Hoult of ABOUT A BOY and X-MEN fame putting in his most scarily invested acting yet) who straps Max to the front of his 5-Door Chevy Coupé outfitted as a war machine (like all the vehicles are in this savage world) so he can continue to use him as a blood bag.

A chaotically compelling chase through a massive sand storm ensues, which allows for Max to escape from Nux, and finally be able to remove the metal grill that’s been locked on his face for a third of the film. After some initial friction, Max joins Furiosa and her bevy of breeder beauties on their journey to what they refer to as “the Green Place.”

Despite some downtime in the blue darkness of nightfall, the movie is essentially an ginormously overblown chase sequence through the infinite, blindingly bright orange desert, but that so isn’t a complaint. Its pace and focus never falters, nor does the explosive impact of its violent visuals.

Wonderfully the 
“western on wheels” that Miller promised, MAD MAD: FURY ROAD is an insanely entertaining experience that tops itself over and over. It’s an orgy of fire-breathing cars, pole-swingers, chainsaws, steampunk thugs, and gas fire explosions all given a heavy metal soundtrack by a masked musician with a flame-throwing electric guitar atop a vehicle piled with amplifiers. Try finding anything like that in another summer blockbuster this year, or any other year mind you.

I haven’t seen any of the MAD MAX movies in nearly three decades, but they were such cable staples when I was a kid in the ‘80s that I recall their crudely exciting ethos quite well. Here, Miller’s fourth entry does better than just to recall the series’ spirit; it re-instates its power with an updated yet still vitally raw vision.

As I said before, Hardy makes a good Mad Max, but Theron's movie stealing part as Furiosa often makes it seem like she's the real road warrior, and our title character is just along for the ride. Theron's tour de force performance not only proves her Oscar win for MONSTER was no fluke, it establishes her as a serious action star who could do what fellow actresses, Scarlet Johansson and Angelina Jolie, have so far been unable to do - i.e. front a quality franchise. Here's hoping that happens with Miller's proposed MAD MAX: FURIOSA sequel set for 2017.

So as much as I enjoyed AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON, MAD MAX: FURY ROAD is, so far, the biggest, and the best would be blockbuster this season. I'm looking forward to seeing it a second time, and having my senses get assaulted all over again.

More later...