Dec 27, 2009

FACTOTUM music composed by Kristin Asbjørnsen

"If you're going to try, go all the way", quoting late American author, Charles Bukowski's own words from his 1975 novel, Factotum. Some wise words from, what Time Magazine called a "laureate of American lowlife." Strangely enough, written on Bukowski's tombstone are the words: "Don't Try".
Flash forward thirty years and Bukowski's semi-autobiographical novel is transformed into a film. Facotum was directed and co-scripted by Norweigan film-maker, Bent Hamer, known for his quirky, feel-good comedy, Kitchen Stories. Crash's Matt Dillon portrays the novel's anti-hero, Henry Chinaski, who appears in many of Bukowski's other literary works. While Six Feet Under's Lili Taylor and My Cousin Vinny's Marisa Tomei show up as the women who invade Chinaski's upside down and alcoholic world.
Hamer brought in Norwegian singer/composer, Kristin Asbjørnsen as the film's primary composer. Known mostly for her solowork and double-timing duties with two other music projects, Dadafon and Krøyt, Factotum would be Asbjørnsen's first venture into the film music world.
It seems Asbjørnsen approached the music as if she were writing for the novel and not the film, as the novel takes place in the 1940's and the movie is set in the present day. This choice doesn't really affect the narrative though, as her jazz-infused waltz's sit perfectly with the story and the pictures onscreen.
Opening the album is the imagery induced, moody jazz number, "On The Bus". With it's dream-like vibraphones taking center stage, the reverberating brass section and the sleepy bass lines, you might almost feel as if you're drinking alone in a dark, smokey Los Angeles bar during the Golden Age of Cinema. It's short but it's the perfect way to open this somber little album.
"Reunion" establishes the main recurring theme throughout the score. A plucky piano leads into a drunken waltz like rythym, complimented with a lead jazz piano hopping around in the foreground and Asbjørnsen's own wordless vocals mixed into the background.
"I Wish To Weep" continues the drunken waltz theme, only now Asbjørnsen's using her lead band, Dadofan, to play and she's added in lyrics, cleverly lifted from Bukowski's own poems, as she will continue to do so with the rest of the film's original songs. It's almost as if Tom Waits crooked style has leaked into this song with startling elegance.
"Farewell" & " Slow Day" both introduce a new theme of depression and loneliness into the sound of the score. For "Slow Day", Asbjørnsen once again calls upon Dadofan's help to create what appears to be the album and film's centerpiece. Here, Asbjørnsen's vocals are so damned sultry and gravelly, it makes me wish that she'd get picked to perform a James Bond song or any song that drips with that sexy espionage sound. The girl's got the right voice for it.
Strutting in like the coolest cat in the bar, "Pickles" picks the mood up a bit. An electric guitar, which appears to be recorded directly from the amp increases the old fashioned 'cool' sound like nobody's business. A welcome little ditty indeed.
Things get a little weird, in a psychedelic style, with "Still Awake". Haunting your ears with multiple vocal tracks layered upon eachother and a spacey slide guitar, this track might take the casual listener a little off guard....but if you're listening to a soundtrack album from a Norweigan produced film based off a Charles Bukowski novel, you're probably not the "casual listener".
"Dreamland II" is an avant-garde song performed by Asbjørnsen's other music act, Krøyt. With more of an electronic tone, rather than the organic feel the album's portrayed so far, I find "Dreamland" is somewhat out of place. I like the song, I just don't feel it really belongs here.
Using the "Farewell/Slow Day" theme, "Beside You" reworks a very interesting ambience into the track that makes me wish Asbjørnsen could have explored this version of the theme for a little more than the minus two minutes we get here.
"Drunk Driving" uses the "Farewell" theme again, only this time it transforms it into a bluesy number. What starts out as a great track, "Drunk Driving" it unfortunally loses it's way by throwing some quirkiness into the mix, which usually I'm all for, but it would have been nice to hear a straight up blues cue.
Making it almost a trilogy, Asbjørnsen once again makes use of the "Farewell" theme one after another. This time she speeds up the tempo of the "Farewell" and adds in somewhat of a Latin flavor to the sound. In writing, it sounds like a bad idea and might stick out like a sore thumb, but it's quite the opposite, as it's refreshing and a bit of a wake me up, when the album, just over thirty minutes in, was in danger of becoming too repetitive.
Some overlapped acapella vocals lead us into "If You're Going To Try". It's a great little track using Asbjørnsen's voicework very nicely over a simple guitar and bass line with some drunken drum playing to boot.
Closing the album is Dadafon reprising the simply titled "Slow Day II". It begins with a spacey introduction, almost channeling early Pink Floyd and eventually leads into an exact replica of the first "Slow Day" performance. I don't mind reprise songs repeating the original, but I believe if they had trimmed off about a minute and a half of the song, it would have been a perfect way to end the album. Sadly in this case it just starts to drag and can't wait to end.
In the end, Kristin Asbjørnsen's first step into the film score business proves to be quite a pleasant listen. However I do feel the album presentation could have been a little shorter by about ten minutes or so. The themes begin to repeat themselves a little too much at times without changing the tempo or style and it begins to really slow down the pace of the album. No big deal though, as it's easily fixed with an iPod or a simple tracks edit on CD-R.
I hope we hear more of Kristin Asbjørnsen's work on film, as she seems to have quite a talent for subtlety and at the same time, paints some very clear imagery with her music. This album will without a doubt receive several more plays on my disc player.

* * * out of 5

Dec 23, 2009

FACTOTUM (Dir. Bent Hamer. 2005.)

Factotum tells the fictional story of Hank Chinaski, the alter-ego of the American author Charles Bukowski, who sadly passed away from leukaemia in 1994. Hank Chinaski is wonderfully portrayed by the very talented Matt Dillon. Dillon is a great character actor, and it’s a shame we don’t see more of him in this kind of role. His performance in Drugstore Cowboy is perhaps his finest, but this is as close as he has come to that high point in a great many years. Yes, he was in There’s something about Mary, but this is where he seems more at home.

Hank is the classic film drifter, but rather than drifting from town to town he drifts through his own life at a less than leisurely pace, unwilling to commit to anything lest it interfere with his primary goal of becoming an established writer. He tells people he is a writer, thinking it gives him some kind of prestige but he’s unable to back up his claims with anything substantial. He lacks all the social graces one associates with an educated wordsmith; in fact he’s a prime douche from head to toe. He’s an everyman, with an inability to keep even the most rudimentary menial dead-end job because deep down he doesn’t want to. He’s routinely fired, or walks out, and even disqualified before he even gets the job.

If he was your friend, you’d be ashamed of him. If you’re not his friend you’d cross the street to avoid him. We all know a Hank Chinaski, some of us may even be Hank Chinaski.

Hank finds temporary solace from his failures with an emotionally unstable and permanently broke alcoholic woman called Jan, played by Lili Taylor. Their relationship is dysfunctional at best, based on mutual selfishness. “I bought her a drink and she gave me her phone number. Three days later I moved into her apartment.” It’s not deep, nor meaningful, but they are a perfect couple despite their differences. As it develops it gets more complicated and forces Hank to make a decision, a thing he rarely does.

He also manages to befriend Laura, the always attractive Marisa Tomei, in a pre-Wrestler role. Laura takes him in hand and leads him willingly down new avenues of previously unexplored uselessness. I got the impression Hank was searching for a muse, but was looking in all the wrong places in case he accidently found one, and couldn’t live up to the expectations such a relationship would put on him. If he wasn’t such a douche I’d have thought: Poor Hank.

Dillion also narrates from time to time, giving us an insight into the mind of a dreamer, and it’s at these moments that I realized the man does indeed possess some wisdom that is worth sharing with the world at large. The narration succeeded in making him a little more endearing than he was initially. This is where the film’s strengths lie, and is the reason it’s successful. If it was simply a sketch show of a dead beat clown that we are not laughing with, but at, then it would fail to hold the attention for very long. The narration raises it above its flaws; at times it is profoundly moving, optimistic and pessimistic all at once. I’m guessing these are words lifted directly from the writings of Charles Bukowski, whom Time magazine dubbed the poet “laureate of American lowlife”, but I can’t be sure. What I am sure of is that these moments of pathos come from the heart, and consequently tell us more about Hank than anything he says or does in the film.

The film has occasional moments of real comedy. At one stage, although never feeling compelled to fully empathise with Hank the loser, I did give the guy my sympathies. It is probably the film’s most outright comedy moment, and involves an irritated Hank getting attended to by his woman after he realizes he has got some new and unwelcome friends in his pants. Not a pleasant image, I know, but there’s nothing like seeing someone else’s misfortune to warm the heart. Dillon somehow manages to play it straight, despite being the butt of the joke.

Elsewhere, the film plods along at the same pace as Hank, never reaching great heights but it did consistently entertain me, even making my own life seem majestic and desirable by comparison.

If you want to know if there is a happy ending, or even if Hank deserves one, then you’ll have to watch it.

Click on the link below to watch the trailer on YouTube, but bear in mind it’s been edited for an American audience and so makes it appear a lot more gag-filled than it really is.

I liked it enough to buy it, and look forward to another viewing.
My two and a half stars rating may seem like a low mark, but bear in mind that’s 50 out 100, or 1 out of 2. Not too shabby.

** ½ out of 5

Dec 19, 2009

BRICK (Written & Dir. Rian Johnson. 2005)

Every so often I’m going to do a write up on a movie you may have missed upon initial release. It’ll be the kind of movies that didn’t get 10 million to blow on advertising; in fact they didn’t get 10 million in total. Yes, we’re talking about the indie movie. Or anything else that appeals to me. But rest assured they won’t be new releases. Everything here you will be able to find on DVD, probably in the local bargain bin for less than the price of a bottle of the cheapest nastiest Scotch.
I guess there is something to thank Michael Bay for after all, while his “summer block buster” crap eats up shop shelf space, the good stuff gets moved to the bargain bin.

If you disagree with me, tell me why.

So first up, is this:

People of a certain age (i.e. me, who said duffer?) tend to stay away from “teen movies”, and for good reason, they are usually shallow sex fests catering to people too afraid or too short to reach to the top shelf of their local newsagent. I’m tall, I can reach easily. So it was with some trepidation that I viewed Brick (2005, Written & Dir. Rian Johnson) described by IMDB as: “A teenage loner pushes his way into the underworld of a high school crime ring to investigate the disappearance of his ex-girlfriend.” Not exactly Citizen Kane, and stinks of “teen-movie”.
Furthermore, when the writer’s previous efforts include penning “Evil Demon Golf ball from Hell!” things don’t look good.

However, this may well be the most interesting debut feature since Richard Kelly gave us the much imitated Donnie Darko (and if you haven’t watched Darko yet then stop reading this and go watch it NOW!) or Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs; though it has very little in common with either of those movies. Delve a little further into the piece and we find a canny eye for a shot, and some great scripting.

Brick is a mostly successful amalgamation of the teen drama and the Film Noir, so much so that the language of Noir not only permeates the film’s narrative but its visual aspect too, for those that care to look. In particular, the open spaces and chosen settings reminded me of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. Once we accept the unusual setting as commonplace however, the film begins to shine.

I’m limited in what I can say because I don’t want to include spoilers for those that haven’t seen it yet. There is a death, an investigation, a bad guy, a henchman, another death, a tragic blonde, and a lot of heavy exposition at times.

The dark oppressive streets of Bogart’s era have been replaced with a faceless concrete school, which seems to be under a perpetual cloudy sky. It’s as if the blue is trying to break through but lacks the courage of conviction. There are blues skies later on, but they seem to begin at the very boundaries of the town limits. Colour is used sparingly.

Brick opens with shot of the main protagonist’s shoes, a recurring motif that gives an insight into the wearer’s persona, and social status. We are at the mouth of a storm drain, and just in front lies the body of a girl, with a thick blue bracelet. An intriguing opening scene, for sure. I won’t give away any twists, so don’t worry, this is in the first 3 minutes. The girl is the tragic Laura Palmer type. She is aware of her own impending downfall but is powerless, or perhaps unwilling, to prevent it.

Then it cuts, and we’re told it’s now 2 days earlier. Again we see the girl’s bracelet as she places a note in a locker, followed by the shoes, the same shoes we saw before, as the wearer enters the frame and opens the locker. The scene is set for what follows. Two days pass in twenty minutes, and we’re back at the storm drain. Then it begins to get really good. How? You’ll have to watch it.

The mostly young cast consists of Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Brendan Frye), you’ll remember him as the kid from Third Rock from The Sun but don’t let that put you off, he does a fine job as the hard-boiled seeker on the fringes of something sinister, and prepared to give it his all to get the answers he seeks.

Along the way he interacts with different social classes and cliques but always remains intrinsically on the fringes of them all. Bogart would be proud, (and probably give him a slap for being so concerned about the woman).

Lukas Haas, who I’d last saw as Ritchie in Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks, plays a central role, which is all I can really say about that to avoid spoilers. But he does it well; he’s a geek, but he’s a geek that commands respect; the most dangerous kind.

Nora Zehetner plays the big-eyed dangerous beauty. She’s pretty, and handles her lines well. We first she her dressed in red, which is a sign of danger for Brendan; it’s an overused method in cinema but here kept thankfully to a minimum.

The language is initially ostracizing, filled with dozens of buzzwords that I didn’t understand, and as a result I empathised with the main protagonist, Brendan, himself not totally clued in. My DVD was the single disc version and had no subtitles so I was forced to rewind on a few occasions to catch what was said before I could begin to decode it.

Brendan makes occasional trips to “Brain”, the school smart-guy. Brain acts as a go-between; he’s a guide to the language of the underworld for both Brendan and the viewer, and is inconspicuous enough to be able to keep an eye on people without drawing attention to himself. In truth, Brain is nothing more than a convenient plot device, but not so obvious that he’s rendered two dimensionally. He has his part to play and like the rest of the cast he does it very well. At one point he offers the advice: “Forget it, now. Go home. Sleep.” A sentiment that is echoed back at him later. Also, if you need a Rubik’s Cube solved in record time, he’s your man.

Once we’ve settled into the peculiar wording, the dialogue seems sharp and punchy like all the best Noirs. For example, Brendan says to the femme fatale: “If you were behind me I’d have to tie one eye up watching your hands. I can’t spare it.” And later someone (can’t say who) says: “You’re going to make me curious being so curious.” I could imagine that being said in a Bogey film easily. It reads a little forced, but when it’s spoken it’s effective.

The plot progression is well paced; as the story unfolds so too does our understanding of the nuances of the language, and of the characters. As Brendan delves further into the blossoming crime ring, trying to make his way to the “Pin” (Kingpin), the danger level is amped up for him, and consequently for those around him. He takes a few beatings along the way, but there is little room for unnecessary emotions and even less room for unwelcome ones. His goal is paramount.

Eventually the “Brick” of the title is explained, and while initially I saw it as being a McGuffin, it actually proves to be the catalyst for the spiralling downward fall that engulfs certain characters, and is instrumental in the ending. And a great ending it was too. Some shock revelations are played out, and things don’t turn out like I had imagined at all.

Special mention needs to be made of one of the few scenes to involve an adult. Brendan is summoned to the office of the “Vee-Pee” (Vice Principal) and the scene plays out like a Dirty Harry moment, with the adult representing the Chief of police and Brendan the renegade cop with an agenda that says to hell with your rules. It doesn’t fit with the rest of the Noir feel but is great fun regardless. A poster on the Vice’s wall states “Every expert was once a beginner,” which is an odd addition, I tried to tie it into the narrative but as the back-story of each character is relatively unexplored I was unable to.

Brick currently sits at the 489th spot of Empire magazine's list of the 500 greatest movies of all time. Not bad for an elegant little indie that slipped under almost everyone’s radar upon release.

The film was awarded the “Special Jury Prize: Dramatic, for Originality of Vision”, at Sundance. It also picked up the “Citizen Kane Award for Best Directorial Revelation” and the “John Cassavetes Award for best film production with a budget under $500,000” from a few other places. And if you don’t know who John Cassavetes is then shame on you, go here for an education:

To his credit, after repeated studio refusal, The Director, Rian Johnson, obtained funding from friends and family and after successfully collecting together around $475,000 he made his movie, his way. The film was shot in his home town in a mere 20 days. He even employed his cousin, Nathan Johnson, to score the movie.

The music is well integrated, never coming across as obtrusive or unwarranted. A number of bizarre instruments seem to have been used, I heard sheet metal being scraped, and at one point I’m sure someone was playing a tune by running their finger along the rim of a glass of water. Elsewhere, it evokes a smoky bar room atmosphere, or a prohibition era Jazz club. It would be an interesting listen outside of the visuals, but with a film like this the chances of finding the soundtrack are virtually zero, if there even was one officially released.

It remains to be seen whether the Director will continue to merge genres as successfully in the future, or whether he will be consumed and spat out by the Hollywood system that initially refused him, and then embraced him once he proved himself.

If you like your movies without 30 foot robots and with a clever script then Brick is highly recommended.

**** out of 5.