FILM REVIEW: The Rider (2018) by Chloé Zhao

I watched this film as part of the lineup for this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival. It was followed by a Q&A with the director Chloé Zhao and star/subject Brady Jandreau.

I can hardly believe that it has been a year and a half since I discovered Chloé Zhao’s achingly beautiful directorial debut, Songs My Brothers Taught Me. So much of the imagery had remained firmly stuck in my memory, from the sprawling landscapes of the Badlands plains, to the more painful depictions of poverty and addiction on the reservation. It gives me great pleasure, moreover, to state that her second film, The Rider, has graciously provided a plethora of even more images and moments with which to fill my memory bank, to the point of overflow.

What partially makes the The Rider so special is that is a fictionalized docudrama of sorts, filmed in the same sort of vérité style that made her previous film seem so real and true-to-life, despite it obviously relying on a script. As Lakota cowboy Brady Jandreau describes it, the narrative is about 60% fictionalized, though its easy to detect the genuine nature of the people up on the screen and the relationships Brady forms with them. Practically every character on display here is marked by some form of struggle or tragedy, and within the first few shots of the film, we get a glimpse at Brady’s story. After waking up from an ambiguous dream of a horse, he approaches his bathroom mirror and carefully removes a large bandage from his head, exposing a large healed gash on his head, sealed with staples. What haunts Brady makes up the conflict for the remainder of the film: a much needed return to his upcoming career in the rodeo circuit, for which has attained a positive reputation, could result in his death if another head injury were to occur.

Jandreau’s Q&A description of his real-life head injury sounds absolutely ghastly, and he makes these uneasy stakes absolutely clear through his performance. To be frank, Jandreau’s presence is the driving force of this entire film. He is no actor, this being his very first film performance, but the close proximity with which this conflict reaches him comes off in his incredibly natural presentation. We see that he is charismatic, funny, empathetic, and supremely talented at training horses (the scenes of him interacting with horses are some of the most compelling). Yet in many others, especially in those where he is alone, we see that he is deeply troubled by how he could go on living knowing that riding could very possibly not be in his future.

Much like Songs My Brothers Taught Me, Zhao chooses to mark the organic pacing of the script with a sprawling series of images integral to the South Dakota environment. Endless mountainsides lit by sunsets, high-energy rodeos with country music pumping in the background, acoustic guitars played by campfire in the deep, dark nighttime – these are just a selection of environments strewn throughout the story of The Rider. Although Zhao is Chinese, she mentioned in the Q&A that she had spent four years living on a reservation, which more than explains her magnificent attention to detail and delicate respect for the community and culture that so defines both of her films. Although there is much less of the overt poverty that seemed to define Songs, it’s also clear that the living conditions of most here aren’t the most comfortable, making the stakes for Brady’s success all the more palpable.

Branching away from his own internal struggle, Brady’s relationship with his father Wayne and his younger sister Lilly (played by his real-life father and sister) further build upon the dimensions of his character. Wayne’s tough love toward his son, defined by consistent scoldings and put-downs of his character, surely explain the harshness with which Brady acts upon himself for the sake of coming out on top. More than a couple times through the film, Brady defies the expectations and advice of others by choosing to engage in horseback-riding, knowing very well how dangerous this is. This stubborn nature is, undoubtedly, a trait he picked up form his father. Additionally, some of the more energetic interactions come between Brady and Lilly, who is autistic. He is supremely loving and protective of her, shown explicitly in a scene where his engages in a brawl with an older man who tries approaching her in a bar. Lilly also possesses a defined sense of humor, seen in a wonderfully understated scene wherein her father buys her a bra, after her explicit refusal to wear one. Later in her room, she cuts apart this bra with scissors.

Though the events of The Rider don’t take on a typical three-act structure, they are nonetheless marked by their own type of tragedy. Since Brady cannot ride, he must take on a menial job at a grocery store to make ends meet. Later, his father decides to sell his beloved horse. Then, he is hospitalized after a seizure leaves him unconscious, after which he is told never to ride again. Nonetheless, he gets a new horse, but after the horse runs away and severely injures his leg, he must get put down. The narrative is defined by a series of unexpected punches set to bring Brady down, though still he persists.

As I mentioned before, everyone in The Rider must come to grips with their own form of struggle. This is no more concretized than with the presence of Lane Scott, Brady’s friend who, after an unspecified accident, has become severely paralyzed and unable to speak. Jandreau stated that his Lane’s condition was caused by a car accident that left his brain deprived of oxygen for over two hours. Given that was an accomplished rider prior to his accident, both he and Brady share the similar plight of being unable to perform their cowboy dream due to physical forces beyond their control. These scenes between the two are some of the most emotionally resonant of the whole film. Essentially, it is through these moments where the energetic love for life and friendship shines through, despite the hardships that life may bring their way.

On a more personal note, I was incredibly affected by a short scene in a doctor’s office, wherein a neurologist diagnoses Brady with being afflicted by partial complex seizures. There are numerous moments leading up to this where Brady randomly experiences a sudden tensing of his right hand, so much so that he must physically pry his fingers apart so that they aren’t balled into fists. This scene was meant to explain the cause of this for audiences (in short, his affliction is caused by his brain injury), but I found it totally validating for my own experience with epilepsy. I experience simple partial seizures which mostly affect my vision, and it’s always been difficult for myself to not only describe my experiences, but also how it technically classifies as epilepsy even though I am fully conscious as my seizures occur. Although grand mal seizures are definitely undergone by many with epilepsy, it doesn’t nearly cover the whole scope of the disability. The courage and transparency which which Jandreau exposes his own experience with the affliction is inspiring and a huge step forward in representation of a wider scope of seizures in film.

And while I may not know what it’s like to be a cowboy whose decision to get atop a horse suddenly becomes a straddle between life and death, I do know how hard it is to be told I can’t do something I desire to do for fear of my own safety. To be fair, I think most people could claim to encounter this particular phenomenon to some degree at least once in their lives, and thus lies the human experience laid so bare within the context of The Rider. It’s a beautiful film, so thoroughly defined by the constant struggle of its subject and the cultural context within it lies. I couldn’t be any more fortunate to have this particular film kick off my festival experience this year.

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Every Hot 100 Number-One Single: “West End Girls” (1986) by Pet Shop Boys

Just because I’m now trying to move over to video reviews doesn’t mean that I have to abandon this site entirely! (Now that you’re here, though, consider checking out my review for the latest EP from The Weeknd!)

Today’s Every Number-One Single review may be the only one to reference T.S. Eliot! Well, unless I can somehow sneak in a reference in my review of “Look What You Made Me Do”… or something. I’ll stop with my pitiful attempts at humor now and actually get on with this damn review.

When I, personally, think about the music of the 80s, the decade’s biggest hits, and those that seem to define the decade as a whole the best, few fit these categories as well as Pet Shop Boys. Pet Shop Boys are a synthpop duo from London, consisting of Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe. While they have achieved considerable success in the states, there’s no denying that they have found the most success in their home country, wherein they’ve achieved 22 top ten hits, four number-one singles, and are more than likely the most successful duo in UK music history. Some of their most notable tracks include “West End Girls”, “Opportunities”, “It’s a Sin”, “What Have I Done To Deserve This?” (with Dusty Springfield), and a cover of the Willie Nelson hit “Always On My Mind”. Although the crux of their international success took place in the 80s and many consider them integral to the decade, they have actually achieved notable success all the way through the 2000s – and they are still recording!

“West End Girls” was the debut single for the duo in 1984, though the original mix of this single, produced by Bobby Orlando, didn’t make much of a dent outside of the underground club scene Having been basically raised on the remixed version of the tune (which would be the one to top the charts), it was pretty jarring to go back to the original. While much of the original synth sound effects would make their way into the remix, the sub-par quality of the Casio-like keyboard sounds (including crashing glass and vocal chopping) feel so explicitly cheap and so very 80s. Depending on who you ask, though, these qualities are part of what makes this version so charming. Even the mixing on Tennant’s voice sounds significantly rawer and even unfinished. Notable for this version, though, is the line, “Who do you think you are, Joe Stalin?”, which didn’t make its way into the hit version, for reasons that I hope are obvious. This was the mid-80s, after all.

Eventually, the guys would collaborate with producer Stephen Hague, who was a popular choice amongst British synthpop acts of the 80s. Prior to meeting Pet Shop Boys, Hague had worked with Gleaming Spires (who had a minor hit with “Are You Ready For the Sex Girls”) as well as Malcolm McLaren on his ambitious hit single “Madam Butterfly”. Hague worked wonders at cleaning up the sound, ridding of all the cheesy Casio gimmicks and crafting the tune into something sleek and sophisticated. Later singles from Pet Shop Boys would be recognized for their garishness and flamboyancy – just listen to “It’s a Sin”, their cover of The Village People’s “Go West”, and even their hit medley that meshes U2’s “Where The Streets Have No Name” and Frankie Valli’s “Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You”. These dudes got around! However, the relaxed atmosphere of “West End Girls” proves that their artistic integrity stretches beyond these confines. The loveliest elements of the track are rightfully mixed at the forefront – the punchy bass synths, the ghost-like backing vocal effects, the saxophone bits at the bridge, Tennant’s soothing lead vocals.

But I would be incorrect to discuss this song without remarking upon its richly illustrated lyrics and the delivery thereof. Written by both Lowe and Tennant and conveying images of inner-city life through spoken-word delivery, it’s probably safe to say that this was the closest thing to rap music to top the pop charts at this time. Specifically, the duo were inspired by the cultural tidal wave that was Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message” (1982) ; it even lifts the bassline from this single. While it’s obvious that there’s an entire ocean separating these two environments from each other, the attention-grabbing opening line, “Sometimes you’re better off dead / There’s a gun in your hand, it’s pointing at your head” could certainly belong to a number of records from the American rap scene. But equally as so, Pet Shop Boys were also inspired by T.S. Eliot’s 1922 poem “The Waste Land” for its switching of narrative voices and kaleidoscope of cluttered, yet vivid imagery of hypnotic depravity. A line like, “Too many shadows, whispering voices / Faces on posters, too many choices” certainly portrays this well. Personally, the couplet that comprises the chorus (“In a west end town, a dead end world / The east end boys and west end girls”) always conjured imagery of West Side Story for me… though, only the sad, dark, murderous parts, without all the romance or singing.

Honestly, even the production itself brings to mind the collage-like format of “The Waste Land”. Like so many of the best dance tracks from the 80s, there are so many compellingly unique sounds on display here, all meshed together in a manner that comes off less cluttered and more appealingly hypnotic. This sound, coupled with the duo’s rich lyricism, results in a pop single that is cinematic in its aesthetic and existential in its quality. While many synthpop acts of the time were still trying to cram as many hip keyboard sounds into their record as possible (the original version of “West End Girls” was certianly guilty of this!), this mix opts for a big, layered sound, rather than a gimmicky one. The end result is a beautiful piece of sonic atmospherics, certainly a good sign of what was next to come from Pet Shop Boys.

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FILM REVIEW: A Simple Plan (1998) by Sam Raimi

While I am not quite as enamored with Sam Raimi as I used to be, there was a time a few years ago where I absolutely ate up his style. The first Evil Dead film remains one of my favorite horror films ever and even his lesser regarded films like Darkman and the Spider-Man series emit traces of his imaginative weirdness. Nonetheless, his 1998 film A Simple Plan has been a blind spot for me for years – mainly due to many people informing me that this was very unlike the style that I was used to from Raimi. Still, it always seemed like an at least halfway decent crime drama, which is enough to pique my interest enough to finally get around to the damn thing.

In A Simple Plan, the setting is the rural parts of Minnesota, the areas where education is poor, dead-end jobs are replete, and trips out to the next town over could take an entire day. To make things worse, it’s right in the middle of winter, where this already desolate wasteland is covered with a thick blanket of snow, making every square mile identical to one another and any sign of escape futile. Nonetheless, a sign of escape does arrive for Hank Mitchell, his brother Jacob, and their friend Lou when they arrive upon a crashed plane holding over $4 million. They decide to keep the money hidden until the end of winter, upon which they will divide it evenly… and, as expected, it doesn’t turn out as well as they planned. From this setup alone, one could guess that this would follow the tried-and-true fiction trope of one’s ambition and greed leading to disastrous results, up to and including violence and death.

And one would be correct! Through its simplistic narrative structure and blatantly character-driven storytelling, this film pretty much gives a good sense of its trajectory from the get-go. Immediately notable is just how restrained this style is for Raimi. Apart from a few moments of intense violence (including a crow attack done with animatronics – exciting!), this contains little of the stylistic touches by which Raimi has made a name for himself. Nonetheless, upon accepting that not every film needs to carry with it the responsibility of groundbreaking innovation, its interesting to see a filmmaker with such a prominent voice tone himself down just enough to create something as straight-forward yet compelling as this. While this sense of predictability could’ve very well been to its detriment, fortunately in this case, it means that we already know the ending, so best to enjoy the ride for what its worth.

Of course, predictable does in no way immediately translate to uneventful. Our protagonist is played brilliantly by Bill Paxton, in a career-best performance as an average joe who must suddenly grapple with his moral compass. Though he is introduced as a decent guy at the core, with a good education and a stable job, the occurrence of this money gives him a chance to buy a better life for his pregnant wife (played by Bridget Fonda) and their unborn child. While the sets and photography instantly bring to mind the Coen masterpiece Fargo, also like Fargo this film places ordinary men in a tough situation that is simply way over their heads. With the case of Paxton’s Hank Mitchell, his own trajectory is one of an ordinary man who soon finds he is capable of some truly gruesome, immoral acts.

What is truly impressive about these performances, though, is how they play upon one another. I was initially turned off by Billy Bob Thornton’s portrayal as Jacob Mitchell, a man who clearly has a learning disability. In the early parts of the film, it seems that the script plays off of this comedic timing that pokes fun at this aspect of his character, which seemed unnecessarily cruel and in bad taste. Nonetheless, the interactions between Paxton and Thornton in the latter parts of the film remain some of the most substantial moments of the film as a whole. Each actor carries with them so much quiet intensity that explodes only at the most vital moments; when it does, the elevated tension that makes up so much of the film’s atmosphere rises to a head and crafts some of the films finest, most compelling moments.

Overall, A Simple Plan sculpts its personality around a undulating fight over power and authority over the situation at hand. It always amazes me, with movies like these, how far the characters go to remain in control over something as trivial as money. In this case, the narrative follows along a series of hidden plans, schemes, bartering, back-stabbing, and trickery, all with the intent to somehow end up on top – whether this means to be rich or alive. The escalation into real-life violence doesn’t take long at all (the first death happens within the first third of the film) and the fact that the characters still remain jaded by their incessant greed is a sight to behold.

To finish, I would also like to mention the women of this film – namely Bridget Fonda, who surprises viewers (myself included) by revealing time and time again that she is the one who is truly in control! While Bill Paxton remains at the center of this tale from start to finish, it’s interesting how much of his actions are motivated by what his wife tells him what to do, showing that the surface-level masculinity of this film may not be quite as stable as it seems. Finally, I’d also like to mention how pleasantly surprised I was by the interesting dramatic turn from Becky Ann Baker, who I know best as Linda Cardellini’s mother from Freaks and Geeks from a couple years later. While her few scenes in this film are few and far between, it introduced to me a different dimension of her acting ability – one of raw, crude intensity, the likes of which I don’t see many older female actors attempting to such a degree. While I enjoyed this film as a whole and would definitely recommend it to fellow lovers of crime drama, it was these two performances that elevated it to something a bit more special to me, personally.

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FILM REVIEW: Dawson City: Frozen Time (2017) by Bill Morrison

When I was in college and before I ultimately settled on pursuing a degree in Comparative Literature for my Bachelor’s program, I momentarily played with the idea of going to school for film archival. At the time, I was obsessed with silent film and the idea of working to preserve any bit of filmed history I could find was always intriguing to me. This lore surrounding early film is also undoubtedly of interest to filmmaker Bill Morrison, and I previously came to grips with his fascination for old film through his 2004 experimental short Light is Calling. Through a series of frames set to music and violently obscured by what appears to be decay and damage, he nonetheless emits an emotional contemplation of the fleeting nature of life and love, by way of these beautiful prints that are mere notches away from total incomprehension.

Thus, his latest film Dawson City: Frozen Time continues to take us along a different sort of history lesson, all running parallel to the story of the physical art of filmmaking and photography themselves. Essentially, the documentary carves out a vivid history of Dawson City, a historical town located in Yukon, Canada. It begins with the town’s founding at the center of the Klondike Gold Rush in 1897 and its life as a thriving economy (along with its eventual downfall). It ends with the 1978 discovery of more than 500 discarded films buried beneath what used to be the town’s hockey rink and preserved by its own permafrost. Stylistically, it felt much like a Ken Burns-style documentary, though decidedly in absence of the talking heads and voiceover narration. Instead, Morrison chooses to let a vast collection of period-era photographs and film snippets do most of the talking, likely an homage to the lost method of storytelling through picture alone, a method that defined the silent film era.

As a history lesson, this is all pretty fascinating. I have had pretty much no knowledge of this town (growing up near Los Angeles, the Klondike Gold Rush was often ignored in school in favor of its California counterpart), and Morrison does a terrific job at detailing its unparalleled importance to the history of the Americas at the turn of the century. The pacing is decidedly languid, and while the middle does drag for a bit more than I would’ve liked, most of the film is just too mesmerizing to look away. For folks like me who are absolutely enamored with the silent film aesthetic, this one is a feast for the eyes – something about these countless lovely images scrawled with a century’s worth of its own decay and damage is both inexplicably sad and undeniably poetic. I can’t deny, though, that while the images on display are certainly beautiful, the haunting score by frequent Sigur Rós collaborator Alex Somers elevates this to some truly breathtaking levels.

As much Dawson City: Frozen Time is a straight-forward documentary, though, it also reflects in its own way how the role of these films, not unlike the ones eventually dug up by excavators, became vital to the town’s downward spiral. One of the first lessons actually given by the documentary is how nitrate film is made, as well as its reputation for being extremely flammable. The movie begins with a breathtakingly beautiful montage of the film being created in a factory, from the mixing of chemicals to the flattening and cutting away of the solid product itself. The creative process may be a mystical one, but relevant to nitrate film in particular are its destructive properties, noted in the frequent mentions of how many buildings and factories of Dawson City were burned down from accidents involving nitrate film, even taking lives with it at times. While the town thrived in capital for as long as it can, the film ironically became a consistently dangerous presence in its own ways. This also, of course, highlights how much of a miracle it was that so much film survived the town’s treacherous history in the first place!

However, just as important to the scope of the town’s history are the details that are left unspoken. The film mentions both William Desmond Taylor and Roscoe Arbuckle as having their origins in Dawson City, yet decidedly leaves out their famously tragic fates after making the move to Hollywood. Moreover, among the successful businessmen to strike gold in the town was German immigrant Frederick Trump, who would go on to found what would eventually become The Trump Organization, a name that just brings a chill up my spine. And finally (maybe most importantly), the documentary at the start of the narrative and only briefly touches upon the displacement of indigenous First Nation people to make way for the sudden influx of miners to the North. I do wish that this final point was touched upon a bit more, as it seemed sadly unfair to ignore such a large group of displaced people in such a way. Nonetheless, these curious omissions do show that despite the overwhelming positivity that highlighted the prosperity received by Dawson City, its undeniable that a dark streak is ever-present.

There was so much I loved about this film that drew from my love of silent film as a whole. It felt like a compelling resurrection of a timeless, unique bit of history, though never quite delved into “love letter” territory that documentary filmmakers often do but rarely do effectively. Although much about its pacing is slow and dreamy, there are some occasionally arresting bits of editing that call to mind the wild, naive energy that so many of these older films tend to possess so organically. Honestly, the only part I could say that I was genuinely bored by was when it recalled the gambling conspiracy scandal of the 1919 World Series. Although I understand that the discovery of never-before-seen footage of the game was one of the most paramount finds of the lot, I just found it a dull, needless attempt to fill up time – although I’d blame my own personal disinterest in baseball rather than any fault in the film’s part. In any case, the Alice Guy-Blaché callout more than made up for it!

Though I think what I loved the most about Dawson City: Frozen Time is its continued demonstration of Bill Morrison’s uncanny ability to use the physical medium of film as an introspection of history, time, and the human experience itself. Most emphasized here are the fleeting memories, the ones that gradually disappear as the folks who experienced Dawson City’s early days leave this world forever. It was a town that was as defined by its shiny commercial affluence as it was its continual destruction and rebuilding – until one day, it ceased to be rebuilt. Its not unlike the activity of watching a silent film, marked by pronounced moments where the frame reminds us of its age, marking the edges with static and cigarette burns. At that point, the art of watching becomes a chance to live in the moment, to appreciate that this work of art is currently the best shape it will ever be in again, and to cherish this second while it still lingers in the dark room. Unless, of course, someone actually does light a cigarette and the delicate strip of nitrate spontaneously combusts – almost like it never existed in the first place.

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Every Hot 100 Number-One Single: “Hello, Goodbye” (1967) by The Beatles

Oh look, another Beatles number-one single! Considering that they have the greatest amount of number-one singles of any other artist in history (twenty!), I have a feeling that we won’t be saying “goodbye” to these four British lads anytime soon. This song is the group’s fifteenth Hot 100 chart-topper, and it stayed at that spot for three consecutive weeks at the end of 1967 and the start of 1968. The best part about covering this track, though, is that it reveals another dimension of this internationally popular band that wasn’t immediately prevalent with “Can’t Buy Me Love”. Indeed, this single marks our introduction to the psychedelic side of the Beatles, at least through this challenge.

This single comes off the US release of the Beatles’ double-EP Magical Mystery Tour, which is also the soundtrack album of their 1967 film of the same name. Essentially, the songs off this album were meant to further build off the innovative sounds and themes presented in their groundbreaking album of the previous year, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The best way I could describe Magical Mystery Tour (the album, since I have yet to watch the film) is as sort of a lesser Sgt. Pepper’s – the dreamy sonic structure and erratic, often improvised instrumentation is all there, but the songs are far less hard-hitting and memorable. Still, like basically any Beatles record, it’s worth a listen, especially since this is easily the group’s most strange era.

“Hello, Goodbye” specifically was the band’s first single release since the sudden death of their manager Brian Epstein. It was composed through a spontaneous word association exercise between Paul McCartney and assistance Alistair Taylor. Thus, although this song is credited toward Lennon-McCartney, it is first and foremost a McCartney composition. One of the most immediately notable aspects of this song is its lyricism, composed entirely of a series of words and their antonyms: “You say, ‘yes’; I say, ‘no’ / You say, ‘stop” and I say, ‘go, go, go”… You say, ‘goodbye” and I say, ‘hello'”. It’s simplistic and really quite silly, but the melody is instantly accessible and catchy. With its marching beat and simple sing-song chord structure, it wouldn’t be surprising to find yourself singing along after the chorus’s second go.

Specifically, McCartney has noted the song’s specific theme of duality, with his belief that dualities – such as light/dark, man/woman, etc. – are the core meaning to the world, and this song aims to emphasize “the more positive side of duality” (his words in quotes). Honestly, while I understand the intention on boiling this overarching theme of duality into its simplest parts, I am not fully convinced that this is a positive take on the phenomenon of opposites. Sure, George Martin’s production is bright and sunny, which definitely brings about that connotation of bliss and joy – but the lyrics themselves seem to merely state that opposites just exist, in neutral terms.

There are quite a few Beatles songs I genuinely love, but “Hello, Goodbye” just isn’t one of them. The B-side, on the other hand, is the John Lennon-penned “I Am the Walrus”, which I genuinely think is one of the strongest tracks on all of Magical Mystery Tour. Apparently, Lennon was pretty pissed about the label deciding upon McCartney’s single as the A-side on this record – and in this case, I’m on his side. While “I Am the Walrus” is delightfully weird and surreal, “Hello, Goodbye” just feels blandly commercial, especially when placed next to any of the Sgt. Pepper’s tracks the band had put out only a year prior. Had it been the other way around, we would have been talking about a very different single right now. As is, though, I wouldn’t miss giving this a listen, but I would hesitate before adding it to my collection.

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