Thursday, April 28, 2016

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Many of our ideas about how cinema works and what a filmmaker is grow out of an idea of gesture and intention.  This is understandable: in the 20th century, cinema brought some of the grandest gestures in history. . . . In turn, we came to understand and attribute authorship in cinema based on obvious gestures.  The theories that form the foundation of both filmmaking and film criticism concern themselves not with small or subjective properties, but with grand designs: montage, mise-en-scene, camera movement, framing.  All of these things could be called the "obvious properties of style."

Cinephilia set itself aside from mere film buffery by becoming the hunt for small moments and small films, things that appeared to exist outside the realm of obvious gesture.  Criticism sought to explain the tracking shot; cinephilia looked for the meanings of drifting cigarette smoke, stray glances and apparent accidents, and to divine the patterns of hats, cars, and donkeys.
--Ignatiy Vishnevetsky

Saturday, April 23, 2016

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There are many criteria of merit in moviemaking--or, rather, there are none.  A movie is a whole experience--actually a lot of experiences, indivisible and unlimited, and often occurring within a single moment.  Submitting to the biomorphic phantasmagoria of even the simplest cinematic image is a potentially mind-wrenching, soul-shuddering blow, or nudge, or whirl, or caress.  That's why banal, profligate, rote images are abject and repellant: they trade on a power that they don't hazard, they borrow the inspiration of the cinema itself and give nothing back, basking in its reflected glory.
--Richard Brody

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

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There is no theme richer for an American artist than the spirit and the themes of the country and the country's history.  We have never figured out what this place is about or what it is for, and the only way to even begin to answer those questions is to watch our movies, read our poets, our novelist, and listen to our music.  Robert Johnson and Melville, Hank Williams and Hawthorne, Bob Dylan and Mark Twain, Jimmie Rodgers and John Wayne.  America is the life's work of the American artist because he is doomed to be an American.
--Greil Marcus, review of Self Portrait

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Joy, The Big Short

Joy (Russell, 2015)  Rating: 7/10 Stars.
Another year, another, shouty, distracted, over-excited David O. Russell movie.  This one has a reminiscent voice-over from a character who dies halfway through, and a narrative structure in the first half-hour that mixes events so achronologically it almost seems like it’s going for Malickean abstraction, but instead just ends up deeply confused and broken.  It picks itself up, though, and somehow coheres into a fairly stirring ode to feminine enterprise and determination, anchored by a performance from Jennifer Lawrence that absolutely deserves to be called “powerhouse.”  

The politics are kind of fascinating, too:  It starts off with an onscreen dedication to “daring women” so on-the-nose it can make you snort, and there’s no doubt it considers itself a feminist film--but it’s the feminism of Loretta Lynn or Norma Rae here, not that of, say, Lena Dunham.  In fact, the film could almost be aimed at the archetypal Trump voter--white working class, bitter about declining Rust Belt jobs, lacking in education and social capital, resentful of the cultural elite, devoted watchers of daytime and reality TV, attempting to hold a family together in a hostile world.  Joy herself is a capitalist success story of the type Hollywood has always been weirdly reluctant to celebrate.  Movie makers worship artist types and celebrate sports stars, but they seem strangely blind to characters who achieve self-actualization through achievement in business or commercial enterprise, despite the fact that that is a far more common and relatable story for everyday Americans. 

In truth, as much as I tend to resist Russell’s style, he is valuable for being the only major filmmaker out there actually depicting this demographic, and demonstrating understanding and respect.  And it rests on the shoulders of a performance this magnetic and exciting, I gotta give it a passing grade.

The Big Short (McKay, 2015)  Rating 7/10 Stars.
Can be read as the coda or epilogue to the great “culture of excess” cycle of 2013 that included The Great Gatsby, Spring Breakers, Pain & Gain, American Hustle, The Bling Ring, Blue Jasmine, and The Wolf of Wall Street.  While those films described a culture and critiqued the underlying values, showing us what American society has too long valorized, The Big Short is the final afterword that runs down the real-world economic consequences when such cultural values hit the mainstream, complete with names and dates.  As such, it risks feeling a little like the doctor’s explanation at the end of Psycho.  It compensates with jokes and a supposedly adventurous aesthetic that rather pales in comparison to those earlier entries, but its jargon-heavy explanations really are appreciated and necessary.  It’s just a shame it couldn’t manage to say more: government housing policy, perhaps the most important culprit, gets off stock free here (pun intended), and there’s but a single brief mention of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, despite those two buying up more toxic securities than anybody by far.  (Plus, just as an aside, I found the cutaways to Margot Robbie and Anthony Bourdain to be cut and sound mixed in a highly distracting manner that required me to watch them a second time to understand what they were trying to tell me.  And then I was a little insulted that McKay didn’t think I would understand that info if he’d just put it in the dialogue.)  But again, as most people have said, I’m still glad it exists.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

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Rock 'n' roll is, today, too big for any center. . . . In one sense, this is salutary and inevitable.  The lack of a center means the lack of a conventional definition of what rock 'n' roll is, and that fosters novelty.  Rules about what can go into a performance and, ultimately, about how and what it can communicate are not only unenforced, they're often invisible, both to performer and audience.  That rock 'n' roll has persisted for so long, and spread to such diverse places, precludes its possession by any single generation or society--and this leads not only to fragmentation but to a vital, renewing clash of values . . . [But] The fact that the most adventurous music of the day seems to have taken up residence in the darker corners of the marketplace contradicts rock 'n' roll as aggressively popular culture that tears up boundaries of race, class, geography and (oh yes) music; the belief that the mass audience can be reached and changed has been the deepest source of the music's magic and power.
--Greil Marcus, 1980

Sunday, February 28, 2016

If I Gave the Oscars: 2015 Edition

As usual, these are how I would give out awards to the movies of 2015, if that was a power that I had.  I'm not going to go through all the exact same categories as the Academy Awards, because some of them are just tiresome and others require inside knowledge that I do not possess.  This post is obviously meant to be complementary to my Best of 2015 post, where I listed all my favorites, so I have left out Best Picture nominees here; they would be the same as the top 10 from that post, so no need to list them twice.  

Each category is listed in order of preference, with the first director/actor/etc. being my choice for the winner.  Things should be fairly self-explanatory from there.

Best Director
1. George Miller (Mad Max: Fury Road)
2. Michael Mann (Blackhat)
3. Ryan Coogler (Creed)
4. Hou Hsiao-Hsien (The Assassin)
5. David Robert Mitchell (It Follows)

Best Screenplay (Adapted or Original, doesn't matter)
1. Nick Lathouris, George Miller, Brendan McCarthy (Mad Max: Fury Road)
2. Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve, Ronaldo Del Carmen, Josh Cooley (Inside Out)
3. Tom McCarthy, Josh Singer (Spotlight)
4. Alex Garland (Ex Machina)
5. David Robert Mitchell (It Follows)

Best Actor
1. Michael B. Jordan (Creed)
2. Michael Fassbender (Steve Jobs)
3. Tom Hanks (Bridge of Spies)
4. Tom Hardy (Mad Max: Fury Road)
5. Michael Keaton (Spotlight)

Best Actress
1. Jennifer Lawrence (Joy)
2. Charlize Theron (Mad Max: Fury Road)
3. Saoirse Ronan (Brooklyn)
4. Emily Blunt (Sicario)
5. Maika Monroe (It Follows)

Best Supporting Actor
1. Oscar Isaac (Ex Machina)
2. Sylvester Stallone (Creed)
3. Walton Goggins (The Hateful Eight)
4. Benicio Del Toro (Sicario)
5. Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies)

Best Supporting Actress
1. Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina)
2. Tang Wei (Office)
3. Jennifer Jason Leigh (The Hateful Eight)
4. Viola Davis (Blackhat)
5. Tessa Thompson (Creed)

Best Cinematography
1. Mark Lee Ping-Bin (The Assassin)
2. Roger Deakins (Sicario)
3. Emmanuel Lubezki (The Revenant)
4. John Seale (Mad Max: Fury Road)
5. Stuart Dryburgh (Blackhat)

Best Editing
1. Margaret Sixel (Mad Max: Fury Road)
2. Mako Kamitsuna, Jeremiah O'Driscoll, Stephen E. Rivkin, Joe Walker (Blackhat)
3. Julio Perez IV (It Follows)
4. Joe Walker (Sicario)
5. Claudia Castello, Michael P. Shawver (Creed)

Best Musical Score
1. Ennio Morricone (The Hateful Eight)
2. Junkie XL (Mad Max: Fury Road)
3. Rich Vreeland (It Follows)
4. Michael Giacchino (Inside Out)
5. Johann Johannson (Sicario) 

Best Scene
1. Into the Sandstorm (Mad Max: Fury Road)
2. Putting on New Skin (Ex Machina)
3. Single-Shot Boxing Match (Creed)
4. Standoff on the Bridge of the Americas (Sicario)
5. Parking Garage--Learning the Rules (It Follows)
6. Chase Through the Skies of Chicago (Jupiter Ascending)
7. Pit of Forgotten Memories (Inside Out)
8. First Flight of the Millennium Falcon (Star Wars: The Force Awakens)
9. Sending a Message with the Pathfinder Probe (The Martian)
10. Car Bomb and Ambush in the Street (Blackhat)
11. Eavesdropping on the Governor and his Mistress (The Assassin)
12. Pet Sounds Sessions (Love & Mercy)
13. Playing Soccer With Restrictions (Timbuktu)
14. Shoot-Out in an Opera (Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation)
15. Abstract Thought (Inside Out)

(actually posted March 14, 2016)