Wednesday, September 7, 2016

38 Sentences

(With apologies to this post by Ignatiy Vishnevetsky)

Like Clara Bow for It and Maria Falconetti for Passion of Joan of Arc, Alicia Silverstone will live forever because of Clueless While for Miyazaki, filmmaking is primarily emotional, even physical--measured in how many frames he draws personally, how much of himself he pours into the film--for Takahata, filmmaking is primarily intellectual; he’s always rethinking the way animation works, redefining its limits.  Sofia Coppola shoots hotel rooms better than anyone in the history of cinema.  Lightning McQueen & Mater = Bob the Tomato & Larry the Cucumber, particularly in Cars 2.  Are we approaching a point when we will no longer be able to speak of “human nature” because it’s too “essentializing,” too rigid and meaningless and even offensive?   The major problem with Stephen Curry is that he mispronounces his first name.  Terrence Malick has left the proscenium further behind than anybody in narrative cinema: we are constantly aware of a world around us, a vast space stretching in every direction (even the city is Big Sky Country).  The thing about the various (supposedly cuckoo) interpretations of The Shining (and I am not the first to point this out), is that the sundry clues and motifs studied by the movie’s obsessives (Native American imagery, visual nods to the space program, oblique allusions to the Holocaust, constant verbal acknowledgment of colonialism, conquest, and Westward expansion) are in fact really there, and can, moreover, be nearly all integrated into a single vision when we realize that the Overlook Hotel is a nightmare maze of History, where sins and crimes (y’know, ghosts) of the past swirl everlastingly and threaten to drag the present and future of humanity down with them into eternal cycles of power, dominance, violence, and cruelty.    Amy Schumer isn’t funny.  On Focus (2015): The camera glides along, the colors are pleasingly balanced, and everything is modulated to look “classy,” but somehow there’s not a single memorable image in the entire movie.   One of the central appeals of the apocalypse as a fictional trope is the way it shatters the postmodern confusion of the current world situation, bringing good and evil back into view and clarifying absolutes.  Appreciating art is mostly a matter of orienting oneself properly toward the aesthetic goal of the work--appreciating what it does well, not asking it to be something it’s not.   I bet I can think of over a dozen different TV shows off the top of my head that were directly influenced by or had their ways paved for them by Buffy the Vampire Slayer: there’s the obvious ones like Angel, Firefly, and Dollhouse, the WB fellows like Charmed, Smallville, Roswell, and Supernatural, plus others like Veronica Mars, The Vampire Diaries, Teen Wolf, iZombie, Jessica Jones, Russell T. Davies’ revival of Doctor Who, and even Kim Possible.  Lubitsch treated his scenarios, his characters, and his audience with unfailingly good manners, and it’s always good manners to keep your guests entertained and at ease.  Looking through these lists of things only ‘90s kids will get, a thought occurs to me: I really envy Baby Boomers’ ability to be nostalgic for things that actually happened.  Zack Snyder’s visual style is primarily influenced by comic panels and pulp cover art, and seems to be more concerned with bringing these still images to life than telling a coherent story--which, in the case of Batman v Superman, gives the images a weird sort of power; they feel so disconnected that the movie has a sense of a plunge into the void.  Malick sees philosophy, religion, and art as a continuum, and it is because of this that we can examine each of his films from the framework of multiple philosophical theories and theological stances and find illumination and worth through each of them.  If Grave of the Fireflies is Takahata’s neorealist film, and Only Yesterday and My Neighbors the Yamadas are his Ozus, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is his Mizoguchi.  Looking around at all his producing work, so focused on recreating the various undervalued genres and styles of his youth, one gets a sense of George Lucas as the square Tarantino.  Clichés in art: the problem isn’t that they’re false, the problem is when they’re lazy, when the artist doesn’t work to find the truth in the cliché which made it a cliché in the first place.  Scariest movies I’ve ever seen: (7) Psycho, (6) The Shining, (5) Alien, (4) Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, (3) Pinocchio, (2) Dumbo, (1) Mickey Mouse in Runaway Brain.  Johnnie To’s signature images--crane shots and full-bodied medium shots of people standing on eerily-empty streets (that just might be sets)--remind me of nothing so much as 1940s MGM musicals, particularly those starring Gene Kelly.  What makes Girl, Interrupted interesting and genuinely valuable as a movie is the extent to which it is a direct ideological response and correction to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  In a ’50s Hollywood landscape hyped up on the Method, John Ford often stood out as a poet among dramatists.  Lana Del Rey = Nancy Sinatra + Joan Didion + lip injections.  Watching the final act of A Midsummer Night’s Dream on stage recently (where the Athenians kick back and mock the players), I was surprised and overjoyed to discover that Shakespeare had invented Mystery Science Theater 3000 four hundred years early.  Amy Sherman-Palladino > Amy Heckerling > Nora Ephron > Eli Roth > Lena Dunham.  For Hitchock, the cinema was all about the temptation/repulsion of voyeurism; for David Fincher, it’s all about the terror/yearning of being watched.  It might not be out of place to consider Eyes Wide Shut in light of Nathaniel Hawthorne: Young Cruiseman Brown, as it were.  If sentimentality and brutality are linked, and they are, this might be a clue to the dark side of fandom and internet bullying: obsession and giddy investment in fictional relationships/melodrama/etc. can leads to lashing out with anger/hatred/violence at anyone who criticizes or takes it away.  Orson Welles once said of Jean-Luc Godard, “[H]is gifts as a director are enormous, I just can’t take him seriously as a thinker;” F for Fake can be read as Welles showing Godard how to use his style to think.  I find praise of Spike Jonze’s Her for its romanticism to be deeply disturbing; Her is a horror story or it is nothing.  Comic books ≠ superheroes of course, though the stereotype has been limiting to both the medium and the genre.  The reason many movie polls are so boring is the same reason Top 40 radio makes everything sound the same--they lack a motivating intelligence/sensibility, a sense of actual opinions being held that have a little risk and personality to them; instead, good movies/songs coexist next to bad ones with so little differentiation that it becomes one big stew of mediocrity.  If cinema is a matter of what’s in the frame and what’s out, too often television seems to be a matter of what comes before a commercial break and what comes after.  Watch Thief and Blackhat back-to-back and you might think the latter is a high-tech remake of the former.  Miyazaki places his small moments among his large setpieces, Takahata places occasional setpieces among his small moments.  High aesthetic ideals for art sound great until you realize they don’t let you enjoy your disreputable favorites; might that tension be the point at which new critical tastes are formed?   

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

" "

Bad filmmakers (sadly for them) have no ideas.  Good filmmakers (it's what limits them) tend to have too many.  Great filmmakers (especially the inventors) have only one.  This idée fixe enables them to keep moving on, to take the idea through ever-renewing and ever-interesting landscapes.  The price to pay is well-known: a certain solitude.  What about great critics?  It is the same thing, except there are none. . . All but one.  Between 1943 and 1958 (the year of his death: he was only forty) André Bazin was this one.
--Serge Daney  

Monday, July 18, 2016

Abbas Kiarostami (1940-2016)

There have already been a great many significant deaths this year, but Abbas Kiarostami's hit me harder than most.  I do not have the learning or experience to write a great eulogy for him, and his major features have all been lauded far beyond my poor power to add or subtract, so instead let me here mention a film of his that I believe many have overlooked.

In 2013, to celebrate its 70th anniversary, the Venice Film Festival commissioned short films from 70 world directors, broadly suggested to be about the future of cinema.  The films were all a minute-and-a-half in length, and have been posted to YouTube on the festival's channel here.  I watched many of them at the time, and it is still fascinating to view them now, because despite their brief run-times they nearly all clearly reflect the sensibilities and concerns of their directors.  (Claire Denis is one of the few exceptions: her short appears to be the view of a cell phone inside of a cloth bag--incongruously scored to the Tindersticks.)

This is not always a good thing: Catherine Breillat's short is bitter and ideologically puritanical, as is her wont; James Franco's is pretentious, semi-ironic, and self-exhibitionist, as is his; and Todd Solondz's film is kind of funny and kind of ugly and mocking.  On the other hand, Atom Egoyan manages to evoke mono no aware while deleting pictures from his phone; Ermanno Olmi the nostalgist presents a brief elegy for the moviola; and Apichatpong Weerasethakul creates something remarkably beautiful out of a dashboard shot of windshield wipers, catching strange yellow light and sound that suggests waves on a beach.

Fascinatingly, Jia Zhang-Ke and Wang Bing provide two opposing views of modern China: Jia depicts young professional millennials watching the classics of Chinese cinema on phones, tablets, and projected in malls--yet being moved by the emotions of the films nonetheless.  The environments depicted are hyper-modern, and the short seems like it could be a TV commercial for the newest iPhone.  Wang shows us a few moments of a poor dirt farmer whose livelihood has likely been the same for millennia, and seems to have little need for or experience of cinema in any form.  Thanks to cinema, however, thousands of people around the world have now seen a small part of his life.

Yet of all these films, my favorite would have to be Kiarostami's, embedded at the top of this post.  Within this brief 90-second window, we find a surprisingly large number of the themes of Kiarostami's career: children, the relation between young and old, a documentary-like depiction of life, non-professional actors, minimal camera movement or editing, a careful parceling out of information to the audience, the capabilities of the digital camera, sound design which is just as important as the image, and above all, a concern with the nature of cinema and how it reveals truth.  Of course, none of this is intrusive or even assertive, and the film can easily be appreciated and understood by a child. (One is reminded of his early short films for children, though this is not nearly as didactic.)  With this short, Kiarostami puts his faith in the future of cinema; it is significant also that the boy-director he shows us is making a film that harks back to the slapstick values of early film: to move forward, it is still necessary to remember the past and take its lessons with us.

Let us hope the filmmakers of the future remember the lessons of Abbas Kiarostami, for we shall need them.

Friday, July 1, 2016

" "

Gutenberg and post-Gutenberg literature contains communal dreams, shared myths or archetypes.  And it is distinguished by the mythopoeic color of its creators, their ability to sense what already existed in the popular mind, rather than by any unique vision or ability in executive skills.  For this reason popular works of literature tend to pass immediately into the public domain.
. . .
As a matter of fact, one of the distinctions between popular and high literature can be made on the basis of this, as Edgar Allan Poe, in a review of James Fenimore Cooper, pointed out.  There is a certain kind of book, he wrote, which is forgotten though its author is remembered (High Literature); and there is a certain kind of book whose author is forgotten though the work is remembered.
. . .
It is a characteristic of popular literature that it changes its medium because it never really belonged to any medium to begin with.  Popular Literature is not "words on the page," as some critics would have us believe.  Like all literature, it is finally, essentially, images in the head.  Once its images pass through words (the text is transparent, downright irrelevant) into our heads, such primordial images, or archetypes, or myths . . . can pass out again easily into any other medium. . . . They still retain their authenticity and the resonance of feeling that was originally connected with them.
. . .
But in the realm of Popular Art, overt and conscious ideas could not matter less.  What matters is the stirring up of the collective unconscious, the evocation of closely shared nightmares of race and sex: the drama of protecting little sister against the rapist, whoever she may be and whatever color: Black/White, White/Black.  You can mix them and match them and it makes no difference in popular appeal.  Is it white innocence assaulted by black bestiality?  Is it black innocence assaulted by white brutality?  The audience loves it in any case.  And this leads me to my final point about popular culture:  It is neither good nor bad--it is beyond good and evil, as we define the terms, in whatever culture we may live.
. . .
Maybe, then, just maybe it is possible for us to say that the value of popular literature, like the popular arts in general, is that it joins together at the level of the unconscious people who are, on ever conscious level, in this post-industrial society divided.  Our religion divides us, our politics divides us, our attitude toward education divides us: the only thing that holds us together is Kojak, Star Wars, Rich Man, Poor Man. . . . All literature--all art--is the same. . . . When I think of the books I have loved best in my life, I realize that what I admire in them is what I love in pop art at its most gross, flagrant, vulgar, brutal and unrefined: the mythopoeic power of the author.  Never mind his ability to instruct and delight, to create beautiful, elegant, architectonic forms to teach those thins which we think are important for the future of mankind.  Instruction and delight are optional . . . What really moves us to transport--what Longinus calls "ekstasis"--taking us out of our heads and out of our bodies, out of our normal consciousness is the ability of all great books, great pop books, great elite books, to turn us again into savages and children; and releasing us thus from bondage not merely to the restrictions of conscience or superego, but to consciousness and rationality, which is to say, the ego itself.
--Leslie Fiedler, "Giving the Devil His Due"

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

" "

Art was the speech of the folk revival--and yet, at bottom, the folk revival did not believe in art at all.  Rather, life--a certain kind of life--equaled art, which ultimately meant that life replaced it.  The kind of life that equaled art was defined by suffering, deprivation, poverty, and social exclusion . . . the poor are art because they sing their lives without the false consciousness of captialism and the false desires of advertising.
. . .
When art is confused with life, it is not merely art that is lost.  When art equals life there is no art, but when life equals art there are no people.
--Greil Marcus, The Old, Weird America

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Dylan @ 75

(image source)

Happy 75th Birthday to Bob Dylan!

When I type "bob dylan" into the search box in my iTunes library, I come up with 551 items (including covers, duplicates, and alternate versions). And yet I know that there are vast depths out there that I haven't even heard, much less own, and my silly boasts wouldn't impress any of the long-time Dylan fans out there who have lived with his music for decades and know obsessive details about every song he's ever released. But as a salute to one of the great American artists, I hereby offer my (as of this minute and sure to change) Top 25 Bob Dylan Songs:

1. Tangled Up in Blue (Blood on the Tracks, 1975)
2. Mr. Tambourine Man (Bringing It All Back Home, 1965)
3. Like a Rolling Stone (Highway 61 Revisited, 1965)
4. Ring Them Bells (Oh Mercy, 1989)
5. A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall (The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, 1963)
6. Ain't Talkin' (Modern Times, 2006)
7. Shelter from the Storm (Blood on the Tracks, 1975)
8. Visions of Johanna (Blonde on Blonde, 1966)
9. It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding) (Bringing It All Back Home, 1965)
10. Sign on the Window (New Morning, 1970)
11. Blind Willie McTell (The Bootleg Series Vol. 1-3: Rare & Unreleased 1961-1991, rec. 1983)
12. I Was Young When I Left Home (The Bootleg Series Vol. 7: No Direction Home: The Soundtrack, rec. 1961)
13. Every Grain of Sand (Shot of Love, 1981)
14. The Times They Are A-Changin' (The Times They Are A-Changin', 1964)
15. All Along the Watchtower (John Wesley Harding, 1967)
16. I Want You (Blonde on Blonde, 1966)
17. Ballad of a Thin Man (Highway 61 Revisited, 1965)
18. Love Sick (Time Out of Mind, 1997)
19. Highway 61 Revisited (Highway 61 Revisited, 1965)
20. Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again (Blonde on Blonde, 1966)
21. Bob Dylan's 115th Dream (Bringing It All Back Home, 1965)
22. High Water (For Charley Patton) (Love & Theft, 2001)
23. Lay Lady Lay (Nashville Skyline, 1969)
24. When I Paint My Masterpiece [Demo version] (The Bootleg Series Vol. 10: Another Self Portrait, 1969-1971, rec. 1971)
25. Mississippi (Love & Theft, 2001)

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Midnight Special, Lemonade, Heat

Midnight Special (Nichols, 2016) Rating: 8/10 stars.

It could be a feature-length episode of The X-Files, or perhaps Escape to Witch Mountain as directed by John Carpenter.  Or it may answer the question, What if Tomorrowland was good?  The ending is a problem--Nichols always seems to have problems with endings--but I do not think it is an insurmountable one.  Sometimes you just have to go where a movie wants to take you.

One thing I found gratifying about the film was the faces.  In the Hollywood of past decades, particularly the 1970s, there were plenty of actors with weathered, craggy faces to fill roles of weathered, craggy men and women living in the American interior, or else the hard, meaty faces of blue-collar factory and dock workers from the coasts.  Lee Marvin, Warren Oates, Ernest Borgnine, Charles Bronson, Strother Martin, Harry Dean Stanton, John Cazale--the list goes on.  Among actresses, we might mention Sissy Spacek, Shelley Duvall, or Talia Shire--but the demands on beauty have always been much greater for actresses.  These faces were memorable because directors then knew how to use them, knew that performers like that brought an authenticity you can't fake to their films.  Such faces have died out in modern Hollywood.  To a certain extent they have died down in American society, what with good plumbing and acne medication and all (most of the performers I just listed lived through the Great Depression, and a few fought in World War 2).

Jeff Nichols is one of the few directors in current American movies who seems to go looking for such faces, and even if what he finds can't equal the past, he still manages to create a convincing rural American through face and texture alone.  Here he casts Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Adam Driver, and Sam Shepard (not to mention character actors like Bill Camp and David Jensen), and even manages to transform Kirsten Dunst into utterly convincing Pennsylvania Dutch motherhood.  Such actors feel like blue collar America in a way so many others do not.  And when one takes a wider lay of the land and sees character actors like Shea Wigham, Jason Clarke, Ben Mendelsohn, and Scoot McNairy gaining in prominence and getting cast all over the place, why, it's almost enough to make one optimistic about Hollywood.

Lemonade (Knowles et al., 2016) Rating: 8/10 stars.

Watching this, I'm reminded of the review I read when Watch the Throne came out, which said the big thing that distinguished Kanye from Jay-Z was--humility.  Paradoxically true then, obvious now.

Love to see the references to everything from Ganja & Hess to David Lynch--Beyonce is really stretching herself, and this is going to lead a lot of people in a lot of new directions in their movie-watching.  I put Daughters of the Dust on my watchlist like 9 months ago and I still haven't gotten around to it, and now I feel like I'm late to the party or something!  I gotta get on that.  [UPDATE: I did, and it's wonderful.]  Beyonce reads Warsan Shire's poetry with rich and biting intonation that lends suspense to every line; I suspect these poems sound better aloud than read on a page.  The synergy between the music and the images is remarkable, with both visual and musical compositions striking and memorable.

I do have a few caveats, though: I remain a little uncomfortable with the way Beyonce, surely the second most powerful black woman in the country (maybe the world?), equates her personal problems with a cheating husband to the larger historical oppression of all poor and enslaved African-American women.  But the usual identity politics activists don't seem bothered by this point at all, and I'm a lot more uncomfortable with ever coming off more politically puritanical that that sort of commentator on such issues, so I guess I'll just shut up about it.  On more aesthetic grounds, let's get one thing clear: as much as this apes Malick throughout (in ways so obvious I'm not even going to list them), it's not "better than" or even (IMO) "as good as" Malick.  The editing here is nowhere near as radical, the interplay between music, voice, and image is nowhere near as complex, and the artistic risk and ambition is not as great.  Knight of Cups is in a different order of magnitude--and has more to say about the world we live in today besides.

(Not to mention the pacing problems--this is still a pop album first, experimental film second.)

But still, this is pretty darn good, and way better than I expected.

Heat (Richards, Jameson, 1986) Rating: 6/10 stars.

Odd, twisty little Las Vegas-set crime movie. Twisty not in the sense that it effectively manipulates the audience, but in the way it keeps shifting gears and tones in unusual/surprising ways. After opening with a fake-out confrontation that posits Burt Reynolds as a neanderthal attempted-rapist who gets beaten up by a weak-chinned but righteous boyfriend, the movie then reveals him as a weird cross between lovable loser and unbeatable hitman, and his various jobs include playacting, gambling, extortion, bodyguarding, and fight training (all taken in a quixotic attempt to move to Italy and retire).

The action scenes are chopped up into shards of slow-motion bloody violence in a way that isn't really successful, and the whole thing is alternately gritty and goofy, but it can still surprise with moments of poetry. I'm thinking here of the scene where Reynolds and his rich-kid trainee/employer bond while gazing out on the vividly lit Vegas strip from a balcony, and Reynolds admits:

-"I've never been here when the sun's up."


-"I have a feeling it turns into the real world then."

Thursday, April 28, 2016

" "

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

" "

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

" "

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

" "

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)

Best of 2015

 1. Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller)
Anchored by two co-leads giving equally brilliant performances in two different registers that complement each other nicely (Theron with the blazing, passionate star turn, Hardy with the precise, subtle inward one), Mad Max: Fury Road works as well on a character level as it does on the levels of spectacle and theme.  George Miller’s Mad Max trilogy, now a quartet, was already one of the major works of post-apocalyptic vision the cinema had produced, its visual influence extending through film, television, and comics as widely as Blade Runner’s.  With Fury Road, he proves his Aussie auto-wasteland future boundless in its potential and ambition; it stands out among our current glut of blockbusters on apocalyptic themes like a tyrannosaur among wildebeest.  The series’ survey of the extremes of human society has now cycled through the final moments before a tired civilization’s collapse (Mad Max), nomadic existence plagued by brigands (The Road Warrior), the growth of trade hubs into cities with a semblance of order (Beyond Thunderdome), and now an empire, ruled by a dictator who styles himself a god and stratifies society by class and gender.  Remarkably, there is room in every tale for the softer sides of humanity to bleed through, for the eternal principles of morality, justice, and compassion to prove themselves more forcefully in their battles with nihilism and absolutism.  In the end, whether you wish to count it as a work of action cinema harkening back to The General and Stagecoach, a work of dystopian science fiction in the vein of Harlan Ellison or RIchard Matheson, or a work that explores the nature of the human through the use of the grotesque, as Freaks and The Elephant Man did before, you just have to call it cinema.
2. Blackhat (Michael Mann)
(Full review to come.)

3. It Follows (David Robert Mitchell)
A slasher flick made with the precise framing and careful parcelling of information of an art film, few movies this year had as much control of mood and tone as It Follows.  Director David Robert Mitchell took the images and themes laid out by John Carpenter’s Halloween--high school and college students, sleepy Midwestern suburb, a killer lurking in the background as an ominous Shape, and most notoriously, the equation of sex and death--and reconfigured them with enough artistry that they transcend the clichés they had become, reasserting their original primal power.  With a young cast that actually feel genuine and relatable, and a spine-tingling musical score, Mitchell has created one of the most haunting horror films I have ever seen.

4. Inside Out (Pete Docter, Ronaldo Del Carmen)
The image of personified figures inside one’s head, acting out internal human conflicts, is very old.  The oldest version I can think of is John Bunyan’s The Holy War (1682), an allegory of Christian spiritual conflict in the town of “Mansoul,” featuring characters like Mayor Understanding, Lord Willbewill, and Conscience the town Recorder.  Inside Out is an allegory of emotional growth for a secular age that views humanity primarily through the lens of psychology, with the attendant insights and limitations such a perspective allows.  A fascinating depiction of what the end of childhood feels like from the inside, its elegant metaphors are worked out in astonishing detail, leading to hours of potential thought and investigation.  Pixar’s visual style, here influenced by Dr. Seuss and Bill Watterson, achieves a new peak of sophistication (even if it’s not as gorgeous as Brave or Wall-E), and continues to prove its character animation is the best in the world.

5. The Assassin (Hou Hsiao-Hsien)
Easily the most visually beautiful film of the year, and an early contender for most beautiful of the decade--which, in an era of multiple Malick films, is saying something. An art-film variation on the wuxia genre (the Chinese martial-arts epic), it reminded me of Wong Kar-Wai’s Ashes of Time in its focus on emotion, contemplation, and stillness, rather than brief, sudden sword-fighting--though it takes stillness much further than Wong ever has.  More importantly, it acts as a commentary on the traditional revenge-tragedy plot of the wuxia, rejecting such fatalism in favor of choice and mercy, and in the process achieving a moral beauty commensurate with its images.

6. Spotlight (Tom McCarthy)
A procedural, yes.  A celebration of old-fashioned journalism in a world plagued by click-bait, absolutely.  More than that, an exploration of institutions: both the Church and the Newspaper, the First and Fourth Estates. Tom McCarthy’s underrated direction maps the inside of the Boston Globe offices for us, arranging his characters in shots with careful attention to power and relational dynamics and a perceptive eye for the way working conditions are shaped by office geography.  As the clues of the case are laid out carefully, we discover the world-famous story along with our characters, each factual revelation evoking dawning horror and deepening our understanding of hidden connections and structural issues.  We begin to understand what a “culture of silence” really is, its limits and its effects.  And as one institution is indicted, its blindspots and hypocrisies exposed, another is commended--though not unconditionally.  The print newspaper’s inner workings are revealed, its potential for heroism through plodding legwork, the necessity of good editing as well as good reporting, the ways it is tied to the community, and its limits and disadvantages.  For it is clear that part of the horror of the story is the importance of the Church’s role, the way its sacred purpose has been perverted; and the newspaper as an institution is similarly capable of corruption, of bowing to outside pressures, even of succumbing to the culture of silence itself.  No one gets off easy here. But always, always, the impact on the individual human being in the midst of these institutions is kept paramount.

7. Creed (Ryan Coogler)
As many have noted, Creed takes the racial politics of the original Rocky series and turns them on their ear.  While the first couple films in the franchise were by no means racist in their depiction of individual black characters, they gave voice unavoidably to a white working class in the newly defined "Rust Belt" that felt itself slipping and falling behind while blacks appeared to be culturally ascendant for the first time, generating resentment and desperation; and the movies did focus on defeating black boxers who could be fairly described as arrogant, perhaps bordering on "uppity."  Where the original Rocky was realistic and insightful about what it meant to be a young Italian-American man in 1976 (the bicentennial year), Creed is insightful and (mostly) realistic about what it means to be a young African-American man in 2015 (nearing the end of the Obama era).  Straddling the lines of black experience almost as comprehensively as Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly--Adonis is both rich and poor, oppressed and privileged, juvenile delinquent and business school graduate, fatherless and perpetually under his father’s shadow, desperately searching for an identity of his own he can be proud of--Creed is ultimately the more open, inclusive, and optimistic statement (perhaps inevitably, as an entry in this franchise).  Just as significant for the success of the film, though, is the way director Ryan Coogler genuinely understands the conventions of the underdog boxing movie, and how thoroughly he rethinks and revises them.  Whether it’s by shooting an entire boxing match in one take that puts us inside the ring, or re-imagining the training montage to include both triumph and tragedy (strengthening muscles and enduring chemotherapy at the same time), or a bravura final fight scene that shifts between multiple editing strategies as if they were movements in a symphony, Coogler proves himself a major filmmaker in both theme and style.  This one is gonna be a classic.

8. Ex Machina (Alex Garland)
This is a small but remarkably focused sci-fi film that reveals new layers with new scene, gradually building a thesis not just on the nature of what makes us human, but on gender roles, sexual fantasies, power dynamics, and particular strains of modern masculinity, as well.  It’s elegant use of special effects in the service of character should be a model for the future filmmakers.  A deft switch in viewer identification towards the end leaves events unresolved and morally ambiguous, but provides us with some absolute certainty about the nature of individuality.  A worthy companion to Blade Runner and A.I. Artificial Intelligence.  (Incidentally, does the academy have it in for Oscar Isaac or what?  Snubbed for both Inside Llewyn Davis and his brilliant role here--in favor of Tom Hardy’s worst performance ever in The Revenant?  Come on!)

9. The Martian (Ridley Scott)
This is the kind of giddy, completely satisfying crowd-pleaser only Hollywood can make, but they only seem to actually put out once in a blue moon.  Ridley Scott has ppossibly never been more optimistic, and the whole thing glides along with a cheerful can-do attitude rather incongruous with its story of desperate survival.  Based on a book that began life as an amateur online blog fic with an audience of science nerds, a large part of the thrill of the film is how rigorous, believable, and realistic it is (with a couple exceptions: Mars doesn’t have enough atmosphere for the type of storm that kicks off the whole plot).  For an old homeschooler and Science Olympiad alum like me, the valorization of geeky problem-solving and scientific expertise here felt like it was made especially for me and my high school crowd.  Along with Interstellar and Tomorrowland (and Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who), The Martian is finally a statement of simultaneous nostalgia and optimism--an implicit rejection of the pessimistic apocalyptic vision that has dominated the science fiction of the 21st century, a resurrection of the triumphal vision of mid-century sc-fi, and an assertion of faith in the human capacity for innovation, cooperation, and perseverance.  These movies represent a call for new stories, and a belief that the stories we tell about our future are in some sense self-fulfilling prophecies.  Whatever happened to how we felt at that moment in 1969 when man first walked on the Moon?

10. Office (Johnnie To)
Fans of Hong Kong director Johnnie To have been hoping for years that he would make a musical, yet when he finally offered one this year many responses were underwhelmed.  Based on a stage play, the film is shot on elaborately stylized and artificial sets, and scored with Cantopop that sounds foreign and thin to Western ears (including mine).  Perhaps we shouldn't have been surprised at the stylization; To tends to make real locations look like sets, anyway, and his elaborate camera moves in movies like Breaking News are already legendary.  More importantly, he is in firm command of his characters and themes here, and the stylization serves them well.  In Office, To harkens back to King Vidor's The Crowd in his vision of corporate capitalism as one more collectivist constraint on individualism, and to Billy Wilder's The Apartment as ambition, competition, and obsequiousness distort romantic relationships, but it is ultimately angrier and blunter than both, railing not merely against corporate culture, but the whole system of engrained and globalized capitalism.  And despite its theatricality, obvious schematization, and sense of predictability usually missing from To's films, the film actually manages to convince me.  It is not a call for revolution or socialist thesis statement; the alternatives longed for are individualism, honesty, a break from competition, and a return to a quiet and peaceful hometown where there is no opportunity for advancement but no desire for it either.

11. Sicario (Denis Villeneuve)
Sicario’s central problem is that it has two thematic objectives which work at cross-purposes with each other: it wants to be both a ripped-from-the-headlines journalistic expose and a journey-to-the-heart-of-darkness plunge into moral ambiguity.  These oppositional objectives really should cripple the film, and they probably do prevent it from being a truly great one, but the truth is that Sicario is far too good on a scene-by-scene basis to let this failure pull it under.  Working in a generic line that stretches back through Breaking Bad, Zero Dark Thirty, and No Country for Old Men all the way to Chinatown, director Denis Villeneuve crafts a supremely tense, detailed narrative of crime and law enforcement along the Mexican-American border.  In this he is hugely indebted to cinematographer Roger Deakins, who’s been a legend for a decade already and keeps proving just how great he is with each new film (not that the Oscars will ever let him win).  But even when Deakins isn’t doing amazing things with balanced compositions and light and shadow, the film is anchored by superlative performances from Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, and Benicio Del Toro.  And the plotting is tight and exact--the occasional dumb line aside--taking us through the horrifying realities of the Drug War today and its moral compromises better than any fictional film has done since Traffic in 2000, at least.

12. The Hateful Eight (Quentin Tarantino)
(Full review to come.)

Honorable Mentions:  Brooklyn (John Crowley), Timbuktu (Abderrahmane Sissako), Bridge of Spies (Steven Spielberg), Shaun the Sheep Movie (Mark Burton, Richard Starzack), Love & Mercy (Bill Pohlad)

Most Overrated:  Trainwreck (Judd Apatow)

Most Underrated/Underseen:  Blackhat (Michael Mann), Office (Johnnie To)

Favorite Guilty Pleasure:  Jupiter Ascending (The Wachowskis)

Worst Movie I Saw This Year:  True Story (Rupert Goold)

Link to my complete list of "movies I saw this year" on Letterboxd HERE.

I have also compiled a list of the best older movies I saw for the first time this year.  You can find the complete list of 30 films in full color on Letterboxd, but here's the Top 10 in black and white:

1. Heaven Can Wait (Lubitsch, 1943)
2. The Shop Around the Corner (Lubitsch, 1940)
3. The Women (Cukor, 1939)
4. Kiss Me Deadly (Aldrich, 1955)
5. Thief (Mann, 1981)
6. The Lady Eve (Sturges, 1941)
7. Femme Fatale (De Palma, 2002)
8. Ninotchka (Lubitsch, 1939)
9. Videodrome (Cronenberg, 1983)
10. Vivre Sa Vie (Godard, 1962)