Friday, May 29, 2009

Notable film and media links--May 31, 2009

---Have you seen the new leaked Lady Gaga "Paparazzi" video complete with Vertigo spiraling and falling imagery, dead bodies voguing, and Helmut Newtonesque eroticized metallic braces?  We may not know entirely what she looks like, but Ms. Gaga has an absolute paranoia of boring the viewer for one second, and I like her decadent fin de siecle sensibility.

---For Vanity Fair, Julian Sancton wonders "Did Christian Bale's Seriousness Ruin Terminator Salvation?"  I think Sancton overstates the case a bit, but when one learns that John Connor's role only had "three minutes of screen time in the original script,"  that explains the character's total lack of emotional range.   

---Now that Donald Duck has taken Germany by storm, I'm all ready to move to Berlin.  

---For Sunset Gun, Kom Morgan considers the unresolved mysteries of Sofia Coppola's The Virgin Suicides:

"The Virgin Suicides is shot with a gauzy, haloed beauty that is obsessive but never perverse (and the haunting music by Air is especially poignant and otherworldly). The point is to capture an adolescence lost, both to the sisters and to the boys themselves. Coppola's intelligence, sensitivity and ethereal style avoids obvious irony and easy interpretation, which can be maddening -- but then suicide is maddening, both for those who achieve the act and those who suffer the aftermath. Coppola's vision of this uptight suburbia is made both erotic and exotic by these fairy-tale Rapunzels who live there -- troubled, creative and intriguing girls trapped in the unfathomable and misty glaze of worship and memories."

---For The New York Times, Katie Hafner reports that American teenagers text each other for "almost 80 messages a day," a new habit that "is beginning to worry physicians and psychologists, who say it is leading to anxiety, distraction in school, falling grades, repetitive stress injury and sleep deprivation."

---For The Guardian, David Thomson meditates upon our changing attitude towards screen villains:

"It is very hard nowadays for the movies to keep a straight face while telling us to be afraid and disapproving of villains. Look at the first two parts of The Godfather, still in many ways the essential works of modern American cinema. I would guess that Francis Coppola would have said (and believed) he was making a study in the corruption of power and evil. Michael Corleone goes from being a decent Ivy League kid, the saved soul of the family, to being the prince of darkness. Except that's not how audiences read the films, or why they keep going back to them. Yes, Michael is a creep, a control freak, a very cold guy and the killer of his own brother. But he is also the man keeping the family together and maintaining its business. He is the bleak model of a ruthless leadership to which we all aspire - we all want to be Corleones."

---Movie Man treats us to a compilation of "100 of the best movie lines in 200 seconds."

---While we still can, now is a good time to appreciate Fellini's 8 1/2 with Ed Howard before Rob Marshall releases Nine

---Have you heard of the next possible wave in communications media?--

"Here's how it works: In Google Wave you create a wave and add people to it. Everyone on your wave can use richly formatted text, photos, gadgets, and even feeds from other sources on the web. They can insert a reply or edit the wave directly. It's concurrent rich-text editing, where you see on your screen nearly instantly what your fellow collaborators are typing in your wave. That means Google Wave is just as well suited for quick messages as for persistent content — it allows for both collaboration and communication. You can also use "playback" to rewind the wave and see how it evolved."

---We all know about Sasha Grey in Steven Soderbergh's The Girlfriend Experience and her taste in art films (Pierrot le fou?), but are we ready for The Boyfriend Experience?

Thursday, May 28, 2009

When cool turns to complacent: notes on Ocean's Thirteen (June 8, 2007)

Note: with all of the talk of Soderbergh's The Girlfriend Experience in the blogosphere, I thought that perhaps this of-the-period review of Ocean's Thirteen might be of interest.

Back in 1960, Frank Sinatra and his rat pack pals starred in a whimsical Las Vegas heist film called Ocean's 11. Now, in a summer remarkably lacking in new ideas, Warner Brothers brings us Ocean's 13, the sequel to the sequel of the remake of Ocean's 11, all of which star George Clooney (Danny Ocean) and Brad Pitt (Rusty Ryan).

Since the heist genre assures its audience an evening of wit, close shaves, and clever contrivances, this film has its points. For one thing, it does not cater to a teenage audience, and it relies on verbal sparring and flashy Las Vegas set designs instead of the usual computer generated special effects. Directed by the capable Steven Soderbergh, who makes money with the Ocean series so he can explore more artistic material in other films such as Bubble and Traffic, Ocean's 13 relies upon the charm of its well-dressed leads, the difficulty of its capers, the gee-whiz technology of its devices, and the fun of a bunch of handsome con men getting away with stuff. But overall, I found the film static, complacent, and almost bored with its conventions. Beyond Clooney's easy grin, the plot lacks urgency, so there's a weird inertia for much of the movie.

Perhaps part of the problem lies with the premise. Reuben Tishkoff (Elliot gould) expects to be Willie Bank's (Al Pacino's) partner in the opening of a new casino/hotel, but Willie muscles in and takes over the whole establishment, leaving Reuben to suffer a heart attack on the worksite of the new building. As Reuben lingers in a depressive funk in bed, Ocean calls in the gang to wreak revenge on Bank. While they used to rob for profit, now they mess with Bank out of humanitarian concern for Reuben, and this adds to the film's self-congratulatory air.

With bronzed skin and slightly bugged out eyes behind ghastly designer frames, Al Pacino suggests more than embodies the gangster menace of his prototypical roles in Scarface and The Godfather series, and I was saddened by the way he has aged onscreen. Ocean's 13 refers to the original The Godfather multiple times, both with casting (James Caan's son Scott stars as one of the 13), and with snippets of dialogue lifted from the classic film, but all of the allusions just reminded me of how Pacino has become a cartoon version of his former self.

In The Godfather, his character has to wrestle between family loyalty and his own war-hero ethics. In this new film, Pacino plays a boorish Trump-like figure obsessed with having his hotel earn yet another Five Diamond Award. His business rapaciousness is comically undermined by a desire to please his high roller clients, but there's never much doubt about who will succeed as the 13 take on the big grand opening of the casino.

So, without anything else to keep me involved, I found myself wondering about what kind of shiny bronze suit Brad Pitt will wear next, or why Matt Damon dressed up like James Bond's Dr. No (complete with a hook nose) to comically seduce poor Ellen Barkin.

For those of you who would like to see a casino hand out money for a change, the climax does give some pleasure. Also, the devilish 13 find all kinds of humorous and creative ways to make the hotel inspector's experience the worst possible visit with bed bugs, foul smells, and restaurant food that makes him vomit after dinner. But as Pitt nibbles on oriental dumplings and strategizes with Clooney, they both seem to be marking time before taking on their next more challenging role. Even as the 13 applaud themselves for their "style, brio, and loyalty," there's a point where looking cool starts to resemble nothing more than boredom.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Notable film and media links--May 25, 2009--Memorial Day edition

---I really enjoyed this David Denby article about Victor Fleming, the man who may be largely responsible for The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind:

"Fleming’s talent was not `the same' as Cukor’s, yet he was definitely the right man for `Gone with the Wind,' and he did inventive and powerful work on `Oz.' But in the seventy years since the release of those films, Fleming, whose talent flowed not smoothly or subtly, but roughly, in surges of energy and feeling, has been largely forgotten. The auteur-theory critics who, in the nineteen-sixties and seventies, went wild over Cukor, Hitchcock, Preminger, John Ford, Howard Hawks, Ernst Lubitsch, Josef von Sternberg, Frank Capra, and many other directors of the late silent and early sound periods, ignored Fleming, though he had made a number of entertaining movies in the nineteen-twenties and thirties and his two super-productions of 1939 are very likely the most widely seen movies in American film history—not just good pictures but films that have entered the unconscious of generations of moviegoers."

---Joseph Belanger of Black Sheep Reviews interviews Steven Soderbergh about The Girlfriend Experience:

"On screen, Grey is always in control of what she allows herself to say and how she allows herself to be seen and treated. Detractors of the film have claimed that Grey’s distant, aloof demeanor leave the film feeling shallow but Soderbergh begs to differ. For him, the film would lose everything it has going if Grey had played it any other way. She is meant to be mystery."

---Taking a differing view, Fox of Tractor Facts pans The Girlfriend Experience as little more than a "yawn" and an "exploitative stunt."

---Meanwhile, Todd Brown of Twitch treats us to three video clips from The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus with Heath Ledger and Lily Cole.  Looks pretty dreamy.  

---In trendy director news, Anne Thompson interviews Quentin Tarantino for The Daily Beast, and  Geoff Boucher interviews Michael Bay for Los Angeles Times:

"We're still not quite sure how he does it when he's directing," says screenwriter Alex Kurtzman, who worked on both "Transformers" films. "People who work closest with him call his method 'Bay-os' because it feels like wartime chaos. There are explosions going off in every direction and half as many cameras flying all over the place, and you stand there thinking none of it's going to make any sense, then you watch the scenes cut together and realize something shocking: He's choreographed a ballet. He knows exactly which pieces he's going to use from each camera and he'd already cut the scene together in his head."

---Girish meditates on the "metaphor of cinema as writing":

"Robert Stam points out that the graphological trope of film-as-writing has been especially dominant in France since the fifties. The New Wave films contain a surfeit of writing imagery: `From Truffaut's Les Mistons (1958) through Godard's 2 ou 3 choses que je sais d'elle(1967) we encounter people writing: on walls (Jules et Jim), on cars (Masculin, Feminin), in dairies (Pierrot le Fou), on advertisements (Le Gai Savoir), and in notebooks (2 ou 3 choses).'

Stam shows how Truffaut's 400 Blows prefigures this obsession. In the credit sequence, the director's name is superimposed on an image of the cinémathèque. The first shot following the credits shows a student writing at a desk. Antoine writes a poem on a wall, and is punished by having to conjugate a sentence. He forges a note from his mother, and later steals a typewriter to avoid having his handwriting recognized. And so on."

---In media news, Cringely considers a possible future of Internet TV:

"I’m guessing we’ll shortly see $3 billion or so per year go into buying Internet rights for TV shows — not old TV shows but NEW TV shows, shows of all types.

TV production in the U.S. is approximately a $15 billion industry.  An extra $3 billion thrown into that business would change its dynamics completely.  Most production isn’t done by networks but by independent producers who are hungry for revenue and risk reduction.  Three billion Apple dollars spread around that crowd every year would buy Internet rights for EVERY show — more than every show in fact.  Whole new classes of shows would be invented, sapping talent from other parts of the industry.  It would be invigorating and destabilizing at the same time.  And because it is Apple — a company with real style — the new shows wouldn’t at all be crap programming.  They’d be new and innovative.

And just as the artistic heart of TV shifted to cable with HBO in the 1980s, so it will shift to the Internet and Apple.

And where will be Hulu?

Nobody will care."

---Lastly, in reply to Terminator Salvation, AV Club lines up "16 plus ridiculous killer robots."  I especially liked this hilarious clip of Robot Monster (1953).

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Surrogate city: 10 notes on Terminator Salvation

1) Visiting the cineplex yesterday was liking happening upon a seminar on America's love affair with the machine.  

2) First, there were the trailers.  Michael Bay emphasizes the emotional sensitivity of his Transformers by having one visibly droop when Shia LeBeouf announces that he's leaving for college.  In Surrogates (due out in September), Bruce Willis inhabits a plausible future where everyone lies on their backs in their rooms as their surrogate robots head out into the real world to live for them.  The actual humans experience the sensory world of these surrogates through electrodes hooked up to their eyes, brains, etc.  Lastly, in an upcoming film called Gamer, people manipulate actual slaves into fighting battles for them in the ultimate reality/multiplayer online video game adventure.  And now, on to our feature, killer robots that rule the earth! 

3) What is the message here? People are increasingly living vicariously through technology. They do this because the outside world is dangerous, so robots, slaves, and surrogates get to have all of the actual fun, take all of the risks. In Bruce Willis' case, he only really starts to live once he rejects the surrogate system, and leaves his apartment. So where does leave us, sitting in the cineplex?  Still tied to the simulacra of the machine-filled machine, living out surrogate adventures. 

4) I was still surprised by how much I liked much of the first two-thirds of Terminator Salvation.  I read in Entertainment Weekly that the film's director McG is trying to transform himself into James Cameron, the original director of the original (and still the best) Terminator.  With his comical fast food name and history as a successful but otherwise derided director of the Charlie's Angels franchise, McG badly wants uber-masculine action film cred, so he begins this film with macho Marcus Wright (the relatively unknown Sam Worthington) signing off his corpse for scientific purposes before getting executed by lethal injection for killing several people back in 2003.  Later, after some medical work on his body, he wakes up in a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles in 2018 where a small army of resistance fighters wage war on a world-dominating cabal of evil machines known as Skynet.  In his quiet, understated way, Marcus is quite equal to the occasion, fixing an old jeep and a radio, eventually deciding to take on Skynet practically by himself.  He is likably mellow.  What would give a character more street cred than being executed on death row and then returning to life?  

5) As the semi-mythical hero John Connor, Christian Bale fights his way into some bunker with caged humans and a terminator production line before discovering his entire squad has been wiped out.  Soon after, Connor hops on to a helicopter, flies up, and then loses control of the copter before crashing upside down (all in one shot).  Bale spends the entire film looking intense and heroic, so I was relieved when the action shifted back to the more relaxed Marcus.

6) Meanwhile, in scenes reminiscent of The Road Warrior, Marcus meets up with a teenage Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin) who happens to be John Connor's father due to the mysteries of time travel.  Also, Marcus finds a post-apocalyptic child named Star (Jadagrace), who struck me as a blend between the feral child of The Road Warrior and Jaden Smith.  Marcus, Kyle, and Star struggle to elude all kinds of complicated robots including some fun terminator-motorcycle-bots, flying frisbee-bots, and once especially large robot that towers over a defunct gas station and blows up fleeing humans in my favorite scene in the film.  

7) As our heroic band of warriors work their way towards getting captured inside a flying Skynet cattle car (some of them, anyway), Terminator Salvation begs the question.  Where is all this weaponry coming from?  Was it all lying around after the nuclear holocaust?  Who takes care of the mechanical upkeep of all these elaborate Skynet machines?  I guess the robots take care of themselves?  Who supplies all of the resources to keep all of this gleaming machinery going?

8) Also, why are there multiple fires burning in all night scenes, especially when they can attract Skynet attention?  

9) [Slight spoiler alert] Soon enough, it turns out that Marcus is, unbeknownst to himself, manufactured out a hybrid nervous and robot system, making him something of a special Toyota Prius model of the terminator line.  Marcus also has a human heart, so he's not happy to learn of his metallic innards.  Having a fondness for crucifiction imagery, McG has Marcus hang from his arms while tied to a metal pole as John Connor looks on in disgust.  How can John trust a man who could be programmed to kill the rebel insurgents?      

10) By the time the film boils down to the usual climactic battle between good and evil in the enemy stronghold (see X-Men Origins: Wolverine), things get bombastic, melodramatic, and silly. After much metal-crunching and robotic action, Terminator Salvation dutifully stresses how the human heart makes people superior to machines, but, as usual with this franchise, the terminators' relentless drive to kill makes them more fun to watch.   

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Notable film and media links--May 21, 2009--the distracted edition

---Feeling distracted lately?  After reading Rapt and Distracted, I shut down my Facebook account, and now Sam Anderson of New York magazine has written the ultimate "Defense of Distraction" (which I couldn't read because I was busy multitasking):

"The tech theorist Linda Stone famously coined the phrase “continuous partial attention” to describe our newly frazzled state of mind. American office workers don’t stick with any single task for more than a few minutes at a time; if left uninterrupted, they will most likely interrupt themselves. Since every interruption costs around 25 minutes of productivity, we spend nearly a third of our day recovering from them. We keep an average of eight windows open on our computer screens at one time and skip between them every twenty seconds. When we read online, we hardly even read at all—our eyes run down the page in an F pattern, scanning for keywords. When you add up all the leaks from these constant little switches, soon you’re hemorrhaging a dangerous amount of mental power. People who frequently check their e-mail have tested as less intelligent than people who are actually high on marijuana. Meyer guesses that the damage will take decades to understand, let alone fix. If Einstein were alive today, he says, he’d probably be forced to multitask so relentlessly in the Swiss patent office that he’d never get a chance to work out the theory of relativity."

---Bad news.  Morley Safer distrusts bloggers. 

--- The ever-prolific Allan Fish of Wonders in the Dark takes on The Leopard (1963), which I believe was an influence on The Godfather:

"`For things to stay as they are, there must be change' we are told in the famous conversation between Delon and Lancaster, and it’s this ambiguous contradiction that runs through the entire film.  Many have seen Salina as representative of Visconti himself, with Lancaster even using some of the director’s mannerisms in his performance.  Yet it could also be argued that, in spite of the director’s more ambiguous sexuality, Delon’s character is closer to Visconti’s ideology.  Either way, if Salina is Visconti by proxy, then it’s a truly sombre self-portrait, a hymn to his ancestry.  In the final sequence, Paolo Stoppa observes when hearing gunfire that `that’s what we need for Sicily', as if predicting the succeeding ruling classes of the Sicilian palazzos, the Mafiosos, with the film showing very much the story of Sicily a generation prior to The Godfather films." 

---Eileen Jones of The Exiled gets to the root of our need for films like Angels and Demons:

"So far Angels and Demons has racked up a pile of money and a load of bad reviews. It deserves the bad reviews, heaven knows, but in reading some of them it’s clear that we sometimes forget the important function media crap plays in our culture. We need crap, and in fairness, we ought to acknowledge that need."

Damn straight.  
---In the same vein, Cracked has found the "secret formula" of Ron Howard's success.

---Dan North of Spectacular Attractions analyzes the unforgettable horror film Don't Look Now (1973):

"If you’ve ever been to Venice and walked around without a map, you’ll know how perfectly cast it is as the backdrop for this story. Any stroll through the backstreets, particularly at night, can turn into a fiendish, circular journey where landmarks will seem to repeat in random order, canals will seem to move their position or reverse their direction. It’s eerie how easily Venetian pathways can mess with your sense of direction, your faith in your remembrances of space, place and time. Out of the holiday season, it’s a mournful, even morbid place, and the film exploits these qualities to the full by making it an architectural analogue of the characters’ mental and visual indecisions. The blind psychic, on the other hand, can navigate it with ease because the sounds are so acute, the echoes so instructive. It is vision, often the most trusted of the senses, that is portrayed as unreliable."

---Check out Jonathan Rosenbaum's dissection of Godard's critical take on the works of Alfred Hitchcock:

"In `Le Cinéma et son double,' Godard’s analysis of Hitchcock is concerned mainly with stylistic articulations of states of consciousness, metaphysical states of being, and thematic and dramatic significations. In `Le Contrôle de l’univers,' he is primarily concerned with Hitchcock as the only `poète maudit' who succeeded commercially, coupled with the argument that his films are mainly remembered not for their states of consciousness, metaphysical states of being, or their thematic and dramatic significations but for certain physical objects. To paraphrase Godard’s own discourse in `Le Contrôle de l’univers,' one forgets the circumstances of why Janet Leigh is going to the Bates Hotel, why Montgomery Clift keeps his vow of silence, why Teresa Wright is still in love with Uncle Charlie, how Henry Fonda becomes `le faux coupable,' and why Ingrid Bergman is hired by the American government. But one remembers a rosary, a glass of milk, a windmill, a hairbrush, a lost pair of spectacles, a lost key, and the visible notes in a musical score."

---And, speaking of Hitchcock experts, T.S. of Screen Savour chooses his ten favorite films of 2001 for the Counting Down the Zeros series of Film for the Soul:

"The best film of the year, and a top-five contender at this moment for best film of the decade, is Wong Kar-wai's In the Mood for Love. What a knockout film this is: quiet, psychologically penetrating, heartbreaking, and so marvelously gorgeous. This is the nuanced and difficult story of two neighbors (Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung Chiu-wai) in 1962 Hong Kong who discover their respective spouses are having an affair with each other, and the troubling psychological waters the neighbors encounter when they begin counseling each other to understand why and how this has happened — and eventually, perhaps most disturbingly, how it happens, down to the subtlest movements. The film's most impressive element, if such a singular aspect be identified as its best part, is the mesmerizing way Wong takes such a simple concept adapted from a short story and folds it back in on itself with repetition of style and theme (the cinematography and editing are formidable). Wong has spoken at length about the influence Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo had on the production, particularly the development of such a moody relationship, and it's without exaggeration that I say he does Hitchcock proud."

---Has everyone seen the trailer for that 8 1/2-ish Nine yet?  Is it Fellini-redux?  Rob Marshall wishing that he is Fellini?  Is it good for a preview to look so derivative?  

---Okay, so I have a weakness for Elisabeth Shue.  Jeremy Richie of Moon in the Gutter found a David Letterman interview with her concerning the immortal Leaving Las Vegas.

---Lastly, R. J. Montano of Cine-O-Rama decries the way previews seek to explain the mystery of The Road.  I loved the book by Cormac McCarthy, and I can't wait for the movie. 

Monday, May 18, 2009

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Heaven help us: a pictorial primer for Ron Howard's Angels and Demons

See Tom Hanks.
Tom is torn between good and evil.

This is the Vatican,
home of the Catholic church,
and the Pope.
It is also the setting for Angels and Demons.
Thanks to the plot taken from the Dan Brown novel,
the Vatican has much skullduggery going on.
Skullduggery, skullduggery, skullduggery,
And the secret society known as the Illuminati
last seen in Tomb Raider,

has now kidnapped 5 preferrati Cardinals
after the Pope's death.

The Italian police keep finding men burning
in churches and stuff.
The Italians need help.
So where do the Italians go
in search of their savior?
To America, of course!

This is Robert Langdon,
the Catholic Church's savior.
Robert is played by the likable
but jowly Tom Hanks.
As a Harvard professor of symbology,
he's a bit like Indiana Jones,
minus the hat, the smirk,
and the ability to fight Nazis.
Even though Robert is happy
to help the Vatican,
he does not believe in God.
Quelle irony!

See Robert Langdon and Vittoria Vetra look up.
Vittoria (Ayelet Zurer) gets involved
due to some complicated subplot
involving antimatter
that can explode like a bomb.
Robert and Vittoria search through Rome
for the secrets of the Illuminati
to save the kidnapped Cardinals.
They are not, however, romantically involved,
because she's a little young for Hanks,
and besides there's too much skullduggery
for any brief moment of hanky panky.

Now, Rome can be a great place,
a place where you can eat great meals,
like this bowl of spaghetti carbonara,
but Robert and Vittoria don't have time to eat
thanks to the film's breakneck suspenseful pace
and pounding heavenly choir soundtrack,
and the ever-present possibility of another
dead Cardinal appearing in a most awkward place.
All Robert and Vittoria have time for
is to run and find clues
in various churches.
Run, run, run.

Here's Robert running some more.

Curiously enough, Robert finds most of many of clues
from pointing religious statues.

Will Robert and Vittoria find those evil Illuminati
before they kill all of the Cardinals?
Will the new Pope ever be elected
with the sign of the white smoke?

I won't say, but you can bet
that things get really exciting
with many plot twists
and clues deciphered
and lots of old men on fire

before you'll arrive at the thrilling
apocalyptic climax of Angels and Demons.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Francis Ford Coppola's reply to Hollywood: 11 notes on the horse head sequence in The Godfather

1) The Godfather is all about power--the difficulty of how to keep it, but more about how to lose it, and Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo use the various sons of the Corleone family as object lessons either way. Initially, Coppola needs to establish the nature of Don Vito Corleone's power after the opening scene of his daughter's wedding. We've already seen various men reduced to supplicants before Corleone behind the scenes at the wedding, but we still don't know much about his techniques. So when Johnny Fontaine (Al Martino) asks for the Don's help with a studio producer who refuses to let him have a starring role in a new picture, the Don sends his adopted son Tom (Robert Duvall) to Hollywood to "make him an offer he can't refuse."

2) How does Coppola make enduring art out of a slightly cheesy but popular gangster novel? He does it in part by saturating the movie with references to other classic movies--Psycho, Bonnie and Clyde, untold gangster films, and in the case of this particular sequence, The Leopard and Citizen Kane. The first wedding sequence ends with the Don and his daughter Connie serenely dancing, which evokes the climactic dance of Luchino Visconti's The Leopard (1963) where the aging Prince and the young Angelica waltz. That film depicts Sicilian aristocracy in decline in the 1860s, but part of the power of that moment lies in how the Prince does retain some dignity and a sense of superiority over the nouveau riche, as if the movie was both celebrating and mourning the loss of a more noble period. Perhaps Coppola meant for the viewer to associate Don Corleone with a declining aristocratic savoir faire of an earlier time.

3) After the screen fades to black, big band jazz music kicks in as a plane bearing Tom Haden lands in Los Angeles. The music is so leisurely as it brings on a montage of lacquered shots of 1940s Hollywood, one may not realize that it also makes a melodic reference to the bandleader whom the Don had to threaten to get Johnny out of a contract earlier in his career. Tom arrives at the gate of Woltz studios, where he has to negotiate entry. As the jazz music continues to play, Tom works his way into an increasingly claustrophobic interior of sound stages, including one shot where the vertical lines of two buildings seem to entrap him.

4) Tom enters the studio to find Jack Woltz (John Marley) kissing an ingenue amidst the flashbulbs of reporters and signing (his autograph?) for the press. He gives a good idea of his modest ego when he refers to himself in the third person: "Woltz is listening."
Tom replies, "You're going to have some union problems. My client can make them disappear. Also one of your top stars has just moved from marijuana to heroin."

"Are you trying to muscle me?"

"Absolutely not."

"Listen to me, you smooth talking son of a bitch. . . . Johnny Fontaine will never get that movie. I don't care how many dago wop guinea greaseball goombahs come out of the woodwork."

"I'm German Irish."

"Well let me tell you something my Kraut Mick friend, I'm going to make so much trouble for you . . ."

"I'm a lawyer. I've not threatened."

"I know every big lawyer in New York. Who the hell are you?"

"I have a special practice. I handle one client. Now you have my number." In spite of Woltz's equal opportunity racist outburst, Tom still politely shakes his hand and ends with " I will wait for your call. By the way, I admire your pictures very much."

5) I like the way the scene emphasizes the difference in their techniques. The Don sends a lawyer representative who suggests "fixing" various underworld problems in exchange for a favor, but he is a model of restraint who retains his cool in the midst of his negotiations. Woltz, in contrast, comes off as a complete creep--powerful, vain, quick to anger, and very self-conscious of his public appearance (he looks at the reporter with a measure of paranoia when Tom mentions letting Fontaine have that part as a "favor.") On one level, Woltz needs to appear despicable quickly and efficiently so as to retain sympathy for the Don even after he arranges for the terrorist act yet to come. Also, as Woltz brags of himself, saying "Woltz is listening," the Don doesn't even want his name mentioned, so Tom receives his share of verbal abuse due to that wish for anonymity. Power, in this case, is partially defined by the Don's absence. Later, Coppola will underline this point when Tom tells Woltz that "I don't like to use his [the Don's] name unless it is really necessary." The Godfather starts to resemble Yahweh in his reluctance to have his name spoken aloud. His name is too sacred for use in casual conversation.

6) Behind the scenes of the production of The Godfather, Coppola received no end of grief from meddling studio heads at Paramount. Perhaps Coppola's frustration with this interference helped fuel the the virulent nastiness of Jack Woltz's characterization?

7) After Jack Woltz has Tom "checked out," the big band song kicks in again as the scene shifts to Tom getting chauffered to Woltz's swank estate. As Tom and Jack walk past a fountain, Tom says "This is really beautiful." Woltz answers, "Well, look at this [as he gestures to something offscreen], used to decorate the palace of a king." At this point, Coppola makes explicit the way Woltz's estate suggests Charles Foster Kane's Xanadu because the latter is described as a "palace" made up of bits and pieces of architecture shipped in from all around the world. I find it amusing how Woltz, like Kane, assembles an ersatz American sense of aristocracy that he is eager to show off. The centerpiece is his prize racehorse Khartoum, that Woltz describes in this way:

"I wanna show you something really beautiful. You do appreciate beauty, don't you? There we are. $600,000 for a show horse. I bet Russian czars never paid that kind of dough for a single horse. Khartoum. Khartoum. I'm not gonna race him though. I'm gonna put him out to stud."

Again, the mention of Russian czars provides another way for Woltz to associate himself with royalty, and I like the way Woltz mentions both "beauty," as if beauty can be owned, as well as his intention to use Khartoum solely for breeding. In this respect, the horse comes to represent potency to an aging, insecure man, thus setting up the symbolic castration to come.

8) The following dinner scene's establishing shot reminds me a bit of the vertical lines closing in on Tom between the sound stages. We see Tom and Woltz eating at a distance and above, as if to again emphasize the size of the estate, but also their extreme enclosure inside a doorway that's also cut off by a banister. This composition traps Tom on all sides. Tom again requests that Johnny get that part in the movie because of the Don's "religious, sacred, close relationship" with his Godson. Woltz tells Tom that Johnny won't get that part, and then Tom counters with "He never asks a second favor once he's been refused the first." How absolute the Godfather is! Everything is a matter of "never" and "religious, sacred." Woltz goes on to explain that he can't grant the Don the favor because one of his ingenues fell in love with Johnny's "olive oil voice and guinea charm" and therefore made him [Woltz] "look ridiculous." It's amusing to see Tom try to eat his meal underneath this verbal barrage that once again stresses how Woltz is chiefly motivated by sexual jealousy of Johnny Fontaine. Woltz ends by kicking Tom out, saying "I ain't no bandleader," once again reminding the viewer of the original Johnny Fontaine story back at the wedding party. Before Tom politely leaves, Coppola frames Woltz's head at a curiously vulnerable angle:

His position reminds me of a similarly odd shot of Norman Bates in Psycho when he realizes that Arbogast has just figured out that Marion Crane stayed at the Bates Hotel under an assumed name.
Is this a Psycho reference or not? Certainly, there are others in The Godfather.

9) At any rate, the scene cuts to dawn outside of the Woltz estate. As we hear crickets, the camera pans over cupid figures. Then there's a sequence of dissolves that are very reminiscent of the opening sequence of Citizen Kane that gradually takes in the Xanadu estate, and eventually moves into Kane's bedroom where he says "Rosebud" and dies. In The Godfather's abbreviated version, we hear the Godfather's signature melody, as the moving camera enters Woltz's bedroom where we find him under the covers with an Oscar prominently displayed on a table to the left. The Godfather went on to win 3 Oscars, including Best Picture. Was this one reason why?

10) As the Godfather melody gets more mischievous and distorted, Woltz wakes to find himself coated with blood. Is he hurt? He then gradually pulls back the covers to reveal Khartoum's head. He screams. Then the scene rapidly cuts back to an establishing shot, and then a shot of the estate outside, where we can still hear his screams in the distance.

11) And then, for me, the most brilliant moment in the entire film. The scene of the estate very slowly dissolves to Marlon Brando as the Don, wearing suspenders. As the scream recedes, Brando raises his eyebrows in an utterly casual, nonchalant gesture and then looks down. We then know that he is responsible for that brilliant bit of symbolic castration and intimidation. He arranged for someone to bribe the guards, execute the horse, behead it, and then carry the head dripping upstairs to Woltz's room fast enough so that the still-warm blood would not disturb him in his sleep. And Coppola constructs the sequence in such a way so that we are happy that the Don orchestrated this payback for all of Woltz's slimy, exploitative, lecherous, racist, arrogant displays of power. Thanks to that one dissolve and that one shrugging bemused gesture, Coppola has our full attention for the rest of the film.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Notable film and media links--May 9, 2009

---With the onset of the swine flu, I spent much of the last several weeks imagining myself in a 28 Days Later scenario.  To help us all in this anxious time, Den of Geek has informed us of the "10 Things Movies Teach Us About Virus Outbreaks":

"In case you haven't heard, we're all going to die. You, me, everyone we know, and possibly all our pets are all doomed to die from the latest in a long line of fatal pandemics, the swine flu. The experts are on TV every day relaying pant-soiling fact after pant-soiling fact about the upcoming apocalypse. I, for one, look forward to dying from swine flu, just like I died from bird flu in 2006 and SARS in 2003.

Fortunately for me, I'm prepared for the upcoming viruspalooza. You see, I've watched dozens of virus-related disaster films, and I am as well prepared as anyone to survive any virus outbreak. I know how viruses work, I know how to combat them, and I know what symptoms to look for when someone I know gets infected. In order to expedite the rebuilding of civilization after the fall, I'll pass those tips along to you, the Den Of Geek reader, so that we may unite as one and get the Internet running again as fast as possible once the outbreak has run its course."

---Film Blog of The Guardian shares some choice cameos in cinema.  I've always liked Charlton Heston's star turn in Waynes World 2.

---For those interested in learning how the occasional blogger makes serious money, check out this New York Times article about how "Bloggers Get the Book Deal":

" . . . the latest frenzy is over books that take the lazy, Tom Sawyer approach to authorship. The creators come up with a goofy or witty idea, put it up on a simple platform like Twitter and Tumblr, and wait for contributors to provide all of the content. The authors put their energy into publicizing the sites and compiling the best material.

Agents and publishing houses can’t get seem to get enough of these quickie humor books, which sell for $10 to $15 in gift shops and hip clothing stores likeUrban Outfitters as well as traditional bookstores. At least eight books created from user-generated content are due out this year, including “Love, Mom,” a just-published collection of embarrassing or funny electronic exchanges between mothers and their children."

---I always love it when the best actors say they don't know a thing about acting, such as, for instance, Tilda Swinton in this interview from IndieWire (hat-tip to Nathaniel of Film Experience Blog):

“There’s this endless disclaimer that I always feel I honestly have to give about not being an actor,” she said in all seriousness. “Because it really does feel most honest. I always feel that real actors are going to stand up and say ‘you’re a fraud! Confess it!’ And I want to be the first to say that I never pretended to be anything else. I always pretended to be a film fan first, and an artist’s model second. I’m in front of a camera, because I’m curious, and that’s about it. I don’t know one thing about acting.”

---Movieman of The Dancing Image found a nice quote from Francois Truffaut's Introduction to his book The Films of My Life:

"I felt a tremendous need to enter into the films. I sat closer and closer to the screen so I could shut out the theater. I passed up period films, war movies and Westerns because they were more difficult to identify with. That left mysteries and love stories. Unlike most moviegoers my own age, I didn't identify with the heroes, but with the underdog and, in general, with any character who was in the wrong. That's why Alfred Hitchcock's movies, devoted to fear, won me over from the start; and after Hitchcock, Jean Renoir whose work is directed toward understanding... "The terrible thing is that everyone has his own reasons" (La Regle du Jeu). The door was wide open, and I was ready for Jean Vigo, Jean Cocteau, Sacha Guitry, Orson Welles, Marcel Pagnol, Ernst Lubitsch, Charlie Chaplin, of course, and all the others who, without being immoral, "doubt the morality of others" (Hiroshima, mon amour)."

---Having discovered the formidable The Daily Dish recently, I like to think Barack Obama has been reading Andrew Sullivan's blog, especially his recent posts involving torture.  Why not?

---Erich Kuersten of Acidemic confesses his affection for Kim Morgan of Sunset Gun    as part of his Favorite Film Critics series:

"For me, nothing is more exciting--and occasionally upsetting--than discovering another writer who not only thinks as I do and writes similar to my style, but does it better, and started doing it earlier. The writers who inspired me originally--in high school have been absorbed and form my general approach: Robin Wood writing about Howard Hawks or horror films, Pauline Kael writing about Taxi Driver and Last Tango in Paris, Michael Weldon's Psychotronic Encyclopedia. The love these writers felt was palpable and strong. Manny Farber and James Agee were next for me, as manly men writers of the American abstract 1950s style, showing how criticism could sing with a poetry and zing that was almost macho, but Michael Atkinson, for example, I didn't even know what he was all about until a few months ago when I picked up his recommended "Dark Heart of Cinema". I'm kind of intimidated and shocked by how he got past me until now. More on him later...

Kim Morgan, however, is to me perhaps the best and most fearless of them all... and my favorite."

---Lastly, Bad Lit helps us adjust to living on the cheap with their "5 Great Documentaries for a Rough Economy."

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

"That is when the world will end": the destructive revelations of Donnie Darko (2001)

Ibetolis, of Film for the Soul, has once again graciously allowed me to guest-write a post as part of his Counting Down the Zeros series, this time concerning Richard Kelly's 2001 cult film Donnie Darko (one of my all-time favorites). Here's the link.   

And here's the post:

I like to think movies, like any work of art, can have genuine prophetic power.  Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) foresees a day in the future when all of the civilization’s energy runs out.  The Mad Max vision of  the future still seems pleasantly plausible, and zombie films may prefigure a time when the over-populated living, not the undead, take to the streets starving and resorting to cannibalism.  This same prophetic, visionary quality is what makes Donnie Darko (2001) so compelling. 

After an awkward period in 2001 when distributors didn’t know how to promote Richard  Kelly’s Donnie Darko (Is it a John Hughes-esque suburban teen film, science fiction, a superhero film, or what?), the film had a limited release one month after 9/11.  Talk about prophetic: the movie depicts a jet engine freakishly falling from the sky and nearly killing Darko in his bedroom, and then it gets released right after actual jets crash into the World Trade Center.  Later, the director’s cut DVD version of the film became extremely popular, and now Darko enjoys cult status.  Why does it succeed so well in capturing the imagination of its viewers?  

For one thing, unlike most movies, Donnie Darko remains very much open to interpretation.  Somewhat like Synechdoche, New York, Darko has many loose ends, and a highly ambiguous conclusion, but many of  Donnie’s visions and actions gain coherency as the film goes on, giving both Donnie and the viewer a sense of fait accompli and deja vu.  Just before midnight, a six-foot bunny rabbit named Frank guides the sleepwalking Donnie outside and tells him that the world will end in “28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes, and 12 seconds.” Then, a jet engine falls out of nowhere into Donnie’s room.  Frank has therefore saved Donnie’s life, and he goes on to speak to Donnie as a voice in his head.  He tells Donnie to “Pay attention.  You may miss something,” when Donnie watches a crappy “Lifeline exercise” video in gym class.  Later, he guides Donnie to bust a water main in his school, thus flooding the building with sewage.  And he persuades Donnie to set a man’s house on fire while his girlfriend Gretchen sleeps during a showing of The Evil Dead at the local movie theater.  In his way, Donnie gets to act out the vengeful fantasies of his classmates, but at first he doesn’t know why he’s doing it, nor does he know what his visions of Frank mean.  

On one level, the film suggests that Donnie’s erratic aggressive behavior is a symptom of his paranoid schizophrenia.  On another level, Donnie may be a superhero, a “living receiver” Christ figure apocalyptic seer who learns time travel in 1988.  Somehow, Kelly manages to keep both interpretations plausible, and he does it by allowing the viewer to partake in Darko’s visions, and therefore make the same connections as he does. 

For instance, why does Donnie break open the water main?  So he can become Gretchen Ross’s (Jena Malone’s) boyfriend, which gives him motivation to try to save her life later.  Why does Donnie burn down Jim Cunningham’s house?  So he can expose the motivational speaker as a pervert who owns a kiddie porn dungeon in his home.  Thus does Kelly equate destruction with revelation and creation.  Jake Gyllenhaal broods and looks tormented in his dweeby Opie t-shirt, but Donnie’s smarter than anyone else, and he takes pleasure in subverting the adult power structure when he can.  Frank’s cosmic plan gives Donnie the freedom to revolt extravagantly, but there’s always the suggestion that reality may intrude on his whimsical behavior. 

In terms of technique, Donnie Darko uses image patterns, music, parallel editing, and innovative casting brilliantly.  The film is virtual storehouse of high-level cinematic references, so that the film-loving viewer can tease another level of allusion beyond the prophetic one.  For instance, Kelly shows his love for Hitchcock by including a close variation on the staircase and chandelier of Notorious (not to mention the Duran Duran song “Notorious” that Sparkle Motion dances to).  Kelly finds a way to reference the cellar and the knife-play of Psycho, and the high school bully likes to wield a large knife when he’s not mimicking Psycho’s high-pitched violins in class.  Kelly also shows his love of The Graduate by having Donnie’s mother ask “Where do you go at night?” just as Ben’s mother does, and by casting Katherine Ross, of all people, to poignantly play Donnie’s shrink.  To augment the creative casting of Drew Barrymore as the iconoclastic English teacher, Kelly inserts a visual nod to E.T. when the kids head out to Grandma Death’s cellar on their bicycles at night.  The film is full of creative image patterns.  Frank , a kind of Alice in Wonderland white rabbit guiding Donnie into his own rabbit hole, finds literary parallels in Richard Adams’ Watership Down, where one of the rabbits has prophetic visions of their warren getting wiped out.  Kelly even finds ways to equate crappy camera technique with evil when he shows us Jim Cunningham’s cheesy motivational videotapes with ghastly testimonials about bedwetting and a boom microphone clearly in display in one scene. 

Ultimately,  Donnie Darko succeeds because it builts to such a strong emotional kick at the end in spite of all of the ambiguities of the film.  Even though one cannot know fully what just happened, the movie still feels complete--a puzzle, yet an artistic whole.  When Gretchen waves at Donnie’s mother, some communication has just taken place.  Donnie Darko leaves it up to us to decipher why it works so well. 

Suffice it to say that I’ve taken Donnie Darko apart multiple times, and I’m still finding patterns and mysteries in it.  For instance, why does Cherita Chen keep appearing as a witness in a sitting position during key moments in the movie.  Who is the fat guy looking on when Donnie wants to kiss Gretchen?  (Kelly suggests that he’s an FAA official monitoring the family.)  Why is Donnie smiling and laughing at the beginning and end of the film?  Why is there a spiral on the jet engine, to perhaps suggest the circular return of that image of the end of the movie?  What are we to make of all the theories built into Roberta Sparrow’s The Philosophy of Time Travel?  Somehow, by mixing the Book of Revelations with Back to the Future, Kelly retrofitted the banal elements of a John Hughes teen comedy into a souped-up Delorean DMC-12 of a film, the ever-suggestive Donnie Darko

Saturday, May 2, 2009

The sabretooth cat and the angry badger: A pictorial primer for Hugh Jackman's X-Men Origins: Wolverine

See the wet Wolverine.
The Wolverine is angry.
The Wolverine goes "Ahrrrrrrr!"
That is basically all you need to know to understand X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

The Wolverine is played by Hugh Jackman.
Hugh Jackman sang and danced as host of the 2009 Oscar ceremony.
Jackman also starred in another film last year called Australia.
Hugh would prefer that you forgot about Australia.
Now, in 2009, Jackman returns to the roots of his movie stardom.
He lifted weights so he looks tough and strong.
He looks a bit like a young Clint Eastwood, only not as mean.

Here are the main characters of X-Men Origins: Wolverine.
Ryan Reynolds (Deadpool) can deflect bullets with his sword.
He's a bit like Wonder Woman only she uses special bracelets to deflect bullets.
Taylor Kitsch (Gambit) is a gambler who can throw a mean card.
Liev Schreiber (Sabretooth) is a lot like a sabretooth cat.
When he gets angry, he goes "Ahhhrrrrr," his claws extend, and he has vampire-like teeth.
Lastly, there's Lynn Collins as Kayla Silverfox.
Wolverine falls in love with Kayla, so that means she's likely to die.
Why does she die? So Wolverine can go "Ahhrrrrrr!"

This is a photo of an actual wolverine.
Like Jackman above, he's also wet.
He's probably wondering how he can sue 2oth Century Fox for mucking up his image.

Here's a picture of a sabretooth cat.
Notice how it too goes "Ahhrrrrrr!"
Liev Schreiber acts like this for much of the movie.

This is a photo of a badger.
The badger is in the same carnivorous mammal family as the wolverine.
The Film Doctor thought it would be appropriate to get a badger involved somehow.

Here's Wolverine and Sabretooth about to fight.
Jackman will go "Ahhhhrrrrr!"
Schreiber will also go "Ahhhrrrrrr!"
They will slash each other with their various claws and blades.
But since they are mutants, they always heal quickly.
So they can fight again.
Sabretooth can also run on all four legs(?) like a cat.
They are probably fighting, still.
And that's all you need to know to understand X-Men Origins: Wolverine.