Monday, June 29, 2009

Smuggler's blues: Jamie Foxx and Colin Farrell in Miami Vice (2006)

[In honor of Michael Mann's much anticipated Public Enemies to be released this Wednesday and Michael Mann week at Radiator Heaven, here's my of-the-period review of Miami Vice (2006)]

What could be more fun than working for the vice squad? You get to slouch around like a hoodlum, penetrate underworld organizations, and drive Ferraris while wearing designer shades, flashy suits, and beard stubble. In Miami Vice, being on the vice squad means spending plenty of time on your cell phone, driving speed boats, and posing against dramatic cityscape backdrops.

Director, writer, and producer Michael Mann has always conveyed a sense of style in his movies, many of them very good. I liked his early film Thief, and his recent movie Collateral even made Tom Cruise look plausibly vicious. With Miami Vice, though Mann attempts to jack up a successful TV show to over-the-top summer feature length expectations, and something's not quite right. Beautifully shot with high definition film, the movie is so awed with its own myth, it lacks humanity. It is all style to the point where one misses the content. Without much reason for the audience to get involved, the film drags.

To get a sense of the problem, one can contrast Jamie Foxx's work between the two recent movies. In Collatoral, Foxx plays an ambitious but otherwise ordinary cab driver who eventually has to act like an underworld kingpin just to survive. The nuances in his acting makes the film plausible and interesting. You can see him decide to act tough even though it goes against his better nature, yet he also finds he likes it. In Miami Vice, Foxx's version of Detective Ricardo Tubbs is all tough, self-satisfied cool. He appears on the screen at the height of self-possession and stays that way, quickly establishing his heterosexual credentials by stripping off his shirt to show his newly musclebound frame and making epic love with Naomie Harris. Ricardo Tubbs is cool, smart, talented, and hence, a bit dull. Jamie Foxx has so much attitude, his considerable acting ability has nothing to do.

When it comes to Detective Sonny Crockett, I confess to a weakness to the memory of Don Johnson's easy smile in the original and influential 1980s TV show. Now we are supposed to accept Colin Farrell in the pastel suit, and I suppose if I were a female reviewer, I would swoon at his gorgeous mullet hair-do, stubbled chin, and drooping mustache. He reminds me of Glenn Frey in the heyday of the Eagles, only with more hair gel. Crockett is supposedly so suave, he steals away Gong Li (playing underworld smuggler Isabella) on a speedboat to Havana to seduce her into further exorbitant drug deals as they both admire their infinite good looks in the bathroom mirror. I never found Farrell to be wholly convincing, perhaps because of the lingering air of disaster left over from his participation in Oliver Stone's Alexander.

Otherwise, the plot rehashes a zillion other smuggler's blues made-for-TV storylines. Sinister white supremacists have a "meet and greet" with some undercover FBI agents underneath a scenic bridge in the dark of night. The meeting goes badly once the supremacists' sniper shoots the agents into smithereens, and so the FBI calls in Sonny and Tubbs to infiltrate a Columbian drug-dealing organization to transport contraband on their speed boats.

While the film's cinematography is consistently painterly, with swooning vistas over Lear jets and Ferraris shining under lightning streaked skies, a large chunk of the plot was lifted straight from Mission Impossible 3 with the usual young woman tied down and tortured in her usual chair. When it comes to meet with the bad guys, where do the filmmakers pick? A shipyard.

Sonny and Tubbs soul-search about whether or not they have gone too far to the criminal side. At one point, Tubbs says to Sonny, "There's `undercover' and then there's `which way is up?'" When some of their police crew start to get hurt, Tubbs questions how much these underworld games are worth, but instead of caring, I mostly lulled by all of the cloud formations, distant gunfire, and windswept palm trees set against the sparkling purplish Miami skyline. Sometimes a movie can be too handsome for its own good.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Notable film and media links--June 28, 2009

---It has been strange to see the press shift away from the continual mockery of "Wacko Jacko" to an acknowledgement of Michael Jackson's considerable achievements. I've been admiring anew the noir aspects of his "Smooth Criminal" and "Billy Jean" videos and the Elizabeth Taylor shrine that shows up in the humorous "Leave Me Alone." Of the tributes, I enjoyed Invisible Woman's memories, Guy Trebay's discussion of Michael Jackson's fashion influence, and Sasha Frere-Jones' words:

"It made me nothing but sad—no change of venue, no new home, no new friends could anchor or comfort the most important musical ghost of the twentieth century. I often thought of a veal calf when I saw him—he had been raised to perform under extreme pressure before he had any idea of what life could be beyond performing for others. Then he spent decades trying to build a life without ever having seen one. He had the best ear in the world but he had no apparent idea of how people experienced everyday comfort, or even boredom."

---As for tributes to Farrah Fawcett, I was most struck by Arbogast's surprisingly tender one.

---As for the general strangeness of living through a media storm occasioned by the death of a celebrity, Pictures for Sad Children analyzes it well.

---Trailers of upcoming films of interest: Donnie Darko director Richard Kelly's The Box with Cameron Diaz, The September Issue, a fascinating-looking documentary about Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue (the original Miranda Priestley), and Daybreakers, a vampire film where human blood becomes the new peak oil.

---Meanwhile, Andrew Sullivan continues to share dispatches from Iran. This "Bird's-Eye View of Violence" defies commentary.

---Phil Nugent gives credit to Pauline Kael:

"Kael's great parting gift to the world to leave behind a record of her enthusiasms, which will inevitably result in the creation of new work, because it will continue to inspire people to want to experience creative work as widely and with as tough a mind and as open a heart as she did. Someone that tough-minded doesn't keep subjecting herself to Neil Simon movies over and over just because William Shawn is paying for the tickets; she had to see if something was there, and if there wasn't, she was genuinely curious about why other people thought there was."

---Brian Clark of Copyblogger finds that "Blogging is Dead (Again)" in part due to Twitter and Facebook.

---Newsweek found six writers and asked them to discuss their profession:

"ORLEAN: There's also this new question, which is, will anyone buy this? Will someone pay for this? Will the magazine I'm working for go out of business? I don't know anyone no matter how successful they are—beside, you know, J. K. Rowling and what's-her-face who does the Twilight stuff—but I think the realities of the industry are present. I think you'd be foolish not to be at least aware of it. Maybe not suffering from it, but conscious of it.

BLOCK: I suppose you have to be, in the sense that you're professional. But I think the less attention I pay to what people want and the more attention I pay to just writing the book I want to write, the better I do. The enormous mistake a lot of young writers make is that they want to know what people want.

ANDERSEN: The problem is, any time you try to game it in that way and then it doesn't work, then you feel like a complete schmo.

BLOCK: Yes, absolutely."

---J. Robert Lennon of Los Angeles Times unveils what's really going on when writers are supposedly working:

"I surveilled myself during a recent writing session. The results are below.

8:04. Subject says goodbye to older son leaving for school.

8:05. Subject turns on laptop and sits on sofa in pajamas.

8:05-8:23. Internet.

8:23. Subject lets cat out.

8:23-9:07. Internet.

9:07. Subject lets cat in.

9:08-9:15. Really fast typing.

9:15-9:17. Subject makes toast.

9:17-9:30. Subject eats toast while rereading article in local paper about rural UFO cult.

9:30. Subject puts extra pair of socks on over extant pair of socks."

---Not Coming to a Theater Near You reviews Buster Keaton's The General.

---Shooting Down Pictures found an interesting video sample of one of Greta Garbo's earliest films The Saga of Gosta Berling (1924) with commentary by Jan Olsson.

---Lastly, shares "The 50 Greatest Trailers."

Friday, June 26, 2009

The Film Doctor's top 10 favorite film books

Movieman0283 of The Dancing Image tagged me to respond to his excellent "Reading the Movies" meme. I've been slow to respond, due, in part, to being intimidated after reading the lists from the likes of Campaspe, Glenn Kenny and Richard Brody, but also because I don't really remember books that profoundly affected me long ago. So this list will combine influences as well as good film books I've read recently.

1) I mostly grew up reading the movie satires in Mad magazine.

Recently, while rewatching Dr. Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, I realized that that film is already a Mad satire of the nuclear arms race, making it the ultimate cinematic tribute to the magazine. Roger Ebert has confessed to Mad's influence, as can be seen from his quote that I found at Wikipedia:

"I learned to be a movie critic by reading Mad magazine . . . Mad's parodies made me aware of the machine inside the skin--of the way a movie might look original on the outside, while inside it was just recycling the same old dumb formulas. I did not read the magazine, I plundered it for clues to the universe. Pauline Kael lost it at the movies; I lost it at Mad magazine."

2) Speaking of Pauline Kael, my parents left copies of The New Yorker lying around the house, so I also grew up reading her reviews religiously.

When I left home for Sewanee Academy in Tennessee, I arranged to have The New Yorker sent there too, much to the derision of my dormmates. If nothing else, Kael taught me how movie reviewing can be an art unto itself. Also, you should always be fearlessly honest to your gut response to a film, no matter what kind of trouble it might get you into later. I like Reeling, although For Keeps is probably the best introduction to her work.

3) Walker Percy's first novel The Moviegoer was also a big influence on me. An existential work that borrows from Kierkegaard and Albert Camus' The Stranger, The Moviegoer helped me fall for New Orleans years before I visited the city, and Binx Bolling's nonchalant spectator attitude toward life was a pleasure to absorb:

"In the evenings I usually watch television or go to the movies. Weekends I often spend on the Gulf Coast. Our neighborhood theater in Gentilly has permanent lettering on the front of the marquee reading: Where Happiness Costs So Little. The fact is that I am quite happy in a movie, even a bad movie. Other people, so I have read, treasure memorable moments in their lives: the time one climbed the Parthenon at sunrise, the summer night one met a lonely girl in Central Park and achieved with her a sweet and natural relationship, as they say in books. I too met a girl in Central Park, but it was not much to remember. What I remember is the time John Wayne killed three men with a carbine as he was falling to the dusty street in Stagecoach, and the time the kitten found Orson Welles in the doorway in The Third Man."

While not technically a film book, though Perelman includes some movie appreciations amidst his humor pieces, Most of the Most of S. J. Perelman is still a great stylistic influence for writing movie reviews, so I reread this book frequently. I also like to read Lester Bang's criticism for the same reason.

5) With A History of the French New Wave, Richard Neupert provides an excellent introduction to one of the best film movements. I especially like his discussion of Jean-Pierre Melville.

6) Since I tend to have an obsessive interest in everything related to Bonnie and Clyde, I enjoyed Mark Harris' Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood. What exactly did Arthur Penn and Warren Beatty argue about all day when they should have been shooting the movie? Here's a quote:

"Beatty and Penn's discussions often concerned aspects of the script as small as which word in a line should be emphasized or as unquantifiable as the tone of a particular moment. A flourish, a camera angle, a reaction, a grace note--no issue was too trivial to stop both men in their tracks. `What else is making a movie,' Beatty said, `except attention to detail?'"

7) I've used Mascelli's classic The Five C's of Cinematography in my video production class. He neatly diagrams the basic syntax of camera work. Also, I like the very formal 1950s look of the photography (lots of severe haircuts).

8) I just read Howard Suber's The Power of Film during a trip to the beach. His alphabetized entries concisely examine how heroes, villains, and other aspects of classic movies form patterns of use for future screenwriters, and I liked the way he kept bringing up The Godfather as an example.

9) Anthony Lane's collection Nobody's Perfect shows why he's perhaps the best stylist/film reviewer writing today.

10) Is there a better compendium of film criticism than Phillip Lopate's American Movie Critics: An Anthology from the Silents Until Now? This is the place to learn not only of the history of the form, but also of the film critics who are scary good, like Manny Farber.

Other books that almost made the list: Nicholas Christopher's Somewhere in the Night: Film Noir and the American City, Bernard F. Dick's Anatomy of Film, Stanley Kaufman's Regarding Film, and Sidney Lumet's Making Movies.

Here are five excellent bloggers I'd like to tag:

1) Dr. K of Dr. K's 100-Page Super Spectacular

2) Dr. North of Spectacular Attractions

3) Dennis Cozzalio of Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule

4) Hokahey of Little Worlds

5) Chuck Tryon of The Chutry Experiment

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The outer limits of awful: notes on Michael Bay's Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

[As of this time, 7:49 pm on Wednesday, June 24, 2009, the film doctor is still recuperating from his ill-advised midnight viewing of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. He had meant to write a review of the movie, but he was so traumatized by the jack-hammer-to-the-eyes-and-ears experience of watching it, he has spent much of the day muttering "Bumblebee, Allspark, Autobot" under his breath while twitching and wondering if his stapler is in actuality a Decepticon. He did manage to cobble together these few notes. He knows that his life will never be the same again. When he was younger, he could take a series of summer blockbuster wannabes in sequence. Now, with the one-two punch of Land of the Lost and this movie, he's not so sure.]

1) The definition of "Hack" from "a person, such as an artist or writer, who exploits, for money, his or her creative ability or training in the production of dull, unimaginative, and trite work; one who produces banal and mediocre work in the hope of gaining commercial success in the arts." Michael Bay is a successful hack.

2) Most every excruciating aspect of Transformers 2 can be explained by Point #1. For instance, take the odd cliche-spouting robots ("Damn, I'm good," "Vengeance is mine," "We can destroy your cities at will," "You picked the wrong planet," "The boy will lead us to it," "Fate rarely calls us at a moment of our choosing," "I rise, you fall!"). How do you try to lend some adult authority to these grandiose inflated Hasbro toys with World Wrestling Federation posturing? Answer: by bringing in lots of military footage of aircraft carriers, submarines, and various generals barking orders: "Man your battle stations!" And so on. Whether it be the pounding music, the length of the movie, the size of the protagonists, etc., Bay inflates everything. No emotion can be earned. Bay must figure out a way to rig it first.

3) According to /film , Bay wrote this on his online forum back in April:

"Steven Spielberg sat next to me in a big 100 person theater at Sony today. There were 98 empty seats. The lights came up after we just watched my cut of Revenge of the Fallen. He turned to me and said ‘It’s awesome’ He felt this movie was better then the first - and probably my best, who knows - at this point in a movie you start to lose your objectivity. I just hope the fans like it.”

This comment, if true, crushes my great respect for the director of Duel, Jaws, and even Close Encounters of the Third Kind (which Bay steals liberally from for Transformers 2). Then again, Spielberg may have been having fun imagining what would be the best Bay film: The Rock, perhaps?

4) Then there are the dubiously caricatured robots, now in competition with Jar Jar Binks as the most ill-advised creatures in cinematic history. Skids, with his gold tooth and floppy ears, and Mudflap, the two goofybots who say things like "I'm gonna a bust a cap in yo' ass" could have just as well been called Amos and Andy. Bay says he invented these characters for the children in the audience. Minstrel show robot humor for the kids? The internet inquiry is just getting started on those two.

5) I find the correlations with other films curious. Bay begins with a nod to 2001: A Space Odyssey when robots appear back in the beginnings of civilized man. As the savages ran around, I wondered, is there some correspondence here to Year One and the apemen of Land of the Lost? Did screenwriters in Hollywood stand up at one point two years ago and say "I know! Cavemen!"

6) One of the Decepticons kept calling another one "Master" in a servile way. Is he meant to be an Igor to the other's Frankenstein?

7) While the first Transformers movie was kind of fun for awhile, mostly because of the novelty of watching the bots transform into cars, jets, Rock -em, Sock -em robots, and so on, this sequel tends to settle into long involved fight scenes between Autobots and Decepticons where you can see Shia LaBeouf at the bottom of the screen jumping over a tree limb or something to give the CGI fight scale. (These scenes raise the question: why do humans matter with all of this robattling? Just because LaBeouf's character has something in his brain that the Decepticons need? Most of the humans seem included for comic relief only.) At any rate, the movie feels physically aggressive to the eyes as the military score pounds in your ears. I felt bludgeoned, and the entire last full hour in the desert seemed tacked on for one last combined military/robot battle. Revenge of the Fallen is not quite right. Michael Bay should have called it Cringe, Viewer, Cringe.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Notable film and media links--June 23, 2009

---For this week's zombie fix, you can read Tom Kuntz's theory about "Zombie Films as Liberal Parables," watch the fun new Zombieland trailer, or perhaps simply groove to the poem "Zombie -Eyed Zombies and How They Walk" (with thanks to Geof Huth).

---Do you ever just get tired of narratives? Writing for The Guardian, scriptwriter Paul Schrader explains the glut:

"Does the proliferation of media mean that it is harder to be original today than it was 50 years ago? Well, yes. Today's viewers live in a biosphere of narrative. Twenty-four-seven, multimedia, all the time. When a storyteller competes for a viewer's attention, he not only competes with simultaneously occurring narratives, he competes with the variations of his own narrative. That's real competition. The bar of originality has been raised. The media marketplace puts a premium on anything "new" or "fresh" and, at the same time, inundates its viewers with continual and competing narratives."

---As a major Pauline Kael fan, I was struck by two recent posts that looked at problems with her influence. Perhaps the Kael backlash has begun? New Yorker blogger Richard Brody notes some of her underlying prejudices:

"When I read Kael, I felt condescended to, relegated to the children’s table. As I read farther into her work, I came to believe that generational arrogance is just one of the many fixed categories on which her criticism depends; another is the absolute distinction, as suggested in the title of that essay, between “trash” and “art.” Kael, I sensed, wasn’t inviting me to think and discover along with her, but was setting up the terms for membership in her club. Of course, I did come to find much of value in her writing, and ChuckNYC123’s experience is not unique—many young people have been inspired by Kael’s reviews and essays in The New Yorker—but it’s still hard to resist the impulse to break through the glittering surfaces of her prose to get to the core of prejudices that it’s built around, and that it passes along."

Secondly, Jerry Kutner of Bright Lights After Dark has issues with her work:

"It's not difficult to understand Kael's appeal. She was a lively writer, and some of her insights were on the mark. (Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.) In opposition to gender stereotypes, she liked films that were sexual or violent or some combination thereof. She made it OK for New Yorker-reading intellectual wannabes to like `popcorn movies' so long as they didn't take such `trash' seriously."

---I just saw Revolutionary Road and found myself surprised by how much I liked it (especially given my longstanding loathing for Mendes' American Beauty). Landon Palmer of Film School Rejects explores Mendes' major theme: "the changing concept of home." Also, Edward Copeland compares the classic novel by Richard Yates with the movie version.

---Given recent developments in Iran, critics are taking a more measured view of how social networking sites can make a difference. For Dissent, Feisel Mohamed asks "Will the Revolution be Tweeted?"

"The lesson of Foucault’s mistake is to be careful about the narratives by which one describes emerging events. There is a too casual narrative among us on the ability of the Internet to form grassroots movements. It was embraced by Howard Dean and David Plouffe, who of course are not leaders of a movement, but successful canvassers for an established political party. Their use of the term ‘movement’ might make us feel sexier as we part with a few dollars, but that is precisely what good advertising does. One senses that the bold statements now made for the influence in Iran of sites like YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter are driven first and foremost by our attitudes toward our media environment, which claims to be more inclusive and democratic than ever before. The advent of the camera phone might assure that we receive more images of the event, and receive them more quickly, but has yet to demonstrate an ability to affect the event’s outcome. The Web might make it easier to organize a demonstration, but Iran proved itself capable of producing demonstrations long ago."

---In the same vein, for NYT, Noam Cohen considers "Six Lessons Learned" about "Twitter on the Barricades." Still, when it comes to Iran, The New York Times, CNN, Time, and so many other major media outlets often play catch-up ball with Andrew Sullivan's blog The Daily Dish.

---Check out Flickhead's 10 day Claude Chabrol blogathon, going on NOW--June 21-30.

---Lastly, have you ever gotten annoyed with the yoyo who can't stop himself from blurting out the spoiler? College Humor has the answer.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Alfonso Cuaron returns to his roots: Y Tu Mama Tambien (2002)

Ibetolis of the esteemed Film for the Soul has once again kindly allowed me to submit an essay for his Counting Down the Zeroes celebration, this time for the year 2002. I chose Cuaron's Y Tu Mama Tambien (And Your Mother Too), in part because I am a major Children of Men (2006) fan, and in part because I enjoyed analyzing Cuaron's thoughtful Godardian depiction of stoned teenagers on a road trip in Mexico. Here's the link.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Beefcake for the career woman: The Proposal

Increasingly, I get the feeling that everything boils down to marketing. The hotel you visit, the school you attend, and the movie you watch is in the business of selling you prepackaged special moments in your life that cheerfully reinforce your assumptions instead of challenging them. Every day, market research gets more sophisticated to the point where I wouldn't be surprised that eventually old age and death will become a winsome, warm, and simulated experience (like a visit to Cracker Barrel) where the only hitch will be the obligation to fill out a "How are we doing?" quality control questionnaire on the way to the funeral home.

I especially get this feeling while watching romantic comedies, because these films are clearly not marketed toward me. The Proposal seems constructed with older women in mind, and it's selling the fantasy that frigid, overworked, career women nearly beyond child-bearing age (that's the movie's stereotype, not mine) can somehow share a bedroom with unthreatening beefcake Ryan Reynolds. The film also sells several other shopworn conceits like these:

1) Homespun middle-American family life is superior to living alone and ambitious in the city (as in Sweet Home Alabama and The Family Stone).

2) While basically tragic, old people can at least be funny in the same way as small white fluffy dogs can be.

3) It's better to live with the trappings of the rich just as long as you condemn class snobbery that looks down on the poor.

4) A single professional woman had better learn all of this homespun malarkey or she will face misery and isolation as a highly-paid CEO.

Regardless, director Anne Fletcher (who also directed 27 Dresses) generally does an excellent job with The Proposal. As written by Pete Chiarelli, the movie is engaging with several very funny set-piece scenes. I was especially impressed with how well-lit Ryan and Sandra are much of the time; the cinematography sparkles and the dialogue moves at a fast clip.

As in the case of 27 Dresses, The Proposal never hesitates to steal ideas from other movies. The film begins with Reynolds' character (Andrew Paxton) cursing because his alarm clock lost power in the middle of the night. As he rushes out of his apartment, one can think of the beginning of Four Weddings and a Funeral that has a similar hook. At the New York publishing house where Margaret Tate (Bullock) works as a high-powered editor, she strikes fear into everyone's heart just before she arrives, just as Meryl Streep's character did in The Devil Wears Prada. Bullock completely lacks the gravitas of Miranda Priestley, which doesn't seem to matter because she's going to change anyway. Lastly, in his hurry to get ball-busting Margaret her coffee, Andrew manages to spill it all over his white shirt, a catchy early scene stolen from Tina Fey's similar mishap at the beginning of Mean Girls.

It turns out that Tate, a Canadian, had better do something quick or be deported to Canada for a year. She stumbles upon the idea of having her hen-pecked assistant Andrew marry her. When he tries to resist, she blackmails him by threatening him with losing his job. When it turns out that he could go to jail for five years if they get caught having a fraudulent marriage, Andrew obliges her to kneel down on a crowded city sidewalk (not very easy in her long, tight skirt and high heels) and propose to him. For a moment, Andrew gets the upper hand in their power games, and the next thing you know, they fly off to his family in Sitka, Alaska to attend his grandmother Annie's (Betty White's) 90th birthday party.

Sitka proves to be a sun-kissed romantic comedy fantasyland with swooning mountain vistas, waterfront property, and charming frontier shopfronts that would make Sarah Palin proud. In front of his family, Andrew and Margaret humorously contrive various ways to look like they are in love. When he touches her rear, Margaret mutters under her breath "Get your hand off my ass or I will cut your balls off in your sleep." They laugh, share tender moments, deal with a yapping dog, and bump into each other naked. Mischievous, eager, smiling, and a little lecherous, Betty White steals every scene as if her advanced age allowed her to overact her head off. As a demented white-haired homunculus, she can be hilarious, although the contrived winsomeness of her performance got to be a bit too much of a good thing after awhile.

Does Andrew get to resolve his problems with his domineering father? Does Margaret soften under the balm of family togetherness? As the film reaches its third act, one can quibble about plausibility, but that doesn't matter so long as Ryan Reynolds and his six-pack abs gets served to the targeted audience like meat on a platter.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Hangover and the chicken mystery

When the guys wake up from their long night of debauchery in The Hangover, one of the first things you see is a chicken. How did it get there? I was wondering if anyone knew.

After all, the chicken did get its own poster.

The evidence thus far:

1) Ed Helms has been quoted saying that he will make sure that a chicken will appear in all of his future movies.

2) In his review for The Movie Watcher, Dave White proclaims the chicken is a "visual non-sequitur."

3) In his review, Rafer Guzman says "As for that chicken, maybe some puzzles are better left unsolved."

4) In his review of the film, Roger Ebert concludes that "There is never an explanation for the chicken."

5) For Los Angeles Times, blogger Joe Flint wonders about Heather Graham's career and the fact that "we never got the back story on that chicken clucking around the hotel suite."

I say let's solve the mystery! Where did the chicken come from? I will continue to update this post as new evidence arrives.

New evidence! Here's a quote from The Boston Phoenix's interview with Ed Helms:

"The chicken is the great McGuffin of "The Hangover." It's never explained. But, you know the only reason it's there is because . . . I mean there is no rational explanation for it. Although Todd will tell you, Todd Philips, the director, when I called him on the chicken I was like `What's the deal with the chicken?' He says that we stole the chicken to feed the tiger."

Helms goes on to theorize that the chicken is a "symbol of chaos," with possible "Bunuel-esque" overtones.

And by the by, this post explains how the filmmakers managed to not harm the particular chicken in question in the midst of the shoot.

Big news! The chicken wins Best Supporting Actor of the 11th Annual Alternative Oscars!

In the words of Chris Jones:

"The Hangover was a massive hit partly because it was the first comedy in years that was actually funnier than its trailer — lesson here, Will Ferrell — but more because it was anchored by a single breakout, bravura performance. Not Zach Galifianakis's turn as the psycho semiretarded brother-in-law, although he was pretty good. The real hero of The Hangover is the chicken.

The chicken's brooding, smoldering presence in the hotel suite made what might have been an ordinary bawdy comedy into something transcendent. A less capable actor, a cowardly actor, might have tried too hard, might have been unable to resist hitting the audience over its collective head with a hammer. But that beautiful, cocksure chicken trusted the material, and it trusted its chicken instincts. It trusted us, too — trusted us to get the joke without having it explained to us, without diagrams and maps. There was no talk of motivation, no origin myth, no script-by-numbers ribbon tying, everything grounded in context and meticulous backstory. Life isn't like that. Life is chaos, the thrill of the unknown, the beauty of mystery and what comes next. Sometimes we don't need a reason or a signpost. Sometimes, life just is.

And so it was with that magnificent chicken, with its perfectly timed squawks and walk-throughs.

That chicken was present. That chicken was elemental, man. That chicken belonged."

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Notable film and media links--June 17, 2009

---Modest newlyweds Bruce and Emma Willis share their futuristic marital plans with W magazine. For more on Willis, I recommend M. Dawson's analysis of the first five minutes of Die Hard that he wrote for Left Field Cinema.

---For The New Republic, David Thomson reviews the new book Kazan on Directing. It's fun to read Kazan's notes as he developed Marlon Brando's role as Stanley in his production of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire:

"One of the important things about Stanley is that Blanche would wreck his home.... He's got the things the way he wants them around there, and he does not want them upset by a phony, corrupt, sick, destructive woman. This makes Stanley right! Are we going into the age of Stanley?... Stanley is exactly like you in some ways [Kazan means himself]. He is supremely indifferent to everything except his own pleasure and comfort. He is marvelously selfish, a miracle of sensuous self-centredness."

---For The Powerstrip, Jon Lanthier reviewed three films for Slant. As a serious fan of Beineix's Diva, I look forward to seeing Betty Blue:

"Two decades later, the aesthetic divide between Jean-Jacques Beineix's extroverted-noir debut Diva and his bloated, lusty third film Betty Blue seems much less gaping, particularly for viewers intrepid enough to regard his sophomore effort, the faux-pulp kaleidoscope Moon in the Gutter, as a homely missing link. Diva is genre-obsessed, an unwieldy meditation on dystopian thriller tropes and clichés that distracts us from its overwritten plot with shorn scalps and sexy jump cuts; Betty Blue is character-obsessed, an unwieldy meditation on the self-destructing nature of domestic relationships that distracts us from its lack of amorous insight with nipples, dicks, and the occasional fork stabbing."

---In part due to the amazing developments in Iran, the world of media is in dramatic flux right now, whether you look at changes in the availability of movies online, the difficulty of media critics to adjust to changes, the inability of CNN to find news without social networking sites, and now even Twitter (!?!) has become important as a way to get the news. It's all a bit much.

---I love it when Roger Ebert takes apart the propaganda devices of Bill O'Reilly:

"The seven propaganda devices include:

* Name calling -- giving something a bad label to make the audience reject it without examining the evidence;
* Glittering generalities -- the opposite of name calling;
* Card stacking -- the selective use of facts and half-truths;
* Bandwagon -- appeals to the desire, common to most of us, to follow the crowd;
* Plain folks -- an attempt to convince an audience that they, and their ideas, are "of the people";
* Transfer -- carries over the authority, sanction and prestige of something we respect or dispute to something the speaker would want us to accept; and
* Testimonials -- involving a respected (or disrespected) person endorsing or rejecting an idea or person.

These techniques, first listed in the 1930s, paint an uncanny portrait of what you can see and hear any night on the O'Reilly Factor."

---Jason Bellamy of the illustrious Cooler is in the midst of hosting a weeklong celebration of my favorite film critic: Pauline Kael. Check it out. As Doug Bonner of Boiling Sand points out:

"[Kael] elevated American movie reviews to film criticism by bringing ideas about the medium and the society that produces them into the discourse. Due to her ability to see quality in (what she called) ‘trash’ movies, she realigned the approach and respect for low-budget / independent / B-movies. For example, traditionally big-city newspapers had a daily-columnist reviewer and a rookie stringer reviewer. Before Kael, the daily reviewer would tackle pieces on the mammoth epics and message pictures while the stringer would write about the movies playing at the drive-ins. By 1975 the stringer would be assigned the no-brainer epic and the daily columnist would attempt to find the merits in the latest slasher movie.

If it hadn’t been for Kael, there would be no cultural space nor interest for a blog such as this one."

---In the film blogosphere, I keep running into these catchy little clips from the upcoming Transformers flick. If I see enough of them, perhaps I can skip the film altogether?

---Lastly, for those of you who think you have a difficult film shoot in process, check out Werner Herzog's troubles in making Fitzcarraldo in the middle of the Peruvian Amazon, as recorded in Vice magazine:

"[Klaus] Kinski took me aside, and in one of our rare moments where we revealed ourselves, he told me that if I went down with the ship he would go with me. I replied simply that he knew how the ship was built, with steel reinforcement beams inside and separate buoyancy chambers; I had no desire to drown, and had taken technical measures against such an eventuality. We hastily shook hands. I grabbed the phonograph and asked Gisela for some sewing needles, because the record player had no needle. But then our departure was delayed considerably. I had learned from the pilot, who had radioed up to the Huallaga from the Indians’ camp, that people seriously wounded by arrows had just arrived from the upper reaches of the Camisea, and that emergency operations were already under way. I hurried to the first-aid station and saw a native man and a woman, both of whom had been struck with enormous arrows. They had been fishing for the camp three hours upstream by speedboat, and had spent the night on a sandbank. During the night they had been ambushed and shot at close range by Amehuacas. The woman had been hit by three arrows and almost bled to death. The wounds were close together. One arrow had gone all the way through her body just above her kidney, one had bounced off her hip bone, and the most life-threatening one was still sticking in her abdomen, broken off on the inner side of her pelvis. I spent several hours helping out while she was operated on, shining a powerful flashlight into her abdominal cavity and with the other hand spraying insect repellent to try to drive away the clouds of mosquitoes the blood had attracted. The man still had an arrow made of razor-sharp bamboo and almost thirty centimeters long sticking through his throat. He had broken off the two-meter-long shaft himself, and was gripping it in his hand. In his state of shock he refused to let go of it. The arrow’s tip, which looked more like the point of a lance, had spliced open one of his shoulders along the collarbone and was sticking crossways through his neck, with the tip lodged in his shoulder on the other side."

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Performance, identity, and the selling of fantasy in The Girlfriend Experience and The Wrestler

In The Girlfriend Experience, we can analyze Chelsea (Sasha Grey) as a self-conscious commercial product in a world full of people obliged to sell themselves one way or another, but I was also intrigued by the Johns in the movie. One guy trembles as he impotently places his arms around her. Several guys mostly complain about the state of the economy as she looks on. Another man wears a diaper. In one scene, she confesses to being tortured by another guy with a Q-tip. For much of the movie, we watch men degrade themselves and her for the chance to spend $2000 an hour for a mock "girlfriend." That may be Soderbergh's point--how much men are willing to pay for a simulated girlfriend experience instead of gaining a real one. And of course, Soderbergh also knows that men may want to see a movie about the same experience, thereby making a simulation about a simulation. Thus, The Girlfriend Experience ironically enacts a version of a transaction even as it analyzes it.

Chelsea does have a handsome boyfriend who works as a trainer, but he doesn't stay with her very long either, and is reduced to yelling at her before they break up. It is as if it didn't occur to him that he might be bothered by her escort job. In another scene, a friend of the trainer tells him over a drink that "Women have all of the power, and they know it." The Girlfriend Experience complicates this sense of an imbalance of power between the sexes by also pointing out the exploitation she suffers in turn. Still, it's funny how, by submerging her identity by playing a role, Chelsea still comes off as the most content, serene character, but that may be just the impression left from her masked self. Certainly, she's the most self-aware in this game of imaginary relationships, but she has to trade herself for money. Instead of the customer being king, no one seems to win out in this form of commerce, even as Soderbergh piles on all of the poshlust luxury New York boutiques and hotel rooms.

One could compare Chelsea to Randy "the Ram" Robinson (Mickey Rourke) in The Wrestler. He, like Chelsea, makes his living by pandering to the increasingly degraded fantasies of his audience, only he sells himself as a warrior instead. The Wrestler reminded me a lot of Darren Aronofsky's earlier movie Requiem for a Dream in the way both films unrelentingly explore the negative effects of trying to live the American dream. The Ram likes to play the hero in his wrestling matches, but the reality is that after awhile he's reduced to working in a deli section of a grocery store. He's obliged to "serve the servants" (to use a Kurt Cobain phrase), and the role is so inherently demeaning to him, he eventually jams his thumb in the slicing machine, and, covering his face in blood, storms out of the store. The film proves again and again that there's no position for a warrior (even a slightly silly fraudulent wrestler-warrior who works out his moves in advance with his opponents) in modern society. He's either a self-sacrificing cartoon designed to appeal to his fans' need for hyperviolence, or he's a minimum wage serf . The central poignance of the movie is that, as much as he tries, the Ram has no way to fit in modern life at all.

As Cassidy the stripper, Marisa Tomei's character has similar problems in that, as far as work is concerned, she's a sex object or nothing. When she decides to help Randy find clothes for his daughter, she ends up betraying the emotional disconnect that takes place for a stripper when she attempts to befriend a customer. She lives by the rule that you never have moments of genuine intimacy with a customer, and its genuinely creepy to see Tomei switch her smile on and off as she alters her body language around Rourke. When he abruptly kisses her during a tender moment one afternoon in a bar, her mask snaps shut, she hurriedly drinks her beer, and she leaves. I've heard that strippers think of their male customers as "meat with wallets." It's easier for them to dehumanize the men in their minds to perform for them, and Tomei does an excellent job of showing the viewer glimpses of her genuine self underneath the act.

As the Ram, Rourke does manage to find some dignity for his character, especially when one can recognize the residue of his former glory as an actor and a leading man through all of distortions of his disfigured face. In all three cases, with Chelsea, Cassidy, and Randy, you can only see occasional flickers of humanity, mostly in their eyes, as they continue to trade in the performance of fantasy roles designed for the pleasure of others. Thus do these movies oblige us, the viewers, to consider the human toll of entertainment, even as we are enjoying it. They both ask the same question--what kind of monsters are we becoming in our constant need for entertainment?

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Notable film and media links--June 11, 2009

---Filmstalker brings on the unrated trailer for Doghouse, a feminist British zombie movie (!?!) in the tradition of Shaun of the Dead. I like the scissors.

---David Bowie's son, Duncan Jones promotes his intriguing science fiction film Moon with its "palpable mood of isolation and paranoia."

---Bill Wasik talks to Salon about our strange new viral culture:

"I would say that for 90 percent of culture makers coming up today, your break is going to be online. And the way that you're going to know you had your break is going to be numbers. It isn't going to be a single person, like an established poet, or an established musician coming up to you after a show or responding to a piece of writing you sent them and saying, I really believe you can do it. Instead, it's like this giant hive mind will pluck out something that you've done and say, this we love, this we bestow the pleasure of 2 million hits on. From there on out, you're going to use those cues you get from this giant machine to tell you what to keep doing and to tell you what to stop doing. And that to me is potentially scary in all sorts of ways. The hive mind selects for a certain kind of thing, it selects for culture that is instantly digestible, it selects for culture that is sensational in a certain sort of way."

---Greg of Cinema Styles summarizes all he has learned about movies since he started blogging.

---An interesting new Disney debate just getting started--the race-related politics of the upcoming The Princess and the Frog. Craig Kennedy's post claims "Damned if it does and damned if it doesn't." John McWhorter of The New Republic finds that "Disney Gets It Right" this time.

---Speaking of race-related politics in film, T.S. of Screen Savour takes another look at Griffith's The Birth of a Nation (1915) as part of his "summer of silent cinema" series:

"The Birth of a Nation and its politics are inseparable; one comes forth from the other, and vice versa. It is unfair to ask for consideration of the film with its racism set aside because it is truly impossible, and such, an irrevocable flaw in the fabric of the work. This tension between exacting attention to technical detail and a lack of control whatsoever over the political elements is the chief angle for criticizing the film. If the film's best-made scene is the Lincoln assassination (where technical construction seems perfectly and acceptably in tune with political messaging), then the film's worst scene occurs in the second half when a single white man fights off ten black men — and if it weren't for a gun, he'd win! It is flagrantly ridiculous, both in its absurd portrayal of white (and masculine) supremacy and for the way it treats the audience, fabricates its own vulgar mythology, and entrenches itself deeper into moral obsolescence. It is a lack of control on Griffith's part that makes the film spiral away from the audience in these moments."

---For NYT, Douglas Quenqua looks at all of the sad, abandoned blogs out there. On the other hand, Scott Kirsner of Cinematech uses the internet to promote his book, Fans, Friends, and Followers: Building an Audience and a Creative Career in the Digital Age and his movie We Are the Strange. Pretty impressive. Also, Josh Quittner of Time explores how some are making it rich slowly on the internet.

---Film in Focus interviews Erin Donovan of Steady Diet of Film for their always entertaining "Behind the Blog" series:

What separates journalism from blogging?

"A lot of bloggers consider themselves citizen journalists, I think that's an interesting approach. Blogging on the whole though seems to be more about chasing the story that will garner the most hits that day, journalism is about maintaining a public record. Maybe I can be a purist because I don't really consider myself one, but journalism is the fourth pillar of democracy and is at its best when it's audience-agnostic.

Something that fascinates me about the transition from print to online news resources is the struggle facing editors and writers who want to write longer, more in-depth pieces but have to contend with what ultimately drives traffic (which by all accounts is sex, celebrities and listicles). I wind up unsubscribing from great sites because I can't stand all the noise. I think a great interim solution would be creating more specialized RSS feeds (the Onion AV Club is really good at this) because I'm extremely interested in reviews, festival coverage and technology news but couldn't care less about casting rumors, leaked screenplays or blog drama. I haven't resigned myself to the idea that documentary, indie and international films should have to settle for crumbs. We just need to get better at marketing."

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The outer limits of terminal irony: Land of the Lost

I felt sick to my stomach watching Land of the Lost. I was just reading about how a convergence of debt, high energy prices, and global warming could create a "mega-crisis" of unheard of proportions soon. And when, some day, people look back at this watershed period of history, what kind of funhouse mirror did we hold up to our current deluded derangement? Ironic movies, like Year One, about cavemen? How about Will Ferrell's Land of the Lost?

To say that Land of the Lost is an unfunny disturbing nightmare still does not convey its particular ozone smell of the void, the nihilistic stupor of its complacency. The film has no narrative drive and no clear sense of its PG-13 audience. By being both insufficiently naughty for adults and vulgarly inappropriate for kids, the movie insults everyone simultaneously.

At some point, Ferrell must have suddenly said Yes! to the campy fun of playing the has-been scientist Rick Marshall in a revamped version of the enormously popular and cheesy 1970s cult children's TV series made by Sid and Marty Krofft. Instead of directly ripping off the TV script and having Rick bring a family into this prehistoric Land full of dinosaurs, primates, and Sleestak lizardmen found in a tear in the space/time continuum, the filmmakers decided to substitute Holly Cantrell (the sadly used English actress Anna Friel) for Rick's daughter, who is also called Holly. Thus, they substitute a grown woman for a little girl, even though vestiges of the original role remain when we see Holly wearing pigtails. And to substitute for Rick's son Will, the creators gave us an adult (again, with the same name, Will) in the form of a survivalist redneck played by Danny McBride.

33 year old Danny McBride plays a boorish boyish character--unsurprisingly, since Ferrell movies usually profit from amusing teenage boys with the images of grown men acting like aggressive children. Will distinguishes himself early on by holding a mug with breasts and saying "I like to call this one the perfect woman. Big boobs and no head." But for Friel, whose character gets involved in the plot due to her hero-worship of Rick, the film gives her little to do. When she's not running from a T-Rex, she's getting sexually harassed by primate Cha-Ka (who keeps grabbing at her chest) until enough time has passed for her to reasonably become Rick's love interest. At another time, as Will and Rick enjoy the stimulating effects of touching some crystal/glass portal, Will proposes that she "sit on it." Much as in last year's Stepbrothers, it's hard for women to have much of a dramatic function in these infantile movies, since childlike men by definition don't know what to do with them.

Other problems abound. Aside from its special effects and its ersatz Flintstones and Tomb Raider set designs, Land of the Lost has no real mise-en-scene. Someone makes a half-hearted effort late in the movie to cobble together a kind of post-apocalyptic postmodern desert landscape with an incongruously functional swimming pool. A hotel, the Golden Gate bridge, Big Ben, and a British phone booth all lie scattered around, half-buried in sand, but nothing in the "Land" makes any pretense of looking genuine. Land of the Lost displays the dead-end aesthetic of ironically recreating something that was already very ironic. You just end up with something inert, like small characters standing inside plastic toys in a McDonalds' Happy Meal. The original TV show at least had the built-in tension between its epic story ambitions and its tiny TV budget. The makers of the new film version spent $200+ million on set designs and special effects to fashion something nugatory--nothing, nought, zero, zilch--a film so lacking in tension, so self-aware of the stupidity of its premise that it reaches a complete stasis of perpetually winking at the audience. The people behind the movie are so busy winking, they neglected to include any reason for watching the film.

Later in the movie, in a moment that oddly evokes a similar plot point in the third act of Up, Rick has a crisis of leadership. He decides to give up, so he lies in the back of some random desert vehicle and places his hand in his pants. Will (McBride) does his part by acknowledging to Cha-Ka that he hasn't had a woman in 6 years. Then, when Rick inevitably "gives up on giving up" and returns to his leadership role, he saves the day in part by riding on a dinosaur. When Will gets his wish fulfilled by watching Rick slide, like Fred Flintstone, down of the tail of the T-Rex, he says "I have lived!" as he and the other characters continue to slowly die onscreen.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Emasculating women, wild cats, and babies: The Hangover's cinematic heritage

In its crude, drunken way, The Hangover is a subversive treat for guys. The storyline is simple: four men enjoy a decadent bachelor party one night in Las Vegas, but when the next morning comes around, none of them remember what happened the night before, and the groom-to-be Doug (Justin Bartha) is missing (not to mention there's also a mysterious tiger in the bathroom, the wreckage of their Caesars Palace villa, the stolen police car, and the fact that Stu (Ed Helms) seems to have gotten married to a stripper played by Heather Graham).

Probably many viewers caught the reference to Rain Man in the scene where the goofy Alan Garner (Zach Galifianakis) suddenly and unrealistically acquires the ability to count cards, because the image of him descending the escalator with Phil Wenneck (Bradley Cooper),

directly alludes to a similar moment with Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise in Rain Man (1988):

But you have to go all the way back to 1938 and Howard Hawks' Bringing Up Baby to find the model for the dentist Stu Price (Ed Helms) and his emasculating girlfriend Melissa (Rachael Harris):

At the beginning of Hangover, Melissa undermines Stu by making sure he brings Rogaine for his hair on his trip. Stu is so fearful of Melissa, he tells her that he's going to Napa Valley for a wine-tasting convention instead of to Las Vegas. Much of the dramatic arc of The Hangover consists of Stu gradually learning to get over this controlling woman. Similarly, in Bringing Up Baby, the film begins with paleontologist Dr. David Huxley learning from his fiancee that they will not have "time" to have a honeymoon, and they cannot have any "domestic entanglements of any kind." As Stu and David learn to find their masculinity through a journey, in both cases a wild animal plays a role.

In Bringing Up Baby, Katherine Hepburn brings along a leopard:

And in The Hangover, Stu deals with a tiger in much the same fashion:

At other times, I wondered--was this scene,

referring to 1983's 3 Men and a Baby? In both films, circumstances force three inept guys to take care of a stranded baby:

And then there's the family resemblance between The Hangover,

and Kevin Reynolds' 1985 road film Fandango:

In Fandango, one of Kevin Costner's earlier and better movies, five fraternity brothers have just graduated from the University of Texas in 1971. They all impulsively decide to take off across the Texas desert in a Cadillac in a quest for the mysterious "Dom." As the group's leader, Costner's character Gardner very much resembles Bradley Cooper. Also, Judd Nelson plays an anal fellow named Phil, who wears glasses, and who kind of resembles Stu in his inability to have any fun. Like Stu, Phil spends much of the movie arguing about things instead of enjoying the adventure:

Phil eventually also finds his masculinity by jumping out of a plane. Curiously, both films include a bearded pudgy goofball amongst the characters.

Several of the desert scenes in The Hangover reminded me strongly of Fandango:

Doug, the fiance, gets the keys to a gorgeous mint-condition '69 silver Mercedes convertible for his wife-to-be's rich father, who gives it to him with the condition that only he will drive it. This whole source of anxiety brings to mind a similarly threatened red Ferrari in Ferris Bueller's Day Off:

Not to mention Dude, Where's My Car (2000) and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) as mentioned in Adam's Rosenberg's post on The Mtv Blog.

So, what have we learned?

In terms of women in movies who help men regain their masculinity, we have moved from this,

to this,

And even though Heather Graham's character has no particular reason to fall for Stu, she can still use the career boost of appearing in this year's sleeper summer hit The Hangover.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Notable film and media links--June 6, 2009 shows off the Behind the Scenes featurette for Public Enemies. The star of the aforementioned film, Johnny Depp also shares his favorite Youtube videos. I like the guy in Shakespeare and Co. Parisian bookstore who sets his hair on fire.

---Time tries valiantly to persuade us that Twitter will change the way we live, all of those tweets adding "up to something truly substantive, like a suspension bridge made of pebbles."

---Care to consider if you are any better off with high-speed internet? For n+1 magazine, novelist Benjamin Kunkel weighs the pros and cons:

"I have noticed that it's of no great use telling myself, when I go online, that I should muster my willpower against the sirens of amusement, distraction, and curiosity. I do better at not spending too much time at my computer if I remind myself how comparatively shallow and irregular my enjoyment of the internet is. The truth is that we are often bored to death by what we find online—but this is boredom on the installment plan, one click a time, and therefore imperceptible. And if is worth noticing your boredom—not for the sake of your prose style or your attention span, but simply for the sake of your enjoyment of life—it is for the same reason worth recognizing the general sensuous poverty of online experience."

---In some sort of weird Don McLean convergence, Chuck Tryon linked to this witty video about "the year the media died" at about the same time Jim Emerson wrote this post entitled "Bye Bye Miss American Privacy."

---Supervillain treats us to the Buzzcocks performing "Harmony in my Head."

---MovieLine found time to interview The Hangover director Todd Philips:

"I mean, all my movies tend to be about guys, and these sort of weird male rituals of bonding, whether it’s Old School and fraternities, or I did a movie called Road Tripbefore that. And it’s more because I grew up with women only; I didn’t have a dad, and I grew up with three women. I never really understood fully men’s relationships to each other. And I also always found it uniquely awkward the relationship between heterosexual guys. There’s never the intimacy that women have in their relationships, and when there is, it’s really awkward. So it’s just something I find as a good starting point for comedy."

---Out1 has the new Wikio list of top 100 film blogs. Kudos to Ibetolis' Film for the Soul and its "rise to the top tier."

---For Some Came Running, Glenn Kenny points out some of his favorite film books. When discussing Robin Wood's Hollywood: from Vietnam to Reagan, he writes:

"It's difficult to go with just one Robin Wood book—his studies on Hawks and Hitchcock are of course indispensable—but I settle on this one because it's his most galvanic, the one that's most densely packed with provocative arguments and game changers. When he kicks off an evisceration of `The Lucas-Spielberg Syndrome' by admitting `[The films] work' and continuing, `because their workings correspond to the workings of our own social construction. I claim no exemption from this: I enjoy being reconstructed as a child, surrendering to the reactivation of a set of values and structures my adult self has long since repudiated, I am not immune to the blandishments of reassurance,' well, one understands that one is not in the realm of any kind of ordinary film criticism."

---According to the Clash, "phony Beatlemania has bitten the dust." Not quite.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

A widower's loss and the downside of Pixar's Up

I understand that I'm supposed to genuflect before every new Pixar flick, but I fought sleep midway through Up, and now, one day later, I'm having a hard time remembering what happened in it.

Both Up and Drag Me to Hell feature characters who graphically lose their fake teeth. It would seem that screenwriters feel the omnipresent weight of that fast-growing population in American--the aged--so now we have a children's movie that stars 78 year old Carl Frederickson (Ed Asner) who looks a bit like a grumpy Spencer Tracy. When he finds an antagonist to fight, the antagonist also turns out to be another old man, explorer Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer). What does having an elderly lead do for the film? It allows the Pixar director Pete Docter the opportunity to show Carl's growth from a child to old age in a rapid montage early on. In this summary, we learn that as a kid, he meets up with a fellow explorer, a tomboy named Ellie, and they eventually marry and go on to have a long, happy, loving relationship even though they learn to their grief that they cannot have children. They have always planned on visiting an exotic unknown place in Venezuela called Paradise Falls, and they feed their spare change into a large jar to eventually travel there. But, somewhat in the manner of It's a Wonderful Life, they never do get around to exploring, and just as Carl finally gets around to buying plane tickets, his wife sickens and dies, leaving him alone in the home they had converted out of their former clubhouse.

This early montage struck me as one of the best things about the movie. It shows how a sequence of images can summarize the transience, the pathos, and the pleasures of a marriage. The rapidity of the summary and the abrupt closure of Ellie's death make up some for its sentimentality. As the newly widowed Carl grumpily shuffles from room to room, noting how neighboring construction has eviscerated the surrounding landscape, there's little he can do except call "Take a bath, hippie!" to the local construction manager. When he gets into a tussle with a worker over damage done to his mailbox, the construction firm manages to get him labelled a "public menace," so he hooks up many balloons to the chimney of his house and arranges for it to float away.

So far, so good. The balloons supply the visual movement that an elderly character otherwise could not supply. A pudgy wilderness explorer boy named Russell happens to come along for the ride, and with an overt nod to The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy's house lands after being swept up in a tornado, Carl manages to bring his house down within sight of Paradise Falls.

At that point, Up loses its realism and shifts into a half-hearted fantasy world that has something to do with preserving nature. For instance, there's a exotic bird named Kevin, loosely patterned on Road Runner, who gets chased around by a pack of talking dogs. These dogs have voice boxes tied to their collars, so they kind of talk. Carl and Russell also befriend a mutt named Dug, who instantly loves them in a loyal doglike way when he's not distracted by a squirrel. With his new "family" of cohorts, and with the energy of a much younger cartoon hero, Carl starts to pull his still-floating house across cliffs closer to Paradise Falls. Since there has to be a villain to retain suspense, a long lost explorer Charles Muntz shows up with a bunch of dogs as his henchmen and as unlikely Red Baron-esque fighter pilots. It turns out that Charles wants to capture Kevin and keep him in his miraculously intact 60 year old zeppelin that has "The Spirit of Adventure" written on the side (a reference to Charles Lindbergh and his famous solo flight across the Atlantic in "The Spirit of St. Louis").

It was around this time that I nearly fell asleep. It seemed to me that the film got more conventional, especially in its plotting, as it dipped its toe lightly into a South American fantasy landscape. Carl has to have a change of heart for a later plot point. Similarly, Russell learns to break out on his own by tying himself to several helium balloons and using a hair dryer to navigate. There are a lot of fun flying scenes involving the house, the zeppelin, and the World War II fighter planes as they square off on each other above the clouds, but for me the meat (or heart?) of the movie still lay in the initial relationship between Karl and Ellie, and his sense of loss after her death. All of the rest drifts, like the house, further and further away from that core emotion. As Russell says to Carl at one point, "It's the boring stuff I remember the most." So it proves for the film--an everyday marriage proves more memorable than all of the ramped up adventures later.