Monday, September 28, 2009

9 reasons why I like Stephan Elliot's Easy Virtue (and Noel Coward in general)

1) Set in the late 1920s English countryside in a decaying estate, Easy Virtue is the ultimate anti-stuffy-Merchant and Ivory period piece film. You can tell because it features a jazzified version of "Car Wash" from the 1976 movie.

2) Easy Virtue concerns the arrival of the glamorous American blonde car racer Larita (Jessica Biel) at the stuffy and distinctively 19th century Whittaker household ruled by Mrs. Whittaker (Kristin Scott Thomas). Larita has just impulsively married Mrs. Whittaker's son John (Ben Barnes), and she tries to ingratiate herself with the eccentric family, but Mrs. Whittaker is intent upon getting rid of her. In effect, Easy Virtue juxtaposes flapper Modernism with the remnants of Edwardian England, and Modernism looks much more fun.

3) Australian director Stephan Elliot, who also directed The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994), shot Easy Virtue with a minimal budget, only about five hours a day of English winter light, and no time for his actors to rehearse. In effect, as he explains in the DVD commentary, everyone winged it as best they could. At one point, Elliot pulled the actors outside for a tracking shot just because it was easier and faster (with Colin Firth complaining the whole time), yet the movie succeeds in part due to its improvisational charm.

4) Easy Virtue has oddball transitions that feature CGI special effects. How often do "period" films do that? I especially liked one trick shot of an old Cole Porter record "Let's Misbehave," a song that nicely summarizes the subversive spirit of the film, but Elliot also includes multiple dissolves and lots of playful reflections of characters in spoons, a serving dish, a billiard ball, etc.

5) Who knew that Jessica Biel could hold her own against a British cast that features not only Scott Thomas but also Colin Firth? The last time I saw her, Biel was demeaning herself in Adam Sandler's I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry.

6) In Easy Virtue, Colin Firth plays the moody, unshaven, and quietly sardonic anti-Darcy Mr. Whittaker. Director Stephan Elliot claims that the main reason that Firth agreed to act in the movie was for one scene: a tango he gets to dance with Larita that oddly echoes the climactic dance scene in Visconti's classic The Leopard. Firth did this in spite of the fact that he freely admits that he can't dance.

7) Meanwhile, Kristin Scott Thomas did not initially want to play the controlling matriarchal Mrs. Whittaker. Since I still associate her with her much more playful rebellious role in The English Patient, I don't blame her reluctance, but she ultimately makes her character sympathetic. The movie shifts gears when it reveals her vulnerability and dignity even amidst her attempts to undermine Larita.

8) Stephan Elliot adapted Easy Virtue from Noel Coward's 1928 play of the same name. Oddly enough, Alfred Hitchcock adapted the same melodrama as a 1928 silent film with the same name. Elliot returns the favor by using Hitchcockian push-in type shots.

9) Noel Coward's plays specialize in cigarette smoking, cocktail drinking, tuxedo-wearing socialites who use wit as a form of self-defense against anyone and anything. In other words, his characters often embody icy intelligent cool. In the play Private Lives, lead character Elyot perhaps sums up Coward's aesthetic when he says "All of the futile moralists who try to make life unbearable . . . Laugh at them. Laugh at everything, all of their sacred shibboleths. Let's pity the poor philosophers." In the hands of Elliot, Easy Virtue captures the spirit of Coward's work with leisurely insouciance and aplomb.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Notable media and film links--special Surrogates edition

---The war between the shot and the snatch.

---American civil liberties in action?

---Scott Schuman of the excellent Sartorialist gives tips on how to succeed.

---Disturbing tech videos ads.

---In apocalyptic news, predictions of the end that didn't pan out, Zombie CNN, and the enviropocalypse.

---Truth be told, Surrogates was a letdown, a good example of the new dystopian banal (so many apocalyptic movies, so little time), so I haven't written a post about it, but if I were to do so, I would mention how robots do not make good actors, how Ving Rhames looks silly as the pseudo-Rastafarian Prophet, how the film's big scene sadly evoked The Happening, and how the movie vaguely resembles an oddly earnest Pulp Fiction reunion. Then again, the film does reflect how social network use has tripled in the last year and how people increasingly spend 8 hours a day in front of some screen or another. According to Cinematical's interview with Surrogates director Jonathan Mostow,

"Cinematical: What is the point of the surrogates for the people in this film? How does it revolutionize their lives?

Jonathan Mostow: It's not so much that it revolutionizes their lives. It's just kind of like it's the extrapolation of where we're going, which is more and more we seem to be able to do stuff through our computer and online. Like right now, you can stay in touch with all of your friends via email or Facebook or Twitter; you can get all of the information in the world from or, whatever. So the only thing you need to leave the house for is to go to your job, and if you really wanted to socialize in person with somebody. What if there was a machine to enable that to happen as well? Where we're going with robotics and this whole new developing field of brain stuff, it feels like it doesn't take a lot of speculative science-fiction to imagine we could sort of get there. This movie isn't really asking the question, gee, if in the future this technology existed, what would actually happen?

Surrogates is really a metaphor for asking the question, today, right now, we live in a time where we are swamped with all of this technology; we love it and we're addicted to it, but we also can't let go of it. What's that doing to us as human beings? That's really kind of to me what this movie is fundamentally about, so the appeal to people of having a surrogate is extrapolating out where we're already at. We're all constantly seeking convenience and a better existence, so if you can live with a surrogate, you have no personal jeopardy, moral boundaries are conveniently erased, and you also just feel better. It's why video phones never took off; there have been several iterations of video phone technology, and they never took off because ultimately people didn't want to be shown to the person they're talking to. The internet gives you that anonymity – you could be anybody on the internet. So it's the same thing with surrogacy; it affords you that cloak of hiding your personal identity, and that's the other necessary requirement of any of these technologies succeeding."

---Other disturbing signs--Iggy Pop became a Lego, and Guitar Hero 5 resurrects Kurt Cobain.

---I find these UK film student offerings very compelling: 28 Days Later in one minute.

---The story of Leasse Williams in Ben Guest's 10 Dollars an Hour (with thanks to

---Lady Gaga before she got famous (and harder to see).

---The importance of informational politics, a case study of our post-journalistic age, a bleak enough situation, and yet, people desire more news than ever.

---Catherine Grant's excellent list of film books available online.

---If you must execute, the advantages of a shot to the head.

---Could recent technological changes be good for literacy? Hogwarts, by the by, is not.

---The scourge of backstory rationing.

---A fun collection of scandalous magazine covers.

---Lastly, Eric Idle delightfully takes on the hating YouTube commenters.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Notable film and media links--September 17, 2009

---For Shadowplay, dcairns analyzes Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train.

---"Did You Know 4.0" depicts the historic changes in media, and what does 2.0 mean anyway? Also, let's not forget Gov. 2.0

---Richard Dorment of Esquire tries his best to follow the advice of Gwyneth Paltrow's GOOP website. Should he buy that $1850 watch for his wife for Christmas?

---The glamorous life (or living death) of a film extra:

Extras are a significant part of the production budget, especially in Britain. Which is why a lot of filming is going to Eastern Europe, where extras charge only $20 a day. The cost of extras is one of the reasons why epics such as Ben Hur are largely a thing of the past. Gandhi was the last – the funeral sequence alone required 300,000 extras.

But nowadays, where possible, crowds are digitised in. In Gladiator, they used 2,000 live actors to create a digital crowd of about 35,000 people. But for some of the crowd scenes, in addition to the real-life extras and the digital ones, they also used cut-outs made of cardboard.In Hollywood, there are at least two companies that can supply inflatable extras. Digital extras can look fake, and cardboard extras can look, well, cardboard, particularly if the camera moves. But inflatable extras are more rounded. They can be deflated, stored – a crowd of 10,000 can fit into one 50ft truck – and reused."

---"the post-Gore wave of eco-docs."

---Spike Lee and Stew discuss Passing Strange:

"AVC: One of the things that the play, and the movie, deals with is that the Youth is, to put it crudely, forced to choose between being an artist and being black. There’s no way to be bohemian in the middle-class neighborhood where he grows up, but in the largely white environments he escapes to, he’s equally an outsider. When white teenagers rebel, there’s a script laid out for them, but the Youth doesn’t have that option.

S: What I’ve said before about Passing Strange is that black teen angst isn’t really documented enough. We’ve got a lot of white teen angst—been doing it since the James Dean movies.

AVC: Rebel Without A Cause.

S: Exactly, right? But it’s like black teenagers, if I may say, we’re not just rebelling against what our parents are dealing with. We’re rebelling against our very place in society. See, James Dean was white. You know what I mean? He might have not liked Thurston Howell, or his dad, whoever, but James Dean was still white. When he wanted to leave home, he could go get a job. Right? A black teenager who wants to be punk-rock, he’s in a double bind. Because he’s pissed off his family, but now I’m black and punk-rock? You know what I mean? Where you gonna go? So it’s like this double bind.

Black teenagers have it a little bit rougher. I’m sorry to say, but they just do. I’m hoping there’s a world at some point where it’ll be a little bit easier, but right now… Imagine how crazy people must have thought [Spike] was when he said, “I’m going to be a filmmaker.” If he’d said, “I want to be a baller,” they would have been like, “Well, at least we know 8 million ballers.” They must have said, “What are you talking about, man?” And they looked at me the same crazy way. Being a musician was like saying you wanted to be a bum, you want to be a drug addict, you want to die like Jimi Hendrix. Because that’s what musicians do, don’t they? Or, “Ooh, you’re a jazz musician? That means you want to be on heroin.” You know what I mean?"

---"Consuming Kids"--the cynical commercialization of childhood.

---Another reason to dislike Facebook: nostalgic retrosexuals.

---In Twitter news, it can be fun to have a million Twitter followers, even though most users hardly tweet at all, and some say Twitter only succeeds because it is stupider than TV. When not detecting Twitter imposters, you can always read The Twitter Times when you aren't flipping through Google Fast Flip.

---The rise of films within films, or how about 27 films about filmmaking?

---The growing success of the professional blogger.

---Russian trailers also give too much away.

---The 10 most iconic opening scenes in film history (Children of Men!)

---Some imagine that Jennifer's Body will bring on a Diablo Cody critical backlash. I wonder how much critical reception of the film will depend on each reviewer's receptivity to the film's feminist agenda. Then again, Sarah Ball begs to differ.

---The top 100 film studies blogs (with thanks to Chuck Tryon).

---Lastly, the torments of easy listening jazz.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Stripmining reality as we amuse ourselves to death: 9 and Gamer

9 struck me as scarcely a movie at all, more a brief collection of scenes where sketched-in doll-characters with incongruous movie star voices endlessly fend off evil machines in a generic post-apocalyptic landscape. At first, I kept falling asleep, but then I roused myself enough to wonder what I was supposed to feel about all this. Was I supposed to care that the young heroic 9 cares enough to go save other characters while the slightly Asian-looking older curmudgeon 1 doesn't think he should? 7, I believe, wears a skull to show some chutzpah and she has the voice of Jennifer Connolly, so I liked her the best. But why on earth should I give a tinker's damn about a bunch of barely-differentiated dolls?

The film evokes Edward Scissorhands in the way the dolls' inventors die before their inventions kick into action, but at least Edward had Winona Ryder as a love interest and a cartoon suburbia to slice his way into. 9 has the odd effect of rendering the apocalypse moot. You see the occasional human corpse lying around, but what does humanity's fate matter if only miniature animated burlap bag lives are at stake? I found myself much more moved by the defunct Columbia SC mall full of dead stores where I saw the film than anything in 9's rusty metallic steampunk universe.

Among recent futuristic films, Gamer was much more thought-provoking. I liked Entertainment Weekly's dismissive summary put-down of the movie:

"In the fractious future, video games have `gone human,' with real live blood-sport warriors controlled by geeks with joysticks. The sickest of these games is Slayers, in which death-row inmates kill each other off in a noisy orgy of skip-stutter editing and dirty-ash-spattered explosions. It's The Dirty Dozen meets Tron, updated for the age of action incoherence. As the brutish Kable, Gerard Butler must find out who's pulling his strings, but it's the audience whose chain gets yanked by this head-ache inducing techno-violent mishmash. D" --Owen Glieberman

Well, yes, but . . . . in its jaded way, Gamer makes surprisingly cogent points about our sickly relationship to the media. As the film depicts grotesquely fat people in grey apartments living fantasy lives through their cartoonishly attractive avatars, I found myself brooding on how much of our identities get shaped by our identification with figures in video games, movies, etc. If one watches enough movies, then what happens to one's everyday identity? As people amuse themselves with their toys in air-conditioned comfort, doesn't the external world get increasingly stripmined in the process? As William Saleten points out in this 2006 Slate article,

"The hotter it gets, the more energy we burn. In 1981, only one in three American households with central air used it all summer long. By 1997, more than half did. Countries once cooled by outdoor air now cool themselves. In Britain, 75 percent of new cars have air conditioning. In Canada, energy consumption for residential cooling has doubled in 10 years, and half the homes now have central or window units. Kuujjuaq, an Eskimo village 1,000 miles north of Montreal, just bought 10 air conditioners. According to the mayor, it's been getting hot lately.

Instead of fixing the outdoors, we're trying to escape it. On every street in my neighborhood, people have torn down ordinary homes and put up giant air-conditioned boxes that extend as far as possible toward the property line. They've lost yards and windows, but that's the whole idea. Outdoor space is too hard to control, so we're replacing it with indoor space. From 1991 to 2005, the median lot size of single-family homes sold in the United States shrank by 9 percent, but the median indoor square footage increased by 18 percent. If you can't stand the heat, go hide in your kitchen."

Do people have genuine adventures anymore if they always live them through the media? And what does it mean if real live people become avatars? Haven't we just seen poor Kurt Cobain reduced to a Guitar Hero avatar?
Are real-life soldiers fighting in Afghanistan functioning as avatars for the increasingly older game-playing American public? Gamer shows how the artificially pleasure-filled fantasy world of the screen already dominates the polluted, paved-over, species-deprived, globally warming, and frankly less-fun world outside. In the words of Neil Postman, we are "amusing ourselves to death" with the druglike soma of entertainment, but Gamer goes further to suggest how media fantasies shape our reality in increasingly surreal ways.

As a side note, here's a great quote from Postman: "When we begin relying on the Internet for all of our news and information we will turn into a nation of zombies."

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Notable film and media links--September 8, 2009

---The difficulties of marketing Ellen Page.

---The avant-guarde art(?) of YouTube.

---Libraries no longer need books:

“When I look at books, I see an outdated technology, like scrolls before books,’’ said James Tracy, headmaster of Cushing and chief promoter of the bookless campus. “This isn’t ‘Fahrenheit 451’ [the 1953 Ray Bradbury novel in which books are banned]. We’re not discouraging students from reading. We see this as a natural way to shape emerging trends and optimize technology.’’

---Instead of reading books, we can revel in our fully augmented new reality even as print desperately tries to defend itself from the ever-encroaching internet.

---Some somehow manage to outgrow Facebook while others cannot stop seeking:

"But to Washington State University neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp, this supposed pleasure center didn't look very much like it was producing pleasure. Those self-stimulating rats, and later those humans, did not exhibit the euphoric satisfaction of creatures eating Double Stuf Oreos or repeatedly having orgasms. The animals, he writes in Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions, were "excessively excited, even crazed." The rats were in a constant state of sniffing and foraging. Some of the human subjects described feeling sexually aroused but didn't experience climax. Mammals stimulating the lateral hypothalamus seem to be caught in a loop, Panksepp writes, "where each stimulation evoked a reinvigorated search strategy" (and Panksepp wasn't referring to Bing).

It is an emotional state Panksepp tried many names for: curiosity, interest, foraging, anticipation, craving, expectancy. He finally settled on seeking. Panksepp has spent decades mapping the emotional systems of the brain he believes are shared by all mammals, and he says, "Seeking is the granddaddy of the systems." It is the mammalian motivational engine that each day gets us out of the bed, or den, or hole to venture forth into the world. It's why, as animal scientist Temple Grandin writes in Animals Make Us Human, experiments show that animals in captivity would prefer to have to search for their food than to have it delivered to them.

For humans, this desire to search is not just about fulfilling our physical needs. Panksepp says that humans can get just as excited about abstract rewards as tangible ones. He says that when we get thrilled about the world of ideas, about making intellectual connections, about divining meaning, it is the seeking circuits that are firing.

The juice that fuels the seeking system is the neurotransmitter dopamine. The dopamine circuits "promote states of eagerness and directed purpose," Panksepp writes. It's a state humans love to be in. So good does it feel that we seek out activities, or substances, that keep this system aroused—cocaine and amphetamines, drugs of stimulation, are particularly effective at stirring it."

---A. O. Scott contemplates the authentic woman in Almodovar's All About My Mother.

---Big city alienation and U2's video for "I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight."

---Truman Capote explains Holly Golightly.

---Recession-worthy living: Sean Dunne's Man in Van.

---TimeOut London compiles the "50 greatest directorial debuts of all time."

---Charlize Theron tries to laugh off rude Zach.

---The scrap metal aesthetics of Shane Acker's 9.

---The Guardian exhibits Paul Newman as The Times shares some playful Charlie Chaplin/Alistair Cooke footage.

---Lastly, Fox of Tractor Facts considers the Godardian colors of Gamer as Richard Brody unveils a scene with Godard at play.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Teenaged Bait: Kevin Williamson's I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997)

How much does the upcoming Sorority Row steal from the 1997 horror film I Know What You Did Last Summer? Here's my time capsule review from 12 years ago:

Here's the hook: after a romantic visit to the beach, two teenage couples are driving home on a winding two lane highway. The drunken quarterback (Ryan Phillipe) stands up in the sun roof and accidentally drops his bottle of Cutty Sark on top of the driver just before they hit something, sending the car into a tail spin. They get out to find a dead man lying in a ditch, his face covered with blood.

What to do? Why not drop the body off the edge of a pier so that crabs and squids, maybe even an obliging shark will chew it up for weeks before it is found? With much debate and soul-searching, they try this, only to have the man wake up just before they shove him off the dock. They then swear to "carry their secret to their graves."

Cut to one year later. One of the girls, played by Party of Five's Jennifer Love Hewitt, mopes around college much like Winona Ryder did back in Beetlejuice, all brunette bangs and morbid guilt-ridden sulk. She returns home to her concerned Ma just to find a mysterious letter saying, you guessed it, "I know what you did last summer."

So begins Halloween's highly pedigreed screamfest of the week. The writer Kevin Williamson seems to have rattled off this screenplay just after the deliciously self-referential and very successful Scream and just before Scream 2, due out in December. Scream skillfully resuscitated the tired horror genre by ironically pointing out every rule and convention of the form even as it dished up creative blood and gore: one girl dies by garage door opener; another man screams at Jamie Lee Curtis to look behind her on video just as the real murderer comes up behind him. Scream was full of mirror-like scenes like this, immersing the viewer in a whole tradition of scary movies and parodically commenting on all of them.

In contrast, Last Summer sticks more to the basic formula, but I could still appreciate the movie's knowing manipulation of one's expectations. The fisherman killer and note writer, immediately iconographic in his slicker, rain hat, and carrying a large hook, takes pleasure in simply messing with the two couples. The quarterback gets rammed into a warehouse by his own car, breaking his arm. Hewitt's character finds a former friend of hers, Max, dead in his car trunk with a bunch of crabs chewing on his corpse. The local North Carolina fishing town beauty queen of the group (Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Sarah Michelle Gellar) wakes up one morning to find her previous blond locks cut up like "cole slaw." That bastard fisherman! As in Scream, there's one young man (Freddie Prinze Jr.) who could easily be the killer himself.

We learn of different ways to kill someone quickly with a meat hook: impale under the chin? Strike up through the rib cage? One older sister gets stabbed and then dragged like so much meat across the floor of a darkened women's clothing store.

The two teenaged girls try investigating the killer by visiting Anne Heche out in her spooky, dusty house in the sticks. For her few moments of screen time, Heche delivers a delightfully disturbed vision of semi-distracted white trash grief. Hewitt and Gellar spend their time together speaking in rapid-fire wispy voices, trying in their Valley Girl prom queen way to find the killer before he kills them. Meanwhile, the killer quickly moves beyond simple revenge to slashing everyone in sight, thereby diluting the somewhat original storyline into a more typical slasher bloodbath, but I don't think the young audience of this movie will care. Kevin Williamson serves up his Psycho cliches like a delectable shrimp cocktail, well-chilled in a meat locker.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Notable film and media links--September 3, 2009

---Our legislators hard at work.

---I don't know what this New Liberal Arts pdf thing is, but it looks intriguing:

"In this age we are surrounded by stimuli, messages in our environment clamoring for a little piece of our awareness. Advertisements are designed and sold with the simple premise of stealing one small mote of your attention. Your technological devices, designed to assist you in your life and work, beep incessantly with updates, alerts, and alarms. Cars become more and more like the cockpits of fighter planes with their heads-up displays and data readouts. Even our relationships take more maintenance; lovers separated by such a small obstacle as a day at the office stay in constant contact through email, instant messaging, and social networks. In our new digital world we’ve finally started to run out of one of our most precious resources: Our own attention.

In the distant past, educated people worked for decades to train their brains to retain information. Greek bards had to be able to recall the story and rhythm of, if not the exact words of, either of Homer’s epics at the drop of an Athenian dime. Monastery-confined monks would construct vast “memory palaces” in their minds to store and recall data in photographic detail. Starting with paper and pen, technological advances began to make that sort of rigorous mental dexterity obsolete. But in our rush to modernity, have we gone too far? Have we given over too much of our brain power to the devices built to boost our productivity? Are our brains now just tasty mush for our zombie progency?"

---David Bordwell expl0res one forking path future of Archie comics.

---A. O. Scott contemplates the heart of The Big Lebowski.

---To be honest, I'm getting a bit burned out on Basterds as it threatens to become the Dark Knight of the season, but still Ed Howard and Jason Bellamy's Conversations are always illuminating, and I liked Scarecrow's compilation of cinematic allusions and Cozzalio's compression of the entire film down to one Steig cartoon.

---My favorite Tweeter. My second favorite (not genuine, sadly). Otherwise, the Twitter revolution continues with God tweeting, classes being taught about Twitter, and Heather Armstrong wielding her Twitter power.

---In Facebook news, some decide that the social media site is more repressive than North Korea, others use Facebook to brag about themselves, and others never develop the ability to talk face to face thanks to social media.

---Anne Thompson looks at "The Age of Dystopian Cinema."

---Lorrie Moore and the essential rudeness of artists.

---The Atlantic views the excellent videos of Outkast.

---idsgn traces the evolution of film titles.

---Who better to sell movies than filmmakers?

---Lastly, do you suppose that viewers will recognize that Gamer is a "warning" about "amoral trash culture"?