Saturday, November 28, 2009

9 Reasons Why Fantastic Mr. Fox is the Coolest Film

1) FMF shows how sly indie smarts can defy the corporate factory farm machine.

2) The film suggests there is a subversive affinity between artists and thieves. Somewhat like Godard and Truffaut in their youth, Mr. Fox is a chicken thief who has difficulty kicking the habit. Anderson inspires us by ripping off what inspires him, including allusions to Toy Story (a character trapped in a milk crate), The Third Man (the sewer sequence), The Man in the White Suit (Bean has an apple cider machine that makes the same noise that Alec Guinness'character's invention makes), Bonnie and Clyde (men with guns hiding in the bushes for an ambush), and West Side Story (Rat (Willem Dafoe) snaps his fingers in a way reminiscent of the movie's choreography).

3) FMF juxtaposes the passionate instincts of the wild with Anderson's trademark cerebral creative control. Fox cannot help himself because of his wild nature. Late in the film, a wolf appears in the distance. Anderson keeps the wolf in an extreme long shot, and even though the wolf shares with Fox a paw pump of solidarity, the wildest creature stays aloof, separate, and by implication superior to the rest of the animals who have to find ways to accommodate humanity.

4) In every shot, FMF celebrates the detail. Mr. Fox has an impeccable fashion sense--thin ties and corduroy suits. Wes Anderson took photographs of all of the furniture in Roald Dahl's house, had miniature versions made, and scattered them throughout the movie. I found FMF annoying in its way, because so many ingenious details and inventive shot compositions demand a re-viewing. One feels obliged to play the film slowly on DVD and freeze-frame scenes to catch everything.

5) I'm not sure, but it seems that The Darjeeling Limited becomes part of a train set in FMF that consoles Kristofferson when he is blue.

6) FMF treats the difficulties of parenting and sibling self-esteem issues without being annoying.

7) FMF shares with Watership Down a concern with the way humans violate the land for petty reasons.

8) FMF celebrates the moment. Anderson makes sure to add some unexpected flourish to every scene. Even in the midst of an action scene, he will pause to show how Kylie (Wallace Wolodarsky), Mr. Fox's dim but loyal possum sidekick, did have "blueberries" written on his paw, even though he forgot to bring them. We also learn, again in the midst of an exciting sequence, that Kylie's good about paying off his debts, thereby earning a nice credit card. After the rat dies, the gang has a poignant moment, thinking that the rat did redeem himself, but then Mr. Fox says with metaphysical aplomb, "At the end of the day, he's still just a dead rat in a garbage pail behind a Chinese restaurant."

9) Sly, conniving, resourceful, devious--what creature is cooler than a fox? Just as Mr. Fox and his gang elude the evil farmers Boggis, Bunce, and Bean, so does Fantastic Mr. Fox eludes the viewer's attempt to apprehend it. I've never seen such an intellectually engrossing children's movie.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Notable film and media links--special Thanksgiving edition--November 26, 2009

In this narcissistic age of Reality TV, Black Friday, melancholy war-based video games, gender-biased oppression at home, kids returning to the nest, and Zombie buildings, it is important to give thanks for

---inventive new ways to film people being thrown from windshields,

---new websurfing and Twitter techniques,

---dystopic vampire films reminiscent of peak oil,

---oddly formal Japanese music videos,

---The Onion headlines,

---Facebook and Twitter-related legal conundrums,


---Zadie Smith's thoughts about the pros and cons of novels and essays:

"I know, now that I've finished them, that I wrote my own essays out of exactly the kind of novel-nausea Shields describes. I was oppressed by a run-of-the-mill version of that narrative scepticism Kafka expresses so well in one line in "Description of a Struggle": "But then? No then." Simply put, my imagination had run dry, and I couldn't seem to bring myself to write the necessary "and then, and then" which sits at the heart of all imagined narratives. When you're in this state – commonly called "writer's block" – the very idea of fiction turns sour. But in a strange circular effect, it has been the experience of writing essays that has renewed my enthusiasm for the things fiction does that nothing else can. Writing essays on Kafka, on Nabokov, on George Eliot, on Zora Neale Hurston, I was newly humbled and excited by the artificial and the fully imagined. The title of the book, Changing My Mind, is meant to refer to the effect great fiction like this always seems to have on me. I once thought, for example, that I didn't want ever to read another lengthy novel about family life – and then I read The Corrections. That book gave something to me I could never get from an aphoristic personal essay about the nature of art (I think that "something" might be "a convincing imitation of multiple consciousnesses", otherwise known as "other people"). And vice versa. I don't think I'm alone in that feeling. As general readers, who thankfully do not have to live within the strict terms of manifestos, we are fortunate not to have to choose once and for all between two forms that offer us quite different, and equally valuable, experiences of writing."

---the history of cute,

---funky new production companies like Encyclopedia Pictura:

"The table is a rectangle. Candles burn in a shrine to a Hindu-looking deity. Hypnotic Balinese gamelan music plays on a circa-1970s component stereo. A cardboard box full of quartz crystals glows with the orange light of the sun setting over the prickly, timber-clad ridge. In attendance tonight are four males, a female, and a red-spectacled Amazon parrot. Everyone gathered has a freshly showered look, wet hair, and sunburned noses; they spent the day laboring in the late-summer heat, building an outdoor kitchen. A thirty-year plan is already in effect, based on the principles of permaculture, sustainable communities, infinite possibilities. They'd like to purchase the rest of the parcel — Grandpa's house and acreage — in order to create a back-to-the-land version of Walt Disney Studios or Lucasfilm, complete with individual habitats, zip lines, and highly advanced digital-filmmaking technology, a "mythological and magically inspiring place that isn't synthetic and fake, built with living things and populated with real people," according to Isaiah Saxon, the undisputed center of the triumvirate, first among equals. Their immediate goal is to feed and house the roughly twenty computer artists it will take to produce their next project — a full-length IMAX 3-D movie."


---good music of the last ten years,

---infographics, and lastly,

---a celebration of food in cinema.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

"Violent delights have violent ends": a pictorial primer on The Twilight Saga: New Moon

See the Volvo XC60 SUV.
It appears prominently in The Twilight Saga: New Moon,
because Edward Cullen drives it to his high school.
According to the ad, "There's more to life than a Volvo,
that's why you drive one," especially if you are a vampire.

This is Bella Swan.
Bella has a hard time in New Moon,
because her two boyfriends dump her repeatedly
due to their various monster agendas.
This makes Bella sad.
Sad, sad, sad,
and so she mopes,
mopes, mopes, mopes
through much of the movie.

See Jacob Black.
Jacob likes Bella, but he finds it hard
to compete with Edward,
so he works out
and fixes motorcycles to pass the time
as Bella mopes.

It's not that Kristen Stewart can't act.
It's that she's
constantly emoting,
constantly obsessing
over Edward,
Edward, Edward, Edward,
as the opportunistic bands
play mope rock on the soundtrack.
She has no life
beyond her fixation on him,
another pitiful human
always harping on her desire
to transform herself into a vampire.

Jacob doesn't have much of a character
that I could see (I guess I'm not on team Jacob),
so he makes up for it by looking buff
and turning into a wolf when needed.

Not this kind of wolf.
An ordinary wolf would not be exceptional enough,
but that becomes the problem with New Moon.
Bella increasingly gets surrounded
with the exceptional and the special.
After awhile, the exceptional becomes banal.

See Jacob transformed into big, mean
computer-generated werewolf.
See the werewolf snarl.
Snarl, snarl, snarl.
Instead of carrying maidens off
or rampaging around on their own time,
as werewolves used to do,
these werewolves have a mission
to protect the little people
of Forks, Washington.
That makes Jacob noble, but also dull,
even with his shirt off.

After much teenage angst,
Angst, angst, angst,
(spoiler alert)
Edward attempts suicide
by walking all sparkle motion
into the sunlight in Italy
where humans can see him.
Why does he attempt suicide?
Because he thinks Bella is dead?
Why would he think so?
Because he wants to make an allusion
to Romeo and Juliet?
Or because he too wants to look like
an Abercrombie and Fitch model?
I would probably know
if I had read the novel by Stephanie Meyer.

Anyway, we get to meet
the Volturi gang of head honcho vampires
which mostly consists of Michael Sheen
bulging his eyes
and Dakota Fanning
appealing to the tween market
in a neoclassical room
with some classy Latin phrases
carved in the stone walls.

Ultimately, Edward had no
real good reason to leave Bella after all,
saying "I couldn't live in a world
in which you didn't exist."
Fortunately, Bella does exist!
I kept expecting him to say,
"I'm a fat-headed guy full of pain.
It tore me up not having you."
But that was Cary Grant's character
who said that in Hitchcock's Notorious.

With Bella and Edward reunited on the screen,
all of the millions of Twilight fans are happy.

And Bella and Edward can run through the woods.
Run, run, run,
without the grunge flannel,
without the Abercrombie and Fitch shirtless torso look,
and without the dull mope rock of opportunistic bands.
Now they can run and smile
in their Banana Republic clothes.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The pleasures of a clean design: notes on Objectified

In the current crowded and distracting cinematic landscape, I found it pleasant to sit down to Objectified, a modest documentary about everyday design by Gary Hustwit, the maker of Helvetica. Hustwit trains his camera on about seventeen designers as they fiddle with garden shears, wander around their Japanese gardens, or brainstorm ideas with Post-It notes on a wall. Some notes:

1) I liked how designers aesthetically present themselves. Amongst the guys, beard stubble, severe haircuts, and hipster plastic-framed glasses are very popular.

2) Designers tend to have very clean workspaces that emphasized how cluttered my life is in comparison. Much of modern life, both indoors and out, is full of crappily designed stuff. Objectified tends to focus one's attention on small items, like a Japanese toothpick or a potato peeler, and appreciate the story behind it.

3) Much of good design depends on a process getting rid of things that detract from the functionality of an object. For instance, the iphone devotes itself to the small screen. Nothing else is needed. Good design often entails stripping away superfluity until one arrives at a Zen-like streamlined thing.

3) What are some of the best companies in terms of design? Apple, Ikea, and Target.

4) We are in the third wave of design. Due to the microchip, there are fewer reasons to shape objects the way we are used to. For instance, the digital camera no longer has any reason to look like an old-fashioned film camera, but we want it to look like that out of habit. The designers are sometimes exasperated by the way people accept leftover "horse and buggy" design elements into our lives. There's no reason to ever sit in an uncomfortable chair ever again.

5) I liked the way Marc Newsom leaves various fabrics and metals lying around his studio to inspire him. He says he's basically inventing the future, and he's trying to not allude to the past at all. It looks like a great way to get paid to play.

6) Objectified sags a bit in the latter third as it confronts the question of sustainability. Most everything these people dream up end up in a landfill somewhere, and the need to invent sustainable design is just getting started. Hustwit focuses on workers stripping used computers for parts, but the thought of things like cardboard cell phones doesn't amount to much yet.

7) Regardless, designers shape a future where the objects we choose to surround us increasingly define ourselves, and I liked Objectified's quiet assertion of that fact.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Notable film and media links--November 17, 2009

---Cate Blanchett and Desire.

---The 101 best music videos of the decade.

---"Black Button," the short that inspired Richard Kelly's The Box?

---In an interview promoting The Road, Cormac McCarthy notes how our age of multiplicity devalues cultural artifacts:

JH: Viewers are being hardwired differently. In film, it's harder and harder to use wide shots now. And the bigger the budget, the more closeups there are and the faster they change. It's a whole different approach. What's going to happen is there will be the two extremes: the franchise films that are now getting onto brands like Barbie, and Battleship and Ronald McDonald; then there are these incredible, very low-budget digital films. But that middle area, they just can't sustain and make it work in the current model. Maybe the model will change and hopefully readjust.

CM: Well, I don't know what of our culture is going to survive, or if we survive. If you look at the Greek plays, they're really good. And there's just a handful of them. Well, how good would they be if there were 2,500 of them? But that's the future looking back at us. Anything you can think of, there's going to be millions of them. Just the sheer number of things will devalue them. I don't care whether it's art, literature, poetry or drama, whatever. The sheer volume of it will wash it out. I mean, if you had thousands of Greek plays to read, would they be that good? I don't think so.

---Sociological Images notes the De-gaying of A Single Man.

---Star Trek bloopers.

---Facebook as alibi and one way to apprehend a criminal.

---A. O. Scott considers the last decade of movies:

"Perhaps the easiest and most satisfying way to make sense of the unruly cinematic abundance of the past 10 years is to sift through it for masters and masterpieces, kicking the tires to see what has been built to last. Whatever else was going on, a handful of great filmmakers made a handful of great films, just as in other decades. Steven Spielberg, freed in the ’90s by the successes of “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan” from the burden of importance, made a series of bracingly imaginative entertainments — “Minority Report,” “Catch Me if You Can,” “War of the Worlds,” “Munich” and “The Terminal” in addition to “A.I.” — that were both nimble and deeply resonant. Clint Eastwood, in his 70s, entered the most prolific and diverse phase of his career as a director, breathing new life into long-established Hollywood genres, including the boxing picture (“Million Dollar Baby”), the crime thriller (“Mystic River”) and the combat epic (“Letters From Iwo Jima”). Martin Scorsese collected his overdue Academy Award for “The Departed”; Joel and Ethan Coen won their first Best Picture Oscar, for “No Country for Old Men,” in the midst of popping out a film a year. Gus Van Sant, Robert Altman, P. T. Anderson, Spike Jonze, Spike Lee, Steven Soderbergh, Todd Haynes. The canon of American cinema, since the early ’60s a catalog of acknowledged auteurs, expanded significantly in the new century."

---The top 50 documentaries of the decade.

---Time helps us prepare for the end of the world, although it appears that the promoters of 2012 overdid it some, so now we get these bland scientific reassurances.

---Citizen journalism in action.

---The history of the internet in a nutshell.

---The heavenly video game that will save us all.

---Lastly, bad boys Tarantino and Almodovar grow up.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Twilight Saga: New Moon media phenomenon: notes and links

I've been intrigued by the extreme Beatlemania-esque media attention generated by The Twilight Saga: New Moon. I liked Twilight in a slightly ironic way, finding "vampish humor in its Gothic excess," but the frenzy for the franchise keeps building, and I admire how Summit Entertainment has doled out choice nuggets of press to keep the fans involved. In her blog Celebrity Gossip, Academic Style, Anne Petersen was surprised by the amount of interest generated by her post "Why Kristen Stewart Matters" back in September, and she recently followed that up with "The Politics of Twilight Web Traffic":

"Twilight posts, sneak peeks, trailers, gossip, and speculation have turned into a self-perpetuating phenomenon: even if people don’t necessarily care about them, and even if there’s not really news, if you post it, the fans will come. And the fans will continue to come as more information is promised — as my friend Nick recently posited in our co-authored forthcoming article on celebrity twittering, `there can never be enough information on a star; therefore, more information is always needed.' The fan hopes for one crucial piece of info — a picture, a quip, a video snippet — that promises provide access to the authentic kernel of the star. In the case of Twilight, the revelation of the apparent Pattinson/Stewart relationship only further expands the desire for more information: now that we’ve seen them touching, can’t we see them kissing? Won’t that tell us everything we need to know? About them, our own hopes invested in their romance, and love in general?"

Given all of the speculation about a possible Pattinson/Stewart relationship, I am reminded of the contrived studio romance between Don Lockwood and Lina Lamont in Singing in the Rain. Summit probably doesn't mind if people think there is something going on, so the media feeds that frenzy with "Are they or aren't they" articles even as the stars deny the rumors. For Entertainment Weekly, Kristen Stewart settles the matter by saying "We are. We aren't. I'm a lesbian."

Related links:

---How Twilight bait is gumming up the internet.

---the New Moon marketing campaign in a nutshell.

---Screencrave wonders if Bella is a feminist's nightmare.

---Chuck Tryon of The Chutry Experiment weighs in on the New Moon phenomenon as "a fascinating example of how internet buzz can develop around a transmedia franchise such as the Twilight books and movies and what it might mean for film fandom."

---Vanity Fair gradually releases new photos of Robert Pattinson.

---Details magazine reflects on the insecurities caused by all of this vampire lust.

---New Moon director Chris Weitz explains the Twilight series' appeal.

---Cinematical interviews New Moon screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg.

---Anne Thompson interviews Pattinson.

---Harper's Bazaar has Stewart and Pattinson wear Givenchy and Dior Homme.

---For The New York Times, Kristen Stewart deals with the media frenzy:

"For now, Ms. Stewart is just focused on getting through that mall tour in one piece. `It’s not even like I’m scared that they are going to rush the stage,' she said, `although they could totally assassinate me at any time if they wanted. When so much energy is thrown at you, it has to throw you for a loop.'”

---The inevitable backlash.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Notable film and media links--November 12, 2009--special apocalyptic peak oil edition

---Icons of grunge. Where are they now?

---2012 by way of Raising Arizona (with thanks to The Cooler). Emmerich justifies his weltschmerz. NASA spoils the fun by debunking apocalyptic 2012 myths. Lastly, behind the scenes of 2012.

---For those who really want to dwell on upcoming doom, check out Collapse. As Matt Cardin points out,

"It’s probably difficult or impossible for somebody who hasn’t been following the peak oil story for the past several years to understand the depth of the “Holy crap” feeling that many of us are experiencing right now. A large part of that feeling comes simply from the fact that, as I’ve mentioned here before, lots of things appear to be playing out according to the long-forecasted “plan,” including, most prominently, the expected development in which oil-and-energy issues have moved to the forefront of public discourse. Of course that has nothing, or at least not much, to do with the question of whether peak oil is actually “real” — a word that raises the need to distinguish between peak oil, the geological phenomenon, and peak oil, the theory that ties oil’s fortunes to the very survival of growth-based economies and industrial-technological civilization. In our ever-intensifying age of 24/7 digital linkage and global conversation, it’s impossible to ferret out how much of what we’re collectively thinking and feeling comes from reality itself, as in, the reality outside the media web, and how much is simply a self-reinforcing feedback loop.

What’s incontrovertible is that we’re right now living through the giddiest age of apocalyptic cultural ferment that any of us have ever experienced. I think it’s safe to say that it tops the ones that accompanied the turn of the 20th century, and the advent of World Wars I and II, and the Depression era, and the social and cultural upheavals and meltdowns of the sixties and seventies, and the turn of the 21st century. It even tops 9/11, although in fact it incorporates the 9/11 feeling of an imminent breakdown in everything. Maybe the only thing that equals it is the nuclear terror of the Cold War era. Because now, as then, the fear isn’t just of a national or international breakdown or some such thing (although obviously that one is currently in play, too) but of a show-stopping calamity that would write “The End” on the last page of the book that is the human race, or at least on the book that is civilization as we have known for at least a century or two (since the full implementation of the Adam Smithian economic growth model and the rise of technocratic industrialism). The ecological term “die-off” has gained currency. The word “collapse” is on everybody’s minds and lips."

---Never fear, however, because now we have a dozen ways to avoid death.

---David Bordwell appreciates the visual pleasures of 1930s cinema.

---Behind the scenes of Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance."

---The New York Times deeply considers the phenomenon known as Megan Fox.

---Good to see Richard Kelly getting some credit.

---Godard's intertitles. Also Godard largely doing nothing for three and a half minutes (not that I have anything against procrastination).

---Salon's Woody Harrelson interview:

"Then he got into bed. There wasn't an ounce of pretense about any of this, I swear. He was curious to get a look at that old apartment, and felt like telling me about it. He was tired, so he got into bed. When you meet Harrelson, you get a momentary glimpse of what a strange and exhausting job it must be to be famous. The job involves meeting an endless ocean of people you don't know and most likely will never see again. The obvious solution would be to retreat behind a well-rehearsed performance of your persona, to recycle a handful of gestures and mannerisms.

Harrelson, on the other hand, seems like a guy totally determined not to let the artificiality of these interactions impinge on his sense of who he is. Perversely, the fact that he is frank and thoughtful, and known to hold unorthodox political opinions he doesn't keep to himself, has only augmented his fame. You can't throw an empty Chardonnay bottle out your car window in west L.A. without hitting a Hollywood liberal, but Harrelson is something much rarer: a vegan, raw-foodist, antiwar, anti-capitalist, pro-marijuana, eco-funky, genuine radical who happens to be a beloved character actor with a good-ol'-boy demeanor."

---Lastly, the coolest movie ever adapted from a questionable book.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Pushing our buttons: a review of Richard Kelly's The Box

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."
--Arthur C. Clarke

1) I found Richard Kelly's The Box annoying in a direct ratio to my admiration of his Donnie Darko (2001). The former cult film combines apocalyptic vision, the delusions of insanity, and a loose story structure that invited multiple interpretations, and yet the film works. It left me wondering--why aren't more movies made in this fashion? The answer may be that some do, but instead of hinting at some semi-plausible cosmic convergence of sci-fi portals, time travel, and the manipulated dead, you can just as easily end up with a pretentious mess.

2) The Box carries multiple allusions to Donnie Darko, but the new one's plot came from a Twilight Zone episode called Button, Button, which makes Kelly's two hour film seem a simple conceit much inflated with portentous metaphysical hoorah. In the suburbs of Richmond, Virginia, in 1976, someone leaves a box on the front door step of the Lewis residence. The box contains a "button unit" that gives Norma (Cameron Diaz) and Arthur (James Marsden) the opportunity to win a million dollars if they press the button. Unfortunately, someone on earth has to die at the same time they press the button, but that's for their conscience to deal with, and, as the mysterious Arlington Steward (Frank Langella) assures them, they won't know the person who dies. Arlington stops by a 5 pm that day to talk over the button unit's rules and restrictions with Norma. He has half of his face blown away by a lightning bolt (in case we didn't already get a sense of unease in all of this Faustian deal-making), but Arlington assures Norma that he's not a monster, and besides, the Lewis family could use the money.

3) As one might guess, after Norma impulsively presses the button, things go downhill for the Lewises. They do get the million dollars in a briefcase, but now they guilt consumes them. Their bland son Walter (Sam Oz Stone) wonders what's going on as dad hastens to lock the money in a safe down in the basement, and creepy things begin to occur. During a wedding rehearsal dinner, Arthur accidentally (?) receives a present much like the original box that contains a photo of Arlington Steward. The baby sitter asks Lewis "Is someone pushing your buttons?" before she suffers a nosebleed and passes out in his hotrod Corvette. The more the Lewises try to investigate Arlington, the more he notifies them that he knows exactly what's going on, and pretty soon we've reentered a David Lynchian Darko-enhanced metaphysical dreamworld.

4) Given the family resemblance to Donnie Darko, The Box should be a delight, but several things about it bothered me. I had a hard time getting caught up in the Lewis' contrived plight. Poor Cameron Diaz spends much of her time weeping and looking concerned and guilty with tacky blue eyeliner. Her career has had its highs and lows (Sofia Coppola's mockery of Cameron in Lost in Translation comes to mind), but Diaz deserves more for helping greenlight The Box by her agreement to star in it. Even though she presses the button, Norma seems more tricked than really guilty of anything, and her performance is 90% angst. At one point, just to add insult to injury, Norma's son points out that she's "old, kind of a geezer" in front of his friends at the bus stop.

5) And what of the 1970s period detail? I enjoyed the glimpses of Diff'rent Strokes and the crying Native American PSA on the television, but Richard Kelly admits in an interview that he was too young to remember the 1970s, so the details are not as organically included as the 1980s were in Darko. Much of the time, the decade touches just look tacky.

6) Underneath all of the metaphysical/scientific huggermuggery, all of the spooky people looming out of hotel rooms and library carrels, the No Exit by Sartre references, and the NASA preparations to land a robot on Mars, The Box frequently relies on cheap techniques to get its effects. We have seen the million dollars in a briefcase before (even though all of the hundred dollar bills left me wondering if a real million dollars would fit in a briefcase that small). As the film goes on (oblique spoiler alert), the mysterious Arlington Steward takes on the Dr. Evil trappings of a gigantic underground chamber in the Arlington Air Force base to look nefarious in. At times, I couldn't help to associate him with his performance as Nixon in Frost/Nixon, a role that I didn't find all that convincing, and his formal winter clothes and old-fashioned homburg left me thinking of Peter Sellers' Chance the Gardener in Being There. The Lewis son has no real role except to be menaced later, and the forced drama late in the film seems way too manipulative and convenient to logically fit into any cosmic master plan.

7) After getting burned by the bombing of Southland Tales (2006), Richard Kelly has decided to toe the line and adapt his visionary aesthetics to the studio system. I don't blame him for that, but I wonder how much his decision compromised The Box. Instead of creating something genuinely prophetic (as Darko foreshadowed 9/11), The Box keeps calling attention to its attempts to amaze us, thereby diminishing the effect. When someone says to Arlington at one point, "This is all so mysterious," he replies "Well, I like mystery. Don't you?"

Friday, November 6, 2009

Notable film and media links--November 6, 2009

---How you can tell that Charles Bronson is a man.

---Recommended reading: Farber on Film: The Complete Film Writings of Manny Farber, edited by Robert Polito. In a review of the new book, Howard Hampton notes some surprising aspects of Farber's critical method:

"1) The notion of what movie to see and what to avoid is secondary to opening up new ways of looking at the familiar and the overlooked.

2) He steadfastly refuses hero worship: "To put Hitchcock either up or down isn't the point; the point is sticking to the material as it is, rather than drooling over behind-the-camera feats of engineering."

3) He has scant interest in narrative, either of plot-driven or symbolic/sociopolitical kinds, and is more taken with spatial dynamics than happy endings or movie martyrdoms.

4) He has a nonchalant way of rolling out a convoluted 20th century landscape in which Godard meets Dick Tracy, Anthony Mann carries more weight than John Ford, and the scummy cesspools of Don Siegel beckon like an old Esther Williams water ballet. Indeed, Farber had a special knack for creating a mental space where everything exists in the same eternal present tense, the 1932 "Scarface" and the 1970 acid gangster trip "Performance," Boris Karloff and Mick Jagger sounding like long-lost brothers-in-arms waving to each other across the Warner Bros. lot."

---50 iconic movie stills.

---An interview with Richard Kelly.

---The internet is killing storytelling and privacy, Twitter is killing blogging, but at least zombies are doing well.

---David Lynch's rabbits stole the show in Inland Empire.

---I miss grunge (and I'm wearing flannel as I write this).

---I really enjoyed Richard Brody's profile on Wes Anderson. Too bad there's no decent link yet. Here's a quote from it:

"As an undergraduate at the University of Texas at Austin, where he majored in philosophy, Anderson remained movie-obsessed, working part time as a projectionist. (His conversation is liberally seasoned with film references, from John Ford's 1935 comedy The Whole Town's Talking to Jean-Pierre Melville and Jean Cocteau's Les Enfants Terribles, which, he argues, marked the beginning of the French New Wave.) In Austin, Anderson met Owen Wilson, an English major, in a playwriting class. Wilson noticed Anderson sitting by himself, away from the table where the other students gathered, wearing `L.L. Bean boots with long corduroy-type shorts.'"

---Single take titles.

---Beware of cute overload, or kangaroos for that matter.

---Marlene rules.

---Oops! Publishers Weekly forgot to include a female writer.

---Andrew O'Hehir notes the resurgence of the British indie-film industry.

---Lastly, when movies mention their titles.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Grunge Mutations from Outer Space: Alien: Resurrection starring Winona Ryder and Sigourney Weaver (1997)

[The Film Doctor figures that if he just posts these last few time capsule reviews from 1997, then that will oblige him to return to the local Regal Stadium cineplex.]

Now into its fourth installment, the Alien series suffers from its success. Both Event Horizon and Mimic borrowed from its peekaboo horror/sci-fi technique this summer, and by now everyone knows what the alien looks like so there's no returning to the first movie's mysterious, very slow unfolding of a very Darwinian character (I can remember back in 1979 sitting in a crowded theater in Tennessee as everyone started whispering "Now it's going to pop out of his chest!"). That scene has already been lampooned in Mel Brook's Spaceballs when the baby alien pops out to dance a little soft shoe on the counter. The second Alien movie by James Cameron struck me as too Reagan-era militaristic, and hardly anyone saw the third one where Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) dies.

So what do you do now? Apparently you hire a young hip French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet (who made City of Lost Children) and Winona Ryder who gets to play against ingenue type. Then you bring back Sigourney Weaver (who also co-produces) through the magic of DNA cloning, add some crazy military scientists who want to breed "tamed" aliens for profit, throw them all into another large grungy spaceship, and see what happens. This time Ripley's DNA replicate gets her genes crossed with the aliens themselves, turning her in an "alien" mother (strictly C-section births here, through the chest). The twisted military scientists all act like bit players from a Star Trek convention, each with a moronic gleam in his eye as if space people suffered from some major intergalactic inbreeding since Ripley died two hundred years ago in the future. Their Frankensteinian silliness almost wrecks the beginning of the film.

Fortunately, Winona Ryder (who plays Annalee Call) and a lovable Han Solo-like trader crew of misfits show up in the smaller spaceship Betty with a secret cache of human bodies designed to aid in alien growth. This crew redefines futuristic grunge. They all have great grimy leather clothes, lewd attitudes (except for Annalee), and inventive weapons--one fellow has a jeeplike wheelchair with the parts of a gun in assorted positions around his legs; another Tom Waits-like guy named Johner (Ron Perlman) with flamboyant scars on his face carries a rocket launching device in a thermos. He walks up to Weaver as she plays basketball, and all of a sudden the movie clicks. When Ripley circles around him like an anaconda, half-grinning, full of tease and menace, you realize why the men are necessarily such fools.

By virtue of her alien blood, Ripley becomes a feminist hero par excellence. Since she can play both sides of the fence, so to speak, and go hang out with her alien children if she likes, she doesn't care so much about the danger. She doesn't even carry a weapon. Instead she just struts around bare armed and making wisecracks. Who's going to mess with her? And yet her machismo does contain elements of motherly compassion. In once scene, she finds the L-7 room full of abortive genetic creatures who led the way to her mutation, all of them female, some still alive. She walks up to one grotesquely malformed "woman" on a table who begs to be killed, and in response, Ripley torches the whole room.

Resurrection takes the Darwinian principle of the first Alien one step further by depicting the mutability of species. People and aliens metamorphose into each other repeatedly, allowing the filmmakers to explore the positive and negative side effects of adaptation. In this context, Ripley revolts against the male scientists who would treat feminine reproduction as a dehumanized genetic factory. Johner (the Tom Waits goon) takes one look at the room full of burnt female mutations and mutters "It must be a chick thing."

In turn very funny, very gory, and at other times derivative, Alien: Resurrection surprised me with how fun it was overall. It's basically a silly summer movie, but Ripley and Annalee add some gender-bending emotional complexity to all of the explosions. When Winona Ryder's character turns out to be an android, the others explaim over her particular make, and she looks pained and embarrassed. How awkward to come out robotic.