Friday, May 29, 2009
Thursday, May 28, 2009
Note: with all of the talk of Soderbergh's The Girlfriend Experience in the blogosphere, I thought that perhaps this of-the-period review of Ocean's Thirteen might be of interest.
Back in 1960, Frank Sinatra and his rat pack pals starred in a whimsical Las Vegas heist film called Ocean's 11. Now, in a summer remarkably lacking in new ideas, Warner Brothers brings us Ocean's 13, the sequel to the sequel of the remake of Ocean's 11, all of which star George Clooney (Danny Ocean) and Brad Pitt (Rusty Ryan).
Since the heist genre assures its audience an evening of wit, close shaves, and clever contrivances, this film has its points. For one thing, it does not cater to a teenage audience, and it relies on verbal sparring and flashy Las Vegas set designs instead of the usual computer generated special effects. Directed by the capable Steven Soderbergh, who makes money with the Ocean series so he can explore more artistic material in other films such as Bubble and Traffic, Ocean's 13 relies upon the charm of its well-dressed leads, the difficulty of its capers, the gee-whiz technology of its devices, and the fun of a bunch of handsome con men getting away with stuff. But overall, I found the film static, complacent, and almost bored with its conventions. Beyond Clooney's easy grin, the plot lacks urgency, so there's a weird inertia for much of the movie.
Perhaps part of the problem lies with the premise. Reuben Tishkoff (Elliot gould) expects to be Willie Bank's (Al Pacino's) partner in the opening of a new casino/hotel, but Willie muscles in and takes over the whole establishment, leaving Reuben to suffer a heart attack on the worksite of the new building. As Reuben lingers in a depressive funk in bed, Ocean calls in the gang to wreak revenge on Bank. While they used to rob for profit, now they mess with Bank out of humanitarian concern for Reuben, and this adds to the film's self-congratulatory air.
With bronzed skin and slightly bugged out eyes behind ghastly designer frames, Al Pacino suggests more than embodies the gangster menace of his prototypical roles in Scarface and The Godfather series, and I was saddened by the way he has aged onscreen. Ocean's 13 refers to the original The Godfather multiple times, both with casting (James Caan's son Scott stars as one of the 13), and with snippets of dialogue lifted from the classic film, but all of the allusions just reminded me of how Pacino has become a cartoon version of his former self.
In The Godfather, his character has to wrestle between family loyalty and his own war-hero ethics. In this new film, Pacino plays a boorish Trump-like figure obsessed with having his hotel earn yet another Five Diamond Award. His business rapaciousness is comically undermined by a desire to please his high roller clients, but there's never much doubt about who will succeed as the 13 take on the big grand opening of the casino.
So, without anything else to keep me involved, I found myself wondering about what kind of shiny bronze suit Brad Pitt will wear next, or why Matt Damon dressed up like James Bond's Dr. No (complete with a hook nose) to comically seduce poor Ellen Barkin.
For those of you who would like to see a casino hand out money for a change, the climax does give some pleasure. Also, the devilish 13 find all kinds of humorous and creative ways to make the hotel inspector's experience the worst possible visit with bed bugs, foul smells, and restaurant food that makes him vomit after dinner. But as Pitt nibbles on oriental dumplings and strategizes with Clooney, they both seem to be marking time before taking on their next more challenging role. Even as the 13 applaud themselves for their "style, brio, and loyalty," there's a point where looking cool starts to resemble nothing more than boredom.
Monday, May 25, 2009
---I really enjoyed this David Denby article about Victor Fleming, the man who may be largely responsible for The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind:
Stam shows how Truffaut's 400 Blows prefigures this obsession. In the credit sequence, the director's name is superimposed on an image of the cinémathèque. The first shot following the credits shows a student writing at a desk. Antoine writes a poem on a wall, and is punished by having to conjugate a sentence. He forges a note from his mother, and later steals a typewriter to avoid having his handwriting recognized. And so on."
TV production in the U.S. is approximately a $15 billion industry. An extra $3 billion thrown into that business would change its dynamics completely. Most production isn’t done by networks but by independent producers who are hungry for revenue and risk reduction. Three billion Apple dollars spread around that crowd every year would buy Internet rights for EVERY show — more than every show in fact. Whole new classes of shows would be invented, sapping talent from other parts of the industry. It would be invigorating and destabilizing at the same time. And because it is Apple — a company with real style — the new shows wouldn’t at all be crap programming. They’d be new and innovative.
And just as the artistic heart of TV shifted to cable with HBO in the 1980s, so it will shift to the Internet and Apple.
And where will be Hulu?
Nobody will care."
Saturday, May 23, 2009
1) Visiting the cineplex yesterday was liking happening upon a seminar on America's love affair with the machine.
Thursday, May 21, 2009
---Feeling distracted lately? After reading Rapt and Distracted, I shut down my Facebook account, and now Sam Anderson of New York magazine has written the ultimate "Defense of Distraction" (which I couldn't read because I was busy multitasking):
Monday, May 18, 2009
Sunday, May 17, 2009
Saturday, May 16, 2009
3) After the screen fades to black, big band jazz music kicks in as a plane bearing Tom Haden lands in Los Angeles. The music is so leisurely as it brings on a montage of lacquered shots of 1940s Hollywood, one may not realize that it also makes a melodic reference to the bandleader whom the Don had to threaten to get Johnny out of a contract earlier in his career. Tom arrives at the gate of Woltz studios, where he has to negotiate entry. As the jazz music continues to play, Tom works his way into an increasingly claustrophobic interior of sound stages, including one shot where the vertical lines of two buildings seem to entrap him.
Saturday, May 9, 2009
---With the onset of the swine flu, I spent much of the last several weeks imagining myself in a 28 Days Later scenario. To help us all in this anxious time, Den of Geek has informed us of the "10 Things Movies Teach Us About Virus Outbreaks":
" . . . the latest frenzy is over books that take the lazy, Tom Sawyer approach to authorship. The creators come up with a goofy or witty idea, put it up on a simple platform like Twitter and Tumblr, and wait for contributors to provide all of the content. The authors put their energy into publicizing the sites and compiling the best material.
Agents and publishing houses can’t get seem to get enough of these quickie humor books, which sell for $10 to $15 in gift shops and hip clothing stores likeUrban Outfitters as well as traditional bookstores. At least eight books created from user-generated content are due out this year, including “Love, Mom,” a just-published collection of embarrassing or funny electronic exchanges between mothers and their children."
---I always love it when the best actors say they don't know a thing about acting, such as, for instance, Tilda Swinton in this interview from IndieWire (hat-tip to Nathaniel of Film Experience Blog):
“There’s this endless disclaimer that I always feel I honestly have to give about not being an actor,” she said in all seriousness. “Because it really does feel most honest. I always feel that real actors are going to stand up and say ‘you’re a fraud! Confess it!’ And I want to be the first to say that I never pretended to be anything else. I always pretended to be a film fan first, and an artist’s model second. I’m in front of a camera, because I’m curious, and that’s about it. I don’t know one thing about acting.”
---Movieman of The Dancing Image found a nice quote from Francois Truffaut's Introduction to his book The Films of My Life:
"I felt a tremendous need to enter into the films. I sat closer and closer to the screen so I could shut out the theater. I passed up period films, war movies and Westerns because they were more difficult to identify with. That left mysteries and love stories. Unlike most moviegoers my own age, I didn't identify with the heroes, but with the underdog and, in general, with any character who was in the wrong. That's why Alfred Hitchcock's movies, devoted to fear, won me over from the start; and after Hitchcock, Jean Renoir whose work is directed toward understanding... "The terrible thing is that everyone has his own reasons" (La Regle du Jeu). The door was wide open, and I was ready for Jean Vigo, Jean Cocteau, Sacha Guitry, Orson Welles, Marcel Pagnol, Ernst Lubitsch, Charlie Chaplin, of course, and all the others who, without being immoral, "doubt the morality of others" (Hiroshima, mon amour)."
"For me, nothing is more exciting--and occasionally upsetting--than discovering another writer who not only thinks as I do and writes similar to my style, but does it better, and started doing it earlier. The writers who inspired me originally--in high school have been absorbed and form my general approach: Robin Wood writing about Howard Hawks or horror films, Pauline Kael writing about Taxi Driver and Last Tango in Paris, Michael Weldon's Psychotronic Encyclopedia. The love these writers felt was palpable and strong. Manny Farber and James Agee were next for me, as manly men writers of the American abstract 1950s style, showing how criticism could sing with a poetry and zing that was almost macho, but Michael Atkinson, for example, I didn't even know what he was all about until a few months ago when I picked up his recommended "Dark Heart of Cinema". I'm kind of intimidated and shocked by how he got past me until now. More on him later...
Kim Morgan, however, is to me perhaps the best and most fearless of them all... and my favorite."
---Lastly, Bad Lit helps us adjust to living on the cheap with their "5 Great Documentaries for a Rough Economy."
Tuesday, May 5, 2009
Ibetolis, of Film for the Soul, has once again graciously allowed me to guest-write a post as part of his Counting Down the Zeros series, this time concerning Richard Kelly's 2001 cult film Donnie Darko (one of my all-time favorites). Here's the link.
After an awkward period in 2001 when distributors didn’t know how to promote Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko (Is it a John Hughes-esque suburban teen film, science fiction, a superhero film, or what?), the film had a limited release one month after 9/11. Talk about prophetic: the movie depicts a jet engine freakishly falling from the sky and nearly killing Darko in his bedroom, and then it gets released right after actual jets crash into the World Trade Center. Later, the director’s cut DVD version of the film became extremely popular, and now Darko enjoys cult status. Why does it succeed so well in capturing the imagination of its viewers?
For one thing, unlike most movies, Donnie Darko remains very much open to interpretation. Somewhat like Synechdoche, New York, Darko has many loose ends, and a highly ambiguous conclusion, but many of Donnie’s visions and actions gain coherency as the film goes on, giving both Donnie and the viewer a sense of fait accompli and deja vu. Just before midnight, a six-foot bunny rabbit named Frank guides the sleepwalking Donnie outside and tells him that the world will end in “28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes, and 12 seconds.” Then, a jet engine falls out of nowhere into Donnie’s room. Frank has therefore saved Donnie’s life, and he goes on to speak to Donnie as a voice in his head. He tells Donnie to “Pay attention. You may miss something,” when Donnie watches a crappy “Lifeline exercise” video in gym class. Later, he guides Donnie to bust a water main in his school, thus flooding the building with sewage. And he persuades Donnie to set a man’s house on fire while his girlfriend Gretchen sleeps during a showing of The Evil Dead at the local movie theater. In his way, Donnie gets to act out the vengeful fantasies of his classmates, but at first he doesn’t know why he’s doing it, nor does he know what his visions of Frank mean.
On one level, the film suggests that Donnie’s erratic aggressive behavior is a symptom of his paranoid schizophrenia. On another level, Donnie may be a superhero, a “living receiver” Christ figure apocalyptic seer who learns time travel in 1988. Somehow, Kelly manages to keep both interpretations plausible, and he does it by allowing the viewer to partake in Darko’s visions, and therefore make the same connections as he does.
For instance, why does Donnie break open the water main? So he can become Gretchen Ross’s (Jena Malone’s) boyfriend, which gives him motivation to try to save her life later. Why does Donnie burn down Jim Cunningham’s house? So he can expose the motivational speaker as a pervert who owns a kiddie porn dungeon in his home. Thus does Kelly equate destruction with revelation and creation. Jake Gyllenhaal broods and looks tormented in his dweeby Opie t-shirt, but Donnie’s smarter than anyone else, and he takes pleasure in subverting the adult power structure when he can. Frank’s cosmic plan gives Donnie the freedom to revolt extravagantly, but there’s always the suggestion that reality may intrude on his whimsical behavior.
In terms of technique, Donnie Darko uses image patterns, music, parallel editing, and innovative casting brilliantly. The film is virtual storehouse of high-level cinematic references, so that the film-loving viewer can tease another level of allusion beyond the prophetic one. For instance, Kelly shows his love for Hitchcock by including a close variation on the staircase and chandelier of Notorious (not to mention the Duran Duran song “Notorious” that Sparkle Motion dances to). Kelly finds a way to reference the cellar and the knife-play of Psycho, and the high school bully likes to wield a large knife when he’s not mimicking Psycho’s high-pitched violins in class. Kelly also shows his love of The Graduate by having Donnie’s mother ask “Where do you go at night?” just as Ben’s mother does, and by casting Katherine Ross, of all people, to poignantly play Donnie’s shrink. To augment the creative casting of Drew Barrymore as the iconoclastic English teacher, Kelly inserts a visual nod to E.T. when the kids head out to Grandma Death’s cellar on their bicycles at night. The film is full of creative image patterns. Frank , a kind of Alice in Wonderland white rabbit guiding Donnie into his own rabbit hole, finds literary parallels in Richard Adams’ Watership Down, where one of the rabbits has prophetic visions of their warren getting wiped out. Kelly even finds ways to equate crappy camera technique with evil when he shows us Jim Cunningham’s cheesy motivational videotapes with ghastly testimonials about bedwetting and a boom microphone clearly in display in one scene.
Ultimately, Donnie Darko succeeds because it builts to such a strong emotional kick at the end in spite of all of the ambiguities of the film. Even though one cannot know fully what just happened, the movie still feels complete--a puzzle, yet an artistic whole. When Gretchen waves at Donnie’s mother, some communication has just taken place. Donnie Darko leaves it up to us to decipher why it works so well.
Suffice it to say that I’ve taken Donnie Darko apart multiple times, and I’m still finding patterns and mysteries in it. For instance, why does Cherita Chen keep appearing as a witness in a sitting position during key moments in the movie. Who is the fat guy looking on when Donnie wants to kiss Gretchen? (Kelly suggests that he’s an FAA official monitoring the family.) Why is Donnie smiling and laughing at the beginning and end of the film? Why is there a spiral on the jet engine, to perhaps suggest the circular return of that image of the end of the movie? What are we to make of all the theories built into Roberta Sparrow’s The Philosophy of Time Travel? Somehow, by mixing the Book of Revelations with Back to the Future, Kelly retrofitted the banal elements of a John Hughes teen comedy into a souped-up Delorean DMC-12 of a film, the ever-suggestive Donnie Darko.