Saturday, July 30, 2011

Mostly stupid: Crazy, Stupid, Love

I should have known better than to see a film entitled Crazy, Stupid, Love, because the title implies that such a movie is bound to set out to prove that love can be crazy and stupid, and such a claim is extraordinarily tiresome. Writer Dan Fogelman also shows how love can persist even between divorced couples, and how love can mean more when a character contrives to proclaim it in front of a surprisingly sweet, tolerant, and sentimental audience, such as the one that gathers for a junior high school graduation. Love, love, love! Love means stuffing your movie with major stars (Kevin Bacon!), so that no one looks unfamiliar so that the viewer can never suspend his or her disbelief in the story. All of the stars must then compete to get enough screen time to justify their presence, thereby causing the movie to bloat with a contrived and unrelated subplot to suit the growing stardom of Emma Stone. Love means ogling the six pack abs of the suddenly omnipresent Ryan Gosling (who plays bland ladies man Jacob) when he used to be so much more compelling in smaller, artier movies such as Lars and the Real Girl. Love means tracking the fall and slow rise of hapless Cal (Steve Carell) as he learns that he really loves his wife Emily (Julianne Moore) even as the film's marketing emphasizes a scene where he sleeps with Marisa Tomei, thereby titillating the middle class audience even as the movie ultimately caters to their conservative values (much as Bad Teacher did). Cal should have fought for Emily instead of falling out of the car! Love means learning that love conquers all. Love means watching a 13 year old (Jonah Bobo) make endless declarations of his love to his babysitter (Analeigh Tipton), who, weirdly, smiles at his youthful importunity. Love makes people do and say the darndest things. Love means making many allusions to The Scarlet Letter (the film prefers nodding in Emma Stone's direction to actually giving her a character). Love hurts like a bitch, don't it? Love bites. Love is a many splendored thing, full of pain, loss, hope, and joy, but I just found pain in sitting through Crazy, Stupid, Love.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

"A weak man knows the value of strength": the glorious propaganda of Captain America: The First Avenger

Is Captain America propaganda?

Most definitely yes, and yet I still very much liked it. Raised on anti-war films like Apocalypse Now (1979) and Paths of Glory (1957), I feel weird enjoying a movie that uses devious rhetorical devices to endorse the US army. How does director Joe Johnston make such manipulative content engaging? Let me count the ways:

1) Through the subtle characterization of Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans). We first see little Steve in the midst of watching a propagandistic early 1940s newsreel in the theater. With its authoritative male voice mimicking the March of Time (parodied early in Citizen Kane (1941)), the newsreel extols the virtues of the fighting soldiers and the sacrifices of children for the war effort. When a heckler starts to yell out that he wishes the newsreel would end, Steve defends the film to the point of getting beaten up by the heckler in the alley soon after. No sooner do we meet Steve than we learn that he will suffer anything for the war. In spite of his asthma and his small stature, he has tried repeatedly to volunteer for the army because it is the least he can do for his country. There's even a scene at the World Expo where Steve tries his best to fit within the mirrored reflection of a group of soldiers in a recruitment poster, literally trying to situate himself within a propaganda image.

One could consider Steve a bit naive in his gung-ho support of America's national interests, but he's also likably selfless, brave, troubled in a way that reminded me of Peter Parker's vulnerabilities in Spiderman 2 (2004), and engagingly determined. Later, after Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci (!) with a humorous German accent) arranges to have Steve join the army as a prospective serum-enhanced "super-soldier" in the Strategic Scientific Reserve, Steve further proves his worth by jumping onto a (fake) hand grenade when all of the rest of the recruits run for cover. When everyone else in his platoon fails to climb up a pole to get a flag (in a scene that visually suggests the famous photograph of the soldiers erecting the flag at Iwo Jima), Steve calmly unlatches the pole so that it falls over, thereby easily obtaining the flag.

Given these personality traits, Steve could easily be an insufferable patriot, but the movie keeps finding ways to make him sympathetic, especially in the way he retains his understanding of weakness. He admits that he doesn't want to kill anyone because he hates bullies.

Before Dr. Erskine transforms Steve into a superhero with his super-soldier serum, he tells Steve that he was chosen because a "weak man knows the value of strength," and he should never forget his smaller self. Steve replies by toasting "the little guy." Later, after his transformation into a physique worthy of an Abercrombie and Fitch model, Steve tells his friend Bucky (Sebastian Stan) that he got that way because "he joined the army." Amiably enough, instead of immediately going to war, Steve also agrees to join the USO as a patriotically costumed figure of strength to help sell bonds for the war effort, which brings up the second way the filmmakers make propaganda engaging:

2) By satirizing it. Given how much Captain America plays it straight, the highly ironic USO sequence stands out for its self-reflexivity, and its mockery of public relations techniques. As Jennifer Margret Smith points out,

"In the sequence, the newly-transformed Steve Rogers, a formerly-scrawny kid from Brooklyn who has suddenly become the one and only super-soldier in the U.S. government’s arsenal, takes an offer to become a USO performer instead of remaining in a lab to become a guinea pig for possible replication of the super-soldier serum.

Suddenly, in between filming movie serials and the production of the in-universe version of a Captain America comic book, he finds himself touring the country in an elaborate, Alan Menken-scored song-and-dance show, complete with special effects, patriotic chorus girls, and a man dressed as Hitler for Steve to punch in the face.

Steve reads his lines awkwardly and uncomfortably, wearing a costume that is much closer to the comic book version than the one that will be used later in the film, and the entire affair is portrayed as laughable and cheesy, suitable only for the excitable children in the audience. When Steve and the chorus girls take the show overseas for the troops, the troops are completely unimpressed, hurling insults that question Steve’s masculinity and heterosexuality and begging for the chorus girls to return (for ogling purposes). This is the final straw for Steve, who soon afterward breaks ranks and goes off to become the soldier he was meant to be."

Smith goes on to criticize the sequence for the way it feminizes and therefore "demonizes" the entertainment, and for the way "the media and entertainment artifacts are explicitly presented as silly, mock-worthy, and meaningless." All of this helps the filmmakers distance themselves from any "controversy" in the process.

Smith makes several excellent points, but I liked the USO song-and-dance sequence. By satirizing the USO's efforts to raise money for bullets, the movie illustrates how often American efforts boil down to shameless huckstering and public relations. Steve does admit that he has raised a significant amount of money in the midst of being what he calls a "performing monkey." In the process of being winkingly ironic, Johnston & Co insert some fancy propagandistic images of Steve holding three young women astride a motorcycle in the air as papier-mache tanks shoot volleys of confetti into the air. Later, after Steve finds success and heroism in battle, he confesses that the whole Captain America shtick has grown on him some, so the irony cuts both ways: cheesy patriotic images are both mocked and celebrated. With this big dose of sarcasm early on, the filmmakers prepare the way for the viewer to stomach subsequent patriotic hoorah guilt-free. When making propaganda, the key is to get the images on the screen regardless of the context; irony doesn't matter.

Later, Captain America will sneak into a Hydra enemy factory with his stars and stripes still ludicrously on display on his back. After he frees some POW soldiers, he starts to run off to continue fighting, but the freed soldiers ask him, "Do you know what you're doing?" Captain America replies, "Don't worry. I've punched Hitler over 200 times." His USO efforts have now (semi-ironically or not) prepared him for the battlefield. Afterwards, Steve arranges for Howard Stark to design a new shield and uniform that still carries some of the red, white, and blue (stars and stripes) for the rest of the movie.

4) Johnston & Co. also make propaganda palatable through nostalgia. By setting the film during World War II, the US Army looks good fighting in this last unambiguous war, even though later the Captain America comics were more ambivalent about their hero's involvement in Vietnam. Through stylistic commonalities with the Indiana Jones movies, Captain America celebrates a seemingly more innocent time, and even Hitler's historical complexities get purified and simplified when one of his officers, Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving) becomes the principal villain of the movie.

5) In its playfully pulpy way, Captain America keeps visually alluding to classic movies that I would enjoy in any case. Thus, perhaps, the film buff's appreciation drowns out any qualms about manipulative ideology. The meticulous 1940s fashion and set design kept reminding me of The Godfather.

More specifically, Johann Schmidt opens the box that carries the energy-intensive tesseract in a way that strongly resembles the glowing, possibly nuclear box that Lily opens in Kiss Me Deadly (1955).

The secret Project Rebirth lab in Queens has uniformed workers facing machinery that reminded me of the workers in the underground world of Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927).

When Captain America mournfully tries to get drunk at a small table in some bombed-out cafe in war-torn Europe, and as his chastely-loved girlfriend Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) tries to comfort him, I couldn't help being reminded of Rick's drunken sorrows in Casablanca (1942).

The multinational Howling Commandos struck me as a more stereotypical assortment of POW soldiers in the vein of The Great Escape (1963) or Grand Illusion (1937).

When Captain America spots some mini-bombers with the names of American cities written on them inside of Red Skull's Stealth-esque Hydra Orbital Bomber, I couldn't help thinking of interior-of-the-bomber scenes in Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964).

6) Lastly, Johnston & Co end the movie with a credit sequence that makes many visual allusions to classic World War II propaganda posters (see below). Their iconographic use of color and imagery influence and enhance the entire movie in a way that I enjoyed regardless of weaknesses in the screenplay or the ideological problems with a blanket admiration of the American military.

The original 1941 Captain America comic was mostly concerned with persuading isolationist Americans into fighting Nazis. If one examines the ideological complexities of, say, the helicopter Ride of the Valkyrie scene in Apocalypse Now, one can uncover multiple attitudes towards the war that range from the gung-ho excitement of battle, to a recognition of war's absurdities and horrors, to a depiction of how the innocent suffer, to an acknowledgement of the deceptive tactics of the enemy, and so on. Given today's military-industrial complex with its budgetary bloat, its on-going ventures in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, and its long history of "collateral damage," we should be aware of what lies behind what Captain America sells.

Monday, July 25, 2011


---Jim Jarmusch discusses his method

---Valero's "A Faceless Corporate Enemy"

---David Lynch's Lady Blue Shanghai for Dior

---celebrating the Hermione Granger series:

"Look: I’ve enjoyed stories that relied on a “Chosen One” mythology to convince us that the hero is worth our time. I liked Buffy the Vampire Slayer as much as anyone. But it’s hard to deny that “Chosen Ones” are lazy writing. Why is this person the hero? Because everyone says he’s the hero. Why does everyone say he’s the hero? Because everyone says so, shut up, there’s magic.

Hermione is not Chosen. That’s the best thing about her. Hermione is a hero because she decides to be a hero; she’s brave, she’s principled, she works hard, and she never apologizes for the fact that her goal is to be very, extremely good at this whole “wizard” deal. Just as Hermione’s origins are nothing special, we’re left with the impression that her much-vaunted intelligence might not be anything special, on its own. But Hermione is never comfortable with relying on her “gifts” to get by. There’s no prophecy assuring her importance; the only way for Hermione to have the life she wants is to work for it. So Hermione Granger, generation-defining role model, works her adorable British ass off for seven straight books in a row. Although she deals with the slings and arrows of any coming-of-age tale — being told that she’s “bossy,” stuck-up, boring, “annoying,” etc — she’s too strong to let that stop her. In Hermione Granger and the Prisoner of Azkaban, she actually masters the forces of space and time just so that she can have more hours in the day to learn."

---interviews with SJ Perelman, Terence Stamp, and Jean-Pierre Melville

---the Marshall McLuhan scene in Annie Hall

---photos from American Graffiti, The Leopard, and Catherine Deneuve's career

---Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures

---the secrets of Caddyshack

---movie posters from the Stenberg brothers

---Clive James reviews Thomson's New Biographical Dictionary of Film (and yes, Kael does deserve that much praise):

"His assessments of Hitchcock are sane and brave: while as mad about a capital work like North by Northwest as you or I, he is ready to say, as almost no other critic is, that Hitch’s frequently lousy-looking back projection is not an ironic comment on the illusion of reality or a realistic comment on the illusion of irony but is in fact lousy back projection. Of Truffaut, to say that his perennial youthfulness “made all his films like debuts” is to catch him to the life. About Robert Walker, Thomson concludes that the actor’s career, before he made Strangers on a Train, had been “cramped by wholesomeness”: well said. Other things are ill said, but usually because he is bursting with appreciation.

Bursting, or having already burst. Some people thought he had strayed into weirdo territory when he wrote a book about Nicole Kidman that was distinguishable from a mash note only in being less temperate, but most of us realized that he had merely been carried away. It’s one of the nice things about him, unless you sincerely believe that to notice the beauty of a female film actor (let me just say actress and see whether somebody calls the cops) should be an indictable offense. Carrying you away is what the movies have always tried to do, and putting a well-favored young lady on the screen has always been one of the main means of transport. Other means of transport are the look of the thing, the appeal of the theme, the logic of the action, the tautness of the story, and the authority of the male face at the center of the frame. Thomson responds to all those things too. Male stars are not deprived of his appreciation merely because their good looks, however potent, are not of the kind that drive him to lyrically expressed desire. Directors, producers, cinematographers, even the occasional writer: Thomson loves them all, as long as they are good at what they do."

---compulsive frugality and tales from the new great depression

---appreciating Amy Winehouse

---hipster lit

---Roger McNamee explains why social is over

---His Girl Friday without the dialogue

---Romney analyzes Werckmeister Harmonies:

"The haunted, bony features of German actor Lars Rudolph, who plays lead protagonist Valuska, may suggest a Dostoievskian holy fool, but the tone of Krasznahorkai's novel radically stripped down in his and Tarr's screenplay, its verbal torrents reduced to a chill autism is closer, as W.G. Sebald has suggested, to Gogol. The universe of Werckmeister Harmonies is ruled by the Gogolian quality of poshlosht, best described as a transcendental crassness and incarnated here by the fearsome Tünde, played by Hanna Schygulla (dubbed, like Rudolph, into Hungarian). Initially it comes as a shock to see Fassbinder's perennial vamp as an elderly, well-padded babushka, though that may be Tünde's deceptive guise, for the next time we see her, dancing with her drunken lover, she seems to have regained a calculating sexual force.

The film is dominated by a brooding atmosphere of apocalyptic unrest, though it is implied that the cosmic 'evil' pervading the town is the product of bourgeois paranoia. Tempting as it may be to relate the story to political changes in Hungary in the last days of Communism (Krasznahorkai's novel was published in 1989), Tarr has insisted that his films contain no allegory. Yet the narrative is certainly one of anxiety about the breakdown of an old, enfeebled order and the explosive release of repressed popular energies. Little in recent cinema is as terrifying as the sequence in which the masses attack a dilapidated hospital, beating up patients as they go: the violence, in an eight-minute shot, is accentuated by the ghostly placidity of the camera's drift along passageways and round corners, like a distracted onlooker. At last the hordes stop dead at the sight of a skeletal, naked old man the decrepit earthly remnant of God, perhaps? and lumber out like George Romero zombies while Tarr holds a close-up of Valuska's stare."

---Stanley Kubrick's boxes

---trailers for Drive, Haywire, In Time, The Guard, End of the Road, and Gahan Wilson: Born Dead, Still Weird

---James MacDowell reviews the film criticism of Andrew Britton:

"Criticism is the systematic reading (that is, evaluation) of texts. Like all other activities, it takes place in the present. Like all other critical activities, it presupposes a principled attitude to the politics which constitute the present. The business of the film critic is to arrive at an understanding, on the basis of that attitude – which ought to be as alert and as conscious as possible – of what is of value in the past and present of the cinema, and to ensure that this value is recognized for what it is, and has the influence it ought to have, now."

---Mike Elgan converts to Mac

---Cameron Crowe's thoughts on music

---22 things Blake Butler learned from submitting writing: "Deletion is holy."

---from Parenti's Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence

---lastly, the tumblr pages of David Hudson and Mother Jones

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Not about romance: a discussion about Friends with Benefits

In a nice cool coffee shop in the otherwise broilingly hot south, the Film Doctor's significant other (B) has kindly agreed to be interviewed about Friends with Benefits. She enjoyed the movie much more than I did.

FD: Can a couple have sex and still remain friends?

B: Are you asking that philosophically, or are you are just asking what the movie says on this issue?

FD: Yes, I'm asking both.

B. This is not an issue of whether two people can sleep together and not fall in love, but more about the nature of love itself. The movie plays with the idea that there is some sort of perfect romance that can happen miraculously between two people, but then ultimately suggests that this kind of "true love" scenario is bogus. Individuals in "friends with benefits" relationships can be more honest and open with each other. Thus, they have a real relationship even as they continuously look for something that they imagine is better, even though it would be fake. An example would be when Mila's character Jamie talks to Dylan (Timberlake) about other relationships, she says "I don't have any body issues with you because I'm not trying to impress you." I say that if you are making every relationship some sort of fairy tale high-stakes kind of thing, then you are always going to fail, because you are not really being yourself.

FD: How?

B: The movie suggests that friendship is the only way to have a genuine relationship. People discount "booty call" relationships, but they can be more honest because you are not trying to impress anybody.

FD: But, the movie suggests that Jamie and Dylan cannot stay friends with benefits.

B: Jamie and Dylan have a genuine relationship, but they call it something else. I'd say they are still friends with benefits, but by the end of the movie, they simply recognize the value of that arrangement.

FD: Okay. Question number 2. Can one find any depth in a film like Friends with Benefits?

B: I think the movie gets at the heart of the problem of people waiting for things to happen in some kind of glorified way. In essence, in these sort of "wait for the big moment" sort of situations, your life actually happens to you when you are waiting for something better to come along. While Jamie and Dylan hang out with each other, they are actually having the important romance they want.

FD: So much of the movie concerns terminology as much as anything?

B: Yes. Meanwhile, in Jamie's quest for a "perfect" romance, she throws up arbitrary designations about when it's OK to sleep with a new dream guy--five dates. In that scenario, she presents a challenge to the doctor she's dating (Bryan Greenberg); as soon as he meets this challenge, he's ready to dump her. Thus, these kind of romances lead to nothing, because they are fake. That's not really how she feels. Whenever you are poised and thinking "this is about to be a serious relationship," then you are not being yourself.

The movie's main couple also has a nice give and take as they get to know each other in an incremental way. They discuss what they like in bed. We learn that Dylan is not good in math. We also learn about their childhood by being introduced to their parents.

FD: Can this movie get away with having the characters discuss the weaknesses of romantic comedy conventions (romantic gestures like horse-drawn carriages, cheesy musical cues, the man bending on one knee to propose, etc.), and then still indulge in them later in the same movie? Can it be meta- and eat its romantic comedy cake simultaneously?

B: Yes, because the moviemakers address the romantic conventions in advance, so when they happen later within the movie, they can alter the conventions in a playful way.

FD: How?

B: (spoiler alert) By the end of the film, Dylan does not use the horse-drawn carriage. He gets down on one knee not to propose to her, but to ask her to be his best friend again. When the movie uses cheesy music such as "Closing Time" by Semisonic in a climactic scene, that makes us complicit with the moviemakers. The strategy allows us to be in on their joke.

FD: Wasn't Woody Harrelson's character Tommy the sports editor repetitive after awhile? Dana Stevens described his constant "referencing" to his "own gayness" as "beyond embarrassing."

B: I don't understand what the filmmakers were trying to do with his character. The movie does have a strong gay subtext. I counted 10 allusions to Dylan defending himself to others' accusations of his being gay. I think maybe Tommy was included as a kind of ironic companion for Dylan, though typically in romantic comedies there are pairings like that. I didn't think that the Jamie character had a similar kind of sidekick female.

FD: How about Jamie's mother Lorna (Patricia Clarkson)?

B: Lorna has her problems, but she knows how to live in the moment, so in that respect she understands something that her daughter doesn't. Otherwise, Jamie doesn't have a confidante of any sort. She does date the oncologist.

FD: Hasn't Richard Jenkins (who plays Dylan's Alzeimer's-afflicted dad, Mr. Harper) played in too many movies in too many supporting roles?

B: I don't have any comment on that. I haven't seen him in anything. There was a lot of pants-dropping in the movie, so Mr. Harper provides another opportunity for that.

FD: You saw him in Eat, Pray, Love with me.

B: Oh, well. I've seen Julia Roberts in movies since then too. He's not very memorable to me.

FD: Justin Timberlake is an agile, quick actor, adept at speedy His Girl Friday-esque delivery, and Mila Kunis keeps up with him well, but does his character have anything more to it?

B: He has a classic case of just what other characters accuse him of having. There is a tendency in today's young men to be emotionally removed from themselves with an inability to commit because of that. The only way Dylan can really get around it is under the guise of his friendship with Jamie. He's emotionally stunted, and he hides it. The movie places much of the blame on parents. Otherwise, he's a fun, smart, interesting character. He's handsome, but he doesn't commit himself.

FD: How do you think Timberlake's work here compares to his acting in The Social Network and Bad Teacher? I was so impressed by his performance in Fincher's movie, everything else seems inadequate. In Bad Teacher, he plays a shallow, rich dweeb.

B: I don't think he really got to act much in Bad Teacher, but in Friends in Benefits, his work is just as good as it is in The Social Network. He has the same sort of glib, smooth veneer that makes him more masculine. I like him in more manly roles, and yet he's intellectual, aside from just having the buff body. I never think that Ryan Reynolds has much of anything going on inside his head.

FD: What of Kunis?

B: She is a perfect foil to Timberlake, because they are good in the same ways. In Extract, she played a more negative character, but in both cases she displays a con artist's ability to rise above the usual ingenue role. Jamie and Dylan don't pretend to be unattractive. They have great chemistry. There was no chemistry between Ryan Reynolds and Sandra Bullock in The Proposal, nor in any movie I've seen with Katherine Heigl or Adam Sandler. No chemistry between Cameron Diaz and Jason Segel in Bad Teacher. In many romantic comedies there's not much of a spark between the main characters, but there is a strong one in Friends with Benefits. I'm surprised that they are not dating.

FD: What does the movie suggest about our cultural addiction to smart phones and social media?

B: The movie treats it as just a way to communicate.

FD: But the end credits imitate the swipe and touch-screen techniques that we use on an iPad.

B: Dylan uses the touch screen as part of his job as the art director of GQ, only on a larger scale. Otherwise, both Jamie and Dylan try to get away from technology when needed. They look for places where they won't have cell phone reception. Early on in the movie, Jamie takes Dylan to just such a place, the roof of a skyscraper in New York City. This scene also hints at some of the larger themes in the movie. While there, he asks her how many others she has brought to the roof. She replies that he was the first, so even there we learn of how comfortable they both are together, and yet neither one of them recognizes that that comfort is the basis for a relationship. The movie suggests that people will only have a romance with someone that they are uncomfortable with.

FD: At the same time, I noticed someone in the theater texting during a sex scene.

B: There's no accounting for that. I don't think the movie caused people to text. Speaking of that, I need to text somebody.

FD: Wait. (A pause. She learns that Amy Winehouse has died. The coffee shop has emptied. I take a sip of iced latte.) So, in an effort to summarize why you liked the film, you say this: you enjoyed the way Friends with Benefits explored how friendship should be the basis of a romance, how men can be emotionally unavailable, and the way people tend to idealize relationships in a destructive way. Also, you liked the chemistry of the two leads.

B: Yes. I thought the writing was clever. The leads are both eclectic, risk-taking people.

F: Any last words? You get to finish this up.

B: Because you are too lazy to? I thought it was a sexy movie. There's a part of me that's always believed that people put too many expectations on relationships, when the best people in their lives are often just those unacknowledged friends with no strings. People should pay more attention to those relationships instead of distrusting them.

B: By the way, do you want to see No Strings Attached?

F: I don't think it would be as good. I don't like Ashton Kutcher.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The increasing prevalence of meh: 3 notes on You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger and Drive Angry

1) With its obtrusive casting, forced drama, and frustratingly half-baked plot strands, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger proved an endurance test. It views like a sketch, and its placement in London seems of little consequence. Given that the movie is not trying to be funny, what was the guiding principal of its composition? The ironies of where relationships can go? How life can resemble the film's opening quote from Macbeth--"full of sound and fury, signifying nothing"? Roy (Josh Brolin) petulantly remonstrates with his wife Sally (Naomi Watts) since he's annoyed by his publisher's lack of response to his freshly-written novel in manuscript. I wondered if Woody Allen was similarly bothered by his inability to finish this movie? Why did Anthony Hopkins agree to play the demeaning role of a duped old man named Alfie Shebritch who decides to marry a call girl (Lucy Punch)? All of the high-level actors apparently had an inability to say no to a plum role in a Woody Allen film, so all I could think of was the high level of mystery that Brolin brought to his character Llewelyn Moss in No Country for Old Men or Hopkins' work in The Silence of the Lambs 20 years ago, or Watts as Ann Darrow in King Kong. Playing Sally's mother and Alfie's dumped wife Helena, Gemma Jones reprises her role as the similarly dumped wife in Bridget Jones's Diary. As the suave gallery owner who enjoys Sally's amorous attention, Antonio Banderas is instantly dull. He is designated to play a handsome wealthier guy, but there's nothing more to him. Tall Dark Stranger never allowed me to suspend any disbelief because the casting was so chock full of wondrous talent. Why exactly does Freida Pinto play a woman that Roy ogles from afar as she always wears red and plays the guitar? She's symbolic. She's a muse, yes, but her character never evolves much more than that.

2) I liked one plot development (spoiler alert). After bombing out with the publisher, Roy steals an unpublished novel from a friend named Strangler (Ewen Bremner) who he thought was dead in an auto accident, but turns out to be only in a coma. Now the novel will be published in Roy's name to much acclaim, and he lives in dread that his friend will awake to learn of his traitorous plagiarism. His particular nightmare has much more existential bite than anything else in this perfunctory production.

3) No matter how I turn and twist it in my thoughts, I still find it remarkable that Drive Angry had no effect on me whatsoever. Even with its hyper-violence, Nicolas Cage's sleepy glower and ironic new haircut, Amber Heard in Daisy Dukes, hipster muscle cars (a 1969 Dodge Charger!), a scene in which (spoiler alert) Cage's character (Milton) gets shot point-blank in the eye and yet lives (!), devil-worshippers banally dancing by firelight, the oddball casting of Bella's dad (Billy Burke) of the Twilight franchise as the head devil worshipper, a flaming car that evokes Ghost Rider, and a vengeful mission erupted from the gates of HELL, Drive Angry proved no more than fitfully diverting, as if a man were to stand on the roof of a building across the way and yell "I'm cool! I'm bad! I'm tough and subversive!" for several hours, waving his gun about and crashing into things. After enough of this, one shrugs and walks away. By trying so hard to be edgy in the Tarantino/Rodriguez mode, Drive ends up being cutely nondescript, an exercise in ironic attititudinal display, an innocuous piece of bad-assery reminiscent of a plaque dedicated to Harley-Davidson in the ceramic section of the Hobby Lobby. The movie vanishes from the mind in direct proportion to how badly it wants to be rebellious.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

new weather links

---Zizek on Children of Men

---speaking like Kristen Stewart

---Rehak's "Menzies and the Clumsy Sublime":

"Writing about the use of rear-projection in classical Hollywood, Laura Mulvey has coined the term clumsy sublime to refer to that weird subset of screen imagery in which a cost-saving measure – in her example, filming actors against previously-captured footage – results in a burst of visual incongruity whose “artificiality and glaring implausibility” in relation to the shots that bracket it invites a different kind of scrutiny from the spectator.[1] There is an echo here of Tom Gunning’s famous formulation of the early-cinema “attraction,” which presents itself to appreciative viewers as a startling sensorial display,[2] but Mulvey’s point is that rear projection was rarely intended to be noticed in its time; it only “seems in hindsight like an aesthetic emblem of the bygone studio era.”[3] Like the attraction, the clumsy sublime destabilizes our ontological assumptions about how the image was made (indeed, its impact stems largely from our sudden awareness that the image was manufactured in the first place).

But where Gunning argues that contemporary, spectacular special effects carry on the highly self-conscious work of what he calls the “tamed attraction,” the clumsy sublime suggests a more contingent and even contentious relationship to cinema’s techniques of trompe l’oeil, in which illusions originally meant as misdirective sleight-of-hand acquire with age their own aura of movie magic."

---Hanna's visual effects

---Supanick's notes on W.C. Fields:

"For Fields, there was no sublimation; with minced oaths and mumbled asides, his was an id stripped bare—revealing lusts, hostilities, and sometimes a deeper darkness.

“Life is really one long headache,” he wrote in 1935, not long before his collapse fueled by alcohol and overwork, “the morning after the night before. It is a mirror moved all around town by a one-eyed truckman…By the time he finally gets it into the hands of the fellow who knows what to do with it, the thing’s worn out, and he’s got to go back to the warehouse for another mirror.”

---the opening title sequence of John Carpenter's The Ward

---"The old consumer economy is gone, and it’s not coming back."

---Psycho's subliminal themes

---@colsonwhitehead's gambling zombie phase

---Criterion's Three Reasons

---Morozov's "Two Decades of the Web": "We are careening towards a future where privacy becomes a very expensive commodity."

---E. B. White's "The Family that Dwelt Apart"

---Robert Horton reacts to Slacker, David Lowery remembers Drive, and Raymond Chandler responds to Hollywood

---John LeCarre reflects on the creation of George Smiley:

"A policeman makes arrests. He looks for a killer, finds him, interrogates him, sends him to court and he goes to prison. A spy, if he detects another spy, doesn’t do that. He wants to obtain him, to use him, to convert him. He wants to take over his network. He wants the continuum still, under his control. There is no end point."

---reacting to Jack and Jill

---lastly, @annehelen appreciates Marlon Brando

Saturday, July 9, 2011

underground links

---"the whole world is an internet startup now"

---the evils of like:

"Like" culture is antithetical to the concept of self-esteem, which a healthy individual should be developing from the inside out rather than from the outside in. Instead, we are shaped by our stats, which include not just "likes" but the number of comments generated in response to what we write and the number of friends or followers we have. I've seen rock stars agonize over the fact that another artist has far more Facebook "likes" and Twitter followers than they do.

Because it's so easy to medicate our need for self-worth by pandering to win followers, "likes" and view counts, social media have become the métier of choice for many people who might otherwise channel that energy into books, music or art—or even into their own Web ventures.

The same is true of the productivity of already established writers and artists. I was recently on a radio show with an author who, the interviewer said, had tweeted, on average, every 20 minutes for the past two years. Yet, despite all the time and effort spent amassing and catering to followers, as soon as a social network falls out of use, like MySpace, all that work collapses like a castle built of sand.

The psychoanalyst Erich Fromm presciently wrote over 60 years ago that man has "constructed a complicated social machine to administer the technical machine he built…. The more powerful and gigantic the forces are which he unleashes, the more powerless he feels himself as a human being. He is owned by his creations, and has lost ownership of himself."

---Do It Yourself: the story of Rough Trade

---Meis considers the intentional boredom of Wallace's The Pale King:

"these realest, most profound parts of me involved not drives or appetites but simple attention, awareness, if only I could stay awake off speed."

---behind the scenes of Roeg's Don't Look Now

---Kinney's rise and fall of underground comics

---Peter Jackson's 2nd Hobbit video

---Robert Altman's California Split, and H.E.A.L.T.H.

---Benjamin Sampson's visual study of A.I.

---Joshua Bryce Newman wonders about the hacker/filmmaker connection as Angela Foster imagines what one can do with a degree in film studies as Michael Cieply looks at the jobs picture

---Craig of @DarkEyeSocket appreciates the work of Michael Shannon

---Manohla Dargis on the limits of what we see on screen

---Douglas Trumbull's special effects

---Steve Neave likes Rocky

---augmented reality

---Miedzian's "Blaming Women for the Infantilization of Men"

---when Sheryl Sandberg joined Facebook:

"Last December, Sandberg spoke at the TEDWomen conference. Her black hair framed her angular face and reached her shoulders. She looked a bit like the actress Patricia Neal when she was young. Sandberg began by celebrating the progress women have made: “For any of us in this room today, let’s start out by admitting we’re lucky. We don’t live in the world our mothers lived in, our grandmothers lived in, where career choices for women were so limited.” More women than men graduate from college and graduate school, and receive doctoral degrees. Yet, she went on, “women are not making it to the top. A hundred and ninety heads of state; nine are women. Of all the people in parliament in the world, thirteen per cent are women. In the corporate sector, women at the top—C-level jobs, board seats—tops out at fifteen, sixteen per cent.”

To solve this problem, she proposed doing three things. First, she said, women need to “sit at the table.” She said that fifty-seven per cent of men entering the workforce negotiate their salaries, but that only seven per cent of women do likewise. Second, at home, “make sure your partner is a real partner.” On average, she said, women do two-thirds of the housework and three-fourths of the child care. And, finally, “don’t leave before you leave.” When a woman starts thinking of having children, “she doesn’t raise her hand anymore. . . . She starts leaning back.” In other words, if women don’t get the job they want before they take a break to have children, they often don’t come back.

Before speaking at TED, Sandberg sent a draft of her speech to Gloria Steinem, who is a friend. Steinem described it to me as “terrific,” a “summary of what we both want—a world where half of homes are run by men, especially raising children, and half our institutions are run by women, especially armies.”

---discussing Cowboys & Aliens

---lastly, Steven Santos looks at Terminator 2: Judgment Day

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Shock, awe, and the life-sucking abyss: 8 notes on Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon

1) As the uber-blockbuster of the summer, Michael Bay's Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon has enough firepower, swooping camera movement, race car mise en scene, jingoistic shots of soldiers running into position, and flying robots crashing into buildings to make one's writing feel small. Transformers 3 is all about the spectacle of size and the obliteration of puny human concerns like movie criticism. When the movie finds time to mock Tweeters, bloggers, and authors of books, it keeps suggesting the question: what form of promotion can remotely compare to the military precision of this Steven Spielberg-produced onslaught? Even Fox TV gets both its product placement and its comeuppance as yet another opportunistic network.

2) Michael Bay is in the business of manufacturing pseudo-awe. His hack-workmanship has attained a level of sophistication that at least merits some rhetorical analysis. How does he attempt to persuade the viewer to bow down to his third vision of a Hasbro robot war?

3) The beginning of the movie resembles the start of Green Lantern with its grand views of outer space and a voiceover narration describing recent intergalactic strife. A losing war with the Decepticons has left the poor Autobots scrambling to hide something in outer space. Their ship crash lands on the dark side of the moon. Sensors on earth notice its mysterious dull thud, and this event jumpstarts a space war between the US and USSR in 1961.

Bay splices together black and white period footage of John F. Kennedy, Walter Cronkite, and grainy shots of the Apollo flight to create a sense of wonder over Armstrong's "one small step for man" onto the moon. Already, the viewer is obliged to nostalgically thrill in this historical moment just before Bay lets us in on a little secret. The Apollo mission had a hidden agenda to go explore the aforementioned massive Autobot spaceship. An astronaut discovers a slumbering Autobot and says in awe "My Lord, a giant face, Jesus. We are not alone" just before Bay cuts to another object of worship--Victoria's Secret model Rose Huntington-Whiteley (Carly) as she walks upstairs to wake Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) from his slumber.

4) After the film jumps to the present day, it has some fun at Witwicky's expense, which left me wondering how much Bay takes pleasure in humiliating LaBoeuf. His hen-pecking parents describe Sam as part of the "lost generation," the millenials, and even though he has earned a metal from the "POTUS" for saving the earth twice, Sam still has to suffer the indignity of applying for jobs in the New York City area. To the tune of Aerosmith's "Sweet Emotion," Sam bumbles his way through one unsuccessful interview after another until he meets John Malkovich as Bruce Bazos, the head of an intimidating high tech firm. Bruce glowers and says "Impress me," and when Sam does not adequately respond, he talks of the "life-sucking abyss" Sam faces if he doesn't get the right job immediately. It seems curious for a film of Transformers 3's budget to semi-ironically reflect the desperation in the contemporary job market. The movie pauses for a moment of Up in the Air-esque despair as if it needs that sense of hopelessness to further enhance all of the race cars, supermodels, and expensive, soon-to-be-blown up sets on display.

5) Once the Decepticons and the Autobots start to assert themselves, one notices the odd anthropomorphic attempts of the filmmakers to characterize them. The robots both bleed and shed sparks when hit, betraying CGI indecision. When they drool wickedly, I guess they drool oil. One Decepticon snickers,"Yes, my master" as he rubs his hands together like Igor. The major new Autobot just dug up from the dark side of the moon is a grumpy coot named Sentinel Prime. He has metal strands hanging down from his chin suggesting a grey beard and Leonard Nimoy's voice. Why would anyone want to build an aged robot?

6) Meanwhile, another Decepticon named Megatron appears in the African desert sporting a dusty Mad Max ambiance about him as he hobnobs with the elephants. Both in terms of characterization and dialogue, the robots remain crudely drawn, especially when you compare them to the technical proficiency of the action scenes. After all, how seriously can one take a figure with two truck doors hanging on his chest? At one point, Optimus Prime, the blue patriotic one, says "Today in the name of freedom, we take the battle to them!" to which Sentinel replies "You simply fail to understand that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few." With their ponderous male voices thundering goofily, the alien robots keep betraying their Saturday morning cartoon origins.

7) After a grotesque attempt to emotionally capitalize on the Challenger Disaster of 1986, the movie's third act mostly consists of an extended apocalyptic robot fight in downtown Chicago that plays to Bay's strengths as a master of battlefield set piece scenes. In the meantime, what have we learned? In the hybrid child/adult world of the Transformers, we live in a particularly American dream of endless mechanized energy, where troublesome consequences like Peak Oil, pollution, and the costs of war do not exist. Technology takes on endless Protean forms even as it remains neatly divided between clear-cut versions of good and evil. Whatever the outcome of the Autobot/ Decepticon feud, we can feel assured of Prime Optimus' support of us tiny insignificant humans, if only because we buy the movie tickets.

8) To conclude, I will attempt to summarize all of the techniques that Bay uses to claim our attention and lend his CGI creations significance, even though there's nothing there. He does it by:

a) setting up a worshipful attitude towards their appearance. Bay likes to includes lots of shots of people (especially mission control workers) standing in awe of something like a rocket launch. Their gasp guides the viewer to do the same.

b) giving power to characters who have access to the CGI images. Sam Witwicky (LaBoeuf) has access to Bumblebee and that gives him an edge on most everyone else in the movie. John Malkovich's character Bruce begins the movie as a hotshot CEO, but later he degrades himself just to catch a glimpse of Bumblebee.

c) taking legitimate movie stars and jeopardizing their careers by holding them in thrall to the spectacle. Both Malkovich and Frances McDormand risk their integrity by bowing down to Bay's CGI shrine. John Turturro has enjoyed the shrine now for all three films.

d) making the CGI creations very large, thus dwarfing the humans, and thereby risking making people completely irrelevant (the chief creative problem of the movie). Bay and writer Ehren Kruger go through much trouble to keep people related to the final big Autobot/Decepticon battle scene, where humans tend to have the status of ants scurrying out of the way. One Decepticon condescendingly talks of Witwicky's "insect little feet" running away from him.

e) building up interplanetary struggles between these CGI figures, as Green Lantern and other movies do.

f) making the robots able to shift shape at will, thereby blending together the audience's interest in race cars, semis, weaponry, robots, etc.

g) improving the CGI effects until it gets increasingly difficult for the audience to tell the difference between what is real and what isn't. The brown diarrhea-like Parallax in Green Lantern looks cartoonish and obvious by comparison.

h) having the CGI effects create a rather glib semi-destroyed Chicago (lone shell-shocked businessman stands and looks confused, singed children run for shelter, skyscrapers lean on each other, PG-13 corpses lie in a bus, sad music plays as semi-defeated soldiers weep, etc.) to cater to our apocalyptic fears.

i) strategically using product placement. While other directors may be concerned about the appearance of selling out, Bay revels in ostentatious display, since it heightens the Transformers brand by association. Rosie Huntington-Whiteley is already a walking advertisement for Victoria's Secret lingerie. Carly's boss Dylan (Patrick Dempsey) gives Carly a Mercedes SLS-AMG. As jealous Witwicky looks up the ad for the car on his computer, he learns that the car is worth about $200,000, so he suggests that they sell it and use the money to buy a new house. In the process, Bay has managed to link his CGI robots to a top-of-the-line luxury vehicle with doors that open up like those of the Delorean DMC-12 of the Back to the Future series.

j) pandering to straight male adolescent ideology, hence Bay's career-long tendency to dabble in homophobic, racist, ageist portrayals of minor characters and sexist portrayals of women. As Christopher Orr points out:

"In keeping with this view of women’s proper role—Sartre, with whom Bay has more in common than one might imagine, would have called it the etre-pour-autrui—the director also supplies us with a pretty Latina who is ushered briefly onscreen to be berated for her “hoochie” outfit, and a hard-nosed National Intelligence Director (Frances McDormand) whose authority is gradually usurped by a renegade male agent (John Turturro) to the point where she ends up, literally, across his lap. A few circa-1980s gay gags are thrown in for good measure, notably a lisping German named “Dutch” (played by the far-too-good-to-accept-such-material Alan Tudyk). But credit where it is due: Bay has at least abandoned the outright minstrelsy of streetwise Autobots Mudflap and Skid. (There are two poodle-sized imbecile-bots thrown in for comic effect, but they are, so to speak, race-neutral.)"

I believe that Orr missed an Irish stereotype robot and another fat one of uncertain ethnicity that works as mechanics for the Xanthium Autobot ship.

Ultimately, the more the CGI creatures don't exist, the more work one must do to make them super-important. Then everyone will go see the holy spectacle of the elaborate nothing.

How else does Bay make his CGI significant?

Related links:

---the sound design of Dark of the Moon

---"Review of Transformers 3: Machines Are Subjects, Women Are Objects, and Female Leadership Is a Joke" by Caroline Heldman

Friday, July 1, 2011

The Filth and the Fury and other links

---Ingle and Aimee trash the dress

---The Filth and the Fury, a documentary about the Sex Pistols

---the true price of gas

---how online companies manipulate us:

"We want our Walls to reflect ourselves. It's analogous to the way we curate our belongings, which itself is a window into our personalities. (The Psychologist Sam Gosling has shown you can learn more about people from their possessions than from spending time with them. Walls are basically the same--a storefront window to the self.) Users want to display a self that is somewhere between their real self and how they would like to be perceived, which creates a substantial motivation for constant monitoring and upkeep of the Wall."

---an illustrated history of cinema around the world

---"Zoned Out: Boredom in the Digital Age" by Mara Jebsen

---Truman Capote cons Brando into exposing his fatuous side:

Rewrite? Man, I rewrote the whole damn script. And now out of that they’re going to use maybe eight lines.” Another snort. “I give up. I’m going to walk through the part, and that’s that. Sometimes I think nobody knows the difference anyway. For the first few days on the set, I tried to act. But then I made an experiment. In this scene, I tried to do everything wrong I could think of. Grimaced and rolled my eyes, put in all kind of gestures and expressions that had no relation to the part I’m supposed to be playing. What did Logan say? He just said, ‘It’s wonderful. Print it!’ ”

---The American West of John Ford

---seagull cinema

---every Michael Bay movie in less than one minute

---Stephanie Rosenbloom's "Got Twitter? You've Been Scored"

---Naomi Klein meditates on corporate branding and politics:

"This preference for symbols over substance, and this unwillingness to stick to a morally clear if unpopular course, is where Obama decisively parts ways with the transformative political movements from he has borrowed so much (the pop-art posters from Che, his cadence from King, his "Yes We Can!" slogan from the migrant farmworkers – si se puede). These movements made unequivocal demands of existing power structures: for land distribution, higher wages, ambitious social programmes. Because of those high-cost demands, these movements had not only committed followers but serious enemies. Obama, in sharp contrast not just to social movements but to transformative presidents such as FDR, follows the logic of marketing: create an appealing canvas on which all are invited to project their deepest desires but stay vague enough not to lose anyone but the committed wing nuts (which, granted, constitute a not inconsequential demographic in the United States). Advertising Age had it right when it gushed that the Obama brand is "big enough to be anything to anyone yet had an intimate enough feel to inspire advocacy". And then their highest compliment: "Mr Obama somehow managed to be both Coke and Honest Tea, both the megabrand with the global awareness and distribution network and the dark-horse, upstart niche player."

Another way of putting it is that Obama played the anti-war, anti-Wall Street party crasher to his grassroots base, which imagined itself leading an insurgency against the two-party ­monopoly through dogged organisation and donations gathered from lemonade stands and loose change found in the crevices of the couch. Meanwhile, he took more money from Wall Street than any other presidential candidate, swallowed the Democratic party establishment in one gulp after defeating Hillary Clinton, then pursued "bipartisanship" with crazed Republicans once in the White House."

---trailers for Slacker 2011, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and those two Friends with Benefits flicks

---Emily Good arrested for videotaping a police officer in public view

---Simmons notes why Ryan Reynolds is not a movie star, and @annehelen's answer

---Jason Bellamy and Ed Howard discuss Malick's The Tree of Life (also Geoffrey O'Brien's thoughts)

---the rise and fall of Myspace

---Seitz's video essay about Ebert's review of Stormy Monday

---lastly, The Art of the Title Sequence celebrates The Borgias