Sunday, June 30, 2013

"Misrepresenting my vagina": 4 notes on gender and genre in The Heat

1) I've been annoyed with the way the gender implications of The Heat (directed by Paul Feig, who also directed Bridesmaids) somehow gives the movie's egregiously moldy made-for-TV screenplay a pass. For example, when our two heroines are being followed by a van, uptight Special Agent Sarah Ashburn (Bullock) evades it with some swift steering, but then the van reappears behind them. When the movie needs a climactic scene, the filmmakers turn to an abandoned warehouse in Boston. As the camera lingered on a car at one point, a man behind me in the cineplex said "It's gonna explode," and so it did. Shannon Mullins' (McCarthy's) brother gets shot off screen, so suddenly he's in a coma to provide a bit of ersatz tear-jerking pathos. First-time screenwriter Katie Dippold admits that she's seen "Lethal Weapon about 2000 times," and that's exactly how The Heat views, as the 2000th derivation of a police procedural occasionally freshened up by Melissa McCarthy's ability to riff on a joke to make it funny (Feig was smart to let his comediennes improvise on their lines in Bridesmaids, too). But Bridesmaids was busy reinventing the romantic comedy whereas The Heat comes across as so programmatic, so slavish to the conventions of the genre, and so forced that whatever humor the two leads generate tends to get neutered by the movie's hoary predictability.

2) The filmmakers take a male buddy-cop genre and put its traditional body-oriented crude verbal humor in the mouths of women, especially McCarthy. They think they'll obtain a cross-over audience that way (and they might have), but the comediennes can seem falsified and unnatural as much as we are invited to think of them as empowered. Shannon comments on the tininess of her police captain's balls when she isn't cursing or threatening to shoot men in the crotch. To be fair, at times, the comediennes appropriate female anatomy into the crude humor in unexpected ways. At one point, McCarthy says "You just brushed against my aureole" (I guess as a reference to a scene in This Is 40?).  At another time, she jokes about being able to see Ashburn's "cervix." When Shannon makes a crack to a passing former lover about Ashburn's "dirty attic with some old Christmas lights" and other scattered junk, Ashburn replies by telling the guy that Mullins is "misrepresenting my vagina."

3) The Heat tries very hard to be about Boston (as if Dippold wants to remake Ben Affleck's The Town as a comedy), but many of the local effects seem tossed off and derivative. For example, Shannon's working class Irish family appears to have wandered in from David O. Russell's The Fighter, complete with tacky black velvet paintings of Jesus playing hockey, baseball, and basketball. Ashburn has difficulty understanding one of them when he asks "Are you a narc?" because with his Boston accent, it sounds like "knock."

4) They say that humor is hardest to create, and in this movie the effort shows. Bullock deserves credit for being willing to look silly. She blows a peanut out of her nose and dances drunkenly around in her bra. She likens acting with Melissa to "working with a rabid cat," but McCarthy's aggressive persona can seem coarsened as she throws a phone book at a perp's head, insults an albino, and assaults a john for making a crack about his wife's "messy vagina." I understand and applaud the need to persuade Hollywood to make more female-centric comedies, but it seems like blackmail to be obliged to defend this one.    

Sunday, June 23, 2013

"Mother nature is a serial killer": a discussion about World War Z

In a Chipotle Mexican Grill, I sat down with W, a 22 year old film buff who once took a class in zombie cinema at USC, to discuss World War Z over burritos.  We mention some spoilers, so this post is meant for those who have seen the film.

FD: Did you like the movie?

W: It was decent.

FD: Why?

W: It enhances the zombie genre with its large budget and global scale. The various action set pieces reminded me of Roland Emmerich's disaster films like Independence Day (1996). WWZ is not as bloated or cliched as 2012 (2009), but the two follow similar paths.

FD: Even though World War Z reminds me of a cinematic Big Mac--readily available for mass consumption--I still like the way it brings up thought-provoking themes. By having the ambition to take zombie conventions to worldwide levels of concern, the movie considers ways to face the human die-off, the threat of martial law, consumerism amidst a breakdown of civil order, Contagion-esque concerns with a pandemic outbreaks, and the loss of individuality in the age of the crowd.

W: That's its problem, I think. With any sort of disaster scenario where people die, these movies can't readily compete with Contagion (2012). WWZ treats zombies like a summer disaster film, whereas Contagion raises those concerns better.

FD: What about the brilliant young scientist who said that "Nature is a serial killer"?

W: What about it?

FD: It doesn't matter if you have a population of reindeer on an island or micro-organisms in a petri dish. When a species uses up its natural resources, it will die off en masse. Nature doesn't care about the individual. So, in that case, to call mother nature a "serial killer" is accurate.

W: Still, that's also a great line in a script. In a movie like Contagion, we get this Rube Goldberg sequence of events with a bat, pig, an Asian cook, and Gwyneth Paltrow that's way cooler than a catchy line about serial killers. WWZ is more effective at city-wide catastrophe set pieces, like how you react to a plane being taken over by zombies, than by answering larger questions.

FD: You seem a bit dismissive about these issues. Director Marc Forster mentioned that he wanted to explore overpopulation and consumerism in the midst of a summer blockbuster. Didn't you like the shopping scene?

W: (chuckles) I did see the overpopulation angle. In these large attacks, you get the sensation that people who are overtaken will join this swarm. Dawn of the Dead (2004) could meditate on consumerism because it was largely set in a mall with zombies milling around because they were familiar with that location. In this movie, it was more like "Oh my God, apocalypse! We've got to raid the grocery store!" It's more a fun thriller scenario as opposed to the gestation of the consumeristic zombification of society. (He laughs)

FD: (laughing) Okay. Next question. How does WWZ fit in the cinematic zombie tradition?

W: WWZ has some cool zombie movie moments. For instance, in the scene where Brad Pitt (Gerry Lane) stands on the ledge of a tall building in case he might convert to a zombie, he shows unusual foresight. In 28 Days Later (2002), Brenden Gleeson gets a drop of blood in his eye, and he says "Get away from me," but doesn't try to kill himself. The characters of WWZ are more self-aware of zombie tropes. Gerry knows to cut off an Israeli soldier's arm to stop the spread of infection, but there isn't a real sense of violence due to the Paramount PG-13 rating. We don't get the same feeling of horrific repercussions. It's not as much of a horror film because zombies aren't feasting on people. They are more like parasites that infect in a wave. That mass movement causes the film to lose sight of the individual zombie who wants to eat you. WWZ compensates, however, with a sense of inevitability-- you can never feel safe.

FD: Couldn't you say the PG-13 rating is used more for leaving the violence up to our imagination, such as in the scene where Gerry uses a crow bar on a zombie, but we don't quite see the blow?

W: There's a catharsis to that violence that's missing, a relief from that oppressive force. We may get more tension as a result. WWZ is better at depicting the chase and the need to hide.

FD: In film class, we talk of way genres go through different phases--primitive, classical, revisionist, or parodic.  Where would you place WWZ, given that many zombie films, such as Warm Bodies, are already moving towards the revisionist phase?

W: WWZ is sort of classical, but that's a negative against the film. Night of the Living Dead (1968) and The Walking Dead series deal more with the intimacy of humans trying to survive the apocalyptic event.

FD: But, what of WWZ's constant emphasis on Gerry's family and its survival?

W: That seems like a token attempt to give his character some stakes and depth. We never really learn much of anything about Gerry's character beyond that fact that he's skilled and used to work for the United Nations. We want to see him succeed on a superficial level. We never really get a sense that he will not reunite with his family. Zombie films tend to kill off major characters to piss you off. We know that Gerry is going to live because he's Brad Pitt. Most people don't survive a plane crash that easily. We hope that he will get back to his family, but the movie never really gets intimate about his plight. WWZ doesn't have the kind of balls to mess with that dynamic. When the young brilliant Harvard scientist dies immediately, that's something anyway.

FD: So, you're saying Pitt's movie star persona mucks with the usual vulnerabilities of zombie conventions.

W: You remember the end of Night of the Living Dead? That's powerful because the hero gets unceremoniously shot, and that seems totally plausible.

FD: What did you think of the revised third act of WWZ?  It struck me as effective, but also oddly muted, with a goofy emphasis on individual zombies humorously squawking like birds and chomping their teeth.

W: That third act is quiet compared to the rest of the movie, but it works on its own terms. It seems more appropriate to a smaller production.    

FD: Do you wish you had seen the original ending with the Lobo-wielding battle scenes?

W: That may have been more viscerally satisfying, but also stupider. That version sounds like just another big gungho action sequence, but it's also more appropriate for the movie's title.

FD: Didn't you find the very end of WWZ pat and easy?

W: Yeah, but most big budget disaster movies tend to be like that.

FD: In other words, you didn't mind how the movie sells out on all of its edgier premises.

W: Sure. It sells out, but the movie never overstays its welcome. It's always well-paced and never dull. It's selling out in an entertaining way, so you aren't minding as much.

FD: Any last observations that we missed?

W: I think the movie opens really strong. I liked the pandemonium of an immediate zombie outbreak. For the first 40 minutes or so, that tension is never relinquished. Otherwise, Gerry could use more anti-hero qualities. He seems to be the most benevolent resourceful guy you'd ever meet. I was hoping that, in the end, when he injects himself with a lethal disease, there would be more telling lethal repercussions. He should have pissed blood, convulsed, or something.

FD: Yes. The movie cheats a bit there. Final thoughts?

W: The zombies in Max Brooks' novel had twitching characteristics, and so did the ones in the movie, but that can't be my final thought.

FD: What do the zombies represent?

W: Us.

FD: (laughing) In what sense?

W: They represent our anxieties of what we will become. In Night of the Living Dead, it was Communism with overtones of racism. In Dawn of the Dead, mindless consumers. 28 Weeks Later reflected the American occupation of Iraq.

FD: Yeah! Zombieland (2009) anticipates The Social Network (2010) and the zombification of Mark Zuckerberg.

W: Shaun of the Dead (2004) reflects how we are all pub-dwelling fat lazy videogame playing douchebags.

FD: So what of WWZ?

W: WWZ points to how we have become a plague on earth, an undifferentiated ant-like computer-generated multitude.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Sofia Coppola links

---"When I read the Vanity Fair article about these kids, it summed up everything that I think is declining in our culture. And it just doesn’t feel like anyone is talking about it. Kids are inundated with reality TV and tabloid culture so much that this just seems normal.  I go to a concert, everyone is filming and photographing themselves and then posting the pictures right away. It is almost as if your experiences don’t count unless you have an audience watching them."

---"In the last 14 years, Sofia Coppola has become one of America's most singular filmmakers by perfecting the cinematic art of haunting, emotional passivity."

---A Cannes interview with Sofia Coppola

---Lick the Star

---an advertisement starring Imogen Poots

---"Coppola mines visual means to express the psychological states of enclosure and exposure. What you remember about her films are the microclimates of feeling and longing. As she puts it, 'My movies are not about being, but becoming.'"

--behind the scenes of The Virgin Suicides and Lost in Translation

---"If Coppola's films' do have something in common with Antonioni's, it's in the depiction of the brittleness of adult emotional life in a time and milieu in which, as the director put it over 50 years ago, 'Eros is sick.'"  --Glenn Kenny

---a discussion with the Film Society at Lincoln Center

---"if the five teens that make up Coppola’s Bling Ring, among them casual, amoral ringleader Rebecca (Katie Chang) and vapid, social-climbing Nicki (Emma Watson)—are meant to be treated as real people as opposed to walking emblems of celebrity-culture-gone-wrong, how should we relate to them? With pity? Amusement? Indignation? At times, Coppola seems to be shooting fish in a barrel: one hilarious, brutally on-the-nose shot shows one gang member’s family preparing breakfast smoothies in a spotless, gleaming kitchen, with a pair of snow-white corgis under one chair and a maid at work in the corner, as the LAPD’s incoming sirens get louder and louder. More often, she lets her antiheroes invite their own ridicule (Nikki’s terrifying monologue on bad karma, in which she announces that 'I want to lead the country some day, for all I know')."  --Max Nelson

---Keyframe's Bling Ring links

---10 best music moments

---Nancy Jo Sales' "The Subjects Wore Louboutins"

---MUBI Notebook's Somewhere links

---anatomy of a scene from Somewhere

---another interview concerning Somewhere

---"For me, Marie Antoinette remained, above all, the symbol of a completely declining life style. I did not realize at which point these people, who had to control a country, were in fact only young teenagers."

---"Don't let Sofia's littleness and quietness confuse you," Bill Murray told me recently. "Sofia is made of steel. She's tough, but she doesn't pretend to be a man. She has a way of getting her way. She's very polite about it. She nods her head and says, 'You're right, you're right, but this is what I want to do.' And it works. When you see her movies, you forget that she is Francis's daughter. She has been able to reinvent what her last name represents.''

Monday, June 17, 2013

metadata links

---"Why PRISM isn't a problem"

---terrorist words

---the impossible irrational design of the Overlook Hotel

---"The National Security Agency has acknowledged in a new classified briefing that it does not need court authorization to listen to domestic phone calls"

---notes from the Hulk on the convoluted blockbuster

---Truffaut's Les Mistons

---"A Brief Survey of Experimental Comic Books"

---"Although the movie is obviously subversive and deals with people who don’t believe in God, what the movie ultimately is saying is that there is a God and that you have to follow His rules or you’ll go to hell." --Seth Rogen

---trailers for The Battery, Blue Jasmine, The Wolf of Wall Street, The Family,  Elysium, Salinger, In a World, Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, RiddickDiana, and Magic Magic  

---"the internet, in effect, is a surveillance state"

---Inside Jaws

---"If we embrace assassination as a central component of our foreign policy and continue with the mentality that we can kill our way to victory — or worse, kill our way to peace — then we’re whistling past the graveyard." --Jeremy Scahill

---a scene from Much Ado About Nothing

---"Everything in the government — which once was thought to be 'your' government — is increasingly disappearing into a professional universe of secrecy."

---Mick Garris appreciates Poltergeist

---"Ever since the Nixon administration broke into the office of Daniel Ellsberg's psychoanalyst's office, the tactic of the US government has been to attack and demonize whistleblowers as a means of distracting attention from their own exposed wrongdoing and destroying the credibility of the messenger so that everyone tunes out the message."  --Glenn Greenwald

---Linklater's and Jodorowsky's filmmaking tips

---We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks reel

---an interview with Olivier Assayas

---concerning Todd Haynes' Safe (1995)

---"The big implication is that those studios are—not necessarily inappropriately— terrified to do anything because they don’t know what the numbers look like.”  --Lynda Obst

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Marketing Krypton Christ: 10 things I liked about Zack Snyder's Man of Steel

I was inclined to dislike Man of Steel in advance. With all of its product placements (Sears, Ihop, Nikon), its 100+ promotional tie-ins, its air of corporate cooptation of our collective summer attention span, Superman's earnest, square pedigree, the silly red robe, the red booties, and the thought of film executives at Warner Brothers perspiring over their 225 million dollar investment in a crowded blockbuster season, Man of Steel makes for an obvious target of ridicule.

1) But, then again, I like many of the actors involved. As Lois Lane, Amy Adams vanquished any hint of middle-aged spread she affected in last year's The Master. Here she returns with a hint of her old Enchanted (2007) self, only now with an ace reporter of the Daily Planet tough babe veneer. About halfway into the movie, one begins to notice various filmmaking ploys to keep her merely human self involved amidst all of the super-powered crashing-through-buildings uber-fisticuff shenanigans of General Zod, Superman, etc., but nevermind.

2) As Superman/Clark Kent/Kal-El, English actor Henry Cavill has the advantage of a fresh face, an unassuming manner, and much muscle tone. Cavill looks good in a beard, construction boots, and long-sleeved henleys. In the midst of saving some men from an exploding oil rig, Cavill shreds his pants Hulk-style as he shows off his ripped beefcake physique. Late in the movie, a brunette Army captain blurts out that she thinks he's "kinda hot" (just to make sure that we get that).

3) I also happen to like Michael Shannon's work in movies like Revolutionary Road (2008) and Take Shelter (2011). He resented not being invited to Late Show with David Letterman, so it's a pleasure to see him snarl and glower as General Zod in such a big deal tent pole production.

4) As Daily Planet editor Perry White, Laurence Fishburne gets to show off some authoritative post-Matrix irritation with Amy Adams, although later he has to endure the obligatory running-away-from-various-skyscrapers-falling-on-top-of-you mega-death 9/11 reference scene.

5) As Clark Kent's adopted human parents, Diane Lane (Martha) and Kevin Costner (Jonathan) both provide pleasant associations with better movies, although they must also bear much of the trappings of the movie's Armageddon-esque cornpone working-class Americana--the star and stripes, farms, water towers, Costner (with his predistressed baseball cap) getting greasy under the hood of a Chevy Truck, Lane looking sentimentally through scrapbooks, laundry drying on the clothes line, a dear dog romping in the weeds, a cornfield, a sunlit barn. Costner has one scene where he tells his young super-stepson that he should have, in effect, let a bunch of kids die on a bus that veers off a bridge into a river. When boy Clark asks what should he have done, Jonathan replies that he should "keep this side of yourself a secret." Jonathan and Clark also memorably discuss his origins:

"You're the answer, son. You're the answer to are we alone in the universe."

"Can't I just keep pretending I'm your son?"

"You are my son," says Jonathan, his voice breaking, as he looks off into the distance of the barn.

6) Costner also gets to (spoiler alert) die in the single-most ludicrous scene in the movie. When a tornado blows up during a family outing, Jonathan tells his family to run under an overpass as he strives heroically to save the dog trapped in the truck. When the young adult Clark considers saving his father from the storm (as he could easily do), Jonathan holds him back with one arm outstretched (after saving the dog), looks nobly at his family, and then honorably floats off as Clark screams in horror.

7) Man of Steel did everything possible to run away from the cheesier aspects of its lucrative brand (a form of restraint missing from the iconographic promotional tie-ins). Clark Kent goes incognito like Caine in Kung Fu for much of the movie, drifting from job to job. The word "superman" is scarcely spoken. When Lois Lane threatens to mention it when discussing the giant S on Superman's front, he bleeps out her word so that others can't hear it. When Clark finally does don the red cape and blue uniform, director Zack Snyder treats this new look tentatively, the movie's plot momentum faltering for a moment in a fit of self-consciousness. Perhaps chastened by the critical ridicule of Sucker Punch (2011), or perhaps out of a sense of loyalty to the Superman iconography, Snyder doesn't take many risks. He does find a way to include a drone, however.

8) Snyder makes Superman Christlike by having Clark stand before a stained glass image of Jesus when he visits a priest (a metaphysical form of product placement).

9) I was intrigued by the Alien-esque reptilian/insect design of the Krypton space ships. One ship resembles a giant black beetle. Another one zips around like a tsetse fly. Another menacing ship brandishes 3 crab claws over Metropolis.

10) Lastly, I enjoyed the retro-treatment of the Daily Planet, as if newspapers still retained the relevance they had when the original DC action comics were created back in 1938. Clark Kent not only gets an opening level reporter job at the Daily Planet, the film even makes such a career move look like a good idea. Nowadays, only Superman could do that.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

eco-anarchy links

---"The average smartphone user checks his or her device 150 times per day, or about once every six minutes."

---"Google will interpose itself, and hence the United States government, between the communications of every human being not in China (naughty China). Commodities just become more marvelous; young, urban professionals sleep, work and shop with greater ease and comfort; democracy is insidiously subverted by technologies of surveillance, and control is enthusiastically rebranded as “participation”; and our present world order of systematized domination, intimidation and oppression continues, unmentioned, unafflicted or only faintly perturbed." --Julian Assange

---an interview with James Brown

---"the proper way to tame all those Yemeni kids angry about the drone strikes is to distract them with—ready?—cute cats on YouTube and Angry Birds on their phones" --Evgeny Morozov

---the modern surveillance state

---"the logic justifying drone attacks comes full circle: we kill them because they are our enemies, and they are our enemies because we kill them."

---"what if computers were able to learn from us to the point they could instantly draw on every interaction we’ve ever had online?"

---media attention after a murder in Woolwich

---"every movie I have mentioned and many more besides, from mega-budget spectacle out to the indie fringe, is just a mechanism for deflecting actual political resistance into the symbolic realm. And, hey, having a godlike quartet of prankster-magicians increase my bank balance several times over sounds like a lot more fun than contemplating the impossible or implausible social changes that would be required in order to divert Wall Street’s zillions to better purposes." --Andrew O'Hehir

---“If you want to make an anarchist film, make it with a corporation”  --Zal Batmanglij, director of The East

---social media-fueled protest in Turkey and in Zuccotti Park

---White One Hundred

---discussing Samuel Fuller

---"Male charm is all but absent from the screen because it’s all but absent from our lives."

---"poverty is what makes the rich, rich."

---"A higher-up declared that, forthwith, every story in the magazine had to answer at least one of two questions: 'How do I dress?' and 'How can I get laid?'" --Peter Rainer

---"How to make an indie movie"

---Richard Brody considers Howard Hawks' Scarface

---trailers for The Act of Killing, Ain't Them Bodies Saints, and Machete Kills

---"Nasser al-Awlaki told me that, when he found out that his son was on a kill list, he wrote a letter to President Obama and said basically 'Can’t we resolve this some other way? If my son did something, can’t you present the evidence?' He got no response."