Tuesday, March 29, 2016

"Freaks dressed like clowns": 8 notes on Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

1) I reacted to Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice much like Quentin Compson responds to the question "Why do you hate the South?" at the end of Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!: "I don't. I don't! I don't hate it! I don't hate it!"

2) Me, soon after seeing the movie: "I liked Wonder Woman."
 
The wife: "Of course you did."

Why does the theater audience cheer when Wonder Woman finally arrives to fight? Because, by then she's a relief from all of the epic male aggression on display. If one views all of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice as an elaborate way to get the viewer curious about Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), then the movie succeeds. As Batman writes in an email to her, "Who are you? Where have you been?" By not answering that question, Zack Snyder did something right. I was confused at times by BvS, but in the long run, I would just as soon not have any idea what was going on--let the movie wash over me in a disconnected Terrence Malickian dream vision.

3) Unlike, say, James Mason's suave Phillip Vandamm in Hitchcock's North by Northwest (1959), Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) comes across as awkwardly adolescent and incompetent. Midway through the storyline, he gives a hesitant rambling speech that no one appears to listen to at a high class social function. Why does Zack Snyder undermine his character? Lex does make a nice point to Senator Finch (Holly Hunter) about how the "oldest lie in America" is "that power can be innocent," but Superman never seems much affected by that sense of a higher law. By the by, why has the doubtless intelligent Jesse Eisenberg allowed himself to suddenly become overexposed in so many movies?

4) Almost simultaneously (spoiler alert), upon hearing the word "Martha," both Batman (Ben Affleck) and Superman (Henry Cavill) reveal, during the climax of their epic building-shattering fight, that they both have unresolved mother issues. A late-inning alien monster named Doomsday romps around snarling like a big ugly baby, tearing up the landscape with much computer-generated abandon. There's something about these PG-13 movies that arrive with much disaster porn gravitas, but they remain emasculated. Perhaps for that reason, Zack Snyder promises to release a more manly R-rated version later soon enough on Blu-ray.

5) Ben Affleck has the settled, grizzled, stubbled, iconographic, and somehow rather thick face of a man who knows that he has the lead role in a major upcoming tentpole blockbuster movie.

6) Beware of a film that makes multiple overt Wizard of Oz references, including flying monkeys in a World War II dream sequence.

7) It's always nice when the screenwriters give Lois Lane (Amy Adams) something to do with herself (aside from being saved by Superman) late in the storyline amidst all of the earth-moving, building-crashing, CGI hoopla. During the last half hour or so, Batman cannot really participate in the fight because he’s human, although Wonder Woman can. Batman’s basically obliged to go hide under a large piece of concrete wreckage.

8) So much of the plot--the quickly forgotten bombing, Lex Luthor's playful machinations, the political protests, Batman's extra heavy battle gear with glowing eyes, Doomsday rampaging also with glowing eyes, and a nuclear missile going off in the sky--all of it has the cumulative effect of giving Superman the equivalent of a bad day, so he appears mildly put out for much of the movie. He sighs, and looks askance, his super-hair unruffled by the bomb blast. Humans can be such a nuisance.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

disposable filmmaking links

---Scott Pilgrim--What's the Difference?

---How Hitchcock Blocks a Scene

---“One of the curious aspects of the 21st century was the great delusion amongst many people, particularly in the San Francisco Bay Area, that freedom of speech and freedom of expression were best exercised on technology platforms owned by corporations dedicated to making as much money as possible” --Jarett Kobek

---"Smart People Would Prefer You Went Away" by Kevin Drum

---an excerpt from Daniel Clowes' Patience

---"100 Most Anticipated Films of 2016" by @TheFilmStage

---All Your Favorite Shows!

---"Are you a young or youngish man who prefers the company of other men? Platonically, platonically. (For the most part.) Are you currently wearing — or have you ever worn — baggy shorts? A baseball cap? A polo shirt? White sneakers? Sunglasses on your head? All at the same time? Are you white? And these other men whose company you enjoy, do you guys drink and watch sports together? Are they white, too? Have you been to see Mumford and Sons with them? What about Diplo? Or A$AP Rocky? If the New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski announced that he was having a three-day party on a cruise ship, would you go?

Answering yes to even some of this —Are you a youngish man? might make you a bro. And I’m sad for you."  --Wesley Morris

---Dark Knight links

---Garry Shandling's debut

---"A Video That Every Potential Juror Should See" by Jay Stanley

---“You know you can’t put this off forever, so just suck it up and plow through this thing as quickly as possible. Listen, you’re going to have to pay the piper now or at some point down the road on a commercial flight or during a broadcast on TNT, so you might as well just pony up the extra 10 bucks for 3D and never think about it again.”

---trailers for Love and Friendship, Bridget Jones's Baby, Genius, X-Men: Apocalypse, The Legend of Tarzan, The LEGO Batman Movie, Ben-Hur, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Childrenand Now You See Me 2

---appreciating Sterling Hayden

---A Cut Above: 10 Women Who Epitomize the Art of Film Editing

---Kennedy told me that, while she’s excited about the future of the movie business, “a lot of these big movies are just a collection or a montage of big set pieces. And there is, in some cases, this feeling of: ‘Oh, it doesn’t really matter if there’s a central spine to the storytelling. As long as we keep it moving—and the effects are huge and it’s loud and the music’s great and the locations are fantastic—it’s all going to wash over the audience.’ ” She calls the result of such assumptions “disposable filmmaking.”

---Art of the Title considers Deadpool (also its VFX)

---Visconti: Art and Ambiguity

---The Hateful Eight Movie References

---Ex Machina: Questioning the Human Machine

---"A Boy With No Birthday Turns Sixty" by Sam Sweet

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Will It Ever End? Batman and Robin (1997)

Way, way back when, I used to write reviews for a weekly arts newspaper, and one of my first ones concerned Joel Schumacher's Batman and Robin. Now, with the much ballyhooed release of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, I wonder how much things have changed since 1997:

Somewhere in Hollywood there must be a think-tank devoted to coming up with witty one-liners for Arnold Schwarzenegger. In the new Batman and Robin, in which Arnold plays Mr. Freeze, somebody came up with a whole hatful.

Arnold begins with "The iceman cometh." Later, he threatens to "kick ice" before freezing most of Gotham. Then, while fighting Batman, he claims that "the weatherman is predicting a major freeze," all of this said while zootsuited up in an acid-laced variation of the Tin Woodsman's outfit in The Wizard of Oz.

Arnold gets a reputed $20 million and top billing in this film for being the biggest drag--the rigidity of his ice is all too reminiscent of his acting style.

Overall, I found Batman and Robin an expensive shame, a 2 1/4 hour exercise in visual flash at the expense of basic storytelling. Using the principle that 6 eggs thrown at a wall will make a more interesting omelet, Joel Schumacher loads on 3 villains--Mr. Freeze, Poison Ivy, and some thuggish wrestler dude named Bane--and then adds on Alicia Silverstone as Batgirl, not to mention a pointless subplot about the mental illness of Alfred the butler.

Batman himself has degenerated from the legitimately dark and twisted Michael Keaton to the still-moody Val Kilmer down to the hunky but otherwise pretty bland TV-level George Clooney, who tends to nod a lot and act concerned. Chris O'Donnell plays Robin like some spoiled teenager--he's constantly sulking because of Clooney's patronizing superhero treatment of him.

Of all these pretty shallow people with nice outfits (there's one scene early on where Batman and Robin both wiggle their capes behind them, I guess for that theatrical flare), only Uma Thurman and to some extend Alicia Silverstone stand out.

Uma vamps around like Mae West, of all people, and it's funny to see her in maximum seduction mode, blowing little wisps of purple dust over everyone and wearing thigh high green boots and nuclear reactor red hairdos.

Alicia Silverstone looks and acts much the same as she did in Clueless, tilting her face away slightly, squinting her eyes, and chewing on one of her bee-stung lips. When Silverstone finally gets to play the superheroine towards the end, she adds a certain flare to the histrionics--it's payback time for the up-to-now purely masculine club of Wayne Manor.

So, except for occasional scenes that work better than others (or does Arnold's badness make Uma look good?), this movie views like the old campy Batman TV show without the BIFF! BOPP! spelled-out fight scenes or the grey tights on Adam West. I don't mind Batman camp in small half hour doses, but 2 hours plus of such flapdoodle wore me down.

Coolio and Elle Macpherson make special appearances, but overall the film affected me like a shiny chrome-designed bat cycle spinning out of control and bashing me on the forehead.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

iLinks

---The iMom

---Film Meets Art

---Eternal Sunsets of the Kaufman Mind

---"But the main reason I think this is a video everyone should watch is that the view provided by the surveillance camera is strikingly different from — and clearer than — the view provided by the body camera. The surveillance camera is higher up and, unlike the bodycam, captures the wide-angle of the scene. This is an important reminder of the limitations of cameras worn on the body of officers who are in the thick of the action." --Jay Stanley

---History of Rock

---"Farber instead employed a topographical prose—fragmentation, parody, allusions, multiple focus, and clashing dictions—to engage the formal spaces of the new films and art he admired. Puns, jokes, lists, snaky metaphors, and webs of allusions supplant arguments. Farber will wrench nouns into verbs (Hawks, he said, 'landscapes action'), and sustains strings of divergent, perhaps irreconcilable adjectives such that praise can look inseparable from censure. Touch of Evil, he proposed, is 'basically the best movie of Welles’s cruddy middle peak period.' For me, he arrives at a sort of startling poetry—his word and syntactical choices reminiscent perhaps of Robert Lowell, say, or Manny’s good friend Weldon Kees." --Robert Polito

---Way of Ozu

---"I have had a long journey through my 2015 because I had come from almost nothing, and then got this role, and this movie, and my life just did a total 360. I'm so out of breath. I feel fat." --Mya Taylor

---Ten Things Character Entrances Can Teach You About Narrative

---"there were more women working in Hollywood in its first two decades than there are now" --Pamela Hutchinson

---Last Words

---Jane B. Par Agnes V.

---"I love things from that time period and it was great to look at your list and think, ‘OK, today I have to do a book, a record and a comic’. It’s a nice thing to look into if you’re into design like that. Looking through all these old things and finding the weirdest thing and seeing if you can take some inspiration from it. If you’re into fonts, in this film – everything has its own code. It makes it seem more real. It looks as if, in this fictional world, people have had a meeting about what font to use in their building." --Michael Eaton

---The Coen Brothers--Under the Influence

---"If every Facebook user who dies is memorialized, at what point will those digital tombstones outnumber profiles belonging to people who are still alive?" --Kristen V. Brown

---"Reacting to Reactions" by Rob Horning

---"An e-mail arrives with the subject 'Journalist, with inquiry about homelessness.' The sender thanks me for my 1985 book on the traveling homeless—because he’s now one of them after losing a journalism job. 'I’m riding my mt. bike west, temporarily camped out in Kingman [Arizona], and I have lived under many a bush and in a few hostels along the way. I am a homeless transient without any money. Three college degrees to boot…. So here I sit, at the public library computer, typing out my stories and thinking about what to do.' We keep in touch for a while. Recent attempts to contact him end in failure." --Dale Maharidge

---trailers for Ghostbusters, Couple in a Hole, The Adderall Diaries, A Hologram for the King, and Captain America: Civil War

---"what might appear in Willis to be a possibly more sensitive, overly ironic, and even potentially progressive action-hero disguises the problematic ideological work his persona must exercise in order to thrive. Indeed, at the heart of Willis is a right-wing reactionary politics that has now bubbled up to the surface and swelled with age. But it wasn’t always so obvious." --Anthony Kaufman

---A Decade Under the Influence

---"Sofia Coppola is a great filmmaker, in every way the equal of anyone of her generation – she’s only in her early forties; young for a director — and with a very particular style: beautiful compositions that are edited dynamically but elliptically, long sequence shots in which character complexity is allowed to be slowly revealed, the use of different textures of image (video footage, computer screens, phones) to allow for different points of view on the narration; all of this mixed in with montage-sequences set to music that are almost like video clips but here with the juxtaposition of images and sound used to communicate an idea or a state of mind rather than to sell you the song; and all her films demonstrate a brilliant use of an eclectic range of music (here the electronic techno sound familiar to e-culture clubbing but with an American hip-hopping rap overlay)." --Jose Arroyo

---"The Return of the Black Panther" by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Friday, March 11, 2016

The pleasures of withholding information: 6 oblique notes on 10 Cloverfield Lane

1) Back in 2008, I wrote that "Cloverfield works best when it withholds information," and the same is true for 10 Cloverfield Lane. Just as J. J. Abrams' clever marketing campaign maintained its teasing ambiguities, 10 Cloverfield Lane keeps asking: what do we know about what's going on in this movie? Has the civilized world ended outside of Howard's (i.e. John Goodman's) bunker? What is the exact situation inside the bunker? Has Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) been thrust into a refuge or a prison from which there is no escape? The movie emphasizes our contemporary fragmentation of knowledge, how the political positions of isolated people have solidified in their ignorance of other points of view, how the current environment breeds conspiracy theories where every home becomes a fortress surrounded by real or imagined enemies, where the true menace comes from not having any kind of fix on any truth beyond the necessity for survival. I liked 10 Cloverfield Lane for its action and suspense, but also for its tendency to raise (and not necessarily answer) these kind of questions.

2) From Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb:

Muffley: Well, I, I would hate to have to decide . . . who stays up and . . .who goes down.
Dr. Strangelove: Well, that would not be necessary, Mr. President. It could easily be accomplished with a computer. And a computer could be set and programmed to accept factors from youth, health, sexual fertility, intelligence, and a cross-section of necessary skills. Of course, it would be absolutely vital that our top government and military men be included to foster and impart the required principles of leadership and tradition. Naturally, they would breed prodigiously, eh? There would be much time, and little to do. Ha, ha. But ah, with the proper breeding techniques and a ratio of say, ten females to each male, I would guess that they could then work their way back to the present Gross National Product within say, twenty years.
Muffley: But look here doctor, wouldn't this nucleus of survivors be so grief-stricken and anguished that they'd, well, envy the dead and not want to go on living?

3) In the 1975 post-nuclear armageddon science fiction film A Boy and His Dog, young Vic (Don Johnson) happens upon an underground society where people apply rouge to their cheeks and assume good wholesome rural American poses (apple pie, gingham dresses, false smiles, etc.). Their shared delusion of continuing 1950's era conservative normalcy ironically juxtaposes with the toxic irradiated atmosphere, the layers of fallout overhead, and their inability to survive on the surface of the earth. If a member of this society misbehaves, then he or she is sent to the "farm" (where they are quietly killed). In Vic's case, they hook him up to a machine that mechanically extracts sperm from him, thereby emphasizing how the other men have become sterile. A Boy and His Dog demonstrates how ideological groups become ghastly parodies of themselves over time. They may follow the "form" of their beliefs, but their lives can become a matter of hiding sinister truths: self-delusion, the pointlessness of survival without integrity, and the mockery of authority when the rules become deranged. 


Very indirectly, 10 Cloverfield Lane reminded me of Dr. Strangelove and A Boy and His Dog.


4) Early in 10 Cloverfield Lane, Howard tells Michelle: "I'm sorry, but no one is looking for you. You are lucky to be alive. I saved your life." Should Michelle be grateful? Down in the doomsday chambers, Howard has assembled a jukebox with creepily cheerful 1950s pop songs such as "I Think We're Alone Now" by Tommy James and the Shondells, a collection of DVD's and videos to watch including Cannibal Airlines, magazines oriented towards teenagers (?), a shower curtain with a large rubber duck on it, and an heirloom dining table that Howard is very concerned about not getting stained. In all, a very faux-comfortable yet subtly demented Flintstones living environment.   

5) How has her role as Ramona Flowers in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World prepared the celebrity persona of Mary Elizabeth Winstead for 10 Cloverfield Lane? Is it because Scott Pilgrim's dreamlike fixation on her primes the viewer for whatever interest anyone in the bunker may take in her? Has all of the previous film's Street Fighter-esque fight scenes helped us accept how Michelle fiercely battles whatever might lie within or without the shelter of J. J. Abram's movie? 

6) Ultimately, the questions that arise from 10 Cloverfield Lane seem apt for the present moment. With so much fear and prejudice on display in the news, the feeling of being threatened by a constantly redefined other that needs to be opposed, walled out, and subdued, how much are we living in a bunker mentality already? 

Monday, March 7, 2016

The Terrence Malick Files

---"For Malick, the cinema is also a matter of the unconscious, of indeterminacy, of tension between decision and accident."  --Richard Brody

---"I think one major reason that Malick's films are so divisive is that they're so nakedly emotional, that he's so blatantly aiming for the sublime." --Ed Howard

---"His quietness and long periods of absence seem to have elevated him to a godlike status in film-making circles, with fellow professionals desperate to get close to him. 'We worked together for a period of over a year,' said British documentary-maker Leslie Woodhead, who was asked by Malick to direct Endurance, a 1998 feature about the Ethiopian runner Haile Gebrselassie and his gold medal in the 10,000 metres at the 1996 Olympic Games. 'I think for a while, I was the only person in America who had his phone number. He remains what he was then, an extremely mysterious figure, whose mythology in Hollywood is impossible to exaggerate.'" --Luke Blackall

 ---"Knight of Cups is the first film I’ve ever seen where over a third of the audience left the theatre during the film." --Alex Lines

---"Wow. He [Malick] is like a spiritual guide, in many ways. He’s like a child, actually. He’s like a child with such vivid imagination. If he did have preconceived notions or ideas, he doesn’t have them anymore, so he comes with very little judgment, and that’s very evident in the women who play the various characters in the film. One character is a stripper, another is having an affair -- there is no judgment whatsoever. He made it feel very comfortable." --Freida Pinto

---"What had he [Malick] been doing? Well, he read a lot, he listened to music, he travelled widely, he watched birds and every other form of animal life he could find. He thought and he waited." --David Thomson

---“I don’t do much. I wander around.” --Ben Affleck on his role in To The Wonder

---"The people of Terrence Malick's new film To the Wonder sure are strange creatures. They don't watch TV or go to the movies or fiddle around much on the computer. Instead they seemingly like nothing more than walking in fields, just sorta ambling dreamily through tall grass and dry brown wheat, the women especially, enamored as they are of twirling with their arms outstretched and their heads tilted up toward the glowing, glassy blue of Malickian heaven. Twirling in fields is essentially what To the Wonder is about; reveling in the expansiveness of the world, feeling overcome and yet also emboldened, made special, by the beauty and majesty of it all. Or something. I don't know. Maybe it's just about twirling."  --Richard Lawson

---"What does all this mean, Terrence Malick? asks a second, unfamiliar voice on the interior soundtrack of this film review, perhaps representing the skeptical point-of-view on films like this. Have you disappeared into your own navel? Is the emperor wearing any clothes? Is there a point to any of this or are you just fooling everyone?"  --Matt Zoller Seitz

---"'Well,' I asked myself, 'why not?' Why must a film explain everything? Why must every motivation be spelled out? Aren't many films fundamentally the same film, with only the specifics changed? Aren't many of them telling the same story? Seeking perfection, we see what our dreams and hopes might look like. We realize they come as a gift through no power of our own, and if we lose them, isn't that almost worse than never having had them in the first place?" --Roger Ebert's last review of To The Wonder

---"One day in 1980 or 1981, Malick’s landlord introduced him to Michèle, a tall, thirtysomething blonde Parisienne who lived in the same building. She had a young daughter, Alexandra. … In a year or two, the trio moved to Austin, Texas. … Michèle did her best to adapt to Austin. … But she was out of her element. … Malick would often just leave, for hours, days, or weeks. She never knew where he went, and it made her crazy." --Forrest Wickman

---"Time regained is no salvation." --Ray Pride

---"The trouble is beauty, which, begging Keats’s pardon, enjoys a fraught relationship with truth. The aesthetic compulsion is so pressing, in Knight of Cups, that someone can approach a person, possibly homeless, who is sleeping on a stone bench, and lay down not a dollar bill or a sandwich but a flower. Malick’s pursuit of the beautiful was already devout in Days of Heaven, in 1978, and in recent decades it has grown more flagrant still. In The Thin Red Line (1998) and The New World (2005), it was touched with environmental anxiety, as the pristine glories of the world were menaced by war and by colonial invasion. Since then, in The Tree of Life (2011) and To the Wonder (2012), the impulse to seek out grace and loveliness—in weather, in women, and in rhapsodic flashes of the past—has all but blunted the dramatic urge." --Anthony Lane

---"He is always distinctive, and anything he does must be of interest. But his style is stagnating into mannerism, cliche and self-parody. Where once he used his transcendant visual language to evoke heartland America, these tropes are now exposed in being applied to tiresome tinseltown LA, where a screenwriter played by Christian Bale undergoes what has to be the least interesting spiritual crisis in history." --Peter Bradshaw

---"I find the best thing is just talking with Terry. He tells me about the characters and what he needs. And he wants to be a little surprised—it excites him not to know. It’s just like the way he works with actors, giving them a little bit of dialogue at a time. You know, he’ll take people off the street and just throw them into a scene. That haphazard sort of 'found' quality is exhilarating to him. It’s the same thing with the sets. He’ll show up to an area that he hasn’t seen. And somehow, just dealing with that informs and invigorates the scene that he wants to shoot there. The unknown is sometimes more exciting than the known." --Jack Fisk

---"I now know that what he [Malick] does is to give himself as many options as possible, given the basic setup, so that when he gets into the cutting room, in addition to the film that he has, he also, sound-wise, has all kind of possibilities that he can put in and take out or play around with. He has all these tools that he can build the final film with." --Brian Dennehy

---"But really, if anyone deserves the bulk of the praise for the strength of Knight of Cups (and here Malick is, of course, the implied added name in every one of these pairings), is the team that scouted the many locations in the most dazzling if terrifying vision of Los Angeles this side of Mulholland Dr. Schmitt and Paulsen (who alongside the location managers have already won an award for their work on this film) found every modernist inhospitable apartment and house available, every barren-looking street corner, and every oppressively empty warehouse to give Malick the canvas he needed for this meditation on loneliness. Exquisite, really." --Manuel Betancourt

---"So this one morning, I went 'that's it. I'm done. I've got no interest. I don't really care. I don't want to make this anymore. I'm done. I've got nothing.' And he went, 'Start filming immediately, this is fantastic.'" --Christian Bale

---"'The problem with Terry, which I soon found out, is that he needs a writer desperately,' Plummer complained. 'He insists on doing everything, as we all know, and he insists on writing and overwriting and overwriting until it sounds terribly pretentious. … Terry gets terribly involved in sort of poetic shots, which are gorgeous, but they’re paintings, all of them. He gets lost in that, and the stories get diffused.'" --Tim Grierson

---"Like Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth, Knight of Cups settles into a lukewarm bath of male self-pity, a condition perhaps more deserving of satire than sanctification. Rick mopes and mutters through an elegantly appointed malaise, wandering the desert in an Armani jacket and driving aimlessly in his midnight-blue vintage convertible. In the room, the women come and go. It’s all very poetic and rarely boring, except maybe to Rick himself. But it’s hard to trust his anguish and hard not to suspect that what is being solicited is not your empathy but your envy."  --A. O. Scott

---"Cinematography's real nice though."  --Glenn Kenny

---"'I prefer working behind the camera,' he added with a smile."