Sunday, October 30, 2016

"A Dream Is Just a Dream": the Elegiac Pleasures of Cafe Society

Woody Allen's Cafe Society has a wistful elegiac charm evoked by the golden sunset light of 1930s Hollywood, a fondness for glamorizing Kristen Stewart, a storyline that kept reminding me of Billy Wilder's The Apartment (1960), and an LA/New York dynamic that one finds in Allen's Annie Hall (1977). I wasn't thrilled to see the over-exposed Jesse Eisenberg lead the movie as Bobby, the innocent and nervous New Yorker thrown into Los Angeles movie star society, but he has an easy rapport with Stewart given their work together in Adventureland (2009) and last year's American Ultra.

Whereas so many recent movies leave one feeling sorry for the actors, Cafe Society keeps displaying good taste in showcasing actresses like Parker Posey (who plays Rad, a helpful socialite who befriends Bobby) and Blake Lively (who looks gorgeous as Bobby's eventual WASP wife, Veronica). While another filmmaker might've made some point about the miseries of the depression era, Allen scarcely acknowledges it, instead focusing on the gangster-infused high life of upper class New York that sometimes reminded me of the oblique social observations in Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence. When Bobby runs into some romantic disappointment, Allen also scarcely dwells on that either, as if he doesn't have time for any moping about. We can hear Allen's voiceover as the movie builds to a romantic triangle between Bobby, Vonnie, and Bobby's uncle Phil Stern, the high-powered Hollywood agent again agreeably played by Steve Carell. After seeing Carell's work in Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012), showcasing an ersatz blend of soft humor and sickly apocalyptic sentimentality, I didn't have much hope for him, but he's well-suited as a surprisingly sympathetic variation of the scumbag Sheldrake in The Apartment. Given Stern's many connections to everyone in the film industry, one can see why Vonnie could like him.

Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro understands Allen's affection for the era and his characters by keeping them beautifully lit while clad in funky 1930s fashions, listening to lots of late-night New York jazz, and watching the occasional Barbara Stanwyck snippet while making a meta reference to Billy Wilder. One gets a sense of Allen already saying goodbye to filmmaking as his characters consider their mortality. Leonard, Bobby's brother-in-law points out: "Socrates said, 'The unexamined life is not worth living.' But the examined one is no bargain." Still, Vonnie and Bobby have wistful moments of reflection of a romance that long since disappeared or transformed into married compromise that still may resonate during a New Year's Eve celebration. When Cafe Society pauses to consider what might have been, one can sense Allen positing the value of his entire oeuvre as easily comparable to Bobby's youthful moment of bliss walking along the beach with Kristen Stewart's character. When speaking of his former love, Bobby says, "A dream is just a dream," but given Cafe Society's golden-embossed sense of loss, it may matter more than anything else.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

virtual links

---The Godfather Explained: Cinematography of Shadows

---"Here’s how it ought to go: critics should work in the service of art, and so should editors, while also working in their writers’ best interests. This chain of relationships was never, ever the norm, but today it’s regularly perverted. Editors assign (and hacks pitch) from a script written by quantifiable User Interest or studio marketing—take a look at the e-mails between CEO Michael Lynton and New York Times reporter Brooks Barnes revealed in the Sony hack if you want proof—and movies are either picked to the bone or, if they don’t render down into the right kind of copy, quickly forgotten. Try to envisage even the contemporary equivalent of, say, James Agee’s three-week stand for Monsieur Verdoux before the niche readership of The Nation. There is still good and great film art being made, but how can any of it register as epochal before the torrential onrush of content? Nobody can stop traffic, and the cultural landscape is a passing blur. There’s a sense—don’t you feel it?—that nothing is major, and that’s major."  --Nick Pinkerton

---filmmaking tips from Terrence Malick

---"By rapidly substituting virtual reality for reality, we are diminishing the scope of this interaction even as we multiply the number of people with whom we interact. We remove or drastically filter all the information we might get by being with another person. We reduce them to some outlines — a Facebook 'friend,' an Instagram photo, a text message — in a controlled and sequestered world that exists largely free of the sudden eruptions or encumbrances of actual human interaction. We become each other’s 'contacts,' efficient shadows of ourselves." --Andrew Sullivan

---Moonrise Kingdom--Where Story Meets Style

---Every Commercial Ever

---"The office is as much a star of the film as Redford and Hoffman who are elbow to elbow with landslides of paper, stacks of well-thumbed reference books, clusters of coffee cups and overburdened ashtrays. Some of this can surely be chalked up to artistic license, but the newsroom was a careful recreation that included actual garbage transported from the Post offices.

Art director George Jenkins obsessively reproduced the Post office’s at Warner Bro’s Studio in Burbank. According to a 1975 Post story about the making of the film (and invasion of the office by Hollywood types) the newsroom was recreated for $200,000 and spread out over two sound stages. “Nearly 200 desks at $500 apiece were purchased from the same firm that sold desks to The Post four years ago,” the story continued. “And to color them just right, the same precise shades of paint—be they '6 ½ PA Blue' or '22 PE Green'—are being mixed on special order.” --Andy Wright

---trailers for Black Mirror Season Three, Jackie, Rats20th Century Women, Before the FloodDivines, Gimme DangerRules Don't Apply, The 13thPaterson, and Personal Shopper

---"And that’s the real problem with a culture that has an overreliance on franchises: the rulebooks and conventions of the franchise are often simply too strict to allow for innovation. When a movie is the latest within a well-known franchise or larger property, audiences and studio executives bring a laundry list of expectations to the table: they need specific story beats to be hit, certain tones to be met, iconic catchphrases to be repeated, the requisite awkward Dan Aykroyd cameo to be make everyone feel bad and sad." --Dan Schoenbrun

---the treatment for True Detective Season One 

---"The abundance of faked CGI images dilutes the meaning of the images we see to the extent that our world is becoming little more than a sequence of abstract pixel sheets. The meaning of what we see in theaters is fading constantly." --Riccardo Manzotti

---Reversal Revisited

---"When you purchase an ebook you must agree to the Terms of Service (TOS) that tell you what you can do with it. TOS are essentially very one-sided contracts written by the company selling the digital goods. Often they include provisions that shield the business from liability and even prevent the consumer from going to court if they feel ripped off. Typically a consumer’s only choice is to accept them as they are, or to decline to use the service entirely. An overwhelming majority of internet users agree to them without reading them. In one experiment 98% of users failed to notice a clause requiring them to give up their first-born as payment." --Christopher Groskopf

---The Rise of the Zombie Movie

---"The gangster film, a genre that often overlaps with noir, has an innately classical, even conservative bent. It belongs to a world of rules, of honor and betrayal. While the seminal American gangster films of the early thirties followed young men of raw ambition as they clawed their way to the top—and to the spectacular death that always met them at the pinnacle—the French cycle of the fifties and sixties has an elegiac tone, full of older men ruefully surveying a changing world or the waste and futility of their careers in crime. But many of these films also have a wry undertone of amusement; their heroes have reached an age where they can look on fate’s insults with some equanimity. In Touchez pas au grisbi, there is no more outcry against the universe, just shrugging acceptance that things don’t work out, and a sensible focus on simple pleasures: a drink, a snack, a jukebox tune." --Imogen Sara Smith

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

The Freon Gremlin: a one act play

Why are filmmakers so harsh on LA? Is the city as venal, predatory, soulless, and vicious as Mulholland Drive, Maps to the Stars, Sunset Boulevard, and The Neon Demon make it appear? As someone who lives in the sweet home-spun middle-of-nowhere rolling cotton fields and gentle hurricane and Cracker Barrel-ridden flatlands of provincial South Carolina, the film doctor often wonders about the cutthroat sunny land of movie stars and swimming pools:

The curtain opens to find Jena Malone getting a massage while lying supine by her pool. The famous Los Angeles sun illuminates the scene brilliantly. A helicopter flies by, stirring palm fronds overhead. Anyone can see the famous chin of Gretchen, Donnie Darko's immortal girlfriend, still prominent under Jena's Wayfarers. A strong smell of burned flesh lingers in the air along with that of Chanel No. 5. Suddenly, Jena's Samsung Galaxy in black onyx rings. With one lacquered hand, Jena waves her masseuse away and answers:

Jena: H'llo.

Her agent: Ms. Malone! Guess what! Refn wants you in The Neon Demon!

Jena: Really! (she pauses) Did you see what Mr. Nicolas Winding Refn did to Kristin Scott Thomas in Only God Forgives? What kind of role does he have in mind for me?

Agent: He wants you to play Ruby, a helpful make up artist who befriends Elle Fanning's character Jesse, a young beautiful waif freshly arrived in LA from the innocent and provincial American heartland.

Jena begins to pace back and forth, the LA skyline blinking magnificently behind her as she waves one hand in the air to dry her nails. Her sunglasses glitter in the reflected sunlight bouncing off the pool: Yes?

Agent: There's one other thing. (spoiler alert) Your character turns out to be a, uh, murderous lesbian necrophiliac cannibal.

Jena: Really? Will I have many scenes amidst lots of stuffed cougars, owls, and paintings of other wild predatory animals evoking Hitchcock's use of mise en scene in Psycho?

Agent: Yes!

Jena: I trust that Winding will include the requisite amount of dead bodies in this movie? He usually averages around 14-20. Will I get to decorate corpses in a morgue while wearing a stylish skirt?

Agent: Of course!

Jena: Will the movie involve a long scene in which Elle Fanning's character Jesse communes with a green neon triangle for no apparent reason?

Agent: That goes without saying.

Jena: Does Refn figure that today's viewer is jaded and bored enough for this highly unlikely Grand Guignol of vicious weirdness to seem plausible, and not, say, a bit silly?

Agent: You said it. I didn't. Cannes will go for it.

Abruptly, the searing sound of clashing metal and distant screams interrupts their conversation. Jena pauses to look down 10 floors below where a 17 lane highway abuts her apartment complex. Traffic has backed up for miles, leaving smog drifting over the sun-bleached horizon. To one side, Jena notices a semi crashed into a Maserati on an overpass. Several coyotes from central casting already approach the bloodied and contorted bodies lying in a very David Lynchian way across the asphalt. Jena sighs and wonders--can she really work with that unholy overbearing Elle Fanning with her coyingly sweet public persona? Just then, one of Jena's lackeys brings out a silver tray with some indeterminate baked meat skewered on Saltines next to some olives and cocktails. Jena considers the abysmal badness of Only God Forgives, but then again, Refn's Drive is a contemporary classic. Blow sinuous winding woolly wind . . . 

Jena: Ovitz, did you say Refn wants me to play a murderous cannibal?

Agent: (pause) Yes.

Jena: How did he know?

CURTAIN