Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Monday, March 22, 2010

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Exiled











About a decade ago, Nicole Brenez wrote of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon that academicism has never been so brilliant. I'm tempted to say the same thing of Johnnie To's Exiled, which I finally saw not long ago. How shrewdly and confidently it employs narrative shorthand! (The device of photography, frozen, suggests an entire prehistory for the film, when in fact there isn't much back-story suggested except through the ambiguous nostalgia of a picture, of sets and costumes designed to tastefully evoke spaghetti westerns.) It all works so beautifully, however. The compositions are often eye-popping, as in the two screengrabs that illustrate this post. It's very moving too; another thing I'm tempted to say is that it's the greatest gangster film since Once Upon a Time in America.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Image of the Day










Richard Jenkins during the quail dinner in Flirting with Disaster. I just revisited this online, not though with very strict attention to it. Maybe my third or fourth go-round of this one over the years, and Jenkins' comic performance is one of the things that stands out most this time around. It's integrated into the rest of the film so well, blink-and-you-miss-it quick faces and reactions, almost seamless.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Lookalike




























(Above: the great filmmaker Raoul Ruiz, top, and the character actor Steven Geray, from Gilda).

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Recently Seen

A big difference between Paul Blart: Mall Cop and a lot of Judd Apatow stuff is that the former has a good time with 'mall culture' and its space (like Romero's Dawn of the Dead), while the latter just figures it as a form of contemporary naturalism.

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That said, I have been persuaded recently, finally, to watch with Freaks & Geeks (I'm not quite finished with the entirety of its run), which Apatow had a hand in. It is as amazingly good as most stuff bearing his name is just grimace-inducingly bad.

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For the first or second time in a decade, I've seen five Best Picture nominees before Oscar night. Unfortunately this is the year they extended the field back to ten. (Would you like my rundown? Avatar: eh. Hurt Locker: eh. Inglourious Basterds: some strong elements. Up in the Air: some strong elements, fine middlebrow cinema.) Just today I watched District 9 and it's quite something. Stupid, sure. But also clever. Both 'anti-apartheid' and 'blatantly racist'? You bet. It's one of those films designed to be "read," "interpreted," whose ostensible progressivism can really be taken in any number of ways. It's nice that non-whiteness doesn't necessarily, ultimately signify irrationality, mythicism, etc., here ... though that's the take-away from certain isolated scenes. At the same time, there's a tone to the critique, as though multicultural liberalism is the blind flaw and enemy of humanity, the worst and weakest of (codedly white) militant liberalism (which is good, well-meaning, sane). There's a line to be crossed that situates criticism of "liberal" policies not anymore from a progressive standpoint but rather from the standpoint of downright hatred, opposition, fear. (Comedian Louis CK, whose stand-up I've also been sampling recently, exploits this very line.) The best thing about District 9 is the savvy with which it plunders generic codes (surveillance footage, handheld cameras, allegorical sf) as well as the sense of humor it maintains throughout, and the fact that the narrative never totally succumbs to a central conflict theory, but rather feels 'on the run.' The freedom in this respect is kind of breathtaking. I would say it's the best film for the adolescent male demographic featuring CGI bug-aliens since Starship Troopers.

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Shutter Island, maybe my favorite Scorsese film in 15 years, is a bit like David Fincher's Panic Room: shallow, genre-bound, beautiful, trying (successfully in my case) to play and tug upon deep-seated feelings. I liked it much more than I expected, and probably a bit more even than Roman Polanski's very fine, quite beautiful anti-Blairite film The Ghost Writer. (Polanski's is a serious genre movie with actual political commentary; Shutter Island is openly a 'mere' entertainment—and I wouldn't dispute that label—that is nevertheless vastly more intelligent than most pro critics ever grant mere entertainment to be.) One problem is that everyone expects or hopes the culture industry product they like to also align with their political sympathies on some level, and to express their political (dis)tastes. Sometimes this is the case, but not always, and rarely is great art (especially when we deal with cinema) distinctly aligned with a viable political critique. (It exists in the off-spaces; its operationalized in its afterlives through real people in real contexts.) Especially as politics change but a film is not as open to rearticulation in the same sense that a play is (or even a novel, perhaps?).

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The last multiplex-type film I saw that was roughly as bad, as bored with itself, as cynical, as The Wolfman (Joe Johnston, 2010) was Sherlock Holmes (Guy Ritchie, 2009). Though the latter, at least, had Robert Downey, Jr., in its corner. Iron Man 2 is probably going to be absolutely awful, but ... the first third of Iron Man was quite decent, the only worthwhile blockbuster superhero cinema I know from the past ten years, aside from the first half-hour of Batman Begins (fascistic-militaristic but at least openly, interestingly so) and the first two Spider-Man films (Raimi delivers minor plastic fun). OK, I didn't bother to see Watchmen, readers let me know if this is a serious omission on my part.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Shyamalan Notes

In my head the template for Shyamalan's career is George A. Romero's masterpiece Knightriders: a film, a genre film, that is baldly ludicrous on its face ... and yet taken so seriously that it arrives at a certain admirable, mesmerizing intensity. But wait—can't zealous, solemn, deliberately meaningful genre films be a buzzkill (to say the least)!? Of course, of course. Obviously. But I'd say there are two broad kinds of elevating seriousness open to the mere genre entertainment. One is externalizing, communicative: communicating above and around the trappings of "genre" or "entertainment" to impart a series of messages or postures. (The sort of genre film that tends to win awards & critical hosannas.) Another is internalizing, an invitation down a rabbit hole.

Shyamalan often works on both registers, I think it should be admitted. The most ferocious critics of Signs, for instance, focused on the cheapness of its New Age nondenominationalism, the gracelessness (or unconvincingness) with which it peddled its "signs" and coincidences. Quite guilty! At the same time, the singlemindedness with which Shyamalan pursues his themes and expresses his stylistic tics also has its virtues. I don't know that I'm very interested in making (or reading) a case for Shyamalan as "auteur" that identifies his consistent themes, as these are, in his case, merely obvious, repetitious. But the way Shyamalan (consistently) constructs timing, line delivery, perspectival planes, the "weight" of the image (Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, in one of the very best commentaries on MNS I know, says "When the camera is stationary, it isn’t resting, it’s bolted down.") ... these things are fascinating, and possessed of an integrity of their own.

I can understand why someone would say Shyamalan's cinema is ultimately bad. I wouldn't even necessarily disagree with them. But I can't understand anyone saying they can't see anything of authentic and rare interest in Shyamalan's cinema. None of Shyamalan's work is as good as Knightriders; but aspects of it are far above 90-95% of what else is getting made in Hollywood. There's the intensity of focus, the sheer glee in working with 'restricted' elements (e.g., color palette), the willingness to create nonsensical stories and premises with ordinary heroes (Shyamalan's people aren't ubermenschen or anything of the kind, whereas a Bruckheimeresque blockbuster is populated by gifted experts of mind & flesh).

Monday, March 01, 2010

No Comment (Almost)

This isn't new, but it was new to me when I came across it recently. The chairman of Mensa International apparently chose these ten TV shows as his favorites, or the best ones, or something like that. I reproduce the list and its justifications, holding back all I want to say, except to point out that for good television it is apparently crucial to have "repartee" and "science."

1. "M*A*S*H" – It had smart repartee and was so much more than a comedy.

2. "Cosmos" (with Carl Sagan) – Sagan was able to communicate something extremely complicated to the layman and do it well, and that’s unusual for a scientist at his level.

3. "CSI" — The way they use science to solve their programs is intriguing to viewers.

4. "House" – Again, it’s high level type of show; it’s the personality that makes it a winner, plus it deals with science.

5. "West Wing" – You had to pay attention to stay up with it. The repartee was fast and furious and you needed a fairly high level intelligence to keep up with it.

6. "Boston Legal" – It’s primarily because of the characters. The story lines are okay, but the characters are incredible and the writers give them great dialogue.

7. "All in the Family" – The show dealt with social issues before its time and was on the forefront of trying to show people’s feelings, beliefs and the complexities of personality, in both a serious and comedic way.

8. "Frasier" – The repartee was sensational; the main characters were very good. Even though they portrayed people who were likely of high intelligence, they also showed their weaknesses.

9. "Mad About You" – It’s a personal favorite, I loved the characters and the back and forth. It was very smart.

10. "Jeopardy" – It’s about the only game show that really tries to test people’s intelligence. There’s very little luck involved, and there are few game shows like that. I don’t watch it all that much honestly, but from what I’ve seen it tests more than knowledge, it tests intelligence too.