Archive for movie review

Rethinking Spielberg

Some of my blog posts over the years, including my reviews of The Adventures of Tintin and Munich have been republished in a neat e-book anthology called The Take2 Guide to Steven Spielberg. I’m in good company here with Jonthan Rosenbaum, Matt Zoller Seitz, and dozens of others also included. The series editor John Pruzanski has also been working on several other volumes for a series of e-books on movie directors, so hopefully there will be more to come.

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Before Midnight

Before MidnightThe first two films in the ongoing narrative of Jesse and  Céline, Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004), offer variations on different romantic fantasies grounded in the age and social class of their characters. The first film depicts Jesse (Ethan Hawke, then an icon of Generation X) improbably meeting Céline (Julie Delpy) on the last night of his European adventure, with the two of them sharing a romantic night of conversation as they walked through the streets of Vienna. Before Sunset updates this fantasy, nine years later, when Céline shows up at Jesse’s book tour in Paris, allowing the two of them to rekindle their romance, escaping, if only for a few hours from the concerns of early adulthood: a loveless marriage for Jesse, career struggles and bad relationships for Céline.

But both films, even though they are structured by an awareness of passing time and of an imminent departure (in both films, Jesse has a plane to catch), seem to exist almost outside of time, at least in the sense of the everyday routine of going to work, maintaining a home, and caring for kids that most of us face. Both films involve hours of aimless walking and talking, first in Vienna and later in Paris. For the most part, they are not heading anywhere in particular; they just want to keep walking, keep moving, together. Thus, for just a few hours, Jesse and Céline escape from the demands, even if their preoccupations with parenting and  career are constantly press down on them in Before Sunset, which ends with Jesse, mesmerized by Céline singing and strumming her guitar, choosing to linger in the fantasy, to try to keep it alive by making the choice to correct the mistake he made at the end of the first film when he left the possibility of a reunion with Céline almost completely to chance.

Before Midnight almost completely inverts the formula of the first two films, calling into question the construct of romantic love that Before Sunrise and Before Sunset had established. The result is a film that Mike Russell correctly describes as an “emotional evolution,” one that shows incredible maturity and emotional complexity in exploring the consequences of their decision to pursue a relationship built upon two improbably romantic interactions. Unlike the first two films, Jesse and Céline are now two fully-fledged adults, their lives intermingled in ways that are far from simple.

In addition to this thematic inversion, Before Midnight also inverts the plot formula of the first two films. Rather than ending with a potential departure, the film opens with one, in this case the departure of Jesse’s son, Hank, who is returning to the United States to live with his mother (Jesse’s ex-wife, never seen on screen) after spending the summer with Jesse and Céline in Greece. Although Hank cheerfully pledges that it had been the best summer of his life, Jesse clearly feels disconnected from his role as a father. Hank dutifully agrees to play soccer–even if it seems likely he’ll break that promise–but begs his dad to stay away from an upcoming piano recital because it will create too much stress. Jesse is self-conscious about his geographic distance from his son–they live an ocean apart–and his inability to serve as a fully adequate father figure. This sense of failure becomes even more acute when Hank calls Céline, twice, to check in at various points in his journey, not bothering to talk to his dad, prompting Jesse to propose the idea of asking Céline to move with him back to the U.S.

[Note: for those who want to view the film completely fresh, as I did, this might be a good place to stop] We also learn that Jesse and Céline have twin daughters, about eight years old, and the product of their first days together after their reunion, a detail that is introduced when Jesse gets in the car after dropping off Hank. Céline is also mulling taking a government job that would allow her to work on her pet environmental issues in a more official capacity. When she floats this news, she initially plays coy, acting as if she is just considering the job. When Jesse describes why she might not enjoy the work, she becomes defensive, and as the couple drives (rushing past some ancient ruins that they normally might have explored), Céline points to this as a pivotal moment in their relationship, one that (she imagines) will inevitably be the turning point that leads to their break up.

The rest of the film is structured around two extended scenes that allow Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy (who are also credited as screenwriters) to explore the complexities of being in a committed relationship and the choices that people must make to maintain that commitment when the initial romance seems to fade. The first scene is a dinner party at the artists’ retreat where they have spent the last several months, Jesse basking in the adulation directed toward him by and older writer, while Céline silently stews at being away from her work and, in some sense, feeling the persistent gaze of being objectified into a romantic ideal in Jesse’s books (by the time of Before Midnight, he has written a sequel updating their story). While in Greece, the couple seem to have been living in separate realms. Jesse hangs with the men who praise or tease him about his writing. Céline works in the kitchen to prepare food (“filled with feta cheese–ugh!”) and care for their daughters. Céline also catches Jesse ogling the younger girlfriend of one of his friends, reinforcing insecurities about aging, worrying several times about her “fat French butt.” During the dinner, couples (and widows) of multiple generations meditate and reflect on the nature of romantic love and whether it is a fantasy, whether it can be maintained. Most of the people at the table are cynical, and given the tension on Jesse and Céline’s relationship, we can begin to see the film deepening its critique of its predecessors.

The second set piece is a scene in a hotel that friends have booked for Jesse and Céline. While the room is nice, it is distinctly modern, cold, and a little sterile, even with the nice touches–a complimentary bottle of wine and a couple’s massage–that have been provided. Unlike the romanticism of the first two films, the couple are grounded in the contemporary. Cell phone calls disrupt their conversation and their attempts to have sex and to rekindle their relationship. They also–most notably-no longer seem to be moving. After a brief walk together through the town, they remain in the room together, arguing and reintroducing old resentments about the sacrifices they have made for each other in seeking to make a life together. And what results is one of the most compelling and believable explorations of committed relationships I’ve seen on screen. If Before Sunrise and Before Sunset were two variations on a fantasy of courtship, Before Midnight reminds us that what happens next isn’t always “happily ever after.”

Like the first two films, the concluding scene of Before Midnight ends with a similar–if slightly altered–sense of ambiguity, asking again, where do we go from here? If the first two films offered a kind of romantic longing, Before Midnight takes us in a slightly different direction, asking how (or even if) these two people will continue to make a life together. In keeping with the other films, the question is built around a clever fantasy scenario cooked up by Jesse, one that asks Céline to imagine her 82-year-old self looking back on this moment and reflecting on the choices she made. It’s a moment that reminds us about the fragility of life and the contingency of all the choices we make. It also made me want to revisit these characters again and again for as long as Linklater, Delpy, and Hawke are around to make movies.

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Cannes Reports

In case you are missing them elsewhere, I have been reviewing movies at Cannes for Filmmaker Magazine. If you go to my author page there, you can follow them in reverse chronological order. Planning one or two more posts, including a festival recap, over the next few days.

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There is a moment in 42, the new biopic about Jackie Robinson, that I had always believed to be true. It takes place during Robinson’s rookie season in 1947 at Crosley Field in Cincinnati, just across the Mason-Dixon line from Kentucky, the home state of the Brooklyn Dodgers’ All-Star shortstop and Kentucky native Pee Wee Reese. Early in a contest between the Dodgers and Reds, Robinson became the subject of boos and racist taunts from fans. To silence Robinson’s critics, Reese reportedly walked over to his teammate and put his hand on Robinson’s shoulder, communicating clearly that he would stand with his teammate. It’s a powerful gesture, a statement of support from one ballplayer to another in the face of almost universal opposition, given that many of Robinson’s teammates even opposed his presence on the team. Unfortunately for historians of the game and for those of us seeking a little extra humanity in the face of violence, it’s also most likely not true. But given the emotional punch of such a scene–Robinson is finally embraced in public by his team’s leader–it provides a nice bit of drama for the film. But it also illustrates the difficulty of making a biographical film about the one major league baseball player who has moved beyond fame into something closer to canonization.

Wesley Morris’s review of 42 for Grantland captures some of these complications way better than I could, describing the dramatic challenges of depicting a character (or characters, if you count Robinson’s ever patient and supportive wife, Rachel, played by Nicole Beharie) who doesn’t change over the course of the film. Instead, Robinson must, in some sense, remain steady, unchanging, even when faced with a barrage of racist insults and abuse, as he was by Phillies manager Ben Chapman. He must, in some sense, remain virtually perfect. As Morris implies, Robinson’s story–and I cannot deny his bravery–essentially places him in “bubble wrap,” making it difficult to view the story with anything other than reverence. It’s possible that we don’t have enough historical distance from the events in 42, especially given that Major League Baseball continues to worry about reaching out to African-American audiences, but I think it’s also possible that Robinson’s story, like so many others, is caught in the process of mythmaking that is so central to the history of baseball. Even when we recognize the faults of some of the great early players–Cobb’s racism and violent anger, Ruth’s drunkenness, the gambling scandals–we still have so many stories that define players via heroic narratives.

42 seems somewhat conscious of this problem, and as a result, places near its center the writer who covered Robinson and traveled with him early in his career, Wendell Smith. But rather than reflecting on Smith’s role in shaping Robinson’s story, Smith becomes Robinson’s driver and faithful assistant. In many ways, the film’s most vivid character was actually the Dodgers’ general manager, Branch Rickey (played by a scowling and growling Harrison Ford), a move that seems to place Robinson somewhat on the margins. That said, the film gives us some small measure of Robinson’s heroism and the challenges he faced during his early career. It also provides a pretty vivid sense of the speed of baseball in a way that many sports movies fail to do. 42 shows Jackie dancing on the base paths, challenging pitchers with his tremendous quickness. We get a clear sense of Robinson’s amazing reflexes in the field and the excitement he generated for the many fans who came to idolize him. I’m not suggesting that we would have been better served by a movie that showed Robinson as flawed. And there is little question that his story should be remembered. But I would have valued a film that could have provided us with a better sense of the challenges that Robinson faced and the role of people like Wendell Smith in making Robinson’s story possible in the first place.

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Full Frame 2013 Part 1

In case you missed it elsewhere, I’ve been covering Full Frame this year for Filmmaker Magazine. My first report, focusing on Gideon’s Army, Citizen Koch, and American Promise went up yesterday. All three films come highly recommended, but I wanted to add here that American Promise, which follows the paths of two African-American males from age five through their senior year of high school, has continued to resonate for me. In addition to raising questions about the black male education achievement gap (an issue that has become especially pertinent for me given my work at an HBCU), the film powerfully conveys the challenges of parenting and growing up that many of us face. In particular, I appreciated the film’s honesty in depicting the college application process–and the potentially demoralizing effects of being rejected to the colleges you have identified as your top choices. It’s a film that has the potential to open up a powerful dialogue about any number of important questions.

Update: Here’s part two of my Full Frame dispatches, which focuses on Fight Like Soldiers, Die Like Children; Good ol’ Freda; and First Cousin Once Removed.

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Spring Breakers

Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers follows the exploits of four bored coeds as they embark on a dream trip to Florida, where they hope to escape their dull and confining lives. They arrive in Tampa to discover a world of debauchery, drinking, and drugs set against a backdrop of brightly-colored bikinis and sunny beaches and pumping hiphop and techno score that seems to fulfill their fantasies of escape and transformation, even while it visualizes the nightmares of any parent with teenagers who are worried about the behavior of kids today.

This plot description initially would seem to set the stage either for a film that exploits its female protagonists or one that functions as an implicit critique of a materialistic, excessive, and shallow youth culture bent on its own self-destruction. Add the fact that three of the Spring Breakers in question are tween stars Ashley Benson, Selena Gomez, and Vanessa Hudgens, and such readings (like Jackie Cooper’s complaint that Korine is celebrating the excesses of Spring Break) are even more tempting.

sb_05886 But these readings place too little emphasis–or seem confused by–the second half of the girl’s journey when they are arrested in a drug raid when they are doing cocaine during a hotel party. During the trial, they are bailed out by a cartoonishly excessive white, corn-rowed, drug-dealing hip-hopper who goes by the name of Alien (played by James Franco). The image of the girls, standing in front of the judge handcuffed, still wearing their day-glo bikinis visually emphasizes their vulnerability and the recognition that their utopian fantasies of transformation have been disrupted. And here, the film begins to take unexpected turns. Alien show sympathy for the girls’ plights, even while his excesses frighten the more religious Faith (Gomez). But the other spring breakers find themselves embracing and emulating Alien’s bravado, even to the point of engaging in some gunplay themselves.

These readings also seem to be unsure of how to engage with Korine’s playful engagement with the culture of images. Like Stephanie Zacharek, I do think that Korine’s depiction of the excesses of Spring Break have an air of superiority about them, even while relishing the ability to indulge in that depiction. But it’s the film’s fascination with guns (and their relationship with phallic power) that seems oddly crucial to the girls’ fantasies. This motif is recurrent throughout the movie. During the opening scene–in a college lecture hall, with seemingly hundreds students sitting bored behind laptops–two of the spring breakers draw pictures, one with a heart with the message “I love penis” inside it and another with a crudely drawn penis.

Later, these same girls commit their first crime, a robbery of a local chicken shack where they use squirt guns to frighten the customers and workers into giving up their money. Eventually, the girls pick up some of Alien’s incredible arsenal of guns, pushing these connections to absurd lengths. Instead of girls gone wild, it’s something closer to girl power gone wild. Like Glenn Kenny, I was fascinated by the “gendered role-reversal” here, but I’m still not convinced that Korine completely sustains any fully meaningful observations here. I’d also agree with Kenny that the set piece involving Franco’s Alien singing Britney Spears’ “Everytime,” while playing a white, poolside piano, the spring breakers dancing alongside, seems a bit too obviously “critic bait.” Still, Korine’s consciousness about the culture of images–especially as they are shaped by the personas of its young stars–makes it hard for me to dismiss the film completely.

Alongside of this critique, Spring Breakers also seems to be about the desire for transformation. Faith seems to be trying to break free from a restrictive religious culture, and the other girls also imagine that their spring break trip will allow them to reinvent themselves. In that sense, I think Korine is not engaging in a generation critique of kids today but tapping into or exploring how these fantasies of transformation operate and contribute to the culture of excess depicted in the fim.

Update: I think Michael Chaiken’s review brings together the multiple threads Korine is weaving together–the cultures of excess and materialism and the fantasies of power and materialism–in a pretty insightful way.

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Top Ten 2012

Inspired by IndieWire’s amazing compilation of Top Ten lists and by Umberto Eco’s reminder about the pleasures of list-making, I’ve decided to do my own list of favorite movies from 2012. This year;’s list is shaped by a number of changes in my life. I didn’t get to the theater as often as I would have liked, and my favorite theater was forced to shut down when the owners of the property decided to redevelop the space and build a grocery store. I also missed the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival for the first time in several years, which means that I was unable to catch many docs, something I hope to correct in 2013. I’m hoping to devote more energy to reviving the blog this year, and my piecemeal–in no particular order–top ten list is a way of getting that started.

  1. Moonrise Kingdom: Wes Anderson’s compelling and comic story, set in the early 1960s in a small New England town, focuses on a young boy, Sam, on a scout trip who runs away with Suzy, who lives nearby. they exchange notes and plans and filly escape together prompting a madcap search led by Edward Norton, Bruce Willis, and Bill Murray. Really enjoyed the off-beat performances, the period music, and Anderson’s usual attention to mise-en-scene.
  2. Looper: gritty, futuristic sci-fi at its finest. Joseph Gordon-Leavitt plays Joe, a “looper” who waits in an appointed location–a corn field in Kansas–where he assassinates criminals sent back in time. Joe ultimately faces meeting himself as an older person, leading to one of the more fascinating ethical dilemmas about time travel I’ve seen in a long time (and one of the few movies I had time to review this year). The interplay between Leavitt and Bruce Willis also works really well.
  3. Lincoln: Daniel Day-Lewis’s uncanny portrayal of Lincoln has received the most attention, but I loved the movie for its attention to the mundane aspects of governing and the challenges that the president faced when negotiating to get members of the opposing party to support his proposed amendment to end slavery. An oddly apt commentary on the fiscal cliff negotiations and current complaints about divided government.
  4. The Master: Paul Thomas Anderson offers an unsettling engagement with the post-World War II sense of meaningless confronted by many vets, including Freddie (Joaquin Phoenix), who wavers between submission to and resistance against a Scientology-style cult led by Philip Seymour Hoffman. I was ambivalent about this film, but Jason Sperb, who has written a book on PT Anderson, ultimately sold me on it.
  5. Django Unchained: Tarantino continues his engagement with the politics of images and genres with his subversive, playful mashup of spaghetti western and slave narrative. It’s easy to dismiss Tarantino as a pastiche filmmaker, but his depictions of iconic film images–the “mandingo” fights, Samuel L. Jackson’s “Uncle Tom”–are far more subtle than they first appear. I still think this film would make a great companion with Perry Henzell’s similar spaghetti western-inspired anti-colonialist The Harder They Come.
  6. Argo: Although its depiction of the Iran hostage crisis vastly simplifies the historical record–little attention is paid to the hostages who went unrescued–Ben Affleck has deftly crafted a terrific retelling of one of the most audacious rescue efforts in recent history. The levels of performance–spies pretending to be movie executives–were terrific fun.
  7. Take this Waltz: low-key character study by Sarah Polley about a woman’s struggles in an unhappy marriage.
  8. Silver Linings Playbook: although its depiction of psychological disorders was often too glib, Russell’s film won me over with the chemistry between Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence as a pair of misunderstood lovers.
  9. Beasts of the Southern Wild: I wavered between embracing the film’s originality and struggling with something that felt a little inauthentic about the whole thing. On the whole, though, I liked the depiction of Bathtub, a tiny, isolated Louisiana Delta community ravaged by a massive hurricane.
  10. Perks of Being a Wallflower: heartfelt adolescent drama about growing up as outsiders (the “misfit toys”). It gets all of the awkwardness of high school pretty much right and even offers a kind of utopian space where Charlie, Sam (Emma Watson in a great post-Hermione performance), and friends can feel safe and connected. Solid late-80s/early-90s period detail, too.

I still haven’t seen Zero Dark Thirty or Holy Motors, so I may make one or two updates in the near future. Just missing the cut were Bernie, Les Miserables, and Safety Not Guaranteed.

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Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg’s documentary Knuckleball introduces us to the tiny fraternity of major league baseball players who have made a career out of throwing the sport’s most confounding pitch. Unlike the guys who can throw blazing fastballs or curve balls that seem to drop off a table, knuckleball pitchers seem to defy all of the metrics–especially pitch speed–that we use to evaluate major legue talent. In fact, throwing a knuckleball, which involves releasing a pitch so that it has absolutely no spin, requires an astounding level of trust in factors that these pitchers cannot control, especially the wind currents that carry the slowly floating pitch in utterly unpredictable directions, leaving many of the pitchers to talk about their skills in terms that seem to have a Zen-like embrace of “letting go” of the pitch as it enters the world. This discussion of how the pitch works is fascinating by itself, but what fascinated me the most was how Stern and Sundberg were able to provide such a rich understanding of this tiny group of men, linked together across history and even across rivalries, because of a pitching talent that defies almost everything conventionally associated with major league pitching.

Knuckleball is structured around the 2011 seasons of two knuckleballers, Tim Wakefield, who was reaching the end of his long career, and R.A. Dickey, a former hard-throwing phenom who was reviving his career after discovering the knuckler during his 30s. Both men, along with Jim Bouton, Phil Niekro, Charlie Hough, and Wilber Wood, discuss the mechanics of throwing the pitch, but what comes across throughout the film is the uncertainty that both men face. Instead of the typical locker room jocularity, both Wakefield and Dickey are presented as contemplative family men, reflective about their unique status in baseball and the difficulty of playing a sport where their talents are often misunderstood and mistrusted. Wakefield acknowledges that even the most trusting managers and pitching coaches are quicker to give up on a knuckleballer after a few bad starts, but he is hanging on, hopefully just long enough to earn his 200th major league win.

Dickey’s story serves as a reminder that the knuckleball is often seen as a pitch of last resort–the pitch that minor leaguers will pick up when their talents have failed them and there seem to be no remaining options. In Dickey’s case, a deformity in his pitching arm scared off scouts who’d previously offered him a six-figure bonus after he led his University of Tennessee baseball team to the College World Series. Wakefield has a similar story. When he started his career, he’d been projected as a power-hitting first baseman but found that he couldn’t adjust to professional pitchers and, almost by chance, had a pitching coach notice his ability to throw a knuckler. Just a couple of years later, he was in the major leagues with the Pirates, nearly leading the team to the World Series. But like the floating, darting pitch, within two years, Wakefield was on a different path, released by the Pirates and picked up as a gamble by the Red Sox, where he would play for nearly to decades. Even Hall of Famer Phil Niekro suggests that he picked up the pitch only because he could never have thrown a big league fastball.

Because of this outsider status–a pitch based upon unpredictability and less dependent on traditional metrics–Dickey and Wakefield seem most comfortable with their small fraternity of knuckleballers, and Stern and Sundberg capture some fascinating and fun moments when most of the living knuckleballers get together and talk about their experiences. In other scenes, Dickey is shown seeking counsel from Wilbur Wood while visiting Los Angeles rather than discussing the pitch with his pitching coach. In addition, the film spends quite a bit of time looking at Dickey and Wakefield’s lives outside of baseball–their interactions with their wives and children, even on the road–reminding us that their successes depend in part on the families that supported and encouraged them–even when that meant living on $800 a month and moving dozens of times to minor league teams all over the U.S. If the knuckleballer is a solitary figure in the locker room, he is also a family man, older than most of his teammates.

The film culminates with Wakefield paying tribute to the others in his small fraternity, one that forever seems to be on the verge of extinction, given the small number of players that throw it. At the same time, Dickey’s success–he has blossomed into an ace pitcher since the film was produced–holds out promise that this small Zen-like fraternity will endure as yet another player seeks out another backdoor path into the major leagues.

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More than any film in recent memory, Rian Johnson’s future-noir time-travel film, Looper, has stuck with me long after its final credits rolled, in part because of its dramatic final sequence, one that genuinely shocked me (and which I’ll only discuss in detail below the fold to avoid spoiling it for others). But as Roger Ebert notes, the final scene displays a scriptwriting ingenuity that shows that Johnson has thought carefully and creatively not only about the paradoxes and logical problems of time travel but also about our psychological fascinations with it, about the desires and regrets that come into play when we entertain the possibility of confronting an older–or younger–version of ourselves. Add on Johnson’s rich appreciation of film history and genres and the movie’s subtle political sensibilities, and the result is a fascinating and compelling film that I plan to revisit soon.

Johnson has devised a relatively original time-travel premise: in the year 2044, young Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a “looper,” a hired gun paid by a futuristic organized crime syndicate to murder people sent back in time from the year 2074 and to dispose of the bodies. Strapped to the back of all of the victims is the payment for their services: a set of silver bars (Judas’s 40 pieces of silver come to mind) that are, in turn, converted back into cash by Abe (Jeff Daniels) who has traveled from the future to direct his team of loopers. Eventually, when a looper shoots a victim and discovers that he has gold strapped to his back, he realizes that he has shot the older version of himself and that his contract as a looper has been completed. The victims typically arrive wearing handcuffs, hoods and in some cases orange vests, which as the Film Doctor points out, causes the victims to resemble detainees in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.  These discoveries lead many of the loopers to experience varying degrees of dread and shock as they discover that they have essentially witnessed their own (future) death. The twist in young Joe’s case is that when old Joe (Bruce Willis) arrives, he isn’t wearing the hood and young Joe recognizes himself, hesitates, and eventually is unable to pull the trigger, allowing him to confront the older man he becomes.

This drama is set against a futuristic world that is quite obviously commenting on our own. Like many futuristic noir films (Blade Runner, Strange Days), the problems of the future can be seen as having roots in the present. Cities are industrial wastelands in which the young a wealthy loopers luxuriate in the excesses of their wealth, partying at a strip club and driving expensive cars while others are left to dystopian city streets or to survive off the land like Sarah and her son. It’s as if we are hurtling back into a world in which basic survival appears to be our only option At the same time, the film seems to revel in its cinematic allusions–cream swirling into a cup of coffee recalls Godard; a beleaguered and battered Bruce Willis evokes his performance in Twelve Monkeys, another film that reminds us that time travel–and the possible confrontation with our past selves–would likely be the source of profound trauma; and of course, North by Northwest, with its magnificent, if somewhat wilted and dying cornfields. But there’s also a heavy does of the western, especially The Searchers. These references and the overall world of the film help to set up that Johnson has more on his mind than action formula. Instead we get a film that engages with some pretty profound ideas through the psychology of the time-travel confrontation [note: spoilers may follow].

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Eastwooding, Or Old Man Yells at Chair

Given my interests in the intersections between politics, humor, popular culture, and social media, I found the responses to Clint Eastwood’s bizarre, ad-libbed campaign performance art at the Republican National Convention to be completely irresistible. In case you missed it, the Hollywood icon (whose movies I admire) gave a 10-minute speech supporting Mitt Romney in which he lectured an empty chair meant to represent current president, Barack Obama, asking “him” questions about why he has failed to deliver on his campaign promises. From a conservative perspective, there’s probably a valid point embedded in the speech–Obama as empty suit or whatever–but the impromptu nature of the talk has made it the subject of widespread mockery on the political web.

To some extent, the mockery derives from the fact that Eastwood’s performance before the RNC departs so radically from his star persona as a tough-talking Dirty Harry-type. Instead, the bit accentuated his age, a perception that was probably reinforced by his slightly disheveled hair and by the fact that he was ad-libbing and often seemed to be searching for the right words. The performance also departed radically from the rest of the RNC, which appeared to be tightly scripted, a perception that is mocked in this Photoshopped image from The Simpsons showing an altered headline in which Abe Simpson “yells at a chair” (the original if I recall says “cloud” instead of chair).

But as Chris Becker documented in an indispensable post on her News for TV Majors site, there were literally hundreds of tweets and Facebook posts that showed up within seconds of Eastwood’s appearance. One of the most notable was the appearance of the Invisible Obama Twitter feed, which was created during Eastwood’s speech and which now has 45,000 followers less than a day after the speech (one of “his” best tweets: “Someone should tell Marco Rubio he’s standing on my foot right now”). Eastwood’s speech also provided an excuse for celebrities to weigh in with both supportive and humorous content, all of it documented by Entertainment Weekly. Among the best remarks was Seth Myers’ “props” to Eastwood for bringing down Twitter. Even the Obama campaign got in on the act with an amusing, if slightly smug, tweet showing Obama seated in the Oval Office, saying “this seat’s taken.”

But one of the more common responses has been the practice of having a picture taken of a person pointing to an empty chair and acting as if the subject is lecturing it–a practice that has quickly become known as “Eastwooding,” although many of them feature pets and even children. Ana Marie Cox has identified this picture as the “original” Eastwooding image, but in any case, the empty chair has now become a key signifier in the political blogosphere, one whose meanings will probably take some time to settle into place (although I think the Abe Simpson image probably tells us the direction this is heading).

Finally, there is another Invisible Obama meme, one that features a photograph of Eastwood gesturing toward the empty chair with a red, white, and blue background. The Meme Generator allows people to enter their own text to create captions that comment on Eastwood or use his performance to make a commentary on politics. On a brief glance at most of the images that have been generated, they are generally anti-Romney or anti-Republican. My favorite so far actually makes reference to another popular meme, the “Most Interesting Man in the World” images that mock or make use of the character from the Dos Equis advertisements. The Meme Generator is especially interesting to me in that it readily invites the participation of others who may have limited coding or video editing skills. It also fascinated in that, like Twitter, it benefits heavily from verbal dexterity, even while participants have the ability to riff of a specific image, creating an incredibly low barrier to participation (although, in an odd sort of way, it doesn’t seem that remote from the longtime New Yorker contests inviting readers to provide captions for its cartoons). Facebook and Twitter users can also share and comment on many of these images without having to create new ones themselves, so that provides another important layer of participation.

I’ve been fascinated by political memes for a long time, in part because they invite citizen participation, but also because they allow untapped political meanings to gain expression, often through coded language associated with popular culture. Most of these Eastwood memes show a fluency with popular culture that invites sharing–they’ve also attracted the attention of George Takei, which never hurts–so it’ll be interesting to see how the Eastwood meme plays out over the next several months.


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The Adventures of Tintin

Although I have been quick to reinforce the perception that most current 3D films are gimmicks (see for example, my complaints about the latest Spy Kids), I have been intrigued by the somewhat more innovative uses of the technique by Martin Scorsese in Hugo, and more recently, by Steven Spielberg in his adaptation of the Belgian comic by Hergé, The Adventures of Tintin. It’s tempting to read Spielberg’s film as a lightweight, kiddie-oriented rehashing of his Indiana Jones films, but I think this interpretation misses out on how the film is subtly navigating some of the questions raised by adaptation.

Even though I had some awareness of the popularity of Tintin in France and Belgium, I was somewhat unaware of the extent of that popularity until a Twitter conversation this afternoon (thanks to some of my comics-loving and Francophone tweeps) and a quick review of the box office numbers for the film, which has made almost as much money in France as it has in the United States. In fact, the announcement of two planned sequels seems to be built upon the film’s overseas success, even though the film has struggled here in the U.S.  As a result, many U.S. critics seemed unprepared for the movie’s engagement with the original, often reading the film primarily as an auteurist product tied to Spielberg’s preoccupations with childhood and B-movie adventurism (even relatively favorable reviews emphasize the connection to Indiana Jones).

I’m still in the process of researching the comic, but I think it’s important to consider how the film functions as an adaptation and how that relates more directly to Spielberg’s status as a filmaker.  It’s worth noting that the film’s official website both resembles the pages of a comic and provides quite a bit of backstory about the comic, including a detailed discussion of The Secret of the Unicorn, the adventure that provides the basis for the first film. We are also given quite a bit of information about the history of the Tintin character, including how to draw him and how Hergé developed the character. In essence, the website establishes Tintin as an auteurist project, one that was a crafted narrative.

In turn, Spielberg’s film contains a number of these elements, seeking to remind us that even in the age of 3D and performance capture, movies are not merely industrial objects. Instead, Spielberg hopes to show that they are works of art. This artistic signature comes across in part via some of the more inspired effects, especially a long sequence in which Tintin and his embattled crew move from a burning lifeboat to an airplane that crash lands in the Sahara Desert to a chase through a Moroccan city, all in the space of a single shot.

Dana Stevens’ review in Slate also touches upon one of the other challenges of the film–depicting realistic characters via the animation technique of performance capture. Stevens makes reference to the idea of the “uncanny valley,” the idea that when human replicas (whether robotic or animated) look “almost” human, they inspire repulsion in audiences or observers. That didn’t seem like a particular concern for me here, in part because the characters, especially the Thompsons and Tintin himself, seemed so clearly taken from the comic book page. For Maryann Johanson, however, the artificiality seemed to work against her appreciation of the film, in part because the use of CGI helped to reinforce the perception that Tintin and his crew were never in any serious danger. As she put it, “Raiders of the Lost Ark had soul….That sort of organicness is utterly missing from Tintin. There’s only so much organicness that can be faked via CGI that beautifully replicates grass or stone or skin or whatever.”

I’m still exploring my response to the film, in part because it may be something I will work into a couple of ongoing writing projects on 3D. The question for me isn’t whether the film is “good,” at least not in any traditional sense. Instead, I’m interested in exploring how the film engages with the politics and practices of adaptation and how those issues are navigated through the use of digital effects, especially 3D. I’ll admit that the 3D looked “better” in Tintin than it has in most other 3D films I’ve seen, but as I was watching, I felt myself thinking about how Spielberg, like Scorsese in Hugo, seemed to be trying to figure out how to tell stories using the new visual tools available to him.


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Red State

Kevin Smith’s Red State has gained more attention due to Smith’s creative distribution and exhibition model than for the actual content of the movie. Rather than selling his film at the Sundance Film Festival to the highest bidder, who would then market the film for a big opening week, Smith engaged in a little slacker street theater, selling the film to himself before providing explanation of  how he would self-distribute Red State through a variety of techniques, including road shows and live “event” screenings, as well as more traditional practices such as video-on-demand and DVD offerings. Smith further linked this innovative distribution plan to his own origin story, as one of “Harvey’s Boys,” the mid-1990s generation of film directors who broke through to mainstream success, in part thanks to the marketing savvy of Miramax. As a result, Red State is bringing together a wide range of fascinating threads: the definition of “independent film,” the future of movie distribution, and the role of the distributors and exhibitors in shaping our access to movies. And to some extent, these questions have overshadowed one of Smith’s more engaging films–something I’ll return to later.

The Red State screening I attended was in Cary, North Carolina, at a local independent theater, and like a number of other theaters, we watched the film starting at precisely 7 PM EDT. Soon after the credits rolled, the theater projected a password-protected Ustream broadcast from the Beverly Theater (referred to as a Babble-On Podcast), one that invited questions from viewers located in other theaters using the Twitter hash tag #redstatekev (the filmmakers used a similar technique during their worldwide premiere a couple of years ago). Questions sent in by remote viewers were mixed with questions posed by the live studio audience, and Smith would take the questions and riff off of them, often telling anecdotes about the making of the movie. Given Smith’s college tours and his frequent podcasts, the technique worked relatively well, even if it came across as a little self-congratulatory in places, and even if the audio was often muffled. The Twitter stream itself was mostly cluttered with crude jokes, spitballs  from the remote audience, but Smith’s assistants were able to rescue a couple of good questions that would allow him to talk about Michael Parks’ performance as a Fred Phelps-style anti-gay preacher or about his screenwriting process.

As Smith acknowledged in the Q&A, Red State is a film that may potentially challenge viewers, especially given Smith’s creative engagement with genre conventions. The film focuses on a closed-off, but publicity-hungry religious cult called the Five Points Trinity Church led by a charismatic family patriarch, Abin Cooper (Parks), who preaches against homosexuality and promiscuity. It opens with a scene featuring member of the church protesting at a funeral of a local teenager, recalling the images of Westboro Baptist Church protesting military funerals. Later, we are introduced to three misfit teenagers who meet a woman through an Adult Friend Finder website. When the woman promises to have sex with all three of them simultaneously, they are intrigued and drive out to her trailer, where, of course, the woman (played by Melissa Leo) has other plans, drugging and kidnapping them and delivering them to Cooper’s church, where the congregation engages in a mixture of worship and torture, speaking in a shorthand of Bible verses and references that suggest a shared–and completely closed-off–point of view. The torture scenes seem to prepare us for something like a satirical torture porn film, but just as we are prepared for Red State to follow one genre path, it suddenly–almost defiantly–chooses a different one.

The kidnapping of the boys comes to the attention of a local sheriff who, in turn, contacts an ATF agent, Joseph Keenan (played by John Goodman), leading to a hostage standoff, in which the ATF agents surround Cooper’s extremely well-armed compound, pulling us even further away from standard horror fare. Here, Keenan is presented as essentially benevolent, but as the shooting escalates, he is forced to balance concern for the hostages with concern for the public relations nightmare that might ensue, especially given past crises, such as the standoff with David Koresh’s Waco cult. As a result, Smith is able to subtly satirize not only the homophobic rants of people like Fred Phelps (and the media culture that provides them a platform) but also the “red state” policies that have loosened gun control laws and increased surveillance through the Patriot Act.

These shifts in tone evoked some of Tarantino’s genre games–especially in films like From Dusk ’til Dawn–but without QT’s self-conscious dialogue (there’s not a Star Wars reference to be heard in the entire film, which shows major restraint on Smith’s part). Smith also defied our expectations with regards to killing off certain characters (and actors), often in gruesomely funny ways, with the result that the film never settles in on a single point of identification. These moments where Smith defies genre expectations seem to have flustered some critics, but given Smith’s larger aims, I’m willing to more or less buy into what he was doing. I’ll admit that I’m probably being a little more generous to the film, in part because Smith created an event in which he sought to connect with his audience and where he truly advocated for his film. The $20 price tag for the Red State event seemed a little steep, especially for remote audiences, but I think it also offered some added value that might not normally be associated with a typical Friday blockbuster opening. As Smith himself noted, he spent several years writing and putting Red State together, and a traditional opening would likely build to a single weekend, with the movie disappearing soon after, but Smith’s self-distribution model allows him to spend a little more time enjoying the reception of his movie. I don’t think that this form of self-distribution will work well for every filmmaker–Smith has spent almost 20 years building up goodwill with his audience–but as a means of harnessing the potential of social media and digital delivery to distribute a certain brand of do-it-yourself filmmaking, it worked pretty well.

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It Stinks!

The verdict now seems to be in for Robert Rodriguez’s Spy Kids: All the Time in the World, and the movie’s poor performance, critically and at the box office, has inspired a number of bad puns (including my own) on its use of Aroma-Scope, the scratch-and-sniff cards that were incorporated into the movie, a la John Waters’ use of Odorama in Polyester. Nikki Finke does point out in her “autopsy” (edit: forgot the link earlier) for Spy Kids that the film played much better to kids than adults, probably because Antonio Banderas and Carla Gugino were MIA, while also noting that, despite more screen showing the film in 3D, more people saw the film in 2D. I actually thought the 3D aspects worked OK, but as usual, they weren’t really necessary and wouldn’t be worth paying for, especially for a family of three or four. The higher ticket price may offer yet another explanation for why I saw the film in an empty theater on opening weekend.

The Vulture offers a nice review of the Aroma-Scope aspect and confirms basically what I’d noticed: the production of scents was not up to par. Despite the fact that it would have been easy to manufacture the smells used in the film (bacon, candy, dog farts), very few of them resembled their source in the film and almost all of them were weak and difficult to detect, although that might be attributed to the quality of individual cards.

It’s also worth noting that my reaction to dealing with the card may have been somewhat generational. Rodriguez reports that he incorporated smell into the film because he observed his own kids’ behaviors with games and concluded that they would prefer something more interactive and engaging: “Just watching my own kids with interactive gaming, you ask them to watch a movie, it just feels so passive to them. I thought, this helps bridge the gap. It’s an interactive thing, almost like playing a game while you’re watching the movie.” Rodriguez added that test audiences with children also wanted to have some stinky scents in the film, which makes sense. But given critical and box office reactions, I almost wonder if Spy Kids 4D is guilty of not stinking enough?

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Spy Kids: All the Time in the World in 4D

There really isn’t much to say about the narrative of the latest installment of the Spy Kids franchise. It’s an incoherent, garbled mess, one that seems to have written pretty much on auto-pilot. The jokes and sight gags were equally tedious, making it difficult for me to grasp how the franchise had managed to last this long. There is a basic message about spending time with family, one that is reflected in the film’s time-travel plot, but even that seemed utterly cynical. Of course, All the Time in the World has been promoted almost entirely on the basis of its use of “Aroma-Scope,” the scratch-and-sniff cards that incorporate smell into several of the film’s scenes. But as Maryann Johanson observed in her review, these 4-D elements seemed to expose the limits of the New Gimmick Cinema.

Like Johanson, I found that the film worked to hard to make it appear that the incorporation of scent was seamless. During the opening sequence, a robotic dog, voiced by Ricky Gervais, explains that when a number appears on screen, viewers are suposed to scratch the corresponding number on a card they were given upon entering theaters. Simple enough, of course, but given that you are fumbling with a card in a darkened theater (one that is even darker thanks to the darkened lenses on your 3D glasses), you have to glance down away from the screen and feel around a little for the appropriate number.

Even worse, the scents were almost too mild for me to smell. Johanson also complains that most of the scents actually resembled “cardboard,” while other critics noted that pretty much all of the smells recalled “fruity gumball.” The faint smell actually became even more of a distraction since I wasn’t sure whether I was just missing the smell or whether I needed a key or coin to scratch off the surface of the card.  So, I spent one or two minutes fumbling with the card without any real payoff from the movie. In addition, even walking to the theater while carrying 3D glasses, the card, my ticket, my phone, and a book meant that my hands were full. While entering the theater, I almost felt as if I needed an equipment check.

That being said, it was interesting to observe when Rodriguez incorporated smell into the movie and how the movie teased viewers with references to various scents. For the most part, the smells were introduced during scenes with little dramatic significance. In one scene, the two kids were exiled to a lounge in the spy headquarters building soon after a big action sequence. The kids stumble into the kitchen and dive into the snacks they find there, unleashing three different smells in succession, most of them of the synthetic fruit variety. To some extent, this choice seems to acknowledge that viewers might find Aroma-Scope distracting.

I’ve been struggling against the impulse to create an opposition between immersion and distraction when describing Spy Kids 4D. The film, to a great extent, is not meant to be an immersive narrative but instead offers a spectacle (broadly defined). Spectacle isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but for the most part, the execution in this film came across as relatively lazy, as if Aroma-Scope was enough to drag us off our couches and back into theaters. But when my biggest memory of the film is of fumbling in the dark to find the right number to scratch, something isn’t working.

Update: Last night’s comments were admittedly somewhat impressionistic and written when I was pretty much exhausted. I’ve mentioned in some other places that I saw the movie in a completely empty theater, so that may have made the movie more difficult to enjoy, but crowdsourced grades on Box Office Mojo and other sites suggest that Spy Kids 4D hasn’t really connected with audiences. The more crucial question for me continues to be how these forms of augmented cinema fit within current trends. It’s hard for me to imagine too many other films using “Aroma-Scope” or any other variation of the scratch-and-sniff cards, although some might.

Rodriguez has tapped into various forms of kitsch quite a bit in his previous work, and many of his Spy Kids films use what might be called a form of juvenile kitsch meant to entertain younger audiences, even while amusing their parents (Pixar does this quite well, of course). As I was writing about the film this morning on Facebook (and this comparison crossed my mind last night), I found myself comparing Sky Kids 4D to Speed Racer, another critically maligned movie that deployed a similar presentational, rather than immersive, aesthetic. Both films knew we were watching a movie and frequently winked at us, and Rodriguez’s movie focused more on staging the stunts and scents while playing to our sense of anticipation of experiencing the smells. But it felt more like I was at Universal Studios on a movie ride rather than simply watching a movie.

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Life in a Day

There are three primary structuring devices in Kevin Macdonald’s YouTube-enabled documentary Life in Day (IMDB): The first is a charismatic Korean young man who has traveled to over a hundred countries, riding through most of them on a bicycle. The second is the (somewhat falsified) chronology of the film itself, with the opening sequences featuring people starting their day and all of the morning rituals that entails (shutting off alarms, making coffee, reading the newspaper). The third, of course, is YouTube itself and the global totality of amateur self-expression that the site represents. YouTube was the first video sharing site to make uploading videos appear to be accessible to the masses, and as a result it invited a wide range of self-expression, practices that may be somewhat obscured by YouTube’s more commercial uses.

As I watched Life in Day, in fact, I was reminded of YouTube earlier, mostly unrealized utopian fantasy of global community, one that is based in the shared banalities of everyday life–our morning rituals, our moments of vulnerability–as well as the cultural and economic differences that continue to mark our daily existence. Life in a Day is, perhaps, one of the most ambitious crowdsourcing projects in recent memory, with the film’s director Kevin Macdonald combing through over 4,500 hours’ worth of video recorded in 192 countries, all filmed over the course of a single day July 24, 2010, and uploaded to YouTube. The clips were structured around a small number of questions (what’s in your pocket? what do you love? what do you fear?), and although such questions might invite us to reach for some kind of global “temperature taking,” a recognition of the ways in which our lives and experiences and behaviors are interconnected, but those kinds of observations remained elusive, reinforcing the individualism and narcissism that a site like YouTube often invites.

The film’s narrative approach is established quickly, as it opens with a montage of people performing their morning rituals, including a sequence of people reading their morning newspaper, imagery that evoked (perhaps unintentionally) Benedict Anderson’s concept of imagined communities. These sequences seem to emphasize our commonalities, allowing us to see how we are in fact connected with others. From there we get vignettes of people whose experiences seem designed to touch on something more universal. One father teaches his son to shave. Another directs his son to light an incense candle for their mother. From there, Life in a Day weaves back and forth between montages of individuals engaged in their daily routines and these vignettes, inviting us to draw connections, although many of these connections are incompletely drawn, though most of them seem related to broader themes of birth and death, love and loneliness, community and isolation. We see pregnant women and the birth of a giraffe. We also see a cow getting slaughtered followed by a shot of someone eating spaghetti (an implied argument for vegetarianism, perhaps?).

Two of the more compelling juxtaposed vignettes featured an army wife preparing to Skype her husband, who was stationed in Afghanistan. She gets ready for their “date” by dressing up and seeking to find some way to alleviate her loneliness. This is juxtaposed with a scene filmed by a self-described photojournalist living in Kabul who seeks to challenge our perception of Afghanistan as a war-torn country, showing us people engaging in their daily routines of buying and selling and going to school, and in one case an all-female martial arts class. The implications of the opposition are somewhat unclear, though: are we meant to see the soldier’s actions as improving the situation in Afghanistan? Are we supposed to draw the conclusions that our commonalities should unite us? Again, the answers are frustratingly elusive. Others tell us that they “fear” homosexuals or that people who don’t believe in God will go to hell. Is Life in a Day mocking, endorsing, or merely reporting here? Do we learn anything from the depiction of these pronouncements?

For the most part, the film avoids direct reference to any major political or world event, with the one exception being the tragic deaths of 18 people who were trampled at the Love Parade in Germany, and although it seems important to acknowledge a significant event that happened on the chosen day, the flat tone makes it difficult to even grasp how that event fits into the film’s overall narrative. To that end, this is where the film’s delicate balance between collective authorship (all of the YouTubers who created videos) and individual authorship (Kevin Macdonald’s attempt to craft a narrative) struggled the most. Late last week, there was some discussion of whether the crowdsourcing approach used in Life in a Day was exploitative, and I argued that the non-monetary rewards of self-expression might be more meaningful than any financial compensation the contributors might gain (assuming the film is financially successful). I’m still convinced that the pleasures of participation–of contributing to the activity of making meaning–came through. But I think that the attempt to grasp YouTube through these broad emotive connections prevented the film from making more meaningful insights.

This doesn’t mean that I don’t believe that we can’t make sense of the world through the banalities of everyday life, as Andrew Schenker seems to argue (in fact, I have an essay on Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil and another on Jem Cohen’s Chain that argue the opposite). But I don’t think it’s enough to present us with a decontextualized set of images, as Christopher Campbell reads the film, and assume that will provide us with anything other a murky glimpse of a far more complex human experience. Although the Korean bicyclist imagines a more harmonious world–one in which the two Koreas are, in fact, no longer divided–Life in a Day mostly seems to miss how the banalities of everyday life are structured by larger factors (economy, politics, etc), even while it sees YouTube (at least in its initial You-topian conception) as a partial expression of a desire for a globalized community.

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