April132012

No Turning Back - Into the Abyss (2011)

These days, it feels like every other movie hitting theaters is “Based on a True Story.” The advertising campaign for such films has become so familiar that filmmakers are getting bolder and bolder in their claims. “A True Story,” some read. I’m wary of such marketing schemes, to say the least. 

But if you want to encounter a true story - I mean so true it hurts - then you need to see Werner Herzog's latest documentary, Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life. There is something raw and strikingly human about everything Herzog has done - from Aguirre, Wrath of God up until now.

Many people were first turned on to Herzog’s documentary style after seeing 2005’s Grizzly Man, an incredible documentary featuring the eccentric Timothy Treadwell, a bear enthusiastic who spent most of his life living among the Grizzlies in the Alaskan wilderness. While Into the Abyss is an entirely different film, it nevertheless embodies the raw passion and fullness of Herzog’s approach to filmmaking. 

The story centers around a triple homicide committed by two men, Michael Perry and Jason Burkett. Perry is on death row awaiting his execution and Burkett is facing forty years to life. Perry claims to be a born again Christian, and although he confessed to the crime when taken into custody, he now denies everything. In a startling moment, he calmly explains that he does not fear his coming execution. “I tell people I’m either going home or I’m going home,” he says, paraphrasing a common Christian sentiment of the afterlife and heaven. 

To me, the best documentaries resist the urge to become polemics. Despite Herzog’s statement in the film that he morally disagrees with the death penalty, the film is less about the question of justified execution and more about the sanctity of human life. Naturally, the two are inseparable on some level; however, Herzog is more concerned with creating a mosaic of interviews that piece together not just the night in question, but also the characters and lives of these men. Murderers, yes, but still men. 

Into the Abyss invites friends, family, enemies, executioners, pastors, and police officers to have their voice heard. Whether it is in defense of human life or in support of fatal consequences, the film - on the whole - is telling a story of life, though in doing so, it must also discuss four deaths: the three murders and the one execution. 

Herzog’s only weakness, to my mind, is an overcommitment to his German formalist roots. The documentary contains a strict five act structure, which is interesting given Shakespeare’s As You Like It - and “All the World’s a Stage.” Surely Herzog was alluding to the five acts of a man’s life, and how too many of the people in the film encountered lives ended much too soon. There is a sympathy and a soul to this film that rises above aesthetic concerns; its formalistic elements become less important when considering the weight of the subject matter and the passion of the filmmaking. 

                          

This is a film so good that it’s crippling. When I sit down to write about a movie I’ve seen, sometimes it comes incredibly easy. When I wrote the review for The Descendants, the themes and message were so vivid and clear to me that it rolled off without a hitch. Something like Into the Abyss, however, is so chock-full of images and thematic explorations that I didn’t know what to choose. The sanctity of life, the importance of education, the tragic breakdown in the modern family. Where to even begin approaching something so replete with analytic possibilities? 

I’ll admit, there is a polemic in this film, and sad as it is for me to say, some will find it upsetting. This is a film which counters the capital punishment in a sensitive but overt way. However, the heart of Into the Abyss is a subtle and strained hope for humanity. In the midst of a terribly emotional and challenging situation, after a film which leaves you restless and exhausted, it is clear that Herzog is seeking the silver lining. Not spiritual redemption necessarily, but a hope that here - in this life - we can do our part to promote life’s great sanctity: in our homes, our community, every aspect of our being. 

The consequences of reconsidering how we value human life in our courts, homes, and prisons are far-reaching. This is not just about the death penalty, but about how we treat one another. How we love and how we help and how we show compassion. For the life of Michael Perry, there is no turning back. He is gone from this world. 

But for the lives of all remaining, there is a hope. There is a chance to turn back, to rethink, to start fresh. That is a hope worth considering, and this is a film worth seeing. I don’t hesitate to say that this documentary possesses the capacity to change lives. I don’t say this loosely, the way some do. I am sincerely convinced that every blue moon, a movie is made which can have a lasting impact on the lives of its viewers - past weeks, months, and years. Into the Abyss can change the way people think about their and others’ existence, and that is a powerful potential. Perhaps the most powerful of all potentials with which art is endowed. 

Watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VvFSEDuByoQ

March232012
Ol’ Sundance himself. Cool as a cucumber. 

Ol’ Sundance himself. Cool as a cucumber. 

(Source: theimpossiblecool)

March222012
Here’s a great still from the 1959 film, Letter Never Sent. The best lighting is simple lighting. While this may be rather formalistic at points - notice the black fade that serves as a kind of border to the frame - so much narrative is tied up in this single image. The silhouettes are not just nice outlines to observe; their stance and their possessions are telling their own story. 
A great image is to a film what a great chapter is to a novel. A film is nothing more than a series of wonderfully narrative and expressive stills in motion. The best directors put as much care into the banal conversational shots as they do in formalistic ones like these. 
Criterion Collection released the film earlier this week. Although sparse on special features, it is probably the only way to get a hold of it. That is Criterion’s angle, after all, producing DVD and Blu-Ray editions of films that might not otherwise be available. 

Here’s a great still from the 1959 film, Letter Never Sent. The best lighting is simple lighting. While this may be rather formalistic at points - notice the black fade that serves as a kind of border to the frame - so much narrative is tied up in this single image. The silhouettes are not just nice outlines to observe; their stance and their possessions are telling their own story. 

A great image is to a film what a great chapter is to a novel. A film is nothing more than a series of wonderfully narrative and expressive stills in motion. The best directors put as much care into the banal conversational shots as they do in formalistic ones like these. 

Criterion Collection released the film earlier this week. Although sparse on special features, it is probably the only way to get a hold of it. That is Criterion’s angle, after all, producing DVD and Blu-Ray editions of films that might not otherwise be available. 

(Source: criterioncollection)

March122012

Dujardin’s ‘Infidelity’

In America, it would be called career suicide - to follow up a family-friendly, Oscar-winning role with a project called The Players. Apparently, the theaters of France are running out of room to accommodate the audience’s lust for Dujardin - or perhaps for the film’s subject matter, seven stories revolving around unfaithful men. While it may attempt to moralize the problem of infidelity, it is being presented in a very lighthearted way. Go to the IMDb page and see the poster for yourself (I don’t care to put it on this blog). 

In an excellent, albeit eccentric report, Lisa Nesselson provides some insight into the often lurid nature of French cinema and culture. This film, which by all accounts appears to be pushing the limits of vulgarity, is being lauded in French culture, not merely accepted in its brash and brazen form but being celebrated precisely for its vulgarity in some cases. Also, consider that there is no sense of age restriction in the theaters of France. A seven year-old could go to see Dujardin’s latest endeavor. 

American audiences will be put-off to a degree, no doubt. The good guy charmer from The Artist should not be playing the unfaithful and crude husband. “Well, maybe it’s just a cultural thing,” as many are apt to say. “It’s the French,” some will say in that American-centric, disregarding fashion. But there is something more universal at stake, I’d say. Something that shouldn’t be dismissed.  

In my opinion, cultural and artistic liberty must never be prized above moral integrity. In fact, I would argue that championing liberty in such a reckless fashion will lead only to moral decline, which will in turn only imprison us more than ever. I’m disappointed not because Dujardin is somehow bound by American expectations based on the only film of his we’ve all seen. I’m disappointed because he is at a crossroads while standing in a very influential position. People, for better or worse, look to the figures of Hollywood for more than entertainment (whether these people are aware of it or not).

God knows we need some heroes these days. Someone whose reputation is clean, who can form a cogent sentence without the Stone Age reliance on the incredibly banal diction of swearing. Someone who stands in the river facing upstream. Not just a good smile and a charming personality. Someone made of the right stuff. Just my opinion, I suppose. 

Watch the report and analysis of “The Players” here. Very interesting: 

http://www.france24.com/en/20120307-les-infideles-jean-dujardin-en-culture

March92012

Depp as Tonto in Disney’s “The Lone Ranger”

Read a short blurb about Disney’s upcoming project, “The Lone Ranger.” Literary critics and theorists beware: I’m afraid what crimes this movie might commit regarding the Native American. It’s a very real fear. 

If there’s any redemption possible, it’s the casting of Depp as Tonto. I’m not saying it’s appropriate. I’m saying that if they’re going to choose an actor for the role of an outsider, he’s a reasonable choice. I can’t think of many people who embody the “Other” as much as Johnny Depp. 

The film is being directed by Pirates of the Caribbean director, Gore Verbinski, who has most certainly earned Disney’s trust over the last few years. This one, however - I have to say it looks risky. 

Read more here: 

http://www.firstshowing.net/2012/first-look-the-lone-ranger-with-armie-hammer-and-johnny-depp/

March32012

Ill-Advised Excitement: Django Unchained (2012)

When asked what movie I’m most excited to see in 2012, several come to mind. However, one stands above the rest, and if you know me, this might come as something of a surprise. 

Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained has a cast, a one-sentence plot summary, and a surprisingly hushed and rumored following that makes the film impossible to resist. How can it even be possible to keep this film a secret? A Tarantino film starring Jamie FoxxLeonardo DiCaprioJoseph Gordon-LevittSamuel L. JacksonChristoph WaltzSacha Baron Cohen, and Kurt Russell? And that’s just the highlight of the cast. Moreover, consider that Foxx is playing the hero, DiCaprio the villain.

And just listen to this plot line: With the help of his mentor, a slave-turned-bounty hunter sets out to rescue his wife from a brutal Mississippi plantation owner.’ 

Maybe its my unceasing devotion to the South, but I think it’s more than that. Tarantino has made a living unabashedly rewriting history. And yet, he does it in such a way as to highlight the true subtext of that history. Yes, we all know that Inglourious Basterds has no historical footing, no factual leg to stand upon. But has anyone considered how honestly, albeit derisively, Tarantino exposes his audience to the true horror and violence of war (and the implied goal of war being ‘just killing’ - if there is such a thing)? Basterds may be a joke to historians, but to sociologists and literary theorists, Tarantino’s take on World War II is a brutally honest account of the nature of warfare. And as our good old post-colonialist friends would remind us, how reliable is history anyway? Written by the victors, isn’t it? 

So sure, Tarantino doesn’t worry himself over basing his stories in any true sense of the physical or historical world. They’re a bit detached from any reality we experience. Still, the subtext - the story beneath the story, the psychology beyond the facts - of his films are right on the money. 

If he approaches a historical tale about the Antebellum South with this same vision as a filmmaker, then I think there is more than sufficient reason to be excited. Southerners may be wary about it, and rightfully so. Don’t let anyone tell you the scars of slavery and the War have healed; not even close. And yet, if anyone can suspend our fact-based notion of our own history and expose us to the vulnerable, cathartic truths of our past, I think it might need to be someone irreverent, out-of-line, talented. I’m not a big Tarantino fan, but based on those three descriptions, he’s the first that comes to mind. 

So, between the cast and the plot summary, I’m excited enough. But in an era of extreme Hollywood marketing, forcing films to wait 12-14 months between completion and release simply in service of advertising, Django Unchained has somehow slipped under most of the radars (hasn’t it slipped under yours?). The IMDb page has very little information; not even a photograph. No trailer, no interviews. I realize it’s still 10 months off, but still, with that cast and that director and today’s market, how is that possible? The answer, I would wager, is relatively simple: it’s Tarantino. He’s just weird enough, counter-cultural enough, to fly the bird at the studios and backers, if he allowed their involvement in the first place. I mean, the guy’s weird (look at him biting Waltz’s ear inexplicably). 

For those three reasons, I think Django Unchained is the film I’m most excited to see in 2012. Again, I’m not a big Tarantino fan. Pulp Fiction is an incredible movie, but for me, is an exception in Tarantino’s catalogue. Maybe Django will be, as well.

And it’s worth mentioning: obviously the film title calls to mind the 1966 spaghetti western, DjangoOriginally filmed in Italian, dubbed in English, it is now tagged as “the movie that spawned a genre.” As per Tarantino’s normal approach, he has chosen a genre to engage, to inspire, to problematize even. A genre that celebrates violence, that is rooted in inflated hero-worshipping, and overly-simplistic notions of justice. Come on, tell me Tarantino won’t have a field day with this film - and this genre. 

Interesting that Django Unchained is due out the same day as Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby (also starring DiCaprio). Needless to say, it looks like a big year for DiCaprio (and Joseph Gordon-Levitt while we’re at it). Not only does Gordon-Levitt have several films lined up, he also just landed his first directing gig.

Perhaps after so many disappointments, you’d expect me to learn to be reserved and distant, like a good critic who never walks into a theatre with expectations. Never enters a year with excitement in his tone. But no, that’s not me. I think 2012 is going to be a great year, I feel it. So whether my optimism is ill-advised or not, it’s still there. I think we’re in for a good one.

Stay tuned. 

March12012
If I were to make a list of the great films of the studio era, it would have to include Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly in On the Town. Something about that movie gives you an urgency about your life. Two sailors on shore leave in NYC have a wild 24-hours trying to find entertainment and love in the city. 
Forgive me the blatant philosophy: but there’s something obviously metaphorical about the setup of such a situation. Life is terribly short; in the grand scheme of things, it indeed feels like a 24-hour shore leave before being called back. And while entertainment may be but a fleeting distraction of this temporal world, love - real love - is something that calls for searching wildly through night in the city of man.
It’s amazing how though life is brief, it can be an incredible journey, an incredible 24 hours. As Ivy Smith (Vera-Ellen) says, “getting involved is so…involving.” 
It’s a fun movie. And a good movie. So many films, so little time. Get involved. 

If I were to make a list of the great films of the studio era, it would have to include Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly in On the Town. Something about that movie gives you an urgency about your life. Two sailors on shore leave in NYC have a wild 24-hours trying to find entertainment and love in the city.

Forgive me the blatant philosophy: but there’s something obviously metaphorical about the setup of such a situation. Life is terribly short; in the grand scheme of things, it indeed feels like a 24-hour shore leave before being called back. And while entertainment may be but a fleeting distraction of this temporal world, love - real love - is something that calls for searching wildly through night in the city of man.

It’s amazing how though life is brief, it can be an incredible journey, an incredible 24 hours. As Ivy Smith (Vera-Ellen) says, “getting involved is so…involving.” 

It’s a fun movie. And a good movie. So many films, so little time. Get involved. 

(Source: theimpossiblecool, via theoldguard)

February292012

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World - Official Trailer 

One YouTuber got it right: it looks like the comedy version of Melancholia . Either way, I’m a huge Steve Carell fan, and I think this holds a lot of potential. Keep your eyes peeled: this might just end up being one of the mainstream romcoms worth watching (the last one I saw that was worth the admission price was also a Carell movie: Crazy, Stupid, Love.). 

Happy Trail(er)s, Everyone! 

7PM

What the Oscars Actually Mean

The Academy Awards are a strange, cultural anomaly. In almost all realms of art, it is understand that recognition - while welcome - correlates only loosely to quality and importance. Whether pretentious or not, most people differentiate between works of “serious” art and works of “popular” art. Twilight Breaking Dawn was not nominated for the Pulitzer or the Nobel, and as far as I know, there were no grievances filed. 

And yet, few art forms are more mutually dependent upon cultural reception than film. The Academy may be mostly 60 year-old, white males; however, their opinion is only the last voice in a chain reaction of critical reception increasingly determined by the assessment of the modern laymen. Rottentomatoes.com has entire sections of critical response dedicated to non-mainstream publications and/or writers. And in the advent of the blog and the vast array of independent publishing options, the public perception of films has never been more influential - on both the box office and the Oscars.

Take Bridesmaids and Melissa McCarthy's Oscar nod. Regardless of how you felt about that movie, a raw comedy receiving that kind of attention is unique. Other comedies have earned Oscar favor, gotten nods and even wins. Still, in 9 out of 10 cases, the comedies that receive attention are a different breed, straddling the fence between comedy and drama (the proverbial ‘dramedy’). And often, they’re only selected to bring a false sense of balance to the judging process. This year, the vibe was simply different. The Academy may consist of the same Hollywood dinosaurs that have served as the puppeteers for the last two decades of the Awards, but a turning is taking place. The audience determines more than a film’s financial success: they have a say - and rightfully so - on a film’s artistic caliber. 

In other ways, the Oscars are sheer politics. The Help was a meaningful film, a good film even. It was not a great film. The Oscars wins it received were earned; many of the nominations, including Best Picture, were not. But the film captured a certain cultural moment, was received with a certain cultural deference. Yet again, the theatre patrons had a voice in the vote; but, in this case, it was a misleading voice.

So, yes, the Oscars can be a very manufactured affair. It, like the films it celebrates, is a performance. That’s what makes it different than the Pulitzer or the Nobel; it is more distilled and weakened than walking through the Tate and seeing staggering art silently working, speaking in its subtle way that asks for no hosts or red carpets. Needs no golden statue to define its intangible contribution to the world of art and culture. The Oscars are cotton candy to the well-balanced diet. The Oscars are the reality television of the art world. 

Even so, it has its shining moments. To provide but one example: all four of the directors nominated this year are true auteurs, genuine artists at work. There was a man whose career has spanned four decades, proving to be a writer and filmmaker who is as prolific as he is committed to craft (Allen). There was a genius, a Rhodes scholar who has made only 5 films over the last 40 years, all of which are works of art destined to be remembered (Malick). There was a director who traditionally makes a specific kind of film, but displayed his versatility in jumping genres, shooting the beautiful but not quite Best Picture-worthy, Hugo (Scorsese). There was a director who traditionally makes a specific kind of film, and made it again - pitch-perfectly (Payne). And, of course, there was the winner, the relative newcomer and Artist-director, Michel Hazanavicius.

This is probably the most impressive pool of Best Director nominees I have ever seen at the Academy Awards. Two younger directors and three older legends, together spanning a great representation of genre, subject matter, style, and method. This is what movies are art are all about. Different voices, different work - meeting at the table with contributions to the discourse. In this way, the 84th Academy Awards were - to me - a success. People’s opinion and critical reception met with this batch of director nominees. There was a balance between art as something involving esoterica, and art as something for popular consumption. And no one got hurt. Twilight didn’t win Best Picture, but neither did The Tree of Life, which while brilliant, was a little too caught up in its own style and pretension to concern itself much with conveying its art. Don’t get me wrong, I love Malick and everything he’s ever done. But Tree of Life was not Best Picture (his is yet to come, I hope). 

This is the Academy’s destiny: to continually struggle to speak for both the critic and the viewer, a distinction becoming blurred in contemporary cinema and criticism. The Academy seeks to garner attention for film. Above all, they seek to earn money. It’s a political, economic affair; it’s Hollywood on parade. 

The Oscars don’t “mean” anything - the same way all awards and recognitions are meaningless to some extent. Art is measured in intangibles; it’s a game of centimeters. The Room may have actually changed someone’s life in a meaningful way, Twilight may have been a turning point in some young girl’s troubled life; it is not for any single person - or any single Academy - to determine the ultimate worth of a single work. But, a person or Academy can make a functional judgment, which amounts to little more than a drunkard’s wager, about the influence, caliber, and lasting value of some piece. 

So, next time someone (maybe yourself) gets worked up about how the Oscars are a sell-out, remember that the Academy is fighting a losing battle. Making bold claims and handing out big awards earns viewers, but it’s not the Word of God. Who’s really qualified to be a judge? Think of it as a recommendation show - as a more jazzy version of “At the Movies” with Siskel and Ebert. When a book wins the Nobel Prize: sure, it’s probably very good. But don’t be surprised if you find a book written that year that you think is vastly better. So it is with movies.

I’ll continue to watch the Oscars, not because their voice represents the paragons of artistic judgment. No, I’ll continue watching because I love the movies, sometimes even the bad ones. Sometimes especially the bad ones. And there’s no use crying about it because even if you vehemently disagree, at least it helps you to find your own opinion and your own voice. Your own Best Picture is ultimately all that matters. 

So be at peace with the Oscars’ meaninglessness. It doesn’t mean art and life is meaningless. Just accept it at face value, and try not to get too mad…

Like me. I’m so furious about how Drive got overlooked. But I’ll get over it.

Someday. 

February252012

Why the Movie’s Not Called ‘Castaway’ …

Here is a well-written article by Omer Mozaffar on some subtext you might have missed in Zemeckis’ 2000 film, Cast Away. Mozaffar has a very interesting take on why the film is titled ‘Cast Away’ rather than ‘Castaway.’

One of the major questions facing most viewers of any film is - At what point is a film relying on traditional plot devices and at what point is it establishing its own? In a film like ‘Cast Away,’ the scenario is so familiar that it can be easy to miss its many unique elements.

Not many of us will find ourselves stranded on a deserted island. Where Cast Away succeeds is in the way it makes Chuck Noland’s (Hanks) situation so universal, so relatable. Good art is limited by neither genre nor scenario: it can be the plight of Jean Valjean on the streets of Paris or it can be a man’s modern-day fight for survival on an island unknown to the world. Granted, this film came dangerously close to failing. Read this article if you’re interested. Or better yet, see the movie if you haven’t already…

http://blogs.suntimes.com/foreignc/2012/02/the-pursuit-of-powerlessness.html

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