Saturday, June 30, 2012

Interlude: TwitCrix Poll

Update: A few more people posted lists. I've updated it to reflect those.

Yesterday on Twitter, a number of the film critics I follow/follow me got around to posting their favorite films of 2012 so far. Curious to see what was the favorite, I aggregated the 25 30 lists I found. I ranked them the usual way (#1 picks got 5 points, #2 got 4 points, and so on—if the lists were unranked I each pick one point). This of course isn't the end all list, but for those wondering what to fill your Netflix queues with for the rest of the year, all these films are great, or at least worth checking out. 

1. Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson, USA) - 73 points/23 mentions
2. Once Upon A Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey) - 29 points/7 mentions
3. The Deep Blue Sea (Terrence Davies, UK) - 26 points/11 mentions
4. Haywire (Steven Soderbergh, USA) - 26 points/10 mentions
5. The Kid With A Bike (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Belgium) - 24 points/8 mentions
6. The Turin Horse (Bela Tarr, Hungary) - 20 points/8 mentions
7. Damsels in Distress (Whit Stillman, USA) - 16 points/5 mentions
8. This Is Not A Film (Jafar Panahi, Iran) - 14 points/5 mentions
9. Cabin in the Woods (Drew Goddard, USA) - 13 points/5 mentions
10. The Color Wheel (Alex Perry Ross, USA) - 13 points/3 mentions
11. Miss Bala (Gerardo Naranjo, Mexico) - 10 points/3 mentions

Magic Mike: Stimulus Package

Magic Mike
Directed By: Steven Soderbergh
Written By: Reid Carolin
Starring: Channing Tatum, Matthew McConaughey, Alex Pettyfer, Cody Horn, Olivia Munn, Joe Mangeniello, Matt Bomer, Adam Rodriguez, and Kevin Nash
Director of Photography: Peter Andrews, Editor: Mary Ann Bernard, Art Director: Stephen I. Erdberg, Coreographer: Alison Faulk

            Magic Mike is the type of film that deserves to be seen with an audience, and especially one made up of women. Remember the cheering during the CGI extravaganza of The Avengers? Wait until you hear the screams of 250 margarita-filled women when they see Channing Tatum’s perfectly chiseled abs and shaped ass. In fact, I couldn’t tell whether it was the audience in the film screaming or just the people around me.

            But the film, set in the world of male stripping, is not an indulgent “let’s put hot men on screen.” Behind the camera is none other than Steven Soderbergh, who has delivered some of the most unique features of the last few years, not to mention this year’s phenomenally inimitable Haywire. The film is a collaboration between Soderbegh and Tatum, working on a script by Reid Carolin based on Tatum’s own experiences as a male stripper. But more than that, Magic Mike is the essential sequel to Soderbergh’s “grab-what-you-can” 2008 period piece The Girlfriend Experience. The recession is finally bottomed out, but everyone is still on the hunt for cash. And once again, Soderbergh centers on  the body as a commodity fetish. In one moment, Adam (Alex Pettyfer), the dough-eyed child that Magic Mike (Tatum) takes under his wing, sits with the dollar bills he’s earned from his first stage appearance. The bills hide the bulge that is his manhood, or perhaps enhance it.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Beasts of the Southern Wild: Beyond the Delta

Beasts of the Southern Wild
Directed By: Benh Zeitlin
Written By: Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin
Starring: Quvenzhane Wallis, Dwight Henry
Director of Photography: Ben Richardson, Editors: Crockett Doob and Affonso Gocalves, Production Designer: Alex DiGerlando, Original Music: Dan Romer and Benh Zeitlin

            After the first ten minutes of the Sundance smash Beasts of the Southern Wild, I was ready to flee from the theater. Set in an area of Southern Louisiana called “the Bathtub,” the film quickly introduces us to our protagonist Hushpuppy, who says lines about how all the universe is connected. Her home is a grassy plain filled with trash and animals and full of characters who speak with pride about an us vs. them mentality. The director Benh Zeitlin fills the palate with intense non-linear shots that confuse the viewer into astonishment, not to mention the overbearing score. Oh God, what have I walked into? Yes, Beasts is not your typical Sundance film—there’s no mumbling, no digital video, and no 20-somethings attempting to figure out what to do with their trust-funded lives—but damn, I thought, is that precociousness and sense of wonder going to feel like my head being slammed against the wall.

            But then, I gave in, and accepted Zeitlin’s film on its own terms: a fairy tale, and an imaginative one at that, set as a coming of age story in a part of Americana rarely explored on film. Beasts never quite won me over—the amount of tears pouring from my fellow audience was quite a contrast to my dry face—but its earnestness and exploration of familial relationship centered itself.

            But wait! How can someone just like this film? Either you must be over the moon, calling it one of the best films to ever play at Sundance, or as Ignatiy Vishnevetsky prefers, “bullshit.” To not love this film is to reveal that you are a callous and cynical critic who can’t accept a film for its given premises and to not hate it is to reveal you are a sucker for fraudulent cinematic techniques. There has been too much digital ink poured over Beasts of the Southern Wild that it almost feels like discussions are no longer about the film. Tim Grierson writes at Deadspin that Beasts is a “model independent film,” which means the problems of Beasts must stand for the entirety of filmmaking outside of Hollywood (and you thought Lena Dunham had it bad!).

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Screening Log: Ignorance is Bliss Edition

            It’s a short screening log this week, but I’m excited to see Dan Sallitt’s The Unspeakable Act tonight at BAMcinemaFest (as long as my train back to NYC is on time). I briefly met Sallitt a month ago and I’ve considered him one of the most intelligent critics whenever I read it work. Here’s a piece he wrote on Julia Leigh’s The Sleeping Beauty, which is much more eloquent than mine. And here’s a nice Wall Street Journal profile on Sallitt, which also quotes my Personal Recommendation MachineTM Bilge Ebiri.

-Blowup, 1966. Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni. DVD.
-Duck, You Sucker!, 1971. Directed by Sergio Leone. 35mm projection at Film Forum.
-The Ruthless Four, 1968. Directed by Giorgio Capitani. 35mm projection at Film Forum.
-Horrible Bosses, 2010. Directed by Seth Gordon. HBO.  

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Brave: The Greatest Courage Is One of Love

Directed By: Michael Andrews and Brenda Chapman
Written By: Mark Andrews, Steve Purcell, Brenda Chapman, and Irene Mecchi, from a story by Chapman
Starring: (the voices of) Kelly MacDonald, Emma Thompson, Billy Connolly, and Julie Walters.
Editor: Nicholas C. Smith, Original Music: Patrick Doyle

            For all its fantastic characters, inventive narratives, and ability to make me open tear ducts I wasn’t even aware I had, the most impressive part of the Pixar brand today for me is its seamless ability to truly design visual storytelling. No longer can we watch animation without thinking of the shot structure, editing patterns, and mise-en-scene like the ways we consider in films made without the aid of computers (which, of course, is very few these days). Especially in Pixar’s Brave, their latest film, I found myself constantly tracking the “camera placement,” for something that wasn’t even there. Pixar has continually pushed the mold of what animation can mean, it certainly shows off the company’s ability to use animation not as an end but as a medium, even if Brave isn’t as “groundbreaking” as the company’s previous entries.

            It’s tough when you are Pixar—so many of their films have literally pushed the bar, that when something as solid and well crafted as Brave comes along, the gut reaction is to attack it for not being the equivalent of the Sistine Chapel. What does come up slightly disappointing is that Brave, which has been highly publicized as the first Pixar film to feature a female protagonist, is the film’s rough edges.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Your Sister's Sister: Familial Trouble in a Cloudy Paradise

Your Sister’s Sister
Written and Directed By: Lynn Shelton
Starring: Mark Duplass, Rosemarie DeWitt, and Emily Blunt
Director of Photography: Benjamin Kasulke, Editor: Nat Sanders, Production Designer: John Lavin, Original Music: Vince Smith

            Rosemarie DeWitt doesn’t need dialogue. The unconsciously beautiful actress, perhaps best recognized as the titular character of Rachel Getting Married, seems to transcend scripts with her ability to shoot her eyes across the room. She never goes for big dramatic scenes; her best moments are the way she moves the hand across the table, or fixes her hair, or simply moves in an unexpected way. Even after delivering the “big monologue” in Your Sister’s Sister, it’s the emotion registered in her face that gave me chills.

            And given that Your Sister’s Sister is mainly an improvised film (more on that later), it’s no wonder that DeWitt shines throughout this amusing and often touching comedy that sadly shoots itself in the foot (definitely more on that later). The film comes from Lynn Shelton, last seen bringing us the odd and fascinatingly fresh Humpday, which followed two best friends who dared each other to make a gay porn. Both Humpday and Your Sister’s Sister start off with premises that sound not too far from the world of Judd Apatow, but as soon as you enter them, you understand what makes her fresh.

Dark Horse: Little Hope Except for Last

Dark Horse
Written and Directed By: Todd Solondz
Starring: Jordan Gelber, Selma Blair, Mia Farrow, Christopher Walken, Justin Bartha, Donna Murphy, and Aasif Mandvi
Director of Photography: Andrij Parekh, Editor: Kevin Messman, Production Designer: Alex DiGerlando, Art Direction: Dawn Masi

            “I don’t dance,” explains Abe to Miranda in the opening sequence of Todd Solodnz’s Dark Horse. The two sit silently and awkwardly during a wedding, as every other person dances (in synchronization!) to a catchy pop song. Abe seems like, for lack of a better term, a honest guy—he might be overweight and totally awkward, but maybe his heart’s in the right place. Miranda seems uninterested to say the least; her eyes shout, “get away from me.” So how can these two imperfect souls be right for each other?

            Well, it helps if they are both essentially psychopaths underneath. Solondz’s films are always about how the seemingly innocent world of today hides a world of destructive mental states. His most acclaimed film, Happiness, follows the cheerful suburban life of people who dream of intense sexual perversity (its spiritual sequel, Life During Wartime, went sadly unnoticed in 2009, though it’s just as great).

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

In Praise of Andrew Sarris

            During my sophomore year of college, I signed up for a class on Howard Hawks. I hadn’t cared for Hawks much before—I liked some of his films, but they didn’t strike me as masterpieces (naivety is the basis of youth). Instead I signed up for the class for another reason: Andrew Sarris. For someone who had only minimal exposure to film criticism at the time, there were only a few names I knew (Pauline Kael wasn’t even one of them). 

            Even before I studied cinema, Sarris (who sadly passed away today) already had influenced my cinephile brain without me even knowing who he was. I was watching films because they were directed by a certain person. I was making connections between the works of John Ford and Orson Welles. The way a kid like me watched films was you’d try and watch three or four by one great director, just so you could have taste. And then you could figure out the grand statement. Ford was about the changing American landscape from individualism to society. Kuorsawa’s films explored the possibility of empathy. And so on and so on.

            But Hawks was tricky. He worked in every genre possible. His films, at least to the untrained eyes, lacked the visual dynamics that the other canonical Hollywood directors showed off (actually to think of it, would there be a canon of Hollywood directors without Sarris?). If I waited a year, Sarris would teach Hitchcock, a director everyone loves. But I wanted a challenge; I wanted to see Hawks the same way Sarris saw him.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Screening Log: Samurai Driver Edition

            Two notes before we begin. As noted, I saw The Warriors at MoMI as screened as a Blu-Ray. I think this gets to a point I had a tweet discussion with sometime last year. The Warriors Blu-Ray looked quite good on a big screen, and everything was crystal clear. But I think that’s why the film lacked a punch. It needed to be extra grainy, scratched up, and skipping in places. Some films are perfect for the digital conversion; others, deserved to be treated like shit, one could say. My second update, and this is brief, is to tell you all check back here over the next month for updates on a big project coming up that I think most of my readers will quite enjoy. More on that at another time, as the details become more concrete.

-A New Leaf, 1971. Directed by Elaine May. 35mm projection at Museum of the Moving Image.
-The Warriors, 1978. Directed by Walter Hill. Blu-Ray projection at Museum of the Moving Image.
-We Won’t Grow Old Together, 1972. Directed by Mauriece Pialat. 35mm projection at Brooklyn Academy of Music.
-Kill and Pray, 1969. Directed by Carlo Lizzani. Betacam projection at Film Forum.
-The Last Run, 1971. Directed by Richard Fleischer. 35mm projection at Anthology Film Archives.
-Ulzana’s Raid, 1972. Directed by Robert Aldrich. 35mm projection at Anthology Film Archives. 

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Screening Log: Mann Edition

            No notes for this screening log, but I’m really excited to write about the film I’ll be discussing below, which I technically saw last week (I only had seen two films last Sunday so I held my log back a week).

-Black Angel, 1946. Directed by Roy William Neill. 35mm projection at Brooklyn Academy of Music.
-Thief, 1981. Directed by Michael Mann. 35mm projection at Brooklyn Academy of Music.
-As You Desire Me, 1932. Directed by George Fitzmaurice. 35mm projection at Film Forum.
-Hello, Sister!, 1933. Directed by Erich von Stroheim. 35mm projection at Film Forum.
-The Great Silence, 1968. Directed by Sergio Corbucci. 35mm projection at Film Forum.
-The Price of Power, 1969. Directed by Tonino Valerii. 35mm projection at Film Forum.
-Pulp Fiction, 1994. Directed by Quentin Tarantino. DVD. 

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Interlude: Zacharek Zingers

You may hear today that Stephanie Zacharek, the chief film critic for Movieline, will be let go from her position July 13th. It's of course the latest in a string of critics losing their positions. I often disagreed with Zacharek, but she was a damn good critic. Her post on The Artist during the Slate Movie Club is easily the most interesting defense of that film I read during the film's inevitable Oscar run. To honor what is an idiotic movie, I dug through some of her work at Movieline and found some of my favorite lines. Editors, take note:

"If the career of Christopher Nolan is any indication, we've entered an era in which movies can no longer be great. They can only be awesome, which isn't nearly the same thing." -Inception (July 14th, 2010)
"The picture has a pale, worn-out look, as if the blood is being drained from it even as we watch – like the characters who populate it, it looks ready for some kind of rejuvenation that may never come." -Post Mortem (April 11th, 2012)

"As the end credits of this last dour Swedish snooze-a-thon started rolling, I clapped my notebook shut as if it were the last day of school. Huzzah! Bring on David Fincher. Please." -The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest (October 28th, 2010)

"His body is gangly and puppet-like in that preadolescent way, but every movement is resolute: When he chases after the various kids who, repeatedly, try to steal his precious bike, he throws off sparks of grim determination, like a single-minded marathon runner. Maybe, in the end, he outruns the movie." -The Kid With A Bike (May 15th, 2011)

"Reichardt and her cinematographer, Chris Blauvelt, allow the weather, the time of day, and the landscape, as it shifts little by little beneath the settlers' feet, to determine the movie's color palette: One minute we see strata of sky, clouds and scrubby land rendered in dry, parched tones; the next we're transported into an early-evening fever dream of unreal-looking purples and blues right out of a Maxfield Parrish painting." -Meek's Cutoff (April 7th, 2011)

"When Katz shows the four playing a board time, they're clearly having a great time, and not ironically -- Katz gives us the sense that he cares for his characters, as opposed to just using them as mouthpieces for the discontent of his generation." -Cold Weather (February 4th, 2011)

"Not since Antichrist has a man suffered so greatly at the tiny, grabby hands of God's creatures." -Fury Vengeance (April 28th, 2010)

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Prometheus: Origins of the Creature from the Space Lagoon

Directed By: Ridley Scott
Written By: Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof
Starring: Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Charlize Theron, Idris Elba, Guy Pearce, Logan Marshall-Green, and Patrick Wilson
Director of Photography: Dariusz Wolski, Editor: Peitro Scalia, Production Designer: Arthur Max, Original Music: Marc Streitenfeld

WARNING: Like my review for Cabin in the Woods, I plan on discussing Prometheus in full, without any consideration for what are considered “spoilers” If you are curious to see the film, just go see it. My opinion of whether I liked it or not shouldn’t be the factor. If you are curious to read on why I think the film functions as it does, without any consideration for hiding the aspects of the narrative, then read on. Also, I’m also going to spoil Lost.

            In 2010, the hit ABC series Lost came to an end with what many considered a crashing thud. For six seasons, audiences watched a show about constantly accumulating mysteries on an island. Lost fed its hungry fans with more and more—polar bears in jungles, buttons that saved the universe, alternate timelines—and then abandoned it all for a spiritual sit down with its characters, discarding the main reason that it originally drew viewers. For months before the finale, showrunners Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse warned their fans: “true fans” only care about their characters; the mysteries were irrelevant.

            Why this long primer on Lost, when the film of the week, and for many their most anticipated film of the summer, is a prequel to Alien? Because as much as critics will be discussing the craft of director Ridley Scott, Prometheus is assuredly a Damon Lindelof work. His hands are all over this film about a group of scientists traveling to a mysterious planet to find the origins of life. And in many ways, the faults of Prometheus lie in his blame (though Scott shouldn’t escape all the blame). 

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Moonrise Kingdom: Paradise Found

Moonrise Kingdom
Directed By: Wes Anderson
Written By: Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola
Starring: Jared Gilman, Kara Hayward, Edward Norton, Bruce Willis, Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Jason Schwartzman, Harvey Keitel, Tilda Swinton, and Bob Balaban
Director of Photography: Robert Yeoman, Editor: Andrew Weisblum, Production Designer: Adam Stockhausen, Original Music: Alexandre Desplat

            Moonrise Kingdom, the seventh feature from love-him-or-hate-him director Wes Anderson, feels like in many ways, a culminating work, combining the best aspects from his previous movies. That, to many of Anderson’s angry critics, seems impossible: the man has simply made the same feature film over and over again (this criticism often coming from the same people who say Martin Scorsese should stop making projects like Shutter Island and Hugo, and go back to gangster films). Yes, Moonrise is very much in that Anderson vibe, one that I’ve always found fascinating, but never outright loved. But there’s something so assured, and so confident in Anderson’s storytelling here, that Moonrise Kingdom is a blast, one I fell in love with from the first image to the fighting-tears-from-my-eyes last image. 

            The story, set out by narrator Bob Balaban (playing island expert, weatherman, and possibly God), takes place on an island off the Northeast coast called New Panzance in 1965. In a series of elaborate tracking shots, we meet the Bishops, made up of two lazy and distant parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand), three young identical boys, and a rebellious teenage daughter named Suzy, played by Kara Hayward. In each shot, Anderson reveals the next section of the perfectly aligned house, leading to Suzy, staring out her window with large binoculars. On the other side of the island, we meet the Khaki Scouts, led by Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton), who declares himself a math teacher first and a scoutmaster second, before deciding to reverse the claim. When Ward and the scouts sit down for their breakfast, Ward notices Sam (Jared Gilman), the most unpopular of the boys, has disappeared. Sam and Suzy are in love, and nothing can stop them.

Sunday, June 03, 2012

Interlude: Image of the Day

Click it to see it blown up in all its abstract glory.

Friday, June 01, 2012

Interlude: A Dangerous Method - Flat Compositions in 3D Films

Correction: Danny Baldwin notes below that Men in Black 3 was actually shot on film, not with 3D cameras, but it was still designed with a 3D conversion in mind.

I don’t plan on writing a full review of Men in Black 3, the painfully dull sequel to the Will Smith franchise. The film is rarely inventive and quite laborious, and even the quite awesome Josh Brolin is only so fun as a young Tommy Lee Jones (who seems to have only shown up for a paycheck). The film’s saving grace is actually Michael Stuhlbarg as a being who can see across alternate timelines (useful for watching Mets games, it turns out).

            But besides the lazy script, there was something extremely alarming about Men in Black 3: the flat compositions. Being a hater of 3D in almost every possible situation (sans Pina), I ended up seeing the film in 2D (and in 35mm no less!). This is not the first time I’ve seen a 3D film in my preferred format, but it is the first time I’ve noted that choosing to see the film in 2D was actually a detriment to the film.