Thursday, June 8, 2017

bruised links

---"Jaan Pehecchaan Ho" from Gumnaam and Ghost World via @dcairns

---"A Brief History of the GIF" by Lorraine Boissoneault

---trailers for Beatriz at Dinner, Baby Driver, Good Time, Becoming Cary GrantLogan Lucky, and Okja

---"So when it came time for her own directorial debut, Ms. Lister-Jones knew she wanted to work with a woman behind the camera. Only women behind the camera, actually: For her indie comedy Band Aid, released Friday, June 2, Ms. Lister-Jones hired an all-female crew, from the grips to the drivers to the production assistants.

'I wanted to see what it would feel like,” she said, “if a community of women exclusively created a piece of art together.'" --Melena Ryzik

---"Saturnz Barz" by the Gorillaz

---the pleasures of wealth and fame and Johnny Depp

---Maya Deren's Film Philosophy

---"my interest was telling this story [Ghost World] in a slightly exaggerated, nightmarish, almost film-noir version of the world. A social and critical satire depicting America’s fabric woven from falsehoods and lies, hypocrisies and scams. It just seems to be what happens in a capitalist society. There’s politicians and TV evangelists and corporations, and none of them have the best interest of the average citizen." --Terry Zwigoff

---the best aggregators of film links? @CriterionDailyMovie City News, and @nathanielr's link lists

---"The handsomest Frenchman on earth, swaddled in an outsize yet epaulet-perfect trenchcoat, hiding deep blue pools of blankness under the brim of a fedora, stares into Parisian drizzle through a rain-blurred windshield, inserting keys from a huge ring until he finds the one that fits. A steel-haired, middle-aged, world-weary gambler comes up with the grandest con of his day while cruising the nightspots and fleshpots of backstreet Montmartre, but his moment of deepest melancholy comes from a single gaze upon the bare back of a young girl he’s sheltered as she sleeps with his young protégé. A bald, stocky Jewish Frenchman, wearing a Stetson and sunglasses at night, barrels his Cadillac convertible down the Champs-Élysées in search of diversion. Alain Delon in Le Samouraï, Roger Duchesne in Bob the Gambler, the great filmmaker of action and attitude Jean-Pierre Melville in life." --Ray Pride

---"one of the fascinating things about the cinematic image is precisely that it’s difficult to pin it down." --Laura Mulvey

---"On the music of Ghost World" by Terry Zwigoff

---“I remember it was Day 2, my body was hurting, and my face is all bruised up, and my eye was swollen shut,” Ms. Theron said. “I remember thinking to myself, really?” --from "Women Who Have the Chops (and the Punches and the Kicks)" by Julie Bloom

---Orson Welles: Hollywood Magician

---an excerpt from Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-In Near You by Charles Taylor

---"Bill Condon’s live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast presents an odd and dilated experience of this particular kind of uncanny nostalgia, without any acknowledgment of its own weirdness. It is at once discomfitingly familiar and unfamiliar. By consistently hitting certain marks hard (precise musical cues, familiar costumes, lines of dialogue, and a multitude of shot-for-shot reenactments that feel like torpid tableaux vivants), it relies upon the viewer’s assumed willingness to completely integrate the new fetish object and the lost original. In so doing, it suggests that the pleasures of mere recognition offered by this uncharismatic filmic doppelgänger should be enough to regain or even surpass the enchantment of its original for the return viewer. This is a remake that refuses to acknowledge the inevitable uncanniness of its status as such. In its dogged familiarity, however, the specter of the original only becomes more and more insistent. In the lackluster and slightly down-tempo musical numbers, it becomes harder and harder to be present in the movie theater while another (better) version is being simulcast on the screen of memory." --Sara Chihaya

---10 tips for filmmakers

---"Netflix Isn't Killing Movies, Hollywood Studies and Theaters Are" by Jordan Zakarin

---"Sofia Coppola on Bill Murray, Nicole Kidman, and the Movie that Made Her the Second Woman to Win Best Director at Cannes" by Lynn Hirschberg

---"To me, it’s telling the same story but from the women characters’ point of view. I would never want to remake someone else’s movie, but I love the premise of it. When I saw the movie I thought it was so… I don’t know… weird. It stayed in my mind. It’s a very macho guy’s point of view in this women’s world, so it started making me think about what it must have been like for the women during wartime. They were raised to relate to men, that was their whole role in the Southern world of that era, and now there’s no men. It was wartime but these women were left behind." --Sofia Coppola

---"It’s also important to remember that most of these images are actually sequences of images: Peter O’Toole blowing out the match followed by the sun rising over the desert, the baby carriage rolling down the steps amid the chaos and brutality of the attack by the Cossacks. And beyond that, each separate cinematic image is comprised of a succession of still frames that creates the impression of motion. They are recordings of instants in time. But the moment you put them together, something else happens. Every time I get back into the editing room, I feel the wonder of it. One image is joined with another image, and a third phantom event happens in the mind’s eye – perhaps an image, perhaps a thought, perhaps a sensation. Something occurs, something absolutely unique to this particular combination or collision of moving images. And if you take a frame away from one or add a couple of frames to the other, the image in the mind’s eye changes. It’s a wonder to me, and I’m far from alone. Sergei Eisenstein talked about it on a theoretical level, and the Czech filmmaker František Vlácil discusses it in an interview included on the Criterion edition of his great medieval epic Marketa Lazarová (1967). The film critic Manny Farber understood it as elemental to art in general – that’s why he named his collection of writings Negative Space. This 'principle', if that’s what you could call it, is just as applicable to the juxtaposition of words in poetry or forms and colours in painting. It is, I think, fundamental to the art of cinema. This is where the act of creation meets the act of viewing and engaging, where the common life of the filmmaker and the viewer exists, in those intervals of time between the filmed images that last a fraction of a fraction of a second but that can be vast and endless. This is where a good film comes alive as something more than a succession of beautifully composed renderings of a script. This is film-making. Does this 'phantom image' exist for casual viewers without an awareness of how films are put together? I believe it does. I don’t know how to read music and neither do most people I know, but we all 'feel' the progression from one chord to another in music that affects us, and by implication some kind of awareness that a different progression would be a different experience." --Martin Scorsese

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Comfortable in no man's land: the pleasurable questions of Wonder Woman

'Frankly, Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world.’ --William Moulton Marston (the original creator of Wonder Woman)

I enjoyed director Patty Jenkins' Wonder Woman in part because the movie begs several questions that I've been brooding on, such as why did the filmmakers choose the first World War for its story and not some more recent period? 

Why is the battle scene where Wonder Woman climbs up from a trench and takes on a classic stalemated no man's land the strongest one in the movie? How does Wonder Woman resist superhero blockbuster fatigue? I don't usually care much for heightened characters with unrealistic CGI-driven powers. How is it that Gal Gadot's version of a superhero almost makes her superpowers beside the point? What is the relationship between Wonder Woman's mythological origin/worldview (with its emphasis on Ares, Zeus, Hippolyta, etc.,) and the more historical one of Steve Trevor (Chris Pine)? Even as naked and bathing Steve Trevor describes himself as being an "above average" specimen of mankind, is he even needed in this movie? When Wonder Woman decides to go find and fight Ares as a way to stop war, is she being naive or somehow smarter than Steve?  

When we see Robin Wright playing Antiope as Diana Prince's fighting coach on Paradise Island, are we supposed to see her work here as some fundamental opposition to her usual role as the conniving Claire Underwood in the much more cynical House of Cards? How much is the success of Wonder Woman due to its lack of cynicism? When Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) faints underwater after crash landing his plane near Paradise Island, is he meant to look weak and helpless before waking to find an Amazon staring at him on the beach and saying "A man!" somewhat like Miranda does in Shakespeare's The Tempest when she beholds her first man:  "How beauteous mankind is, Oh brave new world," etc.? When Wonder Woman rather whimsically decides to climb the ladder and start running toward a machine gun nest across no man's land, are we supposed to think of hundreds of thousands of men being nihilistically slaughtered in movies such as Gallipoli (1981) and Paths of Glory (1957)? Does it help somehow that the movie doesn't have Nazis, so that one can also associate this movie with Jean Renoir's more sympathetic portrait of the Germans in Grand Illusion (1937)?

Wonder Woman is an ideological opposition to male dominance in a svelte package, an oddly compassionate goddess-woman who can scarcely see a wounded war veteran without wanting to do something about it. I'm not sure how it works. Perhaps Jill Lepore's book can help explain things.  At any rate, Diana Prince proves refreshing as an antidote to stupid masculine oppression everywhere.

Related links:

---"Top Ten Things About Wonder Woman" by Anthony Lane

---"Jenkins sets her “Wonder Woman” in the First World War instead of the Second, and, in a way, this makes a certain chronological sense, since the Marston family’s models were the formidable women who fought for suffrage, equal rights, and birth control in the nineteen-teens and twenties." --Jill Lepore

Thursday, June 1, 2017

The mystery of creation and terminal sequelitis: a discussion about Alien: Covenant

One afternoon recently, deep in the heart of the Film Doctor compound, Wickham F. and I discussed Alien Covenant:

FD: We both came out of Alien: Covenant reasonably entertained, but I had a lots of mixed feelings about the movie. I've taught the original Alien (1979) in my science fiction class, and Alien: Covenant struck me as being way way too similar to that film. It had the same music, the same scenes in terms of the way the aliens took over people, and a lot of the same plot developments. It seemed more like a remix than a sequel in which Ridley Scott was intent upon returning the viewer to favorite moments in the past in some sort of greatest hits. Alien: Covenant came across as such a bizarre cannibalizing of the original movie, which does hold up amazingly well. Part of the charm of Alien is that the technology is so crude . . .

W: It's a man in an alien suit.

FD: So much of the movie could be terrible, but because of the biology, the imagery, and the design hold up so well.

W: Yes, by H.R. Giger.

FD: I have great respect for the first movie, but this one is, what, number 7?

W: I think, ultimately, there is this inherent problem with the Alien films, in that they have to somehow get to a mysterious planet where they're all going to get killed.

FD: Right.

W: And there has to be some motivation for them to get there, and they always go unsuspectingly. There are plot structure elements that are very repetitive from movie to movie. But still, Prometheus was a very daring choice for Ridley Scott as the director, because he kept telling people, it's not really an Alien prequel. And then, the studio executives objected to that, so that at the end of Prometheus, he sneaked in an alien to accommodate the suits. Scott attempted to make a different type of movie set within the Alien universe, and because that film got so much backlash, so much confusion, basically, when people where going in expecting one thing and getting something way more philosophical with inconvenient plot holes and weird character motivations. I imagine that Scott was more recently feeling pressure to make something more akin with those original Alien movies. So, even with trailers, you could tell they were saying "There's a xenomorph, they're landing on a planet, and there are head crabs. We're going back to what you love, people. Come on out to the theater."

FD: Isn't that a form of completely selling out? At the same time, Alien: Covenant has some thought-provoking mise en scene--a massive open space with twisted roasted corpses all around that reminds one of Pompeii, massive human head sculptures.

W: I'm assuming that we're in full spoiler territory here. 

FD: Michael Fassbender's portrayal of the android David is compelling, but at the same time, Alien Covenant comes across as a bit pretentious, with David playing Wagner and sometimes reciting Shelley's "Ozymandias."

W: Meanwhile, no one makes science fiction horror movies anymore. And if they do, no one makes them like Ridley Scott. I think Alien: Covenant is something of a bait and switch. It gets you in the door, thinking they're going to touch down on a planet, and bad things are going to happen. The movie starts off that way, but then Scott keeps building upon the mythology he began with Prometheus, which is the idea of creation, of God, the question where do we come from as humans? In Prometheus, David asks one of the scientists, "Why was I made?" The guy is drinking. He's kind of a buffoon, and he answers, "Because we felt like it."  And David replies, "How unpleasant it would be if someone told you that was why you were made?" (I'm paraphrasing.) And then, David takes some of the alien goo, and puts it in the scientist's drink. 

At the time, audience members thought what the hell? And what I like about Alien: Covenant is that you have this android preoccupied with creation. We all know that Ridley Scott is obsessed with androids, even going back to Blade Runner (1982). So, Scott appears to be imprinting onto this recent movie his philosophical inclinations and questions, such as do robots have a soul? In Blade Runner, androids were obsessed with living. Due to their short longevity, they just wanted to live, and they weren't given that opportunity, because they are terrorists, basically. 

So now, Scott explores the mystery of creation by developing David who is frustrated with where he came from. So, I can understand why some fans are upset, because Scott is basically and totally doing his own thing.

FD: But he's repeating his own thing.

W: He's repeating himself to some extent, but he's also mucking with the alien mythology. He's saying, to hell with all of that James Cameron stuff in Aliens (1986). Also, Alien 3 and is stupid. I'm going to build my own weird backstory to the Alien ethos with my own agenda. 

FD: When it comes to David, he's a delightful character. I like him in the scene where all of the humans freak out because an alien pops out of somebody (and Alien: Covenant fully explores other ways that infant aliens can burst out of human flesh in unexpected places. It seems like after awhile, you are going to run out of places to pop out of), but beyond that, I enjoyed how in the midst of a scene where everyone is completely freaking over this gruesome birth, David remains utterly cool. He has nothing to fear. He's completely calm and collected, and therefore delightful. 

To keep going with spoilers, it turns out that David is a complete fan of the aliens. He enables them in various ways. He wants to encourage their reproduction and spread them across the various planets. David wants to treat them as superior beings, but ultimately these aliens never do a whole lot except go [hissing noise] and then kill people. It seems like, if the filmmakers want to treat the aliens as exceptional, then the aliens need to start developing language, but mostly, still, they are fun bugaboo horror villain characters who are not that much different from demented cats.

W: They have two mouths.

FD: Alien (1979) was so good about keeping the alien mysterious, and there was also the strong sense of the biological imperative, that the alien has to survive cleverly. Now, with Alien: Covenant, the aliens replicate, and get killed. A lot of that initial interest in their sophistication and mystery has been lost because we're getting used to them.

W: Yes. That's a problem with prequels. They tend to get rid of the mystery of villains, such as Darth Vader. I think you have to take the first Alien as a completely different beast, no pun intended. It's a slasher movie in space, stripped down, with believable characters, space truckers, etc. It's a minimalist film in comparison to the bloated blockbuster of today.   

FD: And yet, Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) remains such a great female lead, and an influential character. With Alien: Covenant, one kind of remembers Daniels (Katherine Waterston) and Billy Crudup playing a weak captain named Christopher Oram. We also learn that James Franco played another leader who was killed off at the beginning. The crew mourns for him, but I couldn't figure out if we were supposed to be sad or happy because the character played by Franco was killed. I was cheered by the fact that he was dead on arrival like Kevin Costner in The Big Chill (1983).

W: There are some featurettes for Alien: Covenant that effectively set up the characters for the movie in ways in which the film itself does not. The featurette sets up some of the romantic subtexts and the relationships between the crew members, and you don't get any of that in the final product. As for your point about the problems with the villainous alien itself, I think that was probably due to studio pressures to return to the proven formula.

FD: In every week of 2018, we will get another tentpole sequel blockbuster-wannabe, and Alien: Covenant already seems to point in that direction. Potential audience members will get really really sick of all this rebaked reliable product, infinite repetition and terminal sequelitis.

W: This movie tries to please everyone.

FD: So, basically, you're saying that Prometheus proved too original, and so Alien: Covenant retreats from that. 

W: Yes, Prometheus took more chances. The problem with Alien: Covenant is two-fold. The characters are criminally underdeveloped, so when they get picked off, you don't care at all. They're just fodder. Secondly, Alien: Covenant relies too much on the basic horror movie trope of minor characters wandering off without much motivation into dark corners just so they can get killed. 

FD: After all, an exploration of the mystery of creation comes across as lacking if it's driven and defined by craven studio calculation. Ridley Scott deserves more than that.

W: He most certainly does.   

Other discussions with W. consider The Dark Knight Rises (2012), The Loved Ones (2009), and World War Z (1013).

Monday, May 29, 2017

A sentence from the Library of America's Shake It Up: Great American Writing on Rock and Pop from Elvis to Jay Z

I've been very much enjoying the recently published Shake It Up, edited by Jonathan Lethem and Kevin Dettmar. It provides a jukebox sampling of lively loopy rock, soul, and folk journalism that shifts giddily from Eve Babitz seducing a cheerfully newly thin Jim Morrison in "Jim Morrison is Dead and Living in Hollywood" to the decidedly grim portrait of the up-and-coming band Led Zeppelin slogging across America (in a way that most definitely does not resemble Almost Famous (2000)) eventually traumatizing Ellen Sander in "Inside the Cages of the Zoo," from Lester Bangs not being all that sympathetic when Elvis died to Ed Ward not finding Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run all great after all. The book is full of twists when one might expect more praise--Chuck Eddy not caring much for the later Ramones, for instance. And the style often comes across as pleasantly drug-addled and deranged. I felt that this one sentence by Camden Joy's piece entitled "Total Systems Failure" deserved honorable mention here:

"Then the record companies ran out of Nirvana specialty reissues and Sonic Youth did not make another Daydream Nation and stupid Mark E. Smith assaulted his girlfriend while Elvis Costello forfeited his place in the pantheon and generation-defining classics were on the tips of the Breeders' and Uncle Tupelo's tongues when the band members turned on another as Nick Cave and Morrissey became jokes and Bob Mould and Mike Watt continued on cluelessly and the gifted pop band Christmas came back as the utterly irrelevant smug swingers Combustible Edison and traditionally deserving dues-paying types like Vic Chesnutt and the Fastbacks could not get a commercial purchase on the popular imagination as everybody from the Posies to Pearl Jam to Archers of Loaf never figured out how to make an album entirely important from start to finish, forgetting the point of pop stardom is to bring together huge clumps of otherwise unaffiliated folks, and Pavement couldn't follow up the Pacific Trim EP with the requisite jubilant breakthrough (their Let It Be) and Cat Power and the Mountain Goats defiantly clung to Dylan pre-'65 and Tom Waits was too late with The Black Rider and Yo La Tengo were inexplicably overlooked (how does that begin to happen?) and the fetish for releasing crappy home demos--whose very lack of finish lent them the steady hiss of a gradually disappearing public--succeeded only in stealing mid-decade credibility from keenly perfectionist pop stars like Robyn Hitchcock and Nick Lowe and They Might Be Giants precisely when they issued their masterpieces."

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Film in Deep Focus by Morgan Honaker

Morgan Honaker examines the implications of the recycled narrative in recent movies as part of her Film in Deep Focus video essay series. I've been brooding on the extreme repetitiveness of tentpole releases ever since I watched Alien: Covenant last week (a film which has an uncomfortable number of similarities with Alien (1979)). It's a pleasure to see Morgan analyze these trends.

Monday, May 15, 2017

The Film Doctor's 9 Year Anniversary

On May 18, 2008, I began copying my former newspaper movie reviews onto The Film Doctor blog. Now, almost 9 years later, I know better, but I still post things on occasion. Here's a link to my notes on Inglourious Basterds (2009).