Thursday, June 25, 2009

Woah Woah Woah Woah... 10 > 5

Sid Ganis, president of the Academy, announced yesterday that the 82nd Academy Awards will now feature *TEN* nominees for Best Picture instead of 5.  This is how the Academy used to do things way back in the day (I think they stopped in 1940).

Unlike pretty much everyone in bloggerverse, I think this is a fantastic idea.  Widening the pool means that even if there are some crappy nominees, there will be more good nominees (theoretically).  It makes the race more interesting, because votes become more split. 

Just please, stop toying with the show itself.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

30 Days of Films: Michael Clayton, Mr. Smith, and More

Michael Clayton (2007)

I love Tony Gilroy.  I think he's a fabulous writer with a gift for taut direction, especially when it comes to his actors.  When I first saw Michael Clayton, its professionalism and expertise impressed me, because let's be honest, there are very few *great* corporate conspiracy movies anymore.  The acting and writing was what initially compelled me, but on repeat viewings the movie stands up on all technical levels.  Take, for example, the way Robert Elswit lights most scenes, drawing out natural light while playing up shadows, giving an odd, almost surreal whiteness to lots of scenes.

The Conversation (1974)

If Blow Up is about the fragility of the photographic image, The Conversation is about the contrapuntal relationship between image and sound, and how the reality between those two elements is tenuous at best.  Next to Godfather, it's Coppola's best, a haunting little suspense film where fragments of an audio track are clues to uncovering a murder.  The scenes of Hackman trying to piece together a recorded conversation are remarkable, thanks in large part to Walter Murch's film and sound editing that uses repetition in dramatic instead of reductive ways.

Blue Velvet (1986)

I always bring Blue Velvet up when I talk about a cinema of extremes.  I wrote a lengthier piece about it earlier in the year, but as I watched it again I tried to pay more attention to the sound than the images.  What aids the film is its very unnatural ambient distortions and its music that plays like a cross between a jazz club and a 1940s noir.  It also turns the classic tune "In Dreams" to a sadomasochistic playground.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

It's easy to criticize Capra's film for its uplifting and patriotic spirit that's almost annoyingly pervasive.  On further inspection though, it's obvious he's providing a criticism of Congress at a pivotal moment in its history (brink of WWII), while simultaneously asserting the "good old American values."  If it's propaganda, it's expertly condensed in Jimmy Stewart's earnest expressions.

The Road Warrior (1981)

This was a first-time viewing of George Miller's post-apocalyptic action piece that launched Mel Gibson to international status.  While I didn't fall for the film (it seems rather dated and campy, plus any plot all feels routine and forceful), the action bits are all very clever and well-edited, photographed with a noticeable assurance that makes me lament how stocky and indecipherable action films have largely become.

Way Down East (1920)

First time viewing of the D.W. Griffith melodrama.  It has all the Griffith trademarks - close-ups, intercutting, intense formalism and lengthy compositions, with all the drawbacks - derivative intertitles, drawn out drama, reducing characters to archetypes instead of individual studies.  Far less intense and universal than his 1919 Broken Blossoms, but still noteworthy.

Barton Fink (1991)

After No Country for Old Men, this is probably my favorite Coen Brothers film.  The amazing interplay between John Turturro and John Goodman, between the artist and his subject, is a really stunning look at authorship and social criticism.  And that's BEFORE the third act, when it becomes more of a surrealist battle between a writer and his demons.


Sunday, June 21, 2009

30 Days of Films: "Blow Up" (1966)

There is a weird sensation that comes from watching an Antonioni film.  All of them (that I've seen) are slow, deliberate, detached, crawling at almost a snail's pace with very minimal plot.  And yet, each image feels perfectly calibrated, each camera move and edit ingeniously planned.  His films are thought out to an almost overbearing degree, which has in a way polarized his viewers.

Blow Up is not a "fun" film to watch, but it is fascinating.  A photographer shoots pictures in the park, thinks he's stumbled on a romantic moment between two lovers in one of his pictures, but as he enlarges it over and over he begins to be convinced he's caught a murder on film.  The genius of Antonioni's film is how he acknowledges the faults and manipulative capability of the photographic medium - it reflects reality, but is it real?  It's the central dilemma of the entire film, and its images only generate hypotheses instead of facts.  It's an unsolved mystery, but one that the audience must sort out not through the film's very bare plot, but in how they think (or to what degree) photographs can capture truth - what is truth? what is realism?  is it a movement or a conundrum?

Saturday, June 20, 2009

30 Days of Films: "White" (1994)

"White" is the middle film of director Krzystof Kieslowski's French trilogy on life's misfortunes after the Cold War.  Having watched most of Kieslowski's acclaimed films over the past few months, I've picked up on his stylistic and thematic traits - there is a reason he brought international attention to a struggling Polish film industry, and I think it comes from the simple and soft way he photographs every day objects and shows how people fit into the context of a normal life under pressing circumstances.

"White" does not have the deep impact of "Blue" - its performers and writing are not as strong - but moments of its protagonist lying in bed, playing with a comb, and spinning a quarter all help create a poetic balance of life trying to reach a synthesis.  Kieslowski's films are so minimal it's hard to figure out what he wants to say, as there is often very little interjection of his own viewpoint, but that staunch ambivalence creates the freedom to look at the characters and situations as individual pieces to a larger, disconnected, and ultimately very frail society.

30 Days of Films

So I know this blog has had very few updates over the course of the summer.  While I've still been providing full reviews for theatrical releases, there's very little in the way of significant film news that I feel compelled to put here.  That, and my article frequency for Daily Gamecock is at one a week for the rest of the summer.

But in order to give myself something to do, and to give you something to read, I'm challenging myself over the next month to post 50-100 word mini-reviews for *every* movie I watch.  Nothing major or too in-depth, just a few random thoughts on everything I'm watching.

Be sure to check constantly from June 20 to July 20, and let's hope I can make myself do this.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Review: "The Hangover"

The Hangover

* * 1/2  /  * * * * 

            Three guys wake up in a trashed Las Vegas hotel suite after a bachelor party only to find the groom-to-be missing.  With only a handful of clues available – including a missing tooth and a baby – they must gradually retrace and relive their ultimate evening to find the groom and get him to the altar in time.

            Screenwriters Jon Lucas and Scott Moore set “The Hangover” as a high-concept cross between “Memento” and male bonding comedies, but even with the comedic grace of the film’s ensemble and the measured ability of director Todd Phillips (“Old School”), it’s filled with wasted opportunity.

            The problem with “The Hangover” is that despite its brisk pace and its wacky absence of sturdy reality, its humor feels pigeonholed into quirky racial and sexual stereotypes, while its plot turns feel contrived and obvious.

            As it lunges deeper into an occasionally dazzling deconstruction of masculine assuredness, the film gets farther removed from its own points.  This isn’t to discount the great work of all actors involved: Ed Helms as Stu, a mild-mannered dentist who breaks free of his sexual prison, and Zach Galifianakis as Alan, the groom’s mentally unsound brother-in-law, are highlights.

And yet, their character dimensions quickly grow redundant and tired.  Galifianakis always pushes for creepy eccentricities, and most of his laughs come from out-of-place quips, while nearly all of Helms’ best moments can be seen from miles away, even if he plays them wonderfully.

Any chance to expose the characters as contradictions is skillfully side stepped.  Instead of exploring their behavior, they are given a bland, one-dimensional glorification.

What’s perhaps most confusing and confounding about “The Hangover” is its rather ambivalent stance on the institution of marriage, male bonding, and the woes of alcohol and sex, which seem to be its major thematic preoccupations.

For while alcohol appears to be the cause of the film’s inciting incident, the characters only speak of their altered consciousness with a sense of pleased astonishment that even extends to the people they harm while under the influence.

Similarly, women are usually demonized when they are off-screen as conniving and manipulative, entities that only weaken masculine power.  And yet, getting groom Doug to the altar is the film’s ticking clock, with an ending that affirms the power of the family and of the female’s place in relation to the male (a position that always feels a bit too subservient).

So then, “The Hangover” merely represents a fantastical masculine playground that continually derides and exploits anything that does not conform to these stereotypically quirky white men.

While it does coast on some well-executed set pieces, and Phillips retains his gift for directing his actors in comedic timing and interaction, everything in the piece feels too pronounced and obvious.

Even the film’s end credits sequence of pictures detailing what actually happened feels like an empty exercise based more on convenience, a chance to explicate everything that remained so carefully hinted at throughout.

 “The Hangover” poses as a half-cooked detective romp of men trying to reconcile their free-wheeling independence against a world of responsibilities, but in its inability to criticize the attraction of destruction, its devices become vices, making its humor feels like a sham Vegas marriage.