Saturday, December 18, 2010

Seeking Perfection: "Black Swan" review


In most versions of film history, D.W. Griffith gets credited for "inventing" the close-up, for having the audacity (and, it turns out, the remarkable foresight) to move the camera right into the actor's face, cutting from a longer shot into the close-up. When audiences first saw an actor's face spread across the entirety of the screen's canvas, one can only imagine how revelatory it felt, to be able to read the movement of eyes, the curls of lips, the lines of the face in exacting detail at emotionally significant moments.

Watching Darren Aronofsky's torturous thriller, "Black Swan," is the closest I've come to feeling the sheer magnitude of the close-up in, well, ages. Following obsessively desperate ballerina Nina's (Natalie Portman) burning to desire to be the star of her company's "Swan Lake," and her subsequent mental breakdown over her desire to reach absolute perfection, the film doesn't so much let Portman create her fragility as it does graft it onto her. It is an oppressive, claustrophobic, utterly unnerving piece of psychological mayhem whose spiral into Nina's personal hell is as relentless as any American horror film in the past decade.

Friday, December 10, 2010

'Waiting for My Real Life to Begin': "Rabbit Hole" review


Becca (Nicole Kidman) goes to her garden. She lays soil, plants flowers, and gazes for just a moment at their beauty. The camera captures the purple flower in a dramatic close-up briefly before Becca is interrupted by a neighbor inviting her to dinner. She politely refuses, her wave of happiness vanishing behind slight coils of tension. Her smile evaporates and, for some reason, she seems nothing but defeated.

These are the opening moments of John Cameron Mitchell's "Rabbit Hole," a film comprised of small moments of unspeakable magnitude. Picking up with a grief-stricken couple (Kidman and Aaron Eckhart) eight months after their son was tragically killed by a wayward motorist, it's more than a poignant tear-jerker about learning how to deal with life's tragic luck.  This is a film to stir the soul, about minute choices and unsolvable dilemmas.  It's perfectly observed, marvelously captured, and somehow speaks to the deep recesses of our emotions.

Friday, November 26, 2010

New Blog, New Me

Oh yeah, I forgot to totally use a lot of my online media again. I rule.

But that doesn't mean I'm not up to some tricks. I've activated a new blog entirely for this year's Academy Awards race. It's a grand experiment I've been wanting to try for a while now.

I'm going to try and sync the important content, but please follow it at: tdgawardscentral.blogspot.com. Comment, boost my page views, make this thing awesome!

Saturday, October 2, 2010

"The Social Network" review

David Fincher's latest exquisite dip into the anxieties of our culture is the most subdued and least auspicious film he's ever made. It lacks the whirlwind aesthetic of "Fight Club," the dark paranoia and period rendering of "Zodiac," or the romantic meditations of "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button." But "The Social Network" is undoubtedly the work of an artistic genius, for in its dark irony and immense cynicism about the collapse of social fabrics it's turned a story of pointing fingers and technological innovation into a haunting tragedy of obsession and self-destruction.

Earlier this year, Nolan's "Inception" claimed that the most valuable thing was a pure idea, and the idea of Facebook is a battleground for the first half of the movie - who invented it, how can it be properly implemented, and what it means to the users who spend time on it. These questions are, importantly, never answered, and instead of pushing the film outward -- to look at how Facebook effects the world at large -- writer Aaron Sorkin instead pushes it inward -- looking at how its development changes its CEO and disputed creator, Mark Zuckerberg. And over the course of the film, Mark Zuckerberg himself morphs and transforms from complete asshole to... well, he's still an asshole, but he's victimized and corrupted by the people around him.

As played by Jesse Eisenberg ("The Squid and the Whale"), Zuckerberg is a cold, calculated individual whose obsession with making a name for himself and with computer coding make him a complete outsider to 2003 Harvard. Dressed in flip-flops and hoodies, he's never effected by the frigid cold, and he constantly changes focus halfway through sentences. Eisenberg cracks Sorkin's dialogue without taking a breath. His eyes seem sunk back in his head and pitch black. It's a wholeheartedly brilliant and ruthless performance, one where Zuckerberg himself is crafted like a robot, like part of the technology.

But Eisenberg is so subdued you might miss the many nuances he pours into his performance, especially if you're caught looking too hard at the rest of this stellar ensemble. Andrew Garfield in particular is absolutely devastating as Eduardo Sevarin, one of Facebook's co-founders and its CFO, who later sued Zuckerberg for cutting him out of the company (or so the story goes). Garfield is the perfect antithesis to Eisenberg, ambitious in business but cautious in his choices; he tries desperately to cling to human relationships and, in the last act, he almost rattles the whole movie in one scene. The showiest guy in the movie is Justin Timberlake; he flashes and parades across each moment as Sean Parker, founder of Napster (and mentor to Zuckberg).

But beyond the acting and the writing, it's the craft that makes this such a powerful and amazing film. It's not noticeable and showy, and this is the first time Fincher has actually shown reasonable restraint in developing his own ideas. That's not an insult to Fincher -- he's one of the few filmmakers who actually seem interested in what he can make the image look like, but "Social Network" is a whole different animal for him. Jeff Cronenweth, who shot "Fight Club," makes Harvard look dark and grimy; he makes California look frighteningly bright, and his brilliant uses of focal planes shape the perspective of the film throughout.

Film editors Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall give the film a real sense of pulse. There are times when the editing flairs and drives, cutting miraculously around Zuckerberg's fingers and eyes, or moving towards or away from stronger close-ups. They also weave in and out of the deposition rooms, collapsing flashback and storytelling over and over. Then there are times when it cools and withdraws, cutting around small shifts in action with a superb sense of purpose. And the music -- oh, the music. Rarely has a score sounded so haunting, so creepy in a drama. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross do amazing things mixing traditional orchestral/pianos with unorthodox bass synthesizers, infiltrating technology in such an uneasy way.

What can't be forgotten is that this is historical *fiction.* It's a dramatization of what led to a technology that drastically altered how people experience each other. Sorkin's decision to let the depositions of two lawsuits guide the narrative make it clear that this is about peoples' perceptions. Importantly, Mark Zuckberg never really gets a chance to tell his side of the stories. He sits on the sidelines, interjecting and correcting bits and pieces. But this is vivid, procedural fiction -- it knows what the facts are (as much is on record, at least), and it knows how to push those facts to make its points.

But again, this is a meditation on how technology creates ideas. The comparisons to "Citizen Kane" that some major reviewers have made are not unwarranted. This is a movie about someone who had a vision for what the world could be, but the film paints him as someone who doesn't quite understand how he was about to change the world, and he had no one to share that vision with him. Yes, we can reduce it to -- "the guy who created Facebook has no friends" -- but that's a reductive way to think about the darker implications of Fincher and Sorkin's piece.

And it is dark. The best invention the film offers is Erica (Rooney Mara, startlingly good in two scenes), a woman Mark loses in the first few minutes of the film, but she's never gone completely from his mind. Subtly, almost invisibly, she guides every motion of the narrative. But this isn't just about someone who changes the world for a woman. No, it's not JUST about anything. It's actually, oddly enough, about close to everything. It's about the impulse to create, the desire to be remembered, the need to be immortalized. But it's also about the price of greed and fame. In these ways, Mark Zuckerberg is this generation's Charles Foster Kane -- a man who can only be understand by the people around him, but his story is so diluted through the raw emotions of those who know him best.

It's a wham-bam-pow knockout of a film, and even though it only happened seven years ago, its events feel like part of a cultural mythology because Sorkin, Fincher, and their cast and crew make this a wholly American epic for the age of technology. As it races through its breathless two hours, you may miss all the internal beats, all the construction, all the smart choices it's making as it builds and builds and builds to... a very small ending. It's the ending that finally illuminates everything the film only hinted at for 120 minutes. Two medium close-ups, one of a computer screen and one of Mark Zuckerberg, engaged in a fairly typical shot-reverse shot as the camera gradually tracks into each, uniting the man with his creation but also making it a trap.

"The Social Network" may be the smartest, and in some ways maybe the bravest, historical film a major Hollywood studio has produced in several years. It certainly elevates David Fincher to a different stratosphere and confirms him as an artist who is deeply concerned with the evolution of the American tapestry and the people haunted by its images and culture.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

2010 Emmys Predictions

Property The Daily Gamecock

Best Comedy Series

This race will be generating plenty of buzz throughout the night as it pits a television dynasty against multiple breakout hits. NBC’s “30 Rock” has won this award for three consecutive years, but this year its crown is threatened from multiple angles.

Fox’s “Glee” has more nominations than any other show in this category, and comes into the race with a Golden Globe win against a very similar line-up. ABC’s “Modern Family” likewise burst out as one of last season’s most impressive new shows and has five acting nominations to back that up. It’s a thick playing field without even factoring in the other nominees, “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “Nurse Jackie” and “The Office,” and it looks like it may be “30 Rock’s” time to take a seat.

Our Pick To Win: “Glee”

Best Lead Actor, Comedy Series

Matthew Morrison may have had shining song and dance moments on “Glee’s” season one, but he probably won’t be much of a match for back-to-back winner Alec Baldwin, whose biggest pressure comes from Tony Shalhoub’s final season as “Monk,” and Jim Parsons as an under-the-radar favorite for “The Big Bang Theory.”

Our Pick To Win: Alec Baldwin

Best Lead Actress, Comedy Series

A handful of past winners — last year’s winner Toni Collette and the previous year’s winner Tina Fey, 2006’s winner Julia-Louis Dreyfus and three-time Emmy winner Edie Falco (for Dramatic Actress for “The

Sopranos”) — compete against three-time nominee Amy Poehler and newcomer Lea Michele. It’s a category with no runaway frontrunner, and any winner would seem a logical choice.

Our Pick To Win: Toni Collette

Best Supporting Actor, Comedy Series

With “Modern Family” cast members holding half the nomination slots, expect them to cancel each other out for a win. While “Glee’s” Chris Colfer could be a surprise upset, look for Neil Patrick Harris to ride the good vibrations of his diverse and high-profile year to a win over last year’s winner, “Two and a Half Men’s” Jon Cryer.

Our Pick To Win: Neil Patrick Harris

Best Supporting Actress, Comedy Series

It’s a pretty solid line-up, again featuring multiple members of the “Modern Family” team, but if “Glee” is going to scoop an acting award, it’s going to be here. As much as Kristen Wiig has made her mark on “SNL,” it’s hard to deny the sensational buzz surrounding Jane Lynch, who nearly steals the show every week without even singing.

Our Pick To Win: Jane Lynch

Best Drama Series

Like Best Comedy Series, back-to-back winner “Mad Men” will have to push through plenty of heavy competition to score a triple win from the Television Academy. ABC’s “Lost” may receive recognition for its series-ending year, book-ending its Best Drama Series win for its premiere season. Meanwhile, “True Blood” and “Dexter” can reap the benefits of their cult followings

and break out of their niche labels while scoring major wins for premium cable. Despite “Mad Men’s” continued run of success, “Lost” is in a very good position to receive star treatment for its final bow.

Our Pick To Win: “Lost”

Best Lead Actor, Drama Series

Back-to-back winner Bryan Cranston of “Breaking Bad” will have to hold his own against a formidable Michael C. Hall, already Golden Globe-winning for his work on this past season’s “Dexter,” and “Mad Men’s” Jon Hamm, who has yet to win this award. With “Dexter” having one of the most buzzed-about seasons on television, look for Hall to scoop his first Emmy win.

Our Pick To Win: Michael C. Hall

Best Lead Actress, Drama Series

Back-to-back winner Glenn Close seems like a safe choice. Constant nominees Mariska Hargitay and Kyra Sedgwick are Emmy regulars, but neither of their shows have had a standout year. Look for Julianna Margulies to ride the high notices of CBS’s “The Good Wife” ­­­— and a Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globe award earlier this year — to her second Emmy win.

Our Pick To Win: Julianna Margulies

Best Supporting Actor, Drama Series

With two of “Lost’s” most electric performers nominated, it’s easy to think they’d cancel each other out, but no one else on the list cries “potential winner” besides Aaron Paul of “Breaking Bad.” Barring an upset, look for Terry O’Quinn to nab an award before “Lost” rakes in the big one.

Our Pick To Win: Terry O’Quinn

Best Supporting Actress, Drama Series

With “The Good Wife” and “Mad Men” taking up two-thirds of the slots, conventional wisdom says someone from one of those two shows will win. Although Rose Byrne or Sharon Gless could easily sneak a win for their roles on “Damages” and “Burn Notice,” respectively, we’re hedging our bets that the seductive Christina Hendricks finally breaks “Mad Men’s” curse of no acting wins and gives the show a major prize, even if it loses Best Drama Series.

Our Pick To Win: Christina Hendricks

Best Made for Television Movie: “You Don’t Know Jack”

Best Miniseries: “The Pacific”

Best Lead Actor in a Miniseries or Movie: Al Pacino

Best Lead Actress in a Miniseries or Movie: Joan Allen

Best Supporting Actor in a Miniseries or Movie: John Goodman

Best Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or Movie: Susan Sarandon

Best Variety, Music or Comedy Series: “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart”

Best Reality Competition Program: “The Amazing Race”

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

'The Kids Are All Right' full review

Property The Daily Gamecock

miserably. While the action is certainly over-the-top, if only intermittently campy, it never exhibits the kind of care Stallone invests in those three minutes in the church with Willis and Schwarzenegger.

While it could have been a dream-team ensemble movie, a true throwback to “Rambo,” “Commando,” “Predator” and the rest of that dearly loved company, “Expendables” feels more like a shadow, a compromised project that has to shove its real attractions into cameos.

It’s like a high-concept project without its central concept. Even though it picks up significantly in its final act, everything before feels so arthritic, so creaky, it can never rebound from how insignificant an exercise it inevitably feels like.

earnestness, there’s a whole other element of the film that feels wholly calculated and cold.

Its evocation of the melodrama genre, specifically the kind of “middle-age couple in sexual crisis” and “teen child forced to mature through self-actualization” plot lines it hones in on, are beat-for-beat recognizable. The only difference, of course, is the kind of sexual politics underlying the use of the genre.

Now instead of fighting for the stability of the heterosexual couple, the film is questioning how heterosexuality comes into play in a homosexual relationship. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with this, and it’s a bold way to emulate progressive politics.

The real problem lies in how stale it all feels after a while. The characters may remain fresh and interesting, but the plot is anything but — its turns toward despair and redemption, to heartbreak and forgiveness, are plot points that feel so obligatory it makes the film feel less unique.

Perhaps that’s director/co-writer Lisa Cholodenko’s point: A film about homosexuals can look an awful lot like a film about heterosexuals. This kind of mirroring is evidently on her mind, as the film often repeats events like sexual intercourse, dinner meals and family arguments at different points in the narrative with different motives and effects for the various characters.

While it’s a heartwarming and funny movie, “The Kids Are All Right” makes its machinations all too apparent. Its soul is nearly compromised by its gender switch setup.

The naturalness of the performances and interactions is so often undercut by the film’s sharp cries for the spectator to think about family and sexuality in ways that draw so heavily on constructed convention that by the end it feels almost more tiresome than refreshing.

'Expendables' full review

Property The Daily Gamecock

Early on in director/co-writer/star Sylvester Stallone’s testosterone overload “The Expendables,” Arnold Schwarzenegger enters a church through almost impossible brightness, creating the impression that a saint is descending to converse with mortals.

In the ensuing conversation, the “Terminator,” “Rocky” and Bruce Willis trade quips about a new mission. Schwarzenegger refuses and leaves in the same bright halo of light and Willis never makes a return for the rest of the film.

This is perhaps the only sequence that really reveals what Stallone had in mind when he set out to make “The Expendables,” which has been billed from the time it was announced as a rollicking reunion of ’80s action stars. In this brief scene, there is actual care with the camera, light and conversation ­— a kind of meta-wit to the proceedings.

Sadly, this playfulness is missing from nearly every other minute of “The Expendables,” a movie so awkward in nearly every element that it becomes almost impossible to enjoy once it finally gives over to nonstop madcap action and blood.

The most conspicuous problem lies in Stallone’s choice of casting. While it’s often fun to watch Stallone and Jason Statham bounce verbal folly off each other — the unstoppable action hero of the ’80s colliding with the unstoppable action hero of the ’00s — co-stars Randy Couture and Terry Crews are lifeless additions to the team.

On the “villainous” side of things, Eric Roberts (“The Dark Knight”) does great over-the-top work, but he’s a head-and-shoulders

standout over the unintelligible Dolph Lundgren and Steve Austin, who says every one of his few lines like he’s standing inside a wrestling ring with a microphone.

Stallone and co-writer Dave Callaham want to make every conversation scene memorable, full of jokes about masculinity, weapons, women and old age. Unfortunately, no one seems to figure out how to deliver the leaden, obvious dialogue, and almost every moment comes off either forced or blandly overplayed.

Even Stallone seems to suffer under the burden of his own words, as the 64-year-old looks more dazed than anything when the action isn’t a-blazing. The only member of the cast who actually breathes some soul into the proceedings is Mickey Rourke as a tattoo artist, but he is again shafted to a sideline role — a wasted asset.

But what of the action, which is really the only reason anyone would want to suffer through the awkward community of truly expendable co-stars? To Stallone’s credit, he stages several massive explosions and some staggering gore. Following on his blood-drenched “Rambo” (2008), the film loves to kill off as many extras in as many gory ways as Stallone can devise.

But this action is not necessarily a pleasure to look at. The editing is grossly inconsistent and imprecise, shots rarely feel framed to their maximum potential and cinematographer Jeffrey L. Kimball makes the nighttime climax a struggle to see. There’s nary a sense of rhythm or pulse.

Yes, there is such thing as “gritty action,” but if in-your-face verisimilitude was something Stallone was aiming for in “The Expendables,” he fails

miserably. While the action is certainly over-the-top, if only intermittently campy, it never exhibits the kind of care Stallone invests in those three minutes in the church with Willis and Schwarzenegger.

While it could have been a dream-team ensemble movie, a true throwback to “Rambo,” “Commando,” “Predator” and the rest of that dearly loved company, “Expendables” feels more like a shadow, a compromised project that has to shove its real attractions into cameos.

It’s like a high-concept project without its central concept. Even though it picks up significantly in its final act, everything before feels so arthritic, so creaky, it can never rebound from how insignificant an exercise it inevitably feels like.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Scott Pilgrim vs the World review

Property The Daily Gamecock


Director Edgar Wright knows movies. His breakout hit, “Shaun of the Dead,” slyly melded zombies and romantic comedies with unassuming grace, while his follow-up hit, “Hot Fuzz,” was fully immersed in the conventions of buddy cop movies, Michael Bay action films and dozens more thrillers.

His latest film, “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World,” is a totally different kind of monster.
Adapted from the graphic novel series by Bryan Lee O’Malley, “Scott Pilgrim” oozes coolness. It’s an exhilarating, breathless and hysterical blend of comic books, video games, music and movies. It’s a mediated film for a mediated world.
Michael Cera continues to hone his deadpan skills as the titular bassist, whose crush on the literal girl of his dreams, Ramona Flowers (a seductively enigmatic Mary Elizabeth Winstead), ignites the League of Seven Evil Exes. In order to date Ramona, Scott must fight his way through Ramona’s evil exes, played deliciously by the likes of Chris Evans, Brandon Routh and Jason Schwartzman.
While “Scott Pilgrim” swirls in a sea of cultural references, rattling them off like combo moves in a video game, it’s Wright’s understanding of how to visually communicate the language and syntax of these different mediums into one package that really makes the film work.
Sounds on screen are often accompanied by text like “Ring” coming off a phone, as if to echo a graphic novel, while in other moments his split-screen and intercutting editing strategies feel strongly reminiscent of a comic panel.
Beyond that, classic video game themes often play under the soundtrack, characters use weapons that are pixilated to look like something on an old Sega and Scott is awarded “points” and “one-ups” for defeating his foes.
Not to mention the chronically cheeky dialogue always tries to incorporate video game language. Phrases such as “fight,” “finish him,” “continue” and “try again” are constantly recycled by characters in various circumstances.
Added to that, Scott and his friends are trying to get their band signed to a record deal, so the film often dips into loud performance moments or structures certain sequences like music videos.
“Scott Pilgrim” is pure stylistic excess, a movie whose barrage of images and sounds from a multiplicity of texts should threaten to make the movie rupture in its core. It regularly dips in and out of its “reality” in even the most simple conversation scenes, but Edgar Wright and his technical team know how to make each moment seem like a different riff that builds on the one before it.
Few filmmakers have the ability to create a world that draws so heavily on popular culture without seeming cloying or obvious. Wright’s film constantly surprises with the sheer earnestness of its players and the borderline experimental nature of its narrative.
“Scott Pilgrim vs. The World” is probably the best video game movie ever made. But to reduce it to that label wouldn’t do justice to how vast the myriad of texts Wright has chosen to draw on actually is. It’s a wonderful, playful concoction that takes the kind of “learning valuable lesson to get from adolescence to adulthood” narrative Michael Cera has centered his career around and blows it up with grand metaphors for emotional baggage and aching hearts.
It’s a movie that wants to give us a different way to think about movies, and its sealed-off whirlpool of media bombardment is a lavish treat for the eyes, the ears and any other sense that can possibly derive pleasure in something this gleefully unhinged.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

I'm Still Here Trailer

If you didn't know, this is on the Top 10 movies I'm most excited about this fall.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Dinner for Schmucks review

Property The Daily Gamecock

“Dinner for Schmucks” assembles an all-star cast of outlandish comedians portraying an all-star team of outlandish characters. Though it plays close to the vest for most of the film, only spilling into the unhinged for the final dinner game, it’s a self-assured and consistently charming piece of awkward, life-going-off-the-rails comedy.

Paul Rudd stars as Tim, a businessman dying to get ahead. In order to secure a favorable position with his boss and colleagues, Tim is asked to attend a dinner where each guest brings the “most extraordinary” person they can find. By extraordinary, they mean idiotic.
Enter Steve Carell as Barry, a loner who Tim serendipitously hits with his car. Barry is a ringer, a man so out of touch with reality he all but guarantees Tim a victory at the dinner.
That is, of course, until Barry gets the dates for the dinner confused and shows up at Tim’s apartment the night before, threatening to spiral every part of his life desperately out of control.

As director of all three “Austin Powers” films and both “Meet the Parents” films, director Jay Roach is no stranger to using established comedic talent to provoke laughs. His direction of “Dinner” may not feel as precise or as loopy as some of his previous efforts, but he does know how to bring the best out of his players, letting them burst open in sometimes surprising and effective touches.

This is especially true of Carell, who is nothing but inspired as Barry, certainly the most complicated role in the production. As the central “schmuck,” Carell bears being the butt of most of the movie’s jokes, yet the shamelessly innocent way he plays Barry creates a sympathetic (and eventually empathetic) buffer: he’s a fool we can admire for his detachment, as opposed to ridicule.

With a dopey grin that jets his front teeth over his lower lip and a series of facial contortions and speech patterns that should be frustrating but always feel effortless, it’s a real showcase for Carell’s instinctive ability to burrow inside insecure characters.

Paul Rudd plays the kind of tight-laced man he so perfectly embodied in 2009’s “I Love You Man.” Rudd and Carell, opposites before in “Anchorman” and “40-Year-Old Virgin,” have a tangible rapport that lets the awkwardness of their interactions feel organic, creating plenty of room for subtle flourishes to slide in.

The film is best in its first hour, when the comedy stays squarely between Rudd and Carell, turning them into an odd couple trying to sort through Tim’s relationship problems. This may be due to the fact that this half strongly borrows from French film “Le diner de cons,” which served as inspiration to screenwriters David Guion and Michael Handelman.

The final hour turns into an ensemble piece, as the dinner party makes room for supporting actors like Zach Galifianakis as a man who claims he has mind control power,Ron Livingston and Larry Wilmore as Tim’s business associates. There’s also a delicious performance from “Flight of the Conchords” star Jemaine Clement as a contemporary artist. Clement sends a bolt of eccentricity through every scene he’s featured in.

“Dinner for Schmucks” is a breezy, three-course affair that satisfies without stuffing theappetite. While far from innovating the “night of chaos” template many recent comedies have chosen, it still offers plenty of awkward space for its giddy ensemble to turn themselves into schmucks.

Mad Men review

Property The Daily Gamecock

“Who is Don Draper?” a reporter somewhat rhetorically asks the powerful and enigmatic advertising agent, played by Golden Globe-winning Jon Hamm, at the very start of “Mad Men’s” fourth season.

The AMC drama has stealthily tracked a group of decadent and psychologically troubled advertising personnel in and around the history and culture early ‘60s – through Kennedy’s campaign and election, the Cuban Missile Crisis and Kennedy’s assassination towards the end of last season – all while racking up major awards left and right (it’s won the Emmy for Best Drama Series two years in a row and the Golden Globe for Best Television Series – Drama three years in a row).

From its opening seconds and through every minute of the first two episodes of its fourth season, creator Matthew Weiner’s astonishingly sleek rumination on a major political, social and cultural turning point in American society astounds in all regards.

Its gorgeous production design leaves no stone unturned. Offices are fully furnished with beautiful décor down to the bottles of whiskey in the corner, while the costumes continually put both men and women in elegant, sharp ensembles. Not to mention the color-tinted and shadow-heavy cinematography that drapes all of the proceedings in rich tones.

The season three finale was a bit of a downer, with Betty Draper(January Jones) finally summoning the nerve to ask Don for a divorce, and Don’s decision to join Roger Sterling (John Slattery), Bertram Cooper (Robert Morse) and Lane Pryce (Jared Harris) in a split from their British-controlled agency and forge ahead as a new company.

Season four starts almost a year later, with the first two episodes featuring Thanksgiving and Christmas of 1964, sliding in bits of information regarding now-President Johnson’s social platforms and the escalating war in Vietnam.

To accompany a United States that is beginning to come face-to-face with radical changes, “Mad Men” has begun to introduce more cracks in the Don Draper façade. Now struggling to retain his irresistible charm and forced to adapt to a world without his family, Jon Hamm and the show’s team of writers are turning Draper into an artifact of a waning era.

Resigned to a tower of mod furniture, the executives of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce sip expensive whiskey and make attempts at womanizing just as they had in the show’s previous seasons, but never before have their actions felt so vain, so driven out of desperation.

Part of the consummate skill of “Mad Men” is its ability to refract the conditions of history through its characters, making them embody a myriad of complex social and political voices.

In that regard, some have labeled “Mad Men” as more of a dissertation in images than pure drama, a show that’s content to simmer beneath the surface and intellectualize every moment. The fact that it does ooze this riveting style makes it a unique feast for television.
“Mad Men” remains head and shoulders above anything else on basic cable, maybe on any television station. It presents its audience with constantly complex and invigorating protagonists whose actions are simultaneously both deplorable and fascinating.

Matthew Weiner has said “Mad Men” will not go beyond six seasons. If that’s true, the show has begun its second half. By touring the 1960s through the eyes of the upper crust who so desperately want to resist its changes while simultaneously exploiting them through advertising, it chronically provides radically new insights in mining one of the most fantastic eras of America’s last century.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Inception review

Property The Daily Gamecock


Dreams. Few topics have so beguiled and frustrated filmmakers since motion pictures were first shot. For as long as critics and theorists have written about film, they have emphatically suggested that films themselves resemble dreams — they are projections of the world, an artificial reality resembling our world but always slightly eschewed from it.

Director Christopher Nolan is no stranger to experimenting with film narrative. “Memento” (2000) told a murder mystery in reverse chronology, while “The Prestige” (2006) mimicked the structure of a magic trick. With “Inception,” he takes on the meaning of dreams and consciousness, creating an awe-inspiring and fully enveloping parable of obsession and human frailty against a series of miraculously staged spectacle.

Leonardo DiCaprio, adding to his list of fractured characters combating their own tortured souls, stars as Dom Cobb, a thief trained in the art of “dream sharing” and “extracting” — entering a client’s subconscious dream space and stealing their deepest secrets. Living abroad as a fugitive from the United States, he struggles to overcome visions of his deceased wife and to find a safe way to be reunited with his children.

Asian businessman Saito (Ken Watanabe) offers him a deal: if he can perform the elusive art of “inception” on Saito’s competitor Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), he’ll make Cobb’s criminal record disappear. Unlike extraction, which is portrayed as a refined art, inception is a little trickier — it involves planting an idea in a person’s mind so carefully that their subconscious believes the idea has been organically created.

Using the generic conventions of the heist film — the “one last job,” a gritty cityscape, dizzying layers of exposition and narrative complication — allows Nolan to counterbalance lofty discussions about the philosophy of dreaming and the nature of reality with a discernible and relatable narrative structure.

What’s most fascinating about “Inception” — even more than the spectacular action scenes that include a gravity-defying duel in a rotating hotel hallway — is the deep control over the narrative Nolan wields. Even though it’s almost impossible to know where the story will turn next, it’s always easy to follow what’s happening and why.

Filmmakers have always struggled to figure out how dreams should “look,” be it wild camera angles, bizarre lighting, incongruous editing or a general lack of logic. Nolan takes the opposite approach: his dreams almost always work by the established conventions of cinematic verisimilitude, albeit soaked in a thick level of mood.

Cinematographer Wally Pfister, who has shot all of Nolan’s features, uses misty blues in exterior cityscapes and saturated oranges in interior sequences, creating popping and lush colors against fluid tracking movements and even compositions. He often adds highlights through dips into heavy lighting contrast and boldly geometric visual constructions.
Every step of the way, “Inception” is gorgeous to look at; a film truly in tune with how its visual conceit can aid the motion and arc of the story.

At the film’s climax, Cobb and his team, which includes Joseph Gordon-Levitt as his business associate and Ellen Page as a “dream architect” who can construct environments that double as mazes, they subject Robert Fischer to four levels of dreaming — a dream within a dream within a dream within a dream.

With different characters existing in each level simultaneously, one would suspect Nolan’s film would go off the rails and devolve into an indiscernible mess, a clutter of action, noise and space. Not so. Editor Lee Smith expertly coordinates the time and motion of each moment with an unbridled precision and rhythm.

While much happens in the labyrinthine narrative, screenwriter Nolan makes this film squarely about Cobb — his neuroses, his trauma, his struggle to separate dream from reality.

Further, part of Nolan’s economy is assuming we can catch up, balancing the given exposition against visual cues along the way to paint a picture of Cobb’s ever-deteriorating world without over-explaining the technology and circumstances. With the help of an intense performance by DiCaprio, Nolan’s epic and bombastic science-fiction vision is actually just as much a carefully rendered human portrait.

Ultimately, “Inception” retreats into the inner space of the subconscious, into the very genesis of an idea. It is about creation and destruction simultaneously. It is about mankind’s potential and also the consequences of exceeding one’s reach.

It’s also a wholly original piece that mesmerizes incessantly over its long runtime, ending with one final, ambiguous question: what is a dream, and does it matter what’s real and what exists solely in our subconscious?

Hollywood has been charmingly referred to as a “Dream Factory.” With all the industry he can muster, Christopher Nolan has constructed a paradoxically staggering dream of a film — “Inception” defies all logic, yet is perfectly logical.

We need dreams to make sense of our world. For Christopher Nolan, and for many impassioned cinematic spectators, films can provide equal opportunities to discern the world through an artifice.

“Inception” is a masterpiece of the mind, and a film that dares to take our breath away and pin our jaws to the floor, to show us what dreams — and films — are made of.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Knight and Day review

Property The Daily Gamecock

“Knight and Day” is a playfully off-kilter action caper whose sole purpose often seems to catapult Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz back into the certifiable A-list of celebrity. The movie is overstuffed with witty banter, breakneck action set pieces and a glossy chemistry between the two stars, yet it all too fleetingly delves into the kind of unhinged insanity its leading man seems to be reaching for.

In a summer awash with disappointing or mediocre films — Pixar’s “Toy Story 3” aside — “Knight and Day” comes as a surprise: a movie as goofy and senseless as its titular pun.
Cruise gets this, but he almost gets it too well. Cruise’s wacky supporting turn as movie producer Les Grossman in 2008’s “Tropic Thunder” won him praise left and right for sublimating his movie star glamour for a sickening, foul-mouthed caricature.

If Grossman was everything Tom Cruise isn’t, his lead turn here as Roy Miller is everything Tom Cruise “is” — every smile, every lock of hair, every body motion, every line of dialogue seems to channel “Tom Cruise: Movie Star.” In the movie’s manic opening act, this works wonders and helps give the film its buoyancy, but as it draws farther into the action, Cruise becomes less the film’s center and more just an element of its production.

What keeps “Knight and Day” from being as frenetically enjoyable as it strives to be is that it’s trying to make a major Hollywood blockbuster feel like an improvisation. It wants us to feel continually caught off guard by the eccentricities of the action and the rapidity of the banter, but it can’t help feeling overly familiar.

That’s not to say that the movie isn’t tremendous fun at times. It knowingly plays up its MacGuffin — a central plot element that is both everything the story is about and of absolutely no importance — and sensibly plays the dynamic between Diaz and Cruise’s, which is at times magnetic.

But it’s still two movies at once — a super-serious action spectacle, and a no-holds-barred spy film parody. Take an action sequence set on a freeway late into the film’s first act, in which Diaz’s character drives an SUV down the wrong side of the road as Cruise shoots baddies from the hood of the car.

On one hand, it’s a joy to watch Cruise play straight face (or relaxed and goofy face) to Diaz’s freak-out. On the other, the stunts and chaos are well-staged action, but rarely do these elements seem perfectly conjoined.

Director James Mangold, whose last film was “3:10 to Yuma,” reaches high and manages to control all the elements of the production while still giving his stars space to roam within the frame. Of course, that also ends up being the central contradiction the film poses: Can something this expensive put every cent on the screen in tightly controlled spectacle and still find room for the megastars to comfortably play off each other?

While it may not be a consistent film, it’s still entertaining, and it’s great fun just to watch Tom Cruise play himself with such uncontained glee. The whole thing may feel concocted to its last smirk, but at least it’s a knowing smirk.

Monday, June 28, 2010

"Toy Story 3" review

* * * * / * * * *

Property The Daily Gamecock

For every second of its runtime, “Toy Story 3” elicits a feeling of reunion with a group of friends from another era to reminisce on a bygone era. That era may be childhood, but Pixar’s latest triumph stirs to the core a sense of youthful imagination. It awakens in the spectator a desire to make-believe, to wholly surrender to the realms of the imagination.
When the animation titan launched its near-perfect feature film resume with “Toy Story” in 1995, it felt — even to the eyes of a very youthful viewer — like a revolution, a stunning creative achievement that was destined to push animation into a new plateau.

While the studio and its core creative personnel have moved on to projects arguably more audacious and more complex — “Wall-E,” “The Incredibles,” “Up” — they remain, with each film, committed to the wide-eyed possibilities of the world and unfailingly devoted to how animation can capture new sights.

“Toy Story 3” then succeeds almost because of all the movies that have come since it, and strikes repeated gold for the deft simplicity of its story, the kind of universality that can connect audiences of all demographics. It’s not to imagine toy-owner Andy, now 17 and on his way to college, as a stand-in for the franchise’s original creators having moved on from their original creation, they nonetheless return with added maturity and experience for one more round of playtime.

With returning voice acting from Tom Hanks, Tim Allen and Joan Cusack, the oddball gang of toys are accidentally donated to a daycare center where the utopian promise of never-ending playtime is not quite what it seems. Expanding the story to the daycare center gives animators the opportunity to devise rich environments and create at least a dozen fantastic new toys, featuring the voice work of such talent as Michael Keaton and Ned Beatty. Every richly-colored, sumptuously-designed shot feels melded with palpable care.

The screenplay comes courtesy of Oscar winner Michael Arndt, of “Little Miss Sunshine,” and it’s not hard to see why Arndt was a perfect choice — his gift for writing offbeat communities displaced in new environments comes through clearly as he continually cuts to the core of each character.

“Toy Story 3” packs plenty of humor, drawing on the traits and conventions established in the previous two films and nudging them slightly in new directions through both dialogue and physical interaction.

And yet, for all its bursting creativity, its manic blend of fish-out-of-water and “great escape” jailbreak genres, it’s the unexpected emotion that gives the film its power. More than just a serviceable rehash of character humor and familiar situations, “Toy Story 3” creeps in its themes of maturity and of growing up with such surprising and effective swiftness.
It is an absolute triumph of both an individual film and a sequel because it enhances and expands the story and landscape of its franchise in honest directions. As a coda to one of the most imaginative trilogies of the last twenty years from one of the best group of producers and directors working today, it’s a magnificent and emotionally satisfying masterpiece.

In its final moments, it becomes clear that no matter how old we may get, we can always rely on Pixar to give us that “one more play” we all long for, and remind us that being a kid doesn’t end just because we grow up.

Friday, June 18, 2010

A-Team review

* * / * * * *

Property The Daily Gamecock

“The A-Team” is everything wrong about the summer blockbuster: a movie so determined to shove you back in your seat over and over, it uses characters and storytelling as sidesteps to get the spectator to the next explosion. A movie so manic in its direction it’s like visual alphabet soup — signs and elements lumped together on celluloid, begging to make sense of things.

Yet “The A-Team” is also everything right about the summer blockbuster — a movie that all but forces you to turn your brain off for nearly two hours, shredding physics books and logic while remaining thoroughly tongue-in-cheek about the proceedings.
Yes, there’s nothing louder or dumber in theaters than director Joe Carnahan’s (“Smokin’ Aces”) version of the ‘80s television show, now centered around a set of contemporary concerns — the movie begins with an interrogation scene and features a shady Arab businessman.

There are tanks all but freefalling, characters repelling down skyscrapers, helicopters catching people in midair, Unmanned Aerial Vehicle detonations — of which one character remarks, “it looks just like ‘Call of Duty’” (what better way to sum up how this film is so reliant on the interactive presentations of modern warfare?) — and after a while it becomes a little too much to bear.

The screenplay, co-written by Carnahan, Brian Bloom and Skip Woods, tries to anchor the film around the members of the A-Team, including “District 9’s” Sharlto Copley, “The Hangover’s” Bradley Cooper and Oscar-nominee Liam Neeson, who play over-the-top with mostly good results. They don’t generate much chemistry and seem to only tangentially care about each other, but as individuals they all pack serviceably campy performances.
“The A-Team” is sheer excess. It’s cinema without plausibility or point, with barely enough coherence to justify itself. While that might sound like sheer derision, it’s not. There may not be anything particularly remarkable about Carnahan’s film, but it is a tailor-made fit to its core audience: action film junkies who get high off of ludicrously staged set pieces.
Director Carnahan tries to layer so much sound on top of so much editing — close-ups and bullets and things that fly and go boom all get jumbled up under sounds of yelps, one-liners, explosions, vehicle noise and orchestral scoring. Even for a Hollywood summer film, it’s a cacophony, shamelessly stretching the limits of visual and aural intake.

While many will no doubt find the film repellant — and rightfully so, for it creates an arena of violence, a free-for-all of sectioned-off absurdity with barely any connection to present anxieties — there will also be an equal number who happily succumb to the stupor of the action.

“The A-Team” is far from subtle and canyons away from intelligent, but it does entertain and satisfy in its own beguiling way. It is mass spectacle, an empty exercise that parades set pieces of global locales and macho mayhem, content to never give a moment’s thought to the wreckage it trails in its wake.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Iron Man 2

I've been trying to think about what to say regarding Favreau's sequel to 2008's most surprising film. Mostly, that it's more of the same, and I mean that in a good and bad way. The film works pretty much the same, full of witty banter, quirky performances, and oddball action sequences that are both thrilling and amusing. And yet, the plot flails in several different directions without a lot of purpose. Great supporting performances don't necessarily even out the sloppy supporting writing, and the has a pulpable lack of vitality -- as if the filmmakers were envisioning more how to please the crowd than pursue the hero. The machinations are on full display, both of the suit and the film.

What I do like about the film is how it thinks about the hero's public person and how one deals with the fame. Tony Stark is, as the film explicitly says, a narcissist. In Iron Man 2, he's also self-destructive (mentally as well as physically), calling the suit a nuclear deterrent. What made the first Iron Man resonate for me (and I like to think a lot of viewers, even if they're not aware), is that it openly thought about the Weapons Age. Iron Man is a hero, but he is a weapon, and in the sequel that weapon seems to have forged a momentary lapse of world peace. Of course, leave it to the Russians (in the form of a tattoo and beautifully Method Mickey Rourke) to mess that up for everyone.

The sequel gives us a genius who's built his own suit and an arms manufacturer who wants to give Stark Industries a run for his money. If Iron Man was about Tony Stark coming to grips with the role of Stark Industries and WMDs, IM2 has him asserting his philosophy against several foils. Thankfully, the sequel also continues to probe his daddy traumas, which I read as an allegory of how we are still trying to reconcile with both the atomic bomb and the Cold War dream of American ideology. Tony Stark is a political beast, as evidenced by his Senate hearings early in the film and his continued involvement with the military, but he's also a celebrity, a show-stopper, one who prances and parades his identity and his technology with little thought of consequence.

Stark is both deterrent and show-off, and Robert Downey Jr. continues to perfectly imagine the tightrope between genius and insanity. Of course, he's the perfect choice to delve into Stark's party animal side. Sam Rockwell, as the arms manufacturer who wants to steal the suit's technology for his own financial gain, is deliciously hammy - a white-collar villain who sees weaponry as a game of dollars-and-cents. And the weaponry in Iron Man 2 is certainly magnificent. The effects are fluid, the suits well-designed, and the action sequences flow without being over-long or too redundant.

Iron Man 2 works, but it doesn't push. It's a pretty, wham-bam movie that fills its obligations and thinks about the superhero in a particular way in regard to new-age weaponry. Of course, that's everything the first movie was, and one gets the sense Jon Favreau and company are more serviceable than daring.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Best. Trailer. Ever.

The Joaquin Phoenix Movie I Must See

From LA Times:

1 It’s far from the Joaquin Phoenix you’re used to seeing onscreen: snorting cocaine, ordering call girls, having oral sex with a publicist, treating his assistants abusively and rapping badly. And not, apparently, playing a role — or was he?

Even after seeing the documentary “I’m Still Here: The Lost Year of Joaquin Phoenix” in a private screening earlier this week, film buyers still aren’t sure of its genuineness. Was the “Walk the Line” and “Gladiator” star, who said more than a year ago that he was quitting acting to become a musician, playing a sophisticated prank, or did he really ditch his Oscar-nominated career to become a disheveled rapper?

Agents at William Morris Endeavor, the sellers of the Casey Affleck-directed film, have started showing the movie to potential distributors, and while some were apparently interested in bidding for “I’m Still Here’s” distribution rights, the shoppers left the screening perhaps even more mystified by Phoenix’s behavior than when they walked in.

Several buyers said the film overflowed with Hollywood debauchery, including more male frontal nudity than you’d find in some gay porn films and a stomach-turning sequence in which someone feuding with Phoenix defecates on the actor while he’s asleep.

The documentary — or is it a mockumentary? — also includes Phoenix’s infamous appearance on “The Late Show With David Letterman,” in which the bearded and bloated actor barely spoke, leaving Letterman bewildered if not infuriated and people wondering about Phoenix’s mental health.

The buyers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Phoenix comes off unsympathetically and shows very little talent for music in the movie, directed by his brother-in-law (Affleck is married to Summer Phoenix). Sales agent WME declined to comment.

In some scenes in the film, the 35-year-old Phoenix is trying to get Sean “Diddy” Combs to produce Phoenix’s rap album, but the hip-hop impresario is not terribly interested. Another sequence shows Ben Stiller approaching Phoenix about starring in writer-director Noah Baumbach’s “Greenberg,” but Phoenix is barely interested.

Two buyers who saw the movie were unsure if Phoenix had turned out an elaborate piece of performance art, where the joke was really on the audience. While they were debating the film’s commercial prospects, the buyers did agree on one thing: They’d never seen anything like it.

Monday, May 3, 2010

A New "Nightmare"

Scanning over the critics' one-lines on the reboot of "A Nightmare on Elm Street," Richard Corliss calls it, "a fine copy." His review, the most favorable on Metacritic, is only one of about a dozen that seem to largely miss the point. Samuel Bayer's resurrection of the surreal slasher is a completely different reimagining of what the Elm St. lore is all about, and takes the core underlays of the genre in a direction that's actually more interesting than you might think. It has some obligatory intertextual nods - the hand in the bathtub, the steamy boiler room - but this film isn't just about a set of familiar signs and codes. It has something else in mind.

No, I'm not saying Nightmare on Elm St. is a good film. Not by a long shot. The filmmaking is scattershot and scatterbrained. The scares rely far too much on amped-up audio and dirty close-ups. There's often a fascination with framing Haley's silhouette in the same pose over and over again. The actors are crap; fodder, movable chess pieces who regurgitate empty exchanges or lay out exposition as the plot rolls over a pretty familiar arc.

The slasher films in the early 1980s have been read over and over as films about sexual awakening and liberation. Too often we read "teen sex = death" in slashers, but is it a coincidence that nearly all of them end with a female empowered to take down the masculine figure with a phallic device? No, I don't think so. Slashers aren't just about disposing with bodies. They're about how the spectator gets implemented in that disposal, about a very specific set of structural shifts and gender codification. Don't believe me? Read Carol Clover's "The Final Girl" and let's talk - an essay that's still so influential the 2010 PCA/ACA conference had a whole panel about reevaluating it on its 20th anniversary.

Why do I bring this up? Because Bayer's "Nightmare" isn't about sexual awakening or sexual empowerment. There isn't a drop of teenage fornication in the film (save for some snuggling in bed. You can do the math if you want). The script was co-written and developed by Wesley Strick, the same guy who wrote Scorsese's "Cape Fear" in 91. Strick actually has a keen eye on how to shift this story into a different set of thematic anxieties. So often we dismiss these remakes as "Hollywood without idea" - Hollywood has ideas; screenwriters will sell them for far less than they're worth. The question is why Hollywood has been so insistent on selling these ideas again. What does rebooting a set of franchises mean for us in the 00s? When it came to "Halloween," Rob Zombie turned Michael Myers into a psychological profile, a tortured serial killer with a complex about his sister.

"A Nightmare on Elm Street" is now not only a revenge story, it's a psychosexual trauma film. Wait, what? Yes, it is. It's actually kind of a stroke of genius. The 1984 film kind of boldly questioned children should stand for the crimes of their parents, and the 2010 film implements both sides. Turns out in this lore, Krueger was a gardener-cum-pedophile at a pre-school. When one of the kids (Nancy) came forward, the parents turned into a lynch mob and set Krueger ablaze. All the kids Krueger stalks were in the same pre-school class, and they've all repressed his memory. The structure of the film is then the exact structure of a trauma patient -- Nancy must decode a set of signs both within her world and her dreams, investigate the memory she has repressed, and then travel to its source - the preschool basement - to confront the pedophilia/Freddy in a violent expulsion of her sexual repression.

Of course, this also allows her to open up to the guy who has a crush on her (and who is similarly stalked). And Jackie Earle Haley is the perfect choice to do this version of Freddy. Strick/Bayer rely on his intertextual link to 2006's "Little Children," where he played a pedophile trying to readjust to a society that refuses to accept him. In flashback, Haley plays a version of this character, an impish manchild. In the Freddy make-up, he has a gargled howl that runs closer to his roles in "Watchmen" or "Shutter Island." Very rarely has an actor, in a period of four years, explored the troubled terrain of this psychological misfits with such brave energy. Though Bayer doesn't handle Haley as well as perhaps another director would -- the man's physical stature is not his strong point -- the Haley makeup looks markedly different from the Robert Englund makeup. Krueger is not a ghoul, a melted jack-o-lantern; he is a flat-out burn victim carcass.

Unfortunately, "Nightmare" is a far more interesting film on a theoretical/structural level than it is on an actual visceral level. Bayer, in his directorial debut, misses his chance to make a terrifyingly surreal film. The film's jabs in and out of reality are too often punctuated by overly familiar signifiers, and only one scene in a pharmacy - with marvelously jagged intercutting editing - seems to have any kind of punch. The film's largest failure is in its inability to make the spectator feel as confused as the characters. "Nightmare," as Craven envisioned it, works because film itself is a surreal scape that reflects the natural world while toying with its principles through various degrees of representation -- and isn't that what a dream is?

Films have been called a "dream" since at least Siegfried Kracauer's theories in the 1930s. That's why Freddy turned into a franchise killer; his murders were an attack on spectatorship consciousness. I actually kind of love the screenplay for this new "Nightmare on Elm Street" -- as a piece of adaptation, it's a serious reconsideration of what Krueger is about, and it rather boldly literalizes the rape implication of the original. By putting pedophilia and sexual trauma squarely in the spotlight, "A Nightmare on Elm Street" repositions how the slasher thinks about sex.

Of course, that's not to say no slasher film has thought about sexual revenge or pedophilia before. There's nothing original about this film, and most of the time it's barely passable. The creative jolts are few and far between, but to dismiss it is to refuse to give it the single chance it wants. It preys on our understanding of the Krueger lore so that it can give us an alternative reading. And isn't that what the resurrection of the slasher beast is all about? Challenging the critical reception and theoretical evaluation the first round of baddies received? This "Nightmare" succeeds because of its imaginative trauma structure, but its aesthetic and direction are misshapen, blunt, and a little too obvious.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Kick-Ass

Okay, so I actually saw Kick-Ass almost two weeks ago, and have really just been way too busy to write anything about it.

This will be brief, but I wanted to get something down to distract myself from writing my three remaining papers.

"Kick-Ass" is the lynchpin to the superhero genre. It is a bold, audacious, disturbingly violent look into the cult of the hero and its social implications for young and old alike. Much has been written about how the movie involves children, how its language and gore are over-the-top past the point of satire, but of course those who cry foul are those not willing to ask why.

The film wants to provoke us, to make us uneasy about the superhero in a way I feel is actually kind of similar to "Watchmen" and yet wholly different - for Kick-Ass is camp and Watchmen is dread-ridden noir. Its cavalcade of heroes are not super, not powerful; they aren't fighting a diabolical madman, but a mafia kingpin. Their costumes are not elaborate, but stolen goods - Kick-Ass wears a scuba suit; Big Daddy wears a Batman outfit.

Its assortment of intertextual references to popular culture - to other superhero films, to spaghetti westerns, to Quentin Tarantino (which is of course a wormhole of intertextuality), makes it a film concerned with films. Matthew Vaugn is a director clearly in tune with how representation can be configured and thought about, and how the superhero is supposedly a beacon of mythic proportion. It's a giant deconstructing act that, somewhere in its third act, actually goes in reverse and starts letting the superhero, well, kick ass. Everything comes out squeaky clean, give or take a few horribly mangled and disfigured corpses, and the film's ideology ends up seeming pretty okay with superheroes despite all the horrific humor the narrative spits in the spectator's face.

Is this an ultimate negativity, or does it make us feel even worse about what we've just watched? To make these characters so, in a word, cool, so campy, so fun, so identifiable, Vaugn understands that we want to project ourselves into the superhero - that we all wish we could be a guardian and a protector. But a protector of what and for what? Kick-Ass is remarkably ambivalent about all of this - even as we enjoy it, there are little-to-no stakes, just individuals so run amok with their egos they forget why a superhero mask matters in the first place - or perhaps they do, and they've just willingly manipulated it.

I'll say this though, "Kick-Ass" will be a cornerstone of my thesis. If "The Dark Knight" represented the apex of the genre, its artistic and discursive high point that so fluidly articulated the superhero in our post-9/11 world, "Kick-Ass" seems to represent the next cyclical step in the genre - self-knowing, deconstruction, an opening of inconsistencies and a shift towards the parodic to understand the follies of associating with people who get a kick out of dressing up in costumes.

It's a wild, relentless ride, and one that nobody should feel totally okay about. But that's what makes it great.

Monday, April 26, 2010

My own summation/take on South Park controversy

Property The Daily Gamecock

Comedy Central’s flagship animated series, “South Park,” may be into its 14th season and 200th episode, but that doesn’t mean creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone have stopped rubbing the world the wrong way.


With their 200th episode blow-out on April 14, the satirists brought back every celebrity they’d ever offended — including the prophet Muhammad, who appeared disguised inside a bear suit so they wouldn’t have to actually depict him.


After the episode, which was part one of what would be a two-part episode, Revolution Muslim, a fundamentalist group based in New York City, made vague threats against the creative team.


A blogger on the group’s website, revolutionmuslim.com, said, “We have to warn Matt and Trey that what they are doing is stupid and they will probably wind up like Theo Van Gogh for airing this show.” Van Gogh was a Dutch filmmaker murdered in 2004 after making a film that was critical of Islamic society.


Comedy Central responded with tact and censored the show’s episode even further than Parker and Stone intended, adding audio bleeps over several moments of dialogue. The creators placed a bar that said “censored” over Mohammed to avoid actual depiction.
Jon Stewart then devoted nearly half of Thursday night’s “The Daily Show” to discussing the issue.


The comedian pundit defended Parker and Stone, who in his eye are, “purely for expressing themselves,” and turned somber to rant about Revolution Muslim, who “get to enjoy [New York City] because of how much we in this country value and protect even their freedom of expression.”


While Stewart has been known to skewer religious hypocrisy in his years as “The Daily Show” host and has recently done several pieces on the Catholic Church scandals involving the pope, he was clear to note where the line was drawn.


“Revolution Muslim, your type of hatred and intolerance, that’s the enemy,” he said. “Comedy Central decided to censor the episode. It’s their right ... it was a decision they made to protect their employees from any possible harmful repercussions.” Some “South Park” fans have pointed fingers square at the network for caving under the censorship pressures from Revolution Muslim.


Over the years, Comedy Central has encouraged diverse, at times button-pushing entertainment (most notably in, ironically, “South Park”), and it would be foolish to think they are a cowardly group of executives. But their decision to censor further than what Parker and Stone wanted certainly draws up larger questions of a network’s responsibility for representing major issues and how they perceive the effects of their programs.


At what point should the omission of images and words be accepted? At what point should we give in to demands?


Make no mistake, this may seem like minor controversy, but it is a remarkable instance of how cultural terrorism continues, how freedom of expression is so often more an ideal than a reality.


We often take our entertainment for granted, and the kind of content available on television is too often viewed as a detriment rather than something to celebrate. But hey, look at the conformist, ultra-censored 1950s for ideologically sound programming.


The freedom to express at higher and higher levels will always be fought, and the producers and writers who try to push the envelope should never feel they have to back down.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

"Cold Weather" review

* * * 1/2 / * * * *

Property The Daily Gamecock

Writer/director Aaron Katz’s new feature, “Cold Weather,” was shown out of competition at Columbia’s Indie Grits Film Festival this past Thursday. The mystery/drama, which collected major raves at Austin’s South by Southwest Festival several weeks ago, is an accomplishment of a genre film executed with subtlety.


With a realistic style that pits beautiful shots of Portland’s landscape against slightly out-of-focus human faces struggling to get a grip, it’s an investigation into a seemingly unsolvable mystery and, more importantly, into the nature of communication.


Cris Lankenau stars as Doug, a college dropout who’s gone from studying forensic science to ice factory working, nurturing his detective impulse through Sherlock Holmes fiction as opposed to trying to apply himself. He lives with his sister Gail (Trieste Kelly Dunn) and makes friends with co-worker Carlos (Raúl Castillo), and for a while it seems Katz is trying to draw a minute character study.


He indeed does, but when Doug’s ex-girlfriend Rachel (Robyn Rikoon) comes to visit and then suddenly vanishes, Doug quite literally decides to smoke a pipe and emulate Holmes as best he can, using Carlos and Gail as interchangeable Watsons to track down the missing girl and uncover a potentially more sinister threat.


“Cold Weather” importantly never feels like high drama. Its characters rarely speak more than a few sentences at a time, and even then it’s never very loud. There’s remarkably little said or discussed in this film that would have devolved into a wholly plotted affair under a lesser director.


With Katz, the emotion and the shifts come in slight changes of the camera. Characters look at each other a certain way; they move differently, or lighting adjusts. “Cold Weather” is occasionally very suspenseful, building discomfort through awkward silences and off-key music cues.


As it goes on, however, it becomes almost obvious that the mystery doesn’t matter. This is a story about Doug, specifically about him and his sister. The movie opens with a dinner scene where the two share a meal with their parents and awkwardly trade banter about the state of their lives.


From that point on, they struggle to communicate on the most basic level. A night of cards offers little conversation, and a diversionary trip to the coast has them silently sharing sandwiches instead of engaging with each other.


As they try to figure out exactly what’s going on with Rachel, Doug and Gail open up to each other. They make jokes, they get involved in how the other is behaving and they form a strange partnership, as if they were two friends re-discovering each other after a long absence.


Part of the reason this works so well is because of Trieste Kelly Dunn, an actress who makes Gail fully lived-in, a woman trying to get by as best she can. Her modest accomplishments play well against Doug’s angst, and Lankenau hits his stunted ambition with full force.


“Cold Weather” is a surprising look inside the detective film, and its deliberately ambiguous conclusion feels so remarkably observed, tilting the film from outward investigation to interpersonal connection. It’s a movie about how external forces help re-ignite internal fires.
The film seems to start at a simmer and stay there the whole time, but it’s not until well after the end credits that one realizes Aaron Katz actually does remarkable shifts in character and emotion with how he incorporates music and visual space.


“Cold Weather” almost seems like a trick, an elusive mystery where the characters dig deeper and deeper while the plot makes less and less sense. But in the best tradition of suspense, it’s not about the plot. It’s what the plot means to those involved.

Indie Grits write-up

Property The Daily Gamecock

The Indie Grits Film Festival devoted a portion of one of its sessions this past Thursday to honoring the life and work of local filmmaker John Lewis through footage compiled of his early 1970s movie, “Miracle at Valley Park.”


The documentary chronicled a concert performance by the Chambers Brothers at the height of racial tensions in Columbia after several students rioted at Dreher High School. The footage, assembled for the screening by USC’s Moving Image Research Collections, contains the concert footage as well as contextual interviews with Lewis, members of his crew and the Chambers Brothers.


Lewis passed away earlier this year from complications stemming from Parkinson’s disease.


Another man featured in the documentary was the Rev. James Redfern, who at the time was a self-described black militant in Columbia working for equal job opportunities for African-Americans. Redfern was in attendance for the screening and shared his thoughts on the documentary and on Lewis.


“John Lewis changed Columbia and South Carolina,” he said. “This [film] ... is the forerunner. Every major show that has come through the Coliseum is because of John.”
Redfern spoke at length and answered questions about the state of the civil rights movement in Columbia at the time of the concert. He said the event and its film helped open up doors and gather attention for the way it brought people together at a time of great tension.


The documentary was produced at bare-minimum cost, as Lewis used his job at WIS to provide his crew with equipment. John’s wife, Inge Lewis, was also in attendance and offered her reflections on how the project came to be.


“John just did it,” she said. “He was so persuasive. They built the stage. I don’t know how because they didn’t have any money.”


The celebration of Lewis and his documentary was only one part of what was a larger presentation of footage culled from the Moving Image Research Collections. The Collections’ interim director, Mark Cooper, said the event hoped to “highlight and celebrate the indie and gritty spirit.”


Items showcased included excerpts from the Fox Movietone News Collection and the recently acquired Chinese Film Collection. One item from the Home Movie Collections was of a family hosting a party full of illegal drinking during Prohibition. Ben Singleton, MIRC’s production manager, told the audience that the short will be used by famous documentary filmmaker Ken Burns in an upcoming series on Prohibition.


While the event as a whole showed off many gems from the MIRC, which Indie Grits director Andy Smith called one of Columbia’s “finest treasures” full of world-class programming, the star of the evening was very much Lewis.


“John could see all our communities, and he empowered us,” Redfern said. “We never even considered the power of art,” he said, speaking of Lewis’s civil rights efforts.


He was sure to emphasize that having someone so willing to use all his creative prowess to document these crucial civil rights moment helped spread and support the local movement.


Unfortunately, MIRC does not hold a complete print of “Miracle at Valley Park.” Cooper encouraged the audience to let him know if anyone knew of any surviving portions of the film for the Collections to house.


It was clearly an evening of celebration, remembering one of the largely unseen and unknown cultural landmarks of Columbia’s recent memory.


“I’ve known people around the world, and there was only one John Lewis,” Redfern said.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Cannes finally reveals competition lineup

In Competition

"Another Year," d. Mike Leigh (U.K.)
"Biutiful," d. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (Spain/Mexico)
"Burnt by the Sun 2," d. Nikita Mikhalkov (Germany/France/Russia)
"Certified Copy," d. Abbas Kiarostami (France/Italy/Iran)
"Fair Game," d. Doug Liman (U.S.)
"Hors-la-loi," d. Rachid Bouchareb (France/Belgium/Algeria)
"The Housemaid," d. Im Sang-soo (South Korea)
"La nostra vita," d. Daniele Luchetti (Italy/France)
"Of Gods and Men," d. Xavier Beauvois (France)
"Outrage," d. Takeshi Kitano (Japan)
"Poetry," d. Lee Chang-dong (South Korea)
"A Screaming Man," d. Mahamat-Saleh Haroun (France/Belgium/Chad)
"Tournee," d. Matheiu Amalric (France)
"Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives," d. Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Spain/Thailand/Germany/U.K./France)
"You, My Joy," d. Sergey Loznitsa (Ukraine/Germany)

Un Certain Regard

"Adrienn Pal," d. Agnes Kocsis (Hungary/Netherlands/France/Austria)
"Aurora," d. Cristi Puiu (Romania)
"Blue Valentine," d. Derek Clanfrance (U.S.)
"Chatroom," d. Hideo Nakata (U.K.)
"Chongqing Blues," d. Wang Xiaoshual (China)
"The City Below," d. Christoph Hochhauster (Germany/France)
"Film Socialisme," d. Jean-Luc Godard (Switzerland/France)
"Ha Ha Ha, " d. Hong Sang-soo (South Korea)
"Les Amours imaginaires," d. Xavier Dolan (Canada)
"Life Above All," d. Oliver Schmitz (France)
"Los labios," d. Ivan Fund, Santiago Loza (Argentina)
"Octubre," d. Daniel Vega (Peru)
"Qu'est-il arrive a Simon Werner?," d. Fabrice Gobert (France)
"Rebecca H.," d. Lodge Kerrigan (France)
"R U There," d. David Verbeek (Taiwan)
"The Strange Case of Angelica," d. Manoel de Oliveira (Portugal)
"Tuesday, After Christmas," d. Radu Muntean (Romania)
"Udaan," d. Vikramaditya Motwane (India)

Out of Competition

"Robin Hood," d. Ridley Scott (U.S./U.K.)
"Tamara Drewe," d. Stephen Frears (U.K.)
"Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps," d. Oliver Stone (U.S.)
"You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger," d. Woody Allen (U.K.)

Special Screenings

"Kaboom," d. Gregg Araki (U.S./France)
"L'autre monde," d. Gilles Marchand (France)
"Abel," d. Diego Luna (Mexico)
"Chantrapas," d. Otar Iosseliani (France)
"Draquila -- L'Italia che trema," d. Sabina Guzzanti (Italy)
"Inside Job," d. Charles Ferguson (U.S.)
"Nostalgia de la luz," d. Patricio Guzman (France)
"Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow," d. Sophie Fiennes (Netherlands)



If anything, reviewing the Cannes lineup is only a reminder of how little foreign films we still get access to in the U.S. I'll probably never see most of these movies, but Europe (and particularly France) has a particularly strong lineup. Interesting that Doug Liman is the only U.S. director in competition.

So there are a few past Palme d'Or winners in competition - Mike Leigh and Abbas Kiarostami - along with a few international/art house well-known directors - Inarritu, Weerasethakul, Amalric, Tavernier. Additionally, like last year, Korea and Japan have a nice showing.

As far as "Un Certain Regard," I'm just jumping up and down that Godard's new film will be premiering at Cannes. Ditto Lodge Kerrigan's latest.

Interesting that the U.S. is mostly out of competition here, but it's unfortunate that Terrence Malick couldn't complete "Tree of Life" in time to enter -- it could have been a major contender.

Also remember that Tim Burton is the head of the jury this year -- I'm sure that will influence what kind of winner we have.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

How Glee really IS changing the TV landscape

Property The Daily Gamecock

Fox has been airing a series of promos for the return of “Glee,” which describes the show as having “changed the TV landscape.” That may seem like a silly, hyperbolic statement, especially for a show that’s only had 13 episodes, but Fox’s high-wire genre-bender has not only caught on like wildfire, it’s given the network a different way to think about how to keep its shows afloat.

Perhaps one of the smartest things the television executives could have done with the show, which melds soap opera, high school social politics, broad comedy and energetic musical numbers into a non-traditional comedy/drama, was to give it an equally non-traditional release pattern.

The show’s pilot aired last May as a stand-alone television special, posting great reviews, high ratings and launching the show’s first single, a cover of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” to number one.

Fox was quick to order 13 episodes, but it probably wasn’t until the television show produced a No. 1 song that they realized how they could make a relatively expensive and hard-to-market show work. After several more episodes, Fox ordered nine more episodes, which will start airing tonight, and a complete 22-episode order for a second season.

For most people familiar with Fox television, their willingness to embrace “Glee” produced more than a few double takes; after all, this is the network that canceled fan and critic favorites like “Arrested Development” and “Firefly” just a few years ago.

The real kicker for the show is that, as they so readily advertise, it’s already posted two No. 1 albums and more than four million song downloads. Holy revenue stream, Batman!
Unlike most television shows, which rely almost exclusively on advertising space, DVD sales and, if they can get to 100 episodes, syndication sales to help networks recoup the cost of production slowly over time, Fox has created an alternative source of income to complement their show.

Of course, it probably doesn’t help that the show has already scooped up the Golden Globe for Best Television Series — Musical/Comedy, the Screen Actors Guild award for Best Performance by an Ensemble in a Comedy Series and a Peabody award, in addition to nominations from the Directors Guild and Writers Guild.

Perhaps the runaway success of “American Idol,” television’s most-watched show over multiple years, has allowed Fox to loosen up how it thinks about its programming and take risks. Perhaps “Glee” is a sign of more unique, madcap shows that try to push general conceptions of how television programs work.

Of course, that idea of how programs “work” certainly isn’t limited to their content. While “Glee” has pushed “high school shows” in a brave new direction that’s almost blissfully manic even in its most uneven moments, Fox has found a way to utilize individual song downloads and album sales in its favor.

At a time when cable television stations like FX and HBO threaten to yank the best writers and directors away from broadcast television, and most networks are looking for ways to ease the cost of production, Fox has found a way to draw viewers back.

This merging of narrative programming, CD sales and digital downloads takes the model “American Idol” established and turns it in a new direction. “Glee” is a phenomenon not only in how it’s created a veritable cult following in just 13 episodes, but for how Fox has continued to find ways to use its popularity to fuel its continued production.

Maybe that’s an essential step to changing a medium’s landscape. That’s Entertainment.

Conan heads to TBS

According to The Wrap, Conan O'Brien will be hosting a 4-a-week late-night program on TBS starting in April.

You snooze, you lose: Conan O'Brien is bringing his late-night act to Time Warner-owned cable network TBS, breaking off talks with Fox and making plans to move to cable in November.

O'Brien and Fox had been engaged in serious discussions about launching a late-night show for months, with most indications pointing to a deal eventually getting done. But Fox had always indicated that an agreement came with serious limitations: Less money, no guarantee of wide affiliate clearances and little chance for O'Brien to own his own show.

And while Fox Entertainment executives made no secret of their desire to get O'Brien, other parts of News Corp. seemed agnostic at best -- consistently stressing that an agreement would have to make sense financially.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Katzenberg on 3D

From Variety, an interview with Jeffrey Katzenberg of Dreamworks Animation on why 3D is a major industry crossroads.

Read the full interview here.

3D is either A) The industry's biggest bigscreen innovation in decades and its biggest growth opportunity; B) In danger of fading within a year; or C) All of the above. According to Jeffrey Katzenberg, the answer is C.

The DreamWorks Animation head says Hollywood is at a "genuine crossroads," and the decisions studios and producers make in the next few months could ensure a healthy life for film-going -- or kill the goose that lays the golden egg.

Last weekend was significant in the evolution of 3D because it marked the bow of the highest-profile 3D conversion: "Clash of the Titans," which Warner Bros. converted from 2D at the last minute. On that weekend, DreamWorks Animation's "How to Train Your Dragon" was in its second week and Disney's "Alice in Wonderland" continued its run -- giving auds a chance to experience three very different applications of the same technology.

The issue for Jeffrey Katzenberg is what he calls the "cheeseball" conversion of "Clash," with results that have been almost universally panned by critics. Warners insiders conceded to Variety that some at the studio were unhappy with the look of "Clash 3D" as it was seen at some screenings. But in public, Warner execs have defended the movie and argued that its strong box office performance proved that moviegoers are satisfied.

All over town, in film and TV offices, 3D is being debated. To get the dialog started, Katzenberg was invited to meet with a group of Variety reporters and editors for a wide-ranging discussion on 3D and why, in his opinion, the industry is in danger of incurring a major self-inflicted wound and setting back the entire bigscreen experience. Here are excerpts of that discussion.

Comcast is pretty stupid

I've been trying to find time to write a piece on why 3D is already doomed, but Comcast is contributing to it...

Property The Daily Gamecock

Comcast is having quite the week. The media provider is pushing boundaries and buttons left and right, but they’ve been at the heart of two key moments over the last several days, both on television and on the Internet.

As far as television goes, Comcast has worked out a way to dedicate two hours of 3D coverage a day to the Masters, making it the first time a national sports broadcast will be shown in the new format.

Of course, viewers will only see the Masters in 3D if they have a special 3D television and glasses, making the experience only possible for the very select few who have access to the expensive technology.

Additionally, Comcast will offer a 3D stream to view online but that again will require a 3D media player, 3D monitor and 3D glasses.

This is only the latest extension of the seeming fetishistic relationship numerous media outlets are currently forming around 3D. Of course, it begs the question of whether or not all this 3D is really worth it. Paying a few extra dollars to get an added dimension of “How to Train Your Dragon” is one thing but investing hundreds of dollars to get the gimmick in your home seems a little ridiculous.

Besides, golf doesn’t exactly offer dozens of exciting angles to really make the experience transcendental.

While Comcast’s decision has certainly sparked debates among tech circles, it pales in comparison to the court decision handed out in a contested issue over Internet practice between Comcast and the FCC.

The Federal Communications Commission took issue with a method of controlling Internet traffic Comcast was employing on its subscribers. “Net neutrality,” as it has been named, argues that Internet traffic should be as equivalent as technologically possible across all Web sites.

As an Internet service provider, Comcast is attempting to slow down certain content providers and sites, typically in the form of bit torrents, to deter users from accessing certain areas in favor of others.

A U.S. court ruled in favor of Comcast, saying that federal regulators could not interfere in how the business chose to influence its Internet traffic.

While this may seem unfair, Comcast is still only one of many Internet options, and it is still — by virtue of its title — providing a service. Like most businesses, they can choose how to provide that service.

The tricky grey area comes in where Comcast’s status as an Internet service provider and cable company start to blur. For example, Comcast’s recent move to acquire NBC means that if they were successful, they would be able to control a content generator (e.g. they make television shows) that is then broadcast over their cable and Internet services.

So were Comcast to gain NBC, and were the court’s decision on net neutrality to stand over time, Comcast could speed up traffic on Hulu — where NBC shows are available to stream — and slow it on alternative video stream sites, essentially forcing subscribers to choose the one that most benefits Comcast.

Of course, this is all hypothetical, but it’s certainly clear that Comcast is playing big risks, gambling on how they can manipulate the Internet and utilize the emerging 3D technologies on platforms other than cinema.

Monday, April 5, 2010

"Most Dangerous Man in America" review

No, I'm not dead. I've just been taking two weeks off, mostly because I spent last week at the PCA/ACA national conference. Blogging should get back to normal...

Property The Daily Gamecock

A story of secret papers, multiple U.S. presidents, a war that divided the country on several levels, personal integrity and an argument about freedom of the press. No, it’s not “All the President’s Men,” it’s directors’ Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith’s “The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers.”

Nominated this past year for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, the film details the events leading to and the fallout from the New York Times’ 1971 decision to publish a series of top secret documents about the Vietnam War that became known as the Pentagon Papers.

Specifically, the story revolves around Daniel Ellsberg, a Pentagon aide who decides photocopy and turn over to the press nearly 7,000 pages of information about the Vietnam War in order to try and stop it.

“The Most Dangerous Man in America” sheds a spotlight on a pivotal moment in national discourse. A wealth of narrative and documentary films have been made regarding the Vietnam War or Nixon’s presidency, but this is one of the few that tries to align a moral conscience behind the proceedings.

As a piece of ethics and debate, the film tackles its issue head-on. Using interviews from many of the key players involved, including Ellsberg, it dissects what went wrong with Vietnam while at the same time arguing both why Ellsberg felt he had to release the papers to help his country, and how others felt this represented an act of treason.

The film tells its history as well as it can, firmly establishing the perspective of the individuals involved and using their testimonies to steer the narrative. It tries to put a human face on a political and ethical issue.

While it’s a great story and captivating for most of its 94-minute run time, “Most Dangerous Man” doesn’t really take any risks with documentary form. Much of the film is told through “talking head” interviews, with subjects framed in perfectly lit interview shots.

Other sections of the film rely on a wealth of archival photos, news reports and several well-timed dramatic recreations to try and create diversity in how the story is presented. While it works, it doesn’t particularly set the film apart.

Though it strives for, and occasionally hits, a sour note on a pivotal moment in our country’s political discourse, it still plays more like a History Channel documentary.

Directors Ehrlich and Goldsmith sublimate the form of their documentary to its content. There’s nothing wrong with that; its let the viewer focus on what’s happening as opposed to how it’s being presented, which is helpful if the filmmakers are trying to “teach” this historic event to those who may be unfamiliar with it.

But Daniel Ellsberg was a risk-taker, someone who put his whole career on the line in the name of what he believed was right, and for the documentary to play it so safe, so simple, makes it hard for the film to really jump into the compelling.

The beginning of the film briefly discusses Ellsberg’s relationship to Robert S. McNamara, and the former Secretary of Defense’s mention can’t help but call to mind Errol Morris’s powerful and provocative 2003 documentary “The Fog of War,” a film that tackles the issue of the Vietnam War and what went wrong with exacting visual prowess.

“The Most Dangerous Man in America” is a film worth watching, if only for how it helps discuss the importance of the political moment. It entertains, it tells its story well, but it tells it a little too typically.

Monday, March 22, 2010

'Justified' has makings of a new crime classic

Property The Daily Gamecock

FX’s atmospheric, gritty and engaging new crime drama, “Justified,” feels like it’s drawn from the pulpiest of crime novels and the classic works of Western fiction. Its pilot, adapted from Elmore Leonard’s short story “Fire in the Hole,” is one of the most promising and riveting of the 2010 season. If properly developed over its first dozen episodes, FX could have a bone-crunching law enforcement drama on its hands.


U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant, stoic but controlling in what could be a powerhouse leading turn) murders a gunrunner in Miami. Though he feels justified – the other man drew first – the brutal murder lands him a re-assignment to Harlan, Ky., his old hometown.


Harlan, with its rundown homes and insulated culture, is designed to look like a modern-day pioneering town. Its main source of income has been coal mines; Givens mined coal as a young man, enforcing his ties to the community.


The local law enforcement has also run into problems with a group of eo-Nazis who insist on terrorizing the town. They are the outlaws, the renegades, dressed largely in black and insisting on a righteous philosophy of violence.


Though pilot writer Graham Yost enjoys playing with backwater stereotypes, he rarely condescends these characters. If anything, the gangs are treated as an efficient and powerful organization, bombing churches and terrorizing with shotguns.


And then there’s Givens, the cowboy with a past, the man of violence and rage who hides it all behind an icy exterior. In his dark jacket and broad white cowboy hat, Olyphant gives all the rugged dialogue a cryptic groove.


The pilot has Givens tracking down and trying to expose a friend from his mining days who’s now turned into a neo-Nazi thug (Walton Goggins, who comes packed with a terrifyingly likable violent streak). Along the way, he runs into people from his previous life in Harlan – including his ex-wife, Winona (Natalie Zea, who sets up a character with a great deal of potential depth in the pilot).


As the pilot for “Justified” comes straight from Elmore Leonard’s prose, it gets all the benefit of his effectively drawn characters and his gift for dialogue that can both zing and purr. The plot rolls, but it’s really the program’s atmosphere that gives it weight.


Both a straightforward cop drama by way of an old West philosophy and a surprisingly ethnographic dissection of Harlan’s people and their complex relationship to society, “Justified” is able to deftly make Givens’ return to the town a homecoming and a classic fish-out-of-water scenario.


It also hits hard, with several moments of suspenseful stare-downs leading to dramatic spurts of violence. In the best tradition of the Western, “Justified” is all about the forces of good taking down the throngs of evil with a fast shot.


That its first hour manages to ignite the characters and the environment in such vivid and varied ways is a very hopeful sign for the show, which has a 13-episode run for its first season.


As long as Timothy Olyphant towers so tall in every moment of “Justified” — and as long as the show resists the urge to feel like a by-the-books cop drama, where catching the criminal is less important than what the action means in a broader sense — it should stand head-and-shoulders above any kind of procedural broadcast show.


Freed as it is on cable from the confines of broadcast network censorship, it surges forward with a bite, a rhythm and a vibe all its own. “Justified” airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on FX.