Saturday, June 25, 2011

'The Tree of Life'

In a rather wonderful essay featured in the Criterion version of "The Thin Red Line," David Sterritt writes of Terrence Malick: "His great creative passions -- nuances of light, subtleties of camera movement, rapport between word and picture -- all reflect his conviction that cinematic reality is reality, and that film, treated with due reverence and expertise, is able to absorb not just patterns of luminosity but also the transcendent essence of people, places, and things."

I wouldn't dare try to say it better myself.

'Midnight in Paris' is one smooth cocktail

The opening moments of Woody Allen's latest, "Midnight in Paris," are in many ways reminiscent of those of his 1979 "Manhattan." Shots of Paris, expertly framed by Daruis Khondji (who worked with David Fincher on "Seven" and "Panic Room"), alternate striking views of familiar landmarks with equally gorgeous compositions of shops and side streets. Set to a soft jazz and building through a morning, an afternoon rainstorm, and an evening, this introduction plays far more like a city symphony from the 1920s (like say, "Rain," or "Berlin: Symphony of a City") than it does the familiar, swooping establishing shots that litter almost every film set in a major city.

This set-up accomplishes two things: It alerts us that "Midnight in Paris" is (again, like the aforementioned "Manhattan," with which the film has many similarities) a poem to Paris itself, in love with the architecture and the layout of the city and burning to explore all of its secrets. It's also a little jab that this movie is all about 1920s culture, and the first of many little "in-jokes" for those who love the culture of Luis Bunuel, the Fitzgeralds, and Cole Porter.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Spielberg Zombie of 'Super 8'

"Super 8" is being billed as J.J. Abrams' "coming out party." I know, it's kind of weird, especially since the guy's been a veritable force of nature on television, co-creating "Alias" and "Lost," and already slung his name into the director's chair on 2006's "Mission: Impossible III" and 2009's "Star Trek." But this is his first time working with a non-property project. "Super 8" is entirely his own, his chance to show Hollywood and its ticket buyers what we have to look forward to from the mind of Mr. Abrams.

And he decided it would be best to do an homage to Steven Spielberg.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Fading spectacles in the Coens' West

Last December, I failed to write a full review of "True Grit." Part of this was because I found it the most peculiar and yet most straightforward movie the Coens have made in quite some time. I didn't write anything because it was so NOT what I was expecting. Having watched it again on DVD this week, I see it for the big, grand filmmaking it is. It is both so UN-Coen and yet so fully Coen, the most mainstream film they've done in years but somehow still very quirky and nuanced.

Think about it though: Their last three films meditated heavily on the inability to achieve resolution. "No Country for Old Men" broke apart the Western's model of justice-driven violence and resolution, "Burn After Reading" turned the spy drama into a glass house and then giddily threw rocks at it, and "A Serious Man"...well, "A Serious Man" is a film with such a lack of hope I can't even string together a few paltry adjectives to properly describe it.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Fincher's Panopticon

I can't promise how coherent or well-formed this post is going to be. I mostly just wanted to share a couple thoughts I had while watching "Panic Room" for the first time in a looong time.

"Panic Room" gets a bad rap, along with "The Game," as kind of on the bottom rung of Fincher's ouevre (discounting "Alien3." We all know why), because the screenplays are pretty, well, mainstream. David Koepp ("Room's" writer) is about as Hollywood as they come, and were you to just READ "Panic Room," I don't think it's actually a very compelling read. It's littered with devices -- Meg hates small spaces and gets trapped in a Panic Room, Sarah has diabetes and gets trapped in a Panic Room with no sugar, the thieves bring along a wild card who deviates from the plan, etc. etc. etc.

Where the film excels is its visuals. Part of this is because I think Fincher used "Panic Room," like all of his films, as an experiment. This one's an experiment in space. His camera careens in and out of rooms, up and down floors, inside vents, through keyholes, windows, beams, walls -- it's a pretty intoxicating blend of tracking shots and visual effects.

But the Panic Room, that titular plot device where the protagonists hide and the antagonists want to break into, is actually a reincarnation (albeit modified) of Bentham's Panopticon, the prison device that Michel Foucault has written extensively about. The Panopticon is a circular-ish prison with a guard tower in the center. The guard tower and cells are such that the guard can see into any cell at any given time, but the prisoners cannot see the guard. The idea is that the THREAT of being watched at all times is enough to dissuade criminal activity and teach discipline.

"Panic Room" is all about putting these power models on display and subverting them over and over. Meg sits in a Panic Room, the guard tower, with monitors showing every corner of the house. She has the power of sight over the thieves. After a while though, they start to exploit the blind spots, hiding in corners and organizing schemes to break in to the room. Audio becomes another key -- Meg has a PA system to talk to them selectively, but they have no way of communicating with her via sound. They occasionally make hand gestures or write on pieces of paper to send a message, but Meg ultimately has the power because she is in the tower.

But as I said earlier, the tower is also limited, because Meg is trapped there. She can't leave, or she'll be shot. She doesn't have enough food, she has no way to communicate with anyone outside the house. Eventually, the tables turn and the thieves get into the Room while Meg is outside. She destroys the cameras, undoing their sight and subverting the power of the panic room.

While "Panic Room" opens with a Panopticon-ish structure, Fincher's visuals want to complicate the idea that the panic room works. It can't sustain either party as a power position, and the people outside it can learn to adapt and exploit the room to try and force the others out of the room.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Ideologies on Parade - "X-men: First Class" Review

"Peace was never an option."

When Matthew Vaugn was announced as the director for Marvel's "X-men: First Class" prequel/reboot, my eyebrows were more than raised. This is, after all, the guy who directed "Kick-Ass," one of the most subversive and off-the-wall violent (not to mention one of the absolute best) superhero movies to come out of the post-9/11 surge. How could this guy, whose last film questioned the whole sanitization of the Hollywood superhero, turn around and become absorbed into the very franchise mindset he was supposedly critiquing just last year?

It seems that no matter what *kind* of superhero film he's doing, Matthew Vaugn simply *gets* something about "the superhero genre" that I daresay only Sam Raimi and Christopher Nolan have gotten (except for maybe James Gunn, whose radical "Super" smartly tries to blow the whole genre to pieces). "X-men: First Class" is a shining example of what the genre should be doing, where its next step could be, and how great filmmakers are capably interrogating our continuing desire to integrate superheroes deeper and deeper into the fabric of American history.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Two by Oliver Stone: 'Platoon' and 'Born on the Fourth of July'

In an effort to reinvigorate my much-backseated blogging, a retrospective on two important Vietnam movies. Sort of coinciding with Memorial Day.

Oliver Stone's sophomore effort, "Platoon," came out on Christmas 1986 and went on to earn Stone a Best Director Oscar, while the film won Best Picture. It came out on the heels of his first directorial feature, "Salvador" (also 1986), and, along with his writing credits "Midnight Express" and "Scarface," cemented him as Hollywood's next big player. "Platoon," along with "Born on the Fourth of July" (1989), presented him as an artist intimately concerned with and troubled by the Vietnam War. This extends not only to what it was like to fight it, but what its long-term effects are for our political and cultural societies.

When you look at his later films -- "JFK" (1991) and "Nixon" (1995) in particular -- they are often very concerned with how Vietnam happened and why it happened. But before he turned outward to the political side of it, he turned inward to look at the emotional side of it. His two "combat features" are essentially morality plays about the loss of innocence. Indeed, Vietnam becomes the site where America itself loses its innocence and its sense of dominance. It becomes a site where pride and physicality is actively questioned. What we see in "Platoon" is an archetypal good-and-evil set up where Willem Dafoe and Tom Berenger play two surrogate fathers to Charlie Sheen's Private Taylor; the former is the "beneficial" guiding father, and the latter is the violent, corrupt father. One is a gentler masculinity of nurturing and logic, the other a hardened masculinity of aggression and revenge.

The film charts Sheen's moral decline, first painting him as a volunteer who thinks he can do good in the war, and then gradually detailing his revelation that no good can come of this war before he himself succumbs to its violent impulses and its unregulated morality. "Platoon" is remarkable for its realistically-staged combat, where the camera sits secure and the editing is very pronounced. There are little of Stone's eccentricities; it's an almost cold direction, where the faces of the platoon members offer little in the way of comfort.

"Born on the Fourth of July," on the other hand, is more of an overt memorial. Tom Cruise's soldier also believes being a marine will let him do great service for his country, until he accidentally kills a fellow soldier and loses the use of both of his legs. While he believes he will become a hardened male akin to what his parents want him to be, war actually castrates him; he loses his ability to "be a man." The film is shot in many warm, orange palettes and more extreme angles shot from below, emphasizing the stature of various figures as Cruise's paraplegic is looked down on and visually diminished as the film goes on. While "Fourth" is also about a loss of innocence, it is much more physical than spiritual.

Oliver Stone was a Vietnam veteran himself before turning to Hollywood. We can see in "Platoon" and "Born on the Fourth" a desire to excise what he had seen. In that regard, you can consider them semi-autobiographical if not semi-journalistic. Even "Born" seems autobiographical in its construction of how war mutilates innocence, even if Stone is here choosing a physical rather than mental representation of that mutilation (he himself is not a paraplegic, but it's not hard to imagine him standing in for much of the critical discourse the film mounts).

These films actually undo some of the conventions of combat films. If we imagine going to war as "making a man out of you," "Born on the Fourth of July" is actually about unbecoming a man and needing to find an alternative for socially constructed forms of masculinity. His castration and loss of ability to perform sexually shows him go from a boy to a man and back to this childlike male who must grow again into a "new male" marked by his wounds.

"Platoon" works similarly - we imagine platoon movies to show the fellowship and coming together of disparate men into a singular, working ideology. The film stripes any semblance of community. Despite a scene early on where the men share pot and get high together, they never act like friends. By the end of the film, almost all of them are dead, they're divided based on the ideologies and philosophies of the various commanders, and most of the commanding officers are also dead. We expect Taylor to be integrated, but the end of the film leaves us with him as an unintegrated man. He is alone, as he was in the beginning, and also devastated by the violence around him.

If World War II narrative traditions create a fantasy of what combat does to create communities of men, Stone's two films unmake that fantasy.

The fact that most of his films are set in the 1960s and early 1970s mark him as a filmmaker absorbed by the trauma of the Vietnam War, extending into the paranoid discourses of conspiracy in "JFK" and "Nixon." They represent a man trying to grasp sense at what he conceives as the senseless.