Monday, August 29, 2011

"What I know about is Texas."

"The world is full of complainers. The fact is, nothing comes with a guarantee. Now, I don't care if you're the Pope of Rome, President of the United States, or Man of the Year -- something can always go wrong. Go ahead, y'know, complain. Tell your problems to your neighbor. Ask for help, and watch him fly. Now, in Russia they've got it mapped out so that everyone pulls for everyone else. That's the theory, anyway. But what I know about is Texas. And down here, you're on your own."

So begins "Blood Simple," the Coens' first film. With its deliberate shots of a vacant Texas landscape, and its dry, thick voice reciting the words with a deep forlornness, it might as well be the opening of "No Country for Old Men." And while "Blood Simple" may be eclipsed by their later (and, well, better) work, it still lays the foundations for their complicated plots of dumb characters doing dumb things and meeting violence along the way.

Monday, August 22, 2011

The End of Innocence: Gus Van Sant in the Millennium

This article contains spoilers for "Gerry," "Elephant," "Last Days" and "Paranoid Park"

In the 2000s, Gus Van Sant retreated into a very minimalist, very independent cinema after poking his head into the mainstream for several years (most notably in his Oscar-winning "Good Will Hunting," least notably in his sick joke of a remake of "Psycho"). These films -- "Gerry" (2002), "Elephant" (2003), "Last Days" (2005) and "Paranoid Park" (2007) -- created a space for Van Sant to rethink his cinema. Indeed, they paved the way for "Milk," where many of his quirks seem to have new, effervescent life.

But what I'm interested in is not how one influences the other, but rather a theme that seems particularly evident and tortured within each of these works (even, in many ways, "Milk") -- the tragedy of adolescence. All these films feature very young protagonists, from the high schoolers of "Elephant" to the mid-20s rock God of "Last Days," and all of them turn on death. In "Gerry," one protagonist dies because of the duo's naivete and carelessness in venturing into the desert on a whim. The adventurous impulses of youth are struck apart by mother nature's displeasure. In "Last Days," the rocker who's unable to connect to the world outside his home collapses in a drug induced stupor and his soul ascends heavenward. Both of these events, which serve as the climax to these two films, are filmed in very matter-of-fact fashion, with distanced camera positions and minimal editing. Van Sant conjures a representation of death, but does not manipulate us into feeling one way or the other about it.

Six for Fall

In the spirit of not being able to do a fall movie preview for The Daily Gamecock this year, I'm taking to the blog and laying down the six movies I'm most excited about, from now up to Thanksgiving.

Contagion (9/9)

Steven Soderbergh brings together a massive A-list cast for a globe-spanning pandemic thriller. Since he continues to be one of the only directors who uses each film as a vivacious new experiment, and one of the only who can gently move between being very mainstream and very independent, he could do some fascinating things with this one. Could it be the "Traffic" of the global apocalypse genre?

Drive (9/16)

I'd watch Ryan Gosling do just about anything. I think if he videotaped himself at Subway and put it on YouTube I'd marvel at it. He's just got that much charisma, that much intensity as an actor. So of course I'll watch him play a Hollywood stunt driver-turned-getaway driver. The trailer is pretty mainstream, but this won Best Director at Cannes, and the cinematography looks wonderful.

The Ides of March (10/7)

Speaking of Ryan Gosling, here he is again. Teamed up with George Clooney as director and star, and Grant Heslov in the co-writing/co-producing roles for a political campaign thriller, this one is oozing with not just Oscar-bait potential, but potential to open the very deep wounds of our divided political discourse. I smell another high-caliber outing with a similar feel as "Good Night, and Good Luck."

Red State (10/21)

Kevin Smith doing a horror movie? Say what? Kevin Smith doing a horror movie about crazy, murderous uber-Christians on what looks like a hyper-minimal budget? Holy self-recreation, Batman! Ever since I heard the festival rumblings and saw the trailer, I've been dying to see this film. It looks like a "Texas Chainsaw"-esque cult classic.

Melancholia (11/11)

It's pretty well known that I'm an ardent admirer of Lars von Trier, and think he's kind of a genius. I don't care about the controversial things he says or the ways he likes to poke people in interviews, his cinema stands on its own as visceral, challenging, and sublime. Here, he renders the end of the world as a dissolution of marriage and a series of family crises. Harsh statement on human relations? Almost certainly.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (11/18)

Thomas Alfredson's follow-up to his breakout masterwork "Let the Right One In" will test whether he really has the talent everyone thinks he does. But if the stark trailer of John Le Carre's novel is any indication, this one will deliver the goods. With Gary Oldman heading a terrific pedigree, it could be the actor's best chance for a long-sough Oscar nomination in quite some time.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Rise of the Convergence

There are a lot of theorists who will tell you that the face is the most emphasized part of cinema. "The Close-Up" certainly meant a great deal to D.W. Griffith -- who would build entire films around one climactic close-up -- and Sergei Eisenstein -- who integrated it into a broader part of image montage. Contemporary Hollywood has only encouraged our association of cinema as a place to see spectacles of faces. Notice how most conversation scenes are shot in close or medium-close ups, rather than longer camera positions.

Devotees may remember I noted many of these aspects last December in my "Black Swan" review, where I called a lot of attention to how that film turns the close-up into a site of oppression and anxiety rather than a site of identification.  I turn to "the close-up" or "the face" again with sheer peculiarity to talk about Rupert Wyatt's "The Rise of the Planet of the Apes."

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Once Upon a Time in a Spaceship

In the annals of film criticism, "The Western" is that big go-to, "The American Genre" that every genre theorist and his brother refers back to. It has produced more writing about it than any other genre. Beneath it is likely the gangster genre (in the early decades of film theory) and sci-fi (in more recent decades).

So, of course, when I hear a title like "Cowboys and Aliens," I think: "Well, I'm a genre theorist. I know something about how different theories of genre apply to the Western and the alien invasion film. This will certainly be an INTERESTING film, maybe even FUN."

Monday, August 8, 2011

Notes on a Franchise

My total indifference to "Harry Potter" over the last decade hasn't been a fact that I've tried to hide. This isn't so much because I don't like the texts -- I read the first four books, saw the first four movies, and shrugged them off to my pop culture periphery -- but rather because the rampant, aggressive fan discourse SURROUNDING "Harry Potter" tends to drive me, well, insane. And trust me, I know this isn't all "Potter" fans -- I am, after all, a "Gleek," and constantly plagued by how obnoxious fans of that show are.

But with "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2" already the third-highest grossing movie of all time worldwide, I figured it was time to give it its dues. So over the last three weeks or so, I have watched all eight of the movies.