May 17, 2013
Terrence Malick out-Malicks himself
I'm a fan of Terrence Malick's movies. I love the dreamy, impressionistic, heart-achingly beautiful non-linear flow, the extended shots of the natural world, and the emotion in his stories and characters, even when they hardly say anything and nothing much happens. I love the whispered voice-overs and lazily swaying fields of wild grass that someone always seems to be lightly brushing with their hand.
And I'm totally OK with Malick taking 8-20 years to produce these movies. Which is why it was such a shock when To the Wonder came out recently, a mere two years after The Tree of Life. Is it possible to make a movie in his unhurriedly gorgeous style so quickly, and have it be good?
No! I was so disappointed by To the Wonder that I'm a little upset about it. The biggest problem with this movie is the story, which is this: the world's most annoying couple falls in love, then breaks up, twice. In the process, they move from a spectacularly Malickian Paris to a hideous sub-division in Oklahoma (that Malick still manages to infuse with incredible natural beauty) which is probably a big part of what goes wrong. But actually, we really have no idea why they're in love, or what goes wrong with their relationship, either time. "Love" acts as an external force that bestows itself upon them for a while, then goes somewhere else, probably to find a couple that isn't so insufferably irritating to be around.
Which brings us to the characters and actors. If you want to create emotional resonance and depth of feeling in your main characters, you probably shouldn't cast Ben Affleck and a Bond girl. Ben Affleck spends the movie brooding silently, and Olga Kurylenko mostly twirls around in blowsy outfits, probably going for "adorably free-spirited girlish imp", but coming across as "immature clingy woman-child who wants to be a pretty princess ballerina". These are not people I want to spend time with, and we're given no understanding about the workings of their relationship, so I found it impossible to care about them. I think this might be what people who don't like Malick's movies complain about--there's nothing to latch onto.
What's most upsetting is that Malick still uses his (and Emmanuel Lubezki's) cinematographic chops to create moments that are so quietly, perfectly gorgeous that they seem to take on spiritual meaning. There's a scene at the beach near Mont St. Michel and some magic hour scenes with Rachel McAdams in a field that are as beautiful as anything he's ever done. But when they're part of a movie with utterly hollow characters and the sketchiest of plots, they feel a little cheap. Yeah, yeah, nature is holy and beautiful, now can we maybe get a couple lines of dialogue, or one minute without Olga Kurylenko twirling?
Roger Ebert wrote his very last review about To the Wonder, and luckily, he liked it. Whatever he saw, I didn't see it.
May 6, 2013
Trance movie math
I'm a little behind on this one, but I thought I'd share some thoughts on Danny Boyle's new movie, Trance. Somehow I've seen every single one of Danny Boyle's movies, even the outright horrible ones like The Beach and that inexplicable one with angels in it. As an inadvertent completist, I think his movies are almost always a good time, fun to watch and really stylish, but ultimately, they're pretty fluffy. Don't think too hard about them and you'll enjoy the ride, but if you subject them to any real scrutiny you might start thinking that maybe this is a shallow, fatuous look at poverty and systemic oppression, and isn't that whole space freakout sequence a lesser rip-off of 2001?
Anyway, Trance has a lot of good things about it, and many themes he's explored in his other movies: non-criminals getting in over their heads when they attempt a major crime, secret psychosis, the allure and danger of altered mental states, and a really outstanding electronic soundtrack by Rick Smith from Underworld. It's also the only movie I have ever seen that has to feature a full-frontal shot of shaved genitals because it's actually required by the story.
So here's my equation:
Crime gone wrong, sexy art thieves, and erasing emotionally painful relationships from your mind. Trance is a little less than the sum of its parts, but still a fun movie.
April 22, 2013
Rob Zombie and The Lords of Salem
There's no real risk of spoilers being revealed in this response to Rob Zombie's new movie, The Lords of Salem, because I don't think I understood enough of what happened to give away anything like a plot. Sure, I can report on the unrelated sequence of nightmarish hallucinatory freaky images that flash across the screen in a chaotic, psychosexual, hilarious blur for the last 45 minutes, but as far as what actually happens in this movie? Your guess is as good as mine.
This much I do know: Rob Zombie's wife, Sheri, whose film career pretty much consists of her husband's filmography, is one game actress. She stars in Lords of Salem as Heidi, a DJ at a Salem, MA radio station who unwittingly enters a bizarre world of Satan worshippers and (of course) witches after she plays a mysterious record that shows up at the station one day. Over the course of the movie, as the witches insinuate themselves into Sheri's psyche, she encounters strange demonic beasts, descends into madness, rides a goat (see above; as a kind of meta-joke, her t-shirt says "Why the Goat?"), does heroin, is naked all over the place, and possibly delivers some kind of hell-squid baby, though everything had gotten so nonsensically trippy by that point that I'm honestly not sure.
Rob Zombie seemed to construct this movie by writing a coherent (though boring) set-up, then coming up with several dozen really disturbing visual concepts, then beautifully filming each one, and splicing them all together until he hit 100 minutes. The end. The movie really looks fantastic--he takes Stanley Kubrick's style of chilly wide shots and lots of slow tracking, and combines it with Dario Argento's hyper-stylized, surreal gore, all with a $2.5 million budget.
He understands the comic potential of horror, and the creepy potential of the Velvet Underground's "All Tomorrow's Parties". There are several references to silent movies in clips playing on background TVs, and in a giant still from of Melies' A Trip to the Moon on the wall behind our heroine's bed. But then there's also a demon toddler with slimy skin and flippers for hands who in one scene waddles up to this very bed, inexplicably looking at a sleeping Sheri Zombie. Nothing happens. Cut! The scene ends. I have no idea.
It's a cinematic version of a talented filmmaker's surrealist nightmare, and probably a helpful lesson on why you shouldn't take a lot of serious psychotropic drugs. It's an incoherent mess, but I find diabolical camp irresistible.
April 8, 2013
I saw Spring Breakers weeks ago and have been struggling to come up with something to say about this movie and what it all means: the partying, the beach, the kids, the boobs, the drugs, the guns, the booze, the murder. I can't quite get my head around it, but here's what I've got.
The four girls at the center of the movie are so desperate to go to the beach for spring break that they rob a chicken restaurant using squirt guns and intimidation techniques we've all seen a thousand times in every heist movie ever (yelling, swearing, threatening to bust everyone's skulls, etc.) They are completely successful, and go to St. Petersburg to party.
The interesting thing is that everything the girls do is something they (and we) have learned through endless examples in TV and movies. They dance on the beach to techno, douse themselves in beer, scream "Woooo Spring Break!", shake themselves all over the place, loll around in their bathing suits stroking each other's hair, and occasionally make out with each other. They wear neon string bikinis because any other kind of bathing suit would never be considered for even one second. They sing "...Baby One More Time" by Britney Spears and talk about how Florida is the greatest paradise they have ever known. Any person who has experienced MTV or a movie about off-the-hook teen parties in the last 20 years knows exactly how to be a girl going wild on spring break, because we've all seen it hundreds of times.
And we all know exactly how to commit armed robbery and be a badass gangster because we've seen it hundreds of times, too. The girls move from robbery with squirt guns to partying on the beach to doing drugs in a cheap motel room to getting into serious crime with real guns and real gangsters, but it all feels like a logical progression along a continuum of familiar, predictable pop cultural references. They're always performing.
There's a flattening of "bad girl" behavior at work here: taking your top off at a beach party is more or less on the same level as stealing in order to have a good time, and neither is really all that different from hitting up a local drug dealer and taking his cash. We've seen it on TV and in movies. By the time the girls hook up with James Franco, put on their My Little Pony face masks, and start doing some real damage with assault rifles, it bizarrely feels like just more of the same. As Manohla Dargis writes, it's "more of a horror film than a comedy."
So is Spring Breakers a criticism of our hyper-sexualized, hyper-violent pop culture? I think it is. It's also really dark and really hilarious. The culture that teaches teenage girls to think people will like them more if they take their tops off and tongue-kiss each other for the boys is the same culture that thinks organized crime and murder are cool. We live in a world where teenage debauchery and gangs are a little naughty, but so exciting! And when the girls start killing bad guys, does that make them good? Maybe?
This is a controversial viewpoint, but that's how it goes with Harmony Korine. I like the cultural criticism in the movie, but even better is the dream-like impressionistic way a lot of scenes unfold. There are many sequences with recurring loops of dialogue and non-linear, abstract camera shots of sky, ocean, body shots, and making out in a hot tub that all sort of blend into each other in a nightmarish haze. It's indistinct and gorgeous, which is more than I would typically say about a scene shot in a Florida motel pool.
April 4, 2013
Ebert's Leave of Presence turns into Leave of Absence
In his latest/last essay, he explains "What in the world is a leave of presence? It means I am not going away." Was that just his own, kind way of saying goodbye? Or was his sudden downturn truly unexpected? We knew cancer had returned, but he was living his life as though he had plenty of time left and lots of projects still going. I'm stunned.
Growing up watching "Siskel & Ebert" on TV was what got me excited about movies, and Roger Ebert will always be a personal hero. His writing style and thoughtful approach to movies make him one of my favorite critics, even if I don't always agree with him. He was first and foremost a newspaper man, and he was incredibly generous and prolific--the guy was writing upwards of 300 reviews a year and thousands of excellent tweets even while sick and weak.
I can't wait for that Steve James/Martin Scorsese documentary about his life--it'll be a great story.
Esquire did a long feature on Ebert in 2010 about his life, and especially his struggles with cancer that left him without a voice since 2006. If anything, this limitation seemed to unleash an even greater commitment to writing and sharing his thoughts about movies, culture, politics, and Life Itself, and he faced all his physical problems with admirable strength, humor, and genuine happiness. It's a fantastic read.
Catholic Church shifts gay
(I've fallen behind lately, so now I'm catching up on stuff from the past few weeks.)
We've all been hearing how our nation's recent pro-gay shift is one of the fastest cultural swings anyone can remember. Just a few years ago, most Americans were against same-sex marriage and most of the red states were busily amending their constitutions to ban it forever. Now the majority is pro-marriage equality, it's legal in more states, the Supreme Court is hearing important cases, Bill Clinton apologized for DOMA, and a few Republicans might even be starting a cute but probably doomed flirtation with equal rights (when it benefits them and their immediate families, of course.)
But the biggest surprise for me has been seeing some evidence that the Catholic Church might be reconsidering. This is an institution was still doing Mass in Latin in the mid-60's. But did you see the Times' article from a few weeks ago about Pope Francis and his behind-the-scenes attempt to get the church to support same-sex civil unions in 2010? Apparently while debates were going on in Argentina, where he was Cardinal, most bishops were flat-out against gay marriage. The Cardinal was publicly against it, too. But in private, the future Pope was trying to change the church's opinion--if the church still wouldn't perform same-sex marriages, what's the harm in supporting the government doing civil unions?
Anyway, he was voted down, gay marriage went through, and now it's legal. The Catholic Church lost, but Francis showed that he considers human rights and political realities in his doctrinal thinking. It will be interesting to see what he says now that he's Pope.
A few days ago, New York's Cardinal Dolan also spoke about marriage equality on This Week with George Stephanopoulos. It sounds like he was going for an approachable, humanist tone, but he came off with a standard "hate the sin, love the sinner" message that's more about being nice to gay people than making sure everyone has equal rights.
"We've got to do better to see that our defense of marriage is not reduced to an attack on gay people," he said. "And I admit, we haven't been too good at that. We try our darnedest to make sure we're not an anti-anybody."
[That "try our darnedest" stuff is exactly what he really sounds like--I happened to hear him speak at a marriage prep class, and he's full-on small town Midwest gee whiz. I can't tell how much of an affectation it is.]
He went on to say that gay people are entitled to happiness and "friendship", but they're disobeying God if they want to get married.
These aren't radical shifts, but with Cardinal Dolan happily proclaiming on national TV that he loves gay people and joyfully hoisting his disco stick (above) the new Pope's history of advocating for equal rights, it's going to be interesting time ahead.
March 19, 2013
Tina Fey, Actor
We all love Tina Fey and can talk at length about all the amazing things about her: she's funny, self-deprecating, fearless, an inspired and successful comedy writer, and she helped Obama win the 2008 election. "SNL", Mean Girls, Bossypants, "30 Rock"--everything she does is great.
But I don't ever hear that Tina Fey is a talented actor. The Sarah Palin act was its own special kind of genius, but for all the praise she gets for her many gifts, it's not usually for her acting chops. Sure, she delivered the news on "Weekend Update" with an appropriately no-nonsense half-smirk, and we all saw a little of ourselves in the perpetually harried, big-sandwich-loving, grown-up nerd, Liz Lemon. But I think Fey gets more credit for creating Liz Lemon than for playing her on screen.
Which brings us to her new movie, Admission. Tina Fey plays a Princeton admissions officer who is very smart, a little uptight, and stuck in a safe but boring life. She's unfulfilled, but not sure what to do about it. This role isn't a big departure from Liz Lemon and the frustrated single lady in Baby Mama, but this movie is the first time I noticed it: Hey, Tina Fey can act! Her character goes through more emotional extremes than I've ever seen her take on before, and she carries them all with total credibility. The plot is a little convoluted, and it's not the greatest movie overall, but Tina Fey shows some impressive range--big emotional scenes and more subtle moments that all work.
The other great thing about the movie is the brilliant decision to cast Lily Tomlin as Tina Fey's aging radical off-the-grid mom. It's perfect. Everything Lily Tomlin says and does is hilarious, and it's like a symbolic passing of the torch from the 70's pioneer to today's gutsy comic superstar. Hard to believe they've never done anything together before now.
I really don't want to see Tina Fey try to become Kate Winslet or take on serious Oscar-bait roles like "feisty Depression-era widow cotton farmer" or "double-amputee killer whale trainer", but I hope she gets some recognition for being a good actor as well as a great comedian.
March 13, 2013
Soda: sugar, water, and a ton of money
There's a great article in the Times today, one of many they've done about the failed soda size limit law in NYC, about the relationship between the soda industry and civil rights groups that spoke out against the policy. It isn't exactly news that companies like Coke and Pepsi are big supporters of the NAACP, the Hispanic Federation, National Council of La Raza, and the US Hispanic Leadership Institute, and in some cases have been for decades.
What's so great about today's article are the quotes from leaders at these organizations, and spokespeople from soda companies, expressing their shock and outrage that anyone could think that there's any connection between a company giving money to an organization, and that organization's public support of the company's political agenda.
Check this out:
- "We never ask our foundation or community relations partners to engage in public policy issues on our behalf," said Jeff Dahncke, a spokesman for PepsiCo. "The nature of these relationships is focused on diversity and inclusion."
- Katelyn Jackson, a spokeswoman for Coca-Cola, said in an e-mail, "The suggestion that our community philanthropic efforts are motivated by something other than good will is grossly inaccurate and ignores our history of true partnership for well over a century."
- "We don't support soda taxes and things like that, any kind of grocery taxes, because we think they hurt our community more than helping," said Christina M. Martinez, spokeswoman for the US Hispanic Leadership Institute. "We have a great partnership with PepsiCo."
- Coke and Pepsi have given over $10 million to La Raza, and executives from each company serve on La Raza's board. And guess who La Raza's anti-obesity program's sponsor is? Pepsi! "They are a company that produces some very healthy products," says their Senior VP for Programs.
I don't blame these organizations for taking corporate money--they have programs to run and are doing important work. But to suggest that there's no connection between the source of an organization's revenue and the policies they support or oppose is incredibly naive and delusional. My point is that soda companies have essentially bought themselves credibility by funding civil rights organizations that represent diverse communities, who then speak publicly in support of soda companies's political goals. These companies have been doing this forever, starting when Coke wanted to shed its image as a racist company back in the mid-20th century.
Of course, soda companies also spend a fortune on marketing, a financial bludgeon that overwhelms relatively tiny investments in research on the effects of soda on public health, and the budgets of nonprofits trying to educate people in their communities about what happens to you if you drink loads of soda.
Then there's Beyoncé. She's gotten a lot of flak for her $50 million deal with Pepsi, especially since she also served as a spokesperson/danceperson for Michelle Obama's Let's Move anti-obesity campaign. But let's be honest: Beyoncé has endorsed Pepsi for many years. And McDonald's. She obviously has no problem shilling for unhealthy crap. Maybe she wasn't a very wise choice for a White House campaign promoting healthy food.
But the point is, soda companies don't do this stuff by accident. Their product is basically sugar, water, and food coloring, so they have extensive profits to spend on making people want to drink their stuff, and co-opting the respectability of popular celebrities and admired civil rights groups.
I pretty much agree with Justice Tingling who ruled against the soda size limit. And I love his wonderful name. Bloomberg's proposal was capricious, legally nonsensical, and doomed to fail--there's no legal category of "sugary drinks" that includes things like soda, but not things like chocolate milk. Our government doesn't regulate sugar like it regulates tobacco and alcohol, and until it does, it's going to be hard for cities or states to make laws limiting public consumption of sugar. Until the ATF becomes the ATFS (maybe change it to FATS?) they might not get anywhere. It also might help if organizations that speak for disenfranchised people stopped pretending that money doesn't affect what they say and do.
March 7, 2013
Today's edition of Who'dat?™ features a celebrity who has so altered her look in recent years that even after I found out who this is, I still don't see how it's possible.
Here's the picture:
To play, try to figure out who this is, then click on the picture to see if you are right.
For the record, some of my wilder guesses included Hayden Panettiere, Christina Applegate, and Madonna (which encompasses a 30-year spread of blond celebrity age confusion.)
March 5, 2013
Hands On a Hardbody
One of my favorite documentaries of all time is 1997's Hands On a Hard Body, which tells the story of an East Texas car dealership's publicity stunt of giving away a tricked-out Nissan pickup truck to the contestant who can keep one hand on the truck the longest. It goes on for many days. These kinds of contests aren't unusual, at least in Texas, but this documentary is the best kind of human drama--the stakes are high, the competition is physically and psychologically agonizing, and the contestants represent a wonderful cross-section of real-life Americans that I don't think the world's best casting director could have improved.
So of course I had to see the new Broadway musical Hands On a Hardbody, which is in previews. When you look at this production, it looks pretty weird: the book is by Doug Wright, who is most famous for winning a Pulitzer Prize for I Am My Own Wife, about a transgendered woman in Nazi Germany. BUT: Wright is from East Texas, so there you go. The music is by Trey Anastasio from Phish. I was a little worried about how jam band noodlings would work in a Broadway musical, but the songs are very catchy and represent a great range of American music: rock, country, soul, and gospel. I think it's going to do well--reviews come out in a couple of weeks.
One of the best things about the musical is that it adapts the fragmentary documentary into a narrative structure, and ties the contestants together into a coherent group, all driven by one thing: economic desperation. These people don't just think it would be nice to have a fancy truck, they really, really need this truck. There are stories of unemployment, families falling apart, and how much it sucks to be poor and stuck in a crappy little town. It's like if you take the original documentary and filter it through A Chorus Line, you'd get this musical.
Steven Soderbergh recently said that he's hoping to direct some theater now that he's stepping back from movies. This is just the kind of thing I think he'd be great at, if he decides to go big and commercial instead of doing oblique little Off-Broadway stuff. Lately his movies have been all about money and what people will do to get it. We don't often see poor, desperate people in big Broadway musicals, but maybe this will inspire him.
My main hope for this musical is that it will finally bring a proper DVD release for the documentary. Right now, used VHS seems to be the only way to see it (DVDs are selling for over $100!) It doesn't seem to be streaming anywhere, either. But if the show's a hit, maybe more people will get to experience the original in all its glory.
NY Magazine has an interesting explanation of the onstage truck, which the cast members move all over the stage with remarkable ease. It's a 2001 Nissan with the engine removed, on invisible rolling casters. Cool.
March 1, 2013
Craig Brewer's next movie that might be good
I'm a fan of writer-director Craig Brewer, the guy who made Hustle & Flow and Black Snake Moan. He's a good director, and I especially admire how unpredictable/crazy his storylines and characters are. If you like Terrence Howard like I do, he's really fantastic in Hustle & Flow, plus that movie indirectly generated my favorite ever Oscars one-liner: after Three 6 Mafia had won Best Song and accepted their Oscar with adorably genuine enthusiasm, host Jon Stewart came out and said, "You know what? I think it just got a little easier out there for a pimp."
And Black Snake Moan, aka Samuel L. Jackson Chains Christina Ricci To a Radiator, is a bewilderingly strange movie about addiction, mental illness, and the blues, and it's frankly a miracle that it's anywhere near as good as it is. Plus it features a not-bad performance from Justin Timberlake as a returning soldier with PTSD.
Then, Craig Brewer made the Footloose remake, a weird choice, but I was willing to go with it. But by all accounts it was not darkly gritty or interesting, or even entertaining in any way, and I lost faith.
Then I found out what his next project is going to be: a movie based on last summer's excellent Rolling Stone article about Lisette Lee, an alleged Samsung heiress/model/singer living in Beverly Hills and leading a life of glamour and self-indulgence, who in reality was a super-manipulative sociopath from a modest background with a messed-up family life, who was ferrying hundreds of pounds of marijuana from LA to Ohio on a private jet. Eventually she got busted.
Now that's more like it! A story like this lets Brewer get back to what he's good at: exploring the flamboyantly self-destructive impulses of charismatic, mentally unbalanced people who want a better life. Or in some cases, an entirely new identity. He's going to write the screenplay and direct. The title of this movie is probably still not certain, though the AV Club helpfully suggests the brilliant Beverly Hills Weed-Jets.
This story about normal people becoming obsessed with the celebrity lifestyle and doing illegal things to try to get it reminds me of another great story-turned-movie: The Bling Ring of teenagers who blithely robbed celebrity homes for months in 2009. Sofia Coppola's movie adaptation is coming out this summer.
So I'm glad Craig Brewer is clawing his way back to movie respectability through the world of spoiled, lying, narcissistic drug mules.
February 25, 2013
Surprises at the Oscars
Considering that just about all of my picks for last night's Oscars were wrong, I thought there were a lot of surprises in the winners. My favorite movie, Zero Dark Thirty, was shut out of every award (besides that tie for Sound Editing,) so though I didn't agree with many of the winners, at least the awards got spread around a bunch of different movies, with no clear overall winning movie. If a piece of conventional rom-com mediocrity like Silver Linings Playbook can win a major award (Best Actress), at least a great movie like Django Unchained can take two (Supporting Actor and Original Screenplay.)
Same thing goes for Life of Pi, a visually beautiful and technically amazing movie that was pretty thin on every other aspect of moviemaking. Was Ang Lee the best director of the year? Probably not. But I take great comfort in knowing that a (generally) wonderful director like Ang Lee now has two Best Director Oscars, and Ben Affleck has zero.
Speaking of which, I wonder if Argo would have become such a popular choice for Best Picture if Affleck had been nominated for Best Director, and the Academy hadn't been driven to reconsider its lukewarm response to the movie when the nominations were decided? The directors' branch of the Academy, who shut Affleck out, wasn't nearly as impressed with the movie as the Academy as a whole was. Either way, whenever two different movies win Best Picture and Best Director (like when Crash won Best Picture,) it usually means they got at least one award wrong. In my opinion, both winners this year will look pretty questionable in the future--I just can't accept a movie that stars Ben Affleck winning Best Picture. He's gotten to be a pretty good director, but he's still so flat and unbelievable on screen.
As for Seth MacFarlane's hosting job, I liked the song and dance numbers intended to appeal to the geriatric viewer, but too many of his jokes were mean. If a joke is mean but really funny, that's one thing, but most of his jokes were mean and not nearly funny enough. (Gawker cut his jokes into one video.) The one exception was the video of him propositioning Sally Field in the green room, and I mostly liked it because of how game and funny she was. "I've got a bottle of wine and some Boniva, we'll have a great time" was his best line of the night (starts at 0:42 in the Gawker video.) I admire Sally Field for doing a skit that hinged on her admitting she had no chance of winning an Oscar this year, something I can't imagine hardly any other actor doing.
I was happy to see Quentin Tarantino get an Oscar for writing Django, but did you notice that instead of praising his cast, like most people would do, he pretty much said that he deserved an additional Best Casting Oscar for the amazing job he did casting them in his movie? Considering he didn't get his first choice cast members in many, well-publicized cases, maybe some of the credit should have gone to the actors.
My favorite comment about the night was Matt Singer's tweet: "Silver Linings Playbook is a movie made entirely of Oscar clips." Which describes why I don't like that movie better than anything I've come up with yet. The best suggestion I heard was from a friend who pointed out how much more awesome it would have been during the In Memoriam tribute (which included MCA!) if Barbra Streisand had sung "Sabotage".