Inside Llewyn Davis
"Inside Llewyn Davis" is the most satisfyingly diabolical cinematic structure that the Coens have ever contrived, and that's just one reason that I suspect it…
* This filmography is not intended to be a comprehensive list of this artist’s work. Instead it reflects the films this person has been involved with that have been reviewed on this site.
Matthew McConaughey talks about how he is dealing with the Oscar buzz around his "Dallas Buyers Club" performance.
Popular Science shuts off its comments; a letter to Grand Theft Auto's progagonist Niko Bellic; why "Man of Steel" co-writer doesn't buy into a no-kill policy for Superman; a new theater resurrects lost musicals; odd habits of famous writers.
R.I.P, Elmore Leonard and Albert Murray; Pakistani ex-President Pervez Musharraf charged in Benazir Bhutto's assassination, pleads not guilty; "The Lost Weekend"—the book—revisited; how the violence in Kick-Ass challenged comic book movies; what Quentin Tarantino learned from Elmore Leonard.
Susan Wloszczyna wonders if women at the helm might be just the thing to revitalize the foundering, repetitive comic-book movie genre.
The plot in "Face/Off" (1997) may sound ridiculous in real life terms but allowing our imaginations to experience and accept such preposterous events, the kind none of us will ever be able to live through, is a prime example of the great feats that cinema can achieve. And what a fantastic concept "Face/Off" had to begin with. There have been recent features where I've had a hard time grasping how boardrooms full of film executives could possibly green light the spending of millions of dollars when being pitched ideas that no filmmaker, however talented, could ever have succeeded with ("A man cures his depression by talking to a puppet beaver!" "A young archer princess grows closer to her mother when a witch turns her into a bear!").
I'm double-posting my review of "Skyfall" to encourage comments, which my main site can't accept.
In this 50th year of the James Bond series, with the disappointing "Quantum of Solace" (2008) still in our minds, "Skyfall" triumphantly reinvents 007 in one of the best Bonds ever made. This is a full-blooded, joyous, intelligent celebration of a beloved cultural icon, with Daniel Craig taking full possession of a role he earlier played well in "Casino Royale," not so well in "Quantum"--although it may not have been entirely his fault. I don't know what I expected in Bond #23, but certainly not an experience this invigorating.
Maybe it's a DC vs. Marvel thing. But it's all over the Internet: Wally Pfister, ASC, BSC, the Oscar-winning cinematographer best-known for his work with director Christopher Nolan (the "Dark Knight" movies, "The Prestige," "Inception") took a swipe at rival superhero blockbuster "The Avengers," while admitting that he doesn't much care for the genre anyway. In an interview with the Sarasota Herald Tribune, Pfister was asked "What's most important in shooting a film?" He responded with... something that has since been removed from the newspaper's website but still shows up in the Google Cached version (screenshot below):
"A man can be an artist ... in anything, food, whatever. It depends on how good he is at it. Creasey's art is death. He's about to paint his masterpiece." -- Rayburn (Christopher Walken), "Man on Fire" (2004)
While I've never been a fan of the late Tony Scott or Christopher Nolan, a few thoughtful articles in recent days have helped me see them in new lights, and got me to thinking about their resemblances as well as their dissimilarities. Several appreciations of Scott (especially those by Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, Bilge Ebiri, David Edelstein and Manohla Dargis), along with David Bordwell's incisive essay on Christopher Nolan ("Nolan vs. Nolan") got me to thinking about the common assumptions about these popular filmmakers, both of whom are known for quick, impressionistic imagery, intercut scenes, slam-bang action and a CGI-averse insistence on photographing the real world.¹ Regardless of what you ultimately make of their work, there's no question they've done it their way.
This is an attempt to look at both filmmakers through the prism of others' points of view, refracted in critical appraisals like the above.
Of course, Scott and Nolan have passionate admirers and detractors. Until Scott's shocking suicide last week (from a bridge, a landmark that figures hauntingly in the climaxes of several of his movies), I wasn't aware of many critics who championed his movies, but with a few exceptions the obits seem to have been more admiring than the reviews over the years -- understandably, under the sad circumstances.
Those who applaud Scott and Nolan's films see them as genre boundary-pushers (thrillers, action pictures, science-fiction, superhero movies); those who denigrate them see them as symptomatic of the debasement of resonant imagery in modern Hollywood movies. Both have been subjected to that worst of all critical insults, comparisons to Michael Bay:
"'Inception' may have been directed by Christopher Nolan, but Nolan's dreams are apparently directed by Michael Bay." -- Andrew O'Hehir, "Inception: A clunky, overblown disappointment"
"If it sounds like I'm describing Michael Bay, that's because I sort of am. What we like to think of today as the Bay/Jerry Bruckheimer aesthetic was, in fact, originally the Tony Scott aesthetic (often deployed in films made for Bruckheimer and his late partner Don Simpson). Only back then there was a lot more art to it." -- Bilge Ebiri, "To Control Something That's Out of Control: On Tony Scott"
One of Scott's notable defenders has been The New York Times' Manohla Dargis. She identifies him as a "maximalist" who used "a lot of everything in his movies: smoke, cuts, camera moves, color. This kind of stylistic, self-conscious excess could be glorious, as in his underappreciated film 'Domino' (2005)," which Roger Ebert also somewhat grudgingly admired, quoting a character to describe the movie itself as having "the attention span of a ferret on crystal meth." Dargis writes:
OK, this is where it really gets interesting. Forget the consensus Top 50 Greatest Movies of All Time; let's get personal. Sight & Sound has now published the top 250 titles in its 2012 international critics poll, the full list of more than 2,000 movies mentioned, and all the individual lists of the 845 participating critics, academics, archivists and programmers, along with any accompanying remarks they submitted. I find this to be the most captivating aspect of the survey, because it reminds us of so many terrific movies we may have forgotten about, or never even heard of. If you want to seek out surprising, rewarding movies, this is a terrific place to start looking. For the past few days I've been taking various slices at the "data" trying to find statistical patterns, and to glean from the wealth of titles some treasures I'd like to heartily recommend -- and either re-watch or catch up with myself.
I know we're supposed to consider the S&S poll a feature film "canon" -- a historically influential decennial event since 1952, but just one of many. I don't disagree with Greg Ferrara at TCM's Movie Morlocks ("Ranking the Greats: Please Make it Stop") when he says that limiting ballots to ten all-time "best" (or "favorite," "significant," "influential" titles is incredibly limiting. That's why I think perusing at the critics' personal lists, the Top 250 (cited by seven critics or more) and the full list of 2,045 films mentioned is more enjoyable pastime.
It's wise to remember that, although the top of the poll may at first glance look relatively conservative or traditional, there's a tremendous diversity in the individual lists. Even the top vote-getter, "Vertigo," was chosen by less than one quarter of the participants.
"If you think this movie is mediocre, why have you written so much about it?" That's a comment I sometimes get -- and although I understand where it's coming from, I don't think it makes sense if you stop to think about it for two seconds. I usually respond by saying that I don't see any contradiction there at all. Who hasn't encountered a movie that, afterwards, is more interesting to talk about than it was to actually sit through? Who would argue that the only movies worth analyzing and arguing about are those you think are successful? When I was 18, one of my college film professors told us something I've never forgotten -- that you can often learn as much (or more) about film from a bad movie as you can from a good one.
Ignatiy Vishnevetsky raises this same issue in a round-table conversation on "The Dark Knight Rises" at MUBI.com that takes a course similar to the ones we've been having here at Scanners:
... I'd be lying if I said that I don't derive pleasure from trying to crack it and figure out what exactly makes it frustrating or dull. You gotta give credit where credit is due: even when Nolan makes a mediocre film... it's at least fun to talk about. You can't say that about many filmmakers -- but, then again, it would be even better if the movie was as fun to watch as it is to discuss.
My feelings precisely. One more thing, though, before I get back to this MUBI confab, and that's the matter of tone and attribution of motive -- not to the movie or the characters in it, but to those who take part in the discussion. First, as I said previously, I have nothing worth adding to what's already been written about the shootings in Aurora, CO -- and I've avoided reading most of it because, as Dave Cullen wrote in last Sunday's New York Times, almost everything we think we know about the killer and even the circumstances of the incident itself, is wrong.
So, we're having this wonderful discussion at Scanners about the moral dimensions of superhero movies -- mostly about "The Amazing Spider-Man," "Marvel's The Avengers" and "The Dark Knight." I was bringing up some things from 2008 and 2009 about how some see the Joker as a "nihilist" or an "agent of chaos" and how I see him figuring into the moral design of the movie, and somebody posted this comment:
I'm so confused. You've spent the better part of 4 years slamming the dark knight for not being a "good" film, even though you're now saying its chalked full of thematic material. So am I correct in assuming you like the themes it raises, it's that the execution was poorish? So it's ok to like the themes just not the way it's presented, or that they presented too obviously, sloppily. Please give me a straight answer. I want to understand your interpretation of the material once and for all.
OK! Now, on the eve of the release of "The Dark Knight Rises," is probably a good time to attempt to do that once again -- if only to remind people that, although I have written a lot about "The Dark Knight" and Christopher Nolan (including pieces on "Following," "Memento,"The Prestige" and "Inception"), my reservations about his work have been closely focused on two things, involving writing and direction. Here's my (slightly cleaned-up) reply to that comment above:
In the classroom lesson that wraps up the romantic and thematic threads of "The Amazing Spider-Man," a high school English teacher takes issue with the old saw about there being only ten (or so) stories in all of human history. She says she believes there's only one: "Who am I?" This being a remake-reboot of the Peter Parker Becomes Spider-Man origin story, that's a good thing for this, or any, coming-of-age movie to focus on.
An appealing cast headed by Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone provides all the special effects the movie needs, and they're far more engaging (for adults, anyway, I would imagine) than the usual clinical computer visuals. (Yes, I *liked* it. Hey, Mikey!) The emphasis is on charm, emotion and comedy -- until the third act CGI blowout, but even those scenes give Spidey some real weight and mass for the first time as he swings through the skyscraper canyons of Manhattan. (There's even a built-in joke about it, with two students of Midtown Science High School discussing some user-uploaded YouTube footage.) The way director Marc Webb (" Days of Summer") and DP John Schwartzman shoot Spidey and the city, they both seem to occupy a common, more-or-less real physical space. The camerawork isn't all "Avatar" floaty and fakey, and there's a lovely shot of Spidey on the Oscorp building with sunlight shimmering off the windows that looks like real glass and steel and sunlight, even though the Oscorp building itself is a CGI creation. (So are the hallways of Morse Science er, Midtown Science High, but you'd never know it.)
Marie writes: club member Sandy Kahn has found some more auctions! Go here to download a free PDF copy of the catalog.
Marie writes: As some of you may know, it was Roger's 70th birthday on June 18 and while I wasn't able to give the Grand Poobah what I suspect he'd enjoy most...
Siskel & Ebert fight over a toy train (1988)
Please join me and fellow "Mad Men" video essayists Serena Bramble, Kevin B. Lee and Deborah Lipp over at IndieWire's Press Play blog for a fascinating (if I say so myself) Audiovisualcy roundtable about the show and why it's such a natural for video-based exploration. I can't think of another series that offers a fully formed, cinematically sophisticated movie every episode, week after week. A taste of some of the things we get into:
Kevin: (on my video, " The Long Walk"): As one clip cuts to another, I feel a conversation beginning to emerge between them, which you are orchestrating. I start to feel like I am watching the show through another set of eyes. To do this without any explicit commentary, text, elaborate editing or effects, is remarkable.
In fact, I think it's because of this non-invasive approach that the viewer can have a special experience. It gives the viewer room to piece together the connections you are making without being told what they are. It's like playing a puzzle with one's eyes - a quality that distinguishes Mad Men from most other shows in that it leaves a lot of subtexts for the viewer to piece together on their own. Your video compresses and intensifies that experience.
Marie writes: Recently, a fellow artist and friend sent me the following photos featuring amazing glass mosaics. She didn't know who the artists were however - and which set me off on a journey to find out! I confess, the stairs currently continue to thwart me and thus remain a mystery, but I did uncover who created the "glass bottle doorway" and was surprised to learn both its location and the inspiration behind it. (click image.)
HAPPY BELATED BIRTHDAY TO THE EBERT CLUB!
As far as I'm concerned, that's the sub-head of the year -- for the first section of Greg Ferrara's perfectly observed (and, for me, exhilaratingly cathartic) Cinema Styles blog post, Five Years, Five Peeves, Five Reasons to Go On. It's so sharp (and not just when I happen to share his point of view) and funny that I feel like offering an annotated response. You should read the whole thing (I couldn't even get past the first item without stopping to leave an enthusiastic comment), but I will refrain... sort of. There's a lot to consider here. Lemme just hit some of the highlights:
I have a problem with a lot of modern cinema. I don't like the way most of it looks, I don't like the way it's edited (too choppy and frenetic) and I don't like the way it's acted (so painfully naturalistic that a wide range of performances are thoroughly interchangeable). And I have that feeling with a frighteningly high percentage of modern movies. But mostly, I have a problem with the way the movies look. And when I say I have a problem, I mean even with movies I like. We all know I don't like CGI very much (I even do a series on special effects before CGI took over) and this is a big problem because it's now everywhere, in practically all movies. Take "Hugo," directed by Martin Scorsese. I use this movie as an example because it was a movie I liked and thus, I can assure you it is not me reacting to a movie I hate or using it as an excuse to hate the movie. No, I liked "Hugo" but I hated most of the look of it.
For months, even before it was released, I found myself feeling a strange reluctance to see "Hugo." I still haven't seen it, but I plan to do so in the next week or so -- though I'm surprised to find that I am not looking forward to the latest Martin Scorsese Picture. Why? I hadn't quite put my finger on it until I read Greg's piece. It's because I hate the frothy, cotton-candy look of the stills I've seen. I compared the look of "Avatar" to Thomas Kinkade and Thai restaurant fiber-optic flower lamps (remember Michael Atkinson's priceless protest: "What, am I a forest animal, unthinkingly hypnotized by shiny objects?").
Marie writes: I have no words. Beyond the obvious, that is. And while I'm okay looking at photos, the video.... that was another story. I actually found myself turning away at times, the suspense too much to bear - despite knowing in advance that he's alive and well and there was nothing to worry about. The bottom of my stomach still fell out...
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This is a free edited sample of the Christmas Newsletter.
For Roger's invitation to the Club, go here.
From the Grand Poobah and Mrs. Poobah:
Seasons Greetings Everyone!
From the Poobah: Chaz and Roger Ebert wish you Peace in the New Year!
Marie writes: Did you know that the world's steepest roller-coaster is the Takabisha, which opened earlier this year at the Fuji-Q Highland Amusement Park in Yamanash, Japan? The ride lasts just 112 seconds but is packed with exciting features including seven twists, blackened tunnels and a 43m-high peak. But the most impressive thing about Takabisha is the 121 degree free-fall, so steep that it's been recognized by the Guinness World Records as the steepest roller-coaster made from steel!
We've been discussing (with regard to "In the Cut Part I: Shots in the Dark (Knight)" what kind of film grammar Christopher Nolan was using (it's traditional narrative continuity editing -- most of the time). One of my key questions was: Is it, "as the filmmakers have said, more concerned with realism -- photographing real objects, including actors and miniatures, in real space? We can see how it does what it does. The question is: What's the result? How do these stylistic choices enhance or diminish the impact of the movie?"
Just came across this 2005 interview with Nolan (by Sean Axmaker, for GreenCine), talking about his approach to reviving the Batman movie franchise. In a word? Realism, according to Nolan:
For me, the exciting opportunity was that you had a studio with this phenomenal character, wanting to re-introduce the character to the big screen and looking for a fresh way to do it. I felt I had never seen a superhero story tackled with a real degree of reality, of seriousness, in a way, and Batman, to me, as the most mortal, the most ordinary in terms of abilities, of superheroes -- he has no super powers -- he's the natural choice for trying to tell a superhero story in a realistic manner. I just felt that would be something I've never seen before and something that would be really fun and exciting to do. [...]
It presents enormous physical challenges for the crew, particularly because I insisted on doing things for real rather than employing visual effects, so there was a tremendous amount of stunt work and so forth. And I insisted on doing everything main unit, not using any second unit action crews. We wanted the whole film to have a consistency that applied to the action set pieces as well as to the character scenes.
Chaos Cinema Part 1 from Matthias Stork on Vimeo.
Matthias Stork, a German film scholar now based in Los Angeles, has created a most stimulating two-part video essay on a subject near and dear to my heart: "Chaos Cinema." At Press Play, it's given the sub-head "The decline and fall of action filmmaking," while an analysis at FILMdetail considers it from the angle of technology: "Chaos Cinema and the Rise of the Avid." Stork, who also narrates his essay, describes his premise this way:
Rapid editing, close framings, bipolar lens lengths and promiscuous camera movement now define commercial filmmaking.... Contemporary blockbusters, particularly action movies, trade visual intelligibility for sensory overload, and the result is a film style marked by excess, exaggeration and overindulgence: chaos cinema.
Chaos cinema apes the illiteracy of the modern movie trailer. It consists of a barrage of high-voltage scenes. Every single frame runs on adrenaline. Every shot feels like the hysterical climax of a scene which an earlier movie might have spent several minutes building toward. Chaos cinema is a never-ending crescendo of flair and spectacle. It's a shotgun aesthetic, firing a wide swath of sensationalistic technique that tears the old classical filmmaking style to bits. Directors who work in this mode aren't interested in spatial clarity. It doesn't matter where you are, and it barely matters if you know what's happening onscreen. The new action films are fast, florid, volatile audiovisual war zones. [...]
Most chaos cinema is indeed lazy, inexact and largely devoid of beauty or judgment. It's an aesthetic configuration that refuses to engage viewers mentally and emotionally, instead aspiring to overwhelm, to overpower, to hypnotize viewers and plunge them into a passive state. The film does not seduce you into suspending disbelief. It bludgeons you until you give up.
It seems to me that these movies are attempting a kind of shortcut to the viewer's autonomic nervous system, providing direct stimulus to generate excitement rather than simulate any comprehensible experience. In that sense, they're more like drugs that (ostensibly) trigger the release of adrenaline or dopamine while bypassing the middleman, that part of the brain that interprets real or imagined situations and then generates appropriate emotional/physiological responses to them. The reason they don't work for many of us is because, in reality, they give us nothing to respond to -- just a blur of incomprehensible images and sounds, without spatial context or allowing for emotional investment.
"I believe that if, at the end, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn't always know this, and am happy I lived long enough to find it out." - from LIFE ITSELF
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