Friday, March 29, 2013

The Rite of Spring Breakers

First of all, let me apologise for the lack of updates here. Alas, as most of you would probably be aware I have recently made the move overseas so, naturally, I have been a bit busy. I've been fortunate enough to catch a few films in the brief time that I'm here and one of them - the very first, actually - was Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers, which has crashed the multiplex and turned normally intelligent people into blabbers who can't seem to make heads or tails of the whole thing.

 I, however, thought it was great.

A richly textured mood piece of a film that takes its position early and run with it for another 94 minutes, most of which are as hypnotically captivating as one could realistically hope for in a film about this American tradition known as "Spring Break". Seen as a rite of passage for any good looking young American - no seriously, apart from the older drug dealers, everybody in this Florida enclave is apparently really good looking in that indistinguishable way - the film dives headfirst into the story of four particular young women who end up falling down a wormhole of excess and debauchery, much of which is quite clearly illegal. Not that they care.

 Much has been made of the film's casting, which sees three of four girls portrayed by actors known more for wholesome family entertainment than risque, breast-baring arthouse fare. What they were previously known is, I feel, besides the point. They do, however, make for some spot on casting, and alongside James Franco as a drug-dealing skeeze-ball that hands these women a very literal get-out-of-jail-free card, makes for surely one of the most perfectly cast films that we'll get in 2013. While Franco and an emotional Selena Gomez make for the best performances in a film that's filled with all sorts of weird faces that is so typical for a Korine film, it's the technical aspects that turn Spring Breakers into a fluid trip down the rabbit hole.

Benoît Debie's neon-lit cinematography gives the film a bright eyed hue that recalls Miami Vice if focused on the villains in a modern day Spring Break resort. The exotic colours of Heidi Bivens' costume design - all bikinis and Ed Hardy-style brand names - are exquisitely lit and make for a particularly eye-popping final scene. Douglas Crise has been given the responsibility of editing Korine's screenplay into the film that it is and he does a particularly stunning job of it. It's easy to see this going completely wrong - hell, many think it did - with random, overlapping, repetitious, and generally untraditional cuts used throughout. However, the final product is one of an almost swirling grandiosity that made for thrilling hypnosis. One scene in particular set to the tune of Britney Spears' "Every Time" has to be seen to be believed, with its juxtaposition of bikini-clad spring breakers with their phallic guns and hot pink balaclavas.



 Naturally, some people don't see it that way. This article in The Guardian by Heather Long is such a case. Yet again we have people unable to distinguish between a film showing a particularly act and endorsing it. Long's argument that Korine's film endorses "rape culture" and the idea that for young women to have the "time of their life" they must resort to scandalous and scantily-clad behaviour is both misguided and ridiculous. I can't imagine how many people could view Spring Breakers and come out thinking it endorses anything other than the unironic appreciation of Britney Spears. And it certainly doesn't "endorse" anything like rape culture. In fact, not only does the film not feature rape of any kind (certainly none that I remember, but maybe I was transfixed and have forgotten), but the one scene that threatens to do so ends with a "no" (albeit a bare-breasted no.) The film very clearly paints the paths of these girls as dangerous and worrisome, with their actions bringing them more and more pain. So much pain that this so-called "time of their life" will forever be marred by the results they crashed head-first into. Sigh.

 Speaking of rites of passage though, I did enjoy my first ever American cinema experience and "experience" is certainly a perfect word for it. Wow. Not only did a woman bring her (at least I hope it was hers) newborn baby to the cinema and let it crawl around on the ground (!!!), but two girls got up and danced during the Skrillex-soundtracked opening scene. Of course people got up and left and came back at a snail's pace, which I don't quite understand unless you're truly hating the film, which one man in particular made well known. Throughout the final ten minutes of the film one man standing in the theatre entry corridor yelled out "Spring Breakers is a lie!" repeatedly. Maybe it was his ode to the film's own use of repetitious dialogue, but it was nevertheless as bothersome as it was hilarious. Hey, at least it makes a great anecdote.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Jackie Brown

Jackie Brown is my favourite Quentin Tarantino film. Anybody who's listened to me yammer on about it would be aware, and it ranks alongside Death Proof as the most rewatched of Tarantino's films by me. I consider it a staggering achievement in the way that many look at Pulp Fiction or the recent Django Unchained. Whilst those two are indeed varying degrees of quality (Pulp Fiction >> Django Unchained, however, obviously), neither can surpass the pop connoisseur's third film in my eyes. From a visual stand point - the entire purpose of Nathaniel Rogers' "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" feature - it certainly lacks the vivid cinematic brush strokes of Tarantino's collaborations with Robert Richardson (Inglourious Basterds and the aforementioned Django Unchained), and yet there's probably quite a lot going on that, upon initial inspection, may be missed.

Jackie Brown, more so than any other of Tarantino's films, has a certain workmanlike quality to its visuals and yet also feels imbued with a stylish swagger. Thanks to cinematographer Guillermo Navarro, this obviously reflects the character at the heart of Jackie Brown - regular, but projecting an everyday class. The film is full of bold uses of colour amongst drab surroundings right from the very get go as Pam Grier's title character emerges on an airport conveyerbelt against a wall of various hues of blues, greens, and browns as the bright electric blue uniform pops. Blue and brown, it would seem, are recurring colours in the film. From the Ordell Robbie's blue flat cap and pants ensemble, the blue hum of a Los Angeles apartment complex, to the drab beige and brown walls of Max Cherry's bail bonds office, and the coffee-coloured textures of Grier and Jackson themselves. Jackie's blue stewardess uniform is surely as vivid a costume as The Bride's yellow motorcycle suit and that fabulous opening tracking shot is a beautiful inroads into this previously unknown character as she weaves her way through an airport lounge. At first calm and a picture of royal beauty, she becomes flushed and frenzied as the serene colours of her backdrop begin to blur into one another and give way to the hustle and bustle of the world around her/us.


This evolution is repeated once more in the film's standout set piece. A rivetting twist on a traditional heist sequence, the drop off department store scene is a deliciously handled moment that tells the same incident from multiple points of view. A stunning example of editing and music that merge to craft a tense, funny, almost cathartic moment for an audience. From Jackie's initial POV - wherein the "boo yah!" moment occurs, forever destined to be awesome - there lies a long take that follows Grier as Brown as she makes her way out of the department store she was to make the money drop and tries to find the FBI agents trailing her. As the camera watches Grier's every facial tick and flinch, it's hard to tell whether Brown is pretending to be worried and scared so as to make the FBI believe her story, or if she's genuinely worried about what's about to go down. A little from column a and a little from column b, perhaps.

This particular long take is my favourite "shot" of the movie, but the one spot I chose to screencap is, I think, so representative of the film as a whole. Pam Grier's face, etched in desperate verve, front and centre and the world whizzing by around her. She's just trying to make her way through the world "doing whatever [she] has to do to survive" (to quote the Bobby Womack song from the opening credits). The end of Jackie Brown is ambiguous if you choose to think of it that way. She sails off into the sunset and is happily ever after, or Jackie just continues to struggle as she attempts to be as classy as she can be even if the world around her is in chaos.


Monday, March 18, 2013

Like Ross and Rachel, is Animation "on a break"?

You guys, why do all the animated movies of 2013 look like shit?

I don't mean to sound crass, but... well, they really do, don't they? And not just in terms of cinematic quality (although that is most certainly true), but the actual animation itself is looking cheap and flat. Perhaps that's because they're all, naturally, being released in 3D and I have been viewing them in 2D? Still, I can't help consider that if they look that bad in traditional 2D then what unholy mess of an eye-stabbing must they look like with the extra dimension attached? Yikes.

I've attended a few public screenings lately due to missing the press ones thanks to my temporary relocation south of the highway in Geelong. Two of the films I've seen - Aussie gems (...) Reverse Runner and Goddess - are rated PG so, of course, kiddie trailers fill the pre-show entertainment, and what a rollicking good time it is. Between the two I have witnessed trailers for Escape from Planet Earth, Despicable Me 2, The Croods, Epic, and Adventures in Zambezia. It's enough to put me off animation altogether right now, although I am sure the second half of the year has something worth getting excited about. Surely. It has to. Even Pixar's annual effort feels hard to find enthusiasm for given their last franchise effort was the appalling Cars 2. This is a year for an indie distributor to market those smaller, most likely foreign titles they have because this year's animated feature Oscar is up for grabs.

Escape from Planet Earth
The first line of the "about" section on this YouTube video reads "At last ! The long-delayed Weinstein Company animated film "Escape From Planet Earth"has its first trailer !" LOL. Well done whoever wrote that. The same cannot be said for whoever wrote this, which looks like dental torture with plush seats. Hey, it's got enough burp jokes for the kids and enough iPhone jokes for the adults, right? The only good thing about Escape from Planet Earth is that at least it looks better than that other Weinstein animation release, Hoodwinked. Remember that? Let's not.


Despicable Me 2
Look, I know a lot of people found these "minions" from the original Despicable Me to be wildly hilarious. I, however, did not. Now they have apparently gone and based an entire sequel around those annoying little nubs. In the absence of jokes, just make weird noises. The kids'll be rolling in the isles (sadly, that's probably true). The use of John Carpenter's Halloween in this trailer only furthers my hatred, plus exemplifying so much of what's wrong with the new wave of animation post 2000. Oh, and look, a joke at a cat's expense. Haven't seen one of those in a Hollywood flick for a while... er, scratch that.


Epic
Surprising me greatly, this new film from Blue Sky Animation is the best looking - as we as the best looking - of the five films I have featured here. Surprising because this animation house, home to all seventeen of the Ice Age films, haven't exactly blown me away with their skills. Polished, sure, but their repeated use of boxy character design (replaced here by GIANT noses, apparently) frustrated me so much that I never saw beyond the second. Their latest, Epic, appears to move just like a computer game, which is right in the wheelhouse of modern day animation, but at least there's a somewhat interesting story when you ignore that it's basically just ripping off Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. They get points for having a female lead though.


The Croods
Coming from Dreamworks I would have thought it would at least look impressive, but this tale of a family discovering a secret world in the time of the dinosaurs (right?) is marred by some horrendous character design (why are their bodies so disproportionate?) and yet more loud, overbearing visuals. It comes from the director of How to Train Your Dragon, which I loved, and Lilo & Stich, which I did not. This appears to be more akin to the latter, but maybe the reviews will prove me wrong. Still, nothing will change my mind on just how bad those character designs are, and with such boring vocal work. That's Emma Stone? And, you know, Nicolas Cage looks bored most of the time these days, but he even comes off as bored behind a microphone, too! And, really? A sassy grandmother and ancient mother-in-law gags? Ugh.


Adventures in Zambezia
I almost feel bad mocking this movie since I only just discovered that it is a South African production. Alas, it looks like a terrible South African production so I go back to not feeling so bad. This is Saturday morning carnoons at best, and even then you can find some amazing animation that's smart and funny on Saturday morning cartoons. Certainly far better than this crap. You guys have to watch this trailer though. It's badness is almost fascinating. Just wait until Samuel J Jackson's bird start clucking "Oh yeah, I'm groovy." It's a travesty beyond words, I swear.


Add those five to Monster's University, Planes, and Frozen - of which we haven't seen anything yet, but a late year slot suggests commercial viability, if not quality - I can't seem to find any more animated titles for 2013 from the big studios. Did these last few years of excessive releases tire them out? This year is looking mighty depressing from the Hollywood side of things and not even this field can seemingly be relied upon anymore. What gives?

Trust me when I say that I'm confused, too.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Smash & Grab

I've had Smash on the brain a lot these last couple of weeks. Anybody who still watches the show - and the ratings out of America suggests there aren't many, but we are out there! - knows this is probably a familiar place to be since the NBC series about the mounting of a Broadway musical is a brainworm if ever there was one. A show of such thrilling, exhilarating highs and yet such crushing, baffling lows - Smash is a show that I know and hope can be truly amazing and yet has settled into a rut of being complacently mediocre. At least season one had a ridiculous edge to it that made some deliciously hilarious soap opera moments. Season two had Jennifer Hudson. It's as if the makers are living up to the advice of their show's crowning moment - "Let's be bad!"


The songs of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman have been on regular repeat lately as I, presumably, try to telepathically impart wisdom upon the makers. And, really, if one were to listen to them outside of the context of the show they appear it then it'd be hard to picture how the series itself went so odd. That now famous article from Buzzfeed about the behind-the-scenes dramas of season one certainly lifted the curtains on several aspects, and yet season two is perhaps even more baffling. Season one at least felt as if it was headed in a direction: season two appears to be faffing about, as unsure of itself as the makers of Bombshell, the show-within-the-show that is Smash's predominant fixture. Whether a writerly coincidence or an act of supreme self-awareness, Bombshell has spent the six episodes of season two being kicked around like a football, hailed as a series of great songs, but with a dud book keeping it from potential excellence. It's hard to argue that the series as a whole suffers from the same problem. And if the in-show production team of Anjelica Huston and Michael Cristofer's choice of a more frivolous take on Marilyn rather than the so-called brilliant one that Messing's character came up with (telling, discussed yet never actually seen) feels like an act of Bombshell sabotage, then they're merely aping their real life counterparts. Furthermore, characters are seen preparing to abandon ship much like many of the series' fans have thought about once or twice. Alas, we (and they) stay because there's nothing quite like it out there, not even on a network like HBO.

How did the makers react to the flurry of concerns that viewers had over season one? They threw in a Jennifer Hudson subplot that literally went nowhere and just wasted everybody's time in sidelining Bombshell yet again. They also had a SECOND(!) musical fall into the lap of Katherine McPhee's smug, virtuous bore of a chanteause, Karen Cartwright. A second musical, by the way, that not only avoids the musical theatre traditions that the show was seemingly based upon, but also the Rent pop-opera stylings that it's supposedly trying to mirror. The original songs of Shaiman and Wittman have dried up and been replaced by more radio friendly pop rock tunes that are apparently the greatest thing we'll ever hear in our human ears. Give me a break! Megan Hilton - far and away the show's greatest asset - has been sidelined with a terrible version of Dangerous Liaisons opposite Sean Hayes, her powerful voice and expressive face getting minimal airtime front and centre. Even when it was established her character has an obvious history with the newly introduced Jennifer Hudson character, Ivy Lynn gets lumped off in the background with McPhee's Karen is moved to the front of the advice dispensing fan queue. Ugh. There's a reason why McPhee was never shown singing, amongst others, "Let's Be Bad", you know? She's inarguably better suited to the musical stylings of The Hitlist - the second show-within-a-show... this is getting confusing! - and hopefully the writers have set the story up so that Ivy Lynn's return to Bombshell is inevitable and we'll be right back to where we should have been an entire season ago. Oy. Still, Nathaniel Rogers put it right: they seem more interested in creating an "American Idol" than they do a theatre musical. Sigh.


Smash has been shunted to Saturday night in America, an apparent dead zone that will surely see its ratings shrink even further. It will most likely be axed unless its ratings move up and its budget can be shaved - thankfully, Smash never *looks* anything less than a million bucks. That would certainly be a shame given the hints of brilliance that it has exhibited throughout its brief history. It is those slight glimmers of hope that keep me watching even though it appears the series makers' are deliberately setting out to make the worst possible decisions at every turn. Last week's episode six was a nice turn back towards where it should be, dealing with the politics of making a Broadway show, rather than the boring romance between McPhee and whoever she's cooing over. It was also nice to see them sideline the jukebox aspects of the show - a street rendition of Billy Joel's "Everybody Loves You Now" by Hudson was the best of its kind since Hilty banged out a slaying rendition of "Crazy Dreams" way back at the start of season one.

Also: can we discuss the lack of homosexuality in this second season? Tom's boyfriend got sent on a national tour, Ellis was kicked off the show, the ensemble players have been ignored, the friend of McPhee's new love interest is sexless, and... well, for a show set on Broadway in New York City, there's a startling lack of sexuality at all. Yet another curious development on an increasingly curious show.

Seeing the Forest Within the Trees

2013 has been, as I've already said on multiple occasions, a great year for quality film key art. I have a list on which I keep track of all the good designs I see and already it's rather long, which is a rarity for sure and will make rounding down my end of year list a harder proposition than usual. While the number of quality film posters has shot up remarkably this year, the number of bad ones has remained steady. No grand rise or fall in the number of posters that fail at simple tasks such as Photoshop, appropriate typeface choices, image choice, and structure. Maybe I've just become desensitised - how many times can we see this rubbish and still feel appalled anger that it was approved for release? - or maybe I've just gotten softer in my years of following the artform and looking at the poster for The Incredible Burt Wonderstone doesn't send me into fits of vomitting terror.

Still, I think I've certainly found a truly worthwhile contender for worst poster of the year. Thanks to some unholy mash up of strange actorly facial expressions, ugly and dull colour palate, and stupid design idea the poster for M Night Shyamalan's After Earth is quietly disastrous. Just look at this thing and tell me you would want to see it. I bet you can't. It's impossible, I'm sure.


The grey gradient effect could world if it wasn't using that ugly internalised image effect that I hate so much. It looks so cheap and lazy! Sure, it is probably not as bad as the worst offender I can think of off the top of my head - that'd be this ridiculous poster for How She Move - but I've never liked that design concept and I almost never think it works. It certainly doesn't here, and by the point where it reaches Will and Jaden Smith's conjoined waist the image just dissolves into a murky blacks, making it impossible to decipher what is actually going on. The image they've used for that "inside" effect (does it have a name? I'd like to know!) isn't exactly an exciting one either, am I right? If you're trying to sell your post-apocalyptic film using that design then you should at least utilise an image that will reel in an audience. Some trees and an apparent crashed plane are not that at all. Consider the poster for Oblivion, which also uses a cold, steely silver colour palate, but does so with an image that definitely sells the film. It's about a post-apocalyptic Earth and that's pretty clear from that one image. The poster for After Earth? Could be anything, really. And there's also that blade sticking out of Jaden's back? I assume it's a sword, but if you're not going to be clear about it then get rid of it. It looks awkward and almost as if it was left on there by accident.

What happened? The only thing that could make this poster any worse is if they used M Night Shyamalan's name in bed text at the top.

Three other terrible posters to let your eyeballs soak in: The East for it's ugly, pale mess; Scary Movie 5 for being a more terrifying piece of imagery than any of the films it apparently spoofs (although the "V" is novel, I suppose); and Grown Ups 2 for being a sequel poster that's every bit as bad as the poster for the original. How many more times can Sandler get away with making these tax deductible holidays with his maters into films?

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

My Thoughts On Being Out of the Country During MIFF 2013


That lovely image up there is from Richard Franklin's 1978 Aussie horror classic Patrick. It's been remade by Not Quite Hollywood director Mark Harley, and will be premiering at the Melbourne International Film Festival. It's one of seven Australian titles that will receive their world premieres at the festival, but Patrick is the one I will be most sad about missing. Alas, I'll be living in New York City at the time so perhaps it is a fair trade. I'll also be sad to miss The Turning, a rare Australian omnibus film, adapted from the short stories of Tim Winton and comes with an all-star cast of actors and directors (including the likes of Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Mia Wasikowska, Justin Kurzel, and David Wenham amongst many others). Hopefully the names attached will allow it an American release at some point. Same goes for Patrick's genre elements, which make global sales far easier for an industry that struggles to sell overseas without its own exotic language and filmmakers that readily jump ship to America and the UK.

It will be sad to not be able to attend MIFF and experience the films and the people like I have the last six or so years. But, as I said, New York City beckons. Within days of arriving I will be catching Sarah Polley's Stories We Tell, Chan-wook Park's Stoker, Shane Carruth's Upstream Color, and Leviathan by Sweetgrass director Lucien Castaing-Taylor. I really shouldn't complain.

Caught Between a 30 Rock and a Hard Place

Vulture surely got a result they weren't expecting when they pitted Sex and the City against 30 Rock in their latest Sitcom Smackdown, but they probably got the result they wanted. Nothing sells web hits to hordes of angry internet users craving to be heard quite like a losing battle between two projects that represent entirely different things to entirely different audiences, but with one heavily slanted towards a modern day online community. Starlee Kine's piece is a finely written and laid out examination of how and why both series work to their defined mission statements, but how her personal preferences for how television can and should work made her pick Sex and the City as the winner. Take this paragraph a nice example:

Del Close, one of the creator’s of modern sketch improv, wrote a book that laid out what he considered the foundation of comedy. In a nutshell, it’s “Be honest. Don’t go for the jokes. There’s nothing funnier than the truth.” What I find so unusual about SATC is that it allowed its characters to express that they were dissatisfied and sad. If they felt lonely, they said it, without meta commentary and while still keeping it funny. There’s very much a pre-SATC world and a post- one, and there is something refreshing and authentic about this show being able to have done this.

It's a sentiment I agree with and I am impressed that Vulture didn't pull some backstage shenanigans and make Kine go back and award 30 Rock simply because it's cooler and the hip thing to do. Where I think Vulture went wrong is by going out of their way to post a separate entry featuring the greatest hits of the worst insults and slams against the article as well as its (female, remember) writer. Granted, they also included many that criticised Vulture themselves, but let's not kid ourselves here - these people wouldn't be so angry at them if 30 Rock had lost to something more credible than that show about the four old ladies who shop and fuck a lot. While I indeed chuckled at some of the comments - I particularly laughed at "THUNDERROAD74"'s observation that Sex and the City is "dated" compared to 30 Rock, which is a fool's argument since the latter started two and a half years after the final episode of the former. Furthermore, the final season of Sex is actually an exceptionally well-crafted from a technically point of view and looks a lot better than 30 Rock's more typical, albeit shiny and modern, network sitcom aesthetic - the Vulture piece sadly appears to give encouragement to the back-slapping dopes that revel in sexist gibberish. Comments that tend to focus much on Sex and the City's perceived superficiality, even though anybody who actually watched the series from beginning to end would know that very superficiality was both deliberate and commented on by its makers. Dem bitches be cray, etc (and would rather make jokes about anal sex than the equally fine comedic art of farts).

Jenna: Wow! How ‘Sex And The City’ are we right now? I’m Samantha, [points at Phoebe] you’re Charlotte, and [points to Liz] you’re the lady at home who watches it!
30 Rock 1.20 - “Cleveland”, src
Of course, one just needs to look at the comments on negative reviews of geek-friendly Hollywood movies to see that people have skewed views of online criticism. If their team loses, so to speak, that doesn't necessarily make it bad writing and vice versa. I find it frustrating when people say something is a good review simply because it echoes their own sentiments about the product at hand. I'm not quite sure how any rational person could read Starlee Kine's article and not think that, never mind the end result, it's a well-written, well-researched piece of television writing. It's insightful to both programs and isn't dismissive either way. In the end it comes down to personal biases of what makes better television and it's a shame that Vulture sullied Kine's rather brave stance ("brave" in the entirely hyperbolic sense of the world since we're discussing little more than one website's article) with that sequel of sorts celebrating people whose comments leaned so heavily on sexism and... er, well, no, mostly just sexism. Feels like they've undermined their erudite writer just for the sake of troll-baiting lulz. One commenter calls Kine a "teenage writer" because, lol, girls like clothes and shoes and boys and can't handle all those elaborate 30 Rock jokes about Blimpies and Alec Baldwin's effeminate assistant. Another says she's a "fine writer" but "missed the point", and another person thought the result made them want to "sit on a knife!" Please do. If you read more of the original article's comment section like I did then trust me, there was plenty more where that came from.

(For what it's worth, "eastsidegal" at least was able to find a sense of humour in all of the commotion: "I couldn't help but wonder when this contest spiraled out of control.")

Personally I love 30 Rock with its ability to tell more jokes in a minute than many can in 22 (or 42) and lovably neurotic Liz at the centre. However, I too would have thrown my vote to HBO's landmark series. I have a stronger association with it on a personal level - it was the first television show I watched that I have to sneak around to watch - and actually find it more rewatchable, which is perhaps where Kine is coming from, too. No matter how many times I've seen this episode or that, the jokes still land as well today as they did back that. For all six seasons I was invested in each of the four main characters - the show was a fantasy for the most part, but the actors made their characters feel positively real. That's something that 30 Rock never really achieved and it's a reason why I continue to toot the horn for a series like Golden Girls, Cougar Town, and Friends. Effortlessly blending the comedy with genuine emotion. I loved watching Jenna Maroney's extravagant diva antics as much as anybody, but occasionally Sex and the City would hit upon an incisive and funny observation about the world, even just the fantasy world the characters inhabitied, that would hit a more potent note as well as tickling the funny bone. It was a show that was almost always working on a level that the instantly dismissive could never hope to view it on and it deserves respect.

Liz Lemon dresses up as Princess Leia in order to get out of jury duty, so of course the anonymous army would barrack for her. It's just a shame that a series as refreshingly taboo-busting and aimed at an all too under-served audience (not to mention starring a bunch of actors of an all too under-represented age) appears to have been thrown under the bus of time and internet snark. One just needs to look at the weekly assault on Lena Dunham and Girls to see that a show that doesn't go out of its way to get a certain demographic on its side is doomed to forever have to play catch up. For that matter, I'm sure you've read this hilarious piece at CollegeHumor that hypothesises "if people talked about Seinfeld like they talk about Girls". Wonderful, biting stuff that. Starlee Kine made, I think, the right decision, but her most satisfactory moment was writing a piece of criticism that was informed and insightful. Which is more than we can say for commenter "blizzardkrieg":

"I didn't actually read the article, I just scrolled down to see who won and then swore."

Indeed.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Long Weekend, Longer Movies

It's a long weekend for the Labour Day public holiday so, apparently, we're going to discuss really long movies! I mean, I can't think of a better reason, can you? There's really no better way to spend a few hours on a grotesquely hot day like Victoria has been having lately than in a cool cinema enraptured by unfolding cinema. Following an Oscar season that saw the average best picture runtime pushed to about two and a half hours, audiences are certainly showing a willingness to sit through long pictures if it's actually worth it so I suspect we'll be getting studios giving their filmmakers a little more slack in those regards. As for the three films here? Well, as Meatloaf would sing, two outta three ain't bad!


If you watched Kenneth Branagh’s unabridged adaptation of Hamlet, George Cukor’s remake of A Star is Born, and the Wachowski/Tykwer collaboration of Cloud Atlas one right after the other then it would take you 590 minutes without stopping. That’s nearly half a day. Throw in the intermissions that the filmmakers blissfully included (even in the home entertainment release, which is how I viewed A Star is Born's restored cut) and adequate pre/post-film food and bathroom breaks then a viewer could surely waste over twelve waking hours under the air-conditioning. Actually, that's wrong: it would not be a waste at all. For sure, I can certainly say that the first two are worthy endeavours and very much deserving of their gargantuan runtimes. As for Cloud Atlas? Well, we’ll get to that in a bit.

It’s taken me a lot of time to finally get around to catching Branagh’s mammoth 1996 undertaking of Hamlet. I knew I only wanted to see it in the plush surrounds of Melbourne’s Astor Theatre, projected from a 70mm print (a print that Branagh himself helped save from being dumped by the film’s local distributor), but situations beyond my control stopped me every time. With my imminent departure from Australia I knew I couldn’t leave the country without witnessing all 242 minutes (nearly four and a half hours with intermission!) and, gosh, am I glad I did. Hamlet is truly one of the few films I have seen that warrants – nay, demands – the use of that wholly misappropriated word “epic”. As if the runtime wasn’t enough – the longest film I have ever seen if we don’t include multi-part documentary When the Levees Broke (255mins) which I saw theatrically, and beating Gone with the Wind by a mere 6 minutes – then the lavish production within more than earns the tag.

Sumptuously crafted in a mix of theatrical pomp and cinematic bravado, Hamlet entirely earns its 242-minute sit. Deservedly Oscar-nominated for the awe-inspiring production design of Tim Harvey, Alexandra Byrne’s costume design, Patrick Doyle’s musical score, and Branagh’s own screenplay, the film was Branagh’s fourth trip to the Shakespeare well, of which I have only seen his delightfully spirited Much Ado About Nothing from 1993. He’s gone twice more, but I do suspect the lack of financial success here somewhat dampened his mood to really embracing the work of the Bard again in such a similarly engulfing fashion. It lost three of its nominated categories at the Academy Awards to The English Patient and another to Billy Bob Thornton’s screenplay for Switch Blade, which is a shame. Not that I consider ambition to be an overriding factor in judging a film's worth (unabridged ambition being something that ultimately destroys Cloud Atlas), but it certainly reads as a stronger case of adaptation and design than those films. That it failed to get cited for Alex Thomson’s 65mm lensing says a lot, but that branch stopped being impressed with the super-large format a long time before. Hamlet, Baraka and The Master can sit quietly as bosom buddies.

Despite battling heat-fuelled fatigue, I successfully made it through the film without falling asleep for longer than a second or two, and can only praise its rapturous retelling of Shakespeare’s play. That stunning black-and-white checked room surrounded my mirrors is a wonder of design, as is the seemingly endless supply of impeccably tailored coats, soldier uniforms, and gowns. If some of the bit part actors flail about – that’d be Jack Lemmon and Robin Williams – then it was made up for by the likes of Derek Jacobi, Julie Christie (emerging out of retirement, thank heavens!), Kate Winslet, and especially Branagh himself. In fact, I was so enamoured by Branagh that I could have watched four more hours of the man acting the delicious, hammy scholar. It certainly helps that 1993-1996 was an especially sexy moment for him. Don’t you agree?

He's the one on the left.

I was a big fan of Branagh take on Marvel comic Thor thanks to its incredibly feminine gaze and overt camp sensibilities. It shares a lot then with Hamlet in which the handsome multi-hyphenate chose to not set it in a gloomy castle and a colour palate consistent with that of mud. Instead utilising a lavish, heightened sense of style that makes the four hours of viewing feel much less of a slog, but rather an invitation to marvel. There’s always something heavenly to look at amongst the design, whether it's an intricate piece of accenting detail on a costume, or the sharply details sets. Of course, that's when one isn’t revelling in the extravagant performance at the centre. It’s a film to cherish and admire, although I suspect the cool kids would still find it hard to indulge. Their loss, really.

Likewise then for George Cukor’s 1954 A Star is Born. A remake of a 1937 films starring Janet Gaynor that is nice, if underwhelming, it’s hard not to see Cukor’s take the story as the one it always had the potential to be. It’s impossible to watch and not see the superlative, transformative performance of Judy Garland as surely one of the finest feats of acting ever put on screen. If the film surrounding her occasionally has issues with its latter half (Vicki Lester’s fame never truly feel as big as the screenplay suggests), then Garland’s performance more than makes up for it. With every quiver of her voice, dart of her potent dew-dropped eyes, and the way she interacts with different characters in fabulously different ways, Garland well and truly inhabiting that role with the determined spirit every big as similar to that of her on screen persona. Garland’s desperation to make her come back the biggest come back of all time is obvious and imbues the role with pathos far beyond the superficial nature of some of the elements at hand. In a world where people take Oscar’s preference for one thing over another far too seriously, Garland’s loss to Grace Kelly for The Country Girl is a moment that we can surely all agree was just flat out wrong. That Garland’s Vicki wins an Oscar almost feels like rubbing it in her face.

As a musical there could certainly be more songs, but the ones there are a suitably fabulous. Everybody knows Oscar-nominated “The Man That Got Away” (another inexplicable loss, and to “Three Coins in the Fountain” no less), but the entire film is peppered with such lovely songs that Garland just tears into. Inspirational, too, to filmmakers. One number that sees Garland turn her house into a stage on which to perform appears to be a clear inspiration for the “Everything Old Is New Again” sequence from Bob Fosse's 1979 masterpiece (and my personal favourite film of all time) All That Jazz, whilst the elaborate “Born in a Trunk” medley was quite clearly Martin Scorsese’s go to reference point 13 years later for the infamous “Happy Endings” montage from New York, New York. A film that starred none other than Garland’s daughter, Liza Minnelli. It’s really not hard to see why the film is so revered. I have to finish off the A Star is Born trilogy (of sorts) with the Barbra Streisand version of the 1970s. Something tells me there are more laughs to be had in that particular version, what with the big career highlight sequence being set at the Grammys instead of Oscars. Oh, dear.


Of course, whereas Hamlet and A Star is Born come with the most un-hip and un-popular elements that cinema can have to modern day audiences (flamboyance! prettiness! traditional musical sequences! girly romance!) they succeed thanks to their timeless nature and an appropriate level of taste. Cloud Atlas certainly aims for timeless in its bloated account of our inter-connectedness, but it manages to become entirely tasteless in doing so. Filled with far too many story strands that tell the exact same story of persecution and identity – to some that’s the film’s strength, which I find very odd – with wildly varying degrees of success, Cloud Atlas also comes off looking like the arch enemy of a $100mil blockbuster: cheap!

The filmmakers have bitten off more than they could chew with this adaptation of the so-called “unfilmable” book (On the Road did that task better). The futuristic sequences look far too flat to resonate, with the visual effects appearing uninteresting and lacking depth and pop. The period sequences certainly look a lot better, but only one featuring Ben Whishaw and James D’Arcy feels like it could stand alone as its own story. It could have been a very moving account of a gay romance, but then they need to throw the kitchen sink of visuals at the screen every ten minutes. A 1970s story, a sort of blaxploitation espionage tale set on the streets of San Francisco, was my favourite from a visual standpoint, but Halle Berry’s distinct lack of acting ability makes it a far less remarkable experience. And let’s not even get started on the embarrassing litany of accents and make-up faces that Tom Hanks and Berry have to utilise, especially in the far-future tale of cannibalistic space age horsemen. And Jim Broadbent’s awfully un-reigned performance! Ugh, what was that all about? After this and the vaudeville slapstick routine of The Iron Lady, I think Broadbent has truly lost it.

Really, I could go on and on about the misjudged elements of this movie. Sadly, the filmmakers haven’t even allowed any room for intellectual thought since they so explicitly go to every effort humanly possible to spell out its themes for audiences. An altogether embarrassing combination of unabridged ambition that could have functioned on so many better levels had its filmmakers just taken the Project Runway mantra of “edit!” to heart. The editor should be ashamed of themselves for such rote assembly. Those three hours just felt endless. I secretly suspect the film is actually still going, but I’m too scared to go back to the cinema and check.

Basically, on the “Hugo Weaving in Drag” scale of film critique, I wanted to feel like this:


But in the end I felt like this.


Whatta grump.

Was your long weekend... er, long? Did you escape the heat inside the cinema? I wish I was in one right now because, oh my gawd, it's too hot here. I'm definitely a grump now.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Jonathan Groff Undressed, You Like?

Okay, so that post title is a misnomer. Alas, when Jonathan Groff sings "Anything Goes" and the lyric about liking him undressed comes along, there's really no other answer but "yes!"


Are you not in love with Jonathan Groff now? I mean, you probably were already - how could you not? - but now? Doubly so. I could watch him giggle and flirt his way through a Cole Porter tap routine any day. Singing, too. He's basically perfection. Sigh. Mae West would have a field day.

I hadn't seen this video before until Go Fug Yourself mentioned it in a piece on the sublime Judith Light and the MCC's "Miscast Benefit". I am so thankful that they did. I mean, the song is fabulous anyways - although has anybody heard the Mel C version from this apparently musical theatre-inspired album that she released last year (according to Wikipedia)? I haven't, nor do I care to right now - but... well, how many times and ways can I say that Jonathan Groff is just divine?

And if Jonathan Groff undressed is something you would indeed like and not just in the context of the lyrics to a Broadway tune? Well, there are places one can go for that (definitely NSFW!)!

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Your Disco Needs You

If ever one needed to be reminded of the power of disco, it's now. I swear, I listened to the radio for the first time in a long while and I just don't even want to talk about it. It was too terrifying for words, really, and I hope to never have to do it ever again. I hate becoming one of those fussy ol' sods who shakes his or her head at what's "new", but dear god. So many indecipherable, tuneless performers who can't even express simple musical feelings like waving one's hands in the air (like they just don't care) without offending my ears. Dear disco, we need you more than ever! You were so sparkly and catchy, and the people that made you famous were capable of writing some hella catchy hooks to hang their lovey-dovey lyrics on. Sigh.


Last night I watched iconic '70s musical Saturday Night Fever. It's not a traditional musical, of course, certainly not in the vein of star (and Oscar-nominee) John Travolta's next star vehicle, Grease, one year later, but I suppose they were aiming to give the genre a revisionist twist. It's certainly something that flows into Bob Fosse's All That Jazz in 1979, although the trend certainly didn't last all that long. Which is a shame, because I think writer Norman Wexler and director John Badham definitely had some interesting things to say. I am, however, at two minds about the movie though. I think the dance sequences, predominantly Travolta strutting his metaphorical stuff on the flash-lit discotheque dancefloor, have obvious energy and panache, while I also think many of the more dramatic action in the film's darker, angrier second half have real wow factor. Alas, I'm not entirely sure how well it stands as a whole. I didn't too much care for any of the familiar family stuff, which I felt was poached from other sources and played too much for ethnic laughs. I also wasn't much of a fan of lead actress Karen Lynn Gorney's rather under-developed side story.

What it does ace though, clearly, is in Travolta's performance as Tony Manero, the costume design of Patrizia Von Brandenstein, the use of New York iconography, and of course that stunning soundtrack. I implore you to read Clothes on Film's take on the costumes, which fabulously details Travolta's white disco suit down to the somewhat frayed edges. Really helps put into context just how much care and precision was put into it (and is put into every costume decision, no matter how big or small). It holds a similar place in the annals of cinema costume design as Ryan Gosling's white scorpion jacket from Drive. The representation of New York City is equally fascinating, with its dirty view of a downtrodden pre-gentrification Brooklyn is so fabulous, and I adored the way it only frequently used Brooklyn's Manhattan connection, the Brooklyn Bridge, as a way of showing how little these people actually think about the metropolis at their back door. In fact, any film that utilises the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge so prominently will always get my attention since it's such an underused location. Sure, it's a familiar way to frame such a sequence, but I like that Fever did with the Verrazano-Narrows Bright in 1977 what Woody Allen's Manhattan did with the Queensboro Bridge two years later.



And what can be said about the music that hasn't already? At nearly 40 years old, the soundtrack is still a masterpiece and full of worthy classics. Not just the BeeGees' tracks, but also Yvonne Elliman, David Shire, and others. Listening to these tracks it's not hard to see not only why disco was so successful as a genre, but how somebody like Tony Manero could obsess over it as much as he does. It's liberating in a way so few other styles of music are.

Still, for all the film's faults and successes, there is one moment of pure perfection. It arrives late in the movie and comes as Travolta's lower class dancer enters the subway and travels to Manhattan in the middle of the night. The juxtaposition of this moment is something I think the director Badham strived the entire movie to find and finally got it. As Manero stands in his no longer crisp white disco suit on the graffiti-plastered subway car, I was so incredibly taken by the imagery. It's a gorgeous moment in spite of the ugly nature of it. I was so taken by it and kind of wished the filmmakers had taken the time to be more observant throughout more of the project. That longing and desperation really came through in a way that perhaps other scenes had tried but never quite reached.






Screencaps via

Speaking of disco - and really when should we ever NOT be speaking about disco? - I also recently watched David Yates' The Deep. For all the issues I may have with Steven Spielberg's Jaws (to which The Deep shares an author), The Deep most certainly ain't no Jaws. It's pretty flimsy whenever it's above water and it's hard not to feel somewhat anticlimactic. I thought there was going to be some sort of giant creature hidden in the wreck! Yawn. The Deep was another of 1977's highest grossing movies, but it's little more than a lousy Jaws knock off.

What it does have, however, is a crazily unnecessary disco theme song performed by Donna Summer. It's called "Down Deep Inside (Theme from The Deep)" and it has absolutely nothing to do with the film that features it. Apparently the producer wanted it as some sort of James Bond styled moment - the score and the song are written by frequent Bond composer John Barry - and as good as the song itself it, it's so shoehorned into the production that it becomes laughable whenever the jangly theme music appears on the score.


Remember, The Deep is about finding a treasure trove of morphine at the bottom of the sea. Disco? Why not!

Monday, March 4, 2013

Listomania

With so many websites and organisations posting lists of the greatest all time this or the best of cinema history that, it's hard to keep track. It's even harder to care to be perfectly honest, but sometimes a list will pop up that is actually worth perusing if only to see whether the people compiling it even bothered to look further back than, say, their 1980s teenage years (a startling number of which you can answer "er, no they didn't.") As miffed as I am to link to them, I did actually find Total Film's "50 Greatest Cinematographers list to be a good one. Don't get me wrong, like many of the lists on that website, this great cinematographers piece isn't exactly the best read - the quality of the write-ups, bare as they already are, are rather all over the place - and their hit-baiting system is incredibly frustrating given their penchant for lists that are, like this one, 50 titles long. Yikes. Nobody wants to click 50 times, yeah?

As for the calibre of the choices, however, they get good marks. Amongst the many brilliant choices - why hello there Vilmos Zsigmond, Robert Burks, Sven Nykvist, James Wong Howe, Vittorio Storaro, Christopher Doyle, Charles Rosher (pictured) - I especially liked the inclusion of Maryse Alberti, whose work is predominantly in the less-beautiful realm of American independent cinema, and Tak Fujimoto, whose work one could mistake for lacking a predominant style, but which I find to be entirely faithful to the vision of his director. Many of the cinematographers responsible for my favourite acts of film lensing are featured: for instance, Néstor Almendros is ranked at no. 22 presumably based entirely on his Oscar-winning work in the "magic hour" with Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven. Still, if your legacy as a cinematographer is going to rest on one piece of work then it might as well be Days of Heaven, no?


Of course, as with any list like this one has to take it with a measure of subjectivity and a grain of salt. Would I personally trade Wally Pfister for one the many technicolor masters of the 1950s who worked on the "women's pictures" of the period? I undoubtedly would, yeah. And do I find it particularly disappointing that there's only one woman on the list? Well, sure, but at least they acknowledge that. Still, I'm sure anybody who's seen The Well could argue for Mandy Walker's inclusion. Still, as these things go they did a pretty decent job.

A far more note-worthy list is the Writer's Guild of America's 101 Greatest Screenplays that came through the pipeline in the last week. With a list from an organisation such as the WGA will always be hard to fault out of a general blase hive mind attitude that is hard to ignore. The 101 screenplays listed are pretty much wall to wall classic films - whether one agrees with all of them or not, it's hard to deny that they all hold a certain reputation as great cinema that means their placement makes sense and that even includes Forrest Gump, sadly - but, as with all lists of this kind, the true fun is in the novel surprises.

I, for instance, love the inclusion of both Shakespeare in Love (no. 28; Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard) and Thelma & Louise (no. 72; Callie Khouri), which are two very female-centric films that have taken a beating over time. A beating that has retrospectively coloured them in a not very flattering light. Trust the actual writers to jump to the former's defense when, to this very day, John Madden's film still cops flack for its supposed unworthy Best Picture win with The Academy. I also adored the citations for films that one might not necessarily point to the screenplay for their success. Titles such as Amadeus (no. 73; Peter Shaffer), Psycho (no. 92; Joseph Stefano), and Witness (no. 80; Earl W. Wallace, William Kelley, and Pamela Wallace). And of course the writer's guild would be cool enough to put Groundhog Day (no. 27; Danny Rubin and Harold Ramis) and Tootsie (no. 17; Larry Gelbart, Murray Schisgal, and Don McGuire).

Naturally, I would have liked some more oddball choices to have slipped through the cracks, one of those spots that makes me sit up and nod my head in baffled agreement. Still, it's not like the final product is riddled with bad films. Well, except for Forrest Gump, of course.

"State of Play" (Big Issue edition no. 425)

This is a piece I wrote about the Academy Awards and American politics in cinema for a recent edition of Australian print magazine (yes, I feel like I have to include the word "print" nowadays) The Big Issue.


If the USA’s recent presidential election taught us anything, it’s that Americans take politics very seriously. No other country’s political landscape receives such circus coverage by the world’s media. The role of Commander in Chief carrying with it such global significance and power that not even the ego of Hollywood is immune. In fact, Hollywood has been using the world’s enthralment with American politics to its advantage for as long as cinemas has existed, frequently churning out movies that examine America’s political role on the world stage both past and present.

The American film industry’s fascination with politics is no more apparent than in the nominations for this year’s 85th Academy Awards. Of the nine films nominated for the coveted Best Picture prize, three deal primarily with the political realm—Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, Ben Affleck’s Argo, and Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty—and cover a breadth of time periods. Whether it’s Abraham Lincoln’s efforts to abolish slavery in 1865, a Middle Eastern rescue mission in 1979, or the present day hunt for Osama Bin Laden, these films are undeniably potent examples of the genre, demonstrating the way American filmmakers continue to take their nation’s historic moments and reimagine them for contemporary audiences.

What does it say though about the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the organisation that hosts the annual trophy-giving shindig, when this type of film is so commonly hailed? Are they simply responding to quality filmmaking, a subjective term to say the least, or is there something more significant at play? As the Academy’s global scope continues to expand—British members, for instance, are now said to be prolific enough within the organisation that films like The Crying Game (1992), The Full Monty (1997) and Atonement (2007) have emerged with larger than expected nomination hauls—it could be assumed that the reach of these stories may diminish, but that’s not the case. If anything, the connected world in which we live has made these distinctly American films as pertinent to a global viewership as ever.


One could hypothesise that the Academy sees it as their patriotic duty to reward these films and their makers. To stamp these films as important works of cinema is to solidify them as a defining take on the subject, simultaneously confirming the Academy’s role as a barometer of the country’s shifting tastes and attitudes. So frequently is the film industry accused of frivolity, of worshipping at the altar of money and beauty—especially the Academy Awards, with their shiny exterior—that awarding Kathryn Bigelow’s low budget Iraq war drama The Hurt Locker (2009) Best Picture could very easily be perceived as the industry’s attempt at validating its own existence; an acknowledgement of cinema’s ability to inform and even mould audiences’ perception of world affairs. By rewarding such an intellectual, politically-charged film, the Academy in some way demands that a wider audience will discuss its themes and issues for years to come.

The history of cinema is littered with films about the American political scene. D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915)—coincidentally a reference point for another 2013 nominee, Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained—is infamous for its portrayal of the Klu Klux Klan as honourable men who restored order to a chaotic post-war south. Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men (1976) brought the Watergate scandal to the world with Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman in the leads. Oliver Stone dramatised the web around two of the nation’s most famous leaders in JFK (1991) and Nixon (1995).

This year’s crop certainly isn’t slacking for discussion points. Argo, a thrilling if glamorised take on the recently declassified hostage crisis of 1979–1980, has been criticised for its representation of Iranians as rabid crazies out for blood, as well as diminishing the efforts of the Canadian government. Critics have met the more refined qualities of Lincoln with rapturous praise, but some historians have found inaccuracies in the screenplay of Tony Kushner (Angels in America, 2004).


On the other hand, Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, the most controversial of them all, has been criticised for being too accurate in its representation of CIA torture tactics and the intelligence that was gathered by these means. The age-old argument over whether showing ghastly acts equals endorsing them has remained a sticking point with the film’s more ardent detractors. Furthermore, a perceived pro-Barack Obama stance was rumoured to be the reason its release date was postponed until after the election that Obama eventually won.

These films, and many more like them, fascinate in much the same way as America fascinates the world. For any nation to reach America’s level of global influence and power must surely have lessons to teach, plus warnings to heed. These political films can do just that by providing access to the wheelings and dealings of Washington DC (with the star power and budgets to do so). Whether the Oscars celebrate these films with a subliminal agenda is something we’ll never know, but by memorialising them the Academy is telling the world that these are versions of American history that moviegoers everywhere should be willing to explore.