Monthly Archives: February 2013

Here Comes the Bride

I wrote about the Kill Bill movies for Press Play. I also noticed a couple of Easter eggs in them. First is the reference to Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt (left) at the end of Volume 2 (right) as the Bride and B.B. curl up in bed, bathed in red light… not unlike Michel Piccoli and Brigitte Bardot, the latter of whom is another B.B.

The second is the repeated references to cereal across both Kill Bills: Vernita’s box of Kaboom, the Lucky Charms in the motel room at the end, and of course the “Silly rabbit… Trix are for… kids” line during O-Ren’s battle with the Bride. This motif calls childhood to my mind. It’s that act of sitting in front of the TV on a Saturday morning, bowl of sugary cereal in your lap, having your mind shaped by whatever trashy movie happens to be on.

Distant memories, immaturity, channel surfing. Yeah, that sounds like the whole Kill Bill saga in a nutshell.

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Oscars ’12 Post Mortem

Before we finally wash the bad taste of this past awards season out of our collective mouth, before we have to think for a few seconds to even remember what Argo was about, here’s a quick breakdown of what looked good and bad from where I sat last night.

Things I Liked

  • Fewer gimmicks! Outside of that protracted Family Guy-style opening, the show saw no real attempts to experiment with format, pay homage to film history without actually paying it homage, play This Is Your Life with the acting nominees, etc. For which I was grateful.
  • A Sound Editing tie. That gave Zero Dark Thirty its only win. And treated us to Mark Wahlberg gasping, “No BS, we have a tie!”
  • Shirley Bassey! Adele! Barbra Streisand! I’m OK with the Oscars turning into a really classy televised concert sometimes.
  • “One Day More” from Les Mis. Infinitely more palatable than how that number was actually staged in Les Mis.
  • Daniel Day-Lewis has jokes. Elaborate Meryl Streep jokes, no less.
  • Ang Lee winning. Especially because snub or no, his filmography > the fuck out of Ben Affleck’s.
  • Michelle Obama?!? was unexpected.

Things I Didn’t Like

  • Seth MacFarlane. His frat bro tone. His “Boobs” song. His bad-because-get-it-they’re-bad-jokes-that’s-the-joke jokes. His gay jokes, Jew jokes, sexist jokes, and especially his Quvenzhané Wallis joke. Fuck him.
  • Rudd and McCarthy flailing. I don’t understand why you’d put two hilarious actors onstage, then not have them say anything funny.
  • Hey, remember Chicago? Or Dreamgirls? Or Les Mis? Because those are the only musicals that matter and we’re going to devote an enormous chunk of time to them.
  • Denzel Washington’s Oscar clip. Hope everyone saw Flight already! Because that was its entire climax.
  • Seth MacFarlane again. He was really just so (predictably) insufferable that he overshadowed most minor quibbles I had with the show. Congratulations, everyone else! You’re off the hook.

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The Naked Truth

Lois Weber gets next to no attention outside of film history classes, so I decided to write about her movie Hypocrites (1915) over at Movie Mezzanine. Made in that fuzzy period before what we know as “narrative filmmaking” had totally solidified, it’s a weird sight for 21st century eyes: wonky structure, unabashed sermonizing, and more interest in social critique than storytelling. Also of note is the double-exposed nude woman onscreen for about half the film’s running time. This particular silent landmark may not have aged too well, but it still holds some historical appeal for the curious moviegoer.

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Link Dump: #88

This week’s kitty is gazing ominously at the title character of Edward Dmytryk’s The Sniper, which I wrote about recently. Never have I seen a cat with more accusing eyes. And now, some links:

This week’s sexual search terms include “slippery teen twat first time with looney toons” (ewww…?) and the amusingly self-censoring “bondage mind-effing.” Mind-effing!

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Under the Gun

Edward Dmytryk was fresh from the Hollywood Ten when he made The Sniper (1952), which I wrote about over at Movie Mezzanine. It’s an especially intense little noir, lingering as it does over the pained face of its title character, who’s played by Arthur Franz in what I swear is one of the 1950s’ most underrated performances. Rarely have I seen an actor capture psychosis so vividly, yet with surprising subtlety. The closest thing Franz has to a co-star is Adolphe Menjou—a leader of the Hollywood witchhunts, as a matter of fact—as police detective “Frank Kafka.” Yeah, it’s a surprisingly literate thriller!

Incidentally, in that piece I mention Dmytryk’s “bisected compositions,” and I’d like to briefly expand on that. I’m consistently impressed by the mise-en-scène in this movie, as Franz is pressed to one side of the frame and something about the world he loathes (stranger, coworker, dunk tank woman, smokestack painter, landlady) occupies the other. It’s such an economical use of screen space, such a visceral way of visualizing misanthropy, and thanks to Dmytryk’s bold use of lines and angles, it also results in some beautiful compositions. The Sniper is top-shelf noir in an pulpy, unassuming package.

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Blood Money

Motifs in Cinema is a discourse across some film blogs, assessing the way in which various thematic elements have been used in the 2012 cinematic landscape. How does a common theme vary in use from a comedy to a drama? Are filmmakers working from a similar canvas when they assess the issue of death or the dynamics of revenge? Like most things, a film begins with an idea – Motifs in Cinema assesses how various themes emanating from a single idea change when utilised by varying artists.

My subject is “Economics and Money,” which has me thinking about how Mitt Romney—that scion of wealth, that symbol of the 1%—worked his way into the movies of 2012. You could see him, for example, in The Dark Knight Rises and its garbled vision of class warfare; in the resilience of its “job creator” hero Bruce Wayne. You could feel the GOP’s “We built that!” ethos writ large in Wayne Enterprises and in the way Wayne’s money entitles him to our trust, because he and only he can build “all those wonderful toys.” (I also spent election season thinking of Romney in terms of another iconic Christian Bale plutocrat: American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman, who exhibits precisely the same supreme confidence and nonexistent empathy as Romney’s public persona.)

Ah, but The Dark Knight Rises was a wish fulfillment fantasy where the rich got richer and retired to Italy. Whereas Romney lost. So maybe a more accurate avatar for him would be David Siegel, the real estate mogul whose downgrade from “mega-rich” to merely “rich” provides the narrative for Lauren Greenfield’s The Queen of Versailles. It’s hard not to laugh at Siegel, who’s really the victim of his own mammoth hubris, but it’s hard not to pity him either; post-2008, liquid exhaustion seems to have replaced blood in his veins. So while Christopher Nolan depicts the rich as our saviors, Greenfield turns them into a queasy cosmic joke. The film does humanize the Siegels, but I still occasionally felt like cackling at the screen: “That’s what you get, motherfuckers!”

Yes, Mitt Romney oozed his way into superhero movies and documentaries. But you may be wondering, “What about middlebrow dramas?” He was there too! In Nicholas Jarecki’s Arbitrage, that is—2012’s “Wall Street thriller” follow-up to Margin Call. Robert Miller, the stock market savant played by Richard Gere, is not unlike Bruce Wayne or David Siegel: like them, he depends on an elaborate façade. As with them, it’s all that keeps him from personal and financial ruin. Although Gere squeezes some pathos out of the film’s half-dozen dilemmas, it’s obvious that Miller’s morally compromised down to his bones, willing to endanger family, friends, anyone to save his own ass. Yet he’s still allowed to impress the audience with his quick maneuvering, which is symptomatic of the thoroughly disposable Arbitrage’s have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too inclinations.

Light-years from the pedestrian likes of Arbitrage lies my favorite 2012 manifestation of Recession-era anxiety: it’s David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis, with heartthrob Robert Pattinson starring as Romney-ish lizard-god Eric Packer. Cronenberg takes a tack opposite that of most filmmakers, choosing to anti-humanize Eric, to embalm him in theory and harsh lighting until he becomes this throbbing, phosphorescent thing. It’s alienating to watch, since you can’t give Eric your pity or sympathy or love. But for a year so full of unfeeling, digitized violence (whether physical or economic) and with more of both on the way… I suspect Cronenberg got it just about right.

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Magic Hour

Swaying grass, rippling water, towering trees, cobblestone streets, and of course magic: from these elements Hayao Miyazaki and his animators crafted the world of Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989). They provide such a rich backdrop for the tale of teenage witch Kiki, a girl for whom witchcraft is both vocation and an emblem of outsider status. Just as in other Miyazaki movies like Spirited Away or Ponyo, magic functions here as metaphor, as the storytelling device that sets a young woman’s bildungsroman into motion. These movies may be enchanted fantasies on the surface, but at heart they’re all about a small set of real-world issues: family, responsibility, maturation. They’re driven not by supernatural contrivance, but by the simple fact that life is difficult.

Kiki can fly on a broomstick, an action the film exploits for maximum spectacle. And she can talk with her black cat Jiji, who (in the fine tradition of witches’ familiars) acts as her foil and confidante. But beyond these powers, she’s like any other 13-year-old girl thrust out to live on her own. She’s still a little childish, a little naïve, but also resourceful, hard-working, empathetic. When two old women need help baking a pie for her to deliver, she throws herself into the labor of stoking a fire—not because she has to, mind you, but because she enjoys putting her skills in the service of these newfound friends. She’s still anxious, still self-conscious and vulnerable, but over the course of the film she grows. She overcomes her fears and develops a series of new, supportive relationships.

It all makes for a ideal example of how to write a complex female protagonist. The film explains how to animate her, too: with four quiet colors and a round, expressive face. For a supposed “kids’ movie,” everything about Kiki’s Delivery Service is executed with a startling amount of subtlety and restraint. I especially love the rhythm of the film’s editing. The pace is relaxed, just enough room to breathe, drawing the audience in with its graceful classicism. The same philosophy informs the sound design, which grows simpler as narrative tension mounts, even descending into total silence at the height of the film’s airborne climax. Miyazaki crams power into every detail and every elision.

One detail in particular walloped me with overwhelming emotional force. Late in the film, Kiki experiences some mild depression, losing her self-confidence and her magical abilities with it. She can’t fly and Jiji no longer speaks. It takes some soul-searching and a life-threatening crisis, but pretty soon she’s back on a broom and up in the air. Yet even after every loose end is tied up, Jiji doesn’t say another word. He’s a normal cat now, with a girlfriend and a litter of kittens. I know that this counts as a happy ending, I know that he’s still around and that Kiki has human friends now, but it still engenders a deep sense of loss in me. But then, that’s growing up. That’s magic used as a poignant metaphor. That’s the kind of unremarked-upon detail that makes Kiki’s Delivery Service truly special.

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