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Jim Emerson on movies, criticism, journalism, politics, religion, music -- OK, basically whatever comes up.
Updated: 2 years 1 week ago

Films on fire: Tony Scott and Christopher Nolan

Fri, 08/24/2012 - 01:28

"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:

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The great movies (almost) nobody voted for

Sun, 08/19/2012 - 21:54

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.

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Verdant Vertigo: Dreaming in Technicolor

Thu, 08/16/2012 - 03:20

This appreciation is a slightly revised-for-2012 version of an article originally published online at Microsoft Cinemania in 1996. It was just one of several pieces in a package celebrating the 70mm restoration release of "Vertigo" that year.

Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo" is one of the most ravishing Technicolor films ever made -- all the more so in its VistaVision-to-70mm restored version. And color plays a key part in the mystery, emotion and psychology, of the film. Colors evoke feelings, and while Hitchcock liked to say that "Psycho" (made two years later) was "pure cinema" in black-and-white, "Vertigo" is a symphony of color, its multi-hued themes and motifs as vividly orchestrated as Bernard Herrmann's famous score.

I first saw "Vertigo" on network television in the late 1960s or early 70s, shortly before it was withdrawn from release. I think I was somewhere between 12 and 14 years old -- I know I saw it by myself on my parents' new 19-inch color TV one night when mom and dad went to some neighborhood grown-up party -- and I'm sure I didn't understand the half of it. But it stayed with me -- haunted me, you might say -- between that fateful evening and its re-release in the mid-80s. By then, "Vertigo" had become, if not quite the Holy Grail of the American Cinema (after all, "Rear Window" and "The Manchurian Candidate" had been unavailable for years, too -- and a great deal of "The Magnificent Ambersons" is still at the bottom of the ocean), then at least one of its most coveted (and fetishized) treasures.

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Lust for revenge

Sat, 08/11/2012 - 02:01

Like all of us, I'm living under a death sentence. Not to sound alarmist, but to quote Woody Allen in "Love and Death": "Isn't all mankind ultimately executed for a crime it never committed? The difference is that all men go eventually, but I go six o'clock tomorrow morning." Looking on the bright side of death, I think in some ways it must be nice to have such certainty. But we live in perpetual uncertainty and doubt (see "No Country for Old Men"). My own awareness of the prospect of my demise ranges between roughly five years and five seconds, according to fluctuations in the health of my heart. I've gotten close enough to peer over the threshold (and in one case, lost my grip and fell into the void for, I'm told, about 10 or 15 minutes). My point is, I don't see death as an abstraction but a... vividly imminent possibility, depending on the situation.

(Neuroscientists say it may take the human brain 20-30 years or of development to really begin to fathom the concept anyway -- to some extent we tend to feel, and behave, as if we are immortal before that. I think my brain "knew" somewhat earlier.)

My adventures in mortality are absolutely nothing, however, compared to what some of my friends and acquaintances have been through. People have asked me if my near-death (temporary-death?) experience in 2000 gave me a new perspective on life and I have to say... no. I've been preoccupied with death ever since I was old enough to have a rudimentary understanding of what that was. It used to make me a little dizzy thinking about an infinity of nonexistence, like the one I didn't experience before I was born, but I don't find anything disturbing or frightening about that. Hey, it happens to everybody. Dying is easy; living is hard.*

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Dramatic readings of Yelp reviews

Fri, 08/10/2012 - 22:30

By Real Actors!™

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Greatest Films of All Time: Where's the funny?

Thu, 08/02/2012 - 06:32

The big loser in the 2012 Sight & Sound critics poll is... funny. OK, we know there are no losers, only winners! But, still, with the obvious exceptions of "Citizen Kane" and "Rules of the Game," this decade's consensus choices for the Greatest Films of All Time are not a whole lotta laughs, even though they're terrific motion pictures. There's not much in the way of chuckles or joie de vivre to be found in "Vertigo," "Tokyo Story," "Man with a Movie Camera," "The Searchers," "The Passion of Joan of Arc"... At least "Sunrise," "2001: A Space Odyssey" and "8 1/2" have healthy senses of humor, but "Kane" and "Rules of the Game" are the only movies in the top 10 with the propulsive vitality of (screwball) comedy. They are flat-out fun (even if they are regarded as "classics"). And with "Kane" bumped to #2 this time, The List has become, to paraphrase a great comedy from the 1980s, one less funny.

I say this as someone who believes that comedy is everything, and that drama is lifeless (or at least emotionally stunted) without it. Some might argue that comedy without drama is also limited and superficial, but I think comedy is more profound and complex -- and more difficult to pull off successfully. I can name plenty of comedies that capture a mature vision of human existence (if you're into that kind of thing -- like all of Buster Keaton), but a drama that (artificially) excludes humor is feels false and inert to me. [No, I'm not saying the other movies in the Top Ten are humorless or lack cinematic exuberance; just that their energy is not primarily comedic, as i feel Welles' and Renoir's are. To some extent, I'm talking about the overall tendency to value "seriousness" above "humor" in these sorts of exercises.] As for the 2012 Sight & Sound Top Ten, compare it with 1982 ("Singin' in the Rain," "The General"), 1992 ("L'Atlante") and 2002 ("Singin' in the Rain"). The lack of comedy on the new list hearkens back to the Somber Ol' Days of the 1950s, '60s and '70s. As somebody once said: Why so serious?

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The best greatest movies ever list

Wed, 08/01/2012 - 06:18

UPDATED (08/01/12): Scroll to the bottom of this entry to see my first impressions of the newly announced critics' and directors' poll results.

Vittorio De Sica's "Bicycle Thieves" (1948) topped the first Sight & Sound critics' poll in 1952, only four years after it was first released, dropped to #7 in 1962, and then disappeared from the top ten never to be seen again. (In 2002 only five of the 145 participating critics voted for it.) Orson Welles' "Citizen Kane" (1941) flopped in its initial release but was rediscovered in the 1950s after RKO licensed its films to television in 1956. From 1962 to 2002 "Kane" has remained at the top of the poll (46 critics voted for it last time). This year, a whopping 846 top-ten ballots (mentioning 2,045 different titles) were counted, solicited from international "critics, programmers, academics, distributors, writers and other cinephiles" -- including bloggers and other online-only writers. Sight & Sound has announced it will live-tweet the 2012 "Top 50 Greatest Films of All Time" (@SightSoundmag #sightsoundpoll) August 1, and as I write this the night before, I of course don't know the results. But, for now at least, I'm more interested in the process.

Given the much wider and younger selection of voters in 2012, ist-watchers have been speculating: Will another movie (leading candidate: Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo," number 2 in 2002) supplant "Kane" at the top of the list? Will there be any silent films in the top 10? (Eisenstein's "Battleship Potemkin" and Murnau's "Sunrise" tied for #7 on the 2002 list, but the latter was released in 1927 with a Fox Movietone sound-on-film musical score and sound effects.)

Though there's been no rule about how much time should pass between a film's initial release and its eligibility (the Library of Congress's National Film Registry requires that selections be at least ten years old), most of the selections ten to have stood the test of time for at least a decade or two. The newest film on the 2002 list was the combination of "The Godfather" (1972) and "The Godfather, Part II" (1974) -- but they won't be allowed to count as one title for 2012.

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Three faces of Margaret

Sun, 07/29/2012 - 21:21

Let me indulge my passion for operatic drama for a moment and say that I've seen Kenneth Lonergan's "Margaret" four times now (the theatrical version and the new "extended cut" on DVD, twice each) and, while I'm watching it, I feel like I've never before seen a movie that fully recognized what human behavior is like. Sure, the focus is entirely on a certain demographic slice of human beings -- mostly middle- to upper-class, educated, New York-dwelling, Judeo-Christian-atheist white people -- but these people are alive and ragged and messy in ways few movie characters are allowed to be. (The characters, and the lives the movie depicts, are messy; the movie itself is exquisitely shaped according to its maker's vision, and that was apparent from the theatrical cut.)

Of course, all movies are stylized and all characters, whether documentary subjects or fictional, are creations (of writers, directors, actors, editors, cinematographers and others) presented to us in a frame. Yet there are dimensions to the interactions in "Margaret" -- the longing to be understood, the perverse impulse to (deliberately?) misinterpret someone else, the desire to inflict emotional sabotage on yourself or another person just because you can -- that movies so often overlook in an effort to provide clear and clean drama in which everybody announces, bluntly and correctly, exactly what they mean to say.

In other words, as Lisa Cohen might say, "Margaret" calls bullshit on most other movies.

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Louie: Funny is gravy

Sun, 07/29/2012 - 06:16

It's not enough to say that Louis CK's "Louie" is the finest, funniest, most adventurous half-hour comedy on television. It's not even necessarily accurate, since the series is more like a short story anthology than any kind of sitcom you've ever seen. Yes, Louie is the main character, a divorced New York stand-up comedian whose observations and adventures provide the backbone for the stories (sometimes more than one per show), but other characters or storylines may or may not continue beyond the half-hour in which they're introduced. Last season, for instance, Louie found himself in temporary but indefinite custody of his 13-year-old niece at the end of the episode... but she never reappeared.

The flighty, fidgety bookstore employee played by Parker Posey, whose name we don't discover until the last word of the two-parter called "Daddy's Gilfriend" (it's Liz), is unlikely to show up again, but Posey says she'd love to come back in the role he originally envisaged for her -- as his shrink. This, I think, is a good thing. Liz's function was to act as a force of instability, to shake Louie out of his risk-averse routine. And, boy, did she succeed. She is fascinating, goofy, beguiling -- and baffling, frustrating, unsettling, frightening, exhausting, all in one volatile, bubbling cauldron of moods and impulses. You can read it all in Louie's face as he attempts to figure out what to make of her, from situation to situation, moment to moment, all through the night. (His range of tentative reactions reminded me of the wife of bus driver Mark Ruffalo in "Margaret," who churns through turbulent sequence of responses as she tries to get a read on Lisa Cohen and what she could possibly want from her husband.)

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Good, bad or mediocre, there's still lots to talk about

Sat, 07/28/2012 - 22:17

"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.

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The Dark Knight Rises: A heroain't nothin' but a knuckle sandwich

Sun, 07/22/2012 - 23:43

"Gotham's time has come. Like Constantinople or Rome before it, the city has become a breeding ground for suffering and injustice. It is beyond saving and must be allowed to die. This is the most important function of the League of Shadows. It is one we've performed for centuries. Gotham... must be destroyed."
-- Ra's al Ghul (Ken Watanabe), "Batman Begins" (2005)

"Over the ages our weapons have grown more sophisticated. With Gotham we tried a new one: economics.... We are back to finish the job. And this time no misguided idealists will get in the way. Like your father, you lack the courage to do all that is necessary. If someone stands in the way of true justice, you simply walk up behind them... and stab them in the heart."
-- Ra's al Ghul (Liam Neeson), "Batman Begins" (2005)

"You see, their morals, their code, it's a bad joke, dropped at the first sign of trouble. They're only as good as the world allows them to be. I'll show you. When the chips are down, these civilized people, they'll eat each other."
-- The Joker (Heath Ledger), "The Dark Knight" (2008)

"Terror is only justice: prompt, severe and inflexible; it is then an emanation of virtue; it is less a distinct principle than a natural consequence of the general principle of democracy, applied to the most pressing wants of the country."
-- Maximilien Robespierre, 1794

"I am Gotham's reckoning... I'm necessary evil.... Gotham is beyond saving and must be allowed to die."
-- Bane (Tom Hardy), echoing his former master in "The Dark Knight Rises" (2012)

- - - - -

(You've seen "The Dark Knight Rises" by now, right? Good. I'm going to discuss a few things that I would consider spoilers, albeit mild ones, and then get to some pretty big spoilers later on, before which I will offer an additional warning, just in case.)

- - - - -

The villains of Christopher Nolan's "Batman" movies don't think very highly of "ordinary citizens" (now popularly referred to as "the 99 percent"), whom they tend to view as mindless savages, slaves to fear who'll claw one another and the city of Gotham to shreds at the slightest provocation. The films themselves sometimes confirm that view (Gothamites get a little panicky in "The Dark Knight" when they fear that Batman is not keeping the crime rate down) and sometimes don't (they choose not to blow themselves up in the Joker's intricately planned ferry experiment). This isn't really a theme that's developed in the movies, but like most of the political and social references, it's something that's... there.

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Preparing for The Dark Knight to Rise

Wed, 07/18/2012 - 06:55

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:

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Superheroes: Good vs. Evil isn't really much of a theme

Mon, 07/16/2012 - 02:18

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 ("[500] 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.)

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What is a "rape joke," anyway?

Fri, 07/13/2012 - 07:06

What's worse than finding a hair in your soup? Being raped.*
-- @AntiJokeApple, June 2, 2012

"I was raped by a doctor... which is so bittersweet for a Jewish girl..."
-- Sarah Silverman, "Jesus Is Magic" (2005)

Seriously, what is a rape joke, why do you tell one, and how do you apologize for one? I empathize with comedians who get up on stage, alone, and develop new material, often without knowing where their minds and mouths are going to take them (or their audience). It's a semi-disciplined, stream-of-consciousness high-wire act without a net, and as any comic will tell you, they frequently fall. (See Patton Oswalt's remembrance of a bad performance in the early 1990s and the "Magical Black Man" who haunted and helped him.) But no matter what they say or do, they're still accountable for saying or doing it -- and, more than ever before (thanks to blogs and social media and video smartphones), they are held publicly accountable. So, when I heard that Daniel Tosh of Comedy Central's top-rated "Tosh .0," was in hot water for telling a "rape joke," the first thing I wanted to know was: What was the joke? That has to be where it all starts, don't you think? What did he actually say?

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Margaret: The masterpiece that (almost) got away

Sun, 07/08/2012 - 05:07

Kenneth Lonergan's "Margaret" was written in 2003, filmed in 2005 and stuck in post-production for six more years. The 150-minute version briefly released theatrically last year was an inchoate masterpiece, perhaps, but a masterpiece nevertheless. The DVD/Blu-ray release, July 10, will feature two versions of the film -- the theatrical release and a new "extended cut" by Lonergan that, he says, better reflects his current vision for "Margaret." As he told Indiewire, "The cut that was released was the cut I delivered. They're both the director's cut; they're just different cuts."

Paul (teenage Patti Benton's boyfriend in Paul Mazursky's 1978 "An Unmarried Woman" -- a specimen of living, breathing upper-class urban cinema that belongs in the same genus as "Margaret") would no doubt observe that Lonergan's movie is "flawed." (Or, as Patti says: "I liked it. Paul thought it was flawed.") And it is. "Margaret" rapidly unravels in the last third or so, along with the turbulent world of its teenage protagonist Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin). I don't want to get into the plot or characters at all here (I want to wait until I see Lonergan's "extended cut"), but let me say that this movie features four of the most mesmerizing and complex characterizations I've ever seen in any movie: Paquin's Lisa, Jeannie Berlin's Emily, J. Smith-Cameron's Joan and Allison Janney's Monica (the latter a one-scene cameo).

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