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January 3, 2014

Wolf of Wall Street: a review

I saw it on New Year’s Eve and liked it a lot. But, I think it’s best taken as a series of brilliant set pieces. String them together and you have a fairly predictable narrative arc, and a thematic point ( [SPOILER] Greed is bad) that isn’t going to change anyone’s mind. But the set pieces are incredibly well done because Scorcese. And Leo Dicaprio is just great in it.

Some people are upset because the movie doesn’t condemn the behavior it depicts. Yikes. Scorcese is obviously showing us behavior he finds so extraordinarily bad that he was motivated to make a movie about it. To tack on some moralizing elements would only lessen the impact, because that would imply that we need to be told that the behavior depicted is bad.

Mike Ryan at HuffPo writes about this question and, citing Chuck Klosterman, compares Leo’s character to Archie Bunker. But there’s very little to understand about Archie. He’s a bigot and ignorant. Haha. Wolf of Wall Strett instead shows us a sub-culture that is twisted and extreme, but is coherent within its own little world. There’s something to understand there, which is why Leo is able to give an Oscar-worthy performance. In that it’s much like The Godfather or The Sopranos, not to mention Good Fellas. It is also more like American Psycho than like Wall Street. (And speaking of Oliver Stone, one of my very least favorite directors, if you want to be hit repeatedly with a gigantic Morality Hammer, watch Platoon, if you can get through it.)

Good Fellas is a better movie than Wolf (in my opinion, natch) because it is less predictable, the main character is more morally nuanced, there are more unforgettable characters, etc. But I thought Wolf was very good, very entertaining, and treated us like moral grownups.

Not that all of us are.

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October 13, 2013

A bit of a downer for Gravity

SPOILERS: Not really. I have a thematic quibble that I’ll keep at the level of saying something like “Much Ado about Nothing is a great love story except for an implausible plot mechanism” or “I love the evening palette of Good Night Moon, but, wow, nothing happens.”

So, Gravity is really good and worth seeing on a large screen. (Terrific use of 3D, by the way.) The use of the camera to tell the story is amazing, on a par with Hugo or the Life of Pi (to name two recent films). There’s a scene near the beginning where the camera not only fluidly changes its position, but also changes our point of view: from omniscient view of the universe, to observing the world reflected in Sandra Bullock’s space suit visor, to coming inside the visor and seeing the earth, its reflection, the HUD and Bullock’s face, and then taking the point of view of Bullock herself. The director, Alfonso CuarĂ³n, is amazing in his ability to convey situation, point of view, sensation, and narrative. Awesome!

But…

..the plot is a bit predictable, the way (as my son pointed out) mountain-climbing movies can be. Worse, this space odyssey is wrapped around a sentimental journey that is entirely unnecessary to the film. In fact, I think it would have gone all the way to stunning if they had adhered to the old adage: In space, no one can hear your backstory.

Still, it’s easy for me to carp. It’s overall awesome. And how the heck did they shoot it? Gravity-free stunt doubles?

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May 25, 2013

Upstream Colors

[SPOILERS COMING] A few paragraphs down I’m going to talk explicitly about the theme. If you haven’t seen the movie, you should stop there; I’ve marked it with a spoiler alert. Until then, there are no spoilers. But, this is a movie you should see with no expectations other than that it isn’t your ordinary film. So, my advice is to stop here.

 

 

 

I watched Upstream Colors last night, the second movie by Shane Carruth, who gave us Primer in 2004, a time-travel movie that has spawned analyses that make Memento look like Babar’s Vacation.

Upstream Colors is mysterious and difficult to fathom, but not because it is as intricately plotted as Primer. With Primer, you have to notice that a character’s middle button is undone in one scene but is buttoned in another. (I haven’t seen Primer in a while, so I’ve made up that example.) With Upstream Colors you can let yourself relax a bit more. The salient details are flagged, generally. But how they go together, especially after the first third (i.e., after the pigs are introduced), will keep you focused.

The theme is as difficult as the plot. In fact, I can’t imagine anyone recognizing what the theme is — what the movie is actually about — while watching it. Still, you watch it enthralled. And that makes this a truly masterful movie. It is so beautifully constructed in images, sounds, and music (Carruth wrote the awesome score) that it carries you along. You are given enough narrative clues to keep you interested in what’s coming next, and you care about the characters. But Carruth has invented his own rhetoric for this movie, a correspondence of gestures and sounds that conveys shared meanings.

I had to read some analyses on the Web before the penny dropped. And even then there’s plenty left to ponder.

There are, in fact, at least two pennies. One concerns the narrative thread, along the lines of “What’s up with the pigs?” About this I shall say no more, but will instead recommend Daniel D’Addario’s article in Salon, which I liked up until the last couple of paragraphs…precisely where he goes from narrative to theme.

The second penny isexpressed eloquently by Carruth himself in a terrific interview by Charlie Jane Anders. And a second interview by her about the ending is equally important. In it, Carruth explains why the ending is subversive of narratives, but it’s also clear that the theme itself is even more deeply subversive.

[SPOILER ALERT: ]

This movie is about people who think they are controlling their lives but in fact are being controlled by forces outside of themselves, at least according to Carruth. But control is expressed in the movie as being the author of one’s own narrative. These characters are certainly not in charge of the meta narrative about what’s shaping their story. The fact that it’s pigs ‘n’ worms (and, yes, orchids) is just one more splash of cold water: the narrative the characters tell themselves when they take back control couldn’t be less ennobling. Further, one can read the ending as showing the characters becoming the next set of enablers of the cycle.

I’m not at all sure that that’s what Carruth has in mind. His interview suggests that he instead sees the pigs and worms simply as part of nature, and nature doesn’t care about what we find pleasant or gross. The transcendence at the end is not about taking back control of one’s narrative but about accepting that the stories we tell ourselves are not stories that we give ourselves. That’s far better expressed through pigs in shit than bunnies in clover.

And yet this is a movie with a highly stylized and artificial language of image, sound, and music. It is a story we have been given by a creator who, like The Sampler (the guy recording sounds), is invisible to the characters but who is shaping so much of what they experience —the shepherd of the forces controlling the characters’ experience. I can’t avoid assuming that Carruth knows that he himself is The Sampler and we are his protagonists. During the movie and then afterwards, we — like his characters — are going to think we’re taking back control of the story, piecing together what happened. We assume there must be a story, and even that it has to be about us, but suppose it’s not. Suppose there’s nothing but pigs and worms. Suppose the story is nothing but the beautiful rhetoric of an author we cannot see — an author himself embedded in a cycle he did not create.

By the way, this is a great movie — although it does bother me that I had to read about it to see why.

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December 3, 2012

Hollywood and Web

The video from the November 19 Berkman discussion of the intersection of Hollywood and the Web is now up.

Here’s the panel discussion before screening of We Made This Movie, with Rob Burnett (the movie’s co-writer/director) [twitter:robburnett1], Elaine McMillion, and me, moderated by Jonathan Zittrain.

After the film I led a Q&A with Rob:

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November 27, 2012

At the corner of Hollywood and Web

I greatly enjoyed last weeks’s Berkman Center event about some of the ways the Web is affecting the movie industry, which included a screening of an indie movie that has been released only on the Web.

First here was a panel discussion with Rob Burnett [twitter:robburnett1], Elaine McMillion, and me, moderated by Jonathan Zittrain. Rob is the executive producer of “The Late Show with David Letterman” and the director and co-creator of the new indie movie We Made This Movie. Elaine is a Berkman Fellow and is orchestrating a crowdsourced, interactive documentary called Hollow. Jonathan Zittrain is extremely Jonathan Zittrainy, which is a wonderful thing. We talked about what the Net is doing to movies, and you couldn’t ask for two more insightful commentators than Rob and Elaine, led by the Best Moderator in the Business.


Then we watched Rob’s movie, which I loved. [Disclosure: I did a little free consulting about the Web release.] The movie is hard to describe, which is a good thing, but it’s funny, engaging, touching, and deeply clever. In fact, it transcends its cleverness, but of this I can say no more. It’s also got an incredibly talented ensemble cast that made me think of Diner. Go to the movie’s site to find out how to see it online. (Hint: It’s on iTunes.)

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September 26, 2012

Hollywood’s most over-used exit line

Huffpo has a compilation of “Check please!” being used as an exit line in Hollywood movies. It then makes the completely unsubtantiated claim that it’s the most over-used exit line.

Tish tosh! I proffer my own two unsubstantiated claimants to that title:

The first is “I think that went well” after some plan has gone disastrously wrong.,

But the most over-used exit line in Hollywood films is, by a landslide: Not saying goodbye when hanging up the phone.

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April 29, 2012

You score this movie

An indie movie launching in September is holding a contest to find four songs for four scenes that need musical backing.

The movie is We Made This Movie from Rob Burnett and Jon Beckerman (creators of the TV show Ed; Rob is the Late Night with David Letterman producer). Because of the theme of the movie, they had the trailer produced by a high school student.

(Disclosure: I am an informal (= unpaid) marketing advisor to the project. I am also a Rob Burnett fanboy.)

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January 17, 2012

Elmore Leonard and Morgan Freeman

Meredith Sue Willis, novelist and teacher (and my sister-in-law), has a hunch about a “newish” Elmore Leonard novel:

I have a theory that Elmore Leonard came up with the idea for DJIBOUTI from a combination of headlines (piracy off the coast of east Africa) and a interview in which movie actor Morgan Freeman complained that he gets lots of work, but never gets to have sex in his movies. He has played Nelson Mandela, the corner man in MILLION DOLLAR BABY, not to mention God a couple of times- -all pretty much asexual. So my little scenario is that Leonard, who always has his eye on the movies, wrote the character of seventy-ish Xavier in DJIBOUTI for Freeman. Just a thought.

Nice!

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December 25, 2011

“Hugo”: Anti-spoilers

No spoilers in this. In fact, my aim is to undo a false expectation about “Hugo” that may be keeping you from seeing this amazing movie.

“Hugo” is not about robots, animatronics, or a boy’s relation with a mechanical man. An automaton is an important part of the plot, but that’s not what this movie is about. BTW, “Hugo” is the boy’s name. The automaton doesn’t even have a name.

There are lots of reasons to like it because it works at many levels. Those levels are resonant, and deepen through their redundancy. Also, Chloe Moretz is in it, whose talent as a young teen already can only be measured in streeps.

But mainly I loved this movie because — in a way that is itself redundant with the movie’s content — the filmmaker’s technique turns it into an artwork. Martin Scorsese takes us through a movie that emotionally and aesthetically feels like one long tracking cut, although of course it isn’t. Most movies are constructed as a series of scenes. While “Hugo” has different settings and scenes, it plays without interruption. It’s the difference between traveling by plane and traveling by foot: Scorsese leads us along a path, sometimes walking, sometimes running, but it’s one continuous landscape. Crappy metaphor, but “Hugo” is as close to perfect movie construction as I’ve seen.

I’m not saying that “Hugo” is the greatest movie ever made, but it’s a
movie that makes the most of what a movie can be: so limitless in its ability to move us through spaces, so able to show us what’s going on inside by showing us surfaces, that it is the medium best suited to dreams. (as Norman Mailer once observed).

So, now let me de-hype it. “Hugo” is a wonderful movie, but it’s a small movie. I understand those who see it as sentimental. There are a couple of moments that don’t work. But I woke up thinking about yet more ways in which the movies scenes’ and ideas not only work together like a clock mechanism (you learn early on that Hugo winds the clocks in a Paris train terminal, so he is in effect part of that mechanical system), but reflect upon one another as analogies and correspondences in the Medieval sense…and this is too is what the movie is about.

So lower your expectations from this review and go see “Hugo” before the new Chipmunk movie pushes it off the big screen.

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June 8, 2011

E.T.: A very old trailer

Here’s the 1982 trailer for ET:

MovieLine posted the trailer to support the wisdom of Super 8′s decision not to give away too much ahead of time. But, wow, does the ET trailer seem dated! It feels like it has about half as many scenes as a typical modern trailer. Contemporary trailers are much more coherent, not in the sense of making sense (which they usually don’t), but in the sense of feeling like a whole experience, usually ending with an ear-ripping blast or, after you’ve thought it ended, a shocking image or wry remark. I hate contemporary trailers because they are assaultive and disrespect the movies they spoil, but the ET trailer seems excepionally poorly made.

Maybe they figured (correctly) that they really just had to tell us that it’s the next Spielberg film, and that ET was unlikely to bite children in half.

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