Friday, October 31, 2014

The World That I See: State of the Blog Edition

Wong Kar Wai's 2046

During the past month, I’ve slowed down the posting frequency for this blog and spent a lot of time pondering its existence. Like most creative endeavors, the site has morphed into something much different than where it began. It’s been thrilling to discover great films and connect with so many intelligent people in the online film community. I had little understanding of what the site would become and didn’t expect to enjoy blogging so much. I started posting four to five times a week, and keeping up with that pace was a constant goal. Somewhere along the line, the site reached a tipping point and started feeling like a job. I want to continue this project but must change to make it worthwhile again.

Although I’ve never considered the blog as a stepping stone to being a professional critic, it’s hard not to look for validation. There have been three times this year where I hoped to expand my online presence. The first example was applying for the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS), which seemed like a no brainer. It was a long process to get a juried response, and the reasons for the rejection were all over the map. I also inquired about participating in the Criticwire Survey, which gives online critics a chance to respond to a timely question about the movie world. This seemed like a long shot, but the lack of any answer was disconcerting. Finally, I hoped to cover the upcoming St. Louis International Film Festival by reviewing screeners prior to the festival. I located the right contact through a Twitter acquaintance and sent an inquiry. This request also was met with no reply, and that dismissal surprised me.

I mention these examples not to gain sympathy but to offer context for my thinking. That outreach was part of plans to strive for something more. Instead of bringing new opportunities, the results raised questions about the entire effort. My writing has improved, but there are thousands of similar sites. When you add in a full-time job, friends and family, and just trying to enjoy life, more time in front of a screen was less exciting. Beyond the external audience, was watching movies and writing about them still satisfying? That is the most important question in this endeavor. I don’t have an easy answer, and I’m definitely not ready to quit. Instead, I’ve decided to enact this solution:

Stop trying to be a film critic.

This choice may sound like I’m retreating, but it’s actually the exact opposite. I’ve often felt pressure for not seeing the movies that I “should” see. There are hundreds of worthy films released each year, and catching even a portion of them is difficult. When you add in trying to review them, it becomes impossible. This environment has led me to put together short reviews that have solid writing, but say very little. If I’m going to continue this blog, I must recognize that it’s okay to bypass obvious trends.

Once Upon a Time in the West

What’s strange about writing a personal blog is setting up deadlines that seem essential, but are really just markers. Instead of exploring a movie, I’m writing to meet an arbitrary date. Creating a schedule is important to keep the site flowing, but it can constrict the posts. By choosing to follow the rule above, I’m hoping to focus more on content. Why not take the time to do a more detailed post instead of a quick review? I’ve already moved in that direction by not having ratings and avoiding plot summaries, but there still are boundaries keeping the pieces in a certain format. This leads me to my second solution:

Slow down the writing process.

It’s important to get my thoughts down quickly after watching a movie. However, that doesn’t mean that publishing should happen soon afterwards. There’s a term called Slow Blogging that refers to a choice to ride against the stream of constant information. It’s hardly a new idea; the New York Times wrote a story back in 2008. Even so, the approach seems just right in my current stage of life. I have two young girls and want to spend as much time with them as possible. I’ve also been working to get healthier, and cramming in a quick blog post around other activities rarely works. It diminishes the quality of my writing and leads to stress and disappointment. It’s time to create a better balance.

Skyfall, directed by Sam Mendes

When I think back to my favorite posts on this site, most of them are detailed essays that I spent weeks putting together. The short reviews barely register; it’s the more thoughtful pieces that stick in my mind. Doing a standard review of Skyfall was okay, but digging into it for several thousand words was much better. I’m not an expert on form, so it takes some time for visual themes and devices to make sense. Letting my mind ponder a movie can only help the blog. The number of posts may be smaller, but the results won’t feel like I’m checking a box. This leads to my final solution:

Diversify the content.

This evolution started earlier this year with a weekly look at Deadwood and several posts about Stargate Universe. I’ll keep doing marathons, but they’ll employ a looser format. The topics also may stray further into TV, books, and themed entertainment. The goal is to avoid falling into predictable patterns. I’m also trying to keep the subjects engaging for me. If I’m not excited to watch a movie or TV series, it’s going to carry over into the writing. It’s been so refreshing to blog about Survivor for Rob Cesternino’s site during the past two seasons. The community supporting RHAP loves the show, and connecting with them has been great. I’m engaged with the show, and writing never feels like work.

I want to develop a similar feeling about my writing for this site. I don’t have illusions that these choices will lead to more readers. There are so many blogs discussing films, and even having a small audience is inspiring. The current blogging environment is much different than where it was in March 2011 when I started the blog. Sites that were social centerpieces for many have become less influential. It’s just part of the ebb and flow of the Internet age. We’re all still figuring out what we can do, and new forms of content delivery keep changing the game. Professional critics are doing similar soul searching. It’s an exciting time for connecting with people around the globe. The challenge is ensuring that whatever we do is satisfying to each of us. I’m hopeful that these adjustments and others down the road will make this blog something that keeps inspiring me well into the future.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

2014 Blind Spots Series: Rosemary's Baby (1968)

There are few things creepier than an old apartment building that has seen better days. The clanking sounds of the elevator, gaudy interiors, and dim lighting offer the perfect recipe for a horror movie. Who visits these places and decides they’re the best options for home? The answer is Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse, at least in the mind of Roman Polanski. Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes play the couple who rent a large, yet strangely cold apartment in New York City. There are hints during their visit that all is not right, including a closet blocked by a dresser. Rosemary sees the charm behind the façade, and Guy only cares about his acting career. What could go wrong? The neighbors may be nosy, but that isn’t enough. The young couple is ready to start a family and enter the next stage of adulthood. All seems right on the surface, but it masks issues that will send them down a dark path.

This premise sets the stage for Polanski’s adaptation of Rosemary’s Baby, considered one of the classic horror films. It isn’t your standard genre picture and exists more in the realm of paranoid thrillers than what we’d call “horror”. Even so, supernatural elements play a key role, and everyone is set against Rosemary. Polanski creates an environment where every citizen seems dangerous and no one is trustworthy. A respected doctor may not be there to help her, and apparently harmless elderly neighbors have a sinister intent. This film was released a year before the tragic death of Polanski’s wife Sharon Tate, but it contains the fear that would only increase after that event. Rosemary trusts her husband and others, and there’s little she can do when the truth is revealed. The story involves the devil and witches, but the greatest betrayal isn’t supernatural.

Cassavetes is known for directing movies that feel authentic like Faces and A Woman Under the Influence. That background creates an interesting contrast with his phony role in this film. Guy sits inches from the TV and studies actors, but he understands nothing about real people. He strolls into the room like he’s playing a character and is uncomfortable interacting with his wife. It takes little for the evil Minnie and Roman Castavet (Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer) to convince him to betray Rosemary. He can claim it’s for their future, but it’s really all about Guy. He’s one of the truly vile narcissists that I’ve ever seen on screen, and there are no redeeming qualities. Anyone who’s willing to sell his wife and child to Satan is pure evil. His obsession with getting famous is a weakness that’s easily exploited, and Rosemary lets a lot go before recognizing his true nature.

It’s tricky to label Rosemary’s Baby as “scary” because it includes odd moments that are hard to take seriously. The dream sequence is creative and eerie, but it also generates a few laughs. Mia Farrow keeps it grounded with her confused reactions, and her paranoia helps it to avoid going off the rails. A simple moment of her standing in a phone booth is surprisingly tense because Farrow sells it. When a creepy-looking man stands behind her waiting for his turn, we’re certain he’s part of the conspiracy. Those scenes work much better than having a character yell “Satan lives!” with glee. There’s a B-movie charm to that moment, but it differs so dramatically from the more believable terror.

Much of the tension comes from the art direction, which brings a claustrophobic feeling to the apartment. It feels like the walls are designed to keep Rosemary from even moving. The outside world of the city seems even more dangerous despite the vast spaces. It’s a partial escape from the scrutiny, but how can you escape when everyone has been corrupted? Polanski takes his time and allows the action to play out over long takes. Rosemary grows sickly and pale, and there’s a fear of the unknown that isn’t just about the devil. The pregnancy itself is mysterious and possibly deadly, and Rosemary has nowhere turn for salvation. When a possible escape route appears, there’s a sense that it’s a futile endeavor. Polanski creates a world that offers little hope for a happy ending.

NBC aired a four-hour miniseries of Rosemary’s Baby back in May, and the reviews were not kind. It starred Zoe Saldana and moved the setting to Paris. I haven’t seen the remake and don’t have much interest. It would be impossible not to compare it to Polanski’s film, and I doubt it would improve. That’s not to say that the original is perfect, however. What sticks with me is the dire mood and pessimism about humanity’s future. Rosemary’s options are to comply or jump out the window. Despite some awkward moments, the cynicism still connects to our modern world. There’s a reason that Polanski’s films tend to hold up well; they spring from the mind of a guy who sees the dark world. In a similar way to Jake at the end of Chinatown, Rosemary must forget the horror and live with the devil.

This post is part of the 2014 Blind Spots Series. Check out the rest of this series here

Monday, October 20, 2014

Blockbusters Marathon: Edge of Tomorrow (2014)

Tom Cruise in Edge of Tomorrow

A quick glance at Tom Cruise’s recent projects might give the impression that his career is slumping. Jack Reacher, Oblivion, and Edge of Tomorrow all struggled to build a large audience in this country and didn’t match their reported budgets. Is the once bankable star losing his clout? Yes and no. It’s true that Cruise hasn’t been able to open a big movie in the U.S. without a connection to a larger franchise like the Mission Impossible series. That’s more of a symptom of current trends than anything else, however. Will Smith has also discovered that star power isn’t the currency it used to be. The worldwide box office is a different story, however. Oblivion more than doubled its domestic take in other countries, and Cruise is the main reason it sold well overseas. Franchise properties like Marvel have taken over here, but we’re just a modest part of the growing market around the world. 

I mention this topic because it helps to clarify the progression of Cruise’s career. He knows that his films will do well in other countries, so he can pursue unique projects. This isn’t more experimental fare like Magnolia, but it’s hardly mindless trash. Despite being a rich star with strangely young looks, Cruise conveys an everyman quality. The 52-year-old actor rolls out the winning smile in Edge of Tomorrow, but it’s undercut right from the start. Major William Cage is a cowardly military public affairs officer who sells the war yet avoids the conflict. His attempts to charm General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson) put him on the front lines for certain death. This never would have happened to Cole Trickle! It’s interesting that our hero is hardly the courageous sort who will do anything to save the world. He’d rather blackmail someone than go near the fight. There’s plenty of room for growth for Cage, and that keeps him from being a one-note dullard.

Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt in Edge of Tomorrow

The story opens with a montage of news that introduces us to the situation of the Mimics threatening Europe. The barrage of clips is a clever way to introduce the setting without spending too much time on it. We don’t need to know every detail of how the enemy works or what happened earlier. Guillermo del Toro employed a similar strategy with Pacific Rim, but this approach works even better in setting the stage. The action moves briskly and barely takes a breath during the 113-minute running time. Edge of Tomorrow is directed by Doug Liman, and he used a similar approach with The Bourne Identity. Both films pack a lot of action and humor and don’t cross the two-hour mark. It’s a pivotal skill that should have been employed in bloated movies like The Amazing Spider-man 2. Liman recognizes the need to dive into the material without an unnecessary build-up.

It takes very little to get me excited about time loop stories, especially those that use the Groundhog Day premise. If done well, they can offer an interesting combination of ingenuity and humor. When Cage finds himself repeatedly dying in the same battle, it’s a scenario with no easy answer. Many have made the comparison to playing a video game, and I can’t think of a better description. Cage is playing a game with no continues and must start over every time. It’s like having to start at the beginning of the maddening NES Castelvania level with the Grim Reaper. What keeps this movie from getting tired is the humor, which finds the fun in watching Cruise keep dying. When Cage tries to be an action hero and roll under a moving truck, it’s fitting that he’s run over in his first try. He might knock a fellow soldier out of harm’s way, but he gets killed instead. Despite the significant amounts of death and destruction, there’s an airy feeling that’s hard to get right. Bill Paxton adds to the fun as a patriotic sergeant who hams it up to just the right level.

Emily Blunt in Edge of Tomorrow, directed by Doug Liman

Another factor in the success is the work of Emily Blunt, who plays the film's real action superstar. Rita Vrataski has experienced a similar loop, and her no-nonsense attitude is just what Cage needs. She’s ready to pull out a gun and shoot Cage at a moment’s notice, and there’s great fun in watching her act so decisively. The highly entertaining training montage includes repeat examples of her penchant to shoot first and ask questions later. Blunt brought a similar weight to her role in Looper and is even stronger here as the ultimate warrior. The semi-love story doesn’t feel out of place because Cage has spent so much time with Vrataski. The hints at a similar partner during her loop also give them a unique connection. She understands what he’s experiencing and has developed the hardened shell to combat regrets about her failure to save the day. Cage is hardly the best guy to receive this gift, but it’s their only chance to avoid complete destruction.

Despite the fun approach, Edge of Tomorrow includes harrowing war footage that gives a believable portrait of the chaos. The Mimics appear out of nowhere, and death is only seconds away. The camera throws us inside the battle and rarely provides a warning before death arrives. Even with the futuristic weaponry, humans can do little against the agile foes. The creatures strike with tentacles and inflict major blows in a heartbeat. How can anyone defend against them? The best choice is to run, but that move offers little chance of survival. We rarely get a clear look at the Mimics, which adds to the mystery of the nearly unstoppable beings. How can you defeat an enemy that’s always many steps ahead of you? Of course, they also have a trump card for understanding human tactics.

The Alpha Mimic in Edge of Tomorrow

It’s unfortunate that Edge of Tomorrow didn’t find a larger audience. Most critics raved about it, but the unfortunate title and better-known competition led to the disappointing crowds. Warner Bros. emphasized the tagline “Live. Die. Repeat” to the cover to diminish the importance of the original title. The movie is based on the novel All You Need is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, and that title remains the best of the three options. I can understand why it wasn’t used by the studio, however. It sounds like the name of a cool genre movie instead of a summer blockbuster. Regardless of its initial results, this film should continue to build its reputation during the next few years. It’s hardly a throwaway blockbuster and delivers great entertainment that few big releases have matched this year.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Blockbusters Marathon - Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

It’s been interesting to watch how the second phase of Marvel films has moved into more distinctive genres. The first installments created the universe and introduced us to familiar super heroes like Thor, Captain America, and Iron Man. This world-building was important to the success of The Avengers because we knew the main characters. For Phase 2, the heroes could live more in their natural environments. Thor: The Dark World ventured into fantasy territory with dark elves, stone aliens, and more otherworldly beings. Iron Man 3 focused on Tony Stark and seemed bored with the robot fights. The game changer for Marvel this summer was Guardians of the Galaxy, which proved that you didn’t need household names to draw crowds. Tucked in the middle was a conspiracy thriller that cranked up the paranoia and packed a punch. Captain America: The Winter Soldier arrived in April and delivered an engaging mix of suspense and charm that exceeded the genre.

What’s surprising is how engaging Chris Evans is as Captain America. He brought heart to the role in The First Avenger, but I didn’t expect him to work this well. Evans’ career includes an early performance as the Human Torch in the unfortunate Fantastic Four films and as a man with special abilities in Push. He’s comfortable within a big action film and makes the stunts believable. He’s also grown into the kind of guy who can sell the smaller moments, particularly with Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow. They spend the second act on the run in a story that wouldn’t feel that out of place in a Hitchcock film. Thankfully, there’s no romance to sidetrack the plot. Evans makes it easy to root for the hero, who recognizes shady justifications from his own government. The bureaucrats have drawn the wrong conclusions from recent crises, and evil schemes lurk behind the scenes.

An obvious connection to ‘70s films like Three Days of the Condor and All the President’s Men is Robert Redford as Alexander Pierce. He brings immediate weight as a government official who doesn’t share the love for Captain America. It’s clear that he’s hiding something, and Redford’s scraggly face presents a guy who’s won his share of battles. Samuel Jackson gets a larger role as Nick Fury and thrives in it. Despite the lack of alien invaders or monsters in this film, you get the sense that the stakes are even higher. The menace comes from within our own systems, and fighting it may be impossible. I’ve yet to mention the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), an assassin who ensures the enemy’s success. He’s a flipside of the coin from Captain America and has become a deadly weapon through genetic enhancements. Their hand-to-hand fights are more down-to-earth and have added relevance because they were best friends during World War II.

This film helped to dramatically improve Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. That show was floundering creatively, and its connection with The Winter Soldier led to a stunning turnaround. Instead of making a few minor references, the series occurred simultaneously with the movie’s timeline, and it was a big surprise. I saw the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. episodes before this film, and it spoiled plot points yet failed to diminish my enjoyment. It’s been interesting to watch the show act as a sequel and continue the Hydra story line into its second season. Captain America may stop the villains in the movie, but the struggle is far from over. I love the idea of an ongoing story that drifts from movies to television and remains interesting. If there’s any way to get Chris Evans to drop onto the small screen, it would be worth the effort to maintain the momentum.

The Winter Soldier was directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, who’d made their name on shows like Community after directing Welcome to Collinwood and You, Me, and Dupree. They craft a world that has giant airships yet relies more on practical effects. A standout moment takes Captain America and Black Widow into an old S.H.I.E.L.D. bunker in New Jersey to face off with an evil computer. The set design recalls an analog era of giant computers hidden away in underground sites. It’s a clever moment that springs from an old spy serial with the consciousness of a villainous German doctor (Toby Jones) predicting their doom. The stakes are high, but there’s a sense of fun about this adventure. We aren’t living in Man of Steel or AS2 territory in this thriller. Our heroes are constantly on the run from all types of bad guys, and discovering whom to trust is a consistent challenge.

One friend is Sam Wilson, who’s revealed as the Falcon thanks to high-tech military weapons. Anthony Mackie seems more comfortable than Don Cheadle playing a sidekick in the comic book world. The cast looks energized by getting more material than staring at a green screen. It plays to the strengths of guys like Redford and Jackson to get long monologues as all is revealed. Marvel’s had a remarkable year, especially because many looked past The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy to The Avengers: Age of Ultron. It will take a a lot to surpass these films, which rank among the most entertaining releases of 2014. They’re different yet recall the best aspects of the summer movie season. Despite its April release, this film deserves that label and is one of the better recent blockbusters. I’m intrigued to see where Captain America will go in a third film.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Blockbusters Marathon: Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

Chris Pratt and Zoe Saldana in Guardians of the Galaxy.

It’s remarkable to note how expected Marvel’s success has become during the past five years. They bring out several new films a year, and the bar just keeps getting higher in terms of crowds. Thor: The Dark World is considered one of the weaker films creatively, yet it’s still earned more than $600 million worldwide. Can anything stop the Marvel juggernaut? One major hurdle arrived in August with the release of Guardians of the Galaxy. Although well known to comic book fans, its characters were not household names like Captain America and Iron Man. Gigantic hits rarely arrive this late in the summer; audiences are typically worn out after three months of explosions. Few were expecting Guardians to become the year's number one movie, but the hints were there if you dig a little deeper.

We’re living in a dreary world for blockbusters. Our super heroes do more brooding than cracking jokes, and decimating major cities is par for the course. The visual effects may be spectacular, but it’s hard to get too excited about this serious material. There are exceptions to this rule, however. Christopher Nolan found a way to keep his Batman films away from becoming too portentous. It takes quite a lot of skill to pull off that trick, however. What this summer needed was a space adventure! In retrospect, a romp across the galaxy with a ragtag group of misfits was a surefire fit. The Marvel cache brought people in the theaters, but it was the word of mouth that took this film to the stratosphere. The raves came from both audiences and critics, who recognized the skill behind the goofy antics.

I hate to diminish the skill that’s needed to pull off this type of adventure movie. There’s a fine line between delivering a fun, offbeat experience and a tonal misfire. The past few decades are filled with films that strove mightily to deliver this type of hybrid. The infamous Howard the Duck had clever gags but couldn’t sell the oddball narrative. I mention that film for several reasons, including a surprise appearance in a post-credits scene. Beyond that connection, it also couldn’t make us take Howard seriously. Director James Gunn has possible obstacles to bypass with Guardians, particularly the standout Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and a big tree named Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel). What’s refreshing is how easy it is to accept both in this universe. One reason may be the remarkable makeup effects work from David White, but good writing doesn’t hurt either.

Chris Pratt as Star Lord in Guardians of the Galaxy

Another challenge is star Chris Pratt not being a household name, but it just takes a few moments to sell him as the lead. He has such a relaxed presence on screen as Peter Quill (aka Star Lord) that we’ll follow him anywhere. He’s a bit of a mess as a Ravager yet finds a way to skirt out of dire situations. Abducted from Earth as a child, he’s tied to our planet through a cassette of old-school pop songs that plays constantly on his ship and Walkman. The choice to use tunes like Blue Swede’s “Hooked on a Feeling” and Elvin Bishop’s “Fooled Around and Feel in Love” is pivotal to setting the right mood. There’s a sense that anything can happen and we aren’t playing by the normal rules. When Quill uses “O-o-h Child” by Five Stairsteps and tries a dance contest to distract the stern villain Ronan (Lee Pace), we’re far from Man of Steel territory. That scene is hardly a throwaway and comes during the final fight to save the planet Xander, and it feels right despite the high stakes.

There are plenty of precursors to Guardians, with the most obvious one being the original Star Wars. The idea of outsiders coming together for a common goal springs from a much earlier time than that 1977 film, however. It’s a common theme of adventure stories yet feels fresh in the right hands. A more recent ally is Serenity, which has a similar mix of high stakes with one-liners and space action. That movie is more grounded and focused on humans, yet it shares the fun that’s often missing from big-budget material. It’s certainly no coincidence that Joss Whedon is so involved in the Marvel universe; The Avengers also shares this airy feeling to the action set pieces. Guardians takes that approach to a different level yet doesn’t fall into self-parody for the most part. The final act risks becoming too big to keep us engaged, but the characters still run the show. They’re involved in a classic heist with a ticking clock, and the fate of millions hangs in the balance.

Karen Gillan as Nebula in Guardians of the Galaxy.

Another key factor in the success is the look, which is filled with bright colors, giant ships, and inventive aliens. This is not the muted world of blues and greys from The Amazing Spider-man 2. There’s plenty of green screen work, yet it meshes well with the digital effects to deliver colorful and unique worlds. The costumes from Alexandra Byrne (Elizabeth, The Avengers) set up the good and evil characters just right. Lee Pace wears a massive black outfit that makes Ronan appear so imposing that he nearly dwarfs everyone beneath him. A nearly unrecognizable Karen Gillan (Amy Pond from Doctor Who) is all metal and darkness as the evil Nebula. Chris Pratt wears a bright maroon jacket as Quill that brings to mind the cool of Mal Reynolds and Han Solo. Zoe Saldana’s Gamora has a similar dark outfit to Nebula, yet her green skin and red hair differ so much from the grim look of the villains.

Gunn co-wrote Guardians with Nicole Perlman, though he’s going out of his way to dismiss her involvement. It’s impossible to know how much of her original script in on the screen, but it’s distressing to note how strongly Gunn’s making his case. Perlman’s the first female writer that’s been credited on a Marvel film, and the issues seem to be coming more from him than the studio. Would it really be that bad to just accept that both contributed to its success? Regardless of this murky situation, Gunn’s comic sense plays a key role in why the movie works. It’s filled with jokes, yet there’s a linear plot that connects together. We’re flying along for the ride with this mismatched group through a high-tech prison, a dangerous alien marketplace, and other locations before we reach the final battle.

Michael Rooker in Guardians of the Galaxy

It’s easy to imagine a studio chief wanting little to do with a film starring a raccoon, a tree, and other aliens. Bradley Cooper’s unrecognizable voice does wonders for Rocket Raccoon, but the real star is Groot. He’s a tree of few words, yet Vin Diesel finds ways to make each “I am Groot” delivery feel different. When you add in memorable parts for the massive Dave Bautista, Michael Rooker, John C. Reilly, and Benicio Del Toro, it’s more than a star vehicle. There’s even a random appearance from Glenn Close as a government official. Unlike some other superhero franchises (i.e., Batman v. Superman), I’m excited to see a sequel with these characters. That’s a rare feat and shows just how much fun is present within this film. It sidesteps the Marvel formula and creates something that feels unique and truly alive.

Friday, October 3, 2014

The World That I See: Reads and Listens #30

I’ve been shifting the attention of this blog during its fourth year. The marathon structure makes it easy to look back at classics, but I’ve been spending more time with recent films. I’m still a few months behind the conversation in most cases, yet it’s enjoyable to at least have a better gauge on the latest releases. There are still huge blind spots to check off the list, and I won’t be disregarding those landmarks from the masters. Even so, staying afloat with the wave of new films has been rewarding. Video on demand has made it easier to keep up, and I’m going to continue using it to keep on track. There’s no way to catch everything, but the gap isn’t as large as previous years. We’ll see if that trend continues as the big-time fall movies keep dropping as we head towards the end of the year.

Here are some interesting blogs and podcasts that are worth your time:

It seems like much of the goodwill that Lost generated during its six seasons died after the finale. The conversation focuses so much on how the show ended that it forgets the successes. That situation makes it even more refreshing to read Andy Greenwald’s excellent post for Grantland. His piece is more than just a look back at the successes of the groundbreaking series. Instead, he focuses on the lessons that broadcast networks should learn from the creative and commercial success of such a great show.

I’ve been a long-time Denzel Washington fan, but watching him spend time in clunkers like Safe House is frustrating. He’s getting more commercial success, yet the characters feel beneath his talent. In “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Denzel?” for Slate, Aisha Harris documents his progression towards more action vehicles that don’t make the best use of his talents. I agree that he’s still giving solid performances for the most part, but there’s a limit to how much you can do in The Equalizer. Harris offers some good ideas that might help Denzel to dig into more challenging roles in the near future.

The right use of pop music can elevate a good scene towards cinematic greatness. What’s surprising is how even a mediocre song can work so well in the right situation. The Dissolve has dug through many of the best examples for their list of the 50 greatest pop music moments in movies. It’s hard for me to put anything above “Tiny Dancer” in Almost Famous, but I can’t argue with their top pick. There’s a nice mix of the expected choices along with some that I don’t know or wouldn’t have predicted. You can waste a lot of time digging through all these classic moments.

I’ve been a fan of film critic Karina Longworth since her time on the SpoutBlog, a site that’s long gone. She recently appeared on The Cinephiliacs to discuss a wide range of topics, including her recent books on Meryl Streep and Al Pacino. She’s also started the podcast You Must Remember This, and it’s been receiving rave reviews. I still need to check out that show, but I doubt you can go wrong if you’re interested in the Hollywood history.

Linda Holmes made waves last year when she called out the sexism on Survivor in her great piece “The Tribe Is Broken: How Sexism is Silently Killing Survivor.” The KQED Pop blog has added to this conversation with a new post titled “Survivor: 14 Years of Problematic Depictions of Women”. It shows the different categories that women are placed into on the show in most seasons. There are exceptions to these rules, but it’s hard to argue that the show gives women a fair shake on the whole.

Emma Watson is becoming a strong voice for feminism.

Emma Watson has sidestepped any type casting and continues to tackle interesting roles. She’s also outspoken away from the screen and recently gave a fascinating speech about feminism. Unfortunately, those comments have made her a target from online trolls. Her recent speech at HeForShe 2014 is a fascinating statement that proclaims why feminism is good and important. She also describes how men are damaged by the lack of equality for women in our society. I’ve been a Watson fan because of her acting for a long time, but this brave speech makes her even more important beyond her characters.

Here’s an excerpt from her statements:

I’ve seen young men suffering from mental illness unable to ask for help for fear it would make them look less “macho”—in fact in the UK suicide is the biggest killer of men between 20-49; eclipsing road accidents, cancer and coronary heart disease. I’ve seen men made fragile and insecure by a distorted sense of what constitutes male success. Men don’t have the benefits of equality either. 

We don’t often talk about men being imprisoned by gender stereotypes but I can see that that they are and that when they are free, things will change for women as a natural consequence.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

2014 Blind Spots Series: Brokeback Mountain (2005)

Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal in Brokeback Mountain

What makes a film worthy to win Best Picture? It’s a silly question and essentially meaningless given the politics, but it comes to mind when thinking about Brokeback Mountain. The 2006 awards season pointed to an Oscar win for the Ang Lee film, and it was stunning to watch Crash bring home the prize. Given all the votes involved in choosing the winner, it’s problematic to read too much into the Academy’s choice. Regardless, their pick has not aged well and frequently appears on lists of the worst Best Picture winners. That may not be fair to Paul Haggis’ film, but it’s no stretch to say that nominees like Good Night, and Good Luck and Brokeback Mountain have had longer staying power. The fact that the latter was chosen for my Blind Spots series gives a clear indication of where it stands.

Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal star as cowboys that meet in 1963 and strike up a romance. Ennis and Jack are the stoic men of a different era and wouldn’t seem out of place in the Old West. They’re living in a modern culture that forces them to scrounge for odd jobs to make ends meet, however. Mainstream society isn’t ready to accept them as a couple. It’s a culture of fear where discovery can lead to more than ridicule. Being different can lead to a brutal death, and there’s little these guys can do. Ennis recognizes the situation and pulls so far within himself that he barely exists. His words come out as quiet grumbles, and there’s little joy to experience. Jack is more up front and willing to take chances, but that creates its own set of problems. Across the decades, they get married and have families. Daily life is misery, and only the short “fishing trips” give them the respite to keep living.

Michelle Williams as Alma in Brokeback Mountain

Lee’s film focuses on the absence of happiness and how it damages these men. They try to live a normal life by society’s standards, but memories of the brief meetings aren’t enough. Ennis marries Alma (Michelle Williams) and has two beautiful daughters, but the joys are few and far between. Instead of providing comfort, the kids are screaming obstacles. We don’t see the happy moments for the girls, and things only get worse once Alma discovers his secret. It’s frustrating to watch them try to confine to social norms because it just creates stress and anger. Ennis drinks too much and walks meekly through his home, and his demeanor only changes when Jack arrives. It’s a rough experience for him but just as bad for Alma, who quietly endures his lack of interest. Williams does a brilliant job showing the sadness that keeps growing until their inevitable divorce.

There’s less time spent with Jack and his wife Lureen (Anne Hathaway), but there are subtle hints of their downward spiral. Lureen is a force of nature in her first appearance as a rodeo rider and has one of those giant personalities that can’t be contained. There’s less excitement from her after they marry, and she’s reduced to sitting behind an adding machine and watching their money dwindle. It’s a sour life that isn’t in the same condition as Ennis’ marriage but is hardly thrilling. Adapted from a short story by Annie Proulx, the screenplay from Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana shows the negative impact on more than Jack and Ennis. They’re forced to try and adapt, and it just leads to pain for everyone.

Jake Gyllenhaal in Brokeback Mountain, directed by Ang Lee

Brokeback Mountain was filmed in Alberta, and the incredible scenery creates a classic feel. Ennis and Jack can be themselves in these isolated spots, though staying there forever is a fading dream. These shots contrast sharply with the constrictive moments at home. We feel trapped inside the houses right along with the characters. The camera moves closer and gives the impression that the walls are closing in around them. The final scene at Ennis’ trailer makes it feel like he’s living inside a small box. The wide-open spaces of nature may be right outside, but he remains within the cramped home. The Oscar-winning score from Gustavo Santaolalla (Babel) plays in the background as Ennis recalls happier times. The promise of freedom is still there, but it’s been lost along with his friend.