Sunday, February 26, 2012

If I Were Picking the Prizes

I am not a fan of the Oscars. They're industry awards, and the movie industry doesn't interest me all that much. As artistic awards, they very seldom intersect with my tastes or interests - so I let them be. The show? I wouldn't watch it even if they were nominating the awards. I watched the year they gave Robert Altman a lifetime achievement award - that should hold me for a while...

On the other hand, they provide as good an excuse as any to post a list. I thought I'd occasionally posted category lists before - my favorite actors, directors, what have you, for the year - but the only one I can find was in 2006! I should have done this in January, but there you go. Works now. So here goes....

Lead Actor - this is one the Academy got this one totally wrong. Shannon and Fassbender are well above anyone else this year. The fact that neither was nominated is inexcusable, and all the excuse I need to ignore the whole affair.

Michael Shannon - Take Shelter
Michael Fassbender - in take your pick; Shame might have been his best performance, but I think he could have been nominated for three different performances last year...
George Clooney - The Descendants
Brendan Gleeson - The Guard

Lead Actress - another one where the award nominations bear no resemblance to my opinions:

Kirsten Dunst - Melancholia
Elizabeth Olson - Martha Marcy May Marlene
Mia Wasikowski - Jane Eyre
Michelle Williams - Meeks Cutoff
Kristen Wiig - Bridesmaids

Supporting Actor:

John Hawkes - Martha Marcy May Marlene
Kiefer Sutherland - Melancholia
Sasha Baron Cohen - Hugo
Albert Brooks - Drive
Mark Strong - Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Supporting Actress:

Charlotte Gainsbourgh - Melancholia
Melissa McCarthy - Bridesmaids
Carey Mulligan - Shame
Keira Knightley - A Dangerous Method (or is this a lead?)
Lucy Punch - Bad Teacher


Von Trier - Melancholia
Jeff Nichols - Take Shelter
Martin Scorsese - Hugo
Pedro Ammodovar - The Skin That I Live In
David Cronenberg - A Dangerous Method


Hugo - Robert Richardson
Tree of life - Emmanuel Lubezki
Restless - Harris Savides
The Skin I Live In - Jose Luis Alcaine
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy - Hoyte van Hoytema

Original Script:

Take Shelter
A Separation
Midnight in Paris

Adapted Script:

Dangerous Method
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Jane Eyre

Animated film:

Rango was outstanding, and even nominated! I hope it wins. Though half the regular nominees are as much animated as not - Hugo? did any of that exist anywhere outside a computer?

That's about right.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Friday Random Ten

Nothing fancy today - just 10 songs coughed up by iTunes:

1. TV on the Radio - Wear You Out
2. Blind Faith - Can't Find My Way Home
3. Melt-Banana - Cracked Plaster Cast
4. Isley Brothers - I Wanna Be With You
5. Devandra Banhart - Tit Smoking in the Temple of Artisan Mimicry
6. The 5 Royales - Think [another gem courtesy of Mojo - "James Brown's Funky SUmmer"]
7. Van Morrison - the Big Royalty Check [from "the Bang records contractual obligation sessions" - one of the great kissoffs in rock history, a bunch of improvised abuse for a record company he wanted out of.... you can read about it at WMFU's site... for all the bad history, though - this is a pretty catchy tune...]
8. Spirit - Girl in your Eye [one of the great and mostly forgotten bands of the 60s, Spirit...]
9. The Carpenters - Top of the World [not as good as the Shonen Knife cover, but still a great little song]
10. Modest Mouse - Lounge

I guess that was a rather eclectic playlist, in the end.. Video? TV on the Radio, probably the best band in existence just now, always works:

And - sweet Mary, Joseph and Jesus! here are the Carpenters, faking the country, with Karen on drums and in fine voice - playing at the white house for Tricky Dick and Willy Brandt!

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Cranes Are Flying

For this Sunday's screen shots, another great World War II film - Cranes are Flying, a Russian film from 1957. You can't really do justice to it with screen shots - it's one of the most extreme, and breathtaking, pieces of moving pictures you will find - the name refers to a poem the heroine recites, but it might just as well refer to the camerawork - the camera is flying, swooping, spinning, running, everything.... It's a wonder to behold.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Hugo and The Artist and neo-Silent Movies

Back in the 90s, there was a rash of films about, set in, imitating, what have you, the silent era. They seemed to be oriented toward the centennial of cinema - the trend kind of faded out after a while (other than the true believers, like Guy Maddin.) Last year, though, we got a couple new entries - The Artist and Hugo - pretty good films that are quite highly regarded - The Artist is even the favorite to win the Oscar! This doesn't seem to be a trend this time, just a coincidence of two films - though, you never know. We are, here in 2011 and 2012, in the midst of a technological shift more or less as profound as the coming of sound - we are pretty much at the point of the end of film itself... and this is running parallel to a number of other changes, that may or may not take over the artistic side of cinema - 3D, CGI, digital projection, the replacement of public film viewing with home viewing, shifts from physical home formats (DVD, Blu-ray etc.) to streaming - etc... All these changes create anxiety in the cinema world - and that anxiety tends to find its way into films. So - films about technological changes may well become a trend again.

The films in the 90s were, I say, oriented generally to the anniversary of cinema - many of them explicitly so: Lumiere and Company, A Trick of the Light, etc. , etc. They came in many forms, too. Some were about the early days of cinema: Chaplin, Shadow of the Vampire say; some were in the style of ancient films: Lumiere and Company, Train of Shadows; some were a bit of both: the Wenders film, or Forgotten Silver, or Makhmalbaf's Once Upon a Time, Cinema. However you want to classify Irma Vep, Freaks and Men, Shadow Magic - and that's not to mention filmmakers who adopted early cinema as their own style - Guy Maddin prominently. Hugo and The Artist would have fit in fairly well. They are different in some ways, but the differences would still land them somewhere on the continuum - Hugo as a thoroughly modern fiction film; The Artist as a pastiche of late silent, mainstream style, where the 90s films tended to emulate either primitive styles or art films, or to adopt a more explicitly historical (or mock-historical) tone. They'd have fit.

Still - I think Hugo has more in common with that run of films then the Artist does. Because it was a very explicitly cinephilic, self-conscious trend, films directly concerned with the history of films, the development of films, as art, as culture, as technology, often an explicit reenactment of that development. Experimental film has often worked by retracing the history of films, reclaiming abandoned techniques - and many of the 90s films I named followed the same path - many of the filmmakers (Maddin, Guerin, Makhmalbaf, etc.) work on the edges of experimental film anyway, and this is part of it. Hugo has that spirit. As does Scorsese - though he has not tended to be a particularly experimental filmmaker, most of his career, he has roots in the more adventurous parts of American film. And he is, as much as Assayas or Makhmalbaf or Maddin, a devoted cinephile, a historian of film. He brings all that to this film.

The story is this - Hugo is a boy living in a train station, living in the walls, minding the clocks and watching people. He also is a bit of a thief, especially from the old man who runs the toy shop in the station - but the old man catches him, confiscates his notebook, and sets the plot in motion. Truns out - Hugo has an automaton that his father found and was trying to fix, but his father is dead - but this is linked to the old man. The old man has a goddaughter who reads a lot, but (like Mohsen Makmalbaf or Paul Schrader, though for different reasons) is forbidden to go to the movies. She and Hugo soon are pals, and conspire - this might count as a spoiler, but the movie's been out long enough I don't feel any guilt about it - they soon discover that the old man is Georges Melies, filmmaking pioneer, and they set out to restore him to his art. Everything works out in the end - everyone is fixed, everything in its proper place - it's lovely and generous to all. The story itself is a bit disjointed at times, starting and stopping and switching directions and generally subordinated to the spectacle at every step - but that isn't much of a problem, really.

The spectacle, after all, is most of the point. It is wonderful to look at - I saw it in 2D first (since that was playing closest to home), later in 3D - it's the first real film I've seen in 3D, the first film I've cared about seeing in 3D. Even in 2D, it's lovely, with its eye popping colors and fine use of space. In 3D, it becomes more apparent that the primary subject of the film is smoke. Smoke in three dimensions, twisting in and out of spaces, filling the air. It's amazing, really. Scorsese is on his game here - he makes the 3D seem to matter - activating not just the whole screen, but the illusion of depth. There are some rather aggressive 3D images - things coming at you, dogs and people and the like - but the main use of 3D is to open out the space, away from you. Scorsese has always loved sending his camera into his spaces - all those tracks and steadicam shots people love - and here, he gets to indulge that to a fault, plunging into spaces - in a way that keeps opening out more spaces in front of you. You get the sense of behind things - it's very impressive. Though - to be sure - after a while - the showy way he sticks things in the front of the shot, to create those depth effects get a bit tiresome - and remind you, maybe, that that sort of thing works perfectly well in 2D, and is less distracting. But that's all right.

Meanwhile, Scorsese also gets to wallow in the magic of primitive cinema - reproducing the process of shooting those old films, working the films into his film. And that, I think, is the ultimate point of the film - it appropriates very old, primitive films as a way of championing another technical innovation, 3D. It's an apologia for special effects, and for the value of spectacle, and specifically, imaginative, imaginary spectacle, and technical trickery, over story, plot, etc. It makes that case - it is all those things - it makes a convincing case indeed.

Okay - that's Hugo. The Artist, meanwhile, is something different. As a film - it's enjoyable fluff about a silent film star who can't adjust to sound - he spends all his money making his own film, which bombs, and he sinks intio misery. All this is paralleled by the rise of an actress, who, in the end, saves him. That is, this is another variant on A Star is Born, this time with a happy ending (and the romance starting at the end.) It's charming enough, but it's a pretty thin storyline, and it sags a bit (a lot) in the middle - enough to make the Oscar talk all too understandable. The academy has a nose for mediocrity...

It's problems might not matter more if it had a bit more to say about the history, though. (Or vice versa - if the story were better, the lack of the kind of cinephilia Hugo has wouldn't be a problem.) Because it doesn't really do anything with the style - it's black and white, it's (sort of) silent - and so what? That isn't entirely fair - there are moments. There are the films in the film - most of them invented (though they do steal a bit of The Mark of Zorro at one point) - and, while nothing too spectacular, amusing, and, I have to admit, rather more interesting looking than the film we get to see. And there are a couple moments where the film actually uses sound - there is a dream sequence that is worth the price of admission, and indeed, works in precisely the way the best of those 90s neo-silents did. Exploring the effects of technology, playing with them, bringing the technology of film to the foreground. And - very welcome, because the truth is, the coming of sound was not a big feature in those 90s films - nor in Hugo - Maddin is the only one of the filmmakers I mentioned above who really dwells on that moment of change.... BUt unfortunately, that's about the end - Hazanavicius doesn't really pursue it.

And so - in the end, The Artist is just an imitation of an old style, without a strong critical element. That's part of it. You could also say, it's just less inventive, less surprising, not as good as Hugo. Never mind Tren de Sombras or Forgotten Silver or Heart of the World.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Another Lazy Friday

And again... I find myself much lazier than I want to be - so lacking any special inspiration, let's just play around in iTunes and YouTube, shall we?

1. White Stripes - Catch Hell Blues
2. PJ Harvey - Rid of Me
3. Simon Wickham-Smith & Richard Youngs - Lake
4. Interpol - Memory Serves
5. Mnor Threat - Filler
6. Girls at our Best! - Going Nowhere Fast
7. Radiohead - Sit Down, Stand Up (SNakes & Ladders)
8. Paul Revere and the Raiders - Just Like Me
9. Camper von Beethoven - Turqoise Jewelry
10. Saint Etienne - Hobart Pavement

Video? We need PJ:

And some old, rather blurry Camper van Beethoven:

And - a random (and very beautiful) Richard Youngs song:

Sunday, February 12, 2012

World War II In Films

I am taking a class again - at Harvard Extension - this one is called World War II Through Film and Literature - and is roughly what it says it is. The history of the war, covered in the context of films and books. We're three few weeks in - the first three films have been The Mortal Storm, The Winter War and Mrs. Miniver. The Winter War is the outlier there - a film about the war between Finland and the USSR in 1939-40, made for the 50th anniversary. It's an obscure episode in the war, not fitting with the dominant story - the Russians attacked Finland in a dispute over land (the Soviets wanted land, to help defend Liningrad, basically) - since Russia had signed the non-aggression pact with the Germans, the western allies flirted with jumping into the war on Finland's side... they didn't, and a couple years later, Finland rather rashly started this war up again, on the German's side... complicated. Anyway - the Soviets invaded, the Finns fought back, and for three months or so held off the infinitely stronger Soviets, in a gruesome bloodbath. The Russians just kept coming and the Finns mowed them down. It was 1916 all over again. In the end, the Russians punched through a couple places, enough to convince the Finns to take the Soviet offer of peace, though they were still holding most of their land. Anyway - the film is a grunt's eye view of this war, a Finnish unit in the trenches, fighting off the Soviets, day after day after day... It's brutal and unrelenting, and the film keeps you in the middle of it - but for all its harsh realism, it still manages to hit nearly every cliche in the book. Story and style - the training, the banter, the mix of characters, the home front, the girls, the wounded soldier gone home to find himself alienated, etc. - and the style, pulls out music and slow motion and sound design at the places where war movies always do those things.... It's a noble attempt to show war at its ugliest, but it doesn't quite seem to have the chops to do it.

The other two films are a different matter. The Mortal Storm is one of those films made between the start of the war in Europe and Pearl Harbor that started to take sides - while maybe trying to maintain some plausible deniability. It's about the opening period of Hitler's rule in Germany - Frank Morgan plays a college professor who everyone loves - but then Hitler is made chancellor and things go wrong. He is hounded from his job (the people who celebrated him before turn against him - including his own friends and family); Jimmy Stewart is another one - a pacifist, a liberal, and a horse doctor - who before long has to run away to Austria. Margaret Sullavan is in it too - Morgan's daughter, courted by Robert Young (of all people) in the role of a Nazi student... It is a Frank Borzage film - a handsome, rather gloriously overdetermined melodrama that ends as badly as one might expect. It's also a pretty decent account of the early years of the Nazi rule - showing the slow but inexorable logic of their extension of terror and persecution... It doesn't pull a lot of punches in this - though it's interesting which punches it does pull. No one mentions Jews - "non-Aryans" only; the film barely mentions Germany... It's interesting too that even at the end, when the pacifists are chased out of the country, murdered, shot down in cold blood and so on - they don't take up arms. This isn't quite Sergeant York.... I don't know how much of that is from the story and how much from the times - some of it must be from the times, as those American films tended to keep pushing closer to calling for war...

Finally, Mrs. Miniver. Like the Mortal Storm, this is a big, handsome MGM production, directed by one of the high end directors of the time - William Wyler this time. This is about the Miniver family, Clem and Kay, their three kids, especially son Vin, and the aristocratic girl he falls in love with. The film commences in the summer of 1939 - before long, England is at war. Vin joins the RAF, everyone else does whatever their duty happens to be - home guard, air raid wardens and whatnot - the film jumps ahead to the summer of 1940, and things happen. Dunkirk - the Battle of Britain - bombing raids - death from the sky... It was started before the US entered the war, but not finished until early 1942 - this led to certain scenes (especially the one with a German pilot) being amped up a bit. Though the main story would have been pretty straightforward pro-British more or less propaganda from the start. It's an interesting film - it's a handsome, impeccably made work, with a very strong script, and a few moments of truly magnificent filmmaking. The problem is - as consummate a work of art as it is, it is very polite, very MGM - with all the sense of stasis and self-congratulation that can entail. I'm not a fan of the style - it goes against me, even when the filmmaking is as good as this is. Somehow, even though it is made about the same time, at the same studio, in the same style, I much prefer The Mortal Storm - it seems - more at peace with its melodrama. I guess. All this tends to disappear as the film goes on - there are moments - the assembly of the Dunkirk fleet - the bomb shelter - most of the ending - that are filmmaking at its finest, on par with Lang or Hitchcock. Wyler is known for his love of deep spaces - and certainly, he uses space to great effect here.... But what's surprising is how much tension he milks out of the lack of space - the bomb shelter sequence, and the ending, are brilliant - using tight framings, sound, flickers and flashes of light - to make extremely powerful, stressful scenes.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Randomizer - Randomize!

Hello Friday again! Another random day - time's been tight lately - I am taking a class again - I hope to get some material out of it though, so - there may be some real content here in coming days! Could be. Anyway, it is Friday, thank the good lord, and thus time for a post of music.

1. A Ha - Take On Me
2. Preston School of Industry - Take a Stand
3. Bill Callahan - Eid Ma Clack Shaw
4. Mozart - Ah! del padre in periglio [Don Giovanni - hey! I got some cultha here and there!]
5. Come - Sad Eyes
6. Pink Floyd - Corporal Clegg
7. Ryan Adams - Sweet Black Magic
8. Yo la Tengo - If It's True
9. Gomez - Very Strange
10. Audioslave - What you are

Video? You know - in fact, A Ha can never come up on these random lists - it's the very first song that appear in iTunes, and it's where I click to start, to make sure that when the next song is random! fun fact! But today - there are North Koreans playing accordions to post:

And - why not? Here's the Mozart number that came up, from the Joseph Losey film:

And finally, somethign completely different - Pink Floyd in Belgium, in their early, very early, Dave Gilmour days.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Ben Gazzara

Another of American's great actors has died, Ben Gazzara. Like Peter Falk, he probably got his best movie roles from Cassavetes - though like Falk, he worked for many significant directors, had many juicy roles - and his presence always graced the film. He had a face - looking at The Killing of a Chinese Bookie for this, you notice how much of the film consists of shots of Gazzara listening - waiting - Cassavetes' tight framings and long dialogue scenes require something like that - he cuts between the speakers sometimes, but just as often, maybe more, he just holds on Gazzara, listening, looking around (trying to catch everything, like he's trying to spot where the next disaster is coming from)... That is a great film, and one that is profoundly dependent on the lead...

Friday, February 03, 2012

Musical Friday and Soul Train

Friday again, and another fairly simply random 10, but I want to add a note of goodbye to Don Cornelius - I don't remember Soul Train as clearly as I remember MIdnight Special, but in the 70s, any TV show with music - lots of music - was like manna... So - start with Marvin Gaye, a long segment chatting with Don and the audience, then singing "Let's Get It On" - yes indeed.

And? let's turn the randomizer over to Genius today, and start with Marvin Gaye....

1. Marvin Gaye - What's Goin' On
2. James Brown - It's a Man's Man's Man's World
3. The Isley Brothers - That Lady
4. Stevie Wonder - He's Misstra Know It All
5. Smokey Robinson and the Miracles - Tears of a Clown
6. The Temptations - Get Ready
7. Sly & The Family Stone - Hot Fun in the Summer Time
8. Prince and the Revolution - Purple Rain
9. Curtis Mayfield - (Don't Worry) If there's a Hell Below We're All Going to Go
10. Meters - Cissy Strut

And more Soul Train - here are the Isley Brothers:

And - though not the song on the genius list - Stevie Wonder...