Tuesday, December 25, 2012
Over the past few weeks, the internet has been abuzz with critics, pundits, and politicians considering the moral, ethical, and political implications in regard to the representation of violence – particularly torture – in Kathryn Bigelow’s highly acclaimed Zero Dark Thirty. Interest in the movie has grown in large part because of these discussions, almost making an actual analysis of the film itself a moot point. (I’ll still have something to say about Zero Dark Thirty once it opens locally in Columbus.) Not garnering the same amount of controversy prior to its release – aside from a breif dustup when director Spike Lee commented that he will not be seeing the film – is Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. Recalling both films now, I have to admit the outrage(ous) [responses] to the films feel somewhat backward. What I want to offer here is a bit polemical as to the reactions each film has received (again, leaving a direct critique of ZD30 for later) which stand as indicative of the relative merits of each film. That is, if Zero Dark Thirty has been, at the very least, a “conversation starter,” a lack of furor over Django Unchained reveals an utter lack of seriousness, the complete absence of even a veiled attempt at critical dialogue, in Tarantino’s blaxploitation-slavery-revenge epic.
Friday, December 21, 2012
Friday, December 14, 2012
"...Jackson’s unwillingness to streamline anything leaves The Hobbit feeling more like a special-effect sledgehammer set to automatic and left to bludgeon its audience for an interminable running time."
It’s a little strange writing a review of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit because anyone who has seen his Lord of the Rings trilogy (which is pretty much everyone) already knows exactly how this movie is going to look and operate. Of course, Jackson is using newer technology here – his choice to shoot in 3D 48 fps has been much discussed – and there are new adventures and creatures, but, at the same time, the color pallette, the swooping landscape shots, the near-identical score are all present. Even more than Lord of the Rings, the technology permits Jackson’s supreme indulgence with effects, here building an almost completely animated world in which the characters walk around, eat, drink, walk, run away, fall through things, fight things, and triumph.
Bilbo’s heroes journey is extremely familiar, but, of course, this isn’t the point at all. The narrative is merely a cardboard cutout for Jackson’s technical wizardry. The Hobbit nearly abandons its narrative every 15 minutes or so to take us into the world of a new creature – glimpses of spiders and dragon, the already familiar home of elves, rock monsters, orc armies, etc. Jackson desperately wants to create an entire world here, but a world not established by space but rather by number of small things in it. Given the film’s epic scale, it does seem a bit strange that, aside from the aforementioned helicopter shots, there is little spatial orientation, often shooting in close ups to reveal the “naturalism” of the creatures rather than establishing the dimensions in which the story takes place.
Still, this isn’t to say there is no excitement – there are several spectacular sequences – but Jackson’s unwillingness to streamline anything leaves The Hobbit feeling more like a special-effect sledgehammer set to automatic and left to bludgeon its audience for an interminable running time. More so, perhaps a credit to the 48 fps, the motion and color of the creatures is so fascinating and vivid (good thing!) that the main characters seem almost entirely out of place (bad thing!) Undoubtedly, there remains a tension between the effects and the actors, the technology and the narrative. That is, as the creatures become more “realistic,” the actors look more and more artificial. Indeed, if The Hobbit shows us anything, it’s that this fantasy stars a bunch of dudes playing dress up.
Grade: C+ Continue reading...
Monday, November 19, 2012
In what is surely the most welcome surprise of the cinematic year thus far, Rich Moore’s Wreck-It Ralph, the latest release from Disney Animation, ingeniously combines the central conceits of both animation and gaming into a thrilling and heartfelt animated film. Moreover, it does so with a regard to history as simultaneously an aesthetic and technological question. If Disney has lagged behind its younger brother Pixar in recent years, Wreck-It Ralph usefully shifts the dynamic back to the kind of risk-taking Disney once took and Pixar overtook before it began inundating itself with useless sequels alongside overconcentration on technique and naturalism, threatening to turn the form against itself and mutate into something “accomplished” yet hyperstatic (a la Peter Jackson). Thankfully, Moore (and co-writers Phil Johnston and Jennifer Lee) allows Wreck-It Ralph to ponder where it came from and where it will go next.
That this all works so well is in large part due to the delicate balancing act of Moore and his screenwriters. Wreck-It Ralph, a Donkey Kong like figure, is the villain of the arcade game Fix-It Felix. After 30 years on the job, Ralph, distressed by his bad guy status, goes on a mission to win a hero medal in order to be seen as a good guy and, thus, welcomed by the rest of the villagers of Fix-It Felix. Here, the rest of the games in the arcade stand-in as a networked world in which characters navigate through electric portals into other (sometimes newer) game spaces. The majority of the film takes place inside the game “Sugar Rush,” seemingly a Mario Kart version of Bratz. Here, a young girl, Vanellope, takes Ralph’s hero medal to cash in for a coveted spot in the Sugar Rush race. Vanellope, a character identified as a systematic glitch, has been banished from racing (thus the space of the actual game) by King Candy. Meanwhile, Fix-It Felix teams up with a Halo-esque female commander, Calhoun, to break into “Sugar Rush” and bring Ralph back before the arcade manager says game-over for the game, unplugging it from the network, leaving homeless characters wandering the portal.
Though this falls into a familiar story of outsider characters finding their place within their changing worlds, Wreck-It Ralph approaches this with a supreme tenderness as it slides between the worlds and the characters come to realize their outdatedness, their glitchy quirks, and their inability to assimilate with their coded, networked spaces. Making ongoing references to strictly defined game code as something to overcome, there remains a tension between the character’s desires and their technological constraints. Wreck-It Ralph doesn’t quite go all the way with its aesthetic – the old, 8-bit game characters are more natural inside their game space and, therein, more alike other characters than different. (This is something of a practical question, as it is unlikely anyone would respond to 8-bit, talking characters versus more natural ones, but it really would have been something if Moore and company would have tried and fully committed to the aesthetic question, actually allowing for the 8-bit world and the modern game world to collide. Can’t have it all...)
Friday, November 9, 2012
In some ways, this shift is precisely how Holy Motors functions as an ambiguous narrative – one which maintains investment, sincerity, and demands “belief” while at the same time explicitly directing itself toward its own detachment, its irony, its artificiality. These things are never certain, but its all part of the game, part of how culture marks time, part of how we live.
A beguiling hit at this year’s Cannes Festival, Leos Carax’s Holy Motors opens, somewhat unexpectedly, in Columbus today. An ever-playful, generous, and loving celebration of all things cinematic, Holy Motors verges, at the same time, on a mournful, melancholic death drive, which has uselessly dominated discussion of film’s transition to digital technologies. Its incorporation of images from early motion experiments, however, should indicate that this not a movie singularly about the death of celluloid. While it is unquestionably concerned with death, its constantly reshaping temporalities suggest an ongoing reformation – of the image, of the body, of life itself – through performance, recorded motion, and, thereby, cinema.
Yet, this is already much too academic and gets away from the joyful pleasure of watching a showcase for actor Denis Lavant. Starring as the shape-shifting Monsieur Oscar, Lavant gives the performance of the year, not just because he effectively plays so many roles, but because of the almost primal physicality invoked through each character. While the acts occurring during his “appointments” become increasingly violent as the film progresses, Lavant ceaselessly maintains an extreme energy with each characters, so much so that it comes as no surprise when the events spill over into purposefully flagrant excess. One appointment involving motion capture has been used to discuss Carax’s recognition of the shift from indexical film to binary 1s and 0s of digitally manipulated code; still, it has to be said (and seen) that this remains tied to a body, Lavant’s body, as he sways above, under, and around the body of his female partner. This extraordinarily physical dance is the marvel of the act which transposes itself onto another screen, in another mode, for another purpose. In some ways, this shift is precisely how Holy Motors functions as an ambiguous narrative – one which maintains investment, sincerity, and demands “belief” while at the same time explicitly directing itself toward its own detachment, its irony, its artificiality. These things are never certain, but its all part of the game, part of how culture marks time, part of how we live.
Going far beyond a bifurcated structure, Holy Motors uses Monsieur Oscar’s appointments as constant disruptions and narratival ruptures, which nonetheless become absorbed in the film’s “reality” as it plays out. Holy Motors has a kind of plasticity allowing it to expand into new places yet always retracting back into Lavant, into the body, into the film. Who were we? Where are we? Who will I be now? Who will I be next? Considering these questions and structure, Holy Motors follows up by Joe’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives and transports it into a different type of holy territory – one of flashing lights in the sky (or the back of a car), speaking to each other, waiting to take on a new, angelic, yet earthly forms. Indeed, if the final moments echo back to the beginning of Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life, then the circle Holy Motors makes isn’t a retread over well-worn surfaces, but an expansive tailspin into new riches. Amen.
Grade: A Continue reading...
Friday, September 14, 2012
Sunday, September 9, 2012
It isn’t all that surprising that Ole Bornedal’s The Possession is derivative. Exorcism movies all follow the formula set by The Exorcist, which undoubtedly remains the benchmark of the horror subgenre. Nonetheless, several recent films (The Unborn, Orphan) have found ways to blow open the category in relatively interesting, exciting ways. Unfortunately, The Possession is not one of those films – it starts too big, telegraphs nearly all its scares, and never breaks free from its box of horror movie cliches.
The Possession starts strongly enough. A creepy, wooden box sits on a shelf calling to an older woman. Soon, her mouth begins to bleed and, in true PG-13 fashion, she is barely seen being violently thrown around the room by a demonic spirit. (Nevermind why this spirit that feeds on children is attacking an old woman. Spirits have their reasons.) A short while later, a recently divorced father, Clyde (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), buys the box for his youngest daughter (an effective Natasha Calis) who has come with her sister Hannah on a weekend visit. In a new house among a developing neighborhood (although there are no neighbors in sight), Emily cracks open the box. Before long, her eyes become distant, her personality changes, her room fills with a swarm of giant moths, and her inner anger transfer to her father who she stabs in the hand with a fork.
Blame it on the divorce. The confusing thing here isn’t so much stylistic ineffectiveness – although Bornedal relies too heavily on audio crescendos punctuated by a single, deep, pounding piano key – but rather that this is all too much too soon. While the film spends time establishing the supposedly fraught relationship bewteen Clyde and his ex-wife Stephanie (Kyra Sedgwick) – Stephanie remains much too flirtacious and Clyde too attached for this to be heading anywhere other than reconciliation – some of the first things we see Emily do – sitting in the middle of her bed, staring in the distance in a room suddenly filled with angry moths – are far too extreme for the attempts at realism (“She’s acting out because you left us!”) that the script pitches. Instead, the parent’s indecision comes too slowly and becomes laughable, just as Clyde’s Google search discovery of Jewish exorcism and complete embracing of the theory comes too quickly. Similarly, too many moments build to family unrest or Emily seeming upset rather than the brooding violence and terror of her body being overtaken.
By the film’s third act, it is already out of steam. Despite the hilarious discovery of the spirit through an MRI (finally convincing Stephanie that something is wrong) and a pretty spooky culmination of the exorcism, The Possession never really clicks. Its overemphasis on family issues along with its lack of build and repetitive stylistic techniques have it land with an all to familiar thud.
Wednesday, August 29, 2012
Friday, July 20, 2012
Monday, July 2, 2012
by James Hansen
It would be easy to attack “visionary” director Timur Bekmambetov’s Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter for its gross historical implications – its trivialization of slavery, Gettysburg, not to mention Lincoln’s own personal matters (his relationship to Mary Todd, the death of his infant son, etc.) Glenn Kenny has gone so far as to claim “It constitutes a moral sin, if not an outright moral crime, and commits a grave insult to history.”
Fair enough. But perhaps what is most shocking about ALVH is its complete cinematic incompetency, even on the most basic level. It isn’t merely that the film bounds from vampire slaying to actual historical events, thereby leaving its own revisionism in the dust, but that the movements happen so quickly and so insignificantly, that they are constructed so sloppily and, frankly, embarrassingly, the film never reaches a high level of absurdity to allow for the pomposity of visually confusing fight scenes amongst a sudden fleet of crazed horses, a misbegotten invasion of a Louisiana plantation to save Lincoln’s African American companion (no matter the vampiric annihilation of seemingly hundreds of slaves), or nighttime raid of a railroad that methodically burns to the ground. Instead, ALVH hops, skips, and jumps over everything it sets up leaving a trail of emotional and narratival confusion. With storytelling this lazy and images this haphazard, the most baffling thing about ALVH isn’t its premise or its historical sins, but rather that a major studio ever let it out of an editing room. Continue reading...
Monday, February 6, 2012
by James Hansen
At this point, there isn’t much left to say about The Year in Movies 2011 Edition. It may have been a down year for Hollywood – at a year-end party, many in my local critics group, for instance, mistakenly characterized it as a bad year for movies because of this – but, looking at this list, it is hard to remember a year with so many masterpieces. (Credit to that same local critics group for awarding my best film of the year as the most overlooked. Deservedly so.) And, considering further the films that didn’t make this particular list, it seems safe to suggest that 2011 was actually quite miraculous. Ambitious films continue to be produced; even if they are locked away for years and arrive in a somewhat fractured condition.
Then again, it could be precisely this fractured impulse which drives many of the best movies being made today. Although many of these films arrive at this through different means, pristine, perfectly polished works evoking past eras and the Hollywood “ideal” seem of less and less interest. Instead, this movies on this list deal with a sort of brokenness and disunity, often operating not only on the level of narrative, but also holding a deeper relation to questions of art, artifice, form, and life. Perhaps this is what led this critic to dismiss several acclaimed efforts to restore the picture-perfectness of the past. This isn’t meant as an inherent rejection of nostalgia, but of how the past becomes filtered through movies into our present moment. The best films this year didn’t show a desperate longing to reunite with a golden age, but of the past’s ability – through certain fracture – to explode the current moment and bring to it a vibrancy of past moments, characterizations, and ideals.
For the sake of sanity, I have limited this list to feature films. In some ways, I already regret having done this. Significant short films continued to be made – largely in “avant-garde circles" – and they deserve further recognition. Having attended both Ann Arbor and Views in 2011, and becoming more and more enmeshed with experimental film as part of my program of study, I feel more equipped to say something about these works which still don’t get the attention they deserve. But I still have a difficult time judging hand-processed 16mm films and Season of the Witch. Because of this, I have also made a (shorter) list of best short films. The list is somewhat conflated given when I saw the films (some from Views 2010 – which I did not attend – premiered in Columbus in 2011; and then I attended Views 2011, so those are included as well). If this is confusing, I apologize.
On with the show...
James Hansen's Top 13 (Features)
1. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
2. House of Pleasures (Bertrand Bonello)
3. Margaret (Kenneth Lonergan)
4. A Dangerous Method (David Cronenberg)
5. The Pettifogger (Lewis Klahr)
6. Tree of Life (Terrence Malick)
7. Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami)
8. Make It New John (Duncan Campbell)
9. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Tomas Alfredson)
10. Mission Impossible 4: Ghost Protocol (Brad Bird)
11. Putty Hill (Matt Porterfield)
12. Drive (Nicolas Windig Refn)
13. Poetry (Lee Chang-dong)
Bertrand Bonello - House of Pleasures
Anna Paquin - Margaret (with apologies to everyone in House of Pleasures)
Michael Fassbender - A Dangerous Method (with apologies to Gary Oldman)
Midnight in Paris
Top 7 (Shorts)
1. These Hammers Don’t Hurt Us (Michael Robinson)*
2. Cry When It Happens (Laida Lertxundi)*
3. Slow Action (Ben Rivers)
4. Ricky (Janie Geiser)
5. Words of Mercury (Jerome Hiler)
6. The Return (Nathaniel Dorsky)
7. Trypps #7 (Badlands) (Ben Russell)
*I want to make specific reference to a wonderful program at the Wexner Center – "Look At Our Life Now" – which showed these films, as well as several others which have remained with me throughout the year. It was the best curated program of shorts I saw all year. Chris Stults and Dave Filipi (and anyone else involved) deserve an award for this, or at least some recognition. Take this as the latter. Continue reading...
Friday, January 13, 2012
“Cinema...appeases a certain sense of nostalgia that lies dormant in our hearts, nostalgia for countries never seen that will perhaps never be seen, but where it seems that we have already lived in a preceding life.” Fausto Martini, 1912
by James Hansen
In his book Eye of the Century, Francesco Casetti quotes Italian journalist Fausto Martini, who wrote the following in 1912: “Cinema...appeases a certain sense of nostalgia that lies dormant in our hearts, nostalgia for countries never seen that will perhaps never be seen, but where it seems that we have already lived in a preceding life.” Now, one hundred years later, cinema still presents us with this same does of nostalgia. From this, it could be argued that nostalgia itself is the cinematic (rather than merely photographic) condition. Without going too far into these issues – not to mention the significant changes brought on by a perhaps more contemporary condition in which irony and sincerity are a double-sided coin – it can be noted that many popular movies of 2011 provided heavy doses of nostalgia: The Help presented a dangerous nostalgia by overlooking its own preconditions; Hugo, the best and worst children’s movie about film preservation ever made, made a case for remembering histories and the enchantment of living within them; similarly, Midnight in Paris stumbled through its own enchantment with various time periods, ostensibly making a case for “the present,” as long as it involves a foreign country and beautiful companionship. The latter two films reflect Martini’s quotation – both Scorsese and Allen showcase the wonders of the past and suggest different alternatives for how those pasts cast be incorporated into the present. Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist further illustrates this nostalgiac tendency. However, unlike Scorsese or Allen, Hazanavicius offers little in the way of contemporary relevance. Rarely has a film ever been so autonomously nostalgiac; if ever there were a definition of nostalgia-for-nostalgia’s sake, The Artist is it.
Of course, this isn’t to say The Artist is without its pleasures. (And I imagine that some have no problem with the appeasing pleasantries of the nostalgia-for-nostalgia condition.) Starting in 1927, The Artist tells the story of George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a silent film star at the peak of his powers. With a trusty canine sidekick by his side, George is, at all moments, a performer, sometimes to the ire of his castmates and producers. Soon, he runs into Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), a cute, young girl with a sly smile. Before long, George’s producers are telling him about talkie pictures – the wave of the future! – to which George firmly resists. Almost overnight, old-timey George is released and the up-and-coming Peppy takes his place. (Have no fear: George has invested well enough to make a major motion picture completely independently and release it to theaters.)
Historical problems aside for the moment, Dujardin and Bejo are both very charming. Though several of the best scenes are drawn from other silents, they provides the scenes with a certain energy that isn’t built into the insipid screenplay. Dujardin won the award for Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival. He is in control of the film at every moment – and his period-based pantomime creates some genuinely smart and touching moments. Valentin’s nightmare sequence – in which interrupts his quietly controlled world – creates a visceral affect, signaling the true shock and radical change that sound brought to the center of movies.
At the same time, there is something missing at the heart of The Artist. Its final moments come off as cheap and easy. The much-discussed inclusion of Bernard Herrmann’s Vertigo score indicates not only a complete disregard for the period detail which supposedly define the film, but also an amateur, lack of control by the director and editor refusing fairly simple, logical parameters in order to flash their cinematic playfulness. Why make this a silent film at all? Similarly, the cheap thrills and laughs of the Oscar-hopeful dog ultimately ring false and completely vapid – both in a literal Lassie rescue and in a dumbfounding use of intertitles toward the end of the film. Ultimately, a place is found for our hero (thanks to the beautiful woman who he brought into the biz): The Artist pivots on simple-minded history – if only silent stars weren’t so stubborn and put on dancing shoes! – that ignores its own subject matter.
Unquestionably, there is something in The Artist’s (or any) transitional focus which could echo the current state of filmgoing, even if it’s merely in striving to replicate a similar experience which is being lost. Perhaps people will see The Artist who have never seen a silent film before and it will draw them into the silent film world (although, given its slow, rollout, limited release strategy, one has to wonder about its effectiveness.) But, in the end, The Artist reads silent films as pleasant, but cheap – simple-minded sight gags for the world filled with sound. The tide has turned. Put on your dancing shoes, get a dog, and a beautiful girl, or be left behind. Its seeming cheerfulness ends with a menacing grin. In looking back in the manner of nostalgia-for-nostalgia’s sake, The Artist unwittingly sees itself as an outmoded commodity – one with a history, and one without a future.