Thursday, January 15, 2015

Movies: I Saw A Lot of Them in 2014

I saw a lot of movies this year, and I really liked a lot of them.  Maybe I'm going soft in my old age.  In any event, here's a list of my faves in a vague sort of order.

Birdman                              Innovative vision
Snowpiercer                        Visceral gut punch
Boyhood                              Indie brilliance
Interstellar                          Epic grandeur
Alan Partridge                     Classic comedy
Jodorowsky’s Dune             Mad passion
Selma                                 Longest standing ovation I’ve seen in a theater

Big Eyes                              A subtler, more mature Burton
Gone Girl                             Hollywood at its most satisfying
Mr. Turner                          I love Mike Leigh
Force Majeure                     Swedish ski trip from hell
Obvious Child                      Fun indie with a bit of bite
Mood Indigo                       Gondry creates a wondrous and frightening world
Regarding Susan Sontag     Words matter
The Punk Singer                 Punk goodness
Chef                                    Sweet Indiewood bordering on cloying
Citizen Four                        Required viewing

We Are The Best                 Punk cuteness
Grand Budapest                  Wes Andersony
The Imitation Game             A bloodless war movie for braniacs

Los Angeles Plays Itself       Not as great as the hype promised, but well worth it
Life Itself                             Not as great as the hype promised, but well worth it

Trip to Italy                          Satisfying yet wanting a little more
Galapagos Affair                   Satisfying yet wanting a little more
Magic In The Moonlight       Satisfying yet wanting a little more
Whiplash                             Good, except when it wasn’t
Godzilla                                I like Godzilla movies and I liked this one

Frank                                  Great at times, not great at times
Ida                                      Great at times, not great at times

Edge of Tomorrow               Blockbuster that entertained

Still wanting to see: Nightcrawler, Babadook, 20,000 Nights On Earth, Wild, PK, Finding Vivian Maier, Land Ho!

Monday, December 29, 2014

My Two Cents about Big Eyes

I loved Big Eyes.  Dare I say this is Tim Burton at his subtlest and most mature?  Big Eyes is a stunning, subtle period piece.  Burton could have easily gone way over the top and turned this into a kitsch fest.  But he restrained himself, and this is good. Big Eyes, will definitely have a broader appeal than something like Ed Wood.  Don’t get me wrong, I loved Ed Wood, but Burton’s approach to Big Eyes will draw a bigger audience to the Walter and Margaret Keane story. Walter Keane came to fame in the 60s as the painter of sad forlorn girls with giant eyes.  As it turns out, the paintings had been painted by his wife Margaret, and he was taking all the credit.  Scoundrel! If the goal of Big Eyes is to help shine a light on the wrongs suffered by Margaret Keane, then this more mass appeal approach is the way to go. I heartily approve.

That's Not Funny, That's Sick by Ellin Stein

Just finished barreling through That’s Not Funny, That’s Sick, a history of The National Lampoon.  All told, it’s a fascinating read.  The National Lampoon sprung out of the college humor magazine, The Harvard Lampoon. College humor mags had been kicking around since the 20s, but as the 60s rolled along they were primed to take advantage of the 60s cultural zeitgesit.  The college humor magazine was a great format to poke fun at changing societal values.  Magazines like The Lampoon were in a great position to take the piss out of both sides of the cultural divide.  Juvenile, puerile, but intellectual, The Harvard Lampoon and its ilk spoke to a younger, increasingly cynical, anti-authoritarian generation. Recognizing that their generation’s worldview was not being expressed by other magazines, a group of Lampoon graduates decided to take The Harvard Lampoon national.

Anyone interested in comedy and satire in print, TV, and movies will find many points of entry here.  As The Lampoon gained its footing as a satire and parody mag, it also began producing stage productions and comedy albums.  People getting their start in various Lampoon endeavors include SNL stalwarts, Chevy Chase, John Belushi and Dan Akyroyd, SCTV lynchpins Joe Flaherty and Harold Ramis, directors Ivan Reitman, John Landis, and Christopher Guest, to name but a few.

For me, the book was most interesting when discussing how The Lampoon fit into the broader comedy movements of the 60s and 70s. The Lampoon isn’t seen in a vacuum. That’s Not Funny, That’s Sick looks at how The Lampoon related to other magazines like Mad and The Realist, and to comedy troupes like Second City, The Committee, The Credibility Gap, The Firesign Theater, and Monty Python.  Likewise, as The Lampoon embarks on video projects, we see how they fit in with more political video pioneers like TVTV.  If anything, I would have loved to see an even broader view of the comedy landscape.

The book also takes a long look at the early years of SNL and the careers of Chase and Belushi, in particular.  These were great sections of the book, but part of me felt like it was a little bit of a cheat.  Granted, Chase, Belushi, and SNL writers Michael O’Donoghue and Anne Beatts came through The Lampoon, and Donoghue and Beatts were absolutely central in both the development of The Lampoon and early SNL, but the book seems to veer away from The Lampoon and capitalize on the notoriety of its more popular, younger rival in SNL for long periods of a time. 

That’s Not Funny, That’s Sick does have its rough patches.  It often wanders away into contributors’ non-Lampoon projects for stretches, and it could also be tighter. It doesn’t always find the right balance of Lampoon history and in-depth descriptions of particular articles and issues.   Regardless, it charts a progression of art, politics, and culture from the early 60s through the early 80s, and does so through the lens of comedy movements and satire, shining a unique perspective on those eras.

Monday, December 15, 2014

112 Words about Peter Mattheissen's The Snow Leopard

I know so many people who love The Snow Leopard.  I’ve been meaning to read it for years.  Should I feel bad for not feeling the same way?  I finished it, but it was a bit of a slog for me.  Matthiessen recounts his travel to the Himalayas with zoologist George Schaller.  Matthiessen yearns to see the snow leopard.  Saunders is there to document the rutting habits of the blue sheep.  There is the outward journey and there is the inward journey.  Much discussion of Eastern Religions ensues.  It was interesting, yet not so engaging.  Yeti were discussed and I even found my mind wandering then.  That can’t be a good sign.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

A Post In Which I Defend Dave Grohl and Sonic Highways

Lots of backlash directed towards Dave Grohl’s Sonic Highways doc on HBO.  The complaints seem to be:  
a) The Foo Fighters suck. 
    b) Dave Grohl conflates his importance in rock history by placing himself next to   those more worthy of adoration (e.g. Paul McCartney, Joe Walsh, Rick Nielsen,  Buddy Guy).  

c) This documentary project is a nothing more than a cloying, self-serving attempt to sell records.

I can’t get behind the backlash.  

Though I’m not a fan of the Foo Fighters, I actually have a lot of respect for Grohl.  This is a guy who seems genuinely humbled by the success he has had.  He seems to have a clear sense of where he’s from and who were seminal influences in his life.  He seems genuinely interested in shining a light on and paying his respects to those who paved the way for his success.

What this means, is that you have a national show on HBO where a decent amount of time is spent talking about post-punk, hardcore, and the American underground scene of the mid-80s.  Why people from that scene feel a need to trash talk Grohl seems nothing short of bizarre.

I’ve only watched two episodes of the series so far, but the Chicago episode spends lots of time giving Steve Albini his props and showcasing the likes of Naked Raygun.  Let me say that again.  Naked Raygun!  Naked Raygun, a band that for all intents and purposes is a footnote in rock history, not only gets a ton of exposure on an HBO show, but they are afforded the same respect as blues legends like Buddy Guy and Muddy Waters.

So, why are we made at Dave Grohl? Because he’s successful?  Because he’s taken a different path over the last 20 years than a bunch of crusty old punks who didn’t have his success?  Whatever.  I don’t have a beef.  He’s making a doc about rock history and he’s doing it from the perspective of someone my age, who has a similar set of musical touchstones.  These types of big historical rock docs have always had too much of a boomer perspective for my likes, and I’m excited to see such an undertaking crystallized through a punk rock lens.

Is this doc just a fatuous sell-job for the new Foo Fighters record? Maybe.  But what do I care?  Selling records ain’t what it used to be. If this is Grohl’s way to stay relevant and move units, so be it.  Why get mad at an artists for trying a different approach to stay in the public eye.

Like I said, I’ve only seen two episodes so far.  Will they all be decent?  Who knows.  But I hear he jams with Joe Walsh at some point.  I can’t wait.  Ya dig!

Citizen Four

I’ve been fascinated by the Edward Snowden case since it broke in 2013. Snowden revealed a bevvy of NSA documents, showing the government’s far-reaching surveillance abilities.  Particularly disconcerting was the government’s ability to access phone records and internet communications. Snowden became privy to NSA documents while working for the consulting firm of Booz Hamilton. Disturbed by what he perceived as a government overstepping its bounds, Snowden turned whistleblower.  

Citizen Four, directed by Laura Poitras, documents the days leading up to Snowden’s revelations and the aftermath.  Snowden was not interested in publishing the documents WikiLeaks-style for fear that he would reveal info that would jeopardize legitimate intelligent operations and individuals involved in such operations.  Instead, Snowden contacts Poitras, whose documentary work he respected, Salon’s Glenn Greenwald, and The Guardian’s Ewan MacAskill.  Working as a team, they decide the best way to release the information.

Snowden is not only cognizant of the havoc his revelations will unleash, but also understands the personal risks.  Not only will he be cut-off from friends and family, but he’ll face treason charges under the auspices of the Espionage Act.  The film opens with Snowden’s cat and mouse courting of Poitras.  We see and hear a series of email exchanges.  Dribs and drabs of heavily encrypted information flow between the two.  Poitras is sucked in and the team assembles in Hong Kong, where Snowden has taken refuge, aware that Hong Kong is unlikely to extradite Snowden once his allegations are revealed.

This section of the film is fascinating.  The film’s subjects are strangers, undertaking a damning project, rife with danger.  Watching the group strategizing is a fascinating process.  Once the documents are leaked, Snowden is forced underground and his journey takes him from Hong Kong to Moscow.  From this point on we rarely see Snowden, most of his communication now coming in the form of encrypted emails. Snowden’s disappearance certainly has a chilling effect.  He’s at the center of the storm, yet is effectively silenced by his precarious political standing.  He’s granted asylum in Moscow, but that asylum seems tenuous at best. 

The Snowden story is fascinating on many levels.  As digital citizens, I think it’s important that we are aware of who has access to our communications. I think it’s important that we understand our conversations are not private.  We live in a digital age where we live so much of our lives on-line. I have a middle schooler. My son and his friends will live their entire lives sharing information on-line.  Their digital footprint will be huge.  What will these intrusions on privacy mean to them?  

One of the central concerns at the core of the case is whether we should be willing to give up some of our civil liberties for increased safety against terrorism. The film certainly addresses this, but if I had a complaint about the movie, it’s that due to the film’s vérité nature, Citizen Four is sometimes hard to read.  Clearly Poitras, along with Snowden, believe that the government’s surveillance and obfuscation of justice is detrimental to free speech, and that has far-reaching, negative implications.  That critique was clear to me, but I don’t know if that critique will hit home to those who might be skeptical to this line of thinking.  

Any filmmaker that takes on a controversial subject should be aware that their film has skeptics. Presumably you want to win over those skeptics, get them to change their opinions on a hot-button issue. Otherwise, you’re just preaching to the converted. Many people watching this doc are probably anti-Snowden, anti-whistleblower, and fear terrorist attacks to the point that they would be willing to give up a certain level of privacy to prevent future attacks.  I’m not sure Citizen Four’s approach is enough to get them to change their opinions.  I return to my middle-schooler.  He’s not doing anything treasonous on-line.  Why should he care if the government has access to his email?  What are they going to find out?  That he’s mad at his math teacher?  I walked into Citizen Four thinking that this film would need to be required viewing for any young person navigating today’s digital landscape.  But I’m not sure that your average teen would be able to fully understand the socio-political critique. I wanted Citizen Four to have the impact of An Inconvenient Truth.  Direct and chilling.  Citizen Four doesn’t quite deliver in that way.  That’s not how it’s designed, but I wish it had been.

Still, it’s a must see.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Birdman, Leviathan, The Big Screen

There’s nothing like seeing an amazing moving.  Nothing like sitting in a dark theater, immersed into another world.  Images, sounds and words, pushing you farther and farther back in your seat.  Or pulling you to the front of your seat.  Someone’s visions burning bright. Seeing that brilliance unfold before you.

On the other hand, there’s nothing more frustrating than seeing some mediocre piece of crap.  How many people did it take to make that?

Last week I saw two great films.  Two in one week, that’s pretty good.  Renews your faith in the cinema.

Birdman.  Brilliant.  The Writing. The Camerawork. The Acting. The Score.  A drum score!!!! Wow. Who would have thought of that?  The acting! Everyone is talking about Michael Keaton.  He’s great.  Deserving of all the praise. But how about Edward Norton? Steals the show. The camerawork is insane.  It’s no gimmick.  It creates a dizzying universe, a world spiraling out of control.  Camerawork that throws caution to the wind, necessitates fearless performances from the actors.   A universe where editing won’t save you or hide subpar moments.  The writing.  I was letting out the occasional belly laugh…while the rest of the audience remained silent.  So many great lines.  One of the best films ever about artistic ambition and artistic insecurity.  Mamet-esque. Altman-esque. PT Andersen-esque. Gilliam-esque.

I worry about a world without theaters.  A world where we only see movies on our tvs and our devices.  Some movies need a big screen, better allowing you to sink deep into the images.  On the small screen it’s too easy to get distracted, especially if the movie is slow or challenging.  In the theater, you’re not going anywhere.  You’re not checking your phone. You’re not logging onto IMDB to see who that bit player is, or what the running time of the movie is, or what the reviewers are saying.  You’re in the theater. You have no choice but to surrender. 

Which bring me to Leviathan.  A doc.  On a fishing boat. Poetic. Experimental. Vérité. No interviews.  Nary a word.  Just beautiful visuals. Abstract visuals. Very long shots. Very, very long shots. Long shots that are hard to read.  Water on the lens. Distorting the images.  Lots of sound.  An industrial score. A mechanical score.  Cold. Menacing.  Brutality on the sea.  A critique? A reflection of life as it is?  However you interpret it, I found it fascinating. Energetic. Daring.  Would I have lasted through the first shot, had I been watching it on tv, at home?  I’m not sure. But in the darkened theater, on the big screen, I was mesmerized.