Friday, November 30, 2012


In and of itself, Looper's a humdinger of a movie. It's an articulately, unabashedly cool submission to the sci-fi, time travel genre. Outside of itself, though, it's an equally exciting movie. It's writer/director Rian Johnson's third film, following Brick and The Brothers Bloom. Brick has settled nicely as a teen cult film, a high school gumshoe noir, also notable (along with Mysterious Skin) for inaugurating Joseph Gorden-Levitt's adult career. Johnson's sophomore effort, The Brothers Bloom, while not irredeemable, was a bit of a let down, feeling a little too tethered to the twee, postured conventions of Wes Anderson. (Go ahead and start looking for the tallest tree in town, kids: Anderson bugs the hell out of me.) Looper's a pretty magnificent recovery from that stumble: in its genre, but not always of it. Watching Looper, I'm reminded of Reservoir Dogs, Memento, Rushmore, and Pi. Johnson, in this well-worn genre, speaks clearly in his own voice, paying the debt of genre expectation and finding himself with a whole lot of walking-around money. This guy's totally worth making a Google Alert for.

The success of the movie itself has a lot to do with a rather simple but stalwart premise. In 2070, the mob gets rid of its chaff by sending them into the past (the present of the movie), where hired guns are waiting. In a society that has a severely polarized economy, being a hired gun, a Looper, is pretty lucrative. An inevitability of the job, however, is having to kill yourself when the mob's through with you in the future. That's the simple premise. The complication comes when Joe's (JG-L) future escapes. And that's about all I'll say. For all its sci-fi-ness, Looper is essentially a human story aided and amplified by computer effects, as opposed to most recent submissions to the genre, where effects are barely justified by human inclusion.

And while I've got you here, a quick word about Joseph Gordon-Levitt. This kid's at an awkward age. He's much like a young singer with a big, mature voice. He has the chops to play more mature roles, but I think he suffers from what I like to call Leonardo DiCaprio Syndrome. He's got boyish good looks, but the looks are just that: boyish. Look-wise, he's suited just fine for movies like 50/50 and 500 Days of Summer, but he always feels a bit wasted in these roles. At the same time, he felt too young, too on tippytoes in The Dark Night Rises and Inception. As far as I'm concerned, Looper is a perfect fit for this kid. His portrayal of a young, pursed-face Bruce Willis is seriously one of the more impressive performances I've seen. It's studied and subtle, and done so well in mood and mannerisms that the fake nose and eyeliner seem overwrought and unnecessary.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

How to Film Lumbering, Rancorous Meat

I don't know the numbers and don't care to whack this bush that is the Internet to spook them out, so let's just say that somewhere between a quarter and a half of movies that come out in North America are based on a book or published story or some other primary source. A quick survey of new and upcoming releases supports this lazy guesstimation: Midnight's Children, On The Road, Twilight, Jack Reacher, Life of Pi, Cloud Atlas. With the exception of Lee Child's and Stephanie Meyer's books, I've read and sometimes loved this list. Cloud Atlas and Life of Pi, by my reading, rely so much on their being texts (I won't elucidate this point for fear of ruining their fine payoffs) that it's frankly hard to image these being dis- and then recombobulated onto the big screen. And while I hear that both adaptations are real humdingers, I don't know if I'll ever get around to seeing them. 

His whole weird, stubborn life, that wonderful crank JD Salinger refused to let Hollywood get its meathooks into Catcher in the Rye. Part of this stalwart aversion is owing to a bad experience when his story "Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut" was turned into My Foolish Heart, but JD also maintained that his writing was unfilmable, unactable. This resistance story on its own has a tinge of pretension to it, but a sterling core can be found, I think, in Salinger's refusal to have Holden Caulfield pictured on any of the jacket art.
We get some idea of Holden's looks from the text--redheaded with a grey streak, mature-looking for his age, a backwards "people-shooting" hat--but otherwise, Holden's a bit of a ghost when I read him. He's animated feelings, opinions, and meanings. I think of Ignatius from John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces in about the same way. He's such a lumbering absurdity full-up with these rancourous  fusty opinions that it's somewhat difficult to picture him up and moving in a real world of meat and bone. But Hollywood's been threatening to make this movie since it won the Pulitzer, originally envisioning John Belushi in the role, and over the years I hear that Chris Farley, Will Ferrell, and Zach Galifianakis have been in talks to man this impossible man.

Watching a movie is a considerably passive act compared to the active challenge of reading. Books come with assembly required. Don't get me wrong: films at their best demand an astounding amount of work from the viewer, an ability to harmonize what you're being shown, how you're being shown it, what you're being told, and how you're being told it. While all good art requires participation to create meaning, books alone require the animating spark. Or maybe it's more like disposing of a body: the author gets the head, and it's up to you to get the feet (I'm doing my best not to drag Barthes into this...). Movies tend to drag away and bury the body; the viewer kinda keeps a look-out.

There's a famous story from the making of Alien. Originally, said alien was to appear prominently on screen but dailies revealed that a guy in black leotards would snap the suspension of disbelief. The fix was to barely show the titular alien, relegate the creature to shadows and peripheral blurs. It's rare that an imagined fear will be lesser than a shown one. I'm wondering if the same thing can be said about a deftly wrought literary character.

- Andrew

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Routinization of the Fantastic

Writing about the glut of special effects disaster movies at the millennium's ass, author David Foster Wallace pointed a damning finger at Terminator 2--or, simply, T2. DFW's view was that T2 ushered in and defined a new genre: Special Effects Porn. "'Porn' because, if you substitute F/X for intercourse, the parallels between the two genres become so obvious they're eerie. Just like hard-core cheapies, [Special Effects Pornos] aren't really 'movies' in the standard sense at all. What they really are is a half a dozen or so isolated, spectacular scenes--scenes comprising maybe twenty or thirty minutes of riveting, sensuous payoff--strung together via another sixty to ninety minutes of flat, dead, and often hilariously insipid narrative."

It's been twenty-one years since T2 blew my eight-year-old hair back. I was besotted with that movie, spent a few years afterwards obsessively drawing huge, mechanically nonsensical weapons and the T-100's mangled face. Maybe five years ago, in lieu of doing absolutely anything else, I watched the movie again. Apart from a few effervescent memories of being young and wowed, I couldn't stand T2, found it flat, dead, and often hilariously insipid. I got the same feeling from this summer's The Avengers and Dark Knight Rises. There might have been instances where I enjoyed myself, when the eight year old inside me got tickled (sorry, that sounded weird...), but on the whole I just didn't care. 

Maybe I've missed something, or maybe not seen the right movies, but I don't think anyone ever said the point of porn was to make its audience care.

I try not talk taste with people because in the end that's all it is. There's nothing snobbish about my not liking these movies; I just don't. I don't care much for Ethiopian food or Odd Future or Maru either. But I'm starting to wonder whether or not taste has anything to do with anything anymore. In the same gush of enthusiasm over some fight scene, I'll see a movie-goer roll their eyes over how corny whatever movie actually was. People enjoy all these movies--otherwise they wouldn't go--but less and less am I convinced that people actually like them.

Here's New Yorker movie critic David Denby in the introduction to his book, Do The Movies Have A Future? 
Moviegoers who first saw this stuff at ten may still love it. For those of us, however, who first experienced the startling beauties of the early CGI movies as adults, and were ravished by them, the omnipresent spectacle--it quickly moved into television shows and commercials--may often seem fatiguing, even brain-deadening. You can never get away from the stuff. The liberation of the fantastic has led, in less than twenty years, to the routinization of the fantastic, a set of convulsive tropes--crashes, flights, explosions, transformations--that now feel like busy blank patches on the screen. At this point, the fantastic is chasing human temperament and destiny--what we used to call drama--from the movies. The merely human has been transcended. And if the illusion of physical reality is unstable, the emotional framework of movies has changed, too, and for the worse. In time--a very short time--the fantastic, not the illusion of reality, may become the default mode of cinema.
Denby goes on to argue that this "default mode" and the business sense that propels it is in no certain terms destroying movies: "If movies mean less to people than they once did, it's because of something more central than changing leisure habits and simple-minded scripts. The language big movies are made in--the elements of shooting, editing, storytelling, and characterization--is disintegrating very rapidly and in ways that prevent the audience from feeling much of anything about what it sees. The creepiest part of this is that the distancing of the audience from its own natural responses is intentional, and the audience seems to like it that way. Or not know what it's missing."

Denby continues, "You leave the theater vibrating, but, a day later, you don't feel a thing; there's no after-image, no deeper imprint, just the memory of having been excited. The audience has been conditioned to find the absence of emotion pleasurable." Denby may as well be describing porno here.

This summer, because I needed to kill some time and sober up in the early afternoon, I paid actual money to sit through That's My Boy. Not once did I ever consider whether or not it was going to be good. And the filmmakers weren't trying for that--they were trying only to fill up an hour and forty minutes with things happening, I think. If I sit down and really cogitate, I might get furious at the thinness of the story and characters and the uselessness of the resolution, but getting mad at movies like that for those reasons seems to me like blowing up at your cat for not understanding the English you're screaming at it. I'm reminded of that parable of the man who keeps a snake for a pet. One day the snake bites him and the man's offended, asks his snake why it bit him. "Because I'm a snake," the snake explains. As viewers of shitty movies, we're kind of stuck: we can't get mad when a movie we knew was going to be shitty shakes out to be just as shitty as we thought it was going to be. So what are we left to feel? Nothing, I guess.

The Master's been playing at the Cinema for a few days now and it's so far been fairly divisive. People come out either scratching their heads or verbally ripping at the movie like it was some great gift that might have a bit too much wrapping on it. I've also heard "That was the best movie ever," or, on the other side of the coin, "That was the worst movie ever." For some, that's a lot of time and not an insignificant amount of money to spend on the worst movie ever. However, when the other option is to see a movie that inspires zero reaction and expects the same, I feel like the price is pretty slight. 

Too, I've heard from reliable sources that the internet is just chockablock with free smut.

- Andrew

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Clean Up Time, The Sequel: This Time It's Postered

I couldn't resist following up my last post with a sequel segue. The movie biz, or certainly Hollywood, loves a sequel, which then becomes a franchise.

And while we are currently entering another round of sequel/franchise siege, I thought it best to remind anyone living in or near Guelph that we have been cleaning up our storage space of old posters and are offering them for sale on Saturday, Nov. 24 from noon to 4:00 p.m. Stop by the cinema (and it may spill into the Greenroom/eBar) on the 24th and check out the deals. Whether you're looking for a favourite from recent years, a Xmas gift, or just Xmas wrapping paper (a very cool way to impress family and friends), the poster sale will be the place to check out on the 24th.


Friday, November 9, 2012

Seven Psychopaths

Honestly, it's hard to know what to make of Seven Psychopaths. Going by the trailer, the movie feels a little out of time, something I would have expected to come out in the late '90s, when the Tarantino effect was still being felt. The promised wit and quirk and panache and ensemble cast stands out in our current mainstream dichotomy of earnest violence and Superhero CGI.

Seven Psychopaths is about slick mugs who abduct the toy dogs of the rich for the reward money, and the oddball mayhem that ensues when they nab a Shih Tzu belonging to a particularly violent gangster. The roster includes Colin Ferrel, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, Christopher Walken, and Tom Waits. From the reports coming back on this one from the Star, Rolling Stone, the Herald, Huffpost, and Paste, it sounds like this film is the best kind of self-aware, and just good, clean, stylized, raunchy, violent fun.

Personally, this could be the worst movie ever and I'd still see it. I'd watch Tom Waits paint a fence; Christopher Walken rototill a garden.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Master

It isn't exactly apt to say that There Will Be Blood came out of nowhere. Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson made a quick and deserved reputation for himself with the sprawling films Boogie Nights and Magnolia, but that reputation had as much to do with his youth and perspicacity as it did with his talents. Both films, owing much to Scorsese and Altman, as stylizing and sweeping as they are, feel now more like verbs than nouns--they are sometimes more filmmaking than they are films. Punch-Drunk Love was somewhat overlooked, I think, because it seemed, in its tightness and atmosphere, an odd direction for Anderson to take. But really, it was something of a return to the director's first and under-appreciated effort, Hard Eight. All things considered, though, the leap Anderson made from his previous films to There Will Be Blood is at times, watching the movie, befuddling. There Will Be Blood is patient and contemplative and, ultimately, sublime (in the Romantic sense) in ways that make the previous films feel a little, well, twee.

The Master has been anticipated for a few years now, with nerds eager to see how Anderson would pull off a film about Scientology that is not about Scientology. The basics are these: Joaquin Phoenix exits the navy jangled and self-destructive and is corralled by a charismatic polymath and luminary and possible crackpot, played by the ever-doughy Philip Seymour Hoffman. The anticipation was answered by a film that is not as straightforward as the nerds and fans were hoping for. By all accounts, The Master is abstract, confounding, and beautiful--a seemingly amorphous thing corralled by stalwart performances.

While his stabs have heretofore been varied, Anderson's interests have been consistent, and those who might find The Master somewhat bewildering would do well to latch on to the filmmaker's prevalent themes. There is the constant struggle between parent and child, mentor and mentee, and the exploration of American upward mobility with wafts of the Icarus myth. On the surface, it might seem like Paul Thomas Anderson is becoming more complicated, but I think it could be argued that his ideas about the world and about filmmaking are coming into better focus as he understands that the story he has been trying to tell is more complicated than he may have first thought.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Clean up time and rotten tomatoes...

Last week I was cleaning up our rental garden space, a task I much enjoy. With or without the catchy John Lennon ditty ringing in my ears, I was struck by the number of rotten green tomatoes on the ground--a product of too-tightly-packed planting (my fault), a rainy autumn, and a frost the week before. But surrounded by the gorgeous quiet of the farm fields, my mind often wanders, and I found myself mulling over the November film program that was then just taking shape.

Believe me, I wouldn't use a segue this cheesy had it not occurred in my head, full of nature's silence and bird trills (not tweets), but I was reminded of the movie website, Rotten Tomatoes. I only visit the RT site occasionally, but with the November program taking shape, if only in my mind and the pencil-scrawled page, I thought I'd see what the site was saying about our choice of titles.

Well, don't I wish this was a grade school report card (unlike my childhood report cards saying, "Peter has fine grades but he is easily distracted and his clowning-around often disrupts the class"), since most of our November titles came back with Grade A ratings from the RT site. Perks of Being a Wallflower and The Master both received 86% "fresh" ratings (as does the returning Beasts of the Southern Wild),  Arbitrage and Seven Psychopaths were 85% and the returning titles Samsara (73%) and The Intouchables (76%) were quite respectable.

I have lots of films on my must-see list this month, but when it comes time to put the Dec program together, I think I'll walk through the fields around our garden, watch the winter clouds roll in, and only go looking for rotten tomatoes after the program is finished. It would feel like "peeking" and it's more fun to compare after the program is complete.

Hey, check out our film fruit, I hear it's quite fresh.


Saturday, November 3, 2012

The Perks Of Being An Adult Remembering Being A Teen

The idea of the teenager didn't much exist until after World War Two, but the plight of the years bookended by adolescence and adulthood have been the subject of popular culture since Rebel Without A Cause.

I didn't have a seminal, generation-defining movie. Growing up, my favorite John Hughes film was Home Alone. It wasn't until the end of high school that I saw The Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles, at which point any angst and alienation had been turned wry, weird, and black by Kurt Vonnegut. What I found in those Hughes movies was a burnished, eloquent, cool ennui--a romanticized version of the inarticulate travails I'd been through before. The troubled kids I grew up with were not especially well-spoken or good-looking. The most frustrating aspect of adolescence is the lack of experience, and the failure of your language to organize whatever morass you're slogging through.

From the soil of Hughes grew the chatty erudition of Dawson's Creek. Again, I was a little old for Dawson, and when I'd see the show in passing, the whip-smart rhetoric of these small-town teens seemed highly dubious. No one talked like that. Most people in their twenties couldn't string those lines together. The thing is, the kids that grew up after Dawson's Creek and the John Hughes canon, and Juno actually--to my old ear--talk in this highfalutin', slangy, irony-rich hybrid. Everyone now seems so much cooler, so much smarter than everyone was twenty years ago.

It's odd to think that a puffy, bespectacled thirty-four year old was behind the films that seemed to have articulated the garbled expressions of teen strife. Of course we were all teenagers once, and so long as that dirty bomb that is the pituitary gland ticks, the experience will be similar from generation to generation. In a way, I think it helps to have a stylized version of your ungainliness to refer and escape to in that period. However, I can't help but think that some voice-cracking yawp is being lost the more kids refer to an adult's idea of how their clumsy teen years should look and sound. The meat of those years is about finding your own voice, and I guess I worry about that voice being given instead of found. And I know that's totally a fusty, fuddy old worry to have.

- Andrew