Saturday, February 28, 2009

Pick the Critics of Tomorrow

As some of you know, I am teaching a course this term about the history and practice of American film reviews, in which my students have studied the criteria and vocabulary for film analysis and have scrutinized the evolving styles and bases of argument in reviews since the days of Vachel Lindsay and Carl Sandburg. After reading these reviews and watching a slew of the relevant movies, they have responded occasionally with essays about the reviews but also, more often, with their own reviews—imitating the styles or criteria of their predecessors while also hoping to cultivate something of their own voice.

Most recently, we have been reading several writers from the 1970s through the 1990s who place heavy emphasis on the politics of identity and representation on screen. For reasons best known to the students, and to James Baldwin, Molly Haskell, bell hooks, and Paul Rudnick, aka Libby Gelman-Waxner (whose styles they were invited to study and to mimic), the films eligible for response in their most recent assignments were Lady Sings the Blues, Dances with Wolves, Edward Scissorhands, and Pulp Fiction. As an additional wrinkle of this assignment, I asked the students to isolate a single sentence from their reviews that they would choose to represent or advertise the rest of the piece, as happens institutionally on Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic and in the pages of most urban newspapers as the films reach the end of their release cycles and the reviews shrink from essays to capsules to bite-sized M&Ms.

Here's where you come in! I'd like my students to have more responses than just my own, especially since they're working in a form that aspires to a large and diverse audience, so I solicit your feedback: Which two or three of the following sentences most tempts you to want to read the rest of the review? You can express your preference because the sentence is witty, thought-provoking, sophisticated... for any reason at all, really. If you'd like to clarify why you selected the sentences you did, please do so. I have grouped their sentences by film, but you don't have to do this in your responses: if your three favorite taglines are all from Edward Scissorhands reviews, for example, then vote that way. The reviews with the most votes will get an extra bump upward when I grade them.

You do not need to be a registered user of Blogger in order to vote; simply choose the Anonymous option from the Comments page, below the text window, and register your opinions that way.

Please limit your comments to expressions of enthusiasm. The point is to encourage good writing and reward interesting effort. If you absolutely feel the need to fire off a sling or an arrow, by all means, direct it toward any of my other reviews or posts on this blog or this site. I'm already mother-hennish about these students, but don't make me get full-on Lioness on their behalf. I know it's the Web, but act right, people!

So, without further ado: the contenders. Vote your hearts out, and encourage your friends to do the same! Any and all expressions of readerly enthusiasm will be warmly welcomed by me, and even more by the writers themselves.

Lady Sings the Blues

A Fan Favorite!
#1 "Yet the scenarios the filmmakers concoct in order to evoke audience pity make Billie into some kind of black 1930s version of Lindsay Lohan: a beautiful, talented girl whose ingratitude and irrationality make us view her less as a victim of society and more as a victim of stupidity."

#2 "[Billie] also goes through a duckling-to-swan transformation, only while mine included extensive dental work and an individualized diet/workout regime to plump up my curves, Billie's involves moving into the city and working as a prostitute."

Dances with Wolves

The Runaway Winner!
#3 "Dances with Wolves represents the Native American experience about as well as Julia Stiles captures the essence of urban blacks in Save the Last Dance; a scripted fantasy, made more for entertainment than truth."

Edward Scissorhands

#4 "Ironically, for a director who professes an affinity for freaks and geeks, Burton has no handle on how to create individualized subjective perspectives."

A Fan Favorite!
#5 "John Waters mastered the trash aesthetic; Tim Burton just trashed it."

#6 "Edward Scissorhands, Tim Burton's 1990 holiday fairy tale about an android getting a taste of suburban life, is a story about difference. But it's also a story about being into kinky boots, dog collars, and black leather."

#7 "Poor, sweet Edward Scissorhands ... considering your deafening silence and seeming incapability of uttering more than one word at a time, one would think your scissors weren't the real 'handicap'—rather, your tongue seems to be what is truly binding you to helplessness."

#8 "The movie attempts to critique society, but what is this society? Just imagine instead if we had Asians and blacks and Hispanics [on screen]; rich CEOs and poor families on social security; a mother with an autistic child; [one woman] abused and abandoned by her husband... poor Edward would hardly raise an eyebrow."

#9 "It's amusing that a complete freak can move from the outside to the inside, but that's the power of being new."

#10 "As Edward is rescued from his secluded castle and integrated into a non-specific but probably Californian suburban community, Burton uses him as the ultimate tabula rasa to test the values of the idyllic yet creepy white ideal."

#11 "The theme of acceptance is so well-trod that Burton has to give his protagonist scissorhands to bring anything new to the story."

#12 "Brought to life by the mechanical innocence of a pallid Johnny Depp and embellished with the whimsical humor of soft parody, the film manages to intertwine lighthearted fairytale with a resounding emotional depth—quite an achievement, given its incongruous premise and sometimes scattered storytelling."

#13 "But Scissorhands does not simply tell a story of a man who does not belong; it is more about the community among and upon which he exists, and furthermore, the viewers' acceptance of this story."

#14 "In many ways, the film is like a less confrontational companion piece to The Catcher in the Rye, a story that speaks to alienation, but even after rereading the book, it's still the alienation of an upper-middle-class white boy at a time when there were many others far worse off."

#15 "This film is a modern and twisted retelling of the Beauty and the Beast fairytale that teaches us that it may not be the Beast's physical deformity that scares us; rather, it is his ability to show us the evil in ourselves that we find so frightening."

Pulp Fiction

#16 "Jimmie's played by Quentin Tarantino, the film's director, who infuses the role with so much dorkiness you would think the film has a nerd-quota, and because no other character wants to help, he has to meet it on his own."

#17 "[The film] is about the uncomfortable silences, where a glimmer of humanity shines out from behind the thickened carapaces of people metamorphosed by the brutality of the inescapable world they inhabit."

#18 "Tarantino's bottom line seems to be that dollars let white people escape from reality with nostalgia, drugs, or a permanent vacation; the desire for money, however, binds black people to a never-ending quest for glowing briefcase after glowing briefcase."

A Fan Favorite!
#19 "It's crude, it is violent, it's witty, it's charismatic, and while it doesn't speak softly, it certainly carries a big stick."


Friday, February 27, 2009

TGIF with My New Personal Hero

This has not been the easiest week, but thank goodness it's going out on a high note. Times 100. A friend sent me the link to this video, and now, even though it has nothing to do with the customary provenances of this blog, I am heading into the weekend with a smile. Cheers, everybody! (And many thanks to the source and to the artist, Ely Kim.)


Tuesday, February 24, 2009

'Cause This Is Thriller, Thriller Night...

It's close to midnight... You see a sight that almost stops your heart...

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You Close Your Eyes...

...and hope that this is just imagination...

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Now Is the Time...

...for you and I to cuddle close together...

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You Try to Scream...

...but terror takes the sound before you make it....

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You Start to Freeze... horror looks you right between the eyes / you're paralyzed...

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So Let Me Hold You Tight...

...and share a / killer, diller, chiller, thriller - here toniiiight...

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Monday, February 16, 2009

200 Dates with Guys

After re-screening How Green Was My Valley as preparation for the next Best Pictures... installment, I decided to pop in the last Best Picture nominee from 1941 that I hadn't seen, the delightful and much-remade celestial comedy Here Comes Mr. Jordan. An even more ambitious and able director than Alexander Hall would have mined some more comic energy, I'm sure, from the second-tier players in the roles of the scheming wife, her lover-conspirator, the crooked boxing agent, etc. But as a tender, funny, consistent lark, obviously besotted with the fanciful conceits of its script but rarely weighed down by them, Here Comes Mr. Jordan is a pretty great ticket. Aware that handsomely puggish star Robert Montgomery had tried his hand at some interesting directorial experiments toward the end of the 1940s, I took a chance on his Tex-Mex neo-noir Ride the Pink Horse, which is about as inclined as you might expect to associate "Mexico" with fiestas, tequilas, crooks, shawls, and death. Yet for all that—and the film isn't nearly as exoticizing as it could be—Pink Horse succeeds excitingly at transplanting noir and gangster tropes into this unusual terrain, and Montgomery collaborates with legendary cinematographer Russell Metty to make frequently brilliant use of offscreen space, whether before, behind, or to either side of what's in the frame. And Thomas Gomez fully warrants his 1947 Best Supporting Actor nod as a corpulent carousel-operator (how's that for a character précis?) who becomes a key ally to the Montgomery character.

The happy accident of this double-header, besides yielding two solid entertainments and selling Montgomery as a limited but compelling Hollywood figure, is that I find myself on the eve of this year's Oscars at a symmetrically pleasing juncture: exactly 100 Best Actor nominees left to view after Montgomery, and 100 Best Supporting Actor nominees left after Gomez and Mr. Jordan's muggy but spryly appealing James Gleason. And no, "accident" isn't precisely the best word in this context. I'm into Oscar numerology, even when I have to force it a little. But for a site that tends to orbit obsessively around the gals, here's a nod to happy times ahead with a finite group of fellas. I'm hitting a campus screening of True Grit tomorrow, so this will quickly become dated information, but I'm excited to have so many Oliviers, Tracys, Mastroiannis, and Brandos left on my list, since I'm still resolving my feelings about these landmark figures. And for every outstanding Fanny and Wilson and Affairs of Cellini that I might have to push myself through, I have a San Francisco, a Serpico, an Under the Volcano, and a 'Round Midnight to get really psyched about.

Among the supporting blokes, I hold out the most hope for turns like Robert Mitchum's in The Story of G.I. Joe, Richard Widmark's in Kiss of Death, Richard Farnsworth's in Comes a Horseman, and Denzel Washington's in Cry Freedom, plus the nominated performances in such enticing projects as Four Daughters, Battleground, Seven Days in May, Marathon Man, and The Right Stuff. In the context of those glimmers on the horizon, who cares that I still have to deal with Mickey Rooney three more times?

I'm not going to type out a full list of my future itineraries, but by all means, fill out my picture of the field by telling me your favorite Actor and Supporting Actor nominees of years past. My most recent omissions are Depardieu and Harris in 1990 up top and David Paymer in Supporting in 1992, so err on the side of B.B.C. (Before Bill Clinton) as much as you can.

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Sunday, February 15, 2009

Oscar Predictions, aka Recipe for Failure

As disengaged as I've been, I oughta take a stab before the big day next weekend.

Should Win: Milk, for the fullness of its key characterizations, its prismatic yet guarded perspectives, and its expression of political fire and spirit as real, revivable, grassroots possibilities
Will Win: Slumdog Millionaire, because of its Oscarish sentimentality, its inclination to condescend just where it thinks it's paying tribute, and its ostentatious performance of Style

Should Win: Gus Van Sant, for the same reasons
Will Win: Danny Boyle, for the same reasons

Should Win: Anne Hathaway for digging so deeply and restlessly into her character without trapping herself into a single tone or an obvious arc
Will Win: Allow me to go on a limb, but Melissa Leo. Probably a boneheaded call, but the movie has clicked with Hollywood, it would be a great dark-horse story, it has a timely emphasis on poverty and bleak moral choices, and the performance is a strong piece of work by an actor who hasn't overshadowed this character with better stuff in the past

Should Win: I keep going back and forth between Mickey Rourke's phenomenal eloquence with a thick, hunkered-down character and Sean Penn's equal eloquence with such an uncharacteristically lively, joyfully charismatic part. It hurts me to pick either one, but I suppose I have to say Rourke, only because I never saw that 40 years of corporate back-history in Penn's characterization
Will Win: The same duel, but I'm going to resist the recent Rourke momentum and say Sean Penn, since the "Randy is Rourke" meme could easily backfire

Should Win: Marisa Tomei basically defines the job of giving your all to a character without over-doing it and without asking for the spotlight; she enlivens and deepens the film as much as Cruz and Davis do theirs, but with less obvious assistance from her script
Will Win: Viola Davis, since Doubt appears to have so many fans, and she's come across so winningly through the season

Should Win: Heath Ledger; for what it's worth, I'm in the camp that thinks this is his best performance
Will Win: Heath Ledger, for that reason as well as all the others

Should Win: I don't love any of these, as much as they all have flashes of glory or at least distinction; I'll take the consistency of Milk, finally, over the engaging but lopsided storytelling of WALL•E
Will Win: I really can't figure this out, but I'm guessing that the well-known lore of Milk's many aborted attempts will help put it over the top. Voters worried that Rourke may best Penn for Best Actor might look for some safe compensation here

Should Win: Moviegoers. We deserve richer, fresher, more consistent material than this. I'd be ticking the box next to The Reader if I had a ballot, but I'd be harrumphing about it
Will Win: Slumdog Millionaire, in a win that will confound the future even more than its other, "bigger" wins are likely to do.

Should Win: It's unfair of me to say, having only seen The Class and Waltz with Bashir, but The Class would be a well-above average victor for this category
Will Win: I only hear raves about Revanche, so I'm giving that one a squeaker victory over the two strong competitors I've seen

Should Win: WALL•E, and I wish he were going to be there to accept; I'd love to see him pack the trophy into his tummy. Maybe the PIXAR animators are scrambling even now to work that footage up.
Will Win: WALL•E, so their efforts won't be in vain

Should Win: Though I've only seen three of the entrants, I still feel comfortable singling out Trouble the Water
Will Win: I guess I'll take the safe bet and go with Man on Wire, but I feel like Encounters or Water could easily upset

Should Win: Chris Menges and Roger Deakins' ambiguously split duties on The Reader roughed up the story invaluably with cold, hard, confrontational lighting. But I forgot when I first posted this that The Dark Knight is also nominated, and it's hard to beat that one for powerfully composed, evocatively lit, and technologically ambitious lensing.
Will Win: As we learned again from Pan's Labyrinth, voters think "Cinematography" means exciting images, whether or not the lighting or framing is at the heart of what they're responding to. So, by that logic, Slumdog

Should Win: Elliot Graham's engaging blend of time-frames, perspectives, and diverse genres of footage in Milk
Will Win: The flashbacks, high-energy collages, and tense, game-show staredowns of Slumdog Millionaire

Should Win: The superhero sleekness and adumbrated reality of The Dark Knight
Will Win: The expensive sepia dollhousery of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (sorry, folks)

Should Win: Milk's mix of trendy peacockery and workaday outfits worn by people who don't think much about clothes
Will Win: The impressive finery The Duchess

Should Win: The soaring and diving crescendos and cackles of The Dark Knight
Will Win: The sonic splash of everyone's new favorite toy, Slumdog Millionaire

Should Win: Moviegoers: there are too many coattail-riding nominations by old pros to take this list seriously as the year's best, and we deserved better than we generally got in '08
Will Win: A.R. Rahman's subcontinental pastiche in Slumdog

Should Win: Bruce Springsteen, by a heavy margin, except he isn't nominated
Will Win: Slumdog's "Jai Ho"

Should Win: The evocative, film-carrying soundscape of WALL•E
Will Win: WALL•E, breaking the Slumdog sweep

Should Win: The Dark Knight, which honestly could have had sturdier work, but Iron Man looked chintzy at times and Benjamin Button just didn't convince me despite all the digital strain; plus, this guy's name is Nick Davis, so I will relish hearing it read out, except that...
Will Win: ...I assume the Benjamin Button team is going to scoop him

Should Win: I haven't seen the intriguing though largely carried-over character looks from Hellboy, but it's hard to imagine them being as instantly iconic as the reimagined Joker from The Dark Knight
Will Win: Benjamin Button botched the job here, too, but two studios are running heavy campaigns, and the work is so conspicuous it's bound for a consolation prize

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Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Love in Any Language

Still plowing through my personal awards categories. Wherever you're reading from, I hope you have access to these movies, and I hope you'll file some recommendations for other movies we should all be hunting down from around the world.

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Monday, February 02, 2009

For Once in My Life...

...I'm 100% with David Denby. And I have been since October, when I first saw Slumdog, so don't hound me about a "backlash." No backlash could possibly make up for the obscene, um, "frontlash" that this antic, tasteless, over-scored, poorly written and acted, structurally impossible movie has been enjoying. Winter '05 had a great Best Picture coronation and a soul-killing presidential inauguration. If you can only have one or the other, I'm obviously pro-'09, but still.


The Honor Roll

Well, I promised the full, revised listing in January, but I only needed a single-weekend extension. As any university professor can tell you, that's not too bad for the middle of Winter Quarter, especially when you're assembling bit by bit as a way to make it through the month. Thank God for inspirational objects! Not every link is working—no need to "Leave a Comment" when I haven't even written up the entries yet—but Version 3.0 of my Top 100 Films has been fully uploaded to my newly domain-transferred website, complete with luscious illustrations. To wit, my personal Top 10:

Aren't those pretty? Let's have a look at the bottom ten, too, since sometimes those lower echelons strike a more unexpected chord than the topmost stuff:

Lots more, 80 more to be precise, where those came from. And since I still haven't determined what kind of shindig I'll throw where you currently see "Text Here" on every individual link, feel free to toss out some suggestions. Conventional capsule reviews? Profiles of a favorite or pivotal sequence? I don't necessarily have the same personal connection to all of these titles that leads to the kind of garrulity you see in the Favorites (soon to be revived, via everyone's preferred Georgian-Israeli movie on the theme of delayed nuptials and dangerous liaisons). So, I'll have to hit the Top 100 write-ups from some different angle. Feast your eyes on these images, and then bend my ears with ideas.

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