Monday, November 28, 2011

My Effortless Brilliance and Troll Hunter

Lynn Shelton has caught my eye with this film. Anyone else seen anything else by her? I wasn't blown away by MEB, but I was moved. The setting for the film is absolutely perfect for its content. I don't know if this qualifies as mumblecore, but it seemed similar to me to other films in the category I've seen. It's basically about two male friends, one a semi-famous writer, reconnecting after a falling out. The writer--a city slicker through and through--tracks down his friend at his cabin in Washington and they spend a few days, along with a neighbor friend, talking and drinking and tracking cougars. There is tension between the two men and clearly incidents in the past that need to be discussed. But, in true stereotypical male fashion, none of this stuff gets discussed. Nevertheless, the relationship has healed somewhat by the end of the film, which leads you to believe there may be more to come. But even if there isn't, the moments they shared during those few days were significant for both of them.
Please don't read the summary of the film, however, and think you don't need to see it. First of all, the location is practically a character, it is so ever-present and obvious. Secondly, the dialogue, which is all improvised is sprinkled with humor, adding a counterbalance to the heaviness of the tension between the friends. I'd recommend this to all in film, but particularly Ben and Lisa.

I also saw Troll Hunter (on NWI), a really fun fake horror documentary in the vein of Blair Witch (but better, I think). It certainly is following a tradition established by BWP, continued by films like Cloverfield and Quarantine, but it stands on its own and adds to the genre as well. In this film, three college students working on a project start trailing a mysterious character who they believe to be a bear poacher. Turns out, however, it's not bear he's after, and very quickly the kids find themselves in over their heads in a reality they thought only existed in fairy tales. I was able to watch it with my wife and son as well, so it wasn't so scary that they couldn't enjoy it, but it had enough suspenseful monsteryness to satsify my horror lust. Also recommended. It's Norwegian, by the way, and frequently features the spectacular beauty of the landscape there.

Given this film and MEB, I've been noting how the use of location can add different textures to different films, even given the same type of scenery. Hey, here's a thought--can anybody else think of any movies where the setting really makes a difference in a film's success of failure? Meek's Cutoff is another good example of location as character. Also The New World (or anything by Malick, really). Are there other directors who are particularly good at using setting to tell their stories? Discuss.

Saturday, November 26, 2011


I wouldn't say that nostalgia is bad, and when I saw MiP I loved it. I still think it's a good film. I'm just saying that the nostalgia in Hugo is so much more pure and less self-involved than Woody's nostalgia. Part of it is children vs. adults--kids are less cynical to begin with and so have an advantage when it comes to being able to see the past with innocent and appreciative eyes. It's true that Wilson's character didn't stay in the past, but he also didn't completely face reality in the present, either. You don't solve all of your problems by running from one relationship to another. That part was actually the part of the film I felt was the weakest--I would have had a lot more respect for it if Wilson had just decided to be alone. I mean, he'd had this great revelation about his life--take some time and mull it over. Rediscover who you are and what you want. THEN go find someone to share it with. So he's acknowledged some realities but is still avoiding others. Otherwise your big revelation will have a smaller impact because you're not giving it time to sink in.

Hugo is Only Half Racist

Maybe Scorsese hates the French?
But seriously, it's funny that after re-watching Hunt for Red October with the fam last week (which holds up surprisingly well after 20 years, except for Connery's Scottish-Russian accent) I was thinking that movies these days, even mainstream ones, are less afraid of subtitles as they used to be. The lack of use of Russian in HFRO is fairly distracting and disappointing. It kept taking me out of the film. But it's a great story, and my son said it made an impression on him.
So of course I noticed the plentiful English accents in Paris in Hugo. Amazing that so many people were so fluent in English back then! I know it's because it's a kids' movie, and some of them can't read. And it really wasn't that bad. But it does take the viewer out of the film a bit.
Otherwise, it was a beautiful, brilliant film, nearly perfectly told. Has anyone else read the book? It, too, is fantastic (and a quick read). I wonder if my general knowledge of the plot helped me to be able to pay attention to other elements of the film more closely (something I sadly rarely experience since I'm so reluctant to watch a film more than once). It also made me less wary of the plot, since I knew how it was all going to end (though we'd read it awhile ago and I'd forgotten some key points).
Performances are all solid and thoroughly enjoyable. SBC as the inspector rides the line between kid-and-adult-friendly comedy and overdoing-it-slapstick skillfully, reining in the physical humor just as it's about to become too much. I love that his character is multi-dimensional as well; it's almost shocking when he reveals to us his own struggle to become who he is had similar origins to Hugo's. It's true that there are no true villains in this story; save that of war, which makes more than one appearance as a killjoy (the inspector's leg, Mortimer's character's brother, the death of imagination in a generation). I loved both the child actors' performances and was thoroughly pulled in and enchanted by both of them.
I disagree with those who say that the film is "about" film history and preservation. I think Jeff is more accurate when he says it's a story of connections lost and found. Think about how many orphans there are in the film, and how many of them end up with someone to love them (except the poor street urchin from earlier in the film). And not only orphans in the strictest sense of the word, but emotional orphans, like the fat man and Emily Mortimer. People who have suffered losses and disconnection. Because Scorsese is so skilled at what he does, his vast knowledge of film and film history informs and fleshes out that part of the story in a unique and lovely way. But the focus remains on reconnecting--and that includes us as an audience reconnecting to our film past, and connecting simultaneously with the characters because our past is the same is theirs. And again, because of his artistry, Scorsese is able to turn the film preservation aspect of the film into a subplot that makes several valid points but never distracts from the stories of its primary characters.
I found there to be few connections to Midnight in Paris, apart from location. I honestly didn't even think of it until Jeff and Chris mentioned it. Midnight in Paris feels like a selfish movie compared to Hugo. Midnight is about escaping while Hugo is about facing. The lesson learned at the end of Midnight turns the protagonist inward, while the lessons learned in Hugo turn him outward. John will love to hear me say this, but Hugo actually makes me like Midnight in Paris less. Nostalgia redirects away from but doesn't completely obscure the cynicism in Allen's film, but Hugo is devoid entirely of any kind of cynicism, even the subtle cynicism that appears in more children's films than Hollywood would like to admit--the cynicism of overkill.
I thought more often of The Dreamers in the context of Hugo. Both involved people connecting over a love for film, both inspired me to want to learn more about film history. Both resulted in their protagonists going outside of themselves and getting involved in the larger world. The big (and obvious) difference is that The Dreamers deals with innocence lost where Hugo embraces innocence and reinvigorates it with healing and imagination. Pitt's character's relationship with the brother and sister shows promise but ends up being a false connection that ultimately drives him out into the street, outside of his claustrophobic inner world, but still alone.
I appreciate Brandon's observations about the parallels between the film clips and actual events in the film. I noticed it in a back-of-my-mind kind of way, but thinking about it again it makes the film seems even more brilliant and clever.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Birth of a Nation is Only Half Racist

I'm quite behind in reading your posts. I'll confess that I feel less motivated when I haven't seen what everyone else has. BUT I watched Hugo tonight and am anxious to catch up so I can join the conversation for the first time in months! Hooray!
That said, I had to stop my catching up to say in an alarmed tone to Chris: You have the wrong idea about Birth of a Nation! The first half of the movie is actually a Civil War film that makes little to no racial commentary. It's the second half that's pretty much atrocious, and then not even the whole thing. But at that point you're invested in the characters and so sorting out your responses is more challenging. The reason to watch Birth of a Nation, however, is the cinematography, which was decades ahead of its time. It is definitely a masterpiece. A masterpiece with woefully misguided politics, but a masterpiece nonetheless.
As far as the stuff it's notorious for, it comes across more as a commentary on the times than a direct attack on my modern ethical sensibilities. At least to me. It's a treatise on the reasons Reconstruction failed (again, woefully misguided and utterly ignorant) which resulted in the disintegration of the traditional South, which Griffiths lamented and the loss of which permeates the second half. It's true that when I called my wife and son down to watch the courtroom scene, my son left before it ended, angry and upset. But that's because I made the mistake of showing it to them out of context. It's no less upsetting, but it becomes a part of a larger whole.
I don't know if I'm making any sense, but I'm tired of typing and retyping because I'm worried about coming across the wrong way. Just watch the damn thing, and see what you think for yourself.

Also, I didn't bother with the director's list because I've seen maybe one or two from a lot of them, if I've seen any at all. Here's my short list of directors whose work I've seen enough of to warrant rating them by preference (+) Favorite (-) Least Favorite (!) Underrated

Coen Brothers: Hudsucker Proxy (+), Intolerable Cruelty (-), Miller's Crossing (!)
Jarmusch: Mystery Train (+), Broken Flowers (-), Ghost Dog (!)
Gilliam: Brazil (+), Brothers Grimm (-), Tideland (!-woefully so)
Burton: Edward Scissorhands (+), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (-), Big Fish (!)
Allen: Love and Death (+), Melinda and Melinda (-), Scoop (!)
Scorcese: Taxi Driver (+), Gangs of New York (-), Bringing Out the Dead (!)
Kurosawa (I've only seen five): Seven Samurai (+)...well, I loved all of his that I've seen
Bergman (I've only seen six): Seventh Seal (+), Smiles of a Summer Night (!)...I've loved all I've seen
Spielberg: Schindler's List (+), Munich (-), Twilight Zone: The Movie (!)
Kubrick (I've only seen five): Full Metal Jacket (+), Eyes Wide Shut (-) anything of his underrated?
Tarantino: Kill Bill 1&2 (+), Sin City (-), Death Proof (!)
Cronenberg (seen six): Existenz (+), Spider (- liked it but didn't get it), Existenz (!)
Carpenter: The Thing (+), They Live (- I thought it was stupid and boring), Escape From NY (!)
Eastwood (seen six): Mystic River (+), Space Cowboys (-), A Perfect World (!)
Miyazaki: My Neighbor Totoro (+), Kiki's Delivery Service (!)...I loved all I've seen!

Okay, I guess there were more than I thought, but still... and they're mostly modern directors!

Back to catching up!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011


My schedule hasn't allowed me to watch many films lately, so it's not likely that I'll have watched many more by the time you post in depth about Meek's Cutoff. Post it soon, though! I thought it was a great movie and would love to read your thoughts/respones to my thoughts! I've been chomping at the bit for a two-and-a-half hour time block to watch Melancholia so I don't completely miss the discussion, but everyone's latest posts indicate that you're all done talking about it, so I guess there's no rush now. I does open at the Little on the 23rd; maybe I'll catch it then.
I've seen Kieslowski's color series and loved it, but it was many years ago. I watched them at Houghton, where my eyes were first opened to the world of quality film. I would say that White was my least favorite as well, but I cold no longer tell you why. The Decalogue has been on my list for ages; I don't know why I've never gotten around to it.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Freud's Cutoff

I've gone back a read as many of film club's Meek's Cutoff posts that I can find, and I have to say that I disagree with the assessment of Meek as a serpent. He never came across to me as being intentionally misleading. In fact, on more than one occasion, he defers to the judgment of others in the group. He presents himself with a lot of bravado, but the moment he's challenged, he backs down. Not like the Serpent of Scripture, always "seeking whom he may devour." I think that Meek is as lost as the rest of them. I've been playing with a theory that poses the entire wagon train as representing humankind's search for meaning. Different characters represent different parts of the psyche. I see Meek as the id, propelled by pride and instinct, but destined to be lost, regardless of its intention. Emily is the superego, seeking truth that places it outside of its comfort zone. Solomon is the ego, trying to reconcile the id and superego, focusing on the practicalities of the journey. The Indian is the Holy Spirit, or for those not inclined towards such specificity, the hope for salvation. But the way to salvation in the high desert is not something easily attained. It requires trust and patience and faith. It is often silent and doesn't explain itself. Sometimes it seems like it's not even all there. But in the end, humanity is led to the tree of life, which is actually the beginning of the real journey. And I wonder if the end of the film is not meant to represent that beginning of something--enlightenment, spiritual awareness, self awareness, salvation... The id's response is to cover for itself--"oh, we couldn't have avoided it, it was all planned out in the beginning, etc." It's fatalistic in its response, as it has to be, driven by its impulses. Emily looks for a long time at the Indian. She knows he's more than what he appears to be.
I wonder if the Genesis 3 reading in the beginning is meant really to refer to the end of the film, as opposed to what happens in between. I can't help but wonder if it's intentionally misleading, as if to challenge the audience to look beyond the obvious symbolisim to something deeper and more complex. Reichardt's having a little fun with us, and I love her for it.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Meek's Cutoff (stream of consciousness review)

It's every bit as good as everyone is saying. I found in it shades of Picnic at Hanging Rock, Waiting for Godot, Lifepod/Cube (essentially sci-fi remakes of Lifeboat, which I haven't yet seen) without the murderer, and (visually) Days of Heaven. I was amazed that the aspect ratio was so effective at conveying the large empty spaces. In fact, I wonder if the aspect ratio is somehow responsible for suggesting the ironically confining nature of the wide open spaces. I loved the sound editing. The rumble of the wagons was so often like thunder. Did anyone else besides me wonder if the Native American was mentally ill? Everyone knows someone like Meek, don't they? Some of the emigrants thought he was evil and leading them astray on purpose, but he seemed more to me like one of those people who doesn't know when and how to admit that they're wrong (or lost). That said, it's interesting to read that in the actual historical version, at least one person (Tetherow, actually) felt that Meek was succumbing too much to the whims of the people, and then they were criticizing him for it. Of course, the movie is very little like the historical account. From the little bit I know about the westward expansion, it was rare for so few wagons to travel together. Also, Meek brought a new wife along for the infamous journey.
Michelle Williams: wow, what a performance! I've seen a few of her films, but Incendiary, a much different role, was the only I recalled without looking it up. I loved Wendy and Lucy, but, you know, the brown hair threw me off and I didn't recognize her.
I knew it has a "what the heck" ending, but endings like that still throw you off, even if you're expecting them. I have a habit of watching the time elapsed on some movies (tense ones especially) to try to predict what's going to happen next. And when there were only 15 minutes left in the movie and they didn't seen anywhere close to any kind of resolution, I had a feeling we weren't going to get an easy ending.
Of course I thought of Tree of Life at the end--it was a literal connection, obviously, but I'd already had Malick in mind throughout the film due to the quiet and contemplative attention to detail. The end is also when I thought of Waiting for Godot (I'm referring to the play, by the way--I haven't seen any of the film adaptations).
The sense of foreboding without any obvious danger present was very real and effective--this is what reminded me of PAHR, one of my all-time favorite films (and overdue for another viewing), which also ends with a lot of unanswered questions. Any writer/director/cinematographer who is able to produce a sense of dread in the viewer when the sun is shining and there's not a cloud in sight (literally or figuratively) has a corner on my attention, and, in my opinion, has master an aspect of filmmaking that few have been able to master. I have a lot of respect for that.
I'm sure I would benefit from watching Meek's Cutoff again, but we'll see whether or not the new and unknown wins out against it (it usually does, sadly--when I see films again, it's almost always because I'm showing them to someone else). But it will be around for me to see when I'm ready, I'm sure. Unless the world ends in a cloud of yellow gas because there's no Green Lantern to save us.

I'm having a hard time catching up to all your blog posts because I'm so far behind--I haven't seen Drive, Cold Weather, or Melancholia yet. I don't want spoilers so I don't want to read your posts. And when it's not the latest new movie, you all go back to black-and-white where my knowledge, experience, and motivation is scant. Yes, there was that nice little horror foray around Halloween, but I was out of the country and missed it. And the Meek's Cutoff discussion was so long ago, I'm sure no one will be interested in discussing it anymore. Sigh.

I anxiously await John's insulting sarcastic response to my pathetic pity party.