Thursday, March 24, 2011

Hollywood: The Commander Pirate

The movie business - as much as it has always been a business, and as much as it has always stolen from other properties (books, comics, other movies) - seems to continually grow more inert and cannibalistic each year. As summer approaches more sequels, remakes, reboots, and adaptations enter the fray each year. And though, this "old is new" filmmaking strategy is really nothing new, it may seem overwhelming just because of the lack of alternate fare to balance the scales these days.

"The Day the Movies Died", a recent article in GQ by Mark Harris articulates the depth of this "retreads only" trend perfectly. Harris laments the fact that the studios are so paralyzed by the size of their investments that even a refreshingly heirless blockbuster like Inception provides no motivation for innovation.

Most hilariously though, Harris meticulously outlines what Hollywood has on tap for 2011 and 2012. The absurdity is staggering:

Four adaptations of comic books. One prequel to an adaptation of a comic book. One sequel to a sequel to a movie based on a toy. One sequel to a sequel to a sequel to a movie based on an amusement-park ride. One prequel to a remake. Two sequels to cartoons. One sequel to a comedy. An adaptation of a children's book. An adaptation of a Saturday-morning cartoon. One sequel with a 4 in the title. Two sequels with a 5 in the title. One sequel that, if it were inclined to use numbers, would have to have a 7 1/2 in the title.1
An adaptation of a comic book. A reboot of an adaptation of a comic book. A sequel to a sequel to an adaptation of a comic book. A sequel to a reboot of an adaptation of a TV show. A sequel to a sequel to a reboot of an adaptation of a comic book. A sequel to a cartoon. A sequel to a sequel to a cartoon. A sequel to a sequel to a sequel to a cartoon. A sequel to a sequel to a sequel to a sequel to a movie based on a young-adult novel.2

1. Captain America, Cowboys & Aliens, Green Lantern, and Thor; X-Men: First Class; Transformers 3; Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides; Rise of the Apes; Cars 2 and Kung Fu Panda 2; The Hangover Part II; Winnie the Pooh; The Smurfs in 3D; Spy Kids 4; Fast Five and Final Destination 5; Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2.

2. The Avengers; Spider-Man (3D); Men in Black 3 (3D); Star Trek untitled; Batman 3; Monsters, Inc. 2; Madagascar 3; Ice Age: Continental Drift in 3D; The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part 2.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

What Were The Best Movies of 2010?

This is the fourth year in a row I've tried to come up with a list of my ten favorite movies, and it seems like each year it takes me longer to figure it out.

Looking at the final list, the common thread seems to be that all these movies surprised me in some kind of way. From 10 on down, these films impressed or prodded me in ways I didn't expect. And I guess if a movie doesn't excite or stimulate, then what's the point...?

So without further rationalization, here are the best/most surprising movies of 2010!

Honorable Mentions: Get Low (d. Aaron Schneider) / TRON: Legacy (d. Joseph Kosinski) / Another Year (d. Mike Leigh) / Never Let Me Go (d. Mark Romanek) / Mother (d. Bong Joon-Ho)

10) The Other Guys (d. Adam McKay / w. Adam McKay, Chris Henchy)

The best of the recent rash of action-comedies, The Other Guys has a political bent to go with its hilarity. It goes on too long, but there are enough surprising moments to raise it above the usual studio comedy fare - including one of the best death sequences ever in a cop movie. trailer / buy

9) The Eclipse (d. Conor McPherson / w. Conor McPherson, Billy Roche)

I'm a sucker for movies that don't stick to any one genre or set of cinematic rules or expectations. The Eclipse does horror, romance, and family drama simultaneously and each crisscrossing thread only strengthens the previous stitch. And with all this going on, it still manages to be a bit frightening. clip / buy

8) The Wild Hunt (d. Alexandre Franchi / w. Mark Antony Krupa, Franchi)

Walk into a movie theater with nothing to hope for and sometimes you're rewarded with wit, action, terror and pathos. Nope, not often, but sometimes. This was very much the case with this LARP takeoff, which revels in pulling the rug up from under the audience more than once. trailer / buy

7) Kick-Ass (d. Matthew Vaughn / w. Jane Goldman, Vaughn)

A comic book movie that remixes and plays with comic conventions – something that's turning into a genre of all its own. 20 years from now, I'd love to see Kick-Ass sandwiched on a triple bill with Spider-Man and A History Of Violence.

trailer / buy

6) The Ghost Writer (d. Roman Polanski / w. Robert Harris, Polanski)

This was a staggering surprise for me since I'm not much of a fan of Polanski or the film's actors. But boy, did I love me some of this old-fashioned thrilla. A heavy atmosphere and dripping in tension; a proper "movie" that Hitchcock and the Cahiers-ists could be proud of. trailer / buy

5) Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (d. Edgar Wright / w. Michael Bacall, Wright)

This comic strip flick is chocked-full of tricks and quirks, but somehow nothing seems like a gimmick. It's as about as refreshing a movie as a comic book nerd from Toronto could ask for. trailer / buy

4) The Fighter (d. David O. Russell / w. Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, Eric Johnson)

A drama that is unafraid to be hilarious and over-the-top, but at the same time subdued and mechanically precise. Usually these "inspirational" bio flicks are a bore, but The Fighter is nearly everything except boring. alternate trailer / buy

3) The Social Network (d. David Fincher / w. Aaron Sorkin)

Oozing with style, Fincher and Sorkin prove that a film can be more than its subject. Sure, Zuckerberg's story is fascinating, but who would've thought Facebook's cacophony of conformity would lead to a movie this resonant. clip / buy

2) Inception (d./w. Christopher Nolan)

A mind-bending blockbuster-auteur film, of which we get so few of. Chris Nolan's universe completes itself in this unendingly cool and spectacular dream diorama. trailer / buy

1) Marwencol (d. Jeff Malmberg)

After watching this movie, I had the rare urge to jump up for a standing ovation. It's an intimate and unforgettable documentary that makes all the right decisions in telling a story that could've easily been trampled all over. trailer / buy

Thanks for reading, and if you think this list is bullshit, check out my past lists for more injustices and omissions: 2009 / 2008 / 2007

Monday, March 21, 2011

How To Drink A Pancake

Whether you call it a Pancake Milkshake or Hot Cake Mix Drink or a Pancake Essence Beverage, it really doesn't matter. I just want a sip.

If you live in Japan, it's probably available in a vending machine near you (and if you live somewhere else, like Oslo or Edmonton - you can order it here: Best served warm.

Take that Aunt Jemima!

Thursday, March 03, 2011

The Arbor: Not Your Average Documentary

"Unoriginal". The be-all end-all pejorative when criticizing a movie. Usually movie critics and jilted viewers reserve this bile for Hollywood re-runs and genre re-hashes. But perhaps the most "unoriginal" genre of all usually escapes unscathed - documentary.

For every documentary film that does something "original" with the genre, there are hundreds that just recycle the same interview, archive, and re-enactment techniques ad infinitum. Don't be fooled though, there's more than one way to handle non-fiction.

The Arbor is not one of these cookie-cutter docs. Directed by Clio Barnard, this film has style and guile to spare in its approaches to non-fiction representation. The film tells the story of the late English playwright Andrea Dunbar and the grave reverberations of her work and life in her children.

The film starts with this card: “This is a true story filmed with actors lip-syncing to the voices of the people whose story it tells."

And this technique of having actors sync-act to pre-recorded interviews isn't the only representation strategy at play in The Arbor. Alongside that and a variety of other techniques, strewn throughout the film are a different set of actors performing scenes from Andrea Dunbar's most famous play - also titled "The Arbor" - in the neighborhood her life and work were set in, which you guessed it, is the Arbor (in Bradford, England). And maybe the coolest part of all this, as this play within the movie unfolds, local people and members of Andrea's family look on as the real-life audience.

Yes, as The Arbor reminds us, we can expect more from documentaries. Non-fiction films can be held up to aesthetic standards just as fiction films are. Substance still leads, but style can follow.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

I Am Not a Gadget (Yet)

I just started reading Jaron Lanier's You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, and it's been instantaneously off-putting and refreshing through the first couple chapters.

Lanier argues for new, more humanistic tech design that unlocks us from the often arbitrary designs of software, the web, etc, that can seem so inevitable and natural. He offers a fairly pessimistic view of things so far, but with good reason.

Early on, he lists some "things you can do to be a person instead of a source of fragments to be exploited by others".

> Don’t post anonymously unless you really might be in danger.
> If you put effort into Wikipedia articles, put even more effort into using your personal voice and expression
outside of the wiki to help attract people who don't yet realize that they are interested in the topics you contributed to.
> Create a website that expresses something about who you are that won’t fit into the template available to you on a social networking site.

> Post a video once in a while that took you one hundred times more time to create than it takes to view.

> Write a blog post that took weeks of reflection before you heard the inner voice that needed to come out
> If you are twittering, innovate in order to find a way to describe your inner state instead of trivial external events, to avoid the creeping danger of believing that objectively described events define you, as they would define a machine.

That last one is especially challenging to me. I sort of love Twitter, but I consume 100x more tweets than I generate. Partially because I try to avoid those trivial external events, but if I'm going to continue to use it, I should figure out a way to actually use it.

I'm going to try to stick to these suggestions as I finish the book, and in the meantime I'm going to watch this video of the video game "Moondust", which Lanier designed in 1983.