The Roundup: May 21, 2014

Cinema

Things Crashing Into Other Things, Or My Superhero Movie Problem by Matt Zoller Seitz at RogerEbert.com

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I actually included this article as a “related” one last week, but there have been a number of intriguing responses to it this week, so I’m running them all together. To recap, Seitz argues that while current superhero movies have a number of interesting things going on in the characterization, dialogue and interpersonal interaction, they lose all interest as soon as the big action setpieces start, because they all look the same and are essentially just things crashing into other things. I don’t disagree with him, but as I stated last week, I’m inclined to enjoy the good parts and look past some of the bombast. Here are some other interesting responses. Tom Wainwright in The Atlantic tracks the superhero genre against other genres that Seitz applauds for having a wide range of originality, like the Western and the zombie film and points out that superhero films are basically in their infancy and it took some 30 years for Westerns and zombie films to get to the thoughtful poetics that Seitz seems to want. I think taking this kind of long historical viewpoint is really valuable, but Wainwright kind of does a hash job of it, failing to take into account the differences in the business from the studio era to now, and also displaying a fairly surface-level understanding of great genre films of the past. Derek Thompson has some similar problems with his co-Atlantic writer’s piece, highlighting especially the differences in production and exhibition that I mentioned above, and arguing that studios made more varied films when a) they weren’t so afraid of taking risks and b) they didn’t have such self-affirming data about what audiences wanted. With ballooning budgets and plummeting audience share, everything pulls toward the average. Christopher ZF at The Stake takes the next logical step and outlines a bunch of changes that studios could undertake to make superhero films better. This kind of thing is easy to say but much more difficult to do, even if the studios had an interest in making them better when they seem to be making money hand over fist with the current formula.

The good stuff is CGI-lite, or CGI free. Think of Cap just-friends-flirting with Black Widow or visiting a meeting for traumatized veterans in the second “Captain America,” or Andrew Garfield, one of the great screen criers, tearing up as Peter Parker contemplates his late parents or remembers a line from his sweetheart’s valedictory address or tells his Aunt May “I’m your boy, you’re my everything.” As a friend observed, the gap in artistic quality between the intimate human interactions and the large-scale action sequences in recent superhero flicks is so immense that they seem to have been made at different studios by different directors obeying different marching orders. The “ground rules” scene between Peter and Gwen in the new “Spider-Man” feels so sweetly alive—so much like a conversation that actual young lovers might have—that when you get to the end of this overstuffed and overlong blockbuster and have to suffer through yet another tediously unoriginal confrontation between Spidey and two, count ’em two, supervillains, then a climax that extorts cathartic tears instead of earning them, the effect is disorienting in the worst way.

Destroy All Monsters: I Don’t Need Movies to Be Good by Matt Brown at Twitchfilm

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Back in January, Matt Brown wrote a a post on his blog about the film Time After Time, and despite saying it was awful, he followed up saying “good is such a trivial element of whether or not I’m interested in a film. Time After Time is still something I am relentlessly happy to have in my life.” This really caught my eye, as I’m quickly coming to some similar conclusions, and I asked if he had expanded upon this concept of the near-irrelevance of “good” to his movie taste. Now he has! My thoughts on the matter have evolved a little differently than his (he focuses more on the subjectivity of the filmwatching experience, and I’m moving more toward non-evaluation in any form), but I’m very glad to have read his, and this last statement of the piece quoted below is pretty solid.

These are human works. Even the most mechanical among them is mechanical because humans made it that way; even the most painstakingly heartfelt, home-grown indie is a singing machine of working parts telling stories. They are so fascinating to watch, experience, think about. All the rules about how to do that are meaningless. How can anything as unique and frail and weird and human as a movie be “good” or “bad,” anyway? When was the last time you reviewed your best friend? How often do you roll over, kiss the love of your life good morning, and then publish a star rating out of five?

Mizoguchi: Secrets of the Exquisite Image by David Bordwell at Observations on Film Art

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There’s a Kenji Mizoguchi retro going on in New York right now, so there’s a bunch of posts about Mizoguchi – everything from he’s better than Ozu or Kurosawa (by Richard Brody) to he doesn’t fare as well as Ozu or Kurosawa (by Mike Hale). Cutting through all that is David Bordwell, who discusses a bit of why Mizoguchi seems to be forgotten next to his heavyweight contemporaries, but largely eschews comparative value judgements and focuses purely on what Mizoguchi did formally that makes him eminently worthy of watching and rewatching. I’m intrigued by the comparisons only because contrary to what is apparently popular opinion, it was Mizoguchi who first touched me of all Japanese filmmakers – I’d seen some Kurosawa and tried to watch some Ozu, but Mizoguchi’s Sansho the Bailiff was the first class-era Japanese film that floored me. I’ve regretfully not seen any more since then, but you can bet if I were in New York right now, I’d be doing my best to make it to as much of this retrospective as I could.

I can’t deny that Mizoguchi’s fluctuating reputation is due to more than availability. He is easier to admire, even to worship, than to love. His films, though visually sumptuous, can be somber and bleak. Often unremitting tales of suffering, they lack humor (though not irony). Ozu’s mix of poignancy and comedy is much easier to enjoy than Mizoguchi’s forbidding, near-tragic despair. Ozu is also a more rigorous stylist; his signature is in every frame. While Mizoguchi was no less distinctive, he was more pluralistic in his technique.

Regarding R.W. Fassbinder: A Letter to a Young Cinephile by Godfrey Cheshire at RogerEbert.com

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This article hit me where I live, because the paragraph quoted below? Could have been written directly to me (which is kind of the point of the letter format, right?) I’ve seen at least some of all the other filmmakers listed, but have never seen a single Fassbinder film, due to all the reasons Cheshire lays out later in the essay, especially the lack of a clear entry point. I’m going to take this post to heart and try to break the seal on Fassbinder sometime this year.

You’ve heard me call Rainer Werner Fassbinder the most important film director of the last half-century, and you’re not inclined to disagree or argue so much as you feel he’s still a bit beyond your ken. Like other dedicated, largely self-educated young cinephiles, you’ve done your due diligence on a host of great filmmakers, from Chaplin and Renoir to Godard, Mizoguchi and Kiarostami, learned enough about them and seen enough of their key works to form your own opinion. Fassbinder, though, remains a dark continent looming on the horizon, intriguing but largely “incognito,” as the old maps say.

Freeze Frame: West Side Story by Ryan McNeil at The Matinee

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When I mention how much more fulfilling I usually find it to write and read about classic film than contemporary film, Ryan often points out that his series looking at single frames of classic films garner the lowest views of anything on his blog. Well, I’m doing my part to change that! Freeze Frame is a great series, and Ryan always has indepth and interesting insights into the still he chooses and how it relates to the film as a whole, and to life itself. One of Ryan’s great strengths as a critic and writer is his ability to tie the films he’s watching to lived experience, and he does it equally as well with classics as with new releases. West Side Story is one of my favorite films, in part for its brilliant resetting of the Romeo & Juliet story (it’s better than the original, for my money), but also it’s just so well-made – look at the striking composition of every shot Ryan includes. It’s just gorgeous.

So here we have the embodiment of that moment of love-at-first-sight. The music has slowed, the lights have dimmed, time itself has slowed. Each feels as if they are floating, a thought that is echoed by their posture. They feel as though they’re somewhere off-planet, up amongst the stars as illustrated by the twinkling lights behind them. They haven’t said one word to one-another. Heck, they haven’t even touched one-another yet, and here they are in love. We can see it in their eyes, in the way their bodies mirror each-other, in the goofy grins they wear on their face. What’s more the couples around them are right on-board with them. The other dancers mimic their movements, as if the love is infectious.

Bombast: This Print Could Be Your Life by Nick Pinkerton at Film Comment

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This piece is a good deal more polemical than I would be in my love of 35mm film, but sometimes a good impassioned polemic is really fun to read, and this is. I do agree with the focus on an immersive experience, but I don’t think that’s necessarily tied to 35mm film in and of itself.

What I am talking about, however, is the preservation and fostering of the immersive experience. Because we are (allegedly) in the everything-available-all-the-time-always era, it behooves us to impose regulations on what and how we consume, or be reduced to a twitching mass of randomly firing synapses, numbly hopscotching between open tabs, marching through 1,001 Movies You Have to See Before You Die, skimming everything and understanding nothing, all while Spotify burbles a half-noticed stream of Best New Music in the background.

A Few More…

Not Cinema

Microsoft Brings Games with Gold to Xbox One at Polygon

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They announced a while ago they were planning to bring Games with Gold to Xbox One, which is awesome – maybe now the influx of games on our XBOne’s hard drive will increase a bit. Looks like they’re going with a PS Plus sort of plan, though, which means if you turn of your Xbox Live Gold subscription, you don’t get to play the games anymore (with Games with Gold on the 360, the ones you downloaded were yours to keep even if you unsubbed from Gold).

Games with Gold is a program that gifts two free games a month to Xbox Live Gold subscribers. The Xbox One edition of the program kicks off with Max: The Curse of Brotherhood and Halo: Spartan Assault. Deals with Gold also launches in June and will save members money on Forza Motorsport 5, Ryse: Son of Rome “and a few other surprises.”

Why Should Video Game Stories Make Sense? by Chris Dahlen at Polygon

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What I think Dahlen is saying in here is that story (the premise, characters, and mood of a game) is more important than plot. I need to think more about it, and he doesn’t spend enough time distinguishing between the two. It sounds like he’s arguing that nonsensical plots are fine, but that’s not really it – he’s more arguing that games don’t need a complicated plot at all, I think. Something to think about, in any case.

The plot is stuck in the middle. It wants to make sense of a game, but the game play is already doing that. If we were watching a movie, the plot would provide the backbone, but games don’t work like movies, and the plot can get in the way. It can feel awkward and unwelcome, while a looser thematic layer can be the most memorable part of the game. There’s a simple solution: If we could stop thinking of games as “cinematic,” we could could stop relying on plot as the foundation of our stories.

The Trick That Makes Google’s Self-Driving Cars Work by Alexis C. Madrigal at The Atlantic

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This is pretty fascinating insight into how Google’s driverless cars work, and what that means for Google’s plans to “crawl” the physical world for data.

The key to Google’s success has been that these cars aren’t forced to process an entire scene from scratch. Instead, their teams travel and map each road that the car will travel. And these are not any old maps. They are not even the rich, road-logic-filled maps of consumer-grade Google Maps. They’re probably best thought of as ultra-precise digitizations of the physical world, all the way down to tiny details like the position and height of every single curb. A normal digital map would show a road intersection; these maps would have a precision measured in inches.

Reading Pathway: C.S. Lewis by Kate Scott at BookRiot

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If you’re only going to read three Lewis books, I have a hard time arguing with these choices. But please, don’t just read three Lewis books.

Lewis’s work is remarkable not only for its clarity and insight into the human condition, but its breadth. During his sixty-four years Lewis wrote poetry, fantasy and science fiction, academic and popular nonfiction, essays, and more, so it’s difficult to choose just three books to start with. My reason for picking these particular books is because each one reflects a key period of Lewis’s life–his literary childhood, his conversion to Christianity and subsequent rise to fame, and the years leading up to his death.

For Your Listening Pleasure

Podcast: The Dew Over

If you’re not listening to The Dew Over, your life needs a do over. I’m normally not that into attempts to evaluate and redo the Oscars (mostly because I don’t find them meaningful enough to warrant it), but Jamie Dew and his ever-changing panel – which often includes Matt Price and/or Matt Brown of Mamo (another podcast you should be listening to), Dan Gorman of See You Next Wednesday, Ariel Fisher of Row Three, and various other podcasters/writers worth following as well as occasionally and refreshingly people who don’t write or podcast at all – do a great job of discussing the nominees at hand in a thoughtful manner. Each film generally has both supporters and detractors, no matter how otherwise universally loved or disliked it is, and that’s the case even in 1977, when Annie Hall and Star Wars each had one person who just didn’t like them, and lesser-considered films like The Turning Point and Julia had people who genuinely enjoyed them. Disagreements are handled really well, too, with respect and humor, making this podcast a joy to listen to rather than the shoutfest I feared it would be when I started listening. This episode is 1977 (there’s one newer one of 1993, but I haven’t listened to that one yet), and they’ve also got 1983, 1996, 1973, and a Star Wars special already posted, with plans to do every year from I think 1973 to now.

Music: Jenny Lewis

My favorite ex-Rilo Kiley singer Jenny Lewis plans to have a new solo album out in July. This is one of the songs from it (also recently featured on Girls). It’s been too long!

Image of the Week

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The Self-Styled Siren is coming out with a novel? That has, of course, classic movie tie-ins? Count me in for that!

Video of the Week

Grand Canyon timelapse. Breathtaking.