Ahead on Differential

movies

Last night I watched Jodie Mack's excellent Dusty Stacks of Mom: The Poster Project (elevator pitch: experimental stop-motion documentary about the rise and fall of a poster shop run by the director's mom and the history of the poster as cultural object, all set to a charming lo-fi rewrite of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon). I got to thinking about the decontextualization and recontextualization of pop imagery, of posters as contemporary icons; the Scarface posters used in Dusty Snacks of Mom mean something very different than a Scarface poster on a dorm room wall. The movie destroys the image and warps the soundtrack to shed light on both not as works of art, but as commodities.

Which got me thinking about Ways of Seeing. The 1972 BBC series hosted by John Berger is nearly 50 years old, but has lost none of its freshness and power. Having posters front of mind while rewatching it proved resonant. In the second episode, Berger breaks down the tradition of the classical nude, whose subjects Berger says “seen naked by others and yet not recognized for oneself.” The same can be applied to cheesecake posters. The fourth and final episode concerns the imagery of advertising (which is what poster is, ultimately, extending the tendrils of brand awareness one dorm wall at a time), whose chief purpose is, in Berger's words, manufacturing glamour.

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Says Berger in the preamble to the final episode:

Where do they exist, these fabulous rewards and objects and people? Where do they belong to? Here, there, or nowhere? They come with us everywhere. We take them away in our minds. We see them in our dreams.

#tv #movies #criticism

Between putting out great in-depth videos about interpersonal beefing and hosting the work of the brilliant Jon Bois, SB Nation currently runs one of my favourite YouTube channels. Their Rewinder series, which contextualizes seismic moments in sports history, is consistently entertaining and informative (episodes include the 2008 Wimbledon men's final, the 2000 NBA Slam Dunk Contest, and, uh, Mark Sanchez's butt fumble). It's great stuff even if you're sports-agnostic.

This time around, in the spirit of April Fools' Day, SB Nation writer Seth Rosenthal does a deep kayfabe dive on Michael Jordan's climactic game-winning dunk from the 1996 blockbuster Space Jam (a movie I 100% wore out the tape of as a nine-year-old). High points include a critique of the players the Nerdlucks stole skills from (no Shaq? no Hakeem?), a reconsidering of Marvin the Martian's alleged impartiality as referee, and the folding of real-life events into the machinations of Space Jam's deeply silly, deeply crass plot. Rosenthal is a good writer, so good in fact that at several points in the video I forgot that it was a goof.

Come on and slam

This video actually pairs up nicely with an episode of one of my favourite podcasts, Blank Check with Griffin and David, where they discuss Space Jam in depth as the dumbfounding cultural artifact that it is.

Also... Michael Jordan kind of looks like a wax sculpture of Michael Jordan on this poster.

(via SB Nation on YouTube)

#youtube #movies #sports

The man, the myth, the legend

We all are born with a certain package. We are who we are: where we were born, who we were born as, how we were raised. We're kind of stuck inside that person, and the purpose of civilization and growth is to be able to reach out and empathize a little bit with other people. And for me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.

Roger Ebert, one of my film-crit heroes, died six years ago today. I owe Roger more than I care to admit. He was the first person I encountered who looked at movies as art objects. He wrote with warmth, clarity, and respect for the medium. He was smart and persuasive even when I disagreed with his conclusions (and seriously, if you're not locking horns with your heroes on a semi-regular basis, what the hell are you even doing?). He taught me to trust my gut. His work will always be a resource and an inspiration to me.

I really, really miss having him around.

#movies #obit

Harry Brewis (YouTube codename Hbomberguy), better known as of late for his “Donkey Kong Says Trans Rights” charity stream, has a deep library of good video essays about pseudoscience (he's not down with it), woke brands (he's also not down with it), and VHS tapes (he's down with it). And his latest one is a 45-minute reflection on the 1986 feature-length toy commercial The Transformers: The Movie, aka The One Where Optimus Prime Dies.

Brewis juxtaposes the light, sugary Saturday morning antics of the TV show (which, I insist on repeating, was a glorified toy commercial) to the darker, more nihilistic tone of the movie. He calls it the point in his life where he realized that all things die. It's not exactly a close reading, but it gets to the heart of why this movie is so beloved people or a certain demographic without chalking it up to pure capitalistic cynicism or multimedia brand loyalty.

There's a prevailing sentiment that nostalgia should be looked at with deep suspicion or even outright hostility. I do get that. At the risk of making outlandish statements that I can't possibly back up, nostalgia has poisoned the pop culture landscape. It's why we're stuck in an ongoing cycle of regurgitated IPs spearheaded by warring monopolies, or why grown men who bequeath sacred cow status to a fart comedy where Dan Aykroyd gets a blowie from a ghost derail actual-ass human lives with cries of “cooties!” Nostalgia is a tempest that provides its own teapot, only now that teapot is the internet, and we all have to live inside of it.

But nostalgia is also a useful lens through which to view the artifacts of our past. This is how Brewis frames The Transformers: The Movie: a not-great film that shines brightest when it leans into a kind of optimist philosophy, where “the power of leadership and hope and unwarranted positivity in a dark universe has successfully vanquished the pessimistic nihilism that encroaches upon us all when bad things happen in our lives.” Galaxy brain shit maybe, but still a fun, thoughtful, emotionally-engaging trip through the cultural detritus of the 80s. Also any excuse to jam arena-cheese titan Stan Bush or force of good in the universe “Weird Al” Yankovic is right on by me.

Speaking of Yankovic, Brewis's journey with The Transformers: The Movie mirrors mine with UHF. It was one of the first DVDs I ever owned and I played the shit out of it. I thought of it as little more than a series of goofy pop culture riffs that 0% of my peers got. Which obviously it still is. Now, a lot of those jokes haven't aged well (is there an actor who got a rawer deal in the 1980s than Gedde Watanabe?), but I still love this movie because there's a community-minded anti-establishment streak to it. Goofiness for the common good. Daring to be stupid, if you will.

#movies #youtube

Poster for Dark Star

The first hint is right there in the poster copy: “The Spaced Out Odyssey.” The photo beneath the tagline, of a body on ice with electrodes affixed to its face, would normally evoke chills. But in context, we understand that a face frozen in a rictus of dulled pain visually rhymes with what being gacked out on primo bud looks like.

Dark Star, directed by John Carpenter and co-written by Carpenter and Dan O'Bannon, premiered on 30 March 1974 at the Los Angeles International Film Exposition. At the risk of being glib, it plays like a stoner Alien (not surprising since O'Bannon strip-mined Dark Star for parts for his Alien script), similarly concerned with the existential tedium of being a working stiff on the final frontier. But it is above all else Carpenter's weed-dad opus, a heady, rambling, pseudo-philosophical cosmic yarn about mental entropy that for no short amount of time prioritizes a slapstick set piece featuring an alien that looks suspiciously like a beach ball. This movie would slot in nicely on a shelf next to Star Trek: The Motion Picture on VHS or a dog-eared copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

There isn't really much competition for Dark Star's weed-dad title belt in Carpenter's oeuvre; after his debut, his movies almost immediately became leaner, sharper, and more sinister. The only real challenger for the crown is They Live, with its EC Comics-indebted anti-authoritarian, anti-consumerist sci-fi phantasmagoria. And if there's two things weed dads hate, it's the Man and how the Man tells 'em what to do, man. But there's too much ire and fury in They Live for it to be Carpenter's weed-daddest movie. The key moment of political discourse in They Live is Roddy Piper beating the dogshit out of Keith David so he can make him wear his false consciousness-obliterating sunglasses. The key moment of political discourse in Dark Star is when a Bill Ward-looking motherfucker raps with a bomb about phenomenology to keep it from exploding. Far out.

#movies

Mandy, or Nostalgia as Cinematic Language

It's getting to be list season very soon, and while there are a bunch of movies that are in the running for my big gold belt that I have not seen yet (I'm looking at you, The Night Comes for Us), I sincerely doubt anything will knock Mandy from the throne. It's no secret that I am in the tank for this movie (wrote a glowing review of it and everything). After watching the equally mind-melting Beyond the Black Rainbow in 2011, I was excited to see what writer/director Panos Cosmatos had lined up next. My patience was rewarded with what is not only my favourite movie of the year thus far, but a surefire first-ballot entry into the Head Film Hall of Fame. There's rad bugfuck details stacked floor to ceiling, but it's also a film of cosmic sadness and great warmth (Nicolas Cage gets to be wild and tender in this).

And it looks fantastic. Cosmatos and director of photography Benjamin Loeb (Hello Destroyer, King Cobra) saturate the frame with bold colours, evocative lighting, and glorious phantasmagorical excess. The always-perceptive Evan Puschak over at The Nerdwriter released a video last week diving into the film's style by examining its use of grain as an aesthetic signifier. What has come to be an analogue fetish object in a digital age, Puschak explains, is delpoyed by Cosmatos as a tool rather than as a reference. Even though Cosmatos' pool of images is easy to parse (70s/80s Euro-trash, sci-fi paperbacks, prog rock album covers, back issues of Heavy Metal), the way he creates his visual tableux are unbound in time and inextricable from the story. “Style over substance” doesn't hold water as an argument when the two are so deeply intertwined.

I can't wait for number three.

(via The Nerdwriter)

#movies #youtube

I found a couple of orphaned capsule reviews in the Dim the House Lights archives and decided to put them here.

The Errand Boy (Jerry Lewis, 1961) What you first notice is Jerry Lewis' eye. He has a gift for cock-eyed mise-en-scene, staging and blocking that feels familiar and yet is somehow... off. The second thing you notice is his pronounced goofiness, the yelling, the fodder for cheap jokes and bad impressions. Sure, this is silly as hell, but not really the work of a master. But then you get to the scene in the elevator, a comedy high-wire act, the tension and claustrophobia contorting Lewis' face as his character Morty Tashman tries to keep this whole interaction as close to a normal as he can. Then you get to the boardroom orchestra scene, as simple and as elegant a formalist gag as they come, and you realize that yes, you are indeed in the hands of a virtuoso for whom the gag is king, yes, but the craft is the crown. But the best gag is the throughline: this is literally a movie about Jerry Lewis wreaking havoc on the Hollywood machine from the inside. Self-aggrandizing, sure, but also self-deprecating: only in a system this ill-calibrated can a clown like him become a cultural force, a fitting mantle for auteurism's holy fool.

The Ladies Man (Jerry Lewis, 1961) Jerry Lewis' other 1961 film has a set-up not wholly dissimilar to that of a second-tier porno: a jilted college grad (Lewis) becomes celibate and gets a job at a handyman at women's boardinghouse, where he is at the beck and call of dozens of sexy ladies. The story is by far the flimsiest aspect of the film, playing second-fiddle to the real stars of the show: sumptuous colours, opulent dollhouse-like sets, and brilliant choreography. Lewis the director is in top form, trading in the claustrophobia of The Errand Boy for lush, lilting movements that tinge his work with the surreal. There are the usual Lewis shenanigans on display: mispronunciations, mugging, chaos on a set. The gags land and fall flat in roughly equal amount, but they are all executed with equal brio. After all, Lewis is not one to half-ass things. Case in point: the magnificent dance sequence he shares with dancer Sylvia Lewis (no relation), who is introduced suspended from the ceiling from a black cotton cocoon. The pair then engage in a chase/dance while Harry James and his band kind of just appear from behind a wall, decked out in white like big band angels, and just start to wail. A jewel of a film.

#movies

The eagle-eyed among you might remember that I made a blog a while ago praising the genius of Canadian animator Richard Williams, and I fear I'll be repeating myself in that respect over the course of this play-by-play. Williams was the animation director on Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, a sly, skilful melding of film noir and cartoon slapstick. If you want to see what makes Williams's work here and elsewhere so breathtaking, I recommend watching the video linked in the blog post I referenced earlier, or even seek out the Recobbled fan cut of his never-finished magnum opus The Thief and the Cobbler. But if pressed to describe his work in one word, it'd be fluid. For all the movie magic employed to create a seamless live-action/cartoon world, the fluidity of the animation is the linchpin. But the animated half of the film is just, well, half the story. The other half belongs to Robert Zemeckis.

Robert Zemeckis is cursed with the gift of gimmickry. Few directors are as adept at using special effects as storytelling devices as he is, but his sturdy, Spielberg-esque directing chops are often held hostage by the whims of the effects he employs. This has sometimes led to catastrophic results, most notably his late-period uncanny valley hat trick of The Polar Express, Beowulf, and A Christmas Carol. But here, he directs with a unique kind of precision; he manages to make incomplete frames feel full. Zemeckis strikes a delicate balance between leaving just enough room for the toons to exist in and making the blocking overly lax. To the credits of both Zemeckis and Williams, the illusion is maintained throughout, and 30 years on still stands as the apex of this branch of mixed-media filmmaking.

Credit must also be given to the actors, the conduit through which an audience experiences the work, and thus the most liable to wreck the illusion. The voice cast is anchored the legendary Mel Blanc, rounded out by a murderer's row of cartoon lifers, and bolstered by the smart stunt-casting of Kathleen Turner as Jessica Rabbit. The live-action cast had it rougher. They had to act against puppets and props and disembodied voices, and no actor had to do it more than the late, great Bob Hoskins. But the legendary English actor was no one's first choice to play Eddie Valiant, the alcoholic private dick with a distaste for toons. In fact, he wasn't even in the top 10. According to Wikipedia (a dubious source, I know, but bear with me), Harrison Ford was Zemeckis' first-round pick, followed by Bill Murray and Eddie Murphy. And then Chevy Chase, Robert Redford, Jack Nicholson, Sylvester Stallone, Wallace Shawn, Ed Harris, Charles Grodin, and Don Lane. A few of those might have worked, but there's a lot of cultural baggage that comes with casting, say, Nicholson in a movie that riffs heavily on Chinatown. Harris may have worked as well; go back and watch Knightriders for a clinic on portraying rumpled masculinity as both earnest and silly. But casting Hoskins was a coup: his blunt features, raspy voice, and boxy build make him credible as a tough noir-era gumshoe, and him standing 5-foot-4 makes the 6-foot-1 Christopher Lloyd's Judge Doom look even more like a towering, ominous force than he already is.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit? is part of the cycle of late 80s-early 90s kids' movies with the power to traumatize. I say the following without exaggeration: Christopher Lloyd should have been on every Academy ballot for Best Supporting Actor for his work on here, and nearly everything he does in the film is nightmare fuel of the highest order. He murders an adorable cartoon shoe in cold blood in his first scene. The climax of the film, which I won't spoil here because I'd like for you to get the full effect if and when you do see it, is fucked up. I rewatched this movie shortly after my 30th birthday and I still think it's fucked up as a grown man.

Dear America was fucked up too, but in a more subtle, insidious way. The film's structure is simple: celebrities read letters home from soldiers in Vietnam over amateur video footage, presumably shot by those same soldiers. This isn't new territory for the war documentary; it isn't even new territory for writer/director/producer Bill Couturié. In 1982, Couturié co-directed Vietnam Requiem, a TV documentary made for ABC News's Closeup about the post-traumatic stress disorder in Vietnam vets that netted the Alphabet Network a Peabody Award.

Couturié's resume is full of similarly socially-conscious work, both as director and producer; he won an Oscar in 1990 as the producer of Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt, which was about the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt. He has continued to chronicle the effects on war on soldiers. The one major outlier in his filmography is the Matt LeBlanc-starring baseball-playing chimp movie Ed, which he directed and produced. It was a massive bomb, no one liked it, and Couturié hasn't made a fiction film since, in Hollywood or otherwise.

As with WFRR, Dear America's beating heart is its form. Having people read letters over footage they or someone like them shot is a dirt-simple and highly effective way of telling this particular story. The beginning of the film is all smiles and surf music, a parade of fresh faces blissfully unaware of the horrors awaiting them in Southeast Asia. And I do mean fresh; I knew that the average age of touring soldiers in Vietnam skewed young, but I didn't know that it averaged out at 19. As the film goes on, and as the conflict keeps metastasizing, the plight of these young men grows more dire, the tone becomes more grim. The speed with which the switch flips from “patriotic naivete” to “existential hell” is whiplash-inducing.

The great Francois Truffaut once said that there's no such thing as an anti-war film. Now I'm just some dude on the internet, and who the hell am I to disagree with one of the great humanists of French cinema, but I believe the opposite to be true. War is such an abhorrent concept that any depiction of it will make it look terrible. Telegeny doesn't negate evil. Often it even amplifies it. The brief scenes of combat in Dear America are harrowing, and the cumulative effect of the footage and narration is decidedly anti-war. The final pivot, a flash forward that concludes the film, is the perfect emotional crescendo, until Bruce Springsteen's “Born in the USA” starts playing over the end credits. Now the fact that this song, along with the also-used-herein “Fortunate Son” by Creedence Clearwater Revival, has become a kind of lazy anti-war shorthand is not this film's fault. But time hasn't been kind to on-the-nose music cues, even if they were fresh and bold once upon a time. But this is a minor gripe regarding what is overall a solid piece of work.

There's something uniquely perverse about this tournament pairing, a documentary about the horrors of war and a movie where a cartoon rabbit does pratfalls. As with the previous round, tournament namesake Roger Ebert gave both of these movies the full four stars, citing both as exemplary in the respective idioms. And as powerful and moving as Dear America is, the level of technical mastery and boundless creativity of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? is what puts it over the top.

The winner: Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

#movies #ebertcup1988

In a bit of Oscar night counter-programming, I rewatched Who Framed Roger Rabbit for the first time in a few years in preparation for the next Ebert Cup match. Spoiler alert, it holds up extrmeemly well. Even 30 years on, it's still an astonishing piece of work, not just as a funny-page pulp-noir, but in the way the animated and live-action worlds meld so seamlessly in a pre-CGI world.

Key to that fusion of worlds is the work of legendary animation director Richard Williams. By 1988, he was already a legend in the field, winning an Oscar in 1972 for his adaptation of A Christmas Carol. By 1989, his work on Who Framed Roger Rabbit netted him not only two more statuettes, but a production deal with Warner to help finish his long-gestating magnum opus The Thief and the Cobbler. That particular story doesn't end well: Thief ends up being wrested from Williams' hands, and a compromized version dies an unmourned death in theatres, while his original cut becomes one of animation's great cause celebres.

That saga cemented Williams' status as a legend, but this video by Andrew Saladino of the Royal Ocean Film Society gets to the nuts and bolts of what makes Williams an all-timer. The short of it: it's all about the way his characters move through space. Dust off that VHS copy of Who Framed Roger Rabbit and watch that opening cartoon again. Notice how fluidly the perspective shifts, how the camera glides and warps the space. That's the work of a true master of the form.

(via YouTube/The Royal Ocean Film Society)

#movies #animation #richardwilliams

Alright, I'm a little late, but that okay. Let's get this party started.

Wings of Desire was the first movie I ever close-read. It was my first week of college, and in one of my film classes, students were tasked with breaking down the first few minutes of Wim Wenders' urban fantasia into its smallest moving parts. In hindsight, this may have been a form of culling: are you here to watch movies or are you here to really watch movies? Our notes were exhaustive but did nothing to dull the magic of that opening. I had seen Wings of Desire again between that exercise and my rewatch for this project, but the little details of that opening never left me. The shot of an opening eye fading into a flapping ivory wing, the sweeping helicopter shots of 80s Berlin, the subtle droning organ on the soundtrack, the overlapping internal monologues. And weaving through it all is the great Swiss actor Bruno Ganz, all warm eyes, pronounce widow's peak, and ill-advised ponytail.

Ganz plays Damiel, an angel who watches over all Berliners, privy to even the most mundane of thoughts, joyful or otherwise. Their job, as per fellow angel Cassiel (the late German actor Otto Sander) is to “assemble, testify, [and] preserve” the goings-on of the humans, which they've been doing since time immemorial. Interfering, and thus experiencing, is forbidden. But Damiel wants to feel, dammit! There's an entire two-hander where Ganz and Sander are sitting in a convertible, most of which consists of Ganz waxing rhapsodic about the tiniest of gestures, like wriggling your toes under the table or feeding the cat “like Philip Marlowe.” Human love shoots to the top of the list after he becomes infatuated with Marion (the late Solveig Dommartin), a trapeze artist whose circus company has shuttered its doors.

Visually, thematically, formally, Wings of Desire is the kind of movie a layperson would probably conjure if asked to describe a poetic European art film. The use of black-and-white, the musings about Life, the oblique storytelling, the melancholy, world-weary tone. But the film is great because of this, not in spite of it. Wenders managed to wrest these individual components from the grips of chiche by turning them into an oneiric layercake, and placing the whole metaphyiscal fantasia inside a city symphony about Berlin. Hell, even Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds show up, because why the hell not? It's a great movie to see in a film class at 17, because it's so deliberate and enrapturing in the way it moves, and since you're 17, you're the most attuned to how the sensory and the melancholic are inextricably linked. Being able to feel joy means risking feeling pain.

There's a decidedly more grounded pain permeating Running on Empty, Sidney Lumet's family drama about a couple (Christine Lahti and Judd Hirsch) on the run from the FBI after a protest bombing gone awry in the 1970s, and their son (River Phoenix) who yearns for a little more stability. This viewing was the first time I had seen this movie, in part because it's so easy for a movie like this—that is to say mid-budget “adult” dramas—to fall through the cracks because of their unassuming nature. In that way, Lumet is the perfect director for the job. He's not a flashy director, but that doesn't keep him from sitting at the big boys' table. Even in the quietest moments, his films brim with energy and power. He came up in the Golden Age of Television, and his unfussy sense of pace and rhythm reflect that. Running on Empty is a simple story told expertly; there are no extraneous moving parts. The movie's wildest choice occurs in the last 30 seconds of the film, and it's not even that wild a choice. It just puts a neat, melancholy bow on the story. No, this isn't that kind of movie. If Wings of Desire's melancholy drew from its mise-en-scene, its more “filmic” aspects, then Running on Empty's came from its actors. Lumet was a magnificent director of actors. Just look at this list: Henry Fonda, Katharine Hepbern, Albert Finney, Ingrid Bergman, Al Pacino. And this was before stuff like Network and The Verdict and Before the Devil Knows You're Dead.

So of course the actors shine here. It's a film that brims with warmth and empathy. Lahti and Hirsch are great as the ex-radical hippies trying to stay one step ahead of the law, and Phoenix, only 18 here and already a disarming cinematic presence, shines as a young piano prodigy who's sick of the nomadic lifestyle that's been forced upon him. He broods, he plays piano, he falls in love with Martha Plimpton (who also is only 18 here and already a disarming cinematic presence). There's an effortlessness on display that never ceases to be enthralling, as if Phoenix were some kind of emotion elemental. Look at him play piano. Look at him contort at his desk when he gets called on to answer a question in music class. Look at his eyes, his hands. Well, Hollywood brass certainly did, as he got a well-deserved Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his trouble, as did Naomi Foner's solid, moving screenplay.

I can see why tournament namesake Roger Ebert gave the full four stars to both of these movies. They're both top-tier examples of their respective cinematic idioms. As I mentioned earlier, I feel like the deck is stacked against small, naturalistic dramas like Running on Empty by dint of the fact that they're not showy. But I'm of the opinion that there are more perfect films in this idiom, that are just as warm and simple but more idiosyncratic, and at least one of which starts River Phoenix (1991's sorely slept-on Dogfight, for example). Lumet has a deep catalogue of gems to explore, but barring any kind of prior familiarity with his work and his style, a neophyte might watch a sweet, unobtrusive film like Running on Empty and wonder what the hubbub is all about (I will use this admittedly tenuous link to plug Lumet's 1996 book Making Movies, by all accounts one of the great books about movies out there). But Wings of Desire is an immediately thrilling piece of filmmaking. Wenders has a sense of romance that endears him to budding cinephile, and Wings of Desire, a movie tailor-made to amke you fall in love with what great movies can offer, deserves to be rewarded here.

The winner: Wings of Desire

#ebertcup1988 #movies