Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Four Faces of Summer

Courtesy of Nils Axen
While I would rather dedicate this column to the great films I watched over spring break (In the Mood for Love, Hitchcock’s Notorious and Shadow of a Doubt, et al) or my fresh takes on late 2012 fare (consider me an apologist for Life of Pi, but not for Holy Motors), I will, for once, try to look forward. My sole trip to the multiplex last week was to see Oz: The Great and Powerful, an abysmal, unlikable mess that, naturally, will at least double its $215 million budget in ticket sales before it leaves theaters. The summer movie season has effectively begun.

With that, I would like to examine not the movies but the people who watch these movies. Below, I present the four types of summer moviegoers, in a digestible (and admittedly lazy) list format. Keep in mind that these broad types can easily overlap with one another — in particular to those adjacent.

The Masses
Hollywood cares only about this group, by far the largest demographic, from March to September of every year. I cannot speak on its behalf, and I admit that, today, there are few people completely dispassionate about all movies. But you could say films “dumb down” over the summer in order to appeal to this crowd. That is not necessarily a bad thing — the world would be pretty bleak if all movies were as serious and demanding as Amour, and there is something serene about knowing what type of movie you’re in for with the cost of tickets these days.

The majority of summer moviegoers pick up buzz from mainstream publications and television shows or commercials, not to mention from the previews that precede the other movies they go see. The ubiquity of Rotten Tomatoes means that even those who consider themselves apathetic to film can still make a reasonable judgment, based on aggregate critic scores, on what movie they will go see.

The IMDb Crowd
Skewed young, male and white, this rising and influential demographic demands action films with at least a little bit of substance, or about as much as a comic book can provide as source material. While not everyone in this so-called crowd frequents the Internet Movie Database, the popular website collects this group’s opinion in its “Top 250” list, where four Christopher Nolan films rank in the Top 50 and The Lord of the Rings trilogy populates the Top 20. The website hosts message boards where users can debate over the ending of Inception or order Pixar films from best to worst. In real life, these people like to talk over the merits of what made a movie good or bad (there’s not always an in between) or at least have a firm opinion on what they thought of a film.

I find this group to be overly concerned with plot and its minute mechanics, like plot twists, continuity and unanswered narrative questions. Nolan succeeds with this group for this very reason. Nonetheless, “The IMDb Crowd” holds a lot of sway in Hollywood these days and at least brings some thought to the moviegoing experience. Without them, there would be no Star Trek Into Darkness or Man of Steel this summer, and that would be just awful, wouldn’t it ...?

The Critics
Professional critics do not solely represent this group — far from it, actually. Those who favor the movies crammed into the late-year Oscar season make up a perceptive community of summer moviegoers; these people love movies, and they would go crazy not to see any for months on end.

While they may not care for the Michael Bay swill that attracts so many others, “The Critics” do see value in the occasional summer flick. The Bourne films, District 9 and, depending on whom you ask, Prometheus worked for them. For this group, part of the fun of the summer movie season is in finding that unlikely genre film and defending its strengths, without irony, to all who will listen.

The Cinephiles
While plenty of “The Critics” will also rightly call themselves “cinephiles,” there is a stark difference that separates them from the real McCoy: These people don’t even watch summer movies. Sure, they are enjoying movies during the summer, but at art house and repertory cinemas like New York’s IFC Center or L.A.’s Egyptian Theatre, not at the local multiplex. These are also the types who make a big deal of their home theater system, but just when you expect them to take the speakers for a ride with some Top Gun, they whip out The Criterion Collection Blu-ray of Days of Heaven and harp on and on about the “grain” and “beautiful black levels.”

Basically, they are not the intended audience of most, if not all, of the films coming out of Hollywood, which studios don’t mind because there are relatively few of them, anyway. They may scoff at the praise you heap on the last Harry Potter movie, but, oh boy, Kino just re-released Metropolis on Blu-ray in its full-restored condition using a long-lost source print found in Argentina, and you just gotta see it.

This article was originally written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location via this link.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Girls: Season Two Review

Disclaimer: This article contains Girls Season Two spoilers.

If you are fed up with HBO’s Girls like I am, you are also likely sick of those who write about Girls, too. Todd VanDerWerff from The A.V. Club is one of many in the vast Internet commentariat who basically subsists on churning out these think pieces (he once penned 2200 words under the headline, “How Girls challenges the masculine expectations of ‘good TV’”). So, it is with an ample dose of self-loathing that I now present my opinions on Season Two of Girls, which wrapped up yesterday.

I do not take Girls to be nearly as artful as many claim it is, but at least Season One provided engaging character dynamics punctuated by blissful song cues (Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own”) and hilarious, genuine moments (Shoshanna’s “crackcident”). Season Two darkened the colors, widened the distance between former friends and favored half-baked profundity over consistent entertainment. Of 10 episodes, there were three concept and/or “bottle episodes” where the main narrative arc simmered while Hannah (Dunham) traveled to somewhere or tried something new (Jessa’s dad’s house; cocaine; Patrick Wilson). These were, by far, the worst episodes of the season (though some, including VanDerWerff, will vehemently disagree), offering few laughs, platitudinous insight and way too much naked Dunham. Along with the abrupt introduction of Hannah’s OCD two episodes from the finale, Girls has taken an off-putting, serious turn. The first season worked because Dunham and co. embraced the trivial problems of not-so-rich but far-from-poor NYC twentysomethings; their attempts to validate their characters’ struggles with an added layer of angst and realism ended up fulfilling the narcissistic/detached/privileged criticisms that have followed them since even before day one.

But the season finale, “Together,” fell short because it actually disregarded the drama that led up to it. Perhaps that is hypocritical of me to say, because I don’t like most of Season Two’s narrative; however, what we are left with is an assortment of unearned reunions and break-ups. Charlie (Christopher Abbott) and Marnie (Allison Williams) get back together in the cheesiest, Jerry Maguire-iest speech this show has deigned to yet. Considering that Charlie is now the moderately wealthy CEO of a mobile app company, Marnie seems to have forfeited the three-episode-long dream of becoming a singer and resigned to being a housewife, wanting nothing but having Charlie’s “little brown babies” in the “eventual” future. As for Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) and Ray (Alex Karpovsky) calling it quits, we have long known the former to be naïve and the latter to be cynical, so their outbursts at each other over these respective traits came not as a revelation but as a thud of dramatic irony. For the only lovable characters on the show, you’d expect a more fulfilling final straw, if there had to be one.

I just used the word “irony” and that is surely the defense those will use in favor of the scenes above as well as when Adam (Adam Driver) runs shirtless through Brooklyn to “save” Hannah from … well, herself? (I’m not sure.) Irony is a classic and healthy mode of humor, but there must be some foundation for viewer-character connection and narrative truth. Sure, Marnie’s devotion to Charlie may be a subtle indictment of our secret desire for an easy, dependent life, and perhaps Ray and Shoshanna were so infatuated with one another that they overlooked their obvious traits. But the direction of these scenes, with tearful close-ups and exacting musical cues, treats the romance as sincere. You can’t tell me the moral ambiguity of, say, Zero Dark Thirty also applies to a show that ends its season finale with a dramatic tracking shot of a boy cradling a girl in his arms and a song by Dunham’s boyfriend (that would be “Sight of the Sun” by fun.). To launch this defense would confirm that Girls navigates Inception-like layers and levels of irony that it expects the viewer to dissect and critique. We are either entering some intolerable, meta/postmodern/sublimely hipster 21st century territory or dabbling in sloppy character development. Either way, I call bullshit.

As it stands, the characters of Girls have regressed by the end of Season Two, and perhaps Dunham will kick off Season Three with a stark acknowledgment of the finale’s fake cheshire smiles. But right now, I only have the latest and prior episodes as texts before me, and the last 10 have meandered their way through quasi-profound and grating digressions. Let us hope Dunham reclaims the hope, humor and ecstasy of Season One and keeps her clothes on in the process. And let this be the last anyone writes about Girls until then.

This article was originally written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location via this link.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Amour Review

Directed by Michael Haneke
Released in 2012

The power of Michael Haneke’s Amour borders on paradox. On the one hand, this film imparts a quiet, rich message of how art, in all its forms, provides the ultimate respite from the harsh realities in life, like illness, attacks and aging. However, the film so fully immerses the viewer into a suffocating depiction of these realities that the experience of watching it becomes its own struggle. It is not a film I recommend lightly, nor one everyone should see, but it grasps the human condition with such conviction and insight that anyone prepared for its brutality should explore its cavernous depths.

The first scene gets right to the point: Firefighters break through the locked door of a posh, worn Parisian apartment and find the wizened corpse of Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) on her bed, hands crossed and surrounded by flowers. From the start, writer-director Haneke shocks us with an image of absolute serenity and truth. Flashback several months back to octogenarians Anne and Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) attending a concert of one of her former piano students, Alexandre (Alexandre Tharaud), and then returning to their apartment, where the rest of the film remains. These opening shots are composed entirely of long shots, as if these two could be any elderly couple strolling the city. As tempting it may be, however, it is wise not to identify Anne and Georges with kindly grandparents you have or had. Rather, it is better to conceive of them as young lovers still so enamored with each other that the perils of age sneak up on them unawares.

This “attack” hits Anne the morning after the concert, when she stares off at the breakfast table, not responding to Georges’ concerns. Her subsequent surgery (not depicted on-screen) renders her right side paralyzed; coping with this abrupt rearrangement of responsibility tests Georges, as well as the boundaries and definition of love (amour). Cheery stuff. There are moments of levity — Anne spinning donuts with her electric wheelchair, or Georges describing his friend’s “bizarre” funeral — that never deign to “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” levels of irreverence, but the mood only darkens as Anne loses her facilities and, for George, his patience.

Film students will likely study Amour for its restrained camera movement, long shots and varied compositions within a single setting (which calls to mind the Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu). Amour could just be a clinical textbook example of how to make a soulless and agonizing ‘art film,’ but Haneke’s direction provokes real feeling. Haneke wants us to empathize with Anne and Georges, two characters who may just be us someday in the future. He also, however, allows us to be frustrated with them, particularly the helpless Anne. As Anne regresses into a more infantile state — framed in unglamorous, laborious close-ups — and Georges grows more irritable, Haneke leaves his audience to just witness their acts, free of sentimental cues or melodrama. It’s not forced but real, which is why it’s so tough.

There is a subtle undercurrent regarding the ineffable, healing power of art throughout the film. As cultured, bourgeois Parisians, Georges and Anne appreciate music, cinema, painting, photography and literature, and Haneke includes a scene with one or both of them interacting with each of these mediums and finding strength therein. The most touching, naturally, relates to cinema, when Georges recounts how he was overwhelmed by a film he saw when he was a young boy. “I don’t remember the film … but I remember the feeling,” he tells Anne, who is enraptured by his story. And so the cycle continues: She will cherish her feelings when hearing his story, and he experiences them once again through the act of confiding to his love. When ailments and age impede on a devoted relationship, Haneke reminds us that art can alleviate the painful path to, well, you know, the end.

Amour recently won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and, back in May, the Palme d’Or, the prestigious honor bestowed at the artsy Cannes Film Festival. Any fears that this is a pretentious, boring film should go unfounded; instead, this is an emotionally draining, arduous two hours that will leave no one unscathed. I have not even mentioned the performances of Riva or Trintignant, though their eminence needs no description. But it is Haneke who deserves the utmost praise for his Oscar-nominated screenplay (a Freudian can analyze the meaning of the pigeon and dream sequences to no end) and direction. He put his all into this honest and unflinching masterpiece — though you may just resent him for it.

Final Verdict:
4.5 Stars Out of 5

This article was originally written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location via this link.

Noncreative Fiction

Courtesy of Nils Axen
As I turned the corner onto Dryden Road and trudged through the Collegetown slush, hands in my pockets and cheeks huddled behind the neck of my jacket, the thought that materialized was not entirely my own: Hey, this reminds me of the cover for The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. Adjusting to that image, I hunched my back even more and forced an apathetic scowl (it looks better than wincing at every gust of Hoth-like wind). I then probably rattled off movies defined by their snow-swept settings: Fargo, The Shining, The Thing, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Artists do not create from a blank state, a tabula rasa — or do they? After taking "Intro to Creative Writing" last semester and "Screenwriting I" this spring, I have come to appreciate the creative process, because damn, it doesn’t come easy to me. As you might pick up, I associate many things with works of music or cinema. Since picking up movie criticism as a hobby in my sophomore year of high school, I have hammered in critical thinking as my approach to art. This devotion to watching a wide range of films and breaking them down makes for a fun education, but, if this passion is not siphoned now and then to a more creative outlet, it sort of just stagnates. To me, brainstorming short stories or scripts takes much more effort than I believe it should, with intertextual references rather than original germs of thought dominating my cluttered thought processes.

This is a problem many must face, though, particularly those who try to phase out of the heavy academia they have entrusted in for so long in favor of making a mark of their own. While creative genius may not be teachable, format, parameters and allusions certainly are, which is why I take these courses here at Cornell, which is why anyone seeks out the masters of a craft and asks for advice and assistance. Right now, I see screenplays as an easy entrance into this world. They are not the final artistic product but the catalyst to future collaboration with other talented actors, cinematographers, editors and directors (the latter two of which I am most interested in pursuing, more so than writing).

The question of creativity — How to harness it? Where to point it? Do I have it? — intrigues me, as the answers, so far, have only peeked out of the shadows. According to Newtonian principles, pure creation is impossible, and this must apply to the creation of art, as well. If there was any “pure” artist, working in a void without any precedent, it was Homer when he babbled or bard-ed or whatever about Patroclus and Odysseus. But even Homer found inspiration from historical events and allowed his genius to fill in the rest. The creative process takes in far more information and experience than it puts out. An encyclopedic knowledge of some subsection of art assists greatly here; the filmmaker, painter or writer can amalgamate disparate past works, fuse them together and emerge with a “wholly original masterwork,” as some critic is likely to call it (In The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco spoke of literature’s endlessly referential nature: “Books always speak of other books, and every story tells a story that has already been told”). A keen, say, journalistic eye of the world around can provide that spark too, for, as Robert McKee harangues in the Charlie Kaufman-penned Adaptation, “People are murdered every day … People find love, people lose it … and if you can’t find that stuff in life, then you, my friend, don’t know crap about life!”

There is a reason why the Academy Awards present two separate writing awards, one for Best Adapted Screenplay and the other for Best Original Screenplay. I don’t know what that reason is, but I’m sure there is one and that it has more to do with crediting logistics than quantifying creativity. The brilliant David Cronenberg has adapted William S. Burroughs and Don DeLillo into films that allow his directorial nuttiness to run amuck, while self-taught filmmakers like François Truffaut, Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson sift through their expansive cinematic memories when writing and directing films that remain uniquely theirs. Even the most idiosyncratic movie makers like David Lynch or the Coen Brothers find inspiration in their own past (as the Coens do in A Serious Man) or through actively engaging with their subconscious (à la Lynch). Nobody pulls this stuff from thin air, basically. So, for now, I’ll continue to watch old movies while allotting time for other, more active outlets and perhaps a few more wintry strolls through Collegetown.

This article was originally written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location via this link.