Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Don't Forget to Blame Hollywood, Too

Courtesy of Nils Axen
Why did ___ do it? It’s a question we always ask after heinous acts of violence. We never reach an all-encompassing answer, or even one that helps us sleep easier at night. But, damn, do we try.

As the talking heads on television push the why behind the Boston Marathon bombings, let us consider the more practical question of how. Capitol Hill blames the scourge of mass violence basically on three things: 1) access to military-grade weapons, 2) mental health and 3) violent entertainment media. None of these factors address why a human being would deliberately and brutally terminate the lives of those he or she has never met, but each contributes to an environment where this violence can occur — including item number three.

Most social liberals would disagree with me on this one, especially those who spend as much or more time talking about movies as I do, but how can violent movies, television and video games not somehow influence the thoughts and expectations of those who engage with them? What effect does “finishing” your opponent in Mortal Kombat or taking a gun-mounted chainsaw to another character’s flesh in Gears of War have on the player, particularly when both actions are dutifully rewarded? How does the remorseless slaughter of hundreds of Latin American soldiers in The Expendables not reflect our desensitization to violence, if not our cultural prejudices? Why are the zombie beheadings in The Walking Dead so … awesome?

We live in a culture saturated with violent images, to the point where on-screen violence has become a prerequisite for entertainment success. Some blockbusters feature less terror and more humor than others — compare Iron Man to The Dark Knight — yet all must include a few show-stopping action scenes, where enemies are dispatched in novel, unserious, CGI-intensive ways. Why do we love action scenes so much? Why do we take the presence of violence, however trivialized, as a given in popular movies? Why do the characters in these movies, TV shows and video games never stop to question these vicious cycles? Why do those who do, like the protagonists in Fargo and Spec Ops: The Line, find themselves in movies and video games considered outside the mainstream?

With the summer movie season upon us, these questions should be asked now more than ever. Almost all of the films to be released over the next few months make no attempts to be anything more than mindless entertainment, reliant on primal sensations and overworked images that assault the eyes and brain in their own violent ways. Surely, most viewers will ignore the thematic similarities between the post-apocalyptic trifecta of Oblivion, After Earth and Elysium and choose a victor dependent on which boasts the slickest action scenes. The video game industry relies on cool, non-stop action, an unfortunate obsession that has effectively kept the medium as a whole from achieving any designation as art. Recently, the independent game scene has been distancing itself from this culture, delivering titles like Journey, where players unravel a story without harming other characters. But the industry remains in Call of Duty mode, selling playable Michael Bay movies for $60 a pop.

Violence sells, of course. Maybe there is an innocuous undercurrent to this obsession, in that most people would never dream of killing another human, and thus see violent media as a form of innocent escapism, as a portal into another life with different desires, stakes and priorities, like that of a superhero. Yet where is the line between healthy catharsis and numbing overexposure? Did The Passion of the Christ really need to show the bladed whip tearing apart Jesus’ skin in order to convey its message? Did The Hangover Part II really need scenes with exploding pig carcasses and severed fingers? Did Modern Warfare 2 really need a mission where the player massacres droves of innocent civilians in an airport? “Mature” rating or not, isn’t that game marketed, with tremendous success, to prepubescent boys?

This column reads more like a list of rhetorical questions than a rigorous argument against this new, violent media landscape. The biggest problems boil down to the simplest questions, questions that most popular movies, television shows and video games have forgotten as of late. We, the ordinary, non-fiction masses, must concern ourselves with the question of how: How did this happen? How can we stop it in the future? We can find answers to these questions.

However, if we want to keep this carnage away from our world landmarks and elementary schools, we must also favor the media that asks the question of why: Why did this bloodshed occur? Why does it continue? We call this type of media “art.” Art may not provide answers to all of our questions, but it gives us moments of pause, reflection and grace, moments where hate and violence go to die.

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

Friday, April 19, 2013

Trance Review

Directed by Danny Boyle
Released in 2013

At a fleeting moment of calm about an hour into Trance, a seductive hypnotherapist named Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson) looks into the eyes of the man next to her and asks, “What is a person, Franck?” Franck, a suave art thief played by Vincent Cassel, keeps his eyes to the ground and responds, “Not my line of work.” As I do what critics do and try to glean some profundity from this film, perhaps I should accept that Trance occupies a different “line of work” than Danny Boyle’s more ambitious works, like Trainspotting, 28 Days Later and 127 Hours. The director’s colorful and kinetic style still gets your heart racing, but it’s all just spectacle over a schizophrenic story with characters too cold and convoluted to touch.

Blame the film’s clinical and surprisingly unfunny tone on its “puzzle film” structure, a popular form of modern movie storytelling that reaches a breaking point in the hands of screenwriters Joe Ahearne and John Hodge. The “puzzle film” establishes an accepted version of reality and breaks it through one or many plot twists, all of which conspire to trigger — to borrow a colloquial term — a “mindfuck” in the viewer (think Inception or The Usual Suspects). Trance takes this formula to an extreme, loading three back-to-back plot twists into the last 30 minutes. This barrage of information reduces characters to cogs of an overly complicated and leaky plot, devoid of any humanity that made them relatable in the first place. Reorganize the nonlinear procession of scenes into chronological order and you will grasp what happened, but certainly not why.

With all the film’s twists and turns, this plot summary will stick to the strong opening 20 minutes, which hint at the layers upon layers of motivation driving these characters. Up to his neck in gambling debt, art auctioneer Simon (James McAvoy) agrees to collude with Franck and his gangsters in their auction house robbery of a multi-million dollar painting. For some reason, Simon goes off-script and assaults Franck during the hand-off, receiving the swift end of a shotgun to his temple in return. As it turns out, the package Simon hands over does not even contain the painting, Francisco Goya’s Witches in the Air, and its whereabouts go unknown to everyone, including Simon, because that blow to the head wiped out his recent memory. After a needlessly gruesome torture scene, Franck forces Simon to enter hypnotherapy, where Elizabeth can unlock his memories and find that elusive painting. As you can probably guess, the movie cares less and less about the painting — our “MacGuffin” — as it moves forward.

For its first half, Trance puts a welcome spin on the crime film genre by having a bunch of macho gangsters literally sit around and wait for a meek Rembrandt enthusiast to deal with his feelings. Elizabeth recognizes that many of the obstacles that prevent Simon from restoring his memory involve his fears of Franck or infatuation with her, so she organizes some pretty weird role-playing in order to put Simon … at ease, let us say. This leads to one of the more inexplicable visual motifs in all the annals of film history: Rosario Dawson’s pubic hair, or lack thereof. For Simon, the sight of it sets off a way of reconciling his memories and the lack of irony as to its inclusion should strike us all as inspiring, if also unabashedly stupid. This explicit sexuality segues into a much darker third act, where the men turn into hypermasculine machines that murder, rape and commit domestic violence. During this bedlam, Elizabeth plays a more central role, making for a nice thread of female empowerment, yet it comes out of nowhere and latches onto characters who, after so many plot twists, we have ceased to care for.

Trance boils down to an exercise of style over substance, but with Boyle and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle at the helm, oh, what style it is. A pioneer in the now-dominant realm of digital cinematography, Dod Mantle shoots films like almost no one else, except perhaps Roger Deakins (Skyfall). Through his high-definition lens, London highways throb like blood-red veins and neighborhood restaurants radiate fluorescent blue. Boyle and Dod Mantle achieve a distinctly modern visual look, although they call back to old films like The Third Man, with abundant canted angles and nocturnal European cobblestone streets. Pause the film at any second and you got yourself a desktop wallpaper.

Danny Boyle directed Trance in the midst of overseeing the opening ceremony to London’s 2012 Olympic Games. He deserves praise for maintaining his prolific output, and lesser efforts like Trance are easily excused when put in this context. Besides, very few acclaimed directors these days work at such a pace; the studio system giants back in the day did and they oversaw their fair share of duds (Hitchcock’s Topaz, Bergman’s The Serpent’s Egg). Maybe “dud” is too strong. McAvoy, Cassel and Dawson bring their own assets that complement Boyle and Dod Mantle’s visual feast. But beauty, in all its forms, cannot salvage a story that mistakes complexity for nuance and shock for awe.

Final Verdict:
2.5 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.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Bob Dylan Concert Review

Bob Dylan
At Barton Hall, Cornell University
On Sunday, April 14, 2013

If there is one lesson to take from Bob Dylan’s Sunday night performance at Barton Hall, it is pretty simple: Bob Dylan isn’t a folk singer anymore. To those familiar with any of Dyl
an’s output from the past 35-odd years, this is old news. But for those expecting the mythological man and his guitar of the 1960s, the film I’m Not There or his own memoir Chronicles, the Dylan of 2013 might have been an unwelcome surprise. To enjoy any Dylan concert, you have to throw out all expectations and just go with the flow. No, he’s not going to play “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and even if he somehow did, he’d morph it into some unrecognizable blues number with a slower tempo and steel guitar solos. There’s a reason Dylan concerts have reeked of weed since the early ’60s, you know?

Due credit must first be paid to Dawes for starting precisely at 7 p.m. and delivering a truly professional 40 minutes of music. The band’s arena rock stylings, with clean guitar chords and repeated arpeggios, worked in Barton’s otherwise awful acoustic environment. In “A Little Bit of Everything,” lead singer Taylor Goldsmith pulled off his best Springsteen while flexing his guitar muscle with southern fried fretwork. The band did not overstay its welcome and left that huge stage with earned cheers and hollers.

Before Dylan took to the stage 20 minutes later, the thousands standing (in contrast to those who filled Barton’s bleachers) squirmed and packed closer and closer to one another. Viewing the stage became problematic, but this is Barton after all, and I am 5’7” (as is Dylan). To my left, a conga line of concertgoers pushed past; the hooligans must have been around the age of my parents. Many non-students attended Sunday’s show, and I have a feeling that the level of satisfaction only increased with age. Dylan might as well be the anti-Avicii, and I tip my hat to the Cornell Concert Commission for mixing things up with class.

But regardless of how many Dylanologists were in attendance, few were enthused about the first five songs of his set, mostly picks from last year’s album Tempest. In retrospect, they served as a preamble of sorts, toppling our preconceived notions of Dylan and reinstating another side. The opener, Oscar-winning cut “Things Have Changed,” could not be more nu-Dylan, with a shuffle feel and his notoriously raspy voice accenting every line’s last downbeat. People have been complaining about his voice for over half a century now, so it’d be silly to criticize his performance on the basis of it, but let it be known that today’s Dylan jumps at any chance to throw in a harmonica solo or duet with the electric guitar. In “Soon After Midnight,” we found Dylan at the keyboards to croon a sweet love ballad, while his band had fun with the bluesy “Early Roman Kings,” with its Bo Diddley riff that piqued the audience’s attention because George Thorogood also ripped it off in “Bad to the Bone.” These songs did segue into greater, more famous material, but his experimentations with genre set the stage for how those supposedly familiar songs would be wholly reimagined.

Case in point: I would assume most attendees know “Tangled Up in Blue,” but with this slowed-down, less guitar-driven arrangement, a calculable audience response did not register until the chorus (when, of course, he sings the name of the song). The timeless “Visions of Johanna” picked up some sunshine when played faster, although this and his propensity to string together lines in quick triplets presented some difficulty in understanding the lyrics (more than usual, at least). “Blind Willie McTell,” perhaps Dylan’s most revered song from the past 30 years, benefitted greatly from its new arrangement, morphing from a barren piano ballad into a sexy tango that lost none of its original melancholy. Attribute this to the song’s final, chilling harmonica solo that snaked up and then down, down, down like a scenic train ride into Hades.

Perhaps the least-modified song was also one of his most recent: “Thunder on a Mountain,” from 2006’s Modern Times. The lights turned off and built back up one at a time in tandem with the intro’s glorious chord progression. For its energy and Alicia Keys namecheck, “Thunder on a Mountain” has settled in as a live favorite, and this performance introduced an element of swing, where the musicians improvised solos over a sweet vamping loop. “All Along the Watchtower” followed suit, with similar improvisational juices flowing. After Dylan finished singing, the instrumentalists softened and softened until the audience thought the songwas over, only to come roaring back on a thrilling crescendo that met one of the most enthusiastic cheers of the night. Here was Bob Dylan and his band, playing with the same devices employed by the dubstep “drop,” only with more nuance, less predictability and without probably knowing what the hell a “drop” is.

As an encore, Dylan treated us to one last song, one of his most personal. With its solemn pianos and themes of misunderstanding and alienation, “Ballad of a Thin Man” has long lived in the dark, and Sunday’s moody harmonica solo only bolded in its true colors. In a way, the song was a culmination of the night’s efforts, or those of all his live performances: add new voices, mix up the rhythm, but keep the soul of the song intact. When it was over, he walked in front of his microphone and just stood there, flanked by his bandmates. No bowing, no speeches, no nothing — with the incandescent spotlights above and his hands at his side he looked like a turn-of-the-century gunslinger. This is a man who has nothing left to prove to anybody but himself. Sharing a room with him should be enough to cross a number off of everyone’s bucket list, but seeing him move about, listening to what he’s doing and witnessing how he continues to reinvent himself at 71 years young — how about that for inspiration?

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

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Remembering Roger Ebert

Courtesy of Nils Axen
I write these words on Sunday, about 72 hours after the news broke, and it will take around the same amount of time for this finished column to find its way into the paper you are holding or the website you are browsing. Six days is an eternity in the world of op-eds, but it’s barely enough time to process the New York Times alert that lit up my phone Thursday afternoon: “Roger Ebert, Longtime Film Critic, Dies at 70, Chicago Sun-Times Reports.” I was just starting to study for an accounting prelim I had later that evening, and it’s putting it lightly to say that I was in no mood to hit the books. For many of us, this is a celebrity death without precedent.

President Barack Obama summed up Roger’s legacy in an official White House press release, surely the first for any late movie critic: “For a generation of Americans … Roger was the movies.” While I would amend the statement by making “generation” plural, the essence remains true. Roger changed how we, the general public, went to the movies. Watching movies was no longer sufficient — you had to think about, talk about, even yell about them, as he and Gene Siskel did on TV for over 20 years. Their passion exposed art house, independent and foreign films to a worldwide audience, and Roger’s accessible reviews provided a roadmap for all those who felt in over their head. For Roger, insight did not require obfuscation, and elitism did not equal good taste. Star Wars and Indiana Jones were not below consideration, for they were and are treasures of cinema alongside Badlands, Nosferatu and Vivre Sa Vie.

These disparate films all met Roger’s strongest writing in The Great Movies, a series that has filled three published books and might furnish a posthumous fourth. Moving past his famous “thumbs up, thumbs down” rating system and the legendary one-liners he hurled at trash like Armageddon, we find Roger to be a critic of great nuance and optimism. In The Great Movies, he took a magnifying glass and a mirror to classics and hidden gems alike. He would scrutinize a scene’s composition and lighting in one paragraph and reflect on themes like death (Gates of Heaven), existence (Persona) and greatness (Amadeus) in the next. Even as he broke down the most confounding films, his words remained personal, brilliant and unpretentious. Look no further than his essays on The Tree of Life, 2001: A Space Odyssey and La Dolce Vita, three favorite films of his that now align with my own. It was his praise that inspired me to see them, think about them, see them again and purchase their posters that now stare at me from the walls of my room.

Then you have his more recent reviews, like his write-up on Synecdoche, New York, which might as well be the most beautiful piece of film criticism ever written (and which I shamelessly ripped off for my Perks of Being a Wallflower review last year). On his blog, he talked politics, love, science, religion, memory — everything, really. These themes carried over to his bustling Facebook and Twitter accounts, platforms not accustomed to Roger’s sincerity and original wit. (A memorable tweet: “To a friend uncertain about moving: Every city you move to already contains friends of a lifetime you have not yet met.”) Staunchly liberal yet disdainful of political correctness, Roger adhered to no rules but his own, which he always admitted were subject to change. His words were not some Holy Truth so much as true — to himself, his feelings and his engaged and unironic worldview. What other public figure won his fame and fortune through honesty, levelheadedness and common sense?

I regret never meeting Roger, a man I knew so well. My mom reminded me over spring break to reach out to Roger and express my gratitude, but after a halfhearted attempt at finding his email address, I abandoned this simple task. What would I even say? Besides, I will graduate in a couple years, and then I can make movies or write about them with Roger as a peer, though certainly not an equal. And, before that, I will find the time to go to his annual Ebertfest, at least, when it doesn’t conflict with school…

So, yeah. This loss cuts deep. Roger ignited my love for the movies. Roger tackled the issues of his time, and all time. Roger inspired the world in his open struggle with cancer. Roger loved Chaz, his wonderful wife. Roger was a presence. It is fitting that he titled his last blog, published two days before his death, “A Leave of Presence.” In it, he announced the return of his cancer, his resignation from day-to-day reviewing duties but also his excitement “to do what I’ve always fantasized about doing: reviewing only the movies I want to review.” I had the bitter fortune of reading it the day before he died, and I left a comment that ended with the note, “I look forward to sharing many more movie-watching years with your prose guiding the way.”

In retrospect, I realize that “years” was pushing it, considering his ailments. Then again, I consider the blog’s last line, the words he might have known he was parting us with: “I’ll see you at the movies.” If he meant what I think he meant, then, Roger, I’ve been seeing you for years.

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

Chasing Ice Review

Chasing Ice
Directed by Jeff Orlowski
Released in 2012

In a packed theater on the first warm Monday of the year, a rapt audience watches ice melt.  Cheers or snores could reasonably follow, but this audience sits in captivated silence at Cornell Cinema. The film is Chasing Ice, the subject is climate change and the evidence is entirely cinematic.

Aside from director Jeff Orlowski, the man responsible for many of the documentary’s images is its star, James Balog. This nature photographer studied science at the University of Colorado, but since he sees “the modern world of science [as] all about statistics and computer modeling,” Balog works in the artful medium of photography. After shooting a popular National Geographic cover story on melting glaciers (“The Big Thaw”), Balog established the Extreme Ice Survey, a study that fuses art and science to visualize the effects of anthropogenic climate change. The task Balog and his crew set themselves seems simple — to take photos of glaciers with secured, time-lapse cameras — but faulty technology, violent weather and Balog’s own health present enough trials to make for, at the very least, a brisk 75 minutes.

The time-lapse montages present the most naked and arresting — “beautiful” would also be apt — evidence of global warming I have seen yet. It is a shame the filmmakers think the James Balog’s story even stands a chance. Balog, who was in attendance at Monday’s Cornell Cinema screening and answered questions afterward, engages through his work, and Orlowski would have been wise to let that work speak for itself instead of padding the film with footage of Balog spending time with his family, getting knee surgery, etc. The resulting melodrama plays like network television programs, or the autobiographical sections of An Inconvenient Truth that your biology teacher fast-forwarded through. It all diverts the narrative from the real protagonist: Earth. This is not necessarily Balog’s fault, as the responsibility lies with the filmmakers to legitimize the material at hand. But there is a whole montage of Balog making the CNN/NBC interview circuit, and one shot in particular of a studio makeup artist brushing up Balog’s face — weren’t we talking about melting glaciers?

We were, and the images, whether still, moving or time-lapse, redeem this film from its dips into bathos or narcissism. I wonder what any global warming deniers could possibly say after witnessing them, but who cares what Sean Hannity thinks, anyway. There is a spectacular sequence where a glacier the size of lower Manhattan “calves” (separates) off its surrounding fjord, and the cameras just watch. The voice-over jumps back in too early for my cinema vérité tastes, but the high resolution digital camcorders show us icebergs three times taller than the Empire State Building rolling forwards and backwards, or, in one stomach-churning shot, soaring miles out from the water and then submerging once again. The five-minute episode sells the whole movie, although, as Balog was quick to remind us in the post-screening Q&A, over 4 million people have already seen the video, for free on YouTube (one of them, unknowingly, being me last December).

After the film, Balog proved to be as aphoristic, ruggedly handsome and self-promoting in person as on screen. I mean that last adjective in good humor, for Chasing Ice has earned its fair share of honors, including a White House screening on April 22, and Balog made a point in listing as many as his prepared notes could accommodate. In all seriousness, though, Balog peddled some real nuggets of wisdom, especially in his survey of the people who should worry about global warming: “If you eat food, breathe air, drink water or pay taxes, climate change affects you.” He also addressed the hybrid nature of his work when he said, “The combination of art and science reveals what one cannot do on its own.” When you realize that the footage of crumbling glaciers represents only a microcosm of an escalating global trend, what is revealed is not so much a number or idea but the urge to let loose all the expletives you know in the direction of your nearest Congressman.

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