Apr 112019

Columbus’s first two films offer a realist portrait of a magical school. Cuarón’s film offers a magical portrait, both gothic and expressionistic, and that makes all the difference.

The cost of the elevation in style is paid in plot, which is here reduced to something like a sketch that’s so vague I wonder what someone who didn’t have the original novel in their head would make of the thing. But ultimately, the source novels are so densely plotted cuts were inevitable. At least here they are made in the service of something other than distribution constraints.

However beautiful this film, it marks the point in the series where my experience of the novels and their adaptations diverge. The choices this movie makes don’t coincide with my narrative interests. So I wound up slightly annoyed with what was and wasn’t shown and deeply annoyed with how this affects our sense of the characters and their relationships. (Lupin is better than this!)

This annoyance is a problem I’m certain is only going to get worse as I work through the remaining films.

Feb 072019

Roma is beautiful and heartfelt. I enjoyed it a lot. Like good art often does, it made me want to make something of my own.

Roma is also a film made by someone steeped in a certain history of European art cinema. Rossellini and Fellini are the principle touchstones but there are others. What I can’t sort out is what purpose these touchstones serve. Citationality and influence are fundamental to art but here it’s unclear to me whether the film imagines a viewership that recognizes the citations and thinks through them intertextualy or whether it it includes them simply as signs in a performance of “quality” within a new mass distribution system.

For me, the references too often felt like winks or like a cribbed aesthetic. Neither are necessarily faults: winks are fun and the working within an established aesthetic—especially one this gorgeous—can be admirable. But I kept wondering what the references meant rather than what they pointed to or looked like. Roma—even the name is a citation—is not Nights of Caberia or Journey to Italy. It’s something else. It’s somewhere else. And I keep wondering if the Neo-realist intertext says anything about these characters and their stories or whether instead it simply marks them as “legitimate” by announcing that “these stories, these characters, this place are as serious and valuable as those stories, those characters, that place.”

I would like to see more films with the depth and beauty of Roma. As much as I love sci-fi, fantasy, the Marvel and DC behemoths, the thrillers and action-adventures, there’s a mammoth absence in the contemporary cinema. What I love and what I miss are those dramatic films that run the gambit from the earnest mid-budget quality films of studio subsidiaries to the small, sometimes cheeky sometimes ambitious festival independents of auteurs both new and established.

Roma offers me that kind of film and I really love it. Yet it also has the feel of a floor sample designed to showcase what streaming as a distribution and funding model might make possible for filmmakers. I’m not sure I buy what it’s selling in this regard (despite wanting to) but the fact that I perceive the sell so clearly and can see that sales pitch as the object of the intertextual references gives me pause.

Mar 102014

I love sci-fi but so much of it is just terrible or silly kid stuff. This movie is proof it doesn’t have to be.

The narrative is small scale: focused point-of-view, clear stakes, well-defined obstacles and time-frames. The setting however is monumental: these characters move in a hostile environment accessible only because of people’s efforts to reach beyond our limits through science and technology. Our tools and our knowledge bring us beyond our natural state.

The film feels modern and relevant–it’s real people dealing with the consequences of our technical short-sightedness–but it is also extraordinarily beautiful. In a film culture lost in seas of noise–visual and aural–this movie goes silently, moves slowly. It looks around and breaths (although sometimes too quickly given the available oxygen).

Perhaps most importantly, this is sci-fi that holds onto a faith in human reason. It has hope in our potential. There’s no cyberpunk pessimism about corporate capital here. Yes, technological fallout our stupidity and carelessness creates problems. But by working together and being tough mentally and physically, the characters overcome these problems through reason. 

Coming after Children of Men, Gravity makes Alfonso Cuaron, unexpectedly but happily, a name to watch in science fiction.

Aug 042013

Not much to say about the movies I’ve seen in the past few months. The worst of the lot were just loud and shiny, exhausting. Logging them in a batch.



The Best of the Lot

Hannah Arendt

A film dealing with a non-dramatic but fierce intellectual conflict. How do you represent a fight that happens in writing between people who compose their words sitting alone and still in their homes? The film doesn’t shy away from showing the stillness. The actress creates intellectual depths. The dialogue offers exposition deftly without condescending. An exciting movie.

Man of Steel (first twenty minutes)

The opening segment of this movie—which offers up a completely imagined alien world ripe with imagery and symbolism and is wonderfully free of geek-dream, Marvel Universe-style exposition—is pretty much the best thing I saw all summer. It is also better than most of the science fiction movies I have seen these past few years. The view-screen technology was interesting and new. Better still, the mammalian insect mount—a live animal, a biological presence in a highly advanced technological culture—and the way the ships echoed this biological model suggested an entire way of life in miniature. Quite an achievement.


Completely Good

Louis Cyr

The ellipses make the narrative work. A scenic biography that moves confidently through the life. 

World War Z

An old-fashioned quest narrative. The narration could have tracked travel using the map device from The Raiders of the Lost Ark without ruining the tone. CGI and frantic violence were there at the beginning but the movie kept toning the noise down after that, finding drama and tension in slowness and silence. The best blockbuster of the summer. (Book log here.)

Children of Men

Beautifully shot and moving vision of a near-future apocalypse. A nice companion piece for teaching The Road.


Completely Okay

The Kings of Summer

This film is about the moustaches. The mystical snake-charming coming of age moment—save the girl!—feels off key but actually shows the movie’s cards. This hour and a half is a wish: “please please please make me an old-fashioned man, tough, competent, primitive and unemotional. So my dad will love me.”


…sur fils plutôt que père.

The Man of Steel (Everything after the young Clark saves the bus)

This movie slowly descends into the mud of too-loud sound design and pointless CGI stupidity. There is plenty here that, I suppose, looks cool—if cool is determined in your belly and scrotum and is pronounced “Awesome”—but nothing makes sense. How much does Superman weigh? Because in this movie, his Mass x Speed = enough force to destroy a mountain. Cool? Maybe but it doesn’t make sense. He takes off in flight and leaves a crater beneath him every single time. Cool? Maybe, but who wants a local hero that destroys your streets every time he moves from one place to another?

In other words, the already exaggerated-out-of-all-reasonable-proportions source story is being even further exaggerated until the whole exercise—and it becomes an exercise in sound and animation—becomes self-defeating. The “realistic” special effects create a completely non-sensical image of our world that is so unreal that you can’t care. Worse, it makes judgment—and important part of narrative—impossible: in what universe does it make sense for a woman looking at a city reduced to cinders (literally) say “he saved us”? I mean what exactly has been saved? And what happened to heroes who prevented damage? There was a time when they did that.

Thought of in another way, the movie suffers from the increasingly common problem a filmmaker setting up a strong opening, that either establishes a sense of place or a strong character or a particular mood, but then has no idea where to go from there. To often, sensation and excess are offered up as if they amounted to narrative resolution.

People laugh about the obligatory happy ending in Classical film, but I’m a bit nostalgic. Today, Hollywood has no idea how to end movies.


Time Wasters (Unless Seen on hot day to have air-conditioning)

The Great Gatsby

Iron Man 3

Star Trek: Into Darkness