Donald Glover is having a cultural moment.
In the Coens’ first two decades of filmmaking, they created one terrific movie after another—but their gleeful playing around with genre tropes, ironic homages to film history and formal exercises, while sometimes exhilarating (viz. the Danny Boy shootout in Miller’s Crossing), tended to leave their work just shy of greatness. There was a small distance there, which critics said was created by the overly cerebral, self-satisfied filmmaking of brilliant mimics, if not quite great artists.
On the one hand, O Brother, Where Art Thou? is susceptible to many of the same charges. On the other hand, there is much that is transcendent here—a screwball goof on Preston Sturges, prisoner comedies, musicals, gangster Americana and the Old South turns out to be a near perfect cover for a brilliant meditation on and summation of the sweeping cultural shifts of the 20th Century, particularly mass media and other technology, and a sharp critique of nostalgia and national mythologies.
In these ways the film far surpasses its own limitations and shortcuts and points the way to the more personal masterpieces the Coens would create in the coming years—from No Country for Old Men, to A Serious Man and Inside Llewyn Davis.
Subtracting a star right off the bat for the script, everything else conspires to create an often glorious retro B-movie romp. From the gorgeousity that is Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, their stylists and her Wonderbra, to the burnished sunset visuals, to the Vietnam-WW2-Lost World mashup storyline, it's a helluva lotta fun.
Gotta wonder, though, why Larson's embedded photographer isn't constantly taking pictures. Lots of possibilities there, instead of treating this gifted, Oscar-winning actress like mere arm candy for Loki. Which is not to say that she isn't stunningly perfect in shot after shot, unable to be anything less than exactly smart AND sexy at any given moment, and with perfect hair. But, girl, you should be running out of film on this crazy island, if you're this big respected photographer.
This illustrates what I mean about the script. Countless opportunities for creating character go by—for everyone—with no effort from the filmmakers in this regard; instead, we get an oddly rote Sam Jackson barking lame cliches and too many wasted supporting players.
John Goodman fares a bit better, as the nominal expedition leader, because he's John Goodman and thereby infallible. And when crazy John C. Reilly shows up as the Randy Quaid character, who's also weirdly the Tom Hanks character, there's just the right sense of the absurd.
Overall, I would much rather see this kind of movie—lovingly pop big budget B movie, but WITH A SCRIPT—than any "prestige" or "Oscar-bait" bullshit or any portentous superhero sequel. Or even than most indie films.
They say dialogue-driven movies don't play internationally as a way to paper over pure laziness when it comes to developing characters in films. But behavior doesn't require much dialogue, and it's behavior that makes characters more interesting; and interesting characters is what makes good movies great and great movies classics.
Which this Kong ain't.
Recently I finally made it to the Kubrick exhibit, about to close at the Contemporary Jewish Museum. It was a huge thrill for a giant Kubrick nerd like me.
I recently watched King Hu's wuxia masterpiece A Touch of Zen. Among much gorgeous cinematography, great performances and stunning fight choreography this particular cut really tickled me. I assume this kind of audacious jump-cutting is one of the martial arts filmmakers standard tools, but that doesn't make it any less delightful, particularly as an editor and film teacher.
DePalma's comic book Godfather is certainly entertaining, at times. Its eternal dominance of the dorm poster market speaks to its iconic status, but is it anything else? I love this director but—and this may just be over-familiarity—this movie feels toned-down compared to other DePalma films of the era. That's crazy, of course—there's nothing toned-down about this movie, except maybe the simple-mindedness of Oliver Stone's script?
Maybe that's the problem, if there is one. As a celebration of testosterone run amok, the film has legendary status. Some of the action, particularly early on—the refugee camp assassination, the coke score gone chainsawingly wrong—is masterfully directed suspense of the kind few other 80s directors could deliver. The famous shootout in the third act, on the other hand, is merely serviceable, as if DePalma ran out of energy and compensated with (admittedly glorious) excess.
But Tony Montana is not that interesting as a character. The description on the disc box said he was the most ruthless gangster ever depicted onscreen—but don't they just mean the killingest? The most wastefully, self-hatingly over-the-top? The most coked-up? He seems to do whatever is necessary for a given scene to pack the most punch, rather than anything resembling what an actual human being might do. Pacino's feral performance both helps and hurts. He does the over-the-top thing so well it masks the character's basic emptiness.
Much more interesting characters surround him, but are hardly given anything to do—Cuban-born Steven Bauer's Manny Ribera, for example. Or Michelle Pfeiffer, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and Robert Loggia. F. Murray Abraham does the most with a brief role. I wondered a lot about all of the henchman, too—a little bit of curiosity on the part of the filmmakers about any of them would have gone a long way to making this a better movie.
It is a classic of the Awesomeness Quadrant of film appreciation but, alas, not much else.
First time seeing the whole Grindhouse since I saw it in 2007, in my most entertaining theater excursion of that year. I have since seen Death Proof many times but I had never revisited Planet Terror or the fake trailers. So much fun.
It's interesting, too, the different approaches taken by Rodriguez and Tarantino here. On a double bill, the "B" movie was the second one shown; it was assumed to be the lesser effort. The opposite is true here, both from a marketing perspective and in terms of quality.
Rodriguez throws everything he can think of into his extremely gory exploitation spoof, and it's a good time. But, as with so much of his work, Planet Terror is as slipshod and overwrought as it is gleefully malign. It's a lot of fun, but weightless—three stars.
Tarantino, on the other hand, for my money, delivers one of his best films—an unpopular opinion, to be sure, but every subsequent viewing for me only confirms this view. In form, Death Proof is a car horror/serial killer-cum-rape revenge exploitation flick. Functionally, however, Tarantino delivers a Bechdel-acing, feminist thriller, full of his trademark loquacity, bravura directing and at least seven sharply differentiated women whose greatest delight is each other's friendship—five stars.
The slow-burn, talky setups to each half of Death Proof helps the film pay off tremendously, in the first section in a nauseating death by stunt car sequence and in the second section in what is arguably the greatest car chase in film history. Between Planet Terror and Death Proof a meta-argument about new-school and old-school filmmaking takes place. Terror's funny, but absurdly over-the-top effects, is contrasted with Proof's literally strapping one of its characters to the hood of a speeding muscle car (stuntwoman Zoe Bell, playing herself), while said car is repeatedly smashed by another speeding muscle car. The scene is gut-wrenching, heart-in-throat action, earned all the more because we have gotten to know Zoe Bell and understand that she's really doing the stunt.
On this viewing, though, I found myself paying even closer attention to the relationships between the women, which are as joyous, fraught and complex as any real women's friendships. Yes, the dialogue is stylized, heightened, but Tarantino's genius here lies in his creation of friendship dialects that feel exclusive, unique and authentic, even if we don't catch everything at first—because we are not in the circle yet.
In a way, it's because he is not tackling an Important Topic here that the film feels so fresh and buoyant. It's not Quentin vs. the Nazis or Quentin vs. Slavery or Quentin's ultimate statement on Hong Kong cinema. It's Quentin's Women—always his downtime subject anyway—and they are thrillingly alive.
Rewatching this after who knows how many years made me think about the usefulness, or lack thereof, of a five star rating system, such as are used widely online—on Amazon, for instance, or Letterboxd. A friend has a very specific meaning, a pretty rigorous approach, to how he uses the Letterboxd rating scale.
He allots a star for each of the following:
craft (cinematography, direction, design, etc.)
did it move me
A movie can score 0, .5 or 1 star for each category.
Me, it's more about pleasure, which is another way of saying I go with my gut. I don't hand out a lot of fifth stars but 3 1/2 stars is a very common way for me to acknowledge a mainstream film that is quite successful on its own terms.
Actually, if I use his system, I would still give Clueless 3.5 stars. But I also think that it's a movie that points out the weaknesses of the system. It's not a movie that has glorious craft (although the costuming is pretty delightful)—except inasmuch as direction helps actors deliver better performances—but it's highly competent and professional.
The performances are not uniformly great, but there's a LOT to love about a lot of them. Alicia Silverstone is darling, but Brittany Murphy, in particular, is sometimes superbly good, really kind of sneaking up on you—and there's a lot of solid supporting work, from Wallace Shawn to Dan Hedaya to Paul Rudd.
The script is very strong and sly. The film is set in the world of the teen comedy, but it is actually a comedy of manners, like its source material. This is an important point because it makes all the difference between something that could feel like a rehashing of tired movie tropes and what is a surprisingly fresh twist on a classic. Rather than date the film, which is now 20 years old, the celebrated teen argot makes it seem current, in the sense that high school slang is just as impenetrable to outsiders now as ever, and underscores the story's class concerns.
Clueless doesn't move me overmuch, apart from its being cute, and, of course, I always find pleasure in a movie that works so well. The romance—getting the guy—I actually find the least satisfying aspect of it. It feels tacked on (though required) and kind of troubling—I know Cher and Josh are not actually related, but surely their romance would be weird to everyone in their family, wouldn't it? I'd like to overlook that, because they are adorable, but I just can't.
There is a voice here—it's not exactly a personal voice, but a thoughtful, witty and benevolent voice. (It seems unlikely that there would be a special group of Amy Heckerling fans, though surely she has and deserves admirers. She is a unicorn: a successful female Hollywood director. Go ahead: name five more, if you can.)
These elements, adding up as they do to a solid Hollywood classic—and certainly a teen favorite (it still is), and a favorite of high school english teachers, too—don't a masterpiece make. But here's the thing—here's where our star system fails us. Because there is so much more of interest in Clueless than can be encompassed in this way, so much more to talk about.
From class to race, to consumerism, to a depiction of a cultural moment, to a brilliant, striking linkage to a culture two centuries removed, that of the world Jane Austen depicts in Emma (the Clueless source material, of course), to an image of "the kids in America" at the pre-dawn of the Internet Age, and Los Angeles culture, and as a case study of women's paths in Hollywood, and as a critique of the "teen comedy" film, and, of course, as a remarkably teachable text, there are many, many uses of Clueless.
So what I am wondering now is how do we talk about the way we value such works? My appreciation of the film is part nostalgia; I can easily imagine a thoroughly disinterested, even disgusted, response—surely a number of my film school friends would simply claim to hate Clueless, and I'm sure many academics would find it incomprehensible and cringeworthy. Some, not all.
But my point is that, for such a useful (and, frankly, pleasurable) text, three and a half stars does not seem reasonable—yet more stars somehow seems inaccurate.
So what do we call the kind of valuing I'm talking about? What do we talk about when we talk about Clueless?
Fucking brilliant, this.
My Twin Peaks fever building again (Season three. Has. Just. Started. Production!), I came across this craziness I never knew about. Peaks was HUGE in Japan.
This is a great reminder of the difference between great filmmaking and everything else.
As a modern parent of small children and a HUGE John Carpenter fan (in the midst of a JC binge, about which more later), this really hits the sweet spot.
Got a haircut over the weekend. At the salon was a remarkable book, created by Crew, which I think makes hair products.
Where there's man there's Crew.
Oh, believe me, I do. Sometimes twice!
At least not for white men.
Mm, yeah, that and a pair of testicles.
His eyes are telling you you're fat.
Okay, now you just gotta give me a fucking break with this shit. Jesus. Someone, somewhere wrote this. And someone approved it. Then a bunch of Hitler Youth posed for the pictures. And someone printed it and put it in my barbershop. But why? That's what I can't figure out. For the love of god, why?
I was walking my toddler to daycare today, as I do most weekdays, and we arrived at a busy intersection nearby. The OX bus to San Francisco had just dropped off a heavily eye-shadowed sullen Goth teenager with dark feathered hair and was preparing to turn the corner on a green light when it just...stopped. Traffic starting backing up several blocks to the bridge to Bay Farm Island.
What was the deal? Why was the bus driver just sitting there? Did she have to stay there until a certain time? Was the bus broken? Were my son and I too close to the curb? I stepped back, then saw the problem.
In the turn lane of the cross street, in the car-sized box of the lane with the giant words KEEP CLEAR painted in it, a woman was sitting in her minivan. Was she oblivious? Stupid? Selfish? Ignorant? Illiterate? Had she just made a mistake?
The KEEP CLEAR was added to the street about a year or so ago because the many busses that make that turn each day were always having trouble managing it without smashing into other vehicles, and snarling traffic. The OX literally could not have made the turn without the clearance afforded by KEEPING CLEAR that spot of the lane.
So in one dumb/oblivious/stubborn/mistaken stroke, this woman had instantly caused a traffic jam at 8:20 AM at a very busy intersection, one that would probably have a ripple effect that would last for an hour.
It doesn't take much to foul up the social system on which our daily lives depend. We don't often stop to recognize this, nor the immediate corollary: that the system is extraordinarily, almost magically, robust and complex.
The irony is that human beings long for the explicable, the comprehensible, to the extent that we rarely even acknowledge the incredible complexity of the systems that flow into our everyday lives, and even deny it outright (viz, Creationism). Yet this complexity is all around us, all the time.