Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Pattern Recognition

There's a word for the psychological effect that causes people to see Jesus in a piece of toast. It's called "pareidolia", and it's the reason that you can look at the grille of a car and see a human face staring back at you. The human brain likes to see patterns, particularly patterns that it recognizes. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Seeing a purposive universe is a key to the development of science, even if that purposive nature to the universe is an illusion created by the way our brains are wired. Unfortunately, that same pattern recognition feature can become a bug when you can't turn it off. I was thinking about this while I was watching Room 237 (2012, directed by Rodney Ascher), in which five people descant on the "meaning" of Stanley Kubrick's The Shining while trawling through the minutia of the film. Now, I shouldn't throw rocks. I occasionally see things in films that other people don't. Hell, that's what the movie-o-sphere on the internet is for. But I generally don't take the kinds of cognitive leaps that leads the commenters in Room 237 to their conclusions.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Love Among the Ruins

Like all movie fans, I have holes in my knowledge. There are plenty of classic or critically acclaimed films that for one reason or another, I've just never seen. As an example: I don't think I've ever seen all of Ben Hur or Gone With the Wind in a single sitting. I'm pretty sure that I've seen all of both of those movies, but I've seen them in fragments, so my experience of them is more as mosaics than as linear narratives. One of these days, I should rectify this. One hole in my film-going education is Billy Wilder's romantic comedy, A Foreign Affair (1948). A friend of mine gave me a copy of the film on VHS recently (it's scarce on DVD, apparently), and my partner and I sat down to watch it this week. It turns out to be a film that argues forcefully for Wilder as an auteur in the classical sense of the word. It's a film that echoes throughout Wilder's career, both before and after A Foreign Affair was made. It's everything you expect from Wilder: witty, cynical, political, subversive, emotionally brittle. More than that, though, I think it shows the director growing into the mature style that would carry him through the 1950s. It's surprisingly heartfelt, too, given that Wilder was memorably described as having a mind full of razor blades.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Sins of the Fathers

If you pay attention to movies, you may have heard that The Place Beyond the Pines (2012, directed by Derek Cianfrance) has a killer opening shot. It's one of those long tracking shots that will be inevitably compared to Welles. It's the kind of opening that announces the film as having an almost o'rweening ambition. In this shot, we follow carnival stunt rider Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling) as he stalks through the carnival on his way to the metal sphere in which he rides a motorcycle with two other riders. The shot itself is a stunt, but Cianfrance puts an exclamation point on it by placing an actual stunt at the end of it. Some films encompass their entire narratives in their opening shots, coded or not. This one does not code its narrative into the shot, or, rather, if it does, it only codes the first act of the movie: Ryan Gosling with jailhouse tattoos, the motorcycle, the moral squalor. Of the movie's overarching theme? There's nothing at all.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Spam in a Cabin

I didn't go into Fede Alvarez's new version of Evil Dead (2013) expecting to hate it. Contrary to what you may think of people who write about film and their alleged disdain of movies, I want to enjoy the movies I see. I root for them to be good. I know that a lot of horror fans have had it up to here with remakes, but I don't mind them, really. I loved Alvarez's short film, "Panic Attack," in which giant robots destroy Montevideo. That film was chock full of filmmaking moxie and creativity, so I was hopeful. But, it was not to be.

One of the problems with contemporary horror remakes is that, often, the original items are foundational films that have been ripped off so often that their best effects have become genre cliches. That's what happened here. The original item was fresh and original. The remake is derivative and rote, lacking any kind of identity of its own. But let's give credit where credit is due: the new film adds missteps all its own, ported in from the genre's broader pool of cliches. Alas.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Things Are Tough All Over

The last film on the schedule for last weekend's Italian Film Festival was Escort in Love (Nessuno mi può giudicare, 2011, directed by Massimiliano Bruno), a broad comedy of manners that's a bundle of social contradictions. On the one hand, its critique of affluence and consumerist culture places it in direct opposition to Berlusconi's version of Italy. On the other, its sexual mores are manifestly retrograde. When it comes to sex, this reminds me a bit of the tradition of England's Hammer studios: ladling on the moral disapprobation while using sex as the plot's hook and raison d'être. I'm uncomfortable with the slut-shaming nature of its plot, but I have to admit that I did laugh at this film often enough that I'm willing to think harder about what's on the screen than I might have.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Exiles on the Flood

Shun Li and the Poet (Io sono Li, 2011, directed by Andrea Segre) is set in Chioggia, a town near Venice, on the Venetian lagoon, but it's a film that doesn't seem Italian. Oh, don't get me wrong: it lives and breathes its setting. It positively luxuriates in it. It's a film with a sense of place so strong and so dense that it borders on the mythic, but for all that its characters are exiles bearing with them their own culture and experiences. Those cultures and experiences inform the mood of the entire film, which is one of longing and loneliness, of being a stranger in a strange land.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Constant as the Northern Star

I had a weird bit of synchronicity happen to me on the way home from the theater after the first day of the Italian Film Festival. The second movie of the day was Caesar Must Die (2012, directed by Paolo and Vittorio Taviani), a hybrid documentary about a production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar performed by high security prisoners. At one point, one prisoner who is not performing in the play suggests that the story reminds him of his life back in Nigeria. Cut to the drive home. I was listening to Weekends on NPR and the story that was on the radio when I turned it on was a piece about a new Royal Shakespeare Company production of Julius Caesar set in Africa and performed by an all black cast. That sent a bit of frission coursing up the back of my skull. But that's Shakespeare for you, I guess. The Bard can be a reflecting mirror sometimes. You see in him what you bring to him.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Day In, Day Out

The traveling Italian Film Festival rolled into my fair city this weekend. Our version of the event consists of four films over one weekend. The showings are free, which is a good price for a movie. Last year's event filled up and turned people away. This year, the organizers used the bigger auditorium at our local arthouse instead of the small one. This festival is dedicated to bringing recent Italian movies to an American audience who otherwise might not see these films, contemporary distribution models being what they are.

The opening film of this year's edition was One Day More (Il giorno in più 2011, directed by Massimo Venier), a romantic comedy like the ones that Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan used to make in the 1990s. Parts of it are even set in Nora Ephron's version of New York. This isn't a criticism. Not really. Indeed, this is a kind of movie that I need right now, so going in blind and having it scratch an itch I didn't realize was bothering me is an unlooked-for serendipity.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Netflix Roulette: Firestarter Rekindled

Anyone who goes in for genre films has to have a streak of masochism. Genre movies are so rarely good that if you can't take the punishment, you won't survive long enough to find that perfect rose at the top of the mountain of dung. Most genre films lack the ambition to be good even when they have the talent for it. They don't push the envelope because challenging the audience will reduce the box office in the short run even if it creates long term hits or cult items. Audiences don't like to be challenged. I understand that. I do. Sometimes genre films are comfort food, something to put on the TV while you unwind after work, to be consumed when your brain needs to rest.

I've been avoiding very challenging films for the last couple of weeks. For various reasons, my attention span and my general headspace haven't been up to the task. True, there are legitimately great films that don't require the level of concentration that a film by, say, Hou or Kairostami or Wong Kar Wai require, but I just haven't been in the mood. Instead, I've been using media as a kind of Hagen Das for the brain. When I haven't been watching old favorites, I've been watching movies that don't require much in the way of deep analysis and that certainly don't plumb the deeper recesses of my emotions. Most such movies are crap. That's fine. I can own that.

Spinning the roulette wheel has never been kind to me, but it usually offers me up unchallenging movies that I can approach at a cruising altitude of consciousness. One doesn't need to watch very much of this week's offering, Firestarter Rekindled (2002, directed by Robert Iscove), to realize that it is damaged goods. It takes even less time to identify where it goes wrong. The main problem? It has too little story for its running time. That it's nearly three hours long is a foolish gamble even considering that this was conceived as a cable miniseries-slash-series pilot.

Monday, April 01, 2013

White Elephant Blogathon 2013: The Ice Pirates

I feel like I got off easy the first two years I did the White Elephant Blogathon. The way this works is that the participants throw a movie they want to see someone else review into a hat and are granted in turn someone else's movie to review. I'm not usually sadistic when it comes to the  movies I throw into the hat, but other participants are not so magnanimous. If you want to see the wreckage, the White Elephant round-up over at Silly Hats Only should be up in a day or two. In any case, the first year, I drew the delightfully weird Sion Sono film, Exte: Hair Extensions, and last year I got a terrific documentary/epistemological essay in Forbidden Lie$. This year, my luck has run out. This year's White Elephant mathom is The Ice Pirates (1984, directed by Stewart Raffill), a film I distantly remember hating when I saw it in theaters all those years ago. Even then, I knew that the parade had left this moldy and broken bauble far behind.