Wednesday, January 13, 2016


Dennis wrote,
"Forget animation. It really does seem like there’s some sort of golden age developing in terms of the breadth of subject matter, the availability and, of course, the general quality of documentaries we’ve been lucky enough to see coming out each year."
Wait—Inside Out wasn't a documentary? As someone who lives with anxiety as a condition, you could have fooled me. I caught up with the Pixar hit in late fall, and had to pause the film several times and ask myself if I wanted to keep watching it. Far from what Phil saw as the film's tendency to act as " a Master's thesis on the wonders of childhood imagination," I felt so, um, inside the film's often harrowing willingness (especially within a "kids' movie") to address issues of depression, anxiety, and social/familial fear that I took the movie's vision of imagination as a bridge between emotional states less as "wonderment" (despite the gorgeousness of the animation, and the on-point performances of all the voice actors) than sad compromise. And I mean that in a good way--compared to the cheap and convenient way movies and their makers often frame issues of both gender and illness (hi, Jennifer Lawrence!), Inside Out struck me as rather brave in its willingness to note Riley's state as something legitimate to address and to understand as possibly on-going (however it shifts in her future). At least they didn't end the movie with her family gambling over her in a dance contest.
(Ah, Jennifer Lawrence... I know she is a virtually untouchable figure these days-- Deadspin's Drew Magary made a joke a year or two ago that even breathing a hint that she might not be All That would cause a person to be sent to a remote detention facility by the internet Powers That Be--but at the risk of excommunication, I'm afraid I have to dissent from Phil's call for an "amen" on her status as "the single solitary person doing the most to keep the art form alive while carrying an entire industry on her back." (Brian, it was all I could do to resist posting a picture of Jennifer Lawrence backstage after her Oscar win, flipping the bird. Ha! - Dennis)
I'm pretty sure Jennifer Lawrence actually exists (to paraphrase what the late Ralph Nader* once said of the Reagans' racist appeal to white Democrats) to make Hollywood feel better about its ageism, and to let the rest of us be amused by their unacknowledged ironies. Her fellow stars can cheer her on while wearing their various ribbons at the Globes or the Oscars, without feeling awkward about how much of the 'dramatic' career they're celebrating (I don't know whether I was more moved by her ACTING! in the terrifying "exploding microwave" scene in American Hustle or the "I can TOO chew scenery better than De Niro! And in the same scene!" moments in Silver Linings Playbook) is based on repeatedly giving 40-something roles to a twenty-something with box office pull. That this is occurring while Lawrence is currently burnishing her "I've got a great bullshit detector" persona in interviews and solipsistic Lenny pieces proves that finding a career path through maudlin manipulation didn’t die with Stallone’s stardom).
I would agree that it was a great year for documentaries, though, even if I can't share the enthusiasm for Best of Enemies, a film I really wanted to like because of my interest in politics and media, but which I found invested so much in cliches about that intersection (does every American documentary about politics have to take a portentous "And nothing was ever the same again!" approach to its subjects? Doesn't that over-thematizing do its subjects a disservice?), that--like Vidal and Buckley, Jr.--it felt as much like facile bullshit as it did genuine insight. But I share the general enthusiasm for What Happened, Miss Simone?, and think Amy is powerful precisely for how well it balances its subject's vast talent with her addictions, poor familial support, and all of the other factors which lead to her death. I went in not thinking the film could sustain itself, given the brevity of Amy Winehouse's career, but found its use of close-ups, performance pieces, and narration a riveting way to stay inside Winehouse's head. On a similar note, I think Simone works because of its desire to give us the full range of Nina Simone's interests, talents, and flaws. It would be so easy to either make her a tragic figure, or a simplified icon, but the movie triumphed for me because its deeply textured blend of music, found footage, talking heads, and broader cultural context generated (for me, at least), a rewarding ambivalence-- I could never settle on whether she seemed like a visionary or an occasionally monstrous figure, and I think that's all to the good.
Speaking of monstrous, any love here for The Look of Silence? I watched this one because it turned up on Matt Zoller Seitz's ten-best list, and while I still have not seen more than clips from its sister film The Act of Killing (and may never want to see more than that), I thought Joshua Oppenheimer's look at the impacts of the 1965 Indonesian massacres was incredibly compelling. The "brother-goes-to-confront-his-brother's-killers" structure could be (and sometimes is) a loaded and manipulative deck; but the film's use of long takes and its willingness to linger on a scene of quiet interrogation means that out of the stunt structure of its narrative come moments of real, horrific humanity and revelation. I can't think of a film from this past year where I whispered "holy shit" to myself more often as I watched it.
Similarly, Timbuktu worked for me in a way that the vile Beasts of No Nation (or as I called it on Twitter, "Platoon for people who thought Oliver Stone was just too damn subtle") didn't, because amidst its quiet horrors it allowed for moments of genuine poetry and passion. I know our "favorite scenes/moments" exchange is still waiting down the line here, but mine would certainly include the pantomimed soccer-game-without-a-ball that Abderrahmane Sissako stages midway though (a lovely visual extension of the very funny debate over Zidane that happens earlier in the film). I suppose what all this I've been going on about for several paragraphs has in common is a desire to not be hit over the head with the filmmaker's (self) righteousness and certainty of thesis. I feel like I get enough of that in the real world (and given the Presidential campaigns ahead this year, am certain I will get more of it, but less skillfully done, if the combined derp power of Donald Trump's rallies and the "Ready for Hillary" campaign videos are any indication).
Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to everyone's discussions about Creed. Real life meant I couldn't get to it as I'd hoped this weekend, but I do want to see it soon. If anyone's curious, I went long (warning: really, *really* long) on my fascination with Sylvester Stallone's bildungs-Adrian here-- probably think the movies are more varied and interesting (the absurd Rocky IV aside) than some of my fellow Treehousers do. I also suspect I could not be as moving in my response to Creed as Odie just was in his response about it to Phil. 
But contra Odie, I'm kind of thrilled that Ryan Coogler's getting to make Black Panther, not only because T'Challa has been one of my favorite comic book characters since I was six, but because I think he could do really spectacular things with the franchise, and that there's something to be said for the pleasures of a really well-made blockbuster. (And anyway, when Hail, Caesar! is unleashed upon the world next month, I'm certain a vast swath of Film Twitter will treat it with the same slack-mouthed excitement that they like to condescend to Star Wars and Marvel fans about. As Michael Corleone reminded us, we're all part of the same (if varied) hypocrisy**).
So, which franchises would I go to bat for? I share the general enthusiasm for The Man from U.N.C.L.E. that others do, and only hope that if some mad-person gives Guy Ritchie another $100 million for the sequel, that we get even more of Hugh Grant's dessicated charm (he really does have the potential to age into our generation's George Sanders). Of course, I mourn the impossibility of a Pixels 2, as we all do. But what about Spectre?
This bizarrely-maligned entry into the Bond canon was a delight--I loved the way it balanced the more humorous/extravagant feel of the Moore years with empty landscapes and a weirdly obsessive track-down narrative that both captured the existential tone of Ian Fleming's You only Live Twice more than any other Bond movie (and I mean the book here, with its digressive travelogues and haunted Japanese poison flower gardens and all that, not the movie with Donald Pleasence as Dr. Evil). I've often thought of the Craig years as a Voltronesque experience in rebuilding a character-- that Casino Royale was about stripping the character of his armor to restore his humanity, and Skyfall about returning the lush style of the sixties Bonds to the franchise (the less said about Quantum of Solace, the better). Letting Craig enjoy the more comedic aspects of the franchise (because those Connery Bonds were many things, but they were *never* "gritty") feels like it completes the franchise rebuild-- he now seems capable of going almost anywhere with the character (so of course, he's making sounds about leaving him behind).
If comparing franchise movie-making to an 80s cartoon robot seems like a put-down, I don't mean it to be. This might the result of being born into the Spielberg/Lucas era (the first Star Wars was the first movie I saw, at the age of four), but one of the things I love about good, serialized storytelling is tracing out how it shifts and changes, how it absorbs from and adds to the pop culture around it, how it can be the best kind of bricolage. Sometimes you get horrors like current cycle of "No, watching overwhelmingly white groups of teens being chased through a torture park really *is* feminist!!" YA adaptations, to be sure. But I applaud the Bond films, and their 53-year ability to adapt, survive, and even occasionally surprise (let's say I was not expecting a reference to Fleming's offbeat character study, "The Hildebrand Rarity," to pop up amidst Spectre's exploding airplanes, even if its melancholy emotional tenor makes it the skeleton key to all of Craig's Bond films).
Anyway, as film scholar David Bordwell taught us all those years ago, "art house" cinema can be just as much a set of formulas as any kind of mass culture studio product, with its own strict formal and ideological precepts and rules for audience response (given the current cultural economics of film writing, it might be no accident that hipster enclave Pitchfork funded its own site for awhile). And if a movie, however well-made, doesn't set off the right bells, then I guess it's Spotlight? I'm fascinated by what Dennis, Odie and Marya note as the growing backlash to the film, which seems based precisely on a condescension to what they describe as its straight-ahead style (conversely, I'd argue the recent David O. Russell cycle gets a pass due to its general incoherence: "That sure was a big, convoluted mess-- so there must've been something going on in there!").
I still want to very much see Spotlight and the film y'all have described as its opposite number, the lush Carol, but it all makes me appreciate the craftsmanship and balance of movies like The Martian and The Force Awakens even more: I share Marya's delight in the former's optimistic spirit (and if Chiwetel Ejiofor doesn't score a nomination on Thursday, I think we need to do an open audit of Academy members), and in its self-reflexive exploration of craft: "How do we get this guy home?" as a commentary on 40 years of Ridley Scott's sleek techno-genius. Figuring out the balance between epic and intimate, between mass appeal and tiny moments that breathe, are what fueled some of my favorite films of 2015. Who knows, Odie? Maybe that woman who thought Welles' arthouse Falstaff should be in the Macy's parade had accidentally stumbled on to the secret balance of cinema.
*Yes, I'm well aware that Ralph Nader is still alive. But given his behavior over the last 15 years, you could've fooled me.

**I'm looking forward to Hail, Caesar! too! Really! (Put down those pitchforks! Noooo). But we can still laugh at our mutual biases, right?
Brian Doan is an Affiliate Scholar in Cinema Studies at Oberlin College, where he taught courses in film and popular culture from 2006-2011. In addition to academic research and publications on film, comics, TV and advertising, he is a contributor at and blogs at Bubblegum Aesthetics. Brian also enjoys the music of Prince and is actively annoyed by the work of Seth MacFarlane. 

1 comment:

Dave R said...

Q of S - really it is an very good Bond film, very very good Bond film. If the writers strike did not happen it would have been a Fantastic Bond film. The biggest compliant this film receives is the editing style,a 'Bourne rip off' and such. While that may be true and it could have been paired down a bit in 3 of the 4 major action set pieces, the opening car chase is with out equal in the entire Bond cannon. Remember these were stylistic choices Marc Forster made and it was a fundamental shift away from how Bond films were shot in the past. The viewer was put INTO the action with Bond - to really feel what it was like to be James Bond in these situation, not viewing from a far or detached observer. It is this tonal quality that stretches through the whole movie and as a result it is the freshest, fiercest and fastest Bond movie to date. A perfect Act 4 to the events that made up Casino Royale.