Long-time readers know that one of our regular features is best picture predictions. This year we went 8/10, guessing that “Invictus” would be the apartheid movie nominated (it wasn’t; “District 9” was), and that “The Hangover” would be the movie picked to tell the mainstream, “Hey–we’re still cool” (it wasn’t; “The Blind Side” was). Since I just defended the melodrama yesterday, it will sound rather hypocritical of me to attack the selection of “The Blind Side,” but….there’s no reason that this movie should have been nominated for Best Picture, and its inclusion can only be considered as another attempt by dandified cosmopolitans to embrace tea party values.

Now, I like Sandra Bullock; “Speed” is easily one of the best action movies of the ’90s, and “The Net” truly captured the potential pratfalls of the internet age and our subsequent loss of privacy. I’m glad she was nominated for an Academy Award for leading actress since she clearly elevated what would have been a poor man’s “The Express” into a cultural phenomenon. But I can’t escape the feeling that one of three not-very-good-reasons led to TBS’ nomination: 1) academy members don’t watch enough movies to vote fully informed; 2) Hollywood is patting itself on the back for continuing to recycle plots and further their dominance of archetypal mythology; 3) An ill-founded embrace of populism.

Nominating “The Blind Side” is like Obama’s bank tax: you can defend it as smart policy given the circumstances, but the timing suggests an appeal to crowds for the sake of an appeal to crowds. Will more people watch the Oscars now? Probably–though the inclusion of movies like “Inglourious Basterds,” “Up,” and “Avatar” would have helped anyway. The Academy seems to be going full-press, hoping that a turn to big box-office films will salvage the midterms.

I’m ashamed to admit it, but I recently watched the Lifetime “Pregnancy Pact” movie. I’m not going to try to pin the blame on anyone else (though I should probably blame our commenter Kerry, who covered the real story extensively at bostonist); I watched the movie because I wanted to see what happened to Thora Birch.

If you asked me years ago, I would have bet that Thora Birch would have become a major actress. There’s nothing delicate about her performance in “American Beauty,” a role that doesn’t require her to leave the archetype of sallow, disaffected teen, but her performance in “Ghost World,” showed an actress of real complexity. She easily could have fallen into the trap of reiterating her character from “American Beauty,” but instead she added nuance and charm to Enid. You can see it in her mannerisms; she carries Enid with what can only be described as an awkward strength. It’s a very physical performance, even as it’s mostly static; Enid is often still or stilted, turning the frame into a comic book panel.

But then she disappeared into a glut of Lifetime and low-rent horror movies (these are arguably the same thing). And when Ellen Page burst on the scene, Thora Birch became the former Ellen Page.

So too, it seems, did Claire Danes. In a profile this weekend, the New York Times referred to Danes as “the Ellen Page of the 90s” given her clear on-screen intelligence. This intelligence became blunted by a series of roles that saw her as nothing more than love interest.

“For quite a while I was bemoaning the fact that I kept playing people who fell in love,” Ms. Danes said. “That was their primary job and experience, to become gaga over a man. It was just starting to feel routine.”

The Times goes on to mention “Shopgirl,” where it’s more correct to say that she is the object of affection rather than the emotional one. Still, the point is taken: in “Shopgirl,” our proto-Ellen Page hardly had to stretch herself.

Are there only two emotions for women on screen: to be scared, and to be in love? Read the rest of this entry »

This is a short follow-up to yesterday’s post.

“4 films by Bogdanovich is easy,” says the email, “Try someone harder.” Ok, here goes your Director-Digest #2: Woody Allen

  • 1 Recognized Masterpiece: “Manhattan” (1979)
  • 1 Very Early Film: “Sleeper” (1973)
  • 1 Late and Popular Film: “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” (2008)
  • 1 Film X: “Interiors” (1978)

This list wasn’t very hard to come up with, and is, in my mind, an excellent crash course in things Woody.

But, for anyone who wants to know how I came up with it, explanation after the jump. Read the rest of this entry »

Mr. Pickle’s last post on bar construction got me thinking about film spectatorship and how we collect media. For most of us, going to the theater is hardly the predominate form of movie watching. Movies are more often a homebound, domestic activity; in the 1980s there was even a genre of film criticism devoted to random TV viewings of classic movies. (See, Geoffrey Hartman on North by Northwest). 3D films like “Avatar” are designed to heighten the public spectacle and bring back the communal aspects of film-going, but the other major developments in film technology (digital film, digital distribution, iPod videos) are all designed to further miniaturize the viewing experience, putting more movies in your home or pocket. DVD collecting never actually made much sense as an activity; with very few exceptions, these were mass produced, easily acquired. But in an era of increased on-demand, Netflix streaming, Surfthechannel, and puppet show re-enactments (Ok, I made that up; but just imagine trying to recreate “Being John Malkovich!” Would you need to cast people as the marionettes? What layers of meaning and textuality!), it makes even less sense than it did before.

And yet, there is a strong limiting factor in acquiring media: time. The standard completist model of watching everything by a given director, or every movie on the AFI top-100 list, or every movie ever nominated for best picture and best director (who would do such a thing? oh wait…) is a commitment that most of us can’t make. Watching movies conflicts with other parts of domestic life and causes domestic conflicts. Shall I write thank you notes, or focus on the nuances of Renoir? Improve my meatloaf recipe, or discover the hidden aesthetic of Michael Bay? Better: McG. We need a system for generating viewing lists. Think “Man and Fish,” Mr. Pickle tells us.

So let’s say that you want to catch up on the work of a given director. You need a way to catch only the fish. Last week the Brattle did a one day program on Robert Altman. They aired two movies unavailable on DVD (“Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean”; “Brewster McCloud”), one cult classic (“The Long Goodbye”), and one widely recognized masterpiece (“The Player”). Coming from different time periods, it’s a pretty fair sampling of Altman’s work. Is it missing his magnum opus? Yes, but that makes it all the more interesting. This is a workable template for a director digest–minus the films not on DVD, of course.

Let’s try this with another director. Read the rest of this entry »

That Monsieur Hammerskjold and I disagree about the relative merit of “The Hurt Locker” is no secret to…well, the two of us.  But his underestimation of this film in such a public forum leaves me with no choice but to defend its honor.  No, this was not a planned “point-counter-point” on our part.  This is merely an argument 1) on behalf of the best film of the year and 2) that it is much better than “Point Break”.

Dash’s points are well taken.  Mrs. Bigelow’s films pursue a similar aesthetic in service of a similar question.  She is interested in the adrenaline junkie, the ultra-modern adventurer who seeks thrills for his own sake.  The gendered language is purposeful here because Bigelow foucses on a central myth of the American male: rugged, individualistic, glory-seeking despite the odds and a hostile environment.  However, it is only with “The Hurt Locker” that she has made something truly salient.

Again, I agree with Dash that “Point Break” is better than is usually thought, though our reasons are quite different.  I read that movie as a subtle yet substantial critique of one aspect of American culture through one particulr incarnation of the myth of the American male just mentioned.  To watch legitimate celebrities (Swayze and Reeves) wax pseudo-philosophical and seek faux-enlightenment at the barrel of a gun is a clever, pithy (hat-tip Dash) and ultimately withering critique of the American west coast.  The movie shows how southern California co-opts and corrupts legitimate spiritual traditions and how even those who purport to reject its plastic, disposable version of consumer capitalism are co-opted by it.  Utah, from America’s interior (and frontier at that!) is also co-opted by it.  (The fact that he is an FBI agent is extremely interesting given the disproportionate number of Mormons who enthusiastically serve in that particular agency).  Though on its surface American culture (and in this film Bigelow has her guns aimed at Hollywood) appears inane and insane, it is also built upon violence.

However, “Point Break” is limited by its gimmicky conceit.  Read the rest of this entry »

That “The Hurt Locker” is only marginally better than “Point Break” is a fact that becomes clearer on repeat viewings of both films. This is not a knock against “The Hurt Locker,” the Best Picture contender for which Kathryn Bigelow is justifiably considered the favorite to win Best Director; rather, consider it a vote of confidence in “Point Break,” a cult film most famous for having bank robbers don rubber masks of ex-presidents (Patrick Swayze’s Reagan is particularly chilling).

The theme of both movies is “to thine own self be true.” Jeremy Renner’s character in “The Hurt Locker” needs to arrive at a greater understanding of his self in order to be at peace, never mind the social consequences, and both Reeves’ Johnny Utah and Swayze’s Bodhi (short, of course, for Bodhisattva) need to reach their inner selves in order to find enlightenment. Reeves’ search for his self is expressed on film via his love for Lori Petty’s Tyler. The two are made to look nearly identical, and the romance shifts from an expression of Utah’s narcissism to an embrace of a totally different persona. Meanwhile, Bodhi’s spirituality is increasingly contrasted with his destructive actions.

The presidents masks, then, are not just rejections of consumerism and pithy critiques of politics, but invitations to look below the beautiful exteriors. Bodhi lives up to the symbolism of his name, though perhaps not in the ways we expect. Meanwhile, Keanu Reeves wears no mask while undercover. He hides in plain sight, behind his old identity. Like Jeremy Renner in “The Hurt Locker”, he rejects the mask or giant protective suit. Theirs is a sort of open-key encryption. Read the rest of this entry »