Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Under the Skin (2014)

(Written for The Film Experience's Hit Me With Your Best Shot series. Thanks, Nathaniel! So nice to have an excuse to actually write.)

Choosing a "best shot" from Under the Skin's tableaux challenged me not only because they are as gorgeous as they are diverse, but also because it's difficult to do them justice with only one still image. Conceptually the film's visual language is often powerful, if a little obvious at times; in motion it's true art, bounding between gloss and low-lit murkiness, dim shabby shacks and vibrant cosmic sunbursts, without ever seeming garish or inconsistent.

Initially I wanted to pick a shot from Johansson's touching "revelation" scene, in which she first contemplates the grandiosity of the humans around her in a montage of their moving gold-filtered figures, layered continually over each other, with her face eventually emerging in the center like a black hole. I found it too hard to get a screen capture that adequately captured the clash between its alien heroine's fundamental emptiness and her new sense of wonder. See below for an approximation:

Still kinda cool, although the effect clearly doesn't translate.

Instead, I chose a shot that, though perhaps not as meaningful as the rest of the film's loud composition, is subtle and fun while remaining expressive: 

What do I love about this shot? The cake ScarJo orders essentially matches her costume's color scheme.

The big cluster of red berries (shirt and lipstick), the single black one (eyes), and the creamy off-white frosting (that delicate complexion) are all garnishes to the dark chocolate filling, a choice with a meaning that shifts from metaphorical to literal as our understanding of this creature changes.

I love the way the diagonal lines of the napkin, offset at equilateral angles by the diagonal lines of the fork, point directly to that one fateful bite of cake. I love the three concentric circles that ensconce it. As if Jonathan Glazer was concerned that we might miss the significance of this scene, the moment at which ScarJo realizes that the pleasures of our species are unattainable for her, he uses every element of the mise-en-scene to put a laser focus on the subject of this long, deliberate close-up.

And I mean, it's cake. How can you not love it?

Oh. :(

Monday, July 7, 2014

The Good Wife Drinking Game

The Good Wife is a show about a lot of things, but it is mostly about how much adult life sucks and how much adults need alcohol to deal with adult life. What better way to celebrate this than to drink along with them? You can make like Kalinda and play with milk, but it sort of defeats the purpose and this show is more fun after throwing back a few anyway.

Take a drink...

1) Any time someone drinks. Obviously! 
2) Any time Alicia is a good wife.
3) Any time Alicia is not a good wife.
4) Any time someone begins a conversation with "I want you to work with me."
5) Any time someone ends a conversation with "Think about it." Take two extra drinks if this conversation began with "I want you to work with me."
6) Any time Kalinda says "I'm on it."
7) Any time a character uses the phrase "fishing expedition." Take an extra drink if it's a judge. 
8) Any time a character uses VidTrope or VidLook. This will often be accompanied by an extra drink for rule 27.
9) Any time a character uses FaceBranch or ChumHum.
10) Any time a character buttons his suit jacket as he stands up.
11) Any time an actor who appeared on The Wire shows up.
12) Any time an actor who went on to appear in The Walking Dead shows up.
13) Take four drinks if an actor who appeared on both The Wire AND The Walking Dead shows up, then ponder this show's amazing eye for acting talent.
14) Take three drinks if an episode begins with a decontextualized image, followed by a cut to black, then another image, then black, then the rest of the episode.
15) Any time the dubbing is bad. (In any over-the-shoulder dialogue shot, watch the mouth of the character with their back to the camera. TV production values ahoy!)
16) Any time someone uses the word "cynic" or any derivative thereof.
17) Any time two Lockhart-Gardner lawyers object at the same time. Take an extra drink for each lawyer past the second.
18) Any time the prosecution and defense simultaneously attempt to talk over the other.
19) Any time "in your opinion?"
20) Any time Michael J. Fox launches into his tardive dyskinesia spiel and you start to feel a little weird because you don't know if the show is turning his Parkinson's into a convenient character trait/running joke or if he's totally cool with it???
21) Any time the show takes a passive-aggressive shot at premium cable.
22) Any time Diane says something in a foreign language.
23) Any time the show demonstrates a questionable understanding of digital fiat currencies or the sites used to exchange them (MtGoX, Silkroad).
24) Any time you can tell the writers desperately wanted to use the word "fuck" or any of its derivatives but were unable to.
25) Any time there's a partner's meeting of paramount importance that doesn't actually resolve or accomplish anything.
26) Any time Alicia is made out to be a racist and gets comically flustered over it.
27) Any time Dave Buckley busts out some cheesy-ass original music. Take an extra drink for seminal hip-hop cut Thicky Trick.
28) Any time you hear THIS song:

(Why did the uploader use a picture from a random anime? Who knows, but of course that's the one I'm going to pick.)
29) Any time you feel a burning sense of injustice that House of Cards is one of the most popular programs on the air and The Good Wife is relegated to the CBS senior ghetto.
30) Any time Elsbeth Tascioni waltzes in to wizard a character out of a seemingly insurmountable plot obstacle and then vanishes, presumably for the rest of the season.

Finish your drink...
31) Any time Will and Diane share a tender dance and your heart melts <3
32) Any time the show kills a major character.
33) Any time Cary uses Dana Lodge's relationship with Kalinda as a quasi-lesbian proxy fuck.
34) Any time Kalinda has a meaningful plotline after season 3. 

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Goldfinger (1964)

(Written for The Film Experience's Hit Me With Your Best Shot series. Thanks, Nathaniel!)

At their best, the early Bond movies make exceptional use of vertical space. The franchise's most striking visual qualities - its lavish set design and architecture, its bombastic aerial shots, the frequent use of picturesque international geography - are highlighted by expansive multi-layered compositions, often swallowing Bond whole. Refer to the dizzying use of crane during a rooftop brawl in You Only Live Twice (which, despite a certain Soderbergh's insistence, is easily the best Bond for my money), or The Spy Who Loved Me's immediately iconic cold open, in which Roger Moore rides that Union Jack parachute all the way down a snowy mountain into white nothingness. Roger Deakins even gets at this pattern in Skyfall, shooting a brief but beautiful fight sequence amidst the skyscrapers of Shanghai where frame after frame is filled with callbacks to the series' vertiginous tendencies: glass panels with clear vertical edges but indefinite bodies, screen images of jellyfish drifting upwards, and of course a long drop for Bond's would-be assassin.

Goldfinger is no exception. It isn't my favorite Bond movie from this decade, but it's definitely the one that set the visual standard for future installations. The foundations of this house style are most apparent in the Switzerland chapter of the film, as demonstrated by Deborah; Ted Moore stuffs his characters into those rolling green hills as often as possible, even mirroring that iconic sniper shot not five minutes after we first see it.

But my favorite shot in Goldfinger employs these principles while at the same time inverting them, stuffing Bond's unconscious body into a cramped space that nonetheless is full of detail:

So many reflective surfaces! So much light! The little gold dots on that stove in the foreground are an especially charming touch. And the way Oddjob's shadow looms dead-center is so menacing. Considering this shot is meant to represent four or five feet of vertical space at most, the composition is unexpectedly busy. Bond occupies little of the frame here, a counterpoint to the equally robust but far more expansive frames he's typically placed in. He's absurdly prone, the first of numerous situations in Goldfinger where he's given the shitty end of the stick and asked to work his way out of bondage/imprisonment/ineffectuality. Perhaps his incompetence in this film is meant to foreshadow his fears of inadequacy in follow-up film Thunderball, expressed through this scene of him ambushed in a highly emasculatory way by recurring terrorist cell SPECTRE:

Nearly naked and being killed by what looks like an out-of-control buttsex machine? The worst possible way to go for a virile superspy. 

Sunday, April 13, 2014

My Ten Favorite Dance Dance Revolution Songs

I was in the throes of a strange adolescence when I fell in love with these songs, and I do not have the musical vocabulary to reason through my choices with anything other than free association and reactionary sentimentality. Proceed with caution.

10) Jenny - Do You Remember Me
Original: Not sure - I read many years ago that this is a cover of a Japanese pop song from the 1970s, but I've since learned that the Internet isn't always a trustworthy place.
First appeared in: DDR MAX (6th Mix)

My friend and I played this at our joint 16th birthday party and my mom told me that I should turn it off or people would start leaving. WHATEVER. For some reason, this song always stuck out amidst the deluge of generic Eurobeat that slammed DDR some time around 5th Mix. It may be Jenny's subtle ESL cadence ("I am gonna g'you a start"???), or that her vocals are tender in a way that the genre rarely manages, or its ridiculously fun Heavy stepcharts, but Do You Remember Me has a lot of personality. I think most people skipped over this song because it was super girly and Dance Dance Revolution is all about looking as cool as possible.

9) Jennifer - If You Were Here
Original: None
First appeared in: 2nd Mix

For better or worse, this song screams DDR. Most people familiar with the game would probably cite smile.dk's Butterfly as the franchise's most notable contribution to popular music, but let's be real - Butterfly is annoying as hell. If You Were Here serves up twice the synthesized Italo Disco goodness with only half of the shrill vocalizations and none of the dubious Orientalism; it's a perfect little encapsulation of the cool-uncool divide that Dance Dance Revolution spent so long trying to navigate. Strange that (if you choose to believe the online whispers of yesterdecade) the opening 13 seconds of this song inspired Naoki Maeda to write MAX 300, the series' first definitive step away from its dance game pretensions.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Profiting from the Revolution in 2013

This post contains spoilers for The East, Closed Circuit, and The Fifth Estate. Of the three, only one is actually worth the time, so if you have any intention of watching The East then read at your own risk!

When Occupy Wall Street burst into life on September 17th, 2011, there was a collective hesitation amongst mainstream media outlets to substantially cover the movement. Plenty of coverage on the lack of coverage, sure, but nothing that demanded any investigative clout. Nate Silver estimates that, between approximately four thousand American news outlets, an average of sixteen stories per day were produced about the movement. It wasn't until a certain act of police brutality that major television and print news networks were spurred into action, at least temporarily - viewers may not always show up for stories of protest, but they sure love their institutional violence. Comparatively, social media mentions of Occupy Wall Street totaled at around fifty thousand as quickly as the first day of the movement, a figure that multiplied five-fold after the pepper spray incident and only increased in the following days.

These figures have been echoed by a persistent sentiment in the political discourse of the last two years: there can be no dependence on the systems of old to enact social change, whether those of the government or the media, and the burden of revolution must fall on the common man. The film industry, finger ever on the pulse of popular opinion, has hardly ignored this. Asking audiences to willingly involve themselves in a movie that demands serious systemic introspection, however, is growing increasingly more difficult. Consider the glut of War on Terror films that came out in the mid- to late-2000s, every one of them not named The Hurt Locker failing to make its budget back in America. Domestic film production companies have since been reticent to finance movies about hot issues, perhaps for good reason: The East, Closed Circuit, and The Fifth Estate were all box-office disasters in this vein, "thrillers" cleaving to contemporary questions that simply didn't sell tickets. Conversely, The Dark Knight Rises came out in 2012 spouting almost the exact opposite message, that an impoverished and angry proletariat should wait around for the billionaire heroes of old to bail them out of trouble, and it made 450 million dollars on our shores. Are these the failings of a populace increasingly tethered to escapist entertainment? Can you sneak pro-corporate imperialism into a movie as long as you put a mask or cape on it?

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Disappointments of 2013

10) The Canyons 

Blech. This movie is gross and dumb and not fun at all. Paul Schrader owes Stephen Rodrick a fruit basket for that piece in the New York Times. Lindsay Lohan is one of entertainment's most tragic figures, painted in front of hundreds of millions of faces as a child star too weakened by her own vices to function, and Rodrick was wise enough to pour that narrative into a greater piece about failure in the film industry. Schrader, who once wrote with Scorsese, unable to get funding and forced to make micro-budget smut with Lohan and James Deen! It would be easier to feel sympathy for him if he hadn't chosen to film a Bret Easton Ellis script, or if the movie itself wasn't lit like a dive bar and completely lacking in even a single distinctive image. Ellis' script is overwrought hokum, as always, his gallery of drug-addled amoral nudes doing and saying nothing of interest. As for La Lohan herself, it's a bad performance, its marginal trainwreck appeal mostly drowned in mawkish amateurism, but it's fairly low on the list of things wrong with The Canyons. It would probably be easiest to list what's not wrong with it: it has boobs, and Deen's dead sociopath eyes are just right to play his menacing Hollywood wannabe role. And that's it. Any other compliments might cause you to actually watch the film, because admittedly it's quite a curiosity. I would recommend reading Rodrick's article, far more generous to the movie than it deserves, and then never thinking about this sorry black mark on the name of independent cinema again.

Friday, February 28, 2014

My Favorite Films of 2013

10) Computer Chess

Period pieces have an unusual burden. They must present a series of values and customs that are antiquated enough to appeal to an audience's historical curiosity, but they also can't be completely unmoored from contemporary framework, for fear of alienation. In that regard, Computer Chess is an anomaly. Shot on analog video cameras and improvised from an eight-page treatment, the film is formally vexing. Dry as a bone, rhythmically uneven, and laced with complex computer jargon, Andrew Bujalski doesn't transport you to the 80s so much as strand you in it, shooting "actors" on obsolete technology as they interact with obsolete technology. To call this niche would be charitable. But Bujalski's fourth feature is more relevant than its creaky exterior lets on, and once this tournament of competing computer chess programs sneaks in plot threads about a budding romance and a government sponsor, you're suddenly smack in the middle of an allegorical story about the birth of a new technological era. The film's freewheeling structure and casual engagement with genre elements allows it to bounce between the intersection of scientific growth and militarization, the human urge to reject new experiences, and the first inkling of a computer's capacity for intelligence, chillingly rendered through a series of simple messages. And this is to say nothing of the fetus or the prostitute or the army of cats. Difficult to watch, not for everyone, but unique enough to really stick.