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by Bill Gibron

31 Dec 2008

2008 was the year of the auteur. It was the time for the mind behind the lens. While previous seasons have seen hit or miss offerings from the best and brightest of the artform’s directorial gods, this year was different. Original celluloid voices like Guillermo Del Toro (Hellboy II), Clint Eastwood (Changeling) and Michel Gondry (Be Kind, Rewind) delivered some of their finest flourishes, while new voices like Timur Bekmambetov (Wanted), Steve McQueen (Hunger), and screenwriter turned filmmaker Charlie Kaufman (Synecdoche, New York) brought their new and novel ideas to the motion picture party. In 2008, it was all about the vision, storytelling supported with big ideas, wild ambitions, and all the technical tools one could muster to realize both. Yet there was also room for more personal approaches, pictures where the only moviemaking magic needed was a great cast, a solid script, and someone to make sure both got showcased.

In looking over the 200 plus films SE&L reviewed this year, a few that didn’t make the final ten deserve more than an honorable mention. Man on Wire proved that individual drive and daring-do can overcome even the most outsized architectural aims, while Trouble the Water offered a searing documentary denouncement of the post-Katrina relief efforts of the Bush Administration. Iron Man catapulted Jon Favreau, Robert Downey Jr., and Marvel Comics to the frontlines of the Summer popcorn parade, while Tropic Thunder and The Pineapple Express proved that comedy didn’t have to be pretty, or always joking, to make its merry point. We even got the final installment in Dario Argento’s long gestating Three Mothers trilogy - and wouldn’t you know it, The Mother of Tears was a terrific return to form. Even the universally touted titles that didn’t come close to breaching the Best (Frost/Nixon, Doubt, The Reader) argued for the talent of the individuals calling the shots.

While you may argue with a few of the choices (and the placement of a couple more), the following collection of neo-classics represents SE&L‘s selections for the year’s superior cinematic experiences. They may not all be serious. Some may cross the line when it comes to movie mastery. And at least one is oft cited as one of 2008’s worst. But for our metaphysical money, these were the titles that made the year in film worth watching, starting with: 

#10 - Zack and Miri Make a Porno
In a year that’s seen such spry and subversive comedies as Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Pineapple Express, and Tropic Thunder, Zack and Miri Make a Porno is the best. It represents yet another triumph for Kevin Smith (after the amazing Clerks II) and showcases a growing maturity for a filmmaking once noted for wallowing in the infantile. Sure, scatology abounds, and no one could accuse Smith of taking his subject too seriously. But when it comes time to deliver the goods, to get past the obvious T&A toilet humor and offer up something sweet and sincere, the king of the ViewAskew Universe literally rules. With its combination of heart and hilarity, bawdy blackouts and cleverly drawn characters, Smith starts out strong and ends up delivering something that’s timeless as well as tasteless.

#9 - Speed Racer
Forget all the curmudgeonly criticism that argues for this movie’s optical overload capacity - Speed Racer is a modern masterpiece, no two ways about it. Andy and Larry Wachowski have succeeded in creating a living, breathing comic book, complete with nods to psychedelic pen and ink designs, four panel editing, and overflowing visual pizzazz. Anyone who can’t see the brilliant blockbuster fun the brothers are having with this material has spent one too many hours staring at gloomy independent dramas about siblings struggling to deal with their dysfunctionality. This is filmmaking as fireworks, directorial innovation that, while not as media morphing as The Matrix, stands as the highest level of celluloid creativity. From races that routinely flaunt the rules of realism to a story that stresses the noble over the nasty, Speed Racer soars to the highest levels of movie magic.

#8 - Wall-E
By its very definition, imagination is limitless. The only true restrictions to the notion exist in the connection to actual human thought. Clearly, whoever is hiring (or perhaps, cloning) the creative forces at Pixar have found a way to circumvent said biological boundary. In an artistic endeavor where there are no sure things, this astounding animation studio has that most unprecedented of reputations - they never make a mistake. Not only are their films fantastic examples of motion picture craftsmanship, but they keep getting better with each and every new offering. Take their latest, the special sci-fi allegory WALL*E. It a stunning achievement in computer generated imagery, and once again expands the company’s range in dealing with subject matter both speculative and wonderfully sly.

#7 - The Dark Knight
Like a symphony where every note is exactly where it needs to be, or a painting without a brushstroke wasted, The Dark Knight is an unabashed, unashamedly great film. It’s a flawless amalgamation of moviemaker and material, Christopher Nolan’s calling card for future cinematic superstardom. All those comparisons to The Godfather and Heat are well earned. This is popcorn buzz built for the complex mind, a motion picture monolith constructed out of carefully placed plot and performance pieces. At two and a half hours, it’s epic in approach. But as the battle between men who are each facing their own inner demons and unsettled sources of personal discontent, its subtext and scope are unmatched. This is Coppola at his crime opera peak, Kubrick coming to the comic book and banging on all meticulously crafted cylinders.

#6 - The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is not a movie made for a single viewing. At nearly three hours in length, its detail and depth become distant and unclear. There are times when it looks like director David Fincher is operating under a delusion of self-indulgence, basic camera tricks and CG deception taking over where narrative drive and clear characterization would suffice. But then the premise kicks in, an idea so novel and yet so simple that it often threatens to spin out of control. But this is where Fincher shines - bringing the outrageous and the outsized back into scale with the rest of his vision. As a result, Benjamin Button stands as the kind of filmmaking achievement that formidable French auteur theory was meant to celebrate. Without Fincher behind the scenes, this would be an occasionally interesting, often irritating trifle. With him, it’s some manner of masterpiece.

#5 - Milk
So much about Milk speaks to our current Prop 8 poisoned society that it should be studied by anyone wondering where hate and bigotry get their clear eyed cravenness. Mirroring the main character’s rise from activist to Establishment, director Gus Van Sant wisely juxtaposes archival footage of former Miss America and orange juice spokesperson Anita Bryant as part of the perspective. Militant in her narrow-minded opposition to equal rights, she’s Sarah Palin sent back in a time machine, a smiley faced whack job that preaches Christian charity while targeting her baseless Bible at an entire underclass. Her moral majority preaching, position as part of what will eventually be the religious right rejuvenation of the Republican Party, is frightening, and reminds us that Milk the man truly laid his life on the line for the cause.

#4 - The Wrestler
Taking its tone from Rod Serling’s memorable Requiem for a Heavyweight while utilizing a breathtaking neo-realistic approach, Darren Aronofsky’s sensational The Wrestler marks a major comeback for Mickey Rourke and ‘70s style filmmaking in general. Offering up characters of quiet charms and deep emotional pain and a cinema verite cinematography that frequently feels like a documentary, this is a tour de force of acting, directing, and stripped down motion picture passion. It’s rare when a film can make you feel such emotional extremes. On the one hand, the story of The Ram’s rise and fall is truly heartbreaking, helped in no small part by Rourke’s Oscar worthy performance. But there is so much more going on here, from the concept of a career lost long ago to an attempt at redemption that almost anyone can relate to. It makes for a truly remarkable entertainment experience.

#3 - Slumdog Millionaire
There ought to be a law against Danny Boyle and his undeniable moviemaking brilliance. After all, if an everyday item threatened to take your breath away as often and as intensely as this Englishman’s many cinematic masterworks, the government would at least step in and find a way to stick a warning label on it. After the serious sci-fi stunner Sunshine, Boyle’s trip into the darkened heart of impoverished India is the perfect illustration of celluloid as avant-art. From landscapes that literally look alien in nature and creation, to a simple love story spread out among elements both tragic and electric, this is perhaps the best film of Boyle’s already illustrious career - and this is the man who gave us Trainspotting, Millions, and 28 Days Later, mind you.

#2 - Let the Right One In
With its bursts of horrific violence and stark, matter of fact mannerism, Let the Right One In instantly becomes one of the few outright foreign fright film classics. It uses routine to unholy ends, and takes the standard coming of age and turns it right on its pointy, perplexed and paranormal little head. Rare is the movie that can take the trials and tribulations of peer pressure and personal awareness and make it into something both celebratory and sinister. But thanks to the efforts of Thomas Alfredson and his collaboration with source novelist John Lindqvist, we wind up with a compelling companion to every story of overlooked and alienated youth ever told. It’s like A Catcher in the Rye or A Separate Peace with night stalkers.

#1 - Revolutionary Road
Apparently, in order to enjoy Sam Mendes take on Revolutionary Road, you have to (a) have never read the Yates’ book it is based on, (b) never watched an episode of AMC’s au courant revisionist hipster drama Mad Men, and (c) believe the filmmaker’s previous Oscar winning effort, American Beauty, was not some award season anomaly. Add in the “isn’t that cute” conceit of having three members of James Cameron’s Titanic back onscreen (Kate Winslet, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kathy Bates) and the pedigree everyone involved provides, and you’re either drunk on the idea of the film, or failing to see the true mess that Mendes has made. Actually, none of this is true. In a season which sees underage sex with war criminals celebrated and old racists made warm and fuzzy, Revolutionary Road stands as a bold bit of filmmaking. It’s not always pleasant, but then again, neither is life.

by Rob Horning

31 Dec 2008

Instant gratification, as we all have learned, is readily available on the internet. If I wanted to and had some ethical flexibility, I could check out PopMatters’ list of top albums for the year, do a little creative searching involving the word torrent and have all the ones that piqued my interest. The same goes for games, films, books, basically anything culturally current. It is the apotheosis in the society-wide trend toward convenience. We get what we want with minimal fuss and as little human interaction as possible. The triumphs of in the midst of the worst retailing season in modern history also demonstrate how online convenience has conquered America.

But is the ensuing hegemony of online retail merely setting up a backlash? Will we rebound into a yearning for more complex and challenging shopping missions? Will we miss the so-called experience economy? Let me once more go to the bottomless well of insight that is Albert Hirschman’s Shifting Involvements. In discussing how disappointment with consumerism might lead to a widespread embrace of public involvement, Hirschman points out that part of the appeal of civic life is that it makes for “a confusion between striving and attaining” that allows the process of involvement to provide as much pleasure as actually achieving the ends one strives for. The process becomes part of the pleasure, if not the better part of it, augmenting the pleasure achieved from the ostensible goal of the process. Therefore the “free-rider problem”—in which people wait for other people to do the work of public action—to a degree vanishes. “To elect a free ride under the circumstances would be equivalent to declining a delicious meal and to swallow a satiation-producing pill that is not even particularly effective.” Free riders get none of the pleasure of effort for its own sake, which becomes more and more appealing the more commercial interests try to make our acquisitive life effortless, and the more we are stung by the disappointments of mere things. They never satisfy for long, they lose their novelty, they fail to deliver their full promise, they cease to reflect who we are, etc. Public action, as action, expresses our being in a different way, as something that’s not merely curatorial. And in public action, the pleasures from the process and the goal compound rather than alternate, as they often do in the classical economists’ analysis of consumption, in which we exchange hard-earned money for goods that then provide pleasure. Hirschman points out that under the ordinary conditions of exchange, “the separation of the whole process into means and ends, or costs and benefits, occurs almost spontaneously”—separating out the pleasure of the process of striving from the pleasure of attainment. This seems to be a perfect description of the instantaneous, near friction-free gratification of online shopping.

But don’t we want shopping to be more like public action, and have the process of seeking our holy-grail goods be a substantial part of the pleasure itself? Thanks to digitization, anyone can have lots of media-based stuff, which for me anyway has long been the only stuff that mattered. (I haven’t grown up into the world of home furnishings yet.) So the pleasures of mere possession are threatened, as are the pleasures of use—when you have 49 days worth of music to listen to, it becomes hard to know where to start—it even becomes a positive source of anxiety. Acquiring the next album seems relatively simple and possibly more pleasurable by comparison.

HIrschman evokes the pilgrimage to describe a sort of private consumption that thrives on difficulty, that becomes more meaningful the more trouble they cause: “The discomforts suffered and perils confronted during the trip were part and parcel of the total ‘liminal’ experience sought by the pilgrim.” The next wave of retail may make a more explicit attempt to incorporate this kind of arduousness into it, meaningful inconveniences that during pilgrimages can take on symbolic significance. In other words, shopping may customarily encorporate the difficulty level that hardcore collectors already make their raison d’etre—the sort of people who fly to Japan to get a pair of limited-edition sneakers at a boutique whose very existence is a closely guarded secret. Perhaps all the stores of the future will be secret boutiques. (Ugh. I sound like a futurist all of a sudden.)

by Rob Horning

31 Dec 2008

Prompted by the availability of David Harvey’s lectures, I have been reading Marx’s Capital and am sure to have all sorts of mind-numbing posts about the insights I’ve derived from it in the new year. (Look forward to my close reading of footnote 39 in the chapter about large-scale industry.) But I was glad to read that, like Sarkozy I am part of a current fad for Marx, prompted apparently by the end of capitalism as we know it and all that. The Times of London reported on the Marxmania in October:

Visitors to Karl Marx’s birthplace in Trier have soared – 40,000 so far this year – with many coming from China, eastern Germany, Cuba and Bolivia.“I can’t tell you how many times I have heard people say: ‘The man was right!’,” says Beatrix Bouvier, chief curator of the museum. Alexander Kluge, the film director, is preparing to make a blockbuster film out of Das Kapital. Little wonder, since Marx comes highly recommended. President Sarkozy of France has been seen flicking through the book, while the Peer Steinbrück, the German Finance Minister, recently admitted: “Certain parts of Marx’s thinking are really not so bad.” The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, gave him a decent review last month: “Marx long ago observed the way in which unbridled capitalism became a kind of mythology, ascribing reality, power and agency to things that had no life in themselves.” Even the Pope has put in a good word for the old atheist – praising his “great analytical skill”.

And according to Princeton historian Howard James,

The implication of Marx’s renewed popularity is that capitalism is now universally accepted as being fundamentally broken, with the financial system at the heart of the problem. Marx’s description of “the fetishism of commodities” — the translation of goods into tradable assets, disembodied from either the process of creation or their usefulness — seems entirely relevant to the complex process of securitization, in which values seem to be hidden by obscure transactions.

(James does warn against adopting the Communist Manifesto as solution to the financial crisis, however.)

The most relevant part of Capital to the current crisis that I’ve read thus far comes in chapter 3, about money, section 3(b) (here in a somewhat lackluster translation):

The function of money as the means of payment implies a contradiction without a terminus medius. In so far as the payments balance one another, money functions only ideally as money of account, as a measure of value. In so far as actual payments have to be made, money does not serve as a circulating medium, as a mere transient agent in the interchange of products, but as the individual incarnation of social labour, as the independent form of existence of exchange value, as the universal commodity. This contradiction comes to a head in those phases of industrial and commercial crises which are known as monetary crises. Such a crisis occurs only where the ever-lengthening chain of payments, and an artificial system of settling them, has been fully developed. Whenever there is a general and extensive disturbance of this mechanism, no matter what its cause, money becomes suddenly and immediately transformed, from its merely ideal shape of money of account, into hard cash. Profane commodities can no longer replace it. The use-value of commodities becomes value-less, and their value vanishes in the presence of its own independent form. On the eve of crisis, the bourgeois, with the self-sufficiency that springs from intoxicating prosperity, declares money to be a vain imagination. Commodities alone are money. But now the cry is everywhere: money alone is a commodity! As the hart pants after fresh water, so pants his soul after money, the only wealth. In a crisis, the antithesis between commodities and their value-form, money, becomes heightened into an absolute contradiction. Hence, in such events, the form under which money appears is of no importance. The money famine continues, whether payments have to be made in gold or in credit money such as bank notes.

In troubled credit markets, all collateral is suspect.

by Zeth Lundy

31 Dec 2008

Nu-progressive types beware! At first blush, Tony Bennett can seem to be a crotchety old traditionalist, harshly critical of any popular music trend that flirts outside the pages of the Great American Songbook. During his appearance on Elvis Costello’s weekly Spectacle show (Wednesdays at 9pm EST/PST on the Sundance Channel), Bennett faults contemporary music for its emphasis on banging and clanging (there’s “too many drums…instead of harmony and melody,” he explains, adding, “and they’re all screaming!”), recalls a time when “the audience was so with the music,” and deems Porter, Gershwin, Ellington, Mercer, and Arlen as “America’s greatest ambassadors.” He even performs Kern and Mercer’s “I’m Old Fashioned” to underscore his position, for anyone still unsure on where Bennett stands.

by Bill Gibron

31 Dec 2008

It’s been said before, but it really does bear repeating - making worst-of lists is a heck of a lot harder than making best-of determinations. The explanation for why may seem specious at first, but follow along anyway. You see, something good stands out for numerous reasons – brilliant direction, monumental acting, a quick and brainy script, an approach to a subject that is fresh and dynamic. Even when that story seems similar and the elements reek of the routine, energy and mood, tone and treatment can all aid in a film’s final aesthetic determination. But with the bad, the facets are sadly familiar – boring execution, non-existing cinematics, lame, ludicrous writing and performances that range from problematic to pathetic. These aggravating aspects never change, they never alter their underachieving patchiness. A crappy effort is a crappy effort, each one feeling similarly unworthy and unacceptable.

So when faced with the mountain of mediocrity a DVD critic is exposed to each year, finding a mere 10 that turn your stomach is an exercise in remembrance and repulsion. Looking back means identifying works that wasted your time, revisiting filmmakers whose arrogance blinded them to their true lack of artistic acumen, and generally re-experiencing the pain of time lost, sensibilities shaken, and interest waned. Again, the same rules apply here as with the Films You’ve Never Heard Of category. The movie itself can be from any year – the digital version, however, had to arrive on the medium in the past 12 months. For the most part, we are dealing with dull, lifeless movie macabre. But there is at least one example of company-based callousness - a fine film flummoxed by a significantly subpar presentation. And don’t forget: a Criterion Collection version of crap is still crap.

So grab hold of your aesthetic and wade in cautiously. SE&L‘s 10 Worst DVDs of 2008 have been known to drown even the most adventurous cinematic swimmer:

#10 - Sukiyaki Western Django
On one hand, it’s hard to include this DVD as part of the year’s worst. The film, a saucy spaghetti Western homage by Japanese cult legend Takashi Miike, is magnificent. It literally vibrates off the screen with visual flare and motion picture majesty. But when deciding to release the title on the home theater format, First Look Pictures cut nearly 35 minutes out of the movie, in essence, destroying Miike’s tone and narrative pitch. While the film was hard enough to follow originally (all the actors speak in awkward phonetic English), this edit makes it almost unfathomable. A true crime against cinema.

#9 - Dead and Gone
Oh here we go again - another wannabe thriller in which a proposed psychological twist in the last ten minutes is supposed to salvage the previous 80 minutes of homemade horror tedium. In this case, a young lothario carts his terminally ill meal ticket up to a mountain cabin to “relax”. Naturally, things take a fatal turn. The “who/what/where” of this Sci-Fi channel like chum is never more important than the “why”? Why did anyone think this script was something other than awful, and why did they let someone named Yossi Sasson direct it. Sadly, we will never really know.

#8 - Sharp as Marbles
In a clear case of being able to judge a lame indie comedy by the title company it keeps, this slacker Three Stooges knockoff makes Moe, Larry and Curly look like members of MENSA. There is nothing worse than a movie that thinks its banging on all satiric cylinders when, in actuality, it threw a humor rod several telegraphed jokes back. From the amateurish acting to the shorthanded style of characterization (gold chain = loverboy), writers Eric and Steve Vilio match the dunderheaded direction by former camera operator John Banovich blow for befuddling blow. Some may find this funny. Most will experience a different kind of ‘gagging’.

#7 - Diaries of the Living Dead: Dead Summer/ Deadhunter: Seville Zombies
The poor zombie. All it wants to do is wander around the countryside aimlessly and snack on the occasional human victim. Mess with this monster too much, however, and it will come back to metaphysically bite you in the butt. The two excuses for terror here try to bring a novel approach to the living dead archetype: Summer is Slacker with skin snacking, while Deadhunter is a Tarantino- esque Terminator rip-off. But neither are inventive or professional enough to resemble anything other than camcorder crap. If there was something similar to supernatural slander, the entire undead race should sue.

#6 - Nigel Tomm’s Hamlet
Tomm is one of those “artists” who mandate that said term be used very, very loosely. In the case of his DVD interpretations of classic works of literature (including The Catcher in the Rye and Waiting for Godot), this purveyor of post-modern meta-mung offers up nothing but blank screens. That’s right. Zip. Zilch. Nada. For this seminal Shakespeare work, we are treated to 63 minutes of white. White. No dialogue. No context. Just a $15.99 bunch of emptiness. Clearly this critic wasn’t sufficiently smart, or adequately hip, or schooled in the ways of avant-garde hucksterism to “get it”., Frankly, it’s hard to imagine who would be.

#5 - Primal
Primal is a great big batch of pickled turds. It’s a hackneyed excuse for terror that doesn’t understand the first thing about film. It is obvious that writer/director Steffan Schlachtenhaufen just doesn’t get horror. He believes that one note characters, thrown into a vague and unexplained situation, can be made macabre by simply adding some guy in a gorilla suit. While the credits proclaim the individuals in charge of the creature effects, it looks like something the local costume shop rejected as too ratty. Add in some Commodore 64 CGI effect and you’ve got the most trying direct to DVD experience since Disney stopped making their unnecessary animated sequels.

#4 - The Wailer II
The Wailer II should be subtitled The Waste of Time Too. It commits the biggest sin a scary movie can commandeer - it’s a horror film that forgets to be frightening. So busy building local Mexican color and unnecessary mythos that it constantly loses focus, director Paul Miller obviously believes that bloodshed, along with occasional stopovers at Sentimentality City, will carry his culturally correct dread. Clearly, he’s a few frijoles short of a chimichonga. Atmosphere and tone are one thing - spending inordinately large amounts of time establishing one characters’ love of dominos is another. Pure South of the Border bullspit.

#3 - Shutter (Unrated)
Shutter is more than merely derivative. If you looked in the dictionary under ‘subpar ethnic horror’, it would exist somewhere between some Lithuanian torture porn and Seytan, the Turkish Exorcist. For director Masayuki Ochiai, it’s a ‘can’t win’ situation. On the one hand, if he delivers a wonderful and ethereal fright flick, he must face the fading fortunes of the already DOA J-Horror category. If, on the other hand, he creates some stool - which this movie certainly is - he’s put yet another nail in the fad’s already over-spiked and mostly buried coffin. Time to call the coroner - Asian fright is official dead.

#2 - Chronicles of an Exorcism
There is nothing worse than an idea with a lot of potential being sideswiped by filmmakers who have absolutely no idea how to realize it. So when someone came up with the notion of taking the now overused first person POV, ‘you are there style’ of camera work to cover a supposed “actual” case of demonic possession, the frightmare possibilities appeared endless. Unfortunately, only the movie seemed to last forever. Aside from the dopey demonology and the grade school level performances, there is nothing remotely “real” here. Even the scenes that are proposed to shock are stale and uninteresting.

#1 - Star Wars: The Clone Wars
Welcome to George Lucas’ latest bad, bad decision. Star Wars: The Clone Wars, is easily classified as an “if you don’t mind” styled production. If you don’t mind unfocused battle sequences that seem to go on forever, if you don’t mind characterization clearly aimed at the under seven set, if you don’t mind overly cute merchandising bows and dialogue as ditzy as any Jar Jar monologue, you probably will enjoy yourself. But if the very thought of a drag queen Jabba the Hutt horrifies you, or if your fandom is killed by the concept that our future Darth Vader is referred to, lovingly and often, as “Skyguy”, Clone Wars will close the door on your love of this series forever. Sure, it’s merely the set up for an upcoming Cartoon Network/TNT series, but leave it to Lucas to drive a stake in his space opera’s vampiric heart once and for all.

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