Thursday, December 25, 2008

Forager's 2008 Big List of Stuff

I usually don't get around to finalizing my annual "Best" lists until after I've had a chance to catch up with all of the year's releases. Going by past experience, that means my 2008 Best lists wouldn't be ready until May 2009.

Here's something different for this year: a big, fruit salad list of my favorite arts/culture stuff from 2008* that I've seen/read/experienced in 2008.

I wanted to annotate each of the entries, but I also wanted to make sure I posted this before I went on my Christmas vacation - so there are some "blanks" here that I might come back to fill in later.

No music here, because I've mostly given up on listening to new releases, although I did like the Coldplay album quite a bit. No novels here because I'm a couple of years behind there, too. No a(r/l)t comix either, for the same reasons: I'm always playing catch up!

I'm on Christmas vacation now, so I'm not sure when I'll get a chance to respond, but questions and comments are always appreciated.

1. Lost Season 4 - In certain RPG circles there's a recurring debate that goes something like this:

On the one side, you have people saying that Star Wars is cool because of all the spaceships, aliens, and powers, so an RPG about Star Wars needs rules for all of the cool spaceships, aliens, and powers. On the other side, you have people saying that Star Wars is compelling because of its underlying dramatic and thematic concerns, so an RPG about Star Wars needs rules to help address these dramatic and thematic concerns. People on this side of the debate tend to dismiss all the powers, spaceships, and aliens as "mere color"- i.e. trappings that you could get rid of and still have something that was Star Wars-like (i.e. something that had the same kind of pulpy feel and mythic reach).

I take a middle ground: Star Wars is compelling and cool because of the virtuous cycle set up between its unique sci-fi trappings (the specific spaceships, powers, and aliens) and its thematic concerns. I think all of the best fantasy and sci-fi manages to find this kind of "sweet spot" where the "rules" of the mythos (i.e., how the Force works, how the Republic is organized politically, etc.) creatively constrain and shape the action and themes.

Sometime during it's second season I started describing Lost as a series that moment-for-moment was one of the most entertaining shows on television, but on a larger, "seasonal" scale was extremely unsatisfying. In other words, they couldn't find that sweet spot. All the little bits and pieces worked, but they didn't seem like they added up to anything and it was frustrating because it seemed like they were supposed to add up to something. In his piece on the Season 4 finale, Sean argued that getting too concerned about the big picture was, perhaps, not the best way to watch this show. But it's hard not to get caught up in all the details of the Lost mythos, since they're interwoven so completely into the action. Anyway, I think it wasn't until the end of Season 3 and (especially) the entirety of Season 4 that the Lost team perfected the balance between micro and macro: moment-to-moment the show was as strong as ever and the slowly but steadily emerging outlines of the "big picture" helped to ground these moments and give them greater thematic resonance because of the way they fit into the mosaic of the mythos.

2. Profit motive and the whispering wind - I want to write something of my own, but for now read this.

3. Cartooning class with Matthew Thurber - Taking this course was definitely one of the best decisions I made all year. Matt is a very good teacher and the class was laid back and a lot of fun. Plus, I learned a lot and even ended up getting to make my own minicomic. I've been a comics/cartoons fan for just about as long as I can remember, but the last time I ever really tried to draw a comic was back when I was in the third grade. What's interesting to me as a guy who spends a decent percentage of his spare time thinking about/writing about comics is how much insight making even a pretty basic minicomic gave me into comics in general. It was an eye-opening experience. Like - I love that part in Donald Phelps' essay on Gould's Dick Tracy where he talks about the way Gould uses blacks, but it wasn't until I tried (and failed) to get a similar effect that I was able to grasp exactly what Gould had achieved.

4. The revival of Last Year at Marienbad at Film Forum - What a difference a print makes! Fred Camper, one of my favorite film critics, always emphasizes that if you've only seen a movie on video, you haven't really seen it. After having first seen Last Year at Marienbad, years ago, on a pretty lousy VHS tape, watching it on a beautiful print at the Film Forum was a revelation. On video, the image was cramped and fuzzy. The subtitles were barely readable and incomplete: I could comprehend French well enough to know that stuff was left out, but not enough to follow the twisty-turny narration. At the Film Forum, everything was clear. This is a beautiful, clever movie - and it's also pretty funny.

5. The Fold - A funny, super smart erotic, sci-fi thriller webseries (co-written and produced by my friends Ray and Polly, but I'd recommend . Erotic, not so much because it's made to turn you on (although it might), but because, unlike most fiction, it acknowledges that the part of us given to erotic fantasizing isn't completely compartmentalized from the rest our lives. It's filled with lots of smart, sci-fi-ish observations about the way Web 2.0 has affected our sense of the border between public and private life and how that, in turn, has affected those fantasies.

6. Burn After Reading - I wrote about this movie already, here.

7. Tim and Eric's Awesome Show Great Job Season 3 - I've written a little bit about Tim and Eric before, here. This season of their show had some of their funniest moments, but it's also probably their most inaccessible body of work, in that it's more self-referential than ever, more focused on exploring its own little world. This has a downside - guests and bits trotted out seemingly as "fanservice" - but it also allows for stuff like the "Jim and Derrick" episode, one of the best takes on MTV-style youth culture since Beavis and Butthead.

8. Wall-E - I like that A.O. Scott has to qualify his praise of Milk as being the best live action mainstream American movie he saw all year.

9. Slam Dunk Vol. 1 - I've gotten back into reading manga, but on most of the series I'm following I'm waaaaay behind. Slam Dunk is the only "new" manga I've started and Vol. 1 is the only manga I've read that was actually released this year. So this was the first year ever that the bulk of my comics-reading enjoyment came from manga, so I'll Slam Dunk stand in for all of the stuff I read and enjoyed.

10. Jason Statham - Almost singlehandedly keeping the action movie alive.

11. The "Brand New Day" and Beyond Era of The Amazing Spider-Man - I read some comics that I thought were better than these and a few comics that I enjoyed more, but I really dig what the writing/editorial team is doing with this book. Which is, as I've written before, trying to elaborate and expand on the John Romita/Stan Lee run without straying too far from what makes the character and concept work. In theory, I'm all for wild and woolly super-hero comics that make no sense to outsiders and I genuinely like those idiosyncrasies of super-hero comics that get filed off when they get turned into super-hero movies, but, in practice, the decisions made by the Spidey Team have led to better super-hero comics (in just about any way you want to define "better") than the weirder/more ambitious ones made by the folks over at DC or in Marvel's "Event Department".

Anyway, this has gotten me back in the comic store on a weekly basis, something I couldn't have imagined happening at this time last year.

12. Rambo - I want to write about this movie, but don't have time to do it justice right now. I'll just say that I think this movie is a kind of inversion of Saving Private Ryan, esp. in terms of how salvation relates to warfare and in terms of how it addresses the question "what good can come of the kind of mechanized violence that rips people to shreds". It's The Wild Bunch for the new millennium. (And this reminds me that I still need to see JCVD.)

13. The Happening - I wrote about this a couple of times.

14. Black Summer by Warren Ellis and Juan Jose Ryp - I wrote about this comic already, here. I'm not as into their follow-up, No Heroes - it's #0 issue was really great, the next two issues were a bit of a let down - but I still think Ryp is one of the few guys drawing super-hero comics who'd be worth following no matter who was doing the writing. Frank Quitely would be one of the others. Luckily, they both tend to work with guys who know how to write these kinds of things.

15. All of the classic comic strip collections that I hope to either get as Christmas gifts or get for myself with any B&N gift cards I might recieve - Kind of cheating since these aren't things I've actually read. But it definitely makes me very happy that there's the distinct possibility that I'll be able to spend New Year's Eve pouring over that Scorchy Smith collection.

*More or less: I always allow for some wiggle room.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Don't Like

Here are some recentish movies I don't like:

Untraceable - like Saw for people who are too squeamish for Saw. But what's the point of that, really?

Cloverfield - Lots of imagination/thought went into marketing. Very little went into filmmaking.

Vantage Point - The point of breaking up a movie down by different characters' p.o.v.s is to evoke the sense that no one personal can ever know the complete truth. Here it's just a gimmick to try to trick us into thinking there's more going on here than in your standard episode of 24 (there isn't).

Surfwise - I hate it when documentaries massage their information to make a more conventionally shaped story. In this case, leaving out obviously damning info until the midway point to serve as a dramatic "gotcha".

The King of Kong - I hate it when documentaries massage their information to make a more conventionally shaped story. In this case, altering the facts and the timeline to make someone out as "the bad guy".

Tropic Thunder - No organizing intelligence behind the filmmaking. Plus, Stiller works way too hard at his gags.

21 - Morally and aesthetically repellent. It's ok to betray people to get what you want as long as those people were dicks to you first. WTF?!?! Also - it looks like a beer commercial.

In the Valley of Elah - Earnest and it's heart is in the right place. Unfortunately, the earnestness doesn't mesh well with the pulpy mystery plot.

Atonement - Works really hard to let you know that this isn't Masterpiece Theatre. In the process, defangs the book and turns it into a fairly conventional melodrama/romance.

Juno - Good supporting cast cannot save film from unbelievable central character and unbearable indieverse stylings.

Sweeney Todd - You can't cast someone who can't sing as Sweeney Todd, because you need to be able to sing effortlessly before you can give a performance while singing. Johnny Depp's little voice turns a giant character into a pipsqueak, which drains the horror from the story. Also - awful CGI version of London makes me long for MGM soundstages.

The Transformers - Likable enough, but, really, really badly made. Lots of boneheaded ideas like: two entirely superfluous subplots involving characters who are not Transformers, having the action shot so quickly we can't appreciate any of the robot design work that the filmmakers spent millions of dollars on.

Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters - Like 5 episodes of the TV show stuck together. Unfortunately, though the TV show can be genius, usually it's only genius about once ever three episodes.

Hot Rod - Just what you were waiting for: a bog standard SNL comedy shot in the "quirky" indie style of Napoleon Dynamite. I love to see independent voices get turned into easily marketable fashions. Yay capitalism!

Wild Hogs - A good idea - middle class dudes playing at outlaws - but executed without any guts while making all the easy jokes.

La Vie en rose - Mind boggling stupid. The central performance had 100% more acting than any other performance I've seen in the last year or so.

Evan Almighty - It's not just that there are "getting hit in the balls" jokes. It's that the "getting hit in the balls" jokes are handled in the most lazy-ass way possible. Also - it cost over $100 Million and it looks (in terms of design and cinematography) worse than many movies made for mere tens of thousands of dollars.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Action Movies, Part 3: Taxonomy!

Here's a brief history of the posts related to this conversation on action movies:

1: Movie Club discussion of T-2.

2: My first Gold Age of Action Movies post. Turned out to be the only one (the follow-up post on Speed remains half-written).

3: Sean's response is really worth reading. (That Speed post was supposed to address a lot of these concerns - honest!!! ;) )

4: Post on f/x and super-hero movies.

5: Sean's Bourne/Bond post and my response (check out the comments, too).

Which brings us (mostly) up to date... I'm going to use this post to regroup a bit and throw some more ideas out there.

I see two major trends in contempo American action cinema - two major branches on the family tree - and both are a response to the challenge of CGI-driven fx.

Branch 1: "Plastic Playsets and Comic Book Movies". These movies present stylized action in stylized worlds. The use of space in these movies tends to be expressionistic. There is an emphasis on self-contained settings and a decided lack of emphasis on creating the illusion of contiguous spaces.

(By which I mean: compare the opening of Speed - which goes to great lengths to show us the elevator shaft and exactly how the elevator shaft is connected to the rest of the building - or the entirety of Die Hard - where both the "geography" of the building and how the building fits into its surroundings are important - to the Matrix movies - where the major action scenes are set in places that are like closed-off levels of a video game (the rooftops, the hallway, the highway).)

This branch takes CGI and uses it to make movies more like comic books (once again, I'm following Bordwell), anime, and wuxia.

Major works include: The Matrix, the Star Wars prequels, Sin City, Kill Bill, 300, Beowulf, Speed Racer.

Minor works include: many videogame adaptations, 30 Days of Night.
Interesting outliers: Fight Club and Panic Room.

Branch 2: "Impact Impressionism". This is what I've been talking about in the Bourne/Bond post. There's a focus here on any number of techniques that read as "realistic" and are meant to give off a "you are there"-feeling. The illusion of spatial authenticity and integrity so important to "Golden Age" action movies takes a backseat to creating the illusion of integrity and authenticity of feeling. The videogame analogue here is the first-person shooter.*

Branch 1 uses CGI to create an intense fantasy experience, Branch 2 uses CGI (but tries to mask this use) to create an intense experience of realism.

Major works include: the Omaha beach sequence from Saving Private Ryan, Black Hawk Down, Tony Scott movies, the Bourne Movies.

Minor works include: Mission: Impossible 3, Quantum of Solace.

Outliers (not fully action movies but indicative of the trend): Phone Booth, Tigerland, 28 Days Later, 28 Weeks Later.

I tend to be more down, in general, on Branch 2 movies for a number of reasons.

One is that, as a practical matter, I think it leads to sloppier filmmaking, or, rather, it allows the filmmakers to get away with being sloppier than they otherwise might be.

Two is that - and this might be my crankiness getting in the way of my judgment - critics tend to talk about these movies in terms of greater realism, ignoring the fact that the realism is superficial. And that's partly the filmmakers fault, in that Greengrass, say, adapts the cinema verite style from his "non-fiction" movies when he's making the Bournes.

Related to this: I see the "Impressionistic" Style as part of a larger trend away from a kind of filmmaking where meaning lies in the shot and towards a kind of filmmaking where meaning lies more in the rhythms of the editing (see also: Michael Bay). I think that this is an interesting trend, but that talking about it in terms of realism obscures the issue.

That's also why I'm skeptical about observations like Tom Spurgeon's (from this comment thread):

Wasn't the fact that Bond was indistinguishable from his opponents in some of the fights in the second movie part of the point? His actions gain clarity as he gains moral clarity and is able to better distinguish himself against the people he's fighting.

The way the two films use the action to compare Bond to others -- including the woman in this latest film -- is the most interesting thing about the two movies.
It isn't just that I don't buy that theory in this specific case. After all, we can tell Bond and Mitchell apart just fine during the chase, but not when they get to the scaffolding - the part of the sequence that would be the most difficult to choreograph and edit for clarity. And, aside from the chase that happens at the opera, I don't think there's much that distinguishes the rest of the action sequences from those of many other contemporary action movies.

I do think these techniques can be used expressively. I think that 28 Days Later's final action works in the way that Tom is suggesting the Quantum scaffolding fight works.**

Three is that I can't shake the sense that in these kinds of movies the filmmakers are working extra hard to put something over on me. It comes off as frantic and desperate.

*Steve Sailer's point about No Country for Old Men is interesting here: he argues that the Coens figured out you have to slow things down to give a "real" FPS experience.

**I also think this is part of what Greengrass does in Ultimatum.

Punisher: War Zone

I thought there were a lot of great, little moments in Punisher: War Zone, but, for me, the best part was when I realized that they were essentially serving up a bat-shit, gonzo version of Tim Burton's Batman.

Like - Jigsaw's origin sequence. In Batman, it's an accident that Jack Napier falls into the vat of chemicals that start his transformation into the Joker. But Punisher drops Billy into the recycling machine - and turns it on - on purpose. (Blowback is one of the themes of the movie.*)

I don't think the movie ranks with the best Punisher stories from the comic books (the Ennis/Dillon "Welcome Back Frank", the Ennis/Robertson Born, the Ennis/Corben The End, the Grant/Zeck Return to Big Nothing, the best stories from Mike Baron's run), but I think it's a pretty good Punisher story and more faithful to the comics than the last Punisher movie**.

But I don't think there are many - any? - super-hero movies that manage to stand alongside their best super-hero comics counterparts. Even something as great as Tim Burton's Batman Returns pales next to Frank's The Dark Knight Returns. And no screen version of Superman has come anywhere close to Morrison's All-Star Superman or Moore's Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? let alone Siegel's "The Death of Superman". The Spider-Man movies are enjoyable, well-made action/adventure/fantasy movies, but the Ditko/Lee and Romita/Lee Spider-Man comics are among the greatest works of American popular art.

One of the reasons I balk at ideas like the ones Tucker proposes in this post is that super-hero movies already give us super-hero stories with all of the idiosyncrasies filed off.

*"Blowback" would be a good name for a Punisher villain.

**I like the last Punisher movie, too, but for different reasons. It a more of a standard, but well-done, action B-movie.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Action Movies, Part 2: Bond/Bourne

Some thoughts on the action sequences in Quantum of Solace inspired by this post from Sean (read it first):

1. The new Bond films - especially Quantum of Solace - are drawing from and responding to the Bourne movies - at least in terms of how they handle action sequences. The foot chase over the roofs in Sienna, which happens pretty early in Quantum, is a more cleanly (and conventionally) put together version of the rooftop chase in The Bourne Ultimatum, but, like the Bourne chase, it is edited and shot to emphasize - viscerally, impressionistically - the physical impact the action has on the pursuer and pursued.

2. Like the Bourne movies - especially the two directed by Paul Greengrass - the new Bonds have adopted a faux cinema verite camera style to give the action sequences a feeling of greater realism than a more conventional style would. Following David Bordwell, I'd argue that this "realism" is superficial and that these techniques - shaky, probing hand held camera work, with lots of reframing on the go - cover up the fact that the action is just as super-heroic and over-the-top as anything in a John McTiernan or James Cameron movie.

3. Speaking of James Cameron: the tremendous emphasis the impressionistic Bourne/Bond action places on visceral, physical impact comes at the expense of any kind of focus on exploring and navigating spaces. Compare the rooftop chases from Ultimatum and Quantum to the backyard foot chase in Point Break. In all three cases, the way the bodies move - the way they encounter and overcome the obstacles in their way (see Sean's point about the Bourne/Bond characters being physical geniuses) - is important. But in the Bourne and the Bond, those rooftops are reduced to being obstacles - the filmmakers aren't interested in conveying a sense of Tangier or Siena - while the chase in Point Break is as much concerned with taking us through a tour of a certain kind of Los Angeles geography.*

(The big exceptions from the Bourne movies are the kitchen fight scene from Supremacy - which really is about confined spaces - and the train station sequence from Ultimatum - which is more a suspense sequence than an action sequence, but I shouldn't split hairs.)

4. The Bond movies remain more conventional than Greengrass' Bournes in that they do not maintain the faux cinema verite style throughout the entire movie.** I would argue that this makes the Bourne movies more conceptually ambitious and accomplished, but also rather tiring. In fact, I got tired watching Ultimatum in the same way and for many of the same reason I got tired watching Michael Bay's Transformers. Bay and Greengrass have different reasons for getting to a place where the individual shot means less than the rhythms of a series of shots. In Transformers, this gives us special-effects that are happening too quickly for us to appreciate in any way. In The Bourne Ultimatum, this gives us action scenes where it's not important that we can parse what is happening or how it is happening, as long as we get that visceral sense of stuff is happening.

5. This leads to a sloppiness in the way the action scenes are put together in these movies. In Quantum, the battle between Bond and Mitchell on the scaffolding is impossible to parse in the conventional sense of being able to figure out who exactly is doing what to whom - i.e. it's shot and edited in such a way that you can't tell Bond and Mitchell apart at least until its over (Bond is the one who kills the other guy).***

Do we have to understand it? Not necessarily: we can still appreciate all the flailing around for the rhythms of movement and editing. But it seems to me that we've lost something important.

6. I'd argue that these impressionistic action sequences lack a sense of orchestration. Well, that's not quite true, but several kinds of "organizational patterns" that filmmakers can use and have traditionally used to orchestrate action sequences are thrown out the window in order to better focus on impact and rhythm. There's really nothing in these movies like the long sequence in Terminator 2 where we start off with a foot chase in a mall, it escalates into a car chase through the streets, and ends up in the L.A. river with the T-1000 in a Mack truck bearing down on Arnold. There's build in what Cameron is doing - a simultaneous ratcheting up of danger, scale, and pace, all the while getting the most out of his chosen locations. But in impressionistic sequences, everything is pitched at the same the level.

7. I think the Bourne and Bond movies are only, barely half-heartedly "abstract" in any meaningful and/or beautiful way. They don't go far enough. Their formal concerns are completely superficial: the more conventional "organizing patterns" they got rid of aren't replaced with anything, let alone the more rigorous action abstractions of Kinji Fukasaku's 1970s yakuza movies or Michael Mann's recent work.****

8. Actually, maybe that's the problem: the action sequences here are less than conventional. That is, they take the conventional "Golden Age" action sequence, throw out any concern for geography, pacing, and orchestration, and overuse all those "you are there" techniques that give off a visceral sense of impact. They are conventional scenes that are doing less, but they are doing less a lot harder (not to mention a lot louder).

9. I should mention that I do like these movies, even though I'm not blown away by the action sequences. I think Sean really gets at what makes these characters compelling and I'd have only good things to say about the acting. I also think these movies are interesting in terms of how they present the post-millennial secret agent.

10. And just so you know where I'm coming from, Rambo is my favorite action movie of the year, so far.

*In deference to Los Angeles Plays Itself, I'd be happy to amend this to something like "creates its own imaginary version of Los Angeles geography", but I'd add that this tends to be a different kind of L.A. than we're used to from the movies. I think Cameron's L.A. movies, in general, are pretty savvy about using the geography of L.A. in this way.

**Not that I expect many people to get this comparison, but Quantum of Solace : The Bourne Ultimatum :: Hot Rod : Napoleon Dynamite.

***See also: the car chase at the beginning of Quantum.

****I could also mention Akira Kurosawa and Seijin Suzuki.