Posts Tagged ‘Isthmus’

Brainy but not terribly philosophical

July 22, 2010

It seems sort of imperative that I weigh in on Inception, which I saw with a predictably packed house at Sundance Cinemas on Tuesday night. (Can’t beat my seat: Row 1, Seat 1—the front-left corner of the theater. I’m exceedingly pleased with the fact that I didn’t end up going to see the film in IMAX.) My Isthmus colleague Kimberly Jones did an exemplary job articulating many of the things I found commendable about Inception: Its often exhilarating imagery, its intellectually demanding nature, its persistent desire to engage the viewer in its (perhaps overly logical) investigation of the human imagination in both its conscious and unconscious manifestations.

Kimberly is right on the money when she says

[Inception is] a mindbender bearing superficial resemblance to other question-reality manifestos like The Matrix and Synecdoche, New York, only minus the giddy pop psychology of the former and the me-myself-and-I self-seeking of the latter.

My immediate impression of Inception was that, for as convoluted as its narrative gets—with all of its meta-dreams and meta-meta-dreams and whatnot—it’s actually a pretty straightforward, conventional action flick. Nolan never ceases to employ genre conventions in the service of conjuring a cinematic experience whose most salient quality is its overwhelming bigness. That said, it’s undoubtedly a tight, lucid action flick, with only a handful of off-puttingly sluggish passages (such as the DiCaprio-Cotillard segments, despite Cotillard’s complex if overpraised performance).

Yet, because the film is, in my reading, more or less conventional, I couldn’t help but find its excavations of fictional minds to be more pretentious than substantial. Keep in mind that I’m not using “pretentious” here as a pejorative. Don’t get me wrong, I dig Nolan’s aspirations of creating films that are once riveting and cerebral, freight trains and therapy couches; I only wish that he had upped the film’s headiness and, by extension, its difficulty as a cinematic text.

The comparisons between Inception and the sci-fi films of Andrei Tarkovsky, namely Stalker and Solaris, are pretty apt, though Tarkovsky wasn’t nearly as afraid of ambiguity and irrationality, those being such key aspects of human subjectivity, as is Nolan, whose vision of the mind is defined by internal rules rather than by curious, often erratic responses to external phenomena. Also, like other critics I was puzzled by the film’s depiction of dreams as being mostly asexual; then again, the film’s PG-13 rating is probably a necessary concession in order for it to touch an audience the size of which it deserves.

Go see Inception, and hope that it puts up big  numbers at the box office (which seems very likely at this point) so that more big-budget films that take such thought-provoking stuff as their primary subjects are produced. But let’s also hope that, should films with comparably lofty intellectual aims become more commonplace, those films will handle their material in a less straightforward fashion. Recall Cocteau’s remarks on cinema’s potential “to practice a kind of hypnotism on the public and enable a large number of people to dream the same dream together”: “[cinema] is a first-class vehicle of ideas and of poetry that can take the viewer into realms that previously only sleep and dreams had led him to.”

The bad, the bad and the bad

July 17, 2010

So the Found Footage Festival screened a film entitled “Computer Beach Party” (1987) at the Orpheum’s Stage Door Theater last night. Yes, I was there. Yes, I wrote about it for Isthmus. Yes, the article can be found here. Yes, “Computer Beach Party” lived up to almost all of my expectations, though as far as bad movies go, it was definitely hurt by its utter lack of aluminum foil UFOs, flashlight laser beams and recycled footage of Bela Lugosi. But seriously, it was incomprehensibly bad.

The screen on the stage

June 21, 2010

Yesterday afternoon I caught a matinee of the Broom Street Theater’s current production, “Television (The Play),” written and directed by Amanda Jones. I had a seriously enjoyable time spectating and briefly participating in the farcical proceedings; the intimate scale of the Broom Street Theater combined with the play’s unusual staging (featuring an all-over style of blocking, video projections and four different entrances/exits onto the stage) to yield a consistently interesting work of experimental comedy. “Television (The Play)” is largely reliant upon audience participation, making use of contingency in a way I don’t think I’ve ever seen in theater. (Then again, I’m no expert.)

If “Television (The Play)” occasionally erred on the side of crude immaturity, well… the title ought to tell you why that is. Head on over to the Daily Page to read my full review.

Modest, almost trivial, slowly developing, almost static

May 21, 2010

If you haven’t already picked up a copy of this week’s Isthmus, I encourage you to do so—not just because I’m in it, but also to read Kenneth Burns’s review of “Police, Adjective” (for those of you who are allergic to the printed word, the review can also be accessed here), which played at the Orpheum last week.

I’m pleased to see that Kenneth found the film’s more divisive aspects—its sluggish pacing and its self-conscious intellectualism, to name a couple—as admirable as I did. Moreover, I echo his surprise at the fact that “Police, Adjective” has received so many runs here in recent months; going into the spring semester, I certainly didn’t foresee that happening.

Whether “Police, Adjective” will be remembered as the greatest achievement of the new Romanian cinema (the title of “film that defined the new Romanian cinema” seems all but locked up by Cristi Puiu’s “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu”) remains to be seen. I think it’s got a pretty good shot, but what do I know. How much time must pass for a “new” or “young” cinema to become “mature” or “adult”?

A cross between a chamber drama and a screwball comedy

May 17, 2010

If you’ve got 30 seconds of free time, head over to Isthmus’s website and read my first crack at theater criticism, a review of Edward J. Moore’s “The Sea Horse,” which is being put on by the Madison Theatre Guild at the Bartell Theatre (on E. Mifflin St., just around the corner from the Old-Fashioned) through May 29th.

In a nutshell, I thought that the scale of “The Sea Horse” was admirable, its action more or less compelling and its acting consistently engaging; but I think that the play would’ve benefited greatly if its material had been a whole lot cruder. Theatrically-inclined Madisonians are advised to head over to the Bartell and check it out.

“The Sun” at Sundance Cinemas

April 30, 2010

Sheez, my post titles have been works of art today.

Eminent Russian filmmaker Alexander Sokurov’s 2004 feature “The Sun,” which received its first (limited) run in American theaters last November, is now playing at Madison’s Sundance Cinemas. For local cinephiles, this is cause for serious excitement: Sokurov is one of the boldest, most dazzlingly grandiose film artists working today. (Anyone who has seen his 2002 film “Russian Ark,” which is as much a dance performed by a cast of thousands as it is a singular cinematic achievement, can attest to the boldness and dazzling grandiosity of which I speak.)

“The Sun” was showered with praise by critics like Manohla Dargis and J. Hoberman during its November release; I’m pleased to see that my editor at Isthmus, Kenneth Burns, also found it thoroughly thought-provoking. I’m hoping to catch “The Sun” at some point this weekend—tornadoes permitting.

“It leaves a hole.”

April 30, 2010

My second article for Isthmus, on the implications of WUD Film’s decision to dissolve its various series, can now be accessed on the paper’s website; in it I grapple with a few of the issues I probed in yesterday’s DC column, though in a much more journalistic style than I’m used to. All tips on reporting are more than welcome. Nothing better than learning on the job, eh? And goddamn Reo, what a suit!

Few exits from this life of pain

April 28, 2010

I don’t think I’ve ever linked to Isthmus film critic Mike Wilmington’s weekly column, “Wilmington on DVD,” but there is, as they say, a first time for everything: In this week’s installment he reviews “Letters from Fontainhas: Three Films by Pedro Costa,” the Criterion four-disc box set I dedicated last week’s DC column to. Though Wilmington confesses that Costa’s work is “a bit too minimalist, too way-past-Bressonian, too monotone” for his liking, he nevertheless awards the set an A- (an old-school A-, I presume); I’ll bite my tongue with regard to the whole letter-grading system and say that Wilmington’s response is a testament to the force and feeling bound up within the Fontainhas trilogy.

Reading an audience

April 20, 2010

The feedback on my Isthmus debut this weekend has been a mixed bag. My mom loved it, but my black lab, Dempsey, rudely declined to comment. One commenter took issue with my factually inaccurate claim that the makers of “The Things We Carry” used the Red One Camera before Steven Soderbergh did in “Che” (which is kind of weird considering how much I dug the more obviously digital half of that diptych, “Guerrilla,” when I saw it many months ago); that’s my bad, though it hardly constitutes “a pretty big error in [my] story […] that [I] base [my] headline on.”

But the comment that most pricked me was a response to my claim that the Cinematheque audience that watched the program of Phil Solomon and Mark LaPore shorts on Saturday was—gasp—into it. I returned her jab and was greeted with a lengthy response that greatly interests me, mostly because it begs the question: can an audience member truly have a sense of the greater audience’s response to a film and yet simultaneously be plugged into the film itself? As the commenter put it, “Honestly though, if you were so sucked in, how would you know the level of engagement of other people in the moment?  Unless of course you were paying more attention to the people around you than I was, which would, by default, imply you weren’t as sucked into the movie as you claimed.  See the conundrum?”

While I do see the “conundrum,” I nevertheless believe that, no matter how engaged one is with a film, the film never ceases to be an object situated in an environment consisting of any number of other objects. “Losing” oneself in a movie is often regarded as the ultimate end of film-watching, but I rarely if ever forget myself when engaging with a film, no matter how intensely contemplative it makes me feel. I once saw an interview with Lucrecia Martel (on the “Holy Girl” DVD, if I’m not mistaken) in which she said that she despises films that seem to be trying to make her forget her ego—I echo this sentiment. Cinema needn’t be an escape to be engaging, absorbing or cognitively immersive; I love picking up vibes in a theater, receiving indirect signals of my fellow audience members’ attitudes toward a film, harvesting the energy that accumulates in the room over the course of a screening and then channeling that energy toward the development of my own impressions about the film.

We must never forget that a movie theater isn’t a vacuum-sealed spaceship bound for some hitherto unexplored planet: it’s a room full of (often annoying) people with images being projected on a big white screen and sounds being pumped through a sometimes sucky stereo-system. In other words, one can easily get a feel for an audience’s collective attitude without “unplugging” from the film at hand; the human brain is a powerful organ, y’know?

As for the commenter’s admissions of being both tasteless (“I was in fact, awake, because I was amused by that and some of the other thoughts going through my head, like jokes I would love to crack would it not be highly inappropriate.”) and a philistine (“I’ve gotten lazy and have the same attitude with film as I do with jokes—if you have to spend a lot of time explaining it, it’s not as good and you should go back and make it better. […]  Some people like having to read paragraphs and do research and watch 800 hours of supplementary material to make sense out of something.  I think of fans of the final two installments of the Matrix trilogy.”), I don’t think either is worth addressing here. I’m kidding, Sheilah!

The ecstasy and the agony, the exhiliration and the exhaustion

April 18, 2010

Yesterday—Day 4 of the 2010 Wisconsin Film Festival—was long, rich, enlightening and tiring as all get-out. From about 8AM on I was running all over town—chatting with folks, ducking in and out of screenings, collecting my thoughts, eating rarely, drinking too much coffee, etc. I’m pleased to present the fruits of my labor of love: my debut article for the Isthmus. Kudos to Kenneth Burns for giving me the opportunity to write for somebody other than myself or the student press.

I should mention that “Still Raining, Still Dreaming,” the program of avant-garde shorts by Phil Solomon and Mark LaPore, curated by UW PhD candidate John Powers, was probably the coolest and most beautiful thing I’ve seen at this year’s festival. As I mentioned in the article, Solomon has taken his former teacher Stan Brakhage’s approach to making astonishingly poetic films without a camera to a completely new, almost unprecedented plateau. If the opportunity to see these films—“Crossroad” (made by Solomon and LaPore in collaboration), Solomon’s eulogistic trilogy of “Rehearsals for Retirement,” “Last Days in a Lonely Place” and “Still Raining, Still Dreaming,” and LaPore’s “The Glass System”—ever presents itself, I strongly encourage you to take advantage of it. The friends who accompanied me to the screening can attest to the fact that my jaw dropped during the first film and didn’t come back up until I noticed that everybody was filing out of the Cinematheque at the end.

But what about today (Day 5)? I’m planning to see “The Art of the Steal” at the MMOCA at 1:15, “Seventeen” at the Cinematheque at 4, and “The Train” at the ‘theque at 6:45. Why not go out with a bang, eh?