Friday, October 7, 2011

Your Friday Flavorwires

Gangster’s Mixtape: The Rock & Roll Cinema of Martin Scorsese

Martin Scorsese’s excellent new documentary portrait George Harrison: Living in the Material World premieres tonight at the New York Film Festival; it will then run on HBO, in two parts, on Wednesday and Thursday night. Here’s a few not-so-brief thoughts on how and why Scorsese has used rock music throughout his career.

Open Thread: Is Playing Yourself Still Acting?

Last week we had one of our periodic Flavorwire editorial meetings, and the conversation turned to Zooey Deschanel. (As it pretty much eventually always does.) Contrary to whatever direction you might presume we’d lean on Ms. Deschanel, there were a wide variety of opinions in the room, from indifferent to stubbornly affectionate (yours truly) to exhausted (“I’m about up to here with her”). While everyone basically agrees that her new show New Girl is nothing to write home about, there is a divergence as to why—some say it’s ill-conceived and mediocre, while others place the blame squarely on Ms. Deschanel. When I heard the phrase “She always just plays herself,” my ears perked up. Here’s a favorite topic that I’d not had the chance to engage in for a while: the question of persona vs. versatility in acting.

Our Favorite Poems About Movies

As you may have heard, today the first Thursday in October, and is thus National Poetry Day. In celebration of this beloved writerly holiday, those of us over here in the film corner of your Flavorwire decided to post some of our favorite poems about our favorite subject: the movies. Join us after the jump for a few of our favorite cinematic poems, as suggested by the indispensible volume Lights, Camera, Poetry! (edited by Jason Shinder); feel free to add your own (or what the hell, make one up) after the jump.

Ranking Your Cinematic Presidents from Worst to Best

This week, another image of the American presidency hits multiplexes in the form of George Clooney, whose new film The Ides of March concerns a handsome governor running for the highest office in the land (with the help of equally dreamy staffer Ryan Gosling). In commemoration of this significant date in Presidential mass media history, and with Clooney’s Mike Morris aiming to join the ranks of cinematic commanders-in-chief, let’s rank ten of the most memorable movie Presidents from worst to best. (And to clarify: we’re ranking them as Presidents, not as enjoyable movie characters). Check out our rankings after the jump, and let us know if you agree in the comments.

Trailer Park: Special “All Good Trailers” Edition

Welcome to “Trailer Park,” our regular Friday feature where we collect the week’s new trailers all in one place and do a little “judging a book by its cover,” ranking them from worst to best and taking our best guess at what they may be hiding. We’ve got six new trailers this week, and--for the first time in the feature's history--they all look varying degrees of worthwhile. Check ‘em out after the jump.

In Theaters: "The Swell Season"

The Swell Season opens with a clip from Once, the small, lovely film that brought folk singer/songwriters Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová worldwide fame and an Academy Award. Though the process of making that film, its stars also fell in love, providing an off-screen ending happier even than the upbeat but bittersweet one that closes the picture. (Oh, um, spoiler alert.)

Their story doesn’t end there, of course. After the surprise success of the film, the duo went on the road—and pretty much stayed there, for a couple of years. The Swell Season (which shares the name most commonly affixed to the duo), directed by Nick August-Perna, Chris Dapkins, and Carlo Mirabella-Davis, goes on tour with them, as they visit America and visit their respective homes (he in Ireland, she in the Czech Republic). They’re successful, they’re playing music, and they’re in love. “It’s a great life we have, isn’t it?” he asks cheerfully, as she gives him a bedroom haircut. And for a while, it is.

In Theaters: "Blackthorn"

On my way out of the media screening for Mateo Gil’s Blackthorn, I overheard someone calling it a “standard Western”—as if that would be a bad thing, if there were any such thing anymore. Making a Western these days is anything but standard; they’re enough of a novelty that it’s still worth being thankful when we get one, and not dismissing it for being less than a masterwork. Blackthorn, a Spanish production with an international cast, has touches of artsiness and a low-budget offhandedness, but more than anything, it’s a good old-fashioned dusty B oater, and more power to it for that.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

In Theaters: "Incendiary: The Willingham Case"

On the morning of December 23, 1991, the three children of Cameron Todd Willingham and his wife Stacy were killed in a blaze in their Texas home. Todd Willingham escaped from the fire, and was later convicted of their murder. He was sentenced to death, and in 2004, days before his execution, a report made its way to Governor Rick Perry that persuasively questioned the scientific veracity of the conclusion that the entire cast rested upon: that the fire in the Willingham home was arson. Governor Perry saw nothing of interest in the report, so the state went ahead and executed him. A few years later, in the wake of a scandal in the Houston Police’s crime lab, the new Texas Forensic Science Commission decided to take another look at the scientific evaluation of the Willingham case. Two days before a review meeting of the report they commissioned, Perry replaced three members of that commission, including its chairman.

These are the facts conveyed by Incendiary: The Willingham Case, an upsetting, difficult, and mostly one-sided examination of the Willingham conviction, execution, and follow-up investigation. Let’s be clear here: this is a work of advocacy. The filmmakers clearly feel that Willingham was wrongly accused, wrongly convicted, and wrongly executed—and that the subsequent maneuvers by Governor Perry were an attempt to cover up his mistake. We are told, from the first, pre-title interview with arson expert John Lentini, that “there’s no evidence that he really did it. It’s all fabrications and folklore.”

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

#NYFF Review: "Martha Marcy May Marlene"

The group lives communally, on a farmhouse up in the Catskills. By day they work; everyone has their job, their place. At night, the men eat first, in silence, while the women sit tensely in the next room and wait for them to finish. Once the men are done, the women take their places at the table. They sleep several members to the room; the only one who gets a room of his own is Patrick (John Hawkes), the leader, though he insists, with false modesty, that the home belongs to all of them. And then early one morning, before anyone is awake, Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) runs away.

What happens to her next, as she attempts to understand her time with the group and why it has made her the way she is, is the basis of Martha Marcy May Marlene, an extraordinary new film from writer/director Sean Durkin. Her story unfolds over two interlocking timelines: the two years she spent in the Catskills, in what first seems a commune and, it slowly becomes clear, was actually a cult; and the two weeks immediately following her escape, as she recuperates in the Connecticut lake house of her estranged sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and her brother-in-law Ted (Hugh Dancy). Lucy presses her for an explanation of where she’s been and what happened to her. Martha doesn’t want to talk. But memories and images begin to surface.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

#NYFF Review: "Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory"

The long, strange, horrible story of the West Memphis Three finally comes to a close in Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s final chapter in the documentary trilogy that, after 18 years, released three innocent men from prison and saved one of their lives. Not since Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line has a documentary film so directly impacted the judicial system, and even Morris’s masterpiece didn’t muster up the kind of relentless public outcry as the continuing saga of Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jesse Miskelly, who spent nearly two decades behind bars for the brutal murders of three Cub Scouts in West Memphis, Arkansas.

#NYFF Review: "A Dangerous Method"

David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method is a film that grows upon reflection; even considering the filmmaker’s more austere recent efforts, it is a picture that the viewer keeps waiting to ignite, and never quite does. But it nestles itself into the mind, where its quirks and complexities continue to reverberate long after the credits have rolled. The filmmakers clearly could have chosen to shoot the works, to ratchet up the raunchiness and high drama; instead, the picture is drawn in finer strokes, and its closing shots cause the viewer to reevaluate all that has come before. It is not the film you expect, but it sticks with you.

#NYFF Review: "This is Not a Film"

It seems silly to note that not much happens in a picture with a title like This is Not a Film, but there you have it. To clarify: not much happens on-screen. The documentary’s actual content, what it is about, reaches beyond the small scope of the action contained in its 75 minutes. The trouble is, those two threads—what it is about, and how it is about it—are not intertwined firmly enough to fully sustain our interest, even for its slender running time. It is more successful at conveying what it wants to do than it is at actually accomplishing it; it is a film that I admire, but am not enthusiastic about.

On DVD: "Submarine"

I had a Jordana. I think we all did. Jordana is Oliver Tate’s first—his first real kiss, his first sex, his first girlfriend, his first relationship, his first heartbreak. How they come together, and how they fall apart, is the subject (sort of) of Richard Ayoade’s Submarine, but that description doesn’t do the film justice: it makes it sound far more sentimental and nostalgic than it is. Ayoade (who wrote the script, from Joe Dunthorne’s novel) doesn’t just remember what it is to feel the first flush of love; he also remembers the moment when you discover that someone you fancy has the capability of being just awful. And the moment when you realize that maybe that’s all an act. And the moment when you realize that you’re capable of being awful too.

Monday, October 3, 2011

#NYFF Review: "Melancholia"

Melancholia opens with a series of painterly images, accompanied by Wagner and presented in agonizingly slow motion. That presentation gives the otherwise befuddling images a weight and significance that we don’t fully grasp—except for the final one, which encompasses nothing less than the end of the world. Put on your clown noses, kids, it’s a new Lars von Trier movie!

In Theaters: "Sarah Palin: You Betcha!"

Nick Broomfield isn’t always a particularly disciplined documentarian, but he is a cheekily entertaining one. His previous films have delved, compellingly, into the scandal of Heidi Fleiss, the incarceration of Aileen Wournos, the suicide of Kurt Cobain, and the deaths of Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G.; all were as motivated by sensation as information, and all were as much about their filmmaker as they were about their subjects. Indeed, the wry Englishman frequently makes the process of creating the film an integral part of the film itself, showing (explicitly or implicitly) how much we can learn about a person by how hard it is to get to them, and how easy it is to find people who will say terrible things about them.

After a hiatus from the documentary form (he spent several years on the docudrama Battle for Haditha), Broomfield returns with a film on a subject as scandalous and tabloid-friendly as any he’s tackled before. Sarah Palin: You Betcha! finds the filmmaker (and his co-director Joan Churchill) heading up to Wasilla, Alaska, to try to better understand the divisive former governor by interviewing those who knew her best—and, hopefully, by talking with Pain herself.

Is "Contagion" A Love Letter to “Big Government”?

This piece originally appeared, in abbreviated form, on the Maddow Blog.

In Steven Soderbergh’s new thriller Contagion, the federal government saves the day. Faced with “MEV-1,” a hyper-contagious virus that becomes a global pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control isolate the virus, study it, and develop a vaccine. FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security distribute it. In a film commendable for its nuanced refusal to cast its characters in black or white, the primary heroes are the CDC’s “Epidemic Intelligence Service Officer” and its Level-4 Biosafety Lab tech; one gives her life in battling the virus, the other risks hers, selflessly and modestly, to test the vaccine.

That Scott Z. Burns’s screenplay creates a giant problem that is solved by a giant government is, on the face, nothing revolutionary; within the context of the film, it’s the narrative arc that makes the most sense. But Contagion’s decidedly positive portrait of government is a bit of an anomaly—both within the confines of modern cinema, and in the current political climate.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

#NYFF Review: "Tahrir"

Over the past few months, I’ve found myself using more and more of this space to sing the praises of the “present tense documentary,” which eschews narration, talking head interviews, and after-the-fact analysis in favor of the straightforward presentation of unfiltered footage of a historical event. (Examples include the works of Nicole Rittenmeyer and Seth Skundruck for History, or the ESPN 30 for 30 film “June 17th, 1994.”). Unfolding with an up-close, real-time intensity, these films are less interested in commentary than documentation, though the precise presentation of these events often becomes commentary itself. Pulling off that tricky balancing act is harder than it looks, as evidenced by a markedly less successful entry into the subgenre, Stefano Savona’s documentary Tahrir.