Posts Tagged ‘Movies

09
Dec
15

Review: For Keeps – Pauline Kael

For Keeps: 9thirty Years at the MoviesFor Keeps: Thirty Years at the Movies by Pauline Kael

This isn’t really the kind of book you’d sit and read cover to cover. Like, I did, but I’m not really a role model for how people should live their lives. I loved it, though.

What For Keeps is, is a collection of essays written for magazines (largely the New Yorker, but elsewhere too), generally reviewing then-current films. They were written back before screeners and largely before VHS/Beta allowed people to take movies into their homes, so a lot of her reviews try to capture her emotions after a screening or two.

Generally, when I read a collection of this sheer size and scope – it’s well over a thousand pages and over an inch thick – I find the essays all kind of bleed into each other and it’s hard to pick moments out of the pack. Fortunately, it’s not the case here. Although there are plenty of reviews for movies I’ve never seen (and probably never will), her prose, insight and instincts generally stand out well after I’ve read them. For example, when she writes about “Last Tango in Paris,” she carves into the raw sexuality of Brando. Elsewhere, she gets into the madness of Nicolas Cage, the way Paul Newman can make his characters appealing and looks at what made Cary Grant so good at what he did.

Similarly, taking her essays all in order lets you see how her judgment evolved, changed and focused over the years. For example, when she rips into “Full Metal Jacket,” it isn’t just a broadside against the movie, but a part of a long-running antagonistic relationship with Kubrick, who she feels lost himself when he moved to England and started taking himself too seriously. Or her long-running dislike for Clint Eastwood, where her arguments about violence in movies – particularly in how it rationalizes the violence viewers are supposed to embrace – sound as fresh as anything you’d read on AV Club, Grantland or New Yorker.

Still, there are moments which sound dated. Kael is probably best remembered for her insight or wit, but she also had a real nasty streak. When I read her calling someone a fatty, I wonder what’d she say about Melissa McCarthy. And her defence of a movie like “Driving Miss Daisy” seems a little reactionary, particularly since I’d read Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist almost in tandem with For Keeps, and Gay’s approach to a movie like that comes off far better (to again make a modern parallel: would Kael have liked “The Help” or would she have seen through that, too?).

Probably the weakest moment in the book is her book-length essay “Raising Cain,” which is collected here in full. At the time, it was an incendiary shot at Orson Welles and Auteur Theory, arguing “Citizen Kane” was more the work of Herman Mankiewicz than Welles. Although it has it’s moments, particularly when dealing with Hollywood in the 30s, the essay is problematic: there are attribution issues where Kael claimed others work as her own; there are factual errors by Kael, too. I like the style and her essay is readable, but I also skimmed over it.

It’s a little hard to recommend a book of this scale and size. It’s a little unwieldy to carry around and the reviews are both too long and too few to really make it worthwhile as a companion to, say, Leonard Maltin’s books. (Kael’s 5001 Nights at the Movies might be a better choice there). But I’d still recommend it for anyone who enjoys reading good criticism, is interested in film or in writing their own criticism. For me, it has a nice spot next to Roger Ebert’s Book of Film: From Tolstoy to Tarantino, the Finest Writing From a Century of Film.

The thing about Kael isn’t her wit (although it’s nice), but the way poked into and at movies. I don’t think it’s a cliché to say she loved film, since it so vividly comes through with her writing, in the way she could enjoy both pulpy fare like “The Re-Animator” and high-class works like “The Dead.” But her love wasn’t uncritical: if a movie had holes, she’d poke at them: why was a character motiviated? What did the lighting do for a scene? Does a script take the time to explain a character? Etc, etc, etc.

These days, movie criticism is largely left to the specialists who work off in a corner that nobody really reads. Wesley Morris won a Pulitzer for his work, but Grantland struggled to find an audience. Instead, people gravitate towards people like Ebert, who would sum a movie with a hand gesture, or TV critics who award flicks on a sliding scale of three to five stars. It’s kind of funny when some of the best criticism comes from Gregg Turkington and Tim Hidecker’s funny web series “On Cinema at the Cinema.” So go back to Kael, go back and read about some movies you’ve forgotten or never seen, and enjoy yourself. I certainly did.

4/5

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01
Dec
15

Extended Play’s Best Movies of 2015

I didn’t watch any new movies this year.

02
Dec
14

When Peter Met Orson: This Is Orson Welles by Orson Welles and Peter Bogdanovich

This Is Orson WellesThis Is Orson Welles by Orson Welles and Peter Bogdanovich

Kind of a messy biography, This Is Orson Welles is either a treasure of first-hand information on the life and works of Welles and a rambling conversation with a pompous liar. I think its probably both, usually at the same time, which makes it alternately amusing and frustrating.

A little back story on this book: in the early 70s, Peter Bogdanovich and Welles hit on the idea of a book of interviews, kind of like Francois Truffaut’s book with Alfred Hitchcock. They hung out a bunch, served drinks and rolled tape. After a while, life got in the way: Welles had an offer to write his memoirs, Bogdanovich’s career floundered and the tapes ended up in storage. When Welles died in 1985, the project did, too.

After a few years, it sprung back to life thanks to Oja Kodar and Jonathan Rosenbaum. The tapes were found, transcribed and worked against the written notes Welles and Bogdanovich exchanged with each other. There was a lot of work: hours of tapes, a manuscript that ran over a thousand pages. Eventually, Rosenbaum trimmed it all down into a tidy volume. Finally, Welles fans could read about what Welles thought about his own movies!

The catch: Welles had little to say about his own work. And even that was dragged out of him.

Throughout these transcripts, Welles is tricky and obtuse. He tells tall tales about his career, about dashing between radio appearances in a chartered ambulance, befriending gangsters and staying awake for days on end. He talks at length about his more obscure movies like The Trial while barely touching on classics like Touch of Evil. Some aren’t even mentioned at all: if there’s anything about F for Fake, it’s slipped my mind. He recalls events in different ways than other parties (which is where Rosenbaum’s notes come in handy) and sometimes claims he can’t remember others at all.

It’s frustrating reading at times. Welles will say something one moment, only to be contradicted by Bogdanovich reading from his notes. It could be about something Welles said in the past or put in a movie, but Welles has a stubborn contrarian streak and insists on saying he doesn’t like to use symbols in his movies; the famous mirror scene in Citizen Kane, for example, is apparently just because Welles liked mirrors or something, I guess.

But of course, Welles fibs his way through this. He downplays himself one moment, then upsells his legend a second later. His stories are hard to take at face value, but it’s hard to shake the idea that Welles did himself. He comes off as a guy who likes to fib for his own amusement. It’s amusing in small doses, but after a while it grated on me: why bother listen to someone’s life story when they don’t seem interested in telling it?

At the same time, Welles is a charming conversationalist (indeed, this isn’t the only book where Welles and a friend chat over drinks!). As annoying as he gets, it’s also not hard to see why Welles and Bogdanovich got along so well: they enjoyed talking to each other. Nearly every time Welles seems annoyed with answering questions, there’s another where he starts laughing or makes a joke. As he says, “I can see this is going to be endless – let’s get another drink.”

It’s also worth noting that Welles only backed out when he got an offer to write his own book and edited early versions of transcripts, too: he was clearly a man who enjoyed creating his mystique. Rosenbaum had his work cut out for him and he worked magic, cutting the interviews into something engaging and readable, while annotating them when Welles started to fib a bit.

Speaking of magic, it’s worth noting how Welles loved the stuff. Not just illusions he could make on stage or on-screen, but even the traditional kind with sawing people in half or making them float. Not only are there magic sequences in his later movies, but I’m sure I remember him discussing magic a lot in the documentary One Man Band (which I can’t recommend enough). It even comes up here more than a few times! He delighted in illusions and obfuscation, so it’s not hard to see that attitude carrying over when discussing his own work.

The big drawback is how short this is: the interview runs maybe two-thirds of this book and even then, there’s excerpts from other writers and photos interspersed in the text. It’s followed by a lengthy list of Welles appearances in everything from talk shows to film appearances and the script to The Magnificent Ambersons. It’s all interesting for the fanatic, but for the only-at-Easter-and-Christmas types, it comes across as padding, stretching the book out by more than a third.

Rating: 5/10. Charming if you’re a Welles diehard, frustrating if you’re the kind the fan who’s only seen Citizen Kane (and maybe Touch of Evil) and maybe a little redundant in parts these days, This Is Orson Welles is an fun collection of conversations, but I really wished there was more of them instead of scripts, memos and lengthy career descriptions. I think there’s an audiobook of the actual conversations; I don’t often say this, but I think that’s the version I’d rather have.

25
Feb
13

How One Flop Killed UA: Steven Bach’s Final Cut

Final CutFinal Cut by Steven Bach

It’s not often that a movie is qualified as an unmitigated disaster. There’s flops, sure, and the occasional stinker (see: Movie 42). Sometimes a movie is even a trainwreck, something that derails a career (see: Halle Barry’s career post-Catwoman). But a complete, total diaster? Those only come along once in a long, long while. And they might never have come bigger than Heaven’s Gate.

The late 1970s in Hollywood was the last gasps of a director-fuelled scene. Francis Ford Coppola was taking his sweet time to edit, re-edit and edit Apocalypse Now. Martin Scorsese was preparing Raging Bull, a dark movie about the troubled boxer Jake La Motta. And Michael Cimino had just won praise and acclaim for The Deer Hunter and was shopping around a new movie, a western about the Johnson County War. All three films would be released by United Artists, the studio founded by Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, DW Griffiths and Douglas Fairbanks. The first two are constantly ranked among the best movies ever released. The third would kill the studio.

Stephen Bach’s Final Cut is long look at the chaotic making of Heaven’s Gate and the downfall of a Hollywood studio. It’s  absorbing, detailed and messy. Bodies are thrown under buses, dirt is slung. After all, the downfall of United Artists is often blamed on the singular failure of Gate, but as Bach’s book shows, there was a lot more it than just that.

The late 70s were not a great time for UA, even if they had several hits. Owned by Transamerica, an insurance company that wanted to change the studio’s name to Transamerica Films, so more people would see their name. They had acclaim for movies like Last Tango In Paris or Midnight Cowboy, but these were rated X, meaning theatre chains passed. And so went a large share of the profits. And that was with movies which saw release: the editing of Apocalypse Now was a train wreck, with Coppola allegedly hiding a copy in his house to keep it away from studio execs. Their spring 1978 movie wouldn’t see release until 1979.

Meanwhile, the studio was ripping itself apart. Longtime executive Arthur Krim lost a power struggle to Transamerica and fled, along with other high-ranking execs, to form Orion Pictures. The company was unstable, as is this side of Bach’s book: executives come and go with surprisingly regularity. It’s a wonder anything got done in this messy chaos.

But things got done and UA did have some success. During this struggle, Woody Allen shot and released Manhattan, arguably his best movie. Rocky was a surprise hit and it’s 1979 sequel did even better at the box office. And several Bond movies – notably Moonraker and For Your Eyes Only – were box office hits. And while Raging Bull wasn’t a hit, it garnered critical acclaim from nearly corner.

It’s a confusing tale, but Bach is always at the centre and tries to keep things level. His book offers several points where if UA acted differently, they could still be in business. They range from everything from the unique contract they gave Gate writer and director Michael Cimino that allowed him final cut to a string of executives leaving the company to a number of risky but high-yield movie bets failing on them. They weren’t just gambling on Gate being a success: they were hoping it’d be part of a number of successful movies. Not only did none of these pan out, but they passed on some films that did.

But maybe it wouldn’t have made a difference if these pictures did get made and were successful. UA, as Bach paints it, was a chaotic organization, headed by a CEO who didn’t inspire his underlings and marred by in-fighting between executives, who constantly complained about being undercut and conspired against. It’s sometimes hard to keep track of who’s who in Final Cut because so many people quit, get fired or just change jobs.

Those coming to Final Cut looking for a detailed look at the making of Gate will be a little disappointed. It’s a book about how one of the major players in Hollywood fell apart and sold. It’s closer to Barbarians at the Gate than it is a Hollywood tell-all.  But that’s the book’s charm: Bach didn’t have a directorial background and he wasn’t there for the day-to-day shoots. Coming from him, a behind-the-scenes look at this movie would be a little suspicious. To be fair, he does have the occasional glance, like Cimino banning people from the set, shooting millions of feet of film and relentlessly battling executives over his schedule and budget. Or the lasting image of Cimino: someone determined to produce something on his own terms, even if it meant destroying it in the process. At least he’s found a willing company in Criterion, who’ve indulged him with a deluxe box set, conspicuously absent of any controversial statements (save the occasional shot at American critics).

Rating: 8/10Final Cut is a fascinating look at the inner workings of a movie company: how it interacts with the bosses, with directors and producers and how, in so many words, the sausage gets made. Or in this case, un-made. Recommended for film fans, especially those who splurged on the deluxe Criterion set and want to hear the other side of the story.

22
Feb
13

Breaking Down Grantland’s Oscar Tragedies, Part One

It’s fun to argue about movies. As Drew Magary might say: NO ONE DENIES THIS. And movie awards are fun to argue about: they present this idea of finality, that because this movie won this award, it’s the best movie. Even though it doesn’t really mean anything other than just saying a movie won an award. After all, there’s so many awards and so many deserving movies that never won an award and honestly, most awards are pretty self-congratulatory anyway.

Enter this weekend’s award show, the Oscars. It’s going to put a cap on the 2012 movie season. Whatever movie wins Best Picture will probably be called the year’s best movie, even though there’s so many other awards, acclaims, reviews, etc. It doesn’t do much more than fuel the argument fire.

So I wasn’t surprised to see Grantland whip out a convoluted bracket for the Oscars, encouraging arguments about all kinds of trivial bullshit: a Letterman joke, a Rob Lowe duet, etc, etc. In one way, it’s a very Bill Simmons idea: reduce years of movie arguments to a one-vs-one bracket, with each winning by popular vote. At the end, one of them will be crowned the Biggest Oscar Tragedy Of All Time or whatever, a title that means even less than any award.

And here at Extended Play, we’re calling bullshit on this. Not just because it is BS, but because some of these choices are godawful and only there to stir up fanboys and move the needle. We’ve gotten the old Flashfact crew back together, plus later we’ll add Sarah from Deconstructing Hollywood to defend one travesty and call out another.  Continue reading ‘Breaking Down Grantland’s Oscar Tragedies, Part One’

06
Mar
11

The Antisocial Network

The Social Network is not really a film about Facebook or Mark Zuckerberg.

If you were hoping for a roman à clef along the lines of Primary Colors, you’ll be sorely disappointed. Whatever truth there is inside this movie is buried deep in layers of hyperbole, spin and ego; it’s spelled out quite nicely by a character named Marylin Delpy (played by Rashida Jones) near the end, when she says depositions are mostly exaggeration or perjury. Given that the whole movie is essentially told at two depositions, by people with major bones to pick against Zuckerberg, it’s basically spelled out that whatever happens in the movie need not reflect whatever actually happened.

You gotta this video out, brah, I'm telling you this kid HE TOTALLY LIKES TURTLES ITS INSANE BRAH here lemmie type in the url

But this is not a bad thing. The Social Network is interesting, never dull and that clouded testimony only helps the overall story: since it’s cobbled together from self-serving characters and probably not true (I believe the official line is something like “they only got my fashion sense right”) I found the five W’s seemed less important than first expected. By movie’s end, I didn’t really care who invented the website, I cared about what it ws like to be at it’s heart upon creation. Continue reading ‘The Antisocial Network’

13
Feb
10

Roger Ebert’s Awake in the Dark, reviewed

Awake in the Dark: The Best of Roger Ebert Awake in the Dark: The Best of Roger Ebert by Roger Ebert

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
If pressed to name a movie critic, most people would probably say Roger Ebert.

Even though he hasn’t hosted the show he made famous in some years – indeed, he no longer can speak – he remains (and likely will remain for some time) the most famous critic of his time.

I recently finished a collection of his writings, Awake in the Dark, which reinforces that conclusion. While the book is primarily made of film reviews (which I’ll get to later), it’s the other sections that shine the most.

If Ebert is a good critic, he’s an even better essayist. Here he tackles the MPAA, Ted Turner and the colorization of film (an issue that Ebert likely helped defeat), digital projection and why the Oscars reward some movies over others.

A real treat in the book is an extended discussion on the state of film criticism, presented in a series of essays by Ebert, Richard Corless and Andrew Sarris. It’s an interesting look at two differing schools of thought on how criticism works and where it’s headed – Corless argues that shows like Siskel and Ebert are moving film criticism away from actual discussion to quick bursts of information and “if it’s any good” talk that spells out your taste for you.

A section of his profiles is a little more uneven. His looks at Woody Allen feels odd with the added benefit of hindsight and his piece where he drives around with Robert Mitchum doesn’t really go anywhere (much like Mitchum’s driving).

But others offer an interesting look inside the creative process. His piece on Ingmar Bergman takes you inside a closed set, where Bergman only filmed with the people who absolutely needed to be there. His piece on Tom Hanks examines what makes Hanks such a versatile and popular actor when people barely even know the real Hanks – without actually speaking to his subject.

His astute ability at breaking down not only why a movie, a character or a director is successful, but at how they impact the viewer is superb – few critics can really explain why things work like Ebert does, in simple terms that anybody can understand. These profiles often show this in exquisite detail. When he really clicks on a subject, it’s great reading.

The bulk of this book is a massive collection of reviews, 76 in all. The editors of the book wisely chose to go with Ebert’s original reviews when possible (some of them curiously brief). This gives the book a sense of immediacy his other collections don’t have. These pieces, written around the time of the movie’s premiere, offer an unvarnished look at each movie before the public reached a mass opinion.

It’s interesting to see how he reacted to movies like The Godfather, Bonnie and Clyde and Do The Right Thing upon their original release. And it feels more honest to see this original reaction, not how he feels looking back.

The book doesn’t stick to just “classic” movies either. It offers a selection at world film, with reviews that range from Ozu’s Tokyo Story, Herzog’s Stroszek and Satayajit Ray’s The Music Room. These reviews offer a quick primer on world cinema and showcase that Ebert is interested in more then just the blockbusters.

There are also sections on documentaries – including several reviews of the Up series of movies – and on films Ebert thinks are either underrated or overlooked. His take at the works of Sam Peckinpah or the great car chase in To Live and Die in LA show that more then anything else, Ebert is somebody who genuinely likes movies.

It feels at times like by writing, Ebert is trying to share his enthusiasm with the reader, make it clear not that a movie is good (or bad) but that it’s worth your time. Ebert writes that film is a medium to be enjoyed and to be shared; what fun is it to watch a movie by yourself?

On the whole, Awake in the Dark serves as a great overview for Ebert’s career and a great look at how movies have evolved in the past 40 years. More then that, it shows the evolution of Ebert as a film critic – by taking one review from each year he wrote, you can really see how much he’s grown and further appreciate how lucky his readers are. For anybody interested not just in Ebert, but also in film, this book is must-read.

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