Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Museum Hours (2013)

If one's considering the origin of the word museum, it's not hard to find that it comes from the Latin mousa, which in English comes out as muse. Now, in Greek mythology, the muses were goddesses, daughters of Zeus who looked over arts and sciences. More generally though, in classical literature the muse was a kind of female presence who was called upon for creative inspiration. Considering that museums today are largely thought of as buildings in which culturally, artistically, or scientifically significant objects are displayed for public consumption, it's easy to see how the notion of the muse would figure into the name of these wonderful public spaces. In terms of etymology, though, it seems as though the true root is the Greek mouseion, which was a temple dedicated to the muses. 

And yet today the word muse is thought of more as a verb. To muse is to either be absorbed in one's own thoughts or to look upon something in a thoughtful manner. After watching Museum Hours, which may very well be the the best movie ever about museums and their power, I tend to think it's more concerned with muse as a verb than as a noun. One of the chief ideas that is expressed throughout the movie is positive and negative space in art and how it is undermined by subjective experience and what we choose to notice and prioritize in an image. And ultimately writer/director Jem Cohen is attempting to bring this mindset outside of the museum and into the world at large; in asking what we notice when we actually visit a museum (presented most clearly in a scene in which a museum guide offers a tour of a Bruegal exhibit that includes some very pesky tourists), he proceeds to venture beyond the limits of these nearly sacred spaces to ask that we notice the peripheries of a scene as much as the subjects of it. That we look, examine, and appreciate the myriad of details that are nonetheless obscured by the focal point of attention. While it pushes for a subjective experience of art that may be troublesome to purists, the film's attempt to capture the wondrous details of existence that are only available to the observant eye make it a particularly inspiring piece. Hence, my personal idea that Cohen's movie is more in line with the verb muse. 

And yet the movie is still fairly difficult to fully comprehend. The above statements are merely what I gathered from the film, and it's never perfectly clear what Cohen is attempting except to offer an ode of sorts to the wondrous existence of museums in general. One thing that is for sure though is that amidst the more academic facets of the picture is a rather moving tale of a man and a woman who bond over the many beauties museums offer, as well as the small yet profound details of the world outside these public spaces. Bobby Sommer, in a controlled and completely convincing performance, plays Johann, a Vienna museum guard who has seen it all and is now quite content patrolling the museum and surveying the art and the people who view it. 

Enter Anne (Mary Margaret O'Hara), a foreigner who has suddenly arrived in Vienna due to a medical issue involving her cousin. Anne is somewhat overwhelmed by this new place, and she uses the museum where Johann works as a kind of sanctuary, a quiet spot to breathe and reflect. Johann, who narrates the film through extensive voiceover (never irritating as Sommer has a contemplative, soothing, pleasant voice), is inexplicably drawn to this fairly average looking woman. What is it about some people that makes one curious? he asks before introducing himself. 

What follows is a carefully wrought examination of two adults who have a mutual appreciation for museums as well as the world around them, who understand the value of human interaction, and see the fact that they are strangers as an invitation rather than an inhibition. Cohen's camera is stubbornly rigid in his presentation of these events. when they meet, rather than a basic two shot, we only see Anne. Later, at a restaurant, we see the two conversing at a table, yet instead of employing a shot-reverse-shot technique, the camera stays put at an angle where we can't see the front of Johann's face. When Cohen does cut, he goes to a random shot of a waiter bringing food up a flight of stairs. We expect the waiter to bring it to Johann and Anne's table, yet when we return to their conversation we see the waiter off in the background serving a different party. Traditional editing doesn't seem to do much for Cohen here, perhaps because he wants us to consider an image rather than have it taken away by a cut. And when we see the waiter in the background, it's as if Cohen is suggesting visually that just as in paintings, we should consider the space around us in full rather than simply hone in on the subject. 

What's impressive is how much feeling Cohen manages to pack into what is in many ways an essayistic film. It hardly ever seems as though Sommer and O'Hara are even performing. These actors, who both have wonderfully expressive and interesting faces while also a very comforting degree of common man normality, have inhabited the shoes of Johann and Anne as if they've been these people their entire lives. The film avoids romance and sentimentality at all costs; it's the rare story in which we get to see adults embrace their maturity rather than fall victim to their more childish selves. 

We do not quite know how to feel a thought, John Crowe Ransom once said. It's a fascinating phrase and I'm still not entirely sure what it means, but watching Museum Hours I felt a merging of feeling and thought through the ways the characters let themselves be drawn into the the spaces surrounding them while simultaneously looking from a distance and analyzing their feelings and perceptions. In the credits, Cohen dedicates the movie to his parents, who took me to museums. Museum Hours does touch on humanity and the world around us, but at the end of the day it still seems to be about the nature of these peaceful, intimate public spaces. And in investigating just how they work on those who visit them, Cohen may very well have proven Ransom wrong. 

Quote of the Day

Sam Adams, in an astute little piece over at Indiewire on the problem with using the word overrated: "It's a garbage word, conveying attitude without argument; it's a placeholder for actual thought, the rhetorical equivalent of a "Scene Missing" card."

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Cinephiliacs: Alex Ross Perry

If you've got some spare time, consider catching the latest episode of The Cinephiliacs, which features Alex Ross Perry, whose new movie Listen Up Philip is one of the highlights of the year.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Sanctuary/The Story of Temple Drake

The best course I'm taking this semester-and perhaps the best course I've taken in my college career-is Faulkner's Vision. There are five novels on the syllabus (The Unvanquished, Absalom, Absalom!, As I Laying Dying, The Hamlet, and Light in August) and one term paper due at the end of the course. For the paper, there is one requirement, that we truly create something unique for our professor, and one recommendation, that we write about a Faulkner novel not listed in the syllabus.

I'm very careful about the things I buy, and rarely purchase something just for the sake of spending money and obtaining something. But one thing I will never pass up is a Modern Library edition of a Faulkner novel. The editions are lovely, not too hard to find, and usually pretty cheap. I've such editions of nearly all the major Faulkner novels, and also one slightly lesser known title called Sanctuary. I picked it up last May, intended to read it over the summer, failed, put it on my bookshelf, and hardly imagined I'd ever get around to giving it a try. 

However, with this term paper business for the Faulkner class, I realized I had the perfect opportunity to read the book, and as I write I'm currently about a third of the way through the text. It's a fluid read with generally short chapters, plenty of dialogue, and a straightforward narrative technique with an omniscient narrator. In other words, it's a walk in the park compared to some of Faulkner's other works (thus far in the course, I found Absalom, Absalom! to be quite quite intimidating with its perpetual blocks of text, and As I Lay Dying to be fairly trying, though as a whole much more manageable). It's also a violent and harsh story, containing some of the more controversial material in Faulkner's canon. On top of that, it doesn't quite fit in with some of Faulkner's more renowned novels because it was written-supposedly-with commercial incentives. This book was written three years ago, writes Faulkner in the Introduction. To me it was a cheap idea, because it was deliberately conceived to make money. I haven't finished the book so I can't quite comment on the extent to which the book is more a sellout than a work of art, and yet in terms of the principle of the matter I'm completely fine with Faulkner-or any writer-working under such motivations. Now of course letting one's entire career be guided by such principles is a shoddy, and yet a writer needs to put food on the table like everyone else, and it's better to sacrifice some of one's integrity to do so than to solely create so called pure works their entire life. There's something very human about an artist every so often gunning for gold, and humbling in his admitting this motivation. 

Now, what I'm getting at with all this is that in writing a book to sell copies, Faulkner produced something that was actually film-able (not that he movies can't be made out of his major works, as James Franco is attempting to prove-also, as I've written about before, I think Light in August has the potential to be a great movie). And sure enough, after the book was published in 1931, a film adaptation, called The Story of Temple Drake (directed by Stephen Roberts, a prolific but largely workmanlike and unremarkable director from the 20s and 30s), arrived two years later. Considering the novel's very clear structure, this isn't surprising. But what is is that Sanctuary is a notoriously brutal novel, and while the film apparently tames down on some of the harsher elements, it's supposed to still be pretty shocking for its time. It just goes to show how daring pre-code Hollywood really was. The film was considered mostly lost for a good long while, but a restored edition came out in 2011, and now the movie is readily available for public viewing. I eagerly await it once I finish the novel.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Night Moves (2014)

By today's standards, Night Moves is a slow-burn, character driven thriller, or what some might call atmospheric, or opaque. In other words, most audiences today will see it as too arty and self-indulgent, when in fact the film is precisely built around the premise that defined nearly all of the original great suspense pictures: psychology and paranoia are what get peoples' nerves bubbling, not fast paced, brainless action. Audiences today have by and large been sold a false idea of what a thriller is, and yet when you're raised on something that's false, you tend to believe it. Sure, there are plenty of thrills one can get out of the next Liam Neeson adventure, yet they pale in comparison to what can be accomplished when a filmmaker possesses that wonderful virtue of patience. 

Had Night Moves been released back in the 1970s, it would have probably been a hit, especially considering its environmentalist plot concerning three eco-terrorists and their plot to blow up a dam. And there's pretty much no doubt that that was a decade writer/director Kelly Reichardt had specifically in mind when making the film, especially considering that it shares the same title as one of the all-time great paranoid thrillers from that era, Arthur Penn's 1975 Night Moves with Gene Hackman.

The key here is understanding that suspense does not need to be narrowed down to high-octane energy or extreme situations of peril. As a result, scenes like that in which Dakota Fanning's Dena goes to buy 500 pounds of fertilizer that she and her accomplices (played by Jessie Eisenberg and Peter Sarsgaard) plan on building a bomb with produce a level of excitement uncommon among today's thrillers. The viewer simply must submit to the pacing and psychology of the characters rather than have (as is too prevalent today) those elements submit to them.

That said, by Reichardt's standards, Night Moves isn't nearly as cryptic as her previous works; it's refreshing to see a filmmaker move forward, even if it means forgoing an opaque sense of mystery for genre trends. The film isn't terribly surprising in getting where it needs to go, but it's all handled with such conviction and efficiency by Reichardt and her cast (Eisenberg is particularly surprising here, departing from his usual quirks for a dark intensity we've never seen from him before) that, until a rather silly climax, we never feel we're being sold short.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Autumn Evening

It's October 11th, but tonight is the first night that actually feels like October. Last night, as I took the train home from work, a light thumping was heard above, followed by drops streaking down the window I stared out of. At last, the cool front that the weather reports had been promising all week was arriving. It was a wonderful evening of moody rain as a faint chill began to fill the air. When I awoke this morning for work, the air was pleasantly brisk, the sky overcast, and-for the first time in months-the coffee was good because it was actually hot. 

Now I'm drinking coffee again as I sit at my desk in my apartment, the window open, the autumn air giving the room a distinct literal feel that in turn produces an actual emotional feeling. Normally I wouldn't drink too much coffee at night, but it is Saturday, I have the day off tomorrow, and in about an hour I'm heading out to see Gone Girl. I would like to think that no matter how long a day it's been, Fincher's images and the insanely exciting buzz the movie's been getting would be enough to keep me entranced. But I don't want to take any chances. For a film I've been excited about for months, it's a bit sad that I'm arriving at this a week late, but I've literally had no chance to see it until tonight. And In a strange way I'm sort of glad I've had to wait till tonight, because there's a mysterious but undeniable connection between weather and movies, and the way the right kind of weather puts one in the mood to go out to the theatre is, for me, one of the many pleasures of visiting the cinema. Thus, on this chilly evening, I feel more excited about seeing Gone Girl than if I were to have seen it last week when it was 20 degrees warmer. After ten days of October, I feel the best month of the year has truly arrived.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Blackhat Tralier Shots

Afternoon class was canceled, so what better way to take advantage of the free time than to take a shot by shot look at the awesome first trailer for Michael Mann's hotly anticipated Blackhat. In the words of Matt Zoller Seitz, happy to return to Mann's world, where one can stare at, and contemplate, beauty and horror.

A global thriller, a global first shot

                                     Now we get text completing the idea of the image

                            Stunning on its own terms, mountains background, city, lights, technology foreground

                                                  More text, moving from general to specific

                         Logically, next shot's going to be of a computer system room. Nice low angle, camera's in awe of the technology. Bright colors make for nice contrast of the white text with black backdrop

                            Again, from general to specific. Now we're dealing with the increasingly prevalent idea of cyber security and the fear that anyone can access our deepest information. 

          More text, but the backdrop is now a cable entering a computer port. Vulnerability creates anxiety as web access paves the way for personal access

Now we get a cool little CGI tracking shot through the inside of the computer. Works as a nice transition, and also suggests the eerie fact that all this metal and wires is producing the very human and personal fears stressed in the text above

                               Cut to another shot of the computer system, this time with some spooky bright lights

And one more for good measure, though this looks more like an image from Prometheus than anything else

This is actually pretty cool. Moving from the inside of the computer to the outside, we get the pixels of...

What looks like a stock market screen

                                  A random cut back inside the computer (though, entirely sure that's what that is)

                                                       Then to a wider shot of the same screen

And...people! Looks like a chaotic scene, in what will likely be a fairly chaotic movie

We were here earlier in the trailer, but now there's humans involved. Technology, humans, and stress. This image seems to represent some of the basic outlines for the film

                            We get our first good look at a human face, and he sure as hell doesn't look too happy

                                       People anxiously watching the screens, absorbed in technology

                       More stress. This series of shots is trying to establish a mood. It's setting the table for what's to come. It's the prologue to the trailer. It's been 38 seconds and we haven't really gotten much Mann per se, but there's still nearly two minutes of images left, so no worries

Now cut to the real start of the trailer with the Universal logo, ironically in black and white for a hyper-modern techno thriller.

                                  Followed by Legendary's log, a company that has only recently joined with Universal

Skyscrapers, presumably in Hong Kong. For Mann neophytes, the guy loves shooting skylines, but usually at night, when things are often more dramatic. 

Now we get the trailer's first lines of dialogue, just some basic exposition to set it in motion: Some hacker is hitting our financial markets, says John Ortiz, who has previously been in Mann's Miami Vice and Public Enemies. These guys are presumably in one of the buildings from the previous image

That's Leehom Dong he's talking to, and it looks Viola Davis is in the background

                                                  Now we get the inevitable, a must in a trailer for a Mann film

                                    Two quick shots of a screen and some code, to set up the world Mann's dealing with

                    Now some more exposition, this time from Davis: Four major banks, and that's just what we know about

Probably the best three to mention. Public Enemies is too period (though I feel like it's going to have more in common thematically with Blackhat than you might think), Miami Vice too average for anyone who's not a Mann aficionado 

If we want clues to the hackers identity, we need a man named Hathaway. If it's not obvious who that might be, you need not wait long:

And now get our first look at Chris Hemsworth, the latest male to become a macho star for Mann, though here he looks more like a thug. What we know about this guy? Ortiz asks. He's a convicted hacker serving fifteen years, Chen answers. Now we know why he doesn't look too flattering

Chen: MIT. He's also really good looking and works out a lot. Brawn and brains, never a bad combo

                                                Chen: Genius coder. Also looks like he's prone to putting up a fight

                                            Now we get Hathaway's proposition: I want you to commute my sentence... 

  Now that he's out of that green light, Hemmsworth looks a little more like the hunk he's known to be. Not to sound too demeaning about the popular Australian getting the starring role here. He's proven thus far in his young career that he's a pretty good actor, and in his most ambitious project yet he can show that he's an even better one. And let's not forget that Mann has a way of bringing out surprise performances from big Hollywood actors, ie. Will Smith, Tom Cruise, Jamie Foxx.                            For the identification....

                                   And the apprehension... Now we see Hathaway, presumably out of prison, looking sharp, really bad ass, and a little like Colin Farrell from Miami Vice-only without the mustache. 

                                       Of the guy you're after... Now we see Hathaway's female companion, played by Chinese actress Tang Wei (on my count there are now two cast members from Ang Lee's Lust, Caution in the film). It's unclear yet what the extent of the their relationship will be, but knowing Mann it will likely involve some romance. 

                 Cut back to when Hathaway's technically still a prisoner as he conclude his wishes: those are the terms. 

                    Now the trailer really gets fun. We get this great overhead shot of a helicopter flying above the ocean

      Hathaway going down a hallway lit in Mann's favorite color as we hear his voiceover: is he political? (referring to the cyber terrorist).You see this image and you know it's a Mann film (note, this is shot by veteran DP Stuart Dryburgh, who previously worked with Mann on the pilot of Luck, and also with Mann's daughter for the mediocre Texas Killing Fields)

                            Reverse angle-trying to figure out what that is in the background. Someone at a computer? 

And just in case you still weren't convinced, a shot of a speedboat at night

             And then this absolutely glorious image combining the city and the sea, two of Mann's favorite visual motifs, and then a Miami Vice sky to boot. This is also a continuation from the previous shot. It's hard to see, but the boat's out there

Terrorist attack-any declaration? Hathaway asks

Hathaway and his team are chasing somebody, and the writing on the white building tells us we're in Hong Kong.

Over the next few shots we're going to hear Viola Davis saying The guy we're working with dropped the big hammer and not think twice about it. Note the green lighting-we've seen it already in the trailer and we're going to see it quite a bit more

Ambiguous shot of a man moving backward with a gun

Followed by this crisp image-complete with water ripples-of what's probably the good guys sneaking around

I'm still not entirely clear on what this is, but it looks like that shot from inside the computer from earlier in the trailer

Not quite sure who this is either, but it could very well be the first image of the villain who will be popping up at the end of the trailer. Either way, it's a cool shot.

Chris Hemsworth looking at a computer because he's a natural when it comes to staring at a screen with a really serious expression on his face-oh yeah, and because Hathaway's a techno-genius...

Unknown speaker: He's on the move again

Looks like another CGI shot inside a computer, as Tang Wei says Chicago...

Now China... This is going to be a full on international thriller

Hemsworth and Wei looking pretty cool as they track down the bad guys

And...another shot of Hemsworth looking serious at a screen

                                                           Hathaway: This is only the beginning

And I honestly don't know what this is, but there is green to be seen

Hathaway scrutinizing something, hard to tell what, but it looks important

Cut to new angle, doesn't clarify anything, but there's more green light

Green computer codes

Hathaway: He's still writing

Cue to cut to a guy typing

Hathaway says something here, but it's hard to hear what. Sounds like war four. More importantly, this is a pretty neat little cut to beneath the keyboard. The shadow are the fingers hitting keys

This shot's enigmatic. Starts out as a classic Mann nighttime composition before huge flashes of light and electricity starts falling from the ceiling

Now we get more color as a huge flame is about to burst from that liquid

Visual clarification. Looks like some sort of plant is in pretty bad shape

Insert text, cue start of Antony and the Johnson's moody version of the already moody Knockin on Heaven's Door. Not a bad song choice for this, and it suggests that the film is striving to be more than just another globe-trotting action movie

We get a slow-mo shot from behind of the team checking out that place where we just saw the explosion

Then reverse to the front. Yellow and red here, man this movie looks like it's going to have some crazy awesome lighting

We see what they see. Doctors helping those hurt from the explosion?

Once Hathaway and company arrive, they must get these safety suits as they investigate the site of the explosion

Hathaway voice over: the real hit is still to come. The slowness of the song captures the devastation caused by this mysterious terrorist, and this line really sets up what will likely be a driving force in the movie: the suspense and dread of waiting for a terrorist to strike

Closer shot of Hathaway

More text

The trailer's already pretty well established this, but nevertheless it doesn't hurt to remind us 

Viola Davis: You get discovered...

Cont. You're dead meat

                                                                           You have to run

Not only does Hathaway have to find this guy, but he has to keep himself from getting found, too

Hathaway following Wei through the night streets

Apparently they're walking into a restaurant, and the chef apparently likes cooking shirtless

Hathaway's in the restaurant, and the guy he's after seems to be that figure just above his right shoulder. More green light

Cut to the reverse angle, as we get a couple quick shots of Hathaway kicking some ass

The guy in white's about to take a huge hit to the face

While this other guy's about to get smashed by a table. Can't wait to see this sequence in full

The crew prepares to enter a Cessna

And then another glorious nighttime shot of the aircraft leaving the city

Here Hemsworth and Wei look a little more emotionally involved

And I hope to god Hemsworth's hair isn't doing that all the time in this movie

Now comes a bit of surprise, as we actually get a look at the perpetrator as he says, while talking on the phone: This isn't about money

Now we get a good look at the bottom half of his face. Mann's protagonists have often been villainous, I'll be curious to see who this character actually turns out to be. We may be dealing this time around with a more traditional hero-villain structure

Is this Chicago? I know some of the movie's set there. 

Slow tracking shot of officials as perpetrator continues: This isn't about politics. Hmmm, then what is it about? The bar for this guy is now set pretty high.

Chen talking to...

Some Chinese commander we haven't seen yet

Can't tell who this guy is, either, but his face has taken a beating and he's covered in tattoos-could mean he's a bad guy

Ultra low angle shot of Wei, really digging this green vibe Mann's working with

And, just for good measure, another shot of Hemsworth looking at a screen before he...

Knocks everything off his desk in extreme frustration

Bright lights in Hong Kong, and more voice over from our villain: I can target....


More running. Expect a lot of running in this movie

Not sure where this is supposed to be, but it looks nice

Now we're in the final portion of the trailer. This seems to be some sort of parade or celebration, but it's hard to tell

Though this creepy green mask maybe suggests something more ominous. Villain continues: Anything...

Hathaway's at the scene, and he looks all work no play

This might be our man right here

Hathaway's not just searching, he's ready to kill

Classic Mann image: machoism defined, shallow depth of field, just look at this guy. Screen cuts to black and villain finishes his pronouncement: anywhere. So no one's safe, and if he's creating trouble for its own sake, then this could end up being one scary movie

So this parade, or protest, or weird cult ceremony, or whatever it is, apparently is turning into a full on gun battle. Expect great things from Mann here. It's hard to tell though. This could be a different scene all together

But we know there will be some action in that scene from this image, in which Hathaway fires away. The torches almost look like city lights. Mann's sticking with what he knows best but finding new ways to go about doing it

Wei in a mad dash

Here's a closer look at that shooter from a few shots ago. Guessing he's not one of the good guys

Because he's shooting at these guys, who look like cops

Not sure how this shot snuck in here, but Davis is looking pretty worried. More green.

Now for the last two shots of the trailer: Hathaway finally embracing Wei, but it's actually just for protection

We'll see what ends up happening with these two

Knockin on Heaven's Door had stopped for the last several seconds of the trailer, but it returns quietly as the title card appears, again suggesting a film that's not just bang bang, but that's got a lot on its mind

And that's that. This is a really strong trailer, fully emblematic of Mann both in terms of visual style and storytelling. Mark your calendars. The film arrives in mid January, and while that's normally a dumping ground for studios, I don't see much reason to panic. Universal probably didn't have room for it in late 2014, and saw a delay of a few weeks as a nice way to keep the box office going after the busy Holiday season. And maybe they also figured that Mann fans would be really pissed if it was delayed longer just for a more prestigious release date.