December 29, 2010

Getafilm Gallimaufry: Marwencol, Black Swan, True Grit, & Exit Through the Gift Shop

[Note: This series includes scattered thoughts on various movie-related topics. I was looking for a word that started with the letter "g" that means collection or assortment, but lest you think I'm some elitist wordsmith, know that I'd never heard of "gallimaufry" and I don't even know how to say it, but it was the only other option the thesaurus provided aside from "goulash" (too foody) and "garbage" (no).]

Marwencol (A) 

There's a fine line between a hobby and an obsession. Take my love of movies, for example - is this blog a healthy,  creative side project, or an unhealthy manifestation of a subconscious desire to escape reality through film? Or what about Mark Hogancamp, who, after being beaten within an inch of his life several years ago and his long-term memory, regained his personality and his imagination through a fantastical world he created with plastic figurines? I can live without movies (maybe?), but Hogancamp can't live without these dolls. They are not a hobby, and they are not even an obsession. They are like air and water, necessary for his daily life. 

Hogancamp's alternate reality, named Marwencol, is so detailed and lifelike that it appears to exists as a living, breathing place, filled with characters and backstories enough to fill a series of books. If I had the patience and artistic talent to create places like it, I might end up lost with the dolls as well. This is not to say that Hogancamp doesn't have a handle on reality, just that considering where he's coming from it makes perfect sense that Marwencol is his security blanket from the judgments of the world (he was beaten at a bar after admitting to a habit of cross-dressing). It's the place he can go to get away, and be his own person in his own mind, and in that sense Marwencol is an almost uncomfortably personal entry into his thoughts and emotions.

I'm sure it wasn't easy for Mark Hogancamp to agree to "expose" himself through this film, but his world, Marwencol, should be appreciated not only for what it means to him, but to everyone who seeks a place that offers that kind of solace.

Black Swan (B)  

As Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan reached its climactic finale, I'd made peace with my opinion of the movie: it was a lesser Fight Club, without the humor and witty cultural references. Maybe that says something about my gender or my disinterest in ballet, but in my head it was just a reaction to the familiarity of the story. I realize the plots aren't in any way similar, but, despite not having seen a trailer or learned anything about the story, I felt I'd been led to believe Black Swan was going to be some kind of transcendent thriller that would twist my mind and leave me breathless. Instead, I had a headache from the avian sound effects and predictable fright scenes, and I grew impatient to see something I hadn't seen before.

In the weeks afterward I considered the praise for Black Swan's ambiguity (i.e., was the ending real?) and acting, but as it recedes in my mind I don't have any great desire to see it again. I'm optimistic there are any number of similar films about passion and drive that aren't as cold, dark, and disturbing, like, for instance, Aronofosky's The Wrestler, which is a light and cheery family film in comparison.

True Grit (A-)  

At least for me, movies in 2010 were severely lacking memorable characters. I mean the kind of characters that you can recognize with one line of dialogue, or dress up for Halloween as, or spoof on "Saturday Night Live". Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn is one of those characters, and although I haven't seen the original True Grit, I think I'd rather watch Bridges in the character if only because he's a lot more fun to imitate than John Wayne.

Sure, the Coen Brothers left their mark on True Grit, but I'd be lying if I didn't expect more from them. Not more in terms of quality, per se, but more in terms of Coen-ness. More scenes like the bartering scene with Mattie Ross or the courtroom scene, more bizarre characters popping in and out of nowhere, and a little more dry humor. But their intention was a straightforward adaptation, and in that they likely succeeded (I haven't read the novel). Just doesn't seem like they had much reason for taking this on if they weren't going to do something unique with it.

Exit Through the Gift Shop (A-) 

I finally caught up to this raved-about documentary, and despite hearing much about its authenticity, the mysteries didn't appear where and when I expected. I've known of Banksy for several years, but I knew little about the rise of street art or the increasing number of public exhibitions by street artists. Essentially, I didn't realize their work had been accepted as legitimate in the eyes of collectors and auction houses. So, it didn't take much to convince me that Thierry Guetta could be a real person. As improbable as everything was, nothing really seemed outside of the realm of possibility (similar to My Kid Could Paint That), and there were fewer aspects of this film that made me think it wasn't real.

Conversely, everything about I'm Still Here seemed fake from the beginning (I saw it before it was officially announced as a hoax), so I could laugh along with Phoenix and Affleck as they punked everyone. Does its greater believability make Exit Through the Gift Shop a better documentary? Is it even a documentary, or an actual artistic statement by Banksy? Does it even matter? This is what I'm left wondering, but regardless of what I believe or discover about the truth, I now understand why this film has received so much attention. It's like one of Banksy's great works, subverting our expectations and telling us something we don't want to admit to ourselves about art, hype, and money.

December 16, 2010

300 Words About: TRON: Legacy

Hypothetically speaking, how would you describe the sun to someone who's never seen it before and has asked you "what it's like"? Think about the sun for a moment - what it means for humans, animals, plants, energy, life, time, etc.

Would you simply answer, "It's warm...radiant. Beautiful."?

If you can think of something better than that, send off a script ASAP to the top brass at Disney as they busily prepare a multi-platform franchise to rival their fading Pirates of the Caribbean goldmine. Not that the dialogue in the Pirates movies is much better, but if the TRON series can't depend on the charm and star power of the likes of Depp, Knightley, Bloom, and Rush, it's going to have a long way to go to win over science fiction-allergic critics, despite its impressive visual effects.

And the effects are, in a word, astonishing. Right from the opening zoom shot through the skyscrapers of Center City, I had a feeling TRON: Legacy would make my eyes pop more than any movie since Avatar. I suppose that's not saying much since it's only been a year, but you have to consider just how much of a treat it is to still be impressed by visual effects in 2010. Today it's possible to produce realistic representations of anything the imagination can devise (maybe with the exception of CG faces, as evidenced by the cringe-worthy representation of Jeff Bridges circa 1982), and spectacular visual effects go unnoticed by all of us on a daily basis, in everything from television commercials to internet flash animations. I think 3D significantly detracts from all of this more than it enhances it (and the 3D is thankfully at a bare minimum in this movie), but my point is, we've come a long way, baby, and I don't want to take that for granted.

Unfortunately, script development hasn't evolved nearly as quickly as filmmaking technology. Blockbusters with juicy story potential like TRON: Legacy and, to be fair, Avatar, continue to be bogged down by moronic dialogue, and often sub-par acting to boot (see also: Speed Racer). I won't lay any of the blame on first-time director Joseph Kosinski, and I hope to see more from his architecturally-refined mind, but with presumably more ownership of the next sequel, he has to give more consideration to who is writing the screenplay. Otherwise, descriptions of this franchise will counter Sam Flynn's bland description of the sun: "Dull...shallow. Forgettable."

December 14, 2010

Un-fracking-believable: Gasland

Just think, you can cook without a stove!

If you became angry or frustrated while watching Inside Job, wait until you get a load of Gasland, the award-winning documentary exposing even more egregious shenanigans committed by Corporate America. All things considered (including his personal relationship to the story), filmmaker Josh Fox lays out an honest, objective examination of hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking", the controversial new trend in domestic natural gas production. Gasland is this decade's Erin Brockovich or A Civil Action, the significant difference being that in this documentary, and thus in real life, companies aren't committing crimes by breaking or going around government regulations meant to protect citizens. That's because relatively speaking, there are no such regulations in place.

Much as you might expect this be a right vs. left political issue, what with Halliburton behind both the fracking technology and the Dick Cheney-initiated "Halliburton Loophole" (which exempts oil and gas companies - all of them - from our country's long-standing clean air and water regulations), the uncomfortable truth is that this is bipartisan bad behavior. While conservative interests may comprise corporate boards and shareholder majorities, President Obama and environmentalists are championing domestic natural gas production as an alternative to our addiction to foreign oil.

Problem is, nobody has developed a safe way to retrieve shale gas from the earth's crust, so for the time being more natural gas production means more fracking (by all accounts an extremely messy process). And more fracking - well as you can imagine that means more really nasty pollution, and more people being able to light their methane-infused tap water on fire.

Gasland won a Special Jury Prize at Sundance 2010, and was recently short-listed for this year's Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. I can't say it's a polished film (it's occasionally tangential and burdened with mumbling narration by Fox), but, alongside Inside Job and Restrepo, it's among the most important American documentaries of the year.

One of the memorable insights Fox shares at the end of film is that as he drove thousands of miles across the country to study the impact of fracking on local communities, every place started to look the same. Of course this is a common observation East Coasters make once they get west of Pennsylvania, but the stereotypical reasons (e.g., boring landscapes) were not cited here. Rather, the states blended together for Fox because fracking is happening everywhere: refineries and wells littered the country in places he never expected, and the stories and horrific symptoms from people he met were similar across thousands of miles. In other words, the problem isn't spreading - it's already spread, everywhere.

And, despite the fact that nobody yet knows the true effect fracking has on our air and water supply (only recently did the EPA initiate an official study on it), the practice continues unabated in one of the least regulated industries in the country. Completely helpless citizens are being poisoned and communities ruined, and not only is there no law against it, but the current laws were made to enable it. Worse, state agencies and departments that would normally be charged with looking into citizen's complaints are among the first to be cut as government budgets bleed out during the recession.

It's ironic then, or maybe it's not, that corporate interests helped lead to the recession, which has led to government budget deficits, which have led to agency and department personnel cuts, which has led to decreased regulation of corporate practices like fracking, which has led to greater corporate profits.

God Bless America.

Gasland comes out today on DVD (New Media/Docurama Films)
Add to your Netflix queue

Further reading:
"A Colossal Fracking Mess", Vanity Fair, June 2010
"Fracking yields fuel, fear in Northeast",, September 2010

Further viewing:
"Shaleionaires" - 60 Minutes, November 14, 2010

December 7, 2010

Taking It Home: Inside Job

Finally, it all makes sense. Mostly.

Listening to the media echo chamber discuss President Obama's tax deal this week, I realized that it's been more than two months since I saw Charles Ferguson's illuminating Inside Job, and, shockingly, I think I still understand his deft explanation of the reasons behind the financial meltdown and, consequently, our current panic about tax rates and unemployment benefits. After numerous films - including but not limited to Capitalism: A Love Story (0/2 for Michael Moore after he dropped the health care ball with the forgettable Sicko), American Casino, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, and even The Other Guys - tried and failed to explain what led to The Great Recession, Ferguson's film was like a breath of fresh air, illustrating the financial foolishness in terms that anyone can understand. Good thing, too, because as I said in my pan of the meaningless Wall Street, this was probably the last chance The Recession Movie had to establish itself as a viable genre.

Why was it so hard to present this financial information in a clear way prior to this film? To be fair it does require a lot of detailed explanation, and when filmmakers have other things on their minds (melodrama and an Oscar in the case of Stone's Wall Street; comedy and I-don't-know-what in the case of Moore's Capitalism), the meat of the subject at hand is guaranteed to be lost. Inside Job, in contrast, has little else on it's mind other than telling us what happened and, not accidentally, making us feel really angry about it. This isn't necessarily a fair and balanced documentary (and maybe not a documentary at all?), but it nonetheless presents the facts and allows educated people to talk about them, even though in this case the facts really speak for themselves.

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