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01/01/14 4:00am

Los Angeles Plays Itself
Directed by Thom Andersen

It doesn’t put it in these terms exactly, but Andersen’s 2003 film, getting a weeklong run at IFC for its 10th-anniversary remaster, is about the foundational paradox of cinema—how the cinematic image is both a record of the truth and the birth of a lie. It fixes time and place and makes them fiction. Old films offer us a glimpse of the world as it used to be, a keyhole view of history, but the vision is incomplete. The cinema, Andersen reminds us, is a medium of cheats and shortcuts, tricks to make reality more appealing. Los Angeles may play itself, but it’s still just acting.

Opens January 3

09/25/13 4:00am

Gravity
Directed by Alfonso Cuaron

Judging from the breathless fervor of its reception—to date as universal as it is overzealous—it would seem as though the Children of Men director’s long-awaited latest has gone ahead and changed cinema irrevocably; it ought to go without saying that this is dubious. Admirers, doubtless compelled by the union of cutting-edge technology and an interstellar setting, invoke Kubrick as the most flattering comparison, drawing tenuous connections between the stars and claiming this schlock as heir apparent to 2001: A Space Odyssey. But it’s significant that critics struggled to make sense of 2001 upon release in 1968, while critics today easily embrace Gravity. The lack of friction speaks to its both its populist bearing and intellectual paucity. Who could possibly be challenged or provoked by this, let alone moved or pushed to thought?

Despite constant intimations of philosophical import and cosmic grandeur, Gravity ultimately resembles nothing more than an unusually portentous Disney theme-park ride or a video-game cutscene expanded to feature length, Cuaron having marshalled his talents toward what’s essentially the world’s most expensive 90-minute sizzle reel. It’s effective only insubstantially and superficially. A demonstration of (not inconsiderable) technical prowess, the movie shows scant interest in the human dimension, sidestepping the hard work of writing characters and drama by furnishing its paper-thin narrative with overused archetype and cliche. Kowalsky (George Clooney, faux-charming) and Stone (Sandra Bullock, faux-scared), stock types dusted off and thrown in space, hurtle from one ludicrous miniclimax to the next, every moment of repose disrupted by the whiz-bang of some new deadly cataclysm. Our heroes can’t even pause to catch their breath without finding they’re out of oxygen.

And so it is that Gravity motors on, stopping on occasion to unload an embarrassing bit of half-baked backstory or to ponder mortality with the air of a college-aged stoner. Cuaron, to his credit, seems dimly aware that his dialogue is laughable (the film opens with a “Macarena” joke!), and so he soon conspires to jam inter-astronaut communications to better focus on the much-discussed contemplative silence of space. But even here he fails himself: Steven Price’s bleating, obnoxious score drowns out the natural sounds of nothing at all. It’s just more of the same old spectacle, precision-calibrated for audience appeal. Perhaps it isn’t surprising that Gravity facilitates such praise. It’s been constructed as a vehicle for enthusiasm, tailor-made for gobsmacked and unthinking awe before its glitzy high-tech wonders.

Opens October 4

08/22/13 9:30am

Edgar Wright on the set of The Worlds End

The World’s End represents the third and final chapter in what has been informally dubbed “the Three Flavors Cornetto Trilogy,” a loose-knit and mock-serious series that also includes rom-com zombie flick Shaun of the Dead and the rural England Michael Bay parody Hot Fuzz. Their director and cowriter, Edgar Wright, has built his reputation on his rapid-fire screwball dialogue and penchant for pop culture references, but his real speciality runs deeper: no comic filmmaker working today invests so much emotional and psychological energy into his work, fleshing out an array of densely layered one-liners and ultra-subtle sight gags with an unexpected dramatic depth. Each of his films are, to varying degrees, deeply personal movies about real-life issues, from the soul-sapping effects of complacency to the Sisyphean struggle of growing up—they just also happen to feature zombies and robots and evil ex-boyfriends. With The World’s End opening on August 23, we sat down with Edgar Wright to talk about small towns, glory days, and why you can’t hit a pub crawl when you’re going on 40.

I’ve seen the film twice now. I think it’s your masterpiece.
Aw, thank you so much. Guillermo Del Toro did a Q&A with me last night in Toronto and he said something that really made me laugh. He said, “it’s highly ironic that your most mature movie also has killer robots in it.”

[jump]

Good point.
Thank you, though; that means a lot to me. We’re very proud of the movie. Some people, you know, would rather we do a Shaun of the Dead 2 or a Hot Fuzz 2. But even though we’ve made this trilogy of sorts, it’s really important to keep mixing it up. They need to have slightly different flavors and tones. You need to grow with the characters.

Are these characters personal to you?
There is a lot of personal stuff in Shaun of the Dead and in Hot Fuzz, even though it might not seem like there is. But The World’s End is the most personal of the three films. It was great for Simon [Pegg] and me to write. We developed the idea for this script about six years ago, but we didn’t start writing it until two years ago. We already had the story in mind, but when we actually started writing, all of our personal experiences from over the last couple of years just sort of came flooding out. So much of it comes from our own experiences, or from personal anecdotes. It’s fun for me to see it all up there on the big screen.

I often feel that your movies are quite personal and emotional. Some filmmakers who make genre films seem to build in social satire sort of flimsily, as if they were straining to make a point. But in your films it seem like the genre elements are simply the emotions manifesting themselves.
Absolutely, yeah.

How do you balance those genre elements and the more genuine emotions?
Simon and I are both fans of genre filmmaking, so I think some of it is just instinctual. A lot of the science fiction that inspired this movie, whether it’s books or movies or TV shows, were things that I grew up with, and I know them so well that it’s almost an instinctual thing, in a way. For example, in Shaun of the Dead, the zombies sort or represent complacency and conformity. But when we were writing that movie we were thinking more about how we might put ourselves into the George Romero universe, to see how that sort of film might play out if the heroes had hangovers rather than guns, and how they might cope. With The World’s End, I feel like the sci-fi elements reflect how Gary King, the hero, feels throughout the movie. It’s almost like a coping mechanism. There’s a scene in the film in which Gary realizes that there are otherworldly forces controlling the town, and when he delivers the speech which explains the plan to his friends, he’s happy, he’s smiling. And the reason he’s smiling is that it’s easier, in a way, to conclude that there might be an alien invasion than to realize that a) he’s old, b) the town has moved on without him, and c) that the two may not be as good as he remembered it being anyway. In a strange way, blaming the passage of time on some external forces becomes his coping strategy. I come from a small town and I have these kinds of bittersweet feelings when I go back, because it isn’t the place where I grew up. But obviously I went away and I have no right to go back and say, “Well, that shouldn’t be there.” The genre threats in this film are like a very surreal manifestation of that emotion.

08/14/13 4:00am

The Grandmaster
Directed by Wong Kar-Wai

The martial-arts film, in its conspicuous formal elegance and emphasis on bodies in motion, is often characterized as balletic. You imagine lithe, nimble figures engaged in an orchestrated dance, limbs intertwined in a ritual of graceful physicality in which the aesthetics of violence matter more than its consequences. With The Grandmaster, master visual stylist Wong Kar-wai proves himself similarly interested in the aesthetic qualities of action, but here it seems the mechanics of kung fu owe more to the fine arts than the applied: Wong renders the film’s half-dozen wuxia set pieces as lavish, almost painterly displays, spectacles of such inspired decadence that it’s a treat just to luxuriate in their beauty. Fists smear across the screen like the stroke of a brush through watercolor, a stuttering slow motion leaving a faint halo of light to trail behind. Every kick lands with the thud of a bass drum, chests made concave in turn, arms swinging back in streaks. The only blood in the movie drops with a splash into puddles of pouring rain—because red, of course, is just another color in the pallet.

The film’s most compelling sequence, in which Ip Man (Tony Leung) and Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi) find themselves locked in a battle of regional honor, develops into a physical display of otherwise unarticulated passions; the depth of feeling implied in this encounter recalls the waltz-time meetings of In the Mood for Love, if Leung and Maggie Cheung had exchanged blows instead of glances. While contemporary martial-arts pictures tend toward the clearly delineated visual space of long shots and long takes—the better to convey the virtuosity of performers of the complexity of fight choreography, principal metrics of modern kung-fu—Wong favors isolating close-ups and a rapid, rhythmic montage style, shifting the focus from physical skill to the splendor of the image. The result is a martial-arts film whose fights, though exhilarating, feel less invested in bare technical proficiency than in the sophistication and sumptuousness of its depiction. The Grandmaster, in other words, is a decidedly “artisanal” wuxia, a genre film with high-art aspirations crafted with a near-peerless eye. 

Opens August 23