Monday, January 24, 2011

Exit Through the Gift Shop (Banksy 2010)

I'd read very little about Exit Through the Gift Shop (which opens with "A Banksy Film" but otherwise has no credited director though everybody seems to be assigning that to Banksy). So perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that the film wasn't really what I expected since such expectations after all were based on almost nothing. Somehow I had the impression that it plays with "reality" and documentary form and would fit in with F for Fake, some of Kiarostami or Herzog's work, or even on a different track James Benning or Waking Life. In short I didn't expect what is almost an A&E Biography-styled narrative though to be fair some of this (such as the portentous voice-over) seems to be tongue-in-cheek.

Looking up reviews afterwards what I'd picked up is the idea that some of the film might be a hoax, something that pretty much every reviewer does (even me). As Andrew O'Hehir at Salon aptly put it, "One can only wish the New York Times had viewed the Bush administration's call to war with half the caution with which it has approached Exit Through the Gift Shop, the new documentary made (or presided over, or something) by the mysterious British street artist Banksy." Much of the events in the film can be verified independently so most reviewers tend to answer eventually with a shrug and comment that what's real doesn't much matter because after all that's the point.

But at least some of it does matter. If the Sotheby's auctions for instance are staged then some of the target of art world commercialism is manipulated too much to be effective. If that's really not Banksy talking then can we assume he's speaking Banksy's opinions? There are some oddities within the film. Much of the first half is Guetta's tapes of street artists but at one point there's a shot of him in action so who made that? If Guetta wasn't yet involved who filmed Banksy at the West Bank when he claimed they weren't documenting his work? Though filmed over a decade the people don't always seem to change that much. Why does Banksy become so definite about how bad Mr Brainwash is? Why does he knock Guetta's original film when he would be more likely to applaud something unconventional? For that matter the DVD includes a 15-minute "lawyer's edit" of the original that seems suspiciously like this was only made to be included in Exit itself.

In a way none of this matters. It would have been simple for another person to be taping; somebody familiar with the area remarked that one of the decade-old shots must be that old since it doesn't show some recent buildings; etc. The entire thing could be completely legit but what seems plausible (though "likely" is hard to judge) is that Brainwash was actually a Banksy et al project so Exit is more or less documenting a hoax without itself being a hoax (if such a distinction is possible).

So having written all this I suppose Exit does in some way play with the idea of what is real though it's notable that this only comes from extra-textual information. Watching the film there's no tip-off even if moments do feel a bit out of place or staged but then documentaries have been doing that as long as there have been documentaries. What to me is more problematic is the subject. The street artists are mostly of minor interest, more on the level of craft than art. Really, thousands of images of Andre the Giant's face with the word "obey"? Gosh that's really sticking it to our consumerist society! This may be why the film's interviewees continually mention how subversive this is but only once notes that by the time the film opens this stuff was about two decades old. Banksy turns out to be something almost completely different - imaginative, inventive, sometimes ambiguous and often with what can only be described as a real aesthetic charge. (In fact it wouldn't be too surprising if "Banksy" turned out eventually to be a collective name rather than an individual's.) Which is yet another reason the film's final half hour focusing on the sub-Warhol Brainwash and done in reality show will-he-succeed-or-not mode becomes so tedious.

It's a commonplace idea that today we're in a society of images and shifting realities so maybe that's why so many reviewers are interpreting Exit as being somehow about those processes. But if so the film is fairly toothless. The quote that's often included in reviews comes near the end: "At the same time, the joke's on.... Well, I'm not sure who the joke's on. I'm not even sure there is a joke." This is presented as an insight but I feel it should be taken at face value - there's just not as much here as most of us would have liked to see.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

recent viewing

Jonah Hex (Jimmy Hayward 2010) - When I first heard a Jonah Hex film was being made I thought it's about time. There's potential, a huge backlog of stories and Hex could appeal to a post-Deadwood audience. There wouldn't need to be any updating or revision - in fact Hex would make a great TV series and could fit onto either network or cable. Still, my expectations weren't too high and the result is far below that. The entire thing is basically an episode of The Wild Wild West (even down to Lance Reddick in a too-brief Artemus Gordon role and an appearance by President Grant) with a hint of Django-ish spaghetti Western thrown in. (The machine guns and coffin seem almost like Django references but I wouldn't be surprised if nobody connected with Jonah Hex had seen that film.) Hex is given a supernatural ability that's not in the comics (as far as I know anyway - there are a lot of comics) and since this ability really just fills in a couple of plot points that could easily have been done more realistically I suspect this is a holdover from an earlier script. In fact with that, a running time of 81 minutes, Megan Fox in an almost non-existant role, mishmashed generic Indians and some oddities about setting (the film is mostly in Virginia and South Carolina but one bad guy heads out the door and is in the Southwest) I further suspect that the whole thing was cobbled together from several scripts and then had possibly some severe post-filming trims. The filmmakers go out of their way to explain that Hex was a "good" Confederate who didn't support slavery, anachronistically refer to terrorists and in a film about the US Centennial omit any mention of the other big news event of the day - Custer's defeat. Then again at least the whole thing is short. Oh and did I mention the scene where a wounded Hex is rescued by his dog running to get help Lassie-style?

Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian (Shawn Levy 2009) - So since I claimed the original was horrible why would I watch the sequel? Mainly the result of being at my parents' during the holidays and nothing else was on. As it turns out the sequel is actually fairly amusing. And by "fairly amusing" I mean in a nothing-else-was-on-cable way. Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon are still onboard as writers and this time even get small cameos but the film mostly works due to fast pacing, a lot of stuff happening, Amy Adams spouting faux 30s slang and Hank Azaria delivering what is nearly a one-man comedy show proving he should be in nearly every film that comes out.

Cop Out (Kevin Smith 2010) - Why was this not on my Hollywood-can't-make-comedies-anymore post? Merciful amnesia is the most likely explanation. I believe this is Smith's first film as director where he didn't also write (though a couple of out-of-place raunch-humor scenes suggest he tried to add his mark). Apparently the idea was to make a tribute/parody/recreation/something of 80s cop films along Beverly Hills Cop lines, even to the point of recruiting Harold Faltermeyer for the music (at least when 20+ year-old-songs aren't being blasted at us). And no, I have no idea why anybody would want to do that. The story is confusing, the jokes thud, Tracy Morgan is almost unwatchable, the pacing limps. Only the indestructible Bruce Willis and goofy Seann William Scott have any kind of dignity or grace.

The Librarian: Quest for the Spear (Peter Winther 2004) - Another why-did-he-watch-this film? Well, io9 had a piece about heroic librarians that made this sound like it might be interesting. Nope. The writers seem to have been going on automatic and be competely unfamiliar with any similar work (maybe because it's fantasy and only geeks do those?). So there's no explanation of what the library really is or who is intended to use it (actually it's far closer to an archive), a peculiar one-librarian-at-a-time backstory that doesn't really make much sense, mostly very obvious mythological references, etc. And you have to wonder if this is all so secret then what about the security guards or if the library houses such powerful artifacts then why don't they prevent the robbery and why an inexperienced librarian for an obviously powerful organization only gets one assistant and so forth. The script is executed in a fairly stodgy TV-movie style and appears to have been shot mostly in front of greenscreens. Bob Newhart and Jane Curtin should have been more prominent.

Unstoppable (Tony Scott 2010) - A b-movie pumped up with a-level money and talent which seems mostly a waste from the finished work. I saw 1985's Runaway Train (partly based on a Kurosawa script apparently) so long ago that I don't remember much about it but I'd be surprised if Unstoppable is any improvement. There's a little bit of human interest backstory thrown in like the writer learned from a how-to book but I doubt anybody would miss that if it was gone. It's nice to see an action film that doesn't have guns since usually the kind of situations that would fit that tend to be absorbed into disaster films or adventures. The oddest thing in fact about Unstoppable is that the government agency man is presented as quite competant and smart - this time it's the slimy business people that do the bad things.

Tangled (Nathan Greno & Byron Howard 2010) - Another in the default mode of high-profile kids movies - injokes for the grownups, plenty of parodies, smart ass attitude, celeb voices. (There's an entire other world of low-budget kids films that hardly anybody without children sees - I probably haven't since my niece and nephew got old enough that these didn't interest them any more.) Tangled is completely in that trend but even so it still seems a bit slight, almost feels like there's not enough story. As it is the filmmakers have enough trouble balancing the fairy tale aspect (where it makes sense that Rapunzel would never have stepped out of the tower or a land full of smugglers, soldiers and hunters wouldn't know about the tower anyway) with more current narrative expectations. Trying to update it makes you question the fairy tale part, at least in the way it's done here. Alan Menken supplies the music and why couldn't they have found somebody else? It's not like the country isn't crawling with fine songwriters. Imagine what Stephin Merritt could have done.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The future of music?

Ann Powers has a new piece about music's "whole new way of doing business" but it's one of those think pieces newspapers generate that extrapolate wildly from a small sample. After all whether the writer is fer it or agin it they have to make it big to attract readers (the arts section version of if-it-bleeds). Doesn't necessarily mean it's wrong - for all I know fluid remixes and unstable musical configurations are where we're heading. But as usual with these pieces Powers is overestimating both the changes and the potential audience for what's happening. After all up until recordings achieved dominance over radio and sheet music (and to some extent live performance) after WW2 music was always in a state of "remix" and process. Classical is constantly an arena of interpretation, folk music a mirror maze of variations and pop itself dealt in multiple versions for decades. (That's one reason the older pop covers of rock, such as Pat Boone's Little Richard, are usually misinterpreted - they were dealing with rock as with any other trend only to have the ground rules changed so much that future listeners incorrectly thought this was bandwagon-jumping.) Some of the changes listed in the piece seem a bit odd. After all whether music was made on an iPad or a laptop or a desktop makes pretty much no difference unlike her example of an electric solid-body guitar which doesn't sound the same. But there are numerous other instances - artist-run labels from the 1950s onward (Mingus is the earliest I've been able to find), fan-only releases (even the Beatles did this), Throbbing Gristle releasing recordings of every live show they did, countless limited-editions, white-label and anonymous techno/electronica, punk one-offs, disco 12-inches, and so forth. I even got Chumbawamba's early albums years ago by sending a blank cassette and a stamped, self-addressed envelope to a guy in NYC who'd duplicate and send it back - a completely authorized alternative distribution system (which is why I was sure I'd misunderstood the name when a radio announcer on a commercial station played what turned out to be their only hit).

Still, the piece is right that it's great to see experiments but as Milton Babbitt might have remarked who's listening? I'm not aware of anybody I know tracking any of this stuff down not even the Gaiman fans or the college students where I work. (And Powers' labelling Gaiman "process art"? He's not Alvin Lucier.) That's where I think the grand claims in the piece fall apart but we'll have to wait another decade or so to know for sure. Really, most people are going to hear something on the radio or that a friend sent then go to iTunes to get it. Most of these experiments aren't even intended for the mass audience (well possibly Radiohead's pay-as-you-please album might have been) but are for the fans, obsessives and, well, critics.

The bigger question that the piece wisely only hints at is how all this distribution flux will actually affect the music. I can imagine somebody downloading that new MIA mixtape because they've heard good things about her (and maybe an earlier song or two) and then deciding she's way overrated (because the release is clearly a throwaway). And those early Kanye mixes didn't seem to have any effect on the final release which I can't imagine would have been any different whether they were put out or not. But who knows maybe this will create the listeners for rougher or less "finished" pieces or a taste for more inventive music. But I doubt it.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Starting shows - The Unit & Stargate SG-1

Watched the first disc for each of two shows.

The Unit is one I was aware of without paying any attention until recently learning that David Mamet was the creator. How could I pass that up? Well unfortunately from these first four episodes there's not much Mamet-like about it. I didn't expect anything on the order of his stark Spartan, a sort of American Le Samourai, but this is even more standard network. Don't know if Mamet wanted it this way or it's a compromise or if just the first eps are laying the groundwork. So far each ep is divided into two parallel stories - one about the anti-terrorist unit's mission of the week and the other about the at-home wives dealing with being at home. I really hope it gets a bit more complex than this because so far it feels very outdated with the men out hunting and the women cooking. Not helping is that at the start the women appear Stepford-Wife-ish in their blank comittment to the secrecy of the unit, so much that I thought this was deliberate but it might have been intended to be completely serious. The unit's activities also seem a bit odd (though the show is supposedly based on a memoir about Delta Force). In these eps they're in Afghanistan, the Serengeti, Indonesia, Idaho and Los Angeles. For all I know this is how Delta Force actually operates but it seems a bit scattered if not actually illegal (something they pay lip service to for Indonesia). There are a few story glitches such as sending one soldier out to nearby forest to infilitrate an assassination mastermind's cabin without ever explaining how anybody knew even roughly where he was. Still I'm an action film junkie and this works well enough that I'll likely finish the first season.

Stargate SG-1 is something I also never paid any attention to until recently starting to hear good things about it and the related series. The original movie is just godawful, notable only for Kurt Russell having one of the worst haircuts in film history. The first disc of the series is the double-length pilot and two eps. The pilot actually was a nice lead-in with a consciously b-movie feel (seemingly modelled on the first Star Trek series) and setting up some potentially interesting stories like a renegade alien warrior joining the team and a refugee crisis. It's got humor without going completely tongue-in-cheek and keeps a fairly brisk pace. The two eps make me wonder about the rest of the show. One is a decent story about an alien infestation that's familiar but at least not boring. It's a change from the pilot though and in fact even resolves the refugee story completely off-screen. (They're sent back to the original planet even though that was not a possibility before.) The next ep is called "Emancipation" and is as dully heavy-handed as anything I've seen. The basic idea is that a world based roughly on the Mongols keeps women in a second-class position (and one thing about the show seems to be that these cultures transplanted from Earth in the past never evolve over the centuries). The woman physicist/soldier doesn't like this and by the end, well, emancipates them. So the team just happens to end up with the one tribe where the leader wants this to happen then they decide it's their role to change the social and political structure (with a tiny bit of discussion just as when Kirk justifies ignoring The Prime Directive yet again) then they show magic sticks (ie guns) that awe the natives just as any cheesy b-movie and so on. The capper is when this desk-jockey physicist who had "level three" hand-to-hand combat training fights a hardened warrior who has been doing this his whole life and inexplicably defeats him - an ending made all the worse because there's a potential reason within the story that is completely ignored (that the warrior wanted his daughter to live so he lost as a way for that to happen and still save face). I'll certainly give this another disc because after all Babylon 5 might have been the greatest TV show ever but it had at least one huge clinker ("Infection" I'm looking at you).

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Best Films 2010

The best I saw from January 1 to December 31, 2010. (And last year's list.)

1. The Limits of Control (Jim Jarmusch 2009)

2. There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson 2007)

3. The New World (Terrence Malick 2005)

4. In the Loop (Armando Iannucci 2009)

5. Fantastic Mr Fox (Wes Anderson 2009)

6. The Red Shoes (Michael Powell 1948)

7. Coraline (Henry Selick 2009)

8. Le Roman d'un Tricheur / Story of a Cheat (Sacha Guitry 1936)

9. Platform (Jia Zhang-ke 2000)

10. A Prophet (Jacques Audiard 2009)

11. Voy a explotar (Gerardo Naranjo 2008)

Honorable: Trafic (Jacques Tati 1971), Classe Tous Risques (Claude Sautet 1960), Horror Rises from the Tomb (Carlos Aured 1973), House (Nobuhiko Obayashi 1977), Iron Man 2 (Jon Favreau 2010), Jennifer's Body (Karyn Kusama 2009), Le Quai des Brumes (Marcel Carné 1938), Toy Story 3 (Lee Unkrich 2010), The Crazies (Breck Eisner 2010)

Worst: Stargate, Repo Men, Cop Out, Kick-Ass, Predators, Birdemic: Shock and Terror, Alice in Wonderland (Tim Burton 2010), The Incredible Hulk, I Love You, Man, The Ugly Truth, GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra, Dead Snow, Of Time and the City, Night at the Museum, National Treasure: Book of Secrets

Monday, January 3, 2011

The Ghost Writer (Roman Polanski 2010)

Every year there is a movie or two that gathers critical acclaim for inexplicable reasons. The Ghost Writer made both of Entertainment Weekly's year-end lists, fourth on the Village Voice poll, fourth on Film Comment's poll and though it didn't place in Sight & Sound's it's on several of the individual lists.

So why? Did they choose this as a token classed-up genre film to praise? Think Polanski is due more recognition? Needed something to fill out their list? Actually believe it's seriously political? Listed to too many other critics?

The film plays out almost like a ghost story - moody, slow-moving, portents of danger, a mysterious death. In fact I actually wondered for much of the first hour if we'd find out at the end that the ghost writer (he's not named) would turn out to be an actual ghost. (One of the DVD extras reveals that Robert Harris and Polanski screened Sunset Boulevard before filming though apparently never going that far with the narration they later abandoned.) The catch is that unlike some similar horror movies that play off mood--such as the late Jean Rollin's--The Ghost Writer pays attention to the story as important and it really takes a long time to get to the point. There are the elements of a thriller but stretched out until they almost become pointless and I really doubt that was the intention. (Jarmusch's The Limits of Control is a smarter, funnier and far more radical reimagining of the thriller.) The film really would have been improved if half an hour was cut, not to the point of making it more slam-bang action but at least so we're spared watching Ewan McGregor spend long stretches seemingly trying to remember where he's supposed to be standing.

I suppose the other reasons for the acclaim may be the idea that it's character-driven and political. But the ghost writer is pretty much a blank, given no family, no political opinions, probably no friends and even just filling in for an earlier ghost writer. More or less the only other characters are a barely written assistant, the former prime minister who would have seemed almost the same except for Pierce Brosnan and then his wife as really the only one who comes across as a traditional "fully developed" character (though again much of the credit will have to go to Olivia Williams who manages to be both abrasive and, well, haunted at the same time). The political angle is actually kept to the right tone in the film but is certainly over-rated by many critics. Certainly many of us wondered why Tony Blair always seemed so supportive of the US and if this answer is implausible it's one that you'll pause for just a second.

I have to admit that the film builds to a clever ending, the kind that too many viewers might be tempted to dismiss as obvious but of course that's only after seeing it. And the final shot is a nice touch. Responding to critics like this makes the film sound bad which it's not but then it's also not really worth making an effort to see.