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Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Spies Wide Shut: Steven Spielberg's "Bridge of Spies"



Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies is a fact-based espionage drama set during the simmering cold-war Fifties. The film’s main character, James Donovan (Tom Hanks), is a successful insurance lawyer selected by his firm to represent Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), then chosen by the CIA to negotiate with the Soviet Union and German Democratic Republic an exchange of Abel for captured U.S. spy-plane pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell). Donovan is a Greatest Generation relic representing an outmoded ideal. Likewise his journey through mid-century realpolitik is ostensibly mediated by Spielberg’s mawkish cornball schmaltz. Compared to a zippy twenty-first century journalism procedural like Spotlight, it is tempting to classify Bridge of Spies as an enjoyably frivolous bit of throwback prestige—a period piece by a celluloid filmmaker of diminishing importance in an age of digital reproduction.  


And yet Bridge of Spies is an estimable accomplishment in Spielberg’s body of work. With its deft storytelling and urgent parallels to the fiery rhetoric of the media in the summer of Trump, Bridge of Spies is magnificently self-reflexive. The film continues the director’s meditations within the arena of the American Argument—the Constitution being, for Donovan, a frame through which an alert citizenry engages with itself as language and whose borders fluctuate. The dynamic of the American “frame” resembles the cinematic one. The title of the film itself suggests seeing as a means of connection across barriers. Spielberg’s admonition is that we close our eyes at our peril.

Read more at The Point Magazine:  

http://thepointmag.com/2015/criticism/bridge-of-spies#footnote-1

Friday, December 25, 2015

Adam McKay's "The Big Short"

In a 1990 interview with David Lynch, David Breskin asked if the filmmaker, hot off Twin Peaks, had ever heard of the “Moment of Shit.” Lynch was interested to know what it was. “The ‘Moment of Shit,'” Breskin replied, “is what TV writers call it when everything comes together, and you have that edifying moment, when you are supposed to get the Message, and the Morality comes across…”
The Big Short
Steve Carrell and Ryan Gosling in “The Big Short”
Breskin was complimenting Lynch on how Twin Peaks had “turned the fan on all that” with its more offbeat approach to TV. I bring it up here because the Moment of Shit, when it hits the fan and the audience can see below the detritus of conflict, is running throughout the whole of Adam McKay’s surprisingly well-received true-life satire The Big Short, based on the Michael Lewis (Moneyball) bestseller about a handful of credit default swap players who, simply by doing the math, forecast the 2008 economic collapse. An estimable ensemble of eccentrics–played by Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt, Finn Witrock, John Magaro–guides us through the inevitable bubble burst of obscene wealth, where lines between absurdity, stupidity, and fraud swirl into a scrumptious cone of wealth.

J.J. Abrams' The Force Awakens


Remembering a particular movie pageant from the past, “This may seem an unusual procedure…but we have an unusual subject.”
Entering biblical themes, so Cecil B. DeMille introduced The Ten Commandments. And so I introduce a review (or something like it) of Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. Short of bringing up the saga’s religious significance or the cultural parallels we could draw on a canvas of space opera metaphor, there’s the pressure on anyone approaching this shrine of letting loose a damn spoiler, for fear of becoming a social pariah. Also, in reviewing, offering criticism, however modest, is risky when online Jedi Jihadis don’t exactly have much tolerance for anything short of the same assessment Tony the Tiger has for his Frosted Flakes. If I wanted to ensure people asking me to quit writing film criticism, I’d just have to hand in a mixed review of The Force Awakens. I mean, The Phantom Menace had a highly positive Tomatometer reading for chrissakes.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

'Twixt Myth and Ornament: Ron Howard's "In the Heart of the Sea"


The advertising for In the Heart the Sea, Ron Howard’s maritime adventure of the Nantucket whaling vessel Essex in 1820, presses how this is the true story that inspired “the myth of Moby-Dick,” myth being an operative word, because the image of the immense sperm whale is collectively tattooed in our minds without anyone, English Majors aside (and even then I’m not sure), having read Herman Melville’s confounding 1851 novel. The book fits Mark Twain’s criteria for classic status, something that everyone’s heard about and that no one’s read, interesting because it represents—more so than Twain’s own Huckleberry Finn, which at least a majority of the public has probably skimmed through for high school homework—the ultimate American text. It’s a canonical document for Know Nothing Know It Alls (I’ll plead the Fifth presently for myself), hilariously central to Woody Allen’s parable of conformity Zelig (1982), the human chameleon lying about having read it in order to fit into intellectual circles; we’re told that at the end of Zelig’s life “the only annoying thing about dying was that he had just begun reading Moby-Dick and wanted to see how to came out.” In the Heart of the Sea purports itself as spectacular history, insinuating a raw taste more tart than imaginative fiction, and while it’s unnecessary to criticize Howard for not being quite so abrasive with a $100 million 3D production, its frame story—with Melville having the Essex story told to him by one of the survivors, 30 years later—is a launching port reducing both the novel and its contexts to an easily digestive meal, regardless of the scrumptious intimations of whale fat and cannibalism. It’s not the myth of Moby-Dick that’s generated by Howard, but the  of Moby-Dick.

Read the rest here at L'etoile Magazine.