Let's do this one backwards. Let's start with suggestions for further reading. The suggestions come from Daniel Kasman, and one of the implications, for me anyway, is that the pleasure I take in the films of Tony Scott need not necessarily be taken guiltily.
Back in 2006, Christoph Huber and Mark Peranson argued in Cinema Scope that Scott, "for all his constant flash and stylishness, has long moved on from mere action work towards ambivalent psychological thrillers, employing an expressionist visual style corresponding to heightened emotions: his themes and structures cry out for old-school auteurist appreciation." They lay out their case accordingly, but you may well find more to chew on in Larry Knapp's essay in the Spring 2008 issue of Jump Cut, currently being discussed in the Forum. He opens by acknowledging that some of the worst accusations that can possibly be thrown at a filmmaker have been thrown at Tony Scott, specifically by Justin Wyatt in High Concept: Movies and Marketing in Hollywood (1994): "For Wyatt, Scott's Top Gun is not just responsible for fragmenting US cinema into an extradiegetic display of sensation and spectacle — it reinstates the corporate elite, reactivates the class divide, and defuses the social threat of the 1960s by marginalizing any nonwhite male to a suspect Other." Knapp dismisses the charges; Wyatt "presumes Scott to be an unwitting stylist, technically accomplished but hopelessly compromised and interpellated by the Blockbuster aesthetic. What Wyatt does not take into consideration is Scott's aesthetic curiosity and dialectical film-by-film sensibility." You'll want to read the piece and have Knapp unpack the terms for you, but "Scott is not only a symptom but an agent provocateur of Postclassical Hollywood Cinema"; what's more, he's pushing "the boundaries of the postclassical into the classical-plus and the hyperclassical... In Top Gun and even True Romance the audience can easily float with the surface structure and identify with the fantasy of transcending both physical space and cultural time," but Knapp sees "a growing impatience with intensified continuity and the postmodern condition" in Man on Fire and Domino.
In short, for Knapp, Huber and Peranson, anyone writing off Tony Scott as a veteran of television commercials merely applying his skill set to features, that is, a corporate tool, is missing out on the, yes, pleasures of the challenges he presents (among them, the "brazen rejection of intertextuality and spectacle as stable norms of comprehension," as Knapp puts it) and the variety of an ever-evolving oeuvre. And in 2010, that evolution takes us to Unstoppable, which, to take it straight from Jonathan Kiefer's review for the Faster Times, "Is Everything You Could Want from a Tony Scott Movie About a Runaway Freight Train." The gist: "Denzel Washington, Chris Pine and Rosario Dawson contend with a combustible runaway freight train in rust-belt Pennsylvania. It's hard to imagine a person coming out of Unstoppable feeling disappointed, because then you'd also have to imagine what that person possibly could have expected going in. Scott and writer Mark Bomback's formula is basically standard elementary school word problem by way of prime-time truck commercial, and it's sort of tickling to see how well it works."
Manohla Dargis in the New York Times: "Mr Scott is partial to blunt, rapid cuts; whipping pans; and saturated colors. He likes twirling the camera around characters, like a sugared-up tot running 360s on a playground, a hyperactive visual style that can turn the screen into a blur of pulsating color. Here, working with the cinematographer Ben Seresin and some ace sound technicians, he creates an unexpectedly rich world of chugging, rushing trains slicing across equally beautiful industrial and natural landscapes. There is something mesmerizing about these trains and the men who run them, something nostalgic too, because they seem like history machines, summoning up a past lived and also imagined, as in, for starters, The Great Train Robbery (1903), North by Northwest (1959) and Speed (1994). Unstoppable doesn't belong in that company: its story is largely forgettable, and its pleasures are transitory, limited to the actors (including Rosario Dawson and Kevin Corrigan, working up a sweat back in dispatch) and to its moments of beauty and strange comedy."
"It's a gleefully preposterous, slickly engineered machine without a thought in its head besides entertaining you for 98 minutes," writes Sean Burns in the Philadelphia Weekly. "I had fun." More from Ty Burr (Boston Globe, 3 out of 4 stars), Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times, 3.5 out of 4), Ann Hornaday (Washington Post, 3 out of 4), Glenn Kenny (MSN Movies, 4 out of 5), Brian Miller (Voice), Andrew O'Hehir (Salon), Michal Oleszczyk, Mary Pols (Time), Nick Schager (Slant, 2.5 out of 4), Scott Tobias (AV Club, B-), Kenneth Turan (Los Angeles Times), Lindy West (Stranger), Mike Wilmington (Movie City News) and Stephanie Zacharek (Movieline, 8.5 out of 10). Kyle Buchanan talks with Scott for Vulture, Margy Rochlin with Scott and Washington for the NYT and Michael Ordoña with Dawson for the LAT.
"If a filmmaker takes narcissism and self-consciousness as his or her subject, does that ensure that his or her work is automatically narcissistic and reflexive to the point of exasperation?" asks Andrew Schenker in Slant. "In Tiny Furniture, writer-director Lena Dunham attempts to tap into the cultural moment by centering her film on an up-to-the-minute situation — the paucity of options facing today's recent college grads — and by saturating the work with the cultural references by which her characters define themselves. In an upper-crust Manhattan marked by rampant narcissism, Aura (played by Dunham herself), an unemployed, post-grad returning to her artist mother's Tribeca loft, may be the least self-absorbed character on display. But she (and the film) still wallows in her failed efforts to both return to the proverbial womb and take tentative steps into the outside world in a way that feels dispiritingly self-absorbed."
"Winner of last spring's SXSW festival and current indie darling, Lena Dunham's Tiny Furniture is a comedy of youthful confusion that gets its kick not only for evoking a world of unromantic hookups, casual BJs, and iPhone porn, but for satirizing New York's bourgeois bohemia," writes J Hoberman in the Voice. "That the coolly self-possessed Siri is played by Dunham's mother and the loft's owner, noted photo-artist Laurie Simmons (the movie's title refers to her props); Nadine by her actual sister, Grace Dunham (who, like her character, did actually win the 'biggest high school award for poetry in the United States'); and Aura by the filmmaker herself pushes Tiny Furniture even further into psychodrama than such boho-autobiographical precursors as Noah Baumbach's The Squid and the Whale and Aza Jacobs's Momma's Man."
"For her part, Aura can be a drag, self-indulgent, whiny and passively, aggressively irritating," concedes the NYT's Manohla Dargis. "But it is Ms Dunham's refusal to put on a pretty show, to doll herself up, that is the movie's boldest stroke. In her rejection of visual pleasure (the unlovely, unadorned, badly lighted digital images add to the anti-aesthetic) you can see a feminist argument about narrative cinema in bold action. Classical Hollywood films, this argument goes, turn desirable female images into fetish objects for male pleasure, which among other things tames women. Female stars are created to be looked at; Aura invites your gaze, and troubles it."
More from Matt Connolly (Reverse Shot), Steve Erickson (Gay City News), Eric Kohn (indieWIRE), Noel Murray (AV Club, B-), Michelle Orange (Movieline, 8.5 out of 10), Nicolas Rapold (L), Joshua Rothkopf (Time Out New York, 3 out of 5) and Dana Stevens (Slate). Interviews with Dunham: Mark Asch (L), Melissa Silvestri (Ioncinema) and Anne Thompson (video). Non-subscribers can't read Rebecca Mead's profile in the New Yorker, so Samantha Henig gives the rest of us three early Dunham shorts to watch.
"Helena from the Wedding, the debut feature from Brooklyn director Joseph Infantolino, isn't exactly a ringing endorsement for marriage," writes Cullen Gallagher at Hammer to Nail. "This dark comedy about spousal problems unfolds largely in a single, claustrophobic house like a snowbound Eyes Wide Shut, but instead of freaky masks and orgies there are holiday sweaters and group backgammon games. The drinking and drugs are still there, and so is the spousal insecurity, which begins as lingering paranoia and quickly moves from passive to very active aggression. And did I forget to mention the movie is also funny as hell?"
"Alex and Alice (Melanie Lynskey and Lee Tergesen), newlywed but together long enough to familiarly co-habit a bathroom, arrive to host a New Year's party at their snowbound cabin somewhere upstate." Nick Pinkerton in the Voice: "What follows is a miserable-white-folks ensemble piece, as guests show up and — as people are wont to do even when it's not a holiday that encourages self-criticism — start measuring their own dissatisfaction relative to everyone else's. It's fantastic to see Lynskey (best remembered as a Kiwi teenager in Heavenly Creatures) in a part that puts her to use, and Paul Fitzgerald, as the group's lone divorcé, gets across a quality of amiable surrender, but it's Tergesen who is the film's lynchpin. As dissembling flop playwright Alex, he brings Jack Lemmon to mind, his standby expression a thin half-grin and bright eyes that suggest he's holding back a scream."
TONY's David Fear didn't have as good a time as Gallagher and Pinkerton: "Just because your characters bicker, and your camera shakes slightly, doesn't mean you're mining veins of truth or insight any more than such things make you Edward Albee or John Cassavetes." More from Jeannette Catsoulis (NYT), Glenn Heath Jr (Slant, 1.5 out of 4) and James van Maanen. Filmmaker's Scott Macaulay talks with Infantolino.
"In the economy of celebrity artists, Mark Kostabi has gone a few steps beyond Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami in terms of simultaneously parodying and participating in the art market's extremes," writes Benjamin Sutton in the L. "His schtick, which has become increasingly indistinguishable from his genuine convictions, takes up the art fabrication techniques of famous artists with massive studios and armies of assistants, but goes further, hiring out the generation of concepts to 'idea men.' The artist is reduced to a signature and brand, but also elevated to a life-long performative act." In his "excellent" documentary Con Artist, Michael Sladek "moves through Kostabi World's mirror maze agilely. He presents a history of the artist's SoCal youth and mid-80s rise in the doc's first half, only briefly addressing his fall to bankruptcy following the collapse of the art market in 1990. The years between 1990 and 1996 disappear, and the next thing we know, Kostabi's back on the rise, until in the late aughts he's moved his production facility to West 24th Street, found love, and unveiled a sculpture of Pope John Paul II commissioned by the Vatican for the present pope. The art world still gets the joke, but His Holiness swallows the hoax hook, line and sinker. In a cultural climate that increasingly champions savvy self-satrizing and the cult of personality diffused through ever more media channels — not to mention an art market now surpassing its pre-recession highs—slippery figures like Kostabi seem all the more important."
Nick Schager in the Voice: "In its subject's desire for attention and validation, the film gets at the pitiful need and loneliness that drives fame whores. Nevertheless, it remains most compelling when bursting Kostabi's self-important bubble, as when art critic Donald Kuspit caustically derides the man's work as 'Applebee's aspiring to be Olive Garden.'"
More from Diego Costa (Slant, 3 out of 4), Stephen Holden (NYT) and James van Maanen. At Brooklyn's reRun Gastropub Theater.
"Ondi Timoner's documentary [Cool It] is, at heart, a platform for The Skeptical Environmentalist author Bjorn Lomborg, who contends (contrary to the accusations of his detractors) that global warming exists and is a serious problem, but is a dilemma that's less grave than 'alarmists' would have you believe and one that should be tackled via more reasonable approaches." Nick Schager in Slant: "In its early going, the film goes a bit far in positioning Lomborg as a valiant lone voice of truth under attack from a monopoly of vested interests, and indulges in the same type of cute pop-doc aesthetics (cartoon graphics, an avalanche of stats and graphs, numerous talking heads) that have come to rule the genre. Nonetheless, it cogently and persuasively lays out its obvious, and yet far-from-embraced, thesis: that the only real way to obliterate America's, and the developing world's, reliance on fossil fuels (and their resultant CO2 emissions) is to create cheaper, more effective alternatives." More from Jeannette Catsoulis (NYT), David Fear (TONY, 3 out of 5), Nicolas Rapold (Voice) and Scott Tobias (AV Club, C). Damon Smith talks with Timoner for Filmmaker.
Karina Longworth in the Voice on Disco and Atomic War: "With tongues partially in cheek, director Jaak Kilmi and screenwriter Kiur Aarma, who grew up in the same neighborhood of Tallinn, Estonia, in the 80s, lay out the case that Cold War Soviet rule of their country was fatally eroded by Western pop culture, in the form of Finnish television broadcasts that drifted across the border. Narrating in deadpan English and weaving together incredible footage from Soviet archives and unmarked re-creations that almost pass for real home movies, Kilmi and Aarma detail their boyhood obsessions with the illegal airwaves, the seduction of entire families by disco dance shows and Dallas reruns, and the increasingly absurd, ultimately futile lengths taken by the Soviet state to maintain some semblance of control over the viewing habits (and thus, the hearts and minds) of the body politic." More from Eric Henderson (Slant, 2.5 out of 4), Stephen Holden (NYT), Michelle Orange (Movieline, 6 out of 10), John Sylva (L) and James van Maanen.
"It can be exhilarating to watch as clearly intelligent/talented people hold forth on the true objects of their obsessions," writes Chuck Bowen in Slant. "This is a simple pleasure, but, sadly, also a rare one, as so many interviews these days are so fraught with soundbites or agendas or pretenses of frivolity. The Practice of the Wild contains archive footage and a few appreciative interviews with scholars and friends, but the bulk of it consists of a series of walk and talks between the subject, poet/ecological activist Gary Snyder, and longtime friend, novelist Jim Harrison." Andrew Schenker in the Voice: "The film's as relaxed and unhurried as a beat blissing out on some choice weed, as Zen as the brand of Buddhism that Snyder helped bring to the American consciousness."
IN THE UK
"Both a slow-burning study of a bereaved family's internal tensions and a languid cannibal movie, Mexican filmmaker Jorge Michel Grau's uneven debut [We Are What We Are] creates a tough challenge for audiences," writes Nigel Floyd in Time Out London: "it is too low-key for horror fans but too gory for arthouse patrons. The trailer and poster campaign ('Young. Wild. Hungry.') tries to position the film, which had its world premiere in Directors' Fortnight at Cannes in May, as this year's crossover art/horror movie, claiming that it does for cannibals what Let the Right One In did for vampires. Yet for all its promise, it fails fully to flesh out its gruesome premise, its shaky mythological underpinnings and oblique social commentary, and ultimately fizzles out into cop-thriller clichés." More from Peter Bradshaw (Guardian, 4 out of 5 stars: "Like Giorgios Lanthimos's recent shocker Dogtooth, it is a grisly satire on family dysfunction and abuse, and on poverty, society and the law"), Ryan Gilbey (New Statesman), Jacob Mikanowski (Bright Lights) and Tim Robey (Telegraph, 3 out of 4). Earlier: Reviews from the New York Film Festival.
The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw on Into Eternity: "In many ways, this unassuming, modestly proportioned documentary from Finnish filmmaker Michael Madsen (no relation to the Hollywood bad guy) is one of the most extraordinary factual films to be shown this year." It's "about Onkalo, a colossal underground tomb being built in Finland, 500 metres below the earth — supposedly impervious to any event on the surface and far away from any possible earthquake danger: its purpose is to house thousands of tonnes of radioactive nuclear waste.... The point is that, to be safe, this gigantic bunker has to last 100,000 years. Are we humans capable of even conceiving this, let alone actually guaranteeing it?" For the Telegraph's Tim Robey, "Madsen is the rare documentarist interested in a complete cinematic experience.... Formally exacting and sonically immersive, Madsen's approach is so hypnotic you emerge as if roused from a troubling dream." More from Tom Huddleston (Time Out London, 3 out of 5).
Last night, London saw the premiere of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1, which rolls out across the globe starting around the middle of next week. "That the film has the feel of an appetiser is one of many problems faced by David Yates, now the franchise's longest-serving director with four films under his belt," writes James Mottram in the Independent. "With Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and his friends Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) on the run, this is the first film set away from Hogwarts, the school where they spent their teenage years. Which sadly means no scenes in the Great Hall, with a bemused Maggie Smith wondering why she's surrounded by dozens of drama school brats."
"Perhaps the most pertinent question surrounding the way in which JK Rowling's exceptionally intricate epic is being concluded onscreen is whether dividing the final book into two films was justified artistically or only financially," suggests Todd McCarthy in the Hollywood Reporter. "After all, the longest volume in the series, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, became the shortest film, and parts of the long midsection of Deathly Hallows — when the kids sulk in the wild, not knowing what to do next — easily could have been abridged. More than even the most faithful of the earlier episodes, this film feels devoted above all to reproducing the novel onscreen as closely as possible, an impulse that drags it toward ponderousness at times and rather sorely tests the abilities of the young actors to hold the screen entirely on their own, without being propped up by the ever-fabulous array of character actors the series offers."
Variety's Justin Chang finds it "lumbering and gripping by turns, and suffused with a profound sense of solitude and loss," the Telegraph's Anita Singh declares it to be "the scariest Potter film so far," and the Guardian's Xan Brooks can't wait to see the end of the whole blasted franchise: "Try as I might, I can't shake the suspicion that these films are too obviously built for purpose and too lacking in wit, warmth and humanity to survive much beyond the moment. So farewell Harry Potter, the literary marvel who became a closed book at the movies. You endured and you prospered. You took up space and leave no trace. After all this time and all these films, it is as though we never really knew you at all."
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