Tangible Intangibles in Blackhat

Early in Michael Mann’s cyber thriller, Blackhat, Special Agent Barrett (played sturdily as ever by Viola Davis) threatens an official with an overly-dramatic line about making the “intangible” into the “tangible.” The point isn’t the dialogue itself, and in a film filled with over-caffeinated visual poetry stuffed with comments about the contemporary dichotomization of above ground and through-the-net politics this moment surely doesn’t standout. Yet, in this line, much of Mann’s overarching themes come to the surface. In a world now threatened by a warfare happening between what we can see and what we can’t, even if right before our eyes, the blurriness of tangible and intangible holds the keys to our future. While Blackhat at first seems to align in contradiction with this greater point by reducing that future to a few hours of action-packed entertainment, by the end everything between the first nuclear reaction explosion and the mano-a-mano climax adds up to a symmetry between the tangible and intangible.

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James Gray’s The Immigrant

At the core of James Gray’s powerful new film, The Immigrant, good and evil are melded to the point of being inseparable. Ewa, the titular lead character, says that she “wants to be happy.” Above all, she wants to survive, as does everyone she encounters. However, to control that very survival, people must often pronounce control over another. The men in the film – played with expected vulnerability and rage by Joaquin Phoenix and Jeremy Reener – are especially prone to defining their own pursuits via the woman at the center of the narrative.

On the surface, Darius Khondji’s images render early 20th century downtown Manhattan with a majestic golden glow and foggy distance that lends to the nostalgia of a glistening era rather than the grim poetry of Jacob Riis. It’s a compelling choice considering the complexity (and social class) of the characters, though it’s one, when considering the sheen everyone portrays and the imagined upwardly mobile world that exists beyond these dark spaces, that makes complete sense. The Immigrant will need a larger piece, as it – like all of Gray’s work – provokes a significant amount of thought beyond the credits. For now, here’s the trailer:

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Trailer for Spike Jonze’s Her

Spike Jonze has always perplexed me. While his features are nothing if not unique and filled with dynamic images, they have always felt like an extension of his early career as a music video director. Like David Fincher, he seems to only be able to take a story as far as the script allows. Which is why I find that Adaptation and Being John Malkovich are undone by collapsing final acts. Where the Wild Things Are is a complete mirroring of his music video approach, almost entirely made up of moments rather than a cohesive whole. Once again interesting but difficult to swallow. His newest, Her, is one of my most anticipated upcoming films, not only because of Jonze but because of Joaquin Phoenix. Phoenix, like Matthew McConaughey has transformed his career of late by shedding any semblance of the Hollywood bravura and sternly exposing a version of himself that’s wounded and vulnerable. This new Phoenix is as interesting as any actor working today. While my expectations for Her are grounded, I’m there.

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American Hustle Trailer

David O. Russell’s resurgence as Oscar darling has been something of a marvel and, to a degree, the most frustrating thing to happen to what was shaping up as a uniquely niche canon. His newest, the very subtly titled American Hustle, features his growing company of superstar talent with the likes of Amy Adams, Christian Bale, Jeremy Renner, and Bradley Cooper joining last year’s Best Actress winner, Jennifer Lawrence. Even without the tremendous Academy Award-beloved pedigree, this story looks to be right up Oscar’s alley. Going on chops alone, American Hustle has to be the frontrunner for Awards season. As for the story itself, it looks a bit like the Catch Me If You Can, Coen Brothers-lite bandit flick that comes around once or twice a year. We’ll have to wait to see if there’s anything more under the hood.

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Computer Chess

Andrew Bujalski’s whispery, tiny-budget films are, to some, representations of a predominantly white, late-20’s, well-educated perspective on a nation that’s become equal parts pacifying and challenging to that exact demographic. Perhaps the expectations of such films come less from the realities of the works themselves and more from their shoestring budgets. In general, less money equals more reality, or at least an attempt to capture reality. That these films, formerly known by the now dirty term “mumblecore,” are steeped in artifice and projection only adds to the difficulty of classifying them. I tend to find these films to be spawned on the ideals of lazy dreams and parentally-funded lifestyles, thus making them suitably exemplifying of a generation that has too many options and too little data on smart decisions.

It’s fitting then that Bujalski’s first venture away from his patented aesthetic would be about a group of white nerds (and one white woman) pontificating on chess and the nature of artifice. People, it seems Bujalski might be saying, have become as much an artificial construction as the computers they create. As a cinematic experience, Computer Chess fails to engage on almost every basic level, and most often becomes watchable only when resorting to the exact tropes it pushes away, yet it succeeds with gusto at capturing the delusional confusion at the precipice of a computer-driven world. There’s a direct line between these nerds in an Austin hotel room and the Harvard-trained nerds who would soon populate Austin coffee shops on their personal computers.

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PTA’s Directs “Hot Knife”

Using black and white photography, split screens, close-ups, and lingering beats, Paul Thomas Anderson’s music video for Fiona Apple’s “Hot Knife” paints a deceptively simple portrait of a woman expressing uncontrollable desires for another. It’s not until the final minute, when the mirage of silhouetted faces is cut by a long close up of Apple hidden behind herself (or are these other women’s faces?), that the techniques fuse to reach at a deeper sense of Apple’s psychology. By keeping the singer stranded in the center of the frame, alone and vulnerable, she seems embarrassed to be there. As if singing this song, like yearning for this love, is something she can recognize as ridiculous, but unavoidable. These bashful beats are balanced by moments of genuine passion where it looks as if Apple has forgotten that she’s come to a set, sat under lights for 12 hours, and sang the same song over and over again.  To my eyes, only someone who knows Apple as well as Anderson could capture the kind of characteristics that surface here. The video makes the song catchier and miraculously emerges as another indispensable piece of media in both artist’s brilliant canons.

This marks the third time Anderson has directed a video for Apple. Click below to see their collaborations on “Across The Universe” and “Fast As You Can,” along with the now famous behind the scenes moment between Apple and Anderson featured as part of Magnolia’s video diary:

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A Clip From Cuaron’s Gravity

In a recent interview, Alfonso Cuaron insisted Gravity was more “Spielberg than Cast Away.” Personally, I don’t think that’s necessarily a positive. Although Spielberg meets Cast Away would be just fine. I’m always wary of sci-fi, but this one has a particular character spark and scope (not to mention the pedigree) that has me convinced and set up for disappointment.

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“Boogie Nights” Making-of Footage

The internet bestows another wonderful gift. Happy Friday.

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“So Hideously Easy”: L’Avventura

Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura poses as a confounding poetic film about the purposelessness of a select group of Italians with too little to worry about not to continuously worry about themselves. On the surface, this film could be taken as a nihilistic view of a culture twisting its way towards the disposable and frivolous, a warning shot still reverberating, if not expanding throughout the globalized world today. Yet, Anotonioni’s film is stark, surreal, Absurdist, and dedicated to skewing both the conventions of narrative cinema as well as skewering the culture at large. After multiple viewings, I’ve come to see this film less as an allegorical “adventure” and more as a reduction of humanity to its barest elements. Late in the story, Monica Vitti explains that everything has become “hideously easy.” Therein lies everything Antonioni’s film sets out to explore. People create drama, goals, and difficulty as a distraction from the bitter truth that we are animals who die, disappear, seek pleasure, and worry primarily about ourselves. That this bleak view comes by way of a stunningly shot piece of work that finds no less than one breathtaking Italian locale after another, acts only as another layer for attempting to create purpose out of nothingness. The very fabric of L’Avventura challenges us because we are meant to seek meaning from a story where people come to grips with a lack of meaning.

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Brando’s Rebel Without a Cause Screen Test

Annex - Brando, Marlon (Apocalypse Now)_09Here’s a screen test of 23-year-old Brando trying out for the lead in Rebel Without a Cause. Brando is always working. For better or worse, the guy never stopped. His performances are filled with textures and grays because so much material seems to be streaming through his mind. Even here, where he clearly doesn’t have complete control of his moment to moment intentions. Sometimes he doesn’t even appear to playing the scene in his head, occasionally fidgeting or wandering off. Nonetheless, it comes off as real. The Rebel role was eventually made iconic by James Dean, whose doe-eyed good looks and cool maturity trapped in the body of a wispy late teen were a perfect match for the material. Obviously, Brando was moving to a different current than Dean that perhaps brought too much consideration to each adolescent word. Not to mention that Brando’s bulky shoulders, pouting cheeks, and fading hairline add years to a guy already too old for the part. It’s worth noting that Brando won the Oscar for On the Waterfront in 1955, the same year Rebel Without a Cause would be released.

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