Category Archives: Notes

Short notes, on whatever our writers are thinking about.

‘SILVER LINING’S’ SPARK NOTES

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It’s the mark of the New New Hollywood that a film can feel at once plodding and rushed. The Silver Linings Playbook is one such curious failure, where the screenwriter seems to suffer from an abundance of trade-skill and an aching, anemic shortfall of things to say.

Adapting a novel is here given the cinematic equivalent of: the Sparknotes treatment, and the result is as riveting as that brand suggests.

Good performances and inoffensive direction cannot save a movie from such a screenplay, which finds intriguing characters shouting at one another and overcoming their odd-ball differences over quirky dinner-fare in perfunctory scene after perfunctory scene. However well these scenes play to satisfying prods, nods, quips and quibbles, they play to them mechanically. Jennifer Lawrence: radiant. Bradley Cooper: better than he’s ever been.

There’s more to say, but I don’t know what. It’s not a pastiche, but it has been done before. Whatever the dubious merits of the phrase “feel-good film,” people who think they’ll love this film probably will. In advertising, the axiom is that nothing kills a bad product quicker than good marketing. Here, that could not seem less true. The advertising (over years and years) seems to have created a product that loads of people love to “feel good” about.

A snoozefest of the Oscar variety, Silver Linings is enough to chase one away from the Cineplex and back to Netflix.

-Max Berwald

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MAN-CHILDREN 2012

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“I’m 34 years old. I have nothing. I can’t start from scratch, don’t you understand?” – Anders, Oslo, August 31st. 

Oslo, August 31st; Jeff, Who Lives at Home; The Comedy; Dark Horse; The Silver Linings Playbook

Cinema from a few different corners seems to be riding a wave of aging ennui. A couple of the year’s most extreme protagonists have trouble growing up.

Oslo follows a 34 year-old recovering drug addict who feels like he’s already missed his shot at normalcy, or better, or worse, or something.

Dark Horse follows a moronic, lazy man-child as he grapples with first love. (Sorry, that’s the best I can do.)

The Comedy follows Tim Heidecker’s pathologically insincere uber-hipster as he… lives, barely.

Jeff, Who Lives at Home is a fantasy revolving around a pothead who lives with his mom.

The Silver Linings Playbook follows a mentally ill man’s struggle to save his marriage after serving time at an institution. He could also be 34.

All these characters are male protagonists, at least two are mentally ill, three live with their parents, all five have unstable housing situations, all are tasked– to some degree, and perhaps least of all in The Comedy– with growing-up.

The trend is also notable then for its considerable genre straddling. We’ve got a kinda austere, philosophical meditation, two hardcore cringe comedies, a fantasy/rom-com, and a plain rom-com. I don’t know what this means, or what it’s about, but keep your eyes peeled. Also leave your thoughts for explanations, theories, or further candidates in the comments.

-Max Berwald

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ANOTHER ‘SPRING BREAKERS’ NOTE

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The debate becomes: at what point do you become the object you’re satirizing? At what point are you supplying the culture with the thing you hoped to skewer? Is Spring Breakers supposed to be a skewering at all? Is the joke so meta that it only works when the artist’s career is scrutinized as a whole? Hopefully not. Hopefully we’ll be able to see criticism unfolding on the screen. Hopefully Spring Breakers will be to pop-reality-TV-superficial-inanity what Funny Games was to commercial-cinematic-sadism: an interrogation, and an exploration, in one cunning swipe.

For now, our only hope for blistering self-awareness comes from a cultish chant, branding the product as we encounter it for the first time. For now all we have is the whispering of two words over and over through the trailer’s climax: spring break spring break spring break.

-Max Berwald

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WHY ARE YOU TALKING TO THAT HORSE?/ ‘THE LONE RANGER’ TRAILER

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Why indeed.

Everyone seems to know they’re supposed to be offended by the new Tonto, (Johnny Depp will be playing him in 2013’s The Lone Ranger) but there has been some confusion as to why. This has been further obscured (or placated) by Depp’s claim to Cherokee or Creek Indian ancestry. Let’s assume the actor is Native American.

He’s got work to do.

Tonto’s name has become symbolic of all cinematic servitude. He’s probably the best-known sidekick in media history. So reframing the character as a full-fledged human being, and exercising some agency, will be a must from one perspective.

Not incidentally, it would be hard to have more Native American street cred than the original Tonto: this guy. Jay Silverheels was born Harold Smith, and was full-blooded Mohawk.

The biggest misstep seems to be assigning this Tonto to a fictional tribe– one that looks more eccentric than ambiguous (he wears a dead bird on his head.)

Giving Tonto an actual heritage would have rooted him to history in a sobering way, but as is, he looks more like a signifier of something we, with genocidal gusto, removed from the North American landscape long ago, and then appropriated for convenient fantasy making. Hollywood!

Moving from awkward racial concerns to entertainment potential, this looks like the best we can expect from Gore Verbinski, who has finally grown tired of his increasingly irredeemable Pirates franchise (although the rest of the consuming world still seems energetic: the fourth Pirates film, the first not directed by Verbinski, grossed over a billion dollars.)

The Lone Ranger looks fun, and 100% pure pastiche. It’s a remix film, or is at least advertised as such. The interesting thing about a remix is that, the more disparate and numerous the elements (the more copying/sharing that goes on) the more original the work becomes in its own way (we already mentioned Girl Talk.)

Based on the trailer, in Lone Ranger (2013) we can expect:

1. A remake of various old-timey Lone Ranger media, including but not limited to: a radio show, a serial, a long-running TV series, a film, and numerous lunchboxes.

2. Johnny Depp spiritually reprising his role as the heavily made-up, beaded, hat-preoccupied, and memorably eccentric Captain Jack Sparrow. This character, while explicitly a white pirate, had “gone native” in a special way. This character was itself, a remix of: the historical pirate, the cartoon/cinematic buccaneer, and Keith Richards. So now, if you ask me, there are at least three obvious levels to the remix of the character alone.

3. The genre, as described by Disney: “…a thrilling adventure infused with action and humor, in which the famed masked hero is brought to life through new eyes… taking the audience on a runaway train of epic surprises and humorous friction as the two unlikely heroes must learn to work together and fight against greed and corruption.” Neither an adventure, action film epic, buddy comedy, remake, reboot, or period piece, The Lone Ranger is, of course, a little of everything, and nothing at all. Note the feeble attempt to deal with that trivial obligation: the plot. What are our heroes up against? Greed and corruption, of course! Lock and load. The forces of evil have been dropped in to fill the void. The bullets must fly at something.

4. While we’re on it: the bullet fetish.

5. The traumatic memory montage.

6. The assault on the steam engine. (See The Great Train Robbery, The General, Stagecoach (for a proxy,) Wild West, 3:10 To Yuma, A Bullet For the General, Duck, You Sucker!, The Great Locomotive Chase, Lawrence of Arabia, Wild Wild West and others.)

7. The villainous plot to control an emerging technology (see Trailer #1.)

8. The modern “period-wild-west” aesthetic, which has recently oscillated between There Will Be Blood and Jonah Hex, for two illustratively disparate examples.)

And to get right down to it:

9. Start your trailer with the subjective flashback-montage.

10. End your trailer with something large, heavy, and CGI sliding towards our heroes.

11. Feature something flying in slow-motion, from an outstretched hand to an outstretched hand— probably weapons or munitions.

12. Feature the specter of the feminine, but be careful not to hint at her being anything more than a strange and silent body.

13. Sweeping landscape/ helicopter shots.

14. Star-worshipping close-ups.

If it ain’t broke don’t fix it. And Hollywood won’t consider the remix broken until it stops being highly lucrative. For my part, I’ll probably see it. Although I do ask you: will it be better than this?

-Max Berwald

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12 YEAR-OLD SAM REVIEWS ‘A WALK TO REMEMBER’

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*from a diary found under my bed at my parents’ house.

11/2002

TODAY SUCKED!! But I saw a really, really good movie that we got at blockbuster after school. I wanted to see it at the movie theater but it was PG-13 and mom wouldn’t let me go, even though I’m practically 13. I’m in 7th grade, duh. Mom is like this about a lot of things. ANYWAY Mia and I rented it and the guy didn’t ask us if we were 13 so we must look old. Mia’s going to get her nose pierced.

But it’s called A Walk to Remember and it has Mandy Moore in it who is so pretty with brown hair instead of blonde. And a much better actress than pop star. She’s probably going to be really big now. So is Shane West, who played her boyfriend/the bad boy. So so handsome.

What I liked about it was that they seemed like normal teens who had problems (except her problems are WAY worse because she DIED) instead of rich teens in LA. It’s a bit unrealistic that two teens would get married but it was sooooo romantic because it really proved how much he loved her. Granted, he knew she was going to die, so getting married wouldn’t have too much of an effect on his future, but it was her dying wish to get married in the same church that her parents got married in. So that’s pretty noble. I also liked the part where they starred in the school musical and Mandy Moore got dolled up, because they made her pretend to be ugly the rest of the movie…which is what I DIDN’T like.

Just because you’re Christian doesn’t mean you can’t be attractive.

-Samantha Wilson (12)

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THE GREAT STAR/ CHINATOWN’S (1920’S) ANTI-MOVIE PALACE

The Great Star Theatre

From Yelp:

“Great Star Theater is where i spent a time watching shaw brothers movies.
and whatever else they were showing. (action, drama, adventures, love stories, …looking back shaw movies were so inane but they were the only films around in chitown.

i saw my first kung fu movies here. wang yu’s style was the rave then. there are similiarities  to jackie chan’s kung fu. both looks more than street brawling than kung fu fighting.

the first genuine kung fu movie “The Boxer From Shantung” was shown here. soon after, golden harvest signed bruce lee to a movie contract and produced “The Big Boss”.. .

the rest is kung fu history.”

-(User) Victor G.

“Sipping melon soy and watching Hong Kong epics… priceless.”

-(User) Sketch F.

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The Great Star Theater smells like history. It’s the most you’ll ever love a theater that literally hurts to spend two hours inside. I’m referring here to the seats, their metal inner-workings not nearly mysterious enough.

But in a neighborhood so saturated with tourism and offensively knick-knacky souvenir commerce, the Great Star is also golden. It’s a blast of the authentic.

Contemporary with, and possibly predating, the Castro’s gilded monument to the cinema, the Great Star has sat precisely at the heart of Chinatown since very nearly before there was a Chinatown. You can still find, in Yelp reviews, the painful nostalgia with which locals regard this now barely running movie house. It was once an institution, serving up that old standby: kung fu.

The SF Chronicle assures us (or did in 2010) that the theater has undergone major restoration efforts—but it needs more love. Hopefully the community can rally, and we can get this theatre more densely programmed. As it stands, it sounds like screenings are on and off, augmented by some (welcome) Cantonese opera fare. (As it stands, a schedule for the theater’s events can’t be found online—not a good sign.)

Granted, it’s not the best time to be trying open theaters in San Francisco (or anywhere) as many this year have announced their closing after decades of adventurous programming (The Bridge, The Lumiere) and still others are engaged in a fierce battle to remain open (The Roxie.)

But there’s also, surely, an untapped audience still densely populating the surrounding Chinatown. It’s easy for an outsider to forget but, aside from being a tourist destination, Chinatown is still a thriving community for Chinese Americans. Who’s to say they wouldn’t be thrilled to see some Chinese Cinema on the big screen? I’m happy to join.

I had the fortune to see a film at the Great Star on a painfully beautiful rainy day in Chinatown. The folks from Art House Revival and CAAM (Center for Asian American Media) were friendly and visibly happy to be putting the space to use. The film was Stolen Life by Shaohong Li. You can stream it on Netflix, and I’m told by CAAM that a large number of DVD copies have been donated to the Chinatown branch of the SF Public Library.

About Stolen Life I can’t say much. It’s an interesting entry with context, but kind of a harrowing trudge of a film, and not in a productive way. I won’t recommend it, but it does faithfully document a long series of terrible choices with admirable empathy (as a viewer, I couldn’t match that empathy.) Li Shaohong does have Fifth Generation street cred though.

Let’s get the Great Star back up and running. It has too much potential.

-Max Berwald

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TWO MORE TRAILERS/ ‘PACIFIC RIM’ AND ‘AFTER EARTH’

Two (more) new pop sci-fi trailers have emerged since our note on Oblivion and Star Trek Into Darkness.

Both these trailers feature earth in rebellion. As the drawling narrator of the trailer for Pacific Rim observes, “We always thought alien life would come from the stars, but it came from deep beneath the sea.” Fair enough.

The alien life forms in Guillermo del Toro’s new film look to be organic/Godzilla-esque creatures: computer generated beasts that climb out of our own planet to attack us. The human solution is natural (and, at least aesthetically, Transformers-esque): build enormous mech warriors to pilot into battle. In other words, rapidly develop new technology to defeat the natural, to dominate the earth’s peculiar rebellion against us.

And while we’re on aesthetics: del Toro’s film looks to have some pleasingly bizarre visuals. I say bizarre because the emphasis seems to be leaning rapidly away from the realism (or pretend realism) that was the stock and trade of Godzilla (1998,) Cloverfield, and Monsters. I say good riddance. A digital cartoon is good enough, especially if you’re going to do a movie about monsters besieging our cities. 

In the trailer, no reason is given for the sudden beast-rampage, and their real source, deep beneath the sea, is said to be an inter-dimensional portal (another way of saying “no reason”) but I submit to you: climate change anxiety. These digital behemoths in Pacific Rim lead us to…

…the digital beasts in After Earth: an original film from writer Gary Whitta (Book of Eli)  and the first film directed by one M. Night Shyamalan since the (Razzie) award winning The Last Airbender. After Earth imagines a futuristic (and abandoned) earth that looks an awful lot like prehistoric earth. It’s also crawling with distinctly African looking beasties. These include a CGI saber tooth cat, apparent stampeding okapis, baboons, and others.

All Avatar all the time, it would seem.

While both trailers feature ra ra motivational-speech voice-overs (the more egregious by far: the former) they’re not as stale as the last two sci fi trailers reviewed here, and they’re hardly works of pure pastiche. The two films look to offer opposite fantasies to deal with the same threat: one deals more happily in fantasy, and the other more in horror.

After Earth: man can return to his native roots, survive, and run wild in the beautiful, abundant (albeit dangerous– although this danger will be processed into pleasurable escapes) world of “the natural.”

Pacific Rim: the natural world has come for our cars, bridges, jet-planes, and cities. “Let’s go fishin’,” as they say in the trailer. Or, in the filmic parlance: lock and load.

-Max Berwald

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