Tag: movies

Wall Writers: Graffiti in its Innocence

Wall-Writers-1020x492The Writing on the Wall: New York and Philly in the Early 1970s

Before the politically adroit stencils of Banksy, the beautiful calligraphic designs of Retna, and the clever humanoid figures of stikman, most graffiti consisted of simple tagging. Writing your name — or, more commonly, your nickname — on as many locations as possible was the obsession of many urban teenagers in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Graffiti had not yet acquired the aesthetic characteristics that would later cause it to be dubbed “street art.” It was then simply about getting your name seen as widely as possible.

Roger Gastman’s documentary Wall Writers recounts this era when, as the film’s subtitle states, graffiti was in its innocence. Combining contemporary interviews with period photographs and film clips, the movie focuses on the men and women in New York and Philadelphia who were graffiti’s early proponents. Narrated by John Waters, the movie provides a lively account of the personalities and activities at the dawn of modern graffiti.

Wall Writers at International House Philadelphia.
Q&A following ‘Wall Writers’ at International House Philadelphia.

The film’s debut Philadelphia screening at International House this past Saturday featured appearances by director Gastman and a number of the graffiti writers profiled in the movie, including Philadelphia’s Cool Earl, Cornbread, Kool Klepto Kid, Karate, and Lewis, and New York’s Wicked Gary.

In addition to covering the personalities involved in the early graffiti movement, Gastman’s documentary shows how the practice evolved from simple tagging — just getting your name up around the city — to become the foundation of today’s more elaborate graffiti artwork. Ironically, many of the early wall writers didn’t pursue this trend, eventually abandoning their work on the street to move on to other pursuits.

An amusing sequence in Wall Writers shows a series of graffiti writers all claiming to be the first to embellish their signature by adding a crown, marking a key historical moment when the practice began to morph from simply writing a name to embracing aesthetic flourishes. But claims of originality are impossible to verify for a medium with scant documentation and diverse local practices that evolved independently.

Whether the honor of being the birthplace of modern graffiti goes to New York or Philadelphia remains equally ambiguous — although the loyalties of the Philadelphia crowd at Saturday’s screening were apparent from the audience’s response.

Gastman’s film laments a certain loss of purity as graffiti became more widely recognized as an aesthetic activity. Art dealers moved in and co-opted the works of many young writers, in some cases providing them with free access to the tools to perform their craft, but without letting them share in the profits from their efforts.

By the mid-1980s, when Taki 183 sees his moniker echoed in the mainstream Hollywood film Turk 182, it was clear that while graffiti’s public profile was rising, its role as an underground cult movement was changing.

Following the screening at International House, Gastman moderated a question and answer session with several of the individuals portrayed in the film, now looking older and more reflective than the impetuous youth seen in the movie. Following the Q&A, long lines formed for a signing with these participants and others featured in Gastman’s companion book about the film.

Gastman’s film and book provide lively insights into the personalities and practices of the early days of the modern graffiti movement. Now, many decades after their activity on the streets, these men and women are receiving recognition far beyond their youthful dreams of being known around the neighborhood.

The top image from Wall Writers is from a copyrighted film and book, the copyright for which is most likely owned by the film’s production company and/or distributor and/or the book’s publisher and possibly also by any people appearing in the image. It is believed that the use of a web-resolution screenshot for identification and critical commentary qualifies as fair use under United States copyright law.

Movie Title Misdirection and Meaning: ‘Gravity’ and ‘Cast Away’

Gravity

This article contains major spoilers for the movies Gravity and Cast Away. If you haven’t seen both films, you may not want to read it.

Sandra Bullock in Gravity
Sandra Bullock floating in the absence of gravity in ‘Gravity’.

Based on the trailer and preview clips I had seen, the title of the Alfonso Cuarón movie Gravity perplexed me. Doesn’t the entire film take place in outer space, where the characters are floating weightlessly? Shouldn’t it be called No Gravity or Gravity-less? I get the play on words — “gravity” also implies “significance” or “consequence” — but the title seemed misplaced nonetheless.

Until I saw the film.

The title is a clever misdirection that makes sense only at the conclusion of the movie. It brings to mind Cast Away, Robert Zemeckis’ film starring Tom Hanks as Chuck Noland, a Federal Express worker stranded on an island following an airplane crash. Even though for most of the movie’s running time Hanks’ Noland is, indeed, alone and abandoned on an island — a castaway — the title of the film is not Castaway. It’s Cast Away (two words).

Cast Away: Tom Hanks returns home.
Tom Hanks discovers he’s been cast away in ‘Cast Away’.

The movie’s true theme isn’t apparent until near the end the film, when Noland  realizes that the one thing he held on to during his long period of isolation — his relationship with his girlfriend, Kelly (Helen Hunt) — has been lost. Presumed to be dead, by the time he finally makes it back home, Kelly is married and has a child. Noland has been tossed aside. Discarded. Cast away. Only in the film’s final act is the meaning of its title clear.

Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity is similar. Despite all the razzle-dazzle special effects, the film’s most powerful moment is its final shot. Sandra Bullock’s Ryan Stone has been drifting weightless for roughly 90 minutes of screen time, with the camera floating in 3D space. Stone finally splashes down on earth and, with her muscles weak from the extended weightlessness, slowly crawls onto the land. And then — she stands up.

The impact of that final shot — with Bullock’s Ryan Stone standing firmly on the ground — is profound. You feel the pull of the earth holding on to her, keeping her safely anchored to the ground.

It’s an astounding moment, that makes us suddenly aware of something so common, so pervasive, it’s usually imperceptible in our daily lives: the way the earth hugs us in gravity’s embrace.

In that final frame of the film it becomes apparent why the movie is titled Gravity.

 

Neal Dhand’s ‘Second-Story Man’

Second-Story Man, Neal Dhand’s feature film debut, is a moody drama that, despite pacing problems and a somewhat meandering narrative, unfolds as a thoughtful meditation on morality.

In cold, snowy upstate New York, Arthur Black (Christopher J. Domig) and his girlfriend Valerie Evering (Monique Low) commit petty robberies of small shops and liquor stores with their young daughter Maria Low (Zaira Crystal) in tow. When their attempt to pull off a slightly larger bank heist goes awry, Arthur’s already desperate existence takes a turn for the worse as he begins plotting revenge against Max Rivers (Danny Hoskins), the bank’s security guard whom he blames for the outcome of the failed robbery.

Arthur and Maria move into an apartment in an old multi-family house where Max and his wife Janet (Lindsay Goranson) dwell on the second story along with their daughter Holly (Lea Mancarella). A quirky elderly couple live in the basement floor beneath Arthur, and a mysterious younger couple, seen only in glimpses, occupy an apartment on the ground floor adjacent to Arthur’s. As Arthur continues to obsessively track Max, he tries to hold together his relationship with Maria and slowly establishes a genuine bond with Max’s beleaguered wife Janet. He also begins to hear conversations through the wall of a neighboring couple who appear to be plotting against Max and Janet’s daughter Holly.

The body of the film becomes a contemplation on the nature of what it means to be a “good” person and the impact of the obsession with vengeance. As the story moves toward its ending, the film’s title gains additional layers of meaning.

Unfortunately, after the crisp first act, the plotting becomes more plodding. The film’s pacing is maddeningly glacial at times and the narrative often strays from the main story line in a way that retards the story’s progress toward its bleak conclusion. The film’s middle act desperately needs tightening. The challenge, of course, is determining what to leave in and what to excise.

Director and co-writer Dhand was in attendance at the County Theater in Doylestown, PA for a Q&A following a screening of the film last night. Dhand explained that the film’s distributor plans to make additional edits for the DVD release (scheduled for June 26, 2012). Regrettably, these planned cuts may do more harm than good. According the Dhand, the scenes featuring the elderly husband and wife who live downstairs from Arthur and Maria will be excised from the DVD release. If true, this is unfortunate. The couple is key to the film’s story, and removing their introduction will make an already too-cryptic plot more confusing and likely cause the ending to appear tacked on and arbitrary rather than the inevitable tragedy that it is.

There are other sections of the film that could be more effectively targeted for trimming. Arthur’s tracking of Max is unnecessarily drawn out and could be told more efficiently. Furthermore, the snippets of conversation Arthur overhears through the wall seem too sparsely spread out. These disturbing voices drive the narrative forward in the final act, yet the story veers away from these plot elements for too long. By removing other scenes from the middle section of the film, these key moments would better drive forward the momentum of the narrative.

There’s also a shocking didn’t-see-that-coming moment that plays like a scene from a different film. (Michael Haneke’s Funny Games comes to mind.) Divorced from Haneke’s meta-movie manipulations, however, the scene comes off like a cheap trick. While effective in the moment, it undermines the impact of the eventual resolution of the narrative and would be better relegated to the editing room floor.

The performances in Second-Story Man are all generally strong. Domig is effective in the lead, as is Hoskins in the supporting male role. Lindsay Goranson provides the film’s strongest performance in the key supporting role of Janet. Goranson’s expressions convey Janet’s interior conflicts and imbue the character with a sense of fragile vulnerability. The deepening relationship between Arthur and Janet forms the film’s emotional heart and is sustained by the performances of both actors.

The snowy exteriors function like an additional character in the film, effectively evoking the tale’s sense of loss and emotional isolation. The artful location work in Rochester, New York is brought to life by the first-rate cinematography of Chase Bowman. The evocative score by Eric Zabriskie helps to heighten the mood and move forward much of the otherwise sluggish middle act.

Second-Story Man is an auspicious debut for director, producer, and co-writer Dhand. During the Q&A at the County Theater, Dhand briefly described the next feature he hopes to direct, a mystery tentatively called The Lighthouse about two men who discover a severed foot. The story sounds like a promising follow-up feature if Dhand can repeat the merits of Second-Story Man while gaining more control over the film’s pacing and narrative flow.

The image from Second-Story Man is from a copyrighted film, the copyright for which is most likely owned by the film’s production company and/or distributor and possibly also by any actors appearing in the image. It is believed that the use of a web-resolution screenshot for identification and critical commentary on the film and its contents qualifies as fair use under United States copyright law.

‘Margin Call’: Quiet Desperation

This commentary on the film Margin Call contains significant details about its plot. You may want to see the film before reading it.

Economic thriller Margin Call is, in many ways, a difficult film to like — and that’s what makes it worth seeing. The movie’s uncompromising look at desperate men (and one woman) in the throes of a moral crisis finds no happy ending. And that can be both grueling and fascinating to watch.

Written and directed by first-time feature filmmaker J. C. Chandor, Margin Call takes place in a large investment firm over the course of two days and one very long night during the economic meltdown of 2008. In the middle of that night, the company realizes its highly leveraged mortgage-backed securities are more sensitive to volatile market conditions than was previously thought, and recent market movements have already passed the threshold that their models predicted. Their investment scheme and the financial products on which it is based are unraveling. When it’s determined that the company’s financial exposure exceeds its market capitalization, the corporate officers are faced with a fateful decision: sell the soon-to-be worthless assets — and, in the process, harm not only their customers but their own reputations (both as individuals and as a firm) — or let the company go under. The movie follows several employees as they come to grips with the ramifications of this dilemma.

The strength of the film — which is also what makes it difficult to like — is that all of the characters’ actions are unpalatable. This is not a story of good guys versus bad guys, merely people making seemingly rational, if terrible, choices.

Despite our desire for someone to make a noble gesture of defiant righteousness, Margin Call doesn’t give us that cathartic satisfaction. There’s no Jack Godell (Jack Lemmon) in the China Syndrome shutting himself inside the nuclear power control room to prevent the reactor from being restarted, no Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) working with the Feds to snare Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) in Wall Street. There are just people making desperate choices.

While some characters — such as Kevin Spacey’s morally conflicted Sam Rogers — are more sympathetic than others, when faced with the film’s crisis, each makes essentially the same loathsome choice. Their reasons differ: It’s the only choice they believe they have, they are serving a greater good, or they simply need the money. Some are motivated by political machinations, some by weakness, and some by fear, but in the end, they all feel they have no option other than the choice each eventually makes.

Well acted and well directed, the film moves at a crisp pace as the crisis mounts and pulls more people into its orbit, yet the movie isn’t afraid to pause for a momentous silence at several points. There is a harrowing power in the lack histrionics in the characters’ actions. The soft tones of everyone’s oh-so-professional demeanor make several scenes particularly chilling. The personnel officer utters well-rehearsed answers to any possible question as Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) is being let go from the firm. When Sarah Robertson (Demi Moore) tells Jared Cohen (Simon Baker) that if they are going down, he knows that they’ll both go down together, Baker icily responds, “I’m not sure that I do know that.”

Margin Call is a closely-observed study of motivations — all of which differ, but all of which ultimately lead to essentially the same devastating outcome.

 

Update [November 8, 2011]: A slightly expanded version of this commentary is published in Knowledge@Wharton. See: “The Movie ‘Margin Call’: No Happy Ending.”


The image from Margin Call is from a copyrighted film, the copyright for which is most likely owned by the studio which produced the film and possibly also by any actors appearing in the image. It is believed that the use of a web-resolution screenshot for identification and critical commentary on the film and its contents qualifies as fair use under United States copyright law.

Knowing Alex Proyas’s ‘Knowing’

Alex Proyas's 'Knowing'

Whether Deterministic or Random, the One Thing We Know

Alex Proyas’s 2009 film Knowing is a science fiction thriller wrapped inside a philosophical discourse. But a discourse about what?

Roger Ebert was one of the few major critics who gave the film a positive review. Ebert also authored a blog post exploring what he sees as the movie’s central theme: Whether the universe is deterministic or random — or, more to the point, whether human beings have free will or are merely watching a predetermined fate unfold.

I agree with Ebert’s overall assessment of the movie — it’s both thrilling and thought-provoking. But I take a somewhat different view of the film’s underlying theme. (Note: Major spoilers are included in what follows.)

Nicolas Cage in Alex Proyas's 'Knowing'The story’s main narrative does, indeed, focus on determinism versus free will. The plot follows Nicolas Cage’s character, John Koestler, as he deciphers the clues on a mysterious piece of paper that has been buried in a time capsule for 50 years. The seemingly random sequence of numbers on the paper turn out to be anything but random — they accurately predict the date, location, and number of fatalities of every major catastrophe since the message was buried.

Early in the film, Koestler engages his students in a discussion of determinism versus free will. In the course of this exchange, however, the film’s focus subtly shifts. The topic becomes not whether life’s events are predetermined, but whether they hold any deeper meaning. Koestler, for his part, doesn’t believe they do. “I think shit just happens” he tells the class.

This question of life’s meaning inches closer to the film’s the core issue: How we deal with the one certainty of our existence — its inevitable end. Knowing that we will die and, in passing away, leave our children alone to create a future without us, how do we abide such knowledge?

Koestler’s estranged father, a minister, believes that he and his wife will be together in heaven following their deaths. John Koestler has no such faith. Having lost his wife in a tragic accident, he and his son Caleb are now alone in the world, relying only on each other. The source of Koestler’s strength to endure, his one belief, is that he and his son will be together forever.

But, of course, they won’t. Parents pass away and leave their children behind. And once we accept the accuracy of the film’s chilling predictions, the movie becomes a relentless march toward the moment when Koestler and his son will be separated forever.

To its credit, Proyas’s film has the courage of its convictions. Once we learn that the list of predictions ends with a victim tally that includes “everyone else” and the earth will be destroyed by a gigantic solar flare, the film doesn’t pull any punches. As predicted, this terrifying future unfolds on screen.

One of the film’s characters — Lara Robinson’s Abby Wayland — has, since her childhood, been told the date of her death. It is the date of the apocalypse that climaxes the film. Ironically, the character dies not in the planet’s destruction, but in a seemingly random traffic accident earlier the same day. It matters not how we die, but only that we inevitably do.

Whether the day-by-day events of our world are deterministic or random is, ultimately, of only academic importance. Either way, our death is inevitable. John Koestler’s understanding — and acceptance — of this truth is at the heart of the film.

Images from Knowing are from a copyrighted film, the copyright for which is most likely owned by the studio which produced the film and possibly also by any actors appearing in the image. It is believed that the use of a web-resolution screenshot for identification and critical commentary on the film and its contents qualifies as fair use under United States copyright law.

Penn’s Quad in New ‘Transformers’ Trailer

University of Pennsylvania in Transformers trailerAlthough this has been reported elsewhere, in case you missed it, the University of Pennsylvania’s Quad is featured in the new trailer for this summer’s Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.

Transformers on location at the University of PennsylvaniaDirector Michael Bay along with cast members Shia LaBeouf, Isabel Lucas, and others filmed several scenes on the University of Pennsylvania campus (as well as at Princeton University) in June of last year. It’s good to know the scenes from Penn didn’t end up on the editing room floor.

For more images of the production at the University of Pennsylvania campus, see the photo set in my Flickr account.

Trailers for Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen are available on Yahoo Video.

 

Image from Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is a screenshot from a copyrighted film, the copyright for which is most likely owned by the studio which produced the film, and possibly also by any actors appearing in the screenshot. It is believed that the use of a limited number of web-resolution screenshots for identification and critical commentary on the film and its contents qualifies as fair use under United States copyright law.