No Fear of Flying

AP Images/Kathy Willens
AP Images/Kathy Willens I was terrified for the first 15 minutes of watching Born to Fly . Okay, maybe for closer to 30 minutes. For much of the documentary film by Emmy-nominated director Catherine Gund, you watch dancers with the STREB dance company fling their bodies across the stage, landing loudly on their backs or stomachs with hard thuds. They leap around giant iron beams and slam against hard plastic screens. Thanks to beautiful cinematography from Albert Mayles, who’s made 36 films and helped create the narrative nonfiction film genre, you feel the height in every jump and the fragility in the bodies moving fast through time and space. There’s little music and instead, it’s the performers’ grunts and thuds that accompany the movement, so even on film , it’s hard not to wince and seriously fear for the safety of those on screen. If you’ve ever struggled to appreciate avant-garde artistry, Born to Fly is the movie to see. The film, which premiered March 8 at the SXSW festival,...

The Magnificent Anderson

Yes, Wes Anderson’s films are hyper-stylized, but they’re rich in meaning too. None more so than The Grand Budapest Hotel

AP Images/Martin Scali
AP Images/Martin Scali W ho could’ve predicted, when Wes Anderson first surfaced in 1996 with the caper comedy Bottle Rocket , that he would become the most polarizing director of his generation? The movie seemed, on paper at least, an artifact of the post-Tarantino indie boom in smirking gunplay and logorrheic dudes. In fact it was the vessel for a new sensibility, dry yet earnest, ironic without being cynical (well, someone grasped its magnitude: Martin Scorsese put it on his decade’s-best list). Rushmore followed, then The Royal Tenenbaums , and suddenly the sensibility swallowed the culture. Its ubiquity enlarged an impassioned cult—and inspired a no less heated backlash. “It has become a popular critics’ drinking game to think of creative new ways to slag Wes Anderson,” wrote the critic Saul Austerlitz in Another Fine Mess , his 2010 history of American film comedy. What irks the detractors? Many things, really, but most can be grouped under a category called “The Wes Anderson...

Sit and Wait for the Sadness

The Ozarks—land of hillbillies and a few vast modern fortunes—are the setting for recent literary thrillers.

Flickr/Cindy Darling
Clickr/Cindy Darling T he Ozarks, a plateau carved by rivers and streams into what are generously called mountains, have always felt like their own American planet, jutting up from what should be uninterrupted plains. They cover the isolated southern half of Missouri and the northern half of Arkansas, an area that’s been largely left out of the national consciousness until now. It’s easy to date recent interest in the Ozarks to the 2010 movie Winter’s Bone , based on a novel by the same name, which received four Oscar nominations and launched Jennifer Lawrence’s film career. A meth-fueled mystery that followed Lawrence’s character as she tried to find her drug-dealer father and save her mother’s family’s land, the movie was treated by reviewers as more documentary than fiction, a portrayal of desperate poverty in a foreign patch of America. The Ozarks bear some resemblance to their cultural cousin southern Appalachia and to any other spot where poor white Americans live on soil too...

When Hollywood Went to War

In Five Came Back, Mark Harris takes a look at the directors who turned propaganda into high art.

Public Domain A still from Frank Capa's Why We Fight series (1945) E ven though George W. Bush relished comparing Saddam Hussein to Hitler, the mind boggles at imagining Steven Spielberg, Clint Eastwood, Ron Howard, Martin Scorsese, and Quentin Tarantino all donning uniform for the duration to make films championing the Iraq war's righteousness. That their very approximate 1940s equivalents did just that—generally for a fraction of their peacetime pay—is a trenchant reminder that World War II was different. How Frank Capra, John Ford, George Stevens, William Wyler, and John Huston's lives and careers were altered as a result is the subject of Mark Harris's first-rate Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War (Penguin, $29.95). Harris's first book, 2008's Pictures at A Revolution, used the Oscar nominees for Best Picture of 1967 to capture a Hollywood on the uneasy verge of changing times, with Bonnie And Clyde and The Graduate representing the new generation's...

As Good As It Gets for Oscar

AP Images/Jordan Strauss
AP Images/Jordan Strauss B y now everyone knows that—as my colleague Tom Carson pointed out last week—Oscar history is strewn with verdicts so absurd as to legitimately raise the question of why anyone cares, unless you find the Academy Awards irresistible for the way they’ve become part of Hollywood lore. You don’t have to go back as far as the notorious examples that Tom cited of Oliver or Around the World in Eighty Days upending the not-even-nominated 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Searchers in 1968 and 1956 respectively; there are examples more recent—2012, for instance. That was the year when sense gave way to vigilante justice and the actors’ bloc of the Oscar electorate, a Mercedes McCambridge glint in its eye, led the Academy in stringing up any nominee they could find who wasn’t Ben Affleck, rewarding Argo for Affleck’s omission from the Best Director cut in what turned out to be the snub of his dreams. Unhip as it is to point out, the Oscars were getting sharper and more...

Noah Goes Hollywood

Noah is obviously ready to bust some heads.
You may have seen previews for the upcoming big studio Hollywood production of Noah , which stars Russell Crowe as the famous biblical shipwright. As we learn from The Wire , Paramount Pictures, at the urging of the National Religious Broadcasters, has acted decisively to make sure that people don't get the misapprehension that the film is a literal retelling of the biblical story of Noah. For instance, in the biblical story, God has not only all the best lines, he has all the lines. Noah never says a thing, nor does anyone else, but as you can see from the trailer , this film is full of people talking. Discrepancies like that could cause mass panic, so the studio will be adding this statement to all the film's promotional materials: "The film is inspired by the story of Noah. While artistic license has been taken, we believe that this film is true to the essence, values, and integrity of a story that is a cornerstone of faith for millions of people worldwide. The biblical story of...

The Oscars? Let's Grouch

P icture a caravan of Edsels charging at you with tuxedoed dodos behind every wheel. You've now got some idea of how most movie fans under, oh, 40 or so apparently feel about the Oscars, and who can blame them? Not me. Hitting rock bottom—well, let's hope so—with the recruitment of jackass-of-all-trades Seth McFarlane as last year's host, the Academy's frantic attempts to rejuvenate the proceedings are based on a faulty premise. Really, the problem isn't—or isn't only, anyway—that the show and/or the nominees aren't hip enough to lure an audience not dependent on Depends and revitalized by Viagra. So far as I can tell, the kiddies are increasingly unbedazzled by the ceremony's purpose, a rather more fatal drawback. The whole, lumbering mystique of the Academy Awards derives from two outdated notions. One was that Hollywood's output had pride of place among America's pop-culture amusements, and the far from unrelated other was that Academy voters' verdict on the year's top movies and...

Ashes to Ashes—The 3D Edition

When you buy a ticket to a movie called Pompeii, expecting art or even brains would be fatuous; what you want is a good time. Sue me for confessing I had one. 

AP Images/FEREX I s Pompeii worth two hours of any sentient adult's time? It's definitely a waste of your hard-earned leisure cash, but that's not quite the same question. I don't know what sort of value you put on your time when you're in a mood to savor dumbness so unalloyed it's like a throwback to the dawn of cheesy movies. I'm not sure I can improve on the studio's own deadpan plot summary: "Set in 79 A.D., Pompeii tells the epic story of Milo (Kit Harington), a slave turned invincible gladiator who finds himself in a race against time to save his true love Cassia (Emily Browning), the beautiful daughter of a wealthy merchant who has been unwillingly betrothed to a corrupt Roman Senator. As Mount Vesuvius erupts in a torrent of blazing lava, Milo must fight his way out of the arena in order to save his beloved as the once magnificent Pompeii crumbles around him." Translation: Spartacus meets Titanic. Do I even need to mention that this thing is in 3-D? Starting with the casting...

A Monumental Failure

Honestly, who on earth thought George Clooney's The Monuments Men was a good idea for a movie? 

AP Images/Sony Pictures Publicity
I 'm not sure what could turn George Clooney into a good movie director, but he could start by curing himself of wanting to be well thought of. In front of a camera, he's all suave effrontery, but plunk him down behind one and his cockiness goes out the window. Since Clooney minus his cockiness is the approximate equivalent of Joe Biden with laryngitis, you find yourself wondering which long-gone high-school teacher he's wanly hoping to impress. If the overrated Goodnight, And Good Luck and the forgettable, forgotten The Ides of March were Clooney in civics class, The Monuments Men is a dose of World Civ combined with art history combined with nostalgia for the jaunty, "Let's put a ragtag bunch of misfits together and go on a mission" WWII movies of his (and my) youth. Predictably, the last of these is viewers' best chance of getting some driblets of fun out of watching the thing, thanks to a very juicy cast: Bill Murray, John Goodman, Bob Babalan, Downton Abbey 's Hugh Bonneville and...

Campaigns and the Human Condition

An image from "Mitt," taken at the moment when Mitt Romney realized he had lost the 2012 election.
Over the weekend I watched the Netflix documentary "Mitt," and true to its billing, it humanized Mitt Romney to an extraordinary degree. That's not all that surprising, given that the film was directed by a filmmaker who is friendly with the Romney family and obviously sought to give a behind-the-scenes view of the campaigns (it covered both the 2008 and 2012 races) that portrayed Romney in the best possible light. But in humanizing Romney, it did an excellent job of illuminating just how artificial all campaigns necessarily are. One of the distinctive things about the film was the absence of almost any talk of policy whatsoever. We do see Romney batting around some talking points to get them right, but the only moment in the film that features any discussion of an issue is when Romney delivers a little oration to his family about how Democrats support higher taxes because they're all lawyers and have never run a business, so they don't understand just how hard it is to labor under...

Falling Down the Rabbit Hole of NYC’s Lena Dunham Obsession

Vogue Magazine
Flickr J ust as twentysomethings aren’t the ones writing about millennials ( that would be Ross Douthat ), Lena Dunham’s contemporaries aren’t the demographic that considers Girls its television muse. No, that would be over-twentysomething men, who make up over 20 percent of the show’s viewership and a perhaps even healthier percentage of the bylines featuring name drops of Dunham in the New York media ( this would also be Ross Douthat). Everyone who’s been having heart palpitations over Hannah Horvath’s desire to be a voice of a generation seems to have missed the New York old guard’s intention of making her the voice of the whole damn city. Since 2001, The New York Times has published over 300 articles mentioning Dunham, about 99 percent of which have been written in the past four years. And, except for the early days, right when Tiny Furniture became a thing and Girls screeners became zeitgeist incarnate, she’s hardly ever the subject matter. Any story with a wisp of beard, a hint...

Why Are So Many People Still Protective of Woody Allen?

AP Images/Chris Pizzello
T hey may be a big deal these days—the prelude to the Oscars, like that's something to brag about—but some of us remain secure in our knowledge that the Golden Globes are a joke. Not the judgment by one's presumably qualified peers that gives the Academy Awards their claim on validity, the Globes aren't the verdict of particularly qualified critics either; the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which bestows them, is notoriously a pack of nonentities. All in all, the GG's might as well have been named for the late, great Anna Nicole Smith's not-found-in-nature gazongas. So it logically follows that last Sunday's Cecil B. De Mille Lifetime Achievement award to Woody Allen should be a joke as well. But it wasn't one to Mia Farrow and her family. Both during and after the show, they took to Twitter for their latest commando raid on a rehabilitation that leaves them understandably indignant. "Did they put the part where a woman publicly confirmed he molested her at age 7 before or after...

Pope Francis's "Cardinal" Rules

Thinking about Otto Preminger's film 50 years later in the context of Pope Francis.

AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino
What to make of last year's onslaught of Francismania? Like the sucker for pop-culture phenomenons I am, I haven't enjoyed anything so much since the Harry Potter books took off. As a veteran secular humanist, I can't help feeling some simpatico with the killjoys striving to remind us that the first Pope in memory to rate an affectionate New Yorker cover still presides over an essentially reactionary organization whose core doctrines haven't changed. But all the same, screw it: they're messing with everybody else's good time . Those of us without a dogma in this hunt just dig waiting for Pope Frank's next Bob Newhart-ish "He said that??" surprise, even as we relish the consternation he's provoked in everybody from Rush Limbaugh—"pure Marxism," the great man flatulated—to Home Depot founder Ken Langone, who fretted that Francis doesn't understand how good rich Americans are. Cardinal Timothy Dolan had to reassure Langone that the latest Pontiff does indeed love his flock's...

Peter O'Toole, Always in Character

The actor, who died earlier this week at the age of 81, turned every role into a feat of concentrated charm and wit. 

In a fantasy sequence in the 1967 movie Casino Royale—not a straight Bond flick, like the 2006 version, but a famously messy spoof—Peter Sellers, playing one of several rival 007s, sees a haggard-looking Scots bagpiper emerge from soundstage fog. "Are you Richard Burton?" the piper asks, and Sellers retorts, "No, I'm Peter O'Toole!" At which the piper—played by O'Toole himself—is overcome by emotion. "Then you're the finest man who ever breathed," he says, and vanishes into the mist. What's nice is that O'Toole has the wit to say it in character—that is, in character as a demented Scots piper who reveres Peter O'Toole, with nary a hint of a wink to the audience. It's not just that he obviously knew it would be funnier that way, and we can only imagine how Burton's peculiarly preening self-contempt would have soured the cameo. No matter how silly the job at hand was, O'Toole just couldn't help acting. But he also seldom made it look like a job, which was a key part of his charm during...

"Spring Breakers" Was the Best Movie of the Year. Seriously.

It was imbecilic but gorgeous—just like America. 

AP Images/A24 Films
F irst off, some disclaimers: I haven't seen Joel and Ethan Coen's Inside Llewyn Davis yet. I thought 12 Years A Slave and Gravity were both just swell, and I had a great time at Ron Howard's unexpectedly lively—and worldly— Rush. In spite of groaning at Woody Allen's bald-faced hijacking of A Streetcar Named Desire and his Rip Van Winkle unfamiliarity with the current century, I even got semi-down with Blue Jasmine, and so on. But that said, as we gear up to dispatch 2013 to the rear-view mirror, there's no contest when it comes to naming my favorite American movie of the year. That would be Spring Breakers, cult director Harmony Korine's sleaze-addicted, druggily impressionistic—and wondrously beautiful—tale of vacuous college girls gone wild in St. Pete. It features bare breasts galore, surreally goofy robberies and mayhem, and an all but unrecognizable James Franco wearing what look like brass knuckles on his teeth as a white rapper/wannabe gangsta named Alien. Will you believe me...