Weekend Reel Reads: Cinematic Locales and Writers' Two Cents

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by Steve Greene
March 24, 2013 12:18 PM
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Weekend Reel Reads is a regular feature that gathers lengthier stories related to the world of film criticism you may have missed during the week. If there's anything you think would be ideal for future installments, please let us know at critic@indiewire.com.

On Location: Las Vegas

When shown on film, Vegas has the tendency to take on an air of glamor or depravity (sometimes, both). After a recent trip to Sin City, R. Kurt Osenlund reported on the true tourist atmosphere and how it compares to its on-screen portrayal. In order to determine whether the real thing matched up with its cinematic precedents, Osenlund's piece also features a helpful film overview of the city. His dispatch also looks at how movie's have charted Vegas' history.

"We saw plenty of loud beer guzzlers in polo shirts, and girls in too-small tube dresses with yards of strawberry daiquiri, but you know that, somewhere, there are Hunter S. Thompsons waking up with lizard tails on their asses, or, on a more melancholic note, hard-luck cases like Nicolas Cage's Ben from Leaving Las Vegas, who are chugging down fifths in perhaps the one place where absolutely no one will bat an eye. The lure of intoxication that one can almost smell in the Vegas air has also undergone metamorphosis, particularly on film. Most all of the '90s titles I mentioned deal in the rise-and-fall, with depravity ultimately having some sort of dire result."

"Just Walk Into That Cloud": Finding Bhutan in Books and Film

While the land of Bhutan may not have representation quite as prevalent as its Nevada counterpart, John L. Murphy's piece at PopMatters delves into the entry points into the culture that might not exactly be household names. Traveling restrictions make it difficult to visit the country to see its features up close, but Murphy's primer gives another firsthand account of how a handful of films (and their literary counterparts) stack up against the vibrant, natural appeal of the region.

"For longer tales from about the same relatively “early-modern” (the road paved, but not yet electricity, TV, phones, or the internet) period in the eastern region, the most popular remains Jamie Zeppa’s Beyond the Sky and the Earth (2000). Ken Haigh’s Under the Holy Lake (2008) complements it well and deserves equal acclaim. Both teachers of English from Canada, Zeppa and Haigh nearly overlap in place and time with Hickman, but their extended stints allow them a deeper insight into these districts. Their honest, unadorned reflections better the brief glimpses of many Westerners, on limited budgets and itineraries. Enriched by hindsight, Haigh and Zeppa apply literary sensibilities with precision to evoke wisdom and ponder lessons."

Rebooting "Evil Dead"

In his SXSW dispatch for the LA Review of Books, Ted Scheinman addresses the idea that a mainstream horror film could front a festival with such indie roots. This naturally gives way to a bigger-picture discussion of how the innovative and the unbounded can quickly become absorbed into the norm. 

"The coming week will see a number of promising indie releases that will not draw the wraparound crowds of Alvarez’s Evil Dead or Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing. It’s a fool’s game to be indignant about ostensibly mindless horror frontloading a festival that bills itself as something altogether more cutting-edge. But it would be awfully nice to see the early buzz shift from clearly bankable product like Evil Dead and toward something more adventuresome. SXSW hosts 133 features this year, including 78 world premieres and 22 US premieres. Among these, 76 are premieres by first-time directors. Attendance patterns over the next few days will tell us whether the 2013 SXSW can maintain its own sense of balance — between the forgivable blockbusters and the art house revelations."

How SXSW 2013 Helped Define the "Austin Movie"

But for all the questions about the future/nature of SXSW there's an inevitability that a section of the program will traditionally help give a sense of what its home city is like. Movies.com's Jacob S. Hall describes the many ways that the films of the 2013 festival gave visitors a glimpse into Austin life that they might not have gotten from their travels around the city. Not all of these indie offerings were perfect reflections of the SXSW home, but they do contribute to the distinct atmosphere that gives the fest its personality.

"Austin is a city with a reputation for being laid back and generally polite (by major city standards, of course), so it's no surprise that many of the films made their showcase an optimistic outlook. This is mostly evident in When Angels Sing, which takes the quirks of the city, coats them in sugar and suggests that the weird dreamers of Austin represent a guide for how to be a good husband and father. Grow Up, Tony Phillips is a little more restrained, but it's ultimately a feel-good story about being true to yourself, proclaiming that you can grow up without betraying yourself. Hell, Rewind This! is one of the more sentimental movies, with its subjects remembering the VHS revolution through a thick haze of nostalgia. Of course, the exceptions prove the rule: Zero Charisma and Loves Her Gun are bleak and blackhearted in their anti-sentimentality."

Myth, Malick and the Map to ‘Moonrise Kingdom’

David Ehrlich's Criterion Corner column is a dependably fascinating read, and this particular edition draws a connection that goes beyond the typical DVD review. When discussing Terrence Malick's "Badlands," Ehrlich notes the curious thematic ties between the Malick masterpiece and the recent film "Moonrise Kingdom." By investigating the ideas of isolation and the narrative devices that both movies share, the two films, separated by decades, become even more timeless in the process.

"Both films rely on the use of epistolary voiceover — Holly speaks the words she writes in her journal, Sam and Suzy the instructions of their covert notes — but the chief point of distinction is that Holly is writing to herself, whereas as Anderson’s precocious pen pals are writing to each other. The narration in “Moonrise Kingdom” is an exchange of mutual desire, whereas in “Badlands” it’s the blunt dictation of facts (save for a few brief asides, such as the one in which Holly emptily considers where her life might have taken her had it not been hijacked by Kit) — it’s the difference between the process of living a life versus commenting on a life that’s already been lived.  In “Moonrise Kingdom”, the characters seek the very same thing, but require the attention of just one person. Kit wants to be heard (he has a lot to say, even if he never figures out what that might be), but he needs the whole world to listen. Sam and Suzy just want someone to read their letters, and maybe bother to look for them before they fly the coop."

Truth and Melodrama and Phil Spector

While the consensus is still yet to be crystallized for his latest effort, David Mamet is responsible for some of the most distinct and valuable dramatic works of the past few decades. Regardless of how his Phil Spector HBO biopic turns out, the playwright just might know a thing or two about plot structure. In a piece for Medium, Mamet focuses on the idea of a satisfying twist, picking out a handful of recent and classic examples of toying with audience expectations.

"Here is the writer’s problem: The audience will foresee anything the Dramatist has foreseen — they will beat you to the punch every time, and figure out that The Butler Did It, unless the writer is prepared to undergo the same process as the Hero, that is, to follow promising clues to the point where they, and thus one’s conscious mind, are proved risible, and carry one’s humiliation down the next avenue, and the next, until one is stunned by the uselessness of one’s own mind. This revelation is always accompanied by denial and then shame. “What?” one thinks, “The answer cannot be this obvious. How can I have been such a fool as not to have seen it, in front of me all the time?” The ending of a film may be so authentically shocking that we viewers realize we could not have foreseen the answer, as we (and the hero) DIDN’T EVEN UNDERSTAND THE QUESTION."

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And, for those of you who've been desperately searching for a high-brow cat video, J. Hoberman has some advice on where to start.

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