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Michael S

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Everything posted by Michael S

  1. I've not been active here in some time, and perhaps Andrew is right that others have moved on. In the least, Ken, if you close the board, definitely post the Top 100 lists, etc. on some kind of platform. They're absolutely worth saving and keeping online as a resource.
  2. I'm dispirited by the widespread negative response (might even call it outright dismissal) to this film, which is a relatively modest, small-scale Netflix movie about three astronauts headed to Mars who discover an authorized fourth passenger on their ship and must face the classic moral dilemma about how to value one person's life versus the lives of several (or many) other people. Even though the screenplay is not an adaptation of an existing source, the parallel is a 1954 sci-fi short story, titled The Cold Equations, with essentially the same situation but with the resources changed (a shortage of air, instead of fuel). I like the film because of its small scale (it almost feels like a stage play), the subtle complexities of its central moral problem, and, perhaps most of all, a final act that surprised me and really moved me. Honestly, it's difficult for me to watch the ending without tearing up. A lot. In order to talk about the critical response, I'll have to include spoilers, so if you prefer to avoid them, I recommend not reading further until you've seen the film. For what it's worth, personally I usually don't care about spoilers, the exception being a suspense thriller or a whodunit/murder mystery. Stowaway is neither of these and has no major plot twists, but the experience of watching can still be undermined by knowing how everything turns out. After watching the film, I read a good number of professional reviews online, including viewer comments for any review that had a comments thread. Then I went over to YouTube to watch a few video reviews (most of them were unreflective) and scroll through viewers' comments there too (mistake!). The most common objection is about plot mechanics and logic: specifically, critics and viewers angered that the film never explains how and why the stowaway got onto the ship in the first place. If it was an accident, it seems impossible. If it was intentional, then the film should just say so. All of this dispirited me because, for one, so often in film criticism a film seems to survive or die based solely on its plot mechanics, when in reality there's much more to any given film than that. If Stowaway had been the kind of science-fiction short story you might find in an anthology, or had it actually been a stage play, would people have the same objections? Moreover, when I gave careful thought to the film's moral problem, and after watching the film twice, I realized that how stowaway got onto the ship is immaterial. The story isn't about how he made it there. It's about what to do when a group of people realize that survival requires either a sacrifice by someone or the commission of a necessary evil by the group. How he got there becomes irrelevant. But also there's this: none of the reviews or comments I read mentioned a line of dialogue in which the stowaway, talking out loud to his sister, who is back on earth, says that "this" (his being on the ship) might be the best thing for them -- a suggestion that he intended all along to be a stowaway. I admire the fact that Stowaway remains ambiguous about his intentions and the possibly that it was all an accident. It's the ambiguity that heightens the moral tension. If his presence is entirely accidental, then can the crew really blame him for creating a problem that otherwise would not have been created? Could they ever justify killing him to save themselves, if it ever came to that? But if he wanted to be there? How might this reality alter the moral problem? And then there's this -- and this is *really* a spoiler, so ye hath been warned: at least one critic opined that "we" feel no emotional investment in the film. Really? Zoe (the doctor, played by Anna Kendrick) says, once in conversation and once in voice-over, that she joined the Mars mission because she wanted to find meaning in her life, and she ends up finding meaning by giving up her life to save other people. That's what moved me; that's what made me feel very emotionally invested by the film's end. And it's not her decision only that moved me: it's how her decision physically/visually plays out in the final scene of the film. All that swirling radiation; the long climb in the vacuum of space, using the tethers; her labored breaths; her sitting on the top of the ship and staring at Mars in the distance. I'm not trying to suggest that there aren't multiple legitimate ways to interpret a film; and I definitely acknowledge that one critic might like or hate a film while I feel the opposite. But there's also what's there on the screen and in the screenplay, and we have to give them adequate reflection. Believe or not, there are a few reviews out there that include no mention at all of the moral dilemma that's at the heart of the film.
  3. Thanks for posting the Dick Cavett/James Earl Jones video, Ken. I agree that Jones understands the issue at a deeper level than Cavett. I suppose there's a part of me that wishes that politics could be divorced from art; Cavett says something to the effect that art should be art, and that politics should not be part of it (hence his comment about the "silly" letter). The reality is quite different, though -- not necessarily because viewers, readers, moviegoers, critics, et. al. politicize art when they interact with it (though they do that sometimes), but because a significant amount of art is inherently and purposely political: everything ranging from European paintings during the era of the French Revolution, to post-colonial/anti-imperialist novels written by people who have lived under colonialism, to films about civil rights or about political freedom, to stories about corruption among global corporations, to books about the oppression of women, and so on. There are even paintings in which the form itself is a political critique because the painter associated previous formal qualities with social/political structures (e.g., "that's so bourgeois," or "that's so traditionalist"). So Cavett seems naive here. Also, to return to my aside about Chuck Connors playing Geronimo -- that, in and of itself, is a political statement that encompasses so much about American history, the plight of Native Americans, the status of Native Americans in the modern U.S., the political habits of film studio systems, and more. If an actor embodies many of the qualities that Jones speaks about, could someone not of a particular race play a character who is of that particular race? Jones seems to say maybe? Or he doesn't rule it out explicitly. Of course, there are always questions about where lines get drawn. E.g, can a man write a novel in which the narrator or the protagonist is a woman? A while back, I was reading something in the NY Times (can't recall what the article was about exactly) and noticed in the comment section that a female reader said that she never thought male novelists could write female characters properly, and then she read Henry James, and, all of a sudden, there it was: a male author creating some of the richest female characters in fiction.
  4. When the film adaptation of Memoirs of a Geisha premiered some time ago, some viewers and critics protested that some of the actors weren't Japanese but, instead, were Chinese. I don't recall what the production company said at the time about this matter (or if they said anything at all), but I wouldn't be entirely surprised if they had defended their casting decisions by saying that Zhang Ziyi is one of East Asia's and, by extension, the world's, greatest box-office draws, so it's "better" to cast her than someone who is Japanese but much less known (translation: less box-office revenue). *If* they or anyone made this argument, one could say, well, for one, the film did have some Japanese actors in it, so why not make the entire cast Japanese?; and, two, the film already had cache and familiarity because of the book it's based on -- therefore, casting less famous Japanese actresses wouldn't be such a "liability" in terms of ticket sales. I don't mean to imply that I agree with any of these arguments either way, but, then again, I am reminded of the casting of David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia. Omar Sharif played Sherif Ali, but the studio cast Alec Guinness to play Prince Faisal. They darkened his skin with make-up and he faked an Arab "accent," and to this day I think: so they can get an Egyptian actor to play Ali, but for the part of the Iraqi prince, they dress a white man in Arab clothing and make his skin dark? I suppose we'll eventually see Charlton Heston play a Mexican and Jake Gyllenhaal play a Persian adventurer. So Ebert seems out-of-date in the sense that representation matters for accuracy (not just racial or cultural, but contextual and historical) and also because, as you note, Ken, actors from underrepresented groups should have the opportunities for on-screen roles that historically have gone to others. And I'd agree that this includes people with disabilities as well. There are mutual benefits for casting a personal with a disability in the role of a character with a disability. Having said all that, acting is acting. There's something to be said about having faith in people's imaginations and in their ability to exceed the boundaries of their own experiences and to inhabit the lives of others -- something that reading good novels, for example, affords the reader, and the novelist as well. In other words, does one have to have had the experience of losing a child to play a fictional character who does? Or are imagination and empathy enough? If you happen to be an actor who has lost a child, and if you're asked to play such a role, would you even want to? Would it force you to relive the trauma? Would you suggest the studio hire a colleague who has not gone through such horror? (Granted, this example is different from an example about race, ethnicity, etc., which is equally complicated but for different reasons. In my opinion, to take on example, Chuck Connors playing Geronimo just isn't right.) Over the decades, I think we've all seen impressive examples of actors acting out experiences they themselves haven't had -- poverty, autism, combat, cancer, death of a spouse, murder of a child, living as a foreigner in another land, playing a Mormon or a Christian or a Muslim while not actually being one, and so on. But I do think we've reached a point in the culture of cinema where all this will be less likely, with greater insistence and effort to ensure accuracy within roles. I'll admit, as someone of Chinese descent, that I'm uncomfortable with non-Chinese actors taking Chinese roles -- as I think Emma Stone did in some Cameron Crowe movie ... or maybe it was a movie based on a Nick Hornby book; I don't know ... but if she's even remotely Chinese, then I'm William Shakespeare. Speaking of which: remember how in Renaissance drama, female characters were always played by men? At least we've gotten far, far, far past that!
  5. Michael S

    Classical Music

    Andrew, I'm glad to hear that you like that Ninth that much. Among symphonic music, it's in a class by itself. I can't quite recall when I first heard it, but the melodies and rhythms of the first movement caught my attention right away, and so I was hooked from the get-go, more or less. I can't recall if this is in the article I linked to (or perhaps it's in another article), but the phone's owner apparently explained later than he had been using a Blackberry, and then, coincidentally, the day of the concert his employer had replaced his Blackberry with an iPhone. He hadn't learned how to use it yet but tried his best to ensure everything was silent ... unaware the whole time that alarms sound even if the phone is set to silent. Still, of all the movements in all the symphonies in the world, the phone just had to ring towards the end of the final movement of Mahler's Ninth!
  6. Michael S

    Classical Music

    Yeah, Mahler's music is more transcendent than Shostakovich's -- or, at least, Mahler aimed more than DS to achieve transcendence, as you point out. Symphony No. 1 has always been my favorite, although my introduction to Mahler began with the famous adagietto in the Fifth. The Ninth is a very, very close second favorite, but in the end I always return to the First. After you listen to the Ninth, you might find interest in this incident that occurred during one of the New York Philharmonic's live performances of the symphony -- during the famously quiet final movement, a man's cell phone rang and rang until conductor Alan Gilbert stopped the performance (of course, feel free to read this whenever you like; I suggested after hearing the Ninth, mainly because you'll have a clearer sense from knowledge of the symphony of why the clamor of a cell phone during the final movement would be wrong on a cosmic level!). Here's the link: https://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/19/opinion/the-phone-that-interrupted-the-philharmonic.html Back to the Fifth: as with any individual movement in a symphony, the adagietto works best within the context of the entire work, but I often listen to it by itself because it's so therapeutic -- and singularly beautiful.
  7. Michael S

    Classical Music

    Andrew, I must give Schoenberg a try again -- it's been a really long time since I last listened to any of his music. I think it's great that you go through composers' works in chronological order, which allows you to experience the evolution of their music properly. My listening habits are more erratic; someone might mention a symphony, and then I'll get excited and go listen to it and maybe others, regardless of where they fall in a composer's oeuvre. I'm the same way sometimes with popular music. When I got into early Rolling Stones albums, I just picked the ones that had songs I already knew and then tried to piece together their evolution later. At any rate, Kubelik is one of the greatest of Mahler conductors. I plan to get his Mahler cycle at some point. Sometime last year, I picked up Klaus Tennstedt's cycle with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, which they did in the 70s and 80s. The box includes studio recordings of all of the symphonies and live recordings of nos. 5, 6, and 7. Really great stuff. Good luck with the move.
  8. Michael S

    Classical Music

    It's now mid-March 2021, and yet I still have moments when I think about 2020 and wonder "what were my favorite albums of last year?" My music buying and listening were more haphazard in 2020 than you might expect -- because what else is there to do during an ongoing lockdown than read books, watch movies and/or sports, and listen to music? At any rate, I don't have enough in purchased albums or playlists to fashion a "best-of" list, but one thing I will definitely praise and recommend is a set of recordings of Carl Nielsen's symphonies by the New York Philharmonic and conductor Alan Gilbert (and the set also includes recordings of Nielsen's violin, flute, and clarinet concertos). I've listened to some of Nielsen's symphonies now and then in the past, and have collected a few recordings, but listening to Gilbert's recording in 2020 was the first time that the symphonies as a whole really connected with and made sense to me -- especially the Third, which has great themes in each movement and some beautiful singing by a soprano and a baritone in its second movement (no text for the singing, just notes for each vocal part). These are live recordings, but with the engineering you can't really tell. There isn't any audience noise from what I recall. As good as Gilbert's recordings are, I'd say that if you're interested in Nielsen's symphonies, seek them out however you can -- Spotify, YouTube, iTunes, your local record store (if local record stores exist anymore). They're great pieces of music.
  9. Thanks for posting this, Darrel. I just registered for the Sound of Metal and Radioactive Q&As. I follow the Cinematheque on social media but somehow overlooked any news about these Q&As.
  10. I watched so few new films in 2020 that I couldn't even approximate a best-of list. I'm looking forward to seeing Minari, whenever it happens to hit streaming platforms. Nomadland too. I'm very fond of Sound of Metal. I didn't expect to be. I sometimes find hyped American "indie" films to be too self-conscious, sanctimonious, or superficial (<-- I didn't really plan the alliteration here; it just came out this way ), and therefore prejudge them, whether fairly or not. But Sound of Metal is an interesting character study, with a great central performance, and it offers attention, perspective, and agency to a group of people (the deaf) who have habitually been overlooked, ignored, misrepresented, or stereotyped in movies. I love the film's ending as well.
  11. Michael S

    The Game

    I've always seen the film as redemptive as well, although I haven't quite thought about it in terms of Christian imagery. I have the Criterion, so I should take some time to listen to the audio commentary. Somewhat related: I saw this film in a movie theater in London when it was released way back in 1997. It was raining heavy that day; the weather outdoors kind of fit the feel of the film. I got so caught up in the story itself that I genuinely did not know what was real and what was part of the game, and, during the climactic scene on the rooftop, I really thought that Nick/Michael Douglas shot his brother. The Game is such an effective and efficient thriller.
  12. Michael S

    Organ Music

    That's really great, Evan. Music I've not heard before, and you play so well. I like the sound of the organ. I recently took my guitar out of the case it's been sitting in for years, and I'm gradually relearning things -- I hope to achieve the kind of proficiency on my instrument that you've achieved on yours. (Plus, I admire piano and organ players because, in addition to having to master the keyboard itself, they also have to learn pedaling, which requires both coordination and judgment.) Thanks for sharing the video.
  13. Michael S

    Classical Music

    Definitely let us all know what you think of the book, Christian. If you end up really liking it, I might pick it up. Mahler's 4th is an absolutely beautiful piece of music. Glad that you enjoyed it. Each one of his symphonies is a masterpiece in its own right, not necessarily something music listeners would say about other symphony cycles (even Beethoven). I've not listened to a lot of Ligeti (I think, for me, he's a bit too cerebral sometimes) but I really like his etudes for solo piano. This will be a great adventure, Andrew. Some of Chopin's music is indispensable, in my opinion -- the preludes especially, but also the nocturnes, the waltzes, the four ballades, and the sonatas. (I'm not as keen on his piano concertos because I don't think he was a particularly good orchestrator.) I never warmed to the sound of period-correct pianos; my ears are just too modern when it comes to that instrument, but I envy listeners who enjoy it, in part for the reasons you mention.
  14. A piano is a great idea -- probably the best instrument on which to learn music theory. I've never owned one, but back during my college days I'd use the pianos the music department had to figure out the various things I had learned in class about keys, chords, melodies, meter, etc. I recently thought about getting a digital piano but probably will wait until I've got some more cash on hand, as well as more space (definitely no room for a real piano, but even a digital one would be a tough fit). One of these days ...
  15. Michael S

    Classical Music

    Christian, thanks for posting that link to the Post review. I'll check it out. I've been curious about Ross' book ever since it was released, and have been curious as well about its reception. Like Andrew, I'm personally not keen on Wagner's music (except for some of his overtures and non-vocal music) and never liked the guy himself (based on what little I've learned about him), but Ross is an excellent critic, so I might give the book a try at some point in the future. If I can find an excerpt somewhere (there might be one in a recent issue of The New Yorker), I'll probably try that first.
  16. Andrew, I can only read music notation in a slow, slightly confused way -- not with any kind of proficiency, as I could when I was in college taking music theory classes. Plus, once I was out of college, I never kept it up, so that particular skill just dwindled. If I were to try to read a classical score now, I would need some external references (key charts, scales, etc.). So when I was reading Swafford's biography, I did the best I could with the music, but a lot of it I glossed over and just relied on his descriptions/analysis. I find Beethoven's life to be inherently interesting but agree that all that Sturm und Drang, as the Romantics would call it, could be a bit much. He must have been very difficult to live with. I've always been moved by the vocal and choral music in the 9th, even after what is now a few decades of hearing the 9th over and over again. His call for joy and unity has a timelessness to it, and of course the music to which he set the text just makes it all that more uplifting. It's like, well, I could listen to a presidential debate or two some talking heads insult each other on a talk show, or I could listen to Beethoven. Pretty easy choice in 2020.
  17. Andrew, I'm pleased that you're enjoying the Harnoncourt recordings! I've not heard the Kremer/Harnoncourt performance of the Violin Concerto (my set of the symphonies is the original one, with the symphonies only), but that sounds dreadful. I couldn't imagine it working well even if Beethoven himself wrote some version with a piano part. Even the best composers make bad decisions sometimes (so do conductors, orchestras, soloists, et. al.).
  18. Andrew, I think that's correct: symphonies 5 and 6 and the piano concerto all in one concert. I doubt any orchestras perform programs of that length today -- everyone in the audience would leave early (or not show up in the first place), no matter how good the music might be. Across the arts, including music of course, it is interesting to think about evolutions in critical reception. Van Gogh, if I remember correctly, died penniless, with much of his work unappreciated. Some movie critics (Pauline Kael being one of them) reacted to L'Avventura and other modernist films and didn't really afford them the reflection they required. On the other hand, there are works of art that are revered when they're produced, only to decline in critical reception across the years. But, still, to be alive when some of the world's greatest composers were premiering and conducting their own compositions -- to be there, indeed! I can't recall if Swafford gets into this or not, but Beethoven wrote 17 key modulations in the first movement of the Eroica symphony. The movement still seems seamless regardless, but that's one reason why it was a real step forward for symphonic writing in the early 19th century. Perhaps also a reason why initial reactions weren't entirely embracing.
  19. Very cool, Andrew. Swafford's biography is great. Excellent analysis of the music itself, and also, as you point out, rich context as well. One might say that there really was a point in Vienna's music history when it was a great time to be alive. Just like Salieri says in the film Amadeus: "Vienna, city of musicians!" I hope you enjoy the Harnoncout recordings. I've always loved his recording of the third symphony in particular. I suspect that Harnoncourt has his detractors as much as he has his fans because he's unique, but I always find him thoughtful. Could you imagine what it must have been like to hear some of this music for the very first time? Probably not unlike the premiere of Rite of Spring or something else that shattered prevailing norms. Or attending the premiere of a Bruckner symphony. When will this thing end?!
  20. Michael S

    Mulan

    This seems strange to me -- I believe it happens, but "strange" in the sense that any critic's responsibility is to the film/art/book/whatever and to its creators, and so I wouldn't really understand critics who write negatively about a film or work of art to spite someone else. That's too bad. Having said that, studios sometimes won't have screenings for critics because they already know the film is terrible! If the story is true (or even if it isn't, actually), it's a reminder that genuine intellectual honesty is something that can't be overrated.
  21. Michael S

    Mulan

    And I found that it's all one endless wormhole, with my YouTube feed suggesting one video, then another, then another, and of course I couldn't stop myself from basically watching all of them. The funny thing is that I don't really even like the Star Wars sequels and only watched them because of the nostalgia I have for a childhood spent with the original trilogy (my parents took me to see A New Hope in a theater when I was but a very wee lad, and I walked out saying that it was the greatest movie ever made ). I usually trust film critics, but -- and I'm just speculating here and thinking off the top of my head -- I wonder if there are critics who won't write negative reviews of films out of fear of, say, losing access to screenings or press junkets. Not that film studios do this as far as I know, but it happened to come to mind. I've not seen the Mulan remake (or the original one for that matter), so I can't speak to the film itself, but I agree that a very wide discrepancy among fan and critics' responses can be odd.
  22. Michael S

    Mulan

    Incidentally, as a way to fill a little downtime this past week or two, I watched a handful of videos by various YouTubers discussing the Disney Star Wars sequels, Mulan, etc., and while I don't think of their content as necessarily solid criticism, I noticed a pattern in their concerns: for the most part, they're very loyal to the original films (particularly the original Star Wars trilogy, not so much the prequels), they feel that Disney doesn't make enough effort to listen to the fans, and that Disney seems to make films by "committee", instead of allowing directors and writers more autonomy. So, to take The Last Jedi as example, a common complaint is that producer Kathleen Kennedy dictated too much, while Kennedy and Rian Johnson disregarded everything that Lucas had done, especially with their characterization of Luke Skywalker as a cynical, disgruntled, hopeless, old man. By contrast, I suspect that professional film critics saw The Last Jedi as a more daring and original film than The Force Awakens and weren't as concerned about consistences with the original trilogy. While I can't recall any specific arguments from specific reviews, I do recall that The Last Jedi was rated much more highly in general by critics than by fans. Recently, Daisy Ridley revealed in an interview that, from the get go, Disney had no plan whatsoever for her parentage, so JJ Abrams made her the child of scavengers, then Johnson made her parents "nobodies," then Abrams made her a Palpatine, but Abrams hadn't decided until after shooting of the last sequel had begun. And so fans were even more upset, and again I suspect that film critics were less worried about these issues. Anyway, that's my sense of the reaction to Disney Star Wars; Mulan I'm not sure about, although at least one YouTuber fan said that the original film was fine and there was no need for a live-action reboot.
  23. Ken, I also noticed that permanent links to Top 100 individual films/write-ups are also not working and only redirect to the forum's main page. Hopefully that'll be an easy fix too.
  24. Ken, I just noticed that the link for the 2020 Top 100 doesn't work, despite it working just a few days ago. I noticed that the forum interface is different, so perhaps that's affected some of the permanent links? When I use this link for the top 100, I'm redirected to the forum's main page.
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