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1. Gillian Anderson Chases Her Shadow. This January, Fox is bringing back its classic TV series “The X-Files” for a special six-episode miniseries. The revival brings Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) back into the fold to explore more paranormal mysteries and wonder, yet again, if the truth is really out there. Vulture’s Gaby Wood profiles Gillian Anderson on her return to “The X-Files” and her relationship with the show.
Gillian Anderson believes in ghosts. “I haven’t seen ghosts,” she explained in November when we met on a chilly day at a cozy London hotel, “but I’m very hypersensitive, and I generally feel like I can tell if a house is haunted.” She also has “a tendency to believe that people are able to see the future and read minds” and knows “completely sane people who have experienced poltergeists.” Mulder would approve. Scully? Not so much. That’s FBI Special Agent Dana Scully, of course — the skeptical “X-Files” character Anderson made famous, and whom she’ll play again when the show returns to Fox as a six-episode mini-series in late January. But Anderson thinks quite differently from the character that boosted her career, and you might say that Scully herself has become a ghost for the actress — a faint, permanent presence, and one that she’s invited back for a full-scale haunting. Anderson, now 47 years old, last played Scully in “The X-Files: I Want to Believe,” the second “X-Files” feature film, in 2008 (the television series ended in 2002), and she has spent the years between then and now moving beyond her. To a large extent, she’s succeeded — TV viewers, especially in the U.K., are likely to recognize Anderson (now definitively blonde rather than a redhead) as the very British detective Stella Gibson from the BBC crime drama “The Fall.” Theatergoers will have her award-winning performance as Blanche DuBois in London last year fresh in their minds (a role she’s reprising at Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s Warehouse this spring). But with the attendant hubbub surrounding Scully’s long-awaited reappearance, it’s easy to see that Anderson has never really lost her status as a poster girl for the paranormal. Yet unlike her co-star David Duchovny, who at times during the original “X-Files” run gave the disgruntled impression of feeling destined for greater things, Anderson was a woman to whom science fiction came easily. She has always loved films like “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”; she now co-writes sci-fi novels and records the audiobooks herself. She has, as she put it, self-deprecatingly holding her fingers up for air-quotes, “a lot of sci-fi cred.” Which is good, since the world of pop-culture tentpoles has evolved into one ruled by the kinds of genres that used to be looked down on. Sci-fi and fantasy are “all there is to see anymore,” Anderson pointed out matter-of-factly, and the result is that, two decades on, the Zeitgeist has come to her — and Scully — as much as she’s come to it.
2. “Carol” Is the Best Movie of 2015 If Not the Decade. Todd Haynes’ newest film “Carol,” based on the Patricia Highsmith novel “Salt of the Earth” about a lesbian love affair in 1950’s New York, has garnered universal acclaim from just about every professional critic, singling out praise for Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett, Haynes’ direction, and Ed Lachman’s photography. Over at his entry of the Slate Movie Club, David Ehrlich writes about “Carol,” the lack of female film critics, Tarantino, and much more.
“Carol,” the very best film of the year (if not the decade), is obsessed with the visibility of women, the gazes they cast, and the gazes cast upon them. In Todd Haynes’ unspeakably beautiful adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s semi-autobiographical novel about a 1950s Manhattan shopgirl (Rooney Mara) who is thunderstruck by a mutual infatuation with a well-to-do housewife (Cate Blanchett), the film illustrates — among other things — how falling in love is an act of looking, while being in love is an act of seeing. Whichever way you slice it, it’s a lot easier to find a woman in front of a camera than it is to find one behind it. But does it matter that so many of these stories about women were directed by men? In a word: duh. Just because Todd Haynes is a super genius (smart enough to let screenwriter Phyllis Nagy pliably reshape the perspective of Highsmith’s novel) doesn’t mean that we don’t need women to tell their own stories. This train of thought, for me, inevitably crashes into Quentin Tarantino. Not because he foolishly slagged “these Cate Blanchett movies” in his bananas New York interview, or because he’s made at least three different films about righteously strong women, but because he seems to be going out of his way to pen historical revenge fantasies for groups to which he doesn’t himself belong. Traces of this trend can be found in “Kill Bill,” but it truly took root with “Inglourious Basterds,” in which Tarantino giddily allowed a squad of Jewish assassins to murder Hitler with great vengeance and furious anger. As a Jewish assassin myself, I have never cared for one moment that it was a goy who made the most satisfying work of Holocaust revisionism ever created (er, maybe the only satisfying work of Holocaust revisionism ever created). I’m just glad that I can watch it in GIF form. Does that mean that people should ipso facto let him off the hook for using the N-word as liberally as I do adverbs and rhetorical questions? Still, it’s tough for me to square with Dana’s suggestion that Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight,” a gruesome parable about frontier justice that’s currently shit-storming its way across the country in glorious 70mm, might be “evil.” Tarantino is, at heart, a moralist. Bill gets Killed. Django is Unchained. There’s a reason that Samuel L. Jackson survives “Pulp Fiction,” but John Travolta doesn’t. “The Hateful Eight” is a movie defined by the contrast between black and white and set in a world of grey, but — as I recently wrote about — Tarantino is nothing if not a unique American director contending with a uniquely American problem, and sometimes it takes a lot of squibs to make an omelet.
3. “The Danish Girl” Silences Its Own Heroine. Tom Hooper’s “The Danish Girl” follows 1920s trans pioneer Lili Elbe as she struggles with her sexuality in an harsh, uncompromising world. But at his own blog. just in time for the film’s UK release, Ben Walters explores how the main problem with “The Danish Girl” is that it silences its own heroine
The more Lili becomes herself, the farther she recedes from us. After her first surgery, we see her for the first time as a woman living daily life. Through its photography, editing and soundtrack, the film wants us to see this as a time of happiness and fulfillment. But what do we see? We see Lili merely as a vehicle of spectacular femininity, teaching customers and colleagues at the store where she works how to apply perfume and maintain a svelte figure. She is an elegant cipher, somewhere between Mary Poppins and Princess Diana, all catchy advice, downturned doe eyes and demure murmurs about macaroons. Lili doesn’t want to be an artist any more, she says. She wants to be a woman. One can, Gerda points out, be both. But the question lingers: what kind of person is Lili, really, deep inside? We have no idea. For comparison, turn to a film like “Tangerine,” directed by Sean S. Baker. It follows two friends during a single day in West Hollywood. The characters are trans women of colour (played by trans actors) but their gender identities are incidental to the drama. What makes the film so funny, surprising and affecting is that we see Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor) from a wide range of angles, understanding the roles in their lives of friendship, love, money, labour, performance, sex, loyalty and more. Being trans is central to some aspects, marginal to others. But by the end of the film, we have a powerful sense of their experience of the world – what it is to see through their eyes and walk in their shoes. Our relationship with Lili, by contrast, is defined by secrets and surprises. The first time Einar wears a slip under male clothing at a party, we only find out after the event – the first flickerings of Lili coming into being, withheld from us at the moment they happen. Later, Lili shocks us by appearing unannounced in Einar’s place to meet an old friend. Later still, she literally pops up from behind a screen to make us jump. Such surprises underline the fact that an increasing proportion of Lili’s behaviour takes place beyond our knowledge and therefore beyond our empathy. How were these choices made? How did the results feel? We don’t know. And it’s not just Lili’s actions. Her thoughts and feelings are secret too. We see her writing, first in a notebook, then in a diary. What does she write? We don’t know. Einar tells us “when I dream, they’re Lili’s dreams.” What are the dreams? We don’t know. Lili tells us her new GBF (Ben Whishaw in a cheeky beret) is “a friend… someone to talk to.” What do they talk about? We don’t know. And what is beyond knowledge is beyond empathy.
4. Vilmos Zsigmond: 1930-2016. The film world is still mourning the loss of legendary cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, the man behind the photography in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” and “Blow Out.” Though there have been many tributes so far, RogerEbert.com’s Peter Sobczynski pens a thorough and intimate remembrance that cuts through the white noise.
He would reunite with Spielberg first in 1977 on “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” arguably the most challenging work of Zsigmond’s entire career. Zsigmond had to figure out a way of integrating the normalcy of ordinary life with the strangeness of the UFOs without making either one silly or hokey, while still juggling a number of different storylines necessitating their own unique visual grammar. Despite the vast number of special effects that were deployed in the film, one of the things that is most striking about it is how natural it all looks, due entirely to Zsigmond’s skills. Even in a year when “Star Wars” had already knocked moviegoers for a loop, the images in “Close Encounters” seared themselves into the minds of everyone who saw it and it came as little surprise that Zsigmond would win his sole Oscar for his efforts. What was a surprise is that it would prove to be he last collaboration with Spielberg — it was apparently a rough shoot and perhaps there was some resentment over the other top-notch cameramen who were brought in (including John Alonzo, William Fraker, Douglas Slocombe and Kovács) but considering the heights they reached here, it is too bad that they never found another project to work on together. The next couple of years would highlight another one of Zsigmond’s key attributes — his ability to move from genre to genre while always managing to come up with strikingly unusual compositions along the way. “The Deer Hunter” (1978), for example, may not be my favorite movie for any number of reasons but his cinematography is not one of them — with his visual depictions of the blasted-out Pennsylvania steel town to the lush beauty of the mountains to the hell of Vietnam, he conveyed the story in a concise and powerful manner that was far more effective in many ways than the efforts of director Michael Cimino. (The film would earn him his second Oscar nomination.) He also served as one of several top cameramen utilized by Martin Scorsese on the landmark concert documentary “The Last Waltz,” and then used that experience to help capture the feel of the rock world in “The Rose” (1979), especially during the electrifying concert scenes. There was also a return to his low-budget roots with the wild dark comedy “Winter Kills” (1979), where the trippy style he employed meshed perfectly with the crackpot meditation on the Kennedy assassination. With his next two films, he would hit what I consider to be the apex of his career — arguably the two best films he was ever associated with and two of his finest jobs as cinematographer. On “Heaven’s Gate,” he reunited with Cimino for the infamous, expensive and calamitously received revisionist Western about an idealistic sheriff trying to protect the local immigrant population from cattle interests intent on killing them and stealing their land. Whatever one may think of the film as a whole (and I personally believe it to be a masterpiece that looks better and better with each passing year), one aspect that even the most determined naysayers would have trouble finding fault with is the cinematography. Shooting many of the scenes at the so-called “Magic Hour” — the brief period between sunset and nightfall that allows for extraordinary camera images in the right hands — he gave us one of the most visually stunning films of all time, the kind where one could freeze-frame any random image and study it in the way that one would with the works of a great master.
5. Revisiting Mark Harris’ “Birdcage” One Year Later. So, writer Mark Harris wrote a piece last year for Grantland (R.I.P.) called “The Birdcage,” in which he argued that the film industry’s addiction to big-budget franchises puts all of Hollywood on the precipice of something dark and awful. On his blog, Dr. Daniel Smith-Rowsey examines this prediction one year later and how it stands up against 2015, the year the studios supposedly “got it right.”
You might say that Harris already responded in the same article with his most damning condemnation: “Yes, some good movies get through, but many that once would have now don’t, won’t, can’t. And a generation of midlevel executives that in the not-too-distant past would have been trained to develop and champion them now knows that doing so isn’t the way to move up in the ranks; these days, you make your bones by showing you can maximize the potential monetization of a preexisting brand or reawaken a dormant one. Stand-alone, non-repeatable hits are nice, but only in an outside-the-system way; they’re for people who don’t know how to think big.” I’m not so sure about that, and it’s not just because Scott and Dargis don’t seem so alarmed, either. Universal just had the biggest year for any studio, ever, without a superhero or long-term “universe” strategy. (Ironically, Universal doesn’t have an “it’s all connected”-style plan while Disney and Warner Bros. do.) It’s true that Universal cashed in on Vin Diesel racing cars and stupid white people racing dinosaurs, but it’s also true that Universal’s “midlevel executives” have been developing “stand-alone, non-repeatable” films for quite a while. Tweeting to me (and others) this year, Judd Apatow marveled at all the original comedies that Universal has opened at over $30 million. For 2015, Hollywood’s (barely) record year, only Universal and Disney really earned; Warner Bros. barely broke even and Sony, Fox, and Paramount all lost a lot – while making blockbuster bets. Don’t their midlevel executives have reason to rethink any fealty to tentpole cinema? Consider the possibility that the ecosystem can only support so many big lumbering beasts, and needs a few rarer birds to complement the environment. Harris is implicitly discussing films that almost have to open at #1 (or be perceived as failures now and five years from now, when the video rights come up again), and clearly there can only be 52 of those a year. So, are the six studios planning to scale back to release only about 8 or 9 movies a year? Not bloody likely, when their business model depends on releasing something more like one per week. Harris wrote that every studio wants to be Disney, but maybe that’s like saying every politician wants to be Bill Clinton – that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen, and thus we might adjust expectations accordingly. Perhaps – very perhaps – franchise films are showing signs of getting tangibly better. As I wrote in “The Summer that Rebooted the Reboot,” prior to 2015, it was pretty much unheard-of for a franchise to reboot after a decade and earn anything like a 90% score on Rotten Tomatoes. (It happened 4 times in 40 years.) This year, it happened twice, with “Mad Max” (97%) and “Star Wars” (94%). If Harris is right that we can’t seem to beat the franchise game, perhaps, as Scott and Dargis seem to aver, joining it doesn’t have to be quite as terrible as one might think, assuming more “Mad Maxes” and “Force Awakenses” can happen. If we throw in Ryan Coogler’s “Creed” (RT score 93%), and J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek” reboot (RT score 95%) there may be the beginnings of a rule here: as long as the franchise has some kind of obvious connection to 1970s’ directors – and here we might throw in Steven Spielberg and Ridley Scott – all is not lost.
Tweet of the Day:
“I have Anton Chekhov right here.”
[CHEKHOV enters, melancholy, dying of consumption, yearning for Moscow]
“You know nothing of my work.”
— Danny Bowes (@bybowes) January 5, 2016
“Jean-Luc Godard said something about critics & filmmakers being in the same army, but the critics are always firing on their own troops.”
— Bilge Ebiri (@BilgeEbiri) January 5, 2016