Quick Takes – 09.10.12

helvetica, documentary, typeface, font

Helvetica

Grade B | 1st Viewing

I’ve been meaning to check out Gary Hustwit’s 2007 documentary about the ubiquitous typeface for some time now. It’s a very competent, insider look at design and typography that never issues a ruling but investigates a (surprisingly) lively debate over the font’s beauty and pervasiveness. At times, the film’s construction feels unsure of itself – it starts off with a self-referential tone (interview subjects ask, “Should I talk?” and “Should I begin?”) but this gets dropped and feels like an oversight as the traditional talking-heads-and-b-roll rhythm becomes established. One interview has been shot in what I call “the white void” style – blank white background, poorly-lit floating face – making it appear disjointed from the other interview-at-the-workplace/book-lined-shelves shots and imposing a strange, and seemingly unintended, detached and objective overtone to those segments.

Nevertheless, the exploration of typographic design is fascinating. Helvetica certainly presents a variety of opinions regarding its namesake, ranging from the hardline “There are really only 2 or 3 usable, beautiful fonts, and you cannot improve upon the perfection of Helvetica” to “People who use Helvetica support the Vietnam War.” (No really. Well…she’s mostly kidding.) I really enjoyed the film’s ability to keep winning me over to a new perspective, and, like the font in question, it succeeds because of its simplicity and straight-forwardness. There is one particularly good section where I learned quite a bit about a type designer’s process through very simple, instructive imagery and voiceover. Hustwit would have done well to make more use of this technique, as the montages of street signs become tiresome by the time the credits roll. The other joy of Helvetica is its moments of true passion, when interview subjects really get on a tear and nearly explode with their enthusiasm or disgust. Watching people care about things, even things as small as the slope of a serif, will never get old to me.

Bottom line, this film reaffirmed for me that when it comes to tastes (in fonts, or design, or music, etc.), the most interesting people tend to have strong ones. It doesn’t much matter to me what those tastes are, but I will always find my own pleasure in their rapturous defense of the things they love.

Premium Rush, Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Premium Rush

Grade C | 1st Viewing

This movie’s alternate title could be, “Google Maps: The Movie,” based on how much it seems to love the slick, navigational animations seemingly lifted straight from my iPhone (though not for long, as Apple bids adieu to the native app). It could also be called, “Bikes: A Cartoon! But Also Serious! BIKES!” although I wouldn’t recommend it. What it should really be called is “Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Paycheck.”

While I agree with a surprising number of critics that David Koepp’s film has a campy charm and serves up the end-of-summer adrenaline-fueled escapism it promises, it waits until half of the movie is over to give us any reason to care about the central device holding the plot together – a Very Important Envelope that must get to its destination OR ELSE – and even then the narrative is barely more than a weak justification for scenes like “how different bikes go over hills” and “what would happen if there were, like, so many bikes!” But Gordon-Levitt is having fun, and so I kind of have fun with him, even as he and the rest of the cast power through dialogue like “Cause this is NEW YORK CITY. You can’t just walk around with that kind of money!” and “he’s at it again!”

It’s clear the film aims to be a hokey barrel of speed. It even names Gordon-Levitt’s character “Wilee.” “Like the coyote?” another character asks. Yes, like the coyote. He takes risks, get it? He has a death wish. He doesn’t even have a brake on his bike, man! “Brakes are death,” Wilee says with a frequency matched possibly by Spiderman’s “With great power comes great responsibility.” Michael Shannon turns in an equally goofy performance as the dirty cop “Bobby Monday,” whose laugh is highly reminiscent of Jay Leno. Unfortunately, Dania Ramirez’s character is relegated to B.M.I.L.F. status (bike messenger everyone would like to…yeah) with one-liner gems such as, “That was the most fun I’ve ever had with my clothes on!” Someone even utters the turd, “When do I get to climb Mount Vanessa?” Ugh. But you didn’t come to this movie for pathos. You came for that sweet, bike-riding action, which the film has in spades. The stunt work and unconventional chase sequences are captivating, and dopey cops fall down a lot.

If you can’t wait for Looper to get your JGL fix, Premium Rush is good for a few laughs and thrills, especially if you can’t find Funniest Home Videos or the X Games anywhere on TV.

Super 8, Elle Fanning, Joel Courtney, J.J.Abrams, Steven Spielberg

Super 8

Grade: A- | 1st Viewing

I really enjoyed Super 8 and thought it was very successful at what it aimed to achieve. Yes, it felt like J.J. Abrams was making a love letter to Steven Spielberg, but the endeavor was earnest and genuine. The movie really took me back to when films felt made “for the entire family” but not designated as “kid’s movies.”  I was surprised that it focused on the young characters the way it did – from what I remember of the marketing I didn’t get that impression at the time.

The young actors do an incredible job, and I felt a nostalgic pleasure watching Super 8 of a quality I can’t even accurately name. Something about the flow of story, the soundscape of on- and off-camera voices and the maturity without vulgarity struck a resonant chord with my memories of childhood cinematic experiences. While there are some formulaic narrative devices, and the climactic ending feels a little too heavy-handed and less in line with the tone of the rest of the movie, I appreciated the tenderness and sincerity of a film with so many explosions and a mystery-monster’s backstory to develop.

If I had seen this movie as a kid it would have made me want to buy a camera. Sometimes it can be a fine line to finesse between making an homage and making something derivative, but in the case of Super 8 Abrams has gone beyond honoring the films that inspired him and made a film about inspiration – about creating our own models of the world and finding meaning and joy in them. While there aren’t any especially deep or penetrating ideas in this film, there is compelling suspense and a wistful satisfaction. I’d share it with the young movie-goers, and potential movie-makers, in your life.

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