Monday, September 28, 2009

Animation auteur

Coraline opens an important chapter in animation and it has nothing to do with 3D. Rather, a new independent animation studio has opened up, not under the control of one of the major distributors, such as Disney or 20th Century Fox. Most importantly, that studio, Laika, which began as an animation production house and had some involvement in the CGI animation film Corpse Bride, has committed itself to the singular vision of Coraline's adapter and director, Henry Selick, best known as the director of The Nightmare Before Christmas.

Although it is based on a book by Neil Gaiman, Coraline was not really an established property in another medium. Laika was truly betting the house on Selick more than anything. And according to what I read, he came through--at least Laika was so satisfied with the film, it has suspended work on all CGI projects and will continue with stop-motion only, at least for its feature projects. Cartoon Brew's opening weekend post about Coraline also focused on the degree to which this film is about a director's vision.

The Disney classics were an expression of classical Hollywood. They were group efforts, led by a producer-entrepreneur, much as Gone With The Wind's real creator is producer and studio owner David O. Selznick. (How many people think GWTW was an MGM picture, because they distributed it--it was really an independent production.) As the classical era drew to a close, writers and critics noticed that great films were often the product of a single artist's vision (usually the director) rather than that of a committee of craftsmen. This, in a grossly oversimplified description is the auteur theory.

Auteur theory seems to have reached animation. It's hard to remember or identify who directed a Disney film of the Golden Era. But with Chuck Jones as the founding father (and to a lesser extent Bob Clampett and Friz Freleng) of personal expression in cartoons, today we have John Lasseter, Brad Bird and most notably Henry Selick, who has been given the freedom to make this dark, dark fable--no more intended (solely) for children than The Triplets of Belleville. And the bet seems to be paying off.

There are some other interesting aspects. Some have noted that the 3D in this film is uniquely organic, neither pasted on, nor employing grotesque effects. David Bordwell has an interesting note as to how this has shaped the entire production design.

Fathers and sons

Directed by John Ford (1971 and 2006) is, obviously, a documentary about the man proclaimed the greatest American filmmaker the way Art Tatum is declared the greatest pianist in jazz. There really isn't room for much discussion on this point.

I was hoping for a film that would provide a general overview and introduction to Ford's greatness as an artist. I understand that's difficult to do. Ford was a classicist, for whom what is not said and not shown is at least as important as what is, where form and ritual are observed, and drama can be buried and encoded in the positioning of the characters in relation to each other and the landscape, their bits of business, the averted eyes. You are not going to get the long confessional monologue in the films of John Ford--those are not his people. So he can be a difficult artist to articulate to the new viewer, especially those born since the death of the Western as a healthy commercial genre.

The film starts with discussing Ford's personality quirks, which is odd when the film hasn't even made the case for his greatness yet. The doc is a blend of materials from a 1971 AFI tribute (Ford was the first AFI Life Achievement Award recipient) and new material created for Turner Classic Movies, with 1971 narration by Orson Welles and onscreen comment by the film's director Peter Bogdanovich. The old material includes well-shot and well-delivered interview material with John Wayne, Henry Fonda and James Stewart--Wayne has never been so sincere and convincing, as well as a famous tight-lipped non-interview from the great man himself. The new material is even better at times. Although Clint Eastwood's material is cursory and disappointing, Steven Spielberg, Walter Hill (who has probably the deepest and most well-thought out insights in the film) and (of course), the High Priest Martin Scorsese all have enlightening things to say.

And it is Spielberg who, 45 minutes into the film, at last kicks it into gear with a story of meeting Ford in his office in the early 1970's, and Ford's pointing out to Spielberg the importance of the height of the horizon line in composition (top or bottom of picture, never middle). This finally gets into some matters of Ford's pictorialism, and we finally start to get some analysis of Ford's picture-making technique. There is an examination of his penchant for American history and finally we get to the heart of the matter, the depiction of family. And then we see a succession of fathers and mothers and sons, good and bad, some close, some bitterly separated. And as I watched so many familiar scenes, Tom Joad's departure in Grapes of Wrath, John Wayne's surrogate father figure in She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (an especial favorite of my dad's), the would-be family man Ethan Edwards in The Searchers but most especially the death of the beloved father of How Green Was My Valley, I felt all the love and respect for my own father, gone just this past June well up in my uncontrollably. For me, at least, even chopped up in little bits, John Ford's work touches something very deep, whether a memory or a wish, it is a powerful vision of how life could be lived.

I wish the film could have been more definitive, but it has a lot to recommend it, at least for those already familiar with The Master.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Flashback protocol

Philadelphia, Here I Come! (1975) is a respectable example of that despised genus, the faithful filming of a stage play. This particular example has one of those especially troubling conventions of the live theater, in this case, an alter-ego for the protagonist, seen and heard only by him, but for the purposes of film, portrayed by an obviously real flesh-and-blood actor. Brian Friel, who wrote the screenplay from his own play. deals with the problem by ignoring it. Clearly, he wanted us to hear the thoughts of his main character and he didn't want an echo-y voiceover, but instead we have the cinematically leaden "invisible" character wandering about with his sometimes intriguing but often redundant chatter. I don't know what the filmic solution would have been, but this stage device pulls down a very nice little film like a bit of mold behind the wall that you just can't get out.

It doesn't help that the actor playing the alter ego has an absurd pair of mutton chop sideburns and thinning hair on top, which makes it look like he is wearing a hoody made of hair.

It's an unusual film for its era, a film about Ireland actually made in Ireland by Irish actors. Some posters on complain about the welter of different Irish accents, and its a legitimate point, but it ignores the fact that the film was made in 1974, when there was not the kind of pool of Irish acting (or production) talent there is today. (It was evidently made independently and picked up for distribution in North American by the American Film Theater, a 2-year experiment in filming plays for limited theatrical runs.

But to get to the point--there is a perfectly lovely and completely cinematic moment in the film: the protagonist's memory of a moment of shared happiness between himself and his taciturn father. Later we learn that this event may or may not have happened or may have been different than the boy remembered. In any case, the flashback is not reliable. I would like to know when flashbacks became as unreliable as other modes of narrative. In Classical Hollywood (1920-1960), flashbacks were understood to be reflections of events as they actually happened. They were used to clear up misunderstandings or provide background to understand present events. But now they are as likely to be a lie or an innocent confabulation as anything else a character says. It gets harder and harder to feel the ground under your feet, cinematically speaking. And perhaps that is a good thing; at least it's a more accurate representation of life as we experience it. (Remind me later to discuss the unreliability of memory...)

Friday, September 25, 2009

What makes a story want to become a film?

For someone as engaged in films as I am, it's a little embarrasing that I have only just gotten around to The Reader (2008), which was released during Oscar season last year. Director Stephen Daldry is one of the crop of British directors who shuttle between theater and film; in Daldry's case, he spends most of his time in the theater, having spent much of the last decade transferring his first feature film, Billy Elliot, to the musical stage, with the benefit of an Elton John score. (His only other feature to date is The Hours, so Daldry is batting 1.000 so far.) The Reader and The Hours are both from screenplays by David Hare, whose day job is playwright, so he is also a theater creature.

The Reader does not break new ground cinematically, nor does it proclaim a new individual voice. It is a film that revolves around words and ideas, ideas like guilt and responsibility. It is based on a novel, adapted by a playwright, a playwright who's not afraid of lots of words. (One of Hare's plays, Via Doloroso, is a 90-minute monologue the author performs himself.) Clearly, this story is sufficient in a purely verbal form--it was, after all, a novel; it could be, with the exercise of some theatrical imagination, a play. Why did it ask to be a film? What justifies its existence as a film, rather than some other narrative form?

Simply put, Kate Winslet's face. Kate Winslet's face is justification for almost any movie. Pace Meryl Streep fans, I believe Winslet is the most convincing and versatile female actor working on the screen. (Cate Blanchett is her nearest rival.) One piece of evidence for that opinion is that I have no idea what I would expect Winslet to be like if I met her in what we laughingly call "real life." She has no persona aside from her characters, none but a fiercely hard-working actor. In The Reader, her words are frequently inexpressiveness, masking or denying her character's inner state. But the face is a rich and detailed map of an entire landscape of emotion, hurt and fear and dread and pride and desire and anger and a dozen more feelings, all clearly transmitted in a single look. How amazing that Winslet was a mid-production replacement for Nicole Kidman, and had little or no time to prepare!

And if further proof is needed that the human face is an intensely cinematic object, I need only note that the film loses a bit of its power as Winslet's face accumulates old-age make-up which freezes and hides much of the face. Our attention is directed to Ralph Fiennes rather frozen face--Fiennes' acting is concentrated in his rich voice rather than his face. And then the film regains its visual footing as we turn to Lena Olin in the final sequence (I confess I did not notice her stunt appearance in the middle of the film, playing the mother of the character she plays at the end.) And Olin has another of those faces, transmitting anger and contempt behind a mask of bland politeness. I believe her work is the reason the film concludes so powerfully.

Which is not to say there are not other visual delights. Two of the best cinematographers on the planet are credited, Chris Menges, and a particular favorite of mine, Roger Deakins. By accident or design, there is virtually no flat or solid color in the film--everything is mottled, dappled, covered with patina or distressed. The light is similarly broken throughout. There are a few ingenious flourishes--I especially like the view of Winslet from the other side of a train platform: as each car passes, we glimpse Winslet between with a slightly different expression or posture, as though flipping through a deck of still photos.

Reader appears to be a Holocaust film, which it is not--the Holocaust is useful shorthand for questions of guilt and responsibility. It appears to be a story about words and readers, like 84 Charing Cross Road or Finding Forrester. But what it is truly about is the failure of words, because ultimately neither of the principal characters, though they each know thousands and thousands of words are unable to say the few words necessary to relieve their own pain, shame and loneliness. And people who are speechless are ripe subjects for cinema.

One last quibble. There is a beautiful film score by Nico Muhly, a new name to me. The problem is that there is too much of it, which is not the fault of Muhly, but director Daldry. I wish he had, rather than laying down music like a wall-to-wall carpet, trusted those telling silences.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

If only they had made a documentary about hecklers

Heckler (2007) is a good idea for a movie. And this low-budget doc gets off to a very good start. There are 15-20 very sharp and funny minutes (as one would expect in a film by and about stand-up comics) about hecklers, their effect, their motivations and how to squelch them. Then the film drifts to a discussion of critics, both well-credentialed ones and the cranky basement bloggers. There is a lot of discussion of the emotional harm to artists created by hostile critics, many of whom engage in ad hominen attacks.

My question (and it is addressed very briefly at the very end of the film) is, why give those critics that power? Why absorb what they say? I know that artists are by definition sensitive, but you have to learn to turn that off in order to create without distraction. And the critics only have as much power as other people give them. Ignore 'em!

Give Jamie Kennedy points for being a good sport. He seems to have gone out of his way to seek abuse in this movie--it is not possible that his feelings are as hurt as he portrays, given the deliberate way he baits his critics and hecklers. In some stand-up sequences he seems to have purposely created bad material in order to be heckled, and at one point he is pelted with some unidentifiable objects by the audience--a sequence which has to have been staged.

And the fact is, Jamie Kennedy's movies are poor. They were badly written to begin with, but film is a misuse of his talents--he is a brilliant provocateur who requires live unsuspecting targets for his best effects. Sort of a milder Andy Kaufman, who, like Kaufman does not hesitate to court hostility, frustration or confusion rather than laughs. Too bad this film is such a misfire.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Neo-, Anti- or Comic Noir?

In my ongoing survey of as many film noir related films as I can get my hands on, I decided it was time to re-examine The Long Goodbye (1973), Robert Altman's left-handed take on the Phillip Marlowe legend. Long Goodbye is by no means a noir film, nor does it have any aspirations to be one. It just happens that while noir films seem to intersect with private eye movies, almost all of that intersection happens at the corner of novelist Raymond Chandler and his detective character, Phillip Marlowe. Chandler's prinicipal rival as the kind of hard-boiled, Dashiel Hammett is responsible for the source material for The Maltese Falcon, which has a noir outlook, especially for protagonist Sam Spade, who sends his lady love to jail, probably to Death Row; and The Thin Man which, on-screen, at least is the antithesis of hard-boiled--a genteel whodunit with a married pair of wisecracking drunks solving the mystery and besting the flustered official police. (Sounds like a formula for a TV show? It was.)

But is impossible to talk about Marlowe on film without skirting around the edges of noir--not with Murder, My Sweet and The Big Sleep lurking out there. Making a film in 1973, just when hippy-induced good will for all people was turning into narcissim, withdrawal and cynism--understandable in a time when President Nixon was escalating the war in Vietnam in order to de-escalate it, and slashing the constitution in order to save the country it was based on, Altman described the concept of his film as Rip Van Marlowe. What if Phillip Marlowe went to sleep in the late 40s and woke up in the early 70s? I last saw the film upon its initial release, in the spring of my senior year in high school (astonishing to me). Even at the time, Elliot Gould seemed to sloppy and casual to be a real Phillip Marlowe. Yes, he had the contempt for authority, but he seemed to have a contempt for all order, including personal hygiene. With the passing years, however, I see the self-deprecating humor in Gould's performance, and although I still find it hard to believe that his Marlowe was ever an ex-cop, as Chandler's was, the lighter touch he brings to the character makes more sense for the film Altman was creating. So Marlowe is amused by the naked girls next door, by the venality, corruption and incompetence he sees around him, rather than angered or frustrated, as an actor in his 60s, the natural choice, might do. (Personally, I would have preferred James Garner, who was disappointing as Marlowe in an uncharacteristically non-humorous vein in a 1969 film called Marlowe, but whose usual lackadaisical comic style would have fit Altman's concept.)

36 years later, one of the most interesting aspects of the film is its casting, replete with people who were not full-time actors. This reinforces Altman's approach of carefully prepared improvisational realism, showcasing large ensembles of characters with different goals and outlooks thrown together willy-nilly to interact. Chief among the part-time actors is Nina Van Pallandt, famous at the time for being linked to Clifford Irving, a daring hoaxter who conned Time-Life and a major book publisher out of huge sums by claiming to be the "as told to" author of Howard Hughes's autobiography. (This is the subject of a quirky little movie with Richard Gere called The Hoax.) Van Pallandt should have been no more than a 15-minute wonder, but she gives a rich, nuanced performance reminiscent of a Jeanne Moreau or some other mature (and by mature I mean smart and experienced, not old) leading woman of European cinema. She had a very minor career in films after this--whether it was because she was underappreciated or because she did not pursue acting fulltime I don't know.

Opposite Van Pallandt was a blacklisted actor who had been pushed out of the movies and only came back for the money to pursue his principal avocation, which was sailing around the world. This was Sterling Hayden, whose performance just seemed irrational and disjointed to me back in my high school days. Now I understand that he was perfectly reflecting his once-talented and now unhappy character. (Many critics at the time of the film's release noted Hayden's physical resemblance to Hemingway. Outside of pomposity and alcohol, it is hard to be certain about similarities between the character and the real-life writer.) But Hayden, who is so many favorite movies of mine, including The Asphalt Jungle, Crime Wave, The Killing and Dr. Strangelove gives an actor's master class in disorientation and the disintegration of personality. I wonder how much of this was based on self-observation.

Other non-actors include pitcher and memorist Jim Bouton as the lowlife who betray's Marlowe's friendship and sets the story in motion, director Mark Rydell, who had a hit called Cinderella Liberty the same year as The Long Goodbye as the hoodlum, Arnold Schwarzenegger as one of the hoodlum's thugs, Henry Gibson, who was an able comedian, but whose (very effective) dramatic appearances are limited almost entirely to Altman's films. It seems Altman wanted to erase any possibility of acting "technique", most of which are derived from stage disciplines in favor of a film actuality.

The special features on the DVD of this film cleared up one thing for me--this film, along with a lot of films of the 70s always looked faded, as if the prints had gotten thoroughly beaten-up before they arrived at your theater (and my hometown theater got most films toward the end of their theatrical run). Turns out that was intentional. The film was "flashed," that is, partly exposed during the processing stage to reduce contrast and create a diffused effect. That look is palpably deliberate in a film like McCabe & Mrs. Miller; in The Long Goodbye, it looks a cost-saving procedure gone wrong.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Young Frank Continued

So last week I watched Frank Sinatra in his first acting role in Higher and Higher. Its unexpected quality inspired me to seek out its successor, a musical comedy remake of Room Service called Step Lively (1944). Once again, I was anticipating some real cheese along the lines of Warner Bros. backstage epics of the 30s. Well, this partook of the pace and spirit of those pictures, but this one was really funny with original and tuneful songs. Both Higher and Higher and Step Lively showed real skill in the deployment of reprises, using them to move character relationships along, and show different aspects of the songs by changing singers, tempos and arrangements. Really got a chance not only to like a song, but to feel like you knew it.

Again, Sinatra was far better served by playing 3rd banana in a real farce plot then he was in his MGM roles in films like Anchors Aweigh and On The Town, where he plays second leads who are really fifth wheels--that is, they have absolutely no plot function, and Sinatra is just brought along for his pipes. In Step Lively, young Frankie, still playing innocent bumpkins, is the naive playwright from Room Service. (He gets to write "Godspeed"--in the 1938 Marx Brothers film the play's title has been censored to "Hail and Farewell"--but he gets his name changed from Leo Davis to Glen Russell. Sure, Frank would be unbelievable as a Leo, but is he more plausible as a Glen? I ask you.)

The numbers are breezy and daffy, George Murphy is a peppy and energetic lead, Walter Slezak is an out-of-the-park off-the-wall genius as Murphy's quasi-corrupt, quasi-incompetent hotel manager brother-in-law. Many of his lines are far better than anything found in the stage original. Oddly, this loosely assembled remake manages to retain the shape and outline of its source without using any of its specific materials, and even improving the play in places. Once again, the critical emphasis on classical narrative forms has too easily dismissed a first-rate brand of vaudeville. If you like Sinatra and full-throated musical comedy (not musicals, but musical comedy), this is a very agreeable 88 minutes.

The Theater and Cinema of Buster Keaton

I wrote a little about this 154-page monograph by Robert Knopf a few weeks back when discussing Buster Keaton's Sherlock, Jr. Now that I have finished it, I am even more impressed. In the context of creating a new critical framework for Keaton's work, Knopf has laid out what is for me a very useful and valid method for assessing what is sometimes called "Cinema of Spectacle."

Simply put, not every filmmaker makes storytelling his or her be-all and end-all. Nonetheless, critical consensus has coalesced around this concept and I find that every cockamamie writer and director (and even actor and photographer and costume designer) asserts in every single interview that their first priority is to be a "storyteller." It seems no one wants to be an entertainer anymore. Well, I know in fact this is hogwash. This is just ambitious journeymen sucking up to the current Hollywood critical fashion and not a serious manifesto of intent.

Do you seriously care whatever the heck it is James Bond is trying to get from the bad guys, or prevent them from doing? No, you want to see what kind of a cool chase they're going to have, how attractive the women are (this is a school-oriented blog, so I will maintain some decorum) and just how big the explosions will be when they destroy the evil super-villain's secret hideout. (Note--where do these villains get these super-loyal mercenaries who are willing to fight to the death to stop James Bond? If I was working for a paycheck for Dr. No or Blofeld or whoever and I just heard James Bond had entered the building, I would be out of there pronto!)

And a movie that has a car smashing into the side of helicopter and Bruce Willis "surfing" on a nuclear missile is not all about the storytelling. And how about those ever-popular slasher and other horror films? You knew the story walking in. What you want to know is--how good will the scares be?

The structure Knopf cites is that of the vaudeville show, a series of variety acts of all types and descriptions, between 8 and 12 per show, starting from the mildly amusing to the tear-down-the-house finish. Instead of a single rising arc arranged in a three act structure, a dozen little arcs distributed more or less regularly over the evening's entertainment.

So I will no longer suffer placidly through those entertainers who claim to be "storytellers." There is no "story" in having two poodles doing back flips on the top of a platform balanced on a pole resting on your chin, while you play the banjo and the bass drum. Hereinafter, when I see vaudeville, I am going to call out, "Story schmory--this is vaudeville!" I invite you to do the same.

Admirable Failure

Waltz With Bashir (2008) made a lot of noise last year as the "first animated documentary" (I am not equipped to support or refute that claim.) Both the choice to animate the film and the choice to persist in calling it a documentary seem perverse. The film is about the quest by director Ari Folman to recapture a lost memory around a genocidal massacre that took place during the war between Israel and Lebanon in 1982. True, there is no "constructed narrative" as would be expected in a non-documentary. Nonetheless, it is an extremely subjective movie, not relying on the strength of its materials, as a documentary would, but assembling them to recreate a mood, a feeling an emotion. Sadly, the animation, which is intended to heighten and universalize these events seems to flatten and trivialize them. It is an interesting animation technique--not rotoscoped, but faces and bodies split out into many separate components which do not change shape or size, but only their relationship to each other using a computer software program.

Folman asks what difference it makes whether we view the digitized face of someone, re-created on our screens by the arrangement of pixels or whether it is drawn. The fact is, it makes a tremendous difference. First, and most obviously, with film or video there is no intervening intelligence between the interviewee's face and the image created; second, there are these things called micro-expressions. They flit across our faces too quickly to be consciously registered, but we see them, just the same, and they show what we really mean and what we really feel. The camera can capture them, but animation just bulldozes over them.

The resulting film is flat, languid, with endless images of slowly drifting soldiers and dreamy hip music. Genocide becomes a fashionable bore. The last minute of the film uses actual video of the survivors of the massacre. It is more interesting, real, telling and vivid than the 81 minutes that have preceded it. Folman explodes his own thesis with the use of this footage.

And I'm tired of Israelis just finding out and feeling guilty that their government has used the memory of the Holocaust to justify acting like thugs and beasts to the Palestinian Arabs. Wake up--the memory of suffering carries responsibility, not license.

It is possible that an interesting and important film will be made with computer cut-out animation. This one isn't it.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Big Screen Classics in Teaneck announces its new season

I want to encourage my students to see as many of these films as they can at the Cedar Lane Cinema in Teaneck. It's a chance to see classics projected in 35mm on a 40-ft wide screen, which is quite a different experience than viewing even the best DVD, even when that DVD is projected. The first film is Woody Allen's Manhattan, and the entire season is posted here. There is a somewhat disappointing emphasis on popular holiday films, but we have The Godfather to look forward to in February. How interesting, as we begin our unit on cinematography, that this nearby festival showcases the work of Gordon Willis. In a similar vein, not many people may realize that both An American In Paris and Father Of The Bride, both of which are big popular entertainments from MGM in the Golden Era, feature the work of film noir master cinematographer John Alton. Even more remarkable, Alton the black-and-white specialist, was brought in specifically to execute the complex color work for the ballet of American In Paris.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Here are all my posts from my previous site

September 15, 2009
Just finished re-watching Tristram Shandy (2005) with the Film Studies class. Again, I was delighted how the class seized on the film's meta-film aspect. The humor is quite dry, especially at the start. I imagine some people could be confused by the pointless and rambling argument between Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan in the make-up trailer that opens this film. Is this going to be a film about big noses and yellow teeth? Well, actually, maybe it is.

There are a number of fine films about filmmaking, including one masterpiece, as well as Day for Night and Living in Oblivion, both personal favorites. But no other film, to the best of my knowledge, attempts to be about the very film you're watching while you're watching it. Yes, there is apparently a film of the novel Tristram Shandy being made by the characters in this film, who have the same names as the people appearing on screen, including director Michael Winterbottom. But the snake keeps eating its own tail, especially when a discussion of how Walter Shandy could be made to seem more sympathetic if he was shown caring for his infant son is quickly followed by the heretofore callous Steve Coogan being shown caring for his infant son. Interestingly, the film weakens for me when it tries to create a consistent through-line for the filmmaker characters. The scene in which Steve Coogan rejects a beautiful PA's advances does make him sympathetic, but it seems to be asking for audience sympathy where the rest of the film aspires to an objective viewpoint of its flawed characters.

Remarkably, the variation in style between the "film within the film" and the "film without" is so clear that one is rarely confused, although there is one very ambiguous sequence in which Coogan is nervously preparing to perform the scene of his son's birth, he runs onto a hot set, and we seemlessly move to "cut film" of that birth sequence, followed by a scene in the screening room. The film is most satisfying in these moments when it succeeds in blurring the line. The film's point, like Sterne's, is that life is too complex and incomprehensible to be completely represented within the limited tools and scope of art. Art will never be enough. Meantime the book and this film are very funny. Like life.

Higher and Higher (1943) might be described as a guilty pleasure. Probably the only reason this film is ever seen on TCM and is available on DVD, perhaps the only reason the film has not been lost forever, is the presence of Frank Sinatra in his first acting role, playing (very well) a character called Frank Sinatra. (In fact the only reason the film came to mind for me was having watched Pal Joey a little while and starting to wonder how Sinatra became "Sinatra.") There are also the not inconsiderable pleasures of a vigorous and enthusiastic cast including vaudevillians Jack Haley, Leon Errol, Victor Borge, Mary Wickes a teenaged version of Betty Hutton called Marcy McGuire, husband and wife dance team Paul and Grace Hartman, Dooley Wilson singing and pretending to play the piano the way he did in Casablanca and Mel Torme who seems to be playing the Mickey Rooney role.

It is impossible to evaluate such a thing as cinema. Quite coincidentally, I find myself reading a book that sets a critical framework suitable for this type of entertainment. In The Theater and Cinema of Buster Keaton author Robert Knopf argues that the classical mode of analysis, which focuses on the ways and degress to which narrative is served, which praises narrative economy and efficiency is inappropriate for many artists and audiences. He asserts that the variety stage of vaudeville provides a better model; that there are entertainments which are little interested in the story, but want to provide a steadily increasing set of increasing pleasures, be they comedy routines, gags, songs--in the modern context these could be stunts, shocks, explosions and fights along an overall rising arc with some sort of culmination, comparable to the headliner in vaudeville and perhaps a denoument, like the acts the followed the star; "chasers" they were called, because the chased the audience out of the theater to clear the house for the next audience.

In this sense a Jackie Chan, James Bond, or horror film is more like vaudeville than a classical formed narrative. Both creators and audience are focused on the succession of excitements and fun that the evening will provide. The story is merely a container to hold those excitements. In this sense, Hitchcock is the artist who holds both modes in perfect balance, building his film around those key moments of suspense but building and dovetailing them into a story that provides identification and personal connection for the audience.

So what about Higher and Higher? The story starts off as nonsense and gets worse. But the music, even having discarded all but one of the songs from the original Rodgers & Hart show on Broadway (including "It Never Entered My Mind"--why didn't they keep that song for Frankie?) is fun and plentiful. (I really hate musicals that don't have much music.) The cast is absolutely over-the-top enthusiastic for selling every bit of material, no matter how flimsy or strange. Director-Producer Tim Whelan, who has some odd credits, ranging from writing for Harold Lloyd and Harry Langdon in the silent era to some important late 30s credits in Britain, including The Thief of Baghdad, must have done something to keep his cast whipped into a frenzy for every take, because they never betray the slightest doubt or casualness about what they are singing or saying--they just sell, sell, sell. No irony to be found here whatsoever. So as a film, it is thin soup; but as a piece of vaudeville, it has a lot of large, zesty, meaty chunks. Dig in.

September 14, 2009
James Gray seems to make movies about Brooklyn and divided loyalties. The most recent, Two Lovers (2008) is much more interesting than its pedestrian title, although it will probably not make too many pulses race. Still, it has its satisfactions. It is an intense, unironic, almost painfully claustrophobic examination of its protagonists emotional turmoil. You almost expect the sweat from Joaquin Phoenix's head to land in your lap. The cinematography has a gorgeous murkiness that suggests digital media, but it appears to have been shot on film. I love the way many of the scenes are staged and shot as if the camera was catching them accidentally, with other figures passing through the foreground and the main characters moving in and out of focus. This enhances the feeling that the entire film was created by eavesdropping. Gwyneth Paltrow seems to be determined to prove that she doesn't just play intelligent independent women, that she can play a clueless scatterbrain just as well. Frankly, other than her lovely appearance and her neediness, I'm not sure why Phoenix's character would fall in love with her. I've read that Gray was deliberately harkening back to the personal filmmaking of the 1970's. Happily, he did not copy the type of downbeat ending so prevalent at that time. Instead, the hero suffers grows and comes to a good resolution. I found it very satisfying, although my wife didn't like it much because she doesn't like movies about "crazy stupid people."

For a very interesting note on Inglourious Basterds see what David Thompson has to say here. Scroll down past the comments on Pelham 1 2 3 and Public Enemies (and I agree with Thompson that those films were not very interesting) and get to the good stuff. Thompson's blog on film may very well be the most complex, serious and provocative one on the Interwebs.

September 13, 2009
Gran Torino (2008) is a masterwork. It is the work of a master; a Searchers or Shane set in a Detroit suburb. It doesn't have sweeping visuals to offer, but an enormous emotional landscape in a very simple, straightforward classical framework. Like Eastwood's acting, the film does not have a wasted gesture. The story is familiar (that is part of its classicism), the uptight older white man on a journey of self-discovery, especially through contact with others not like himself. In recent years, the beautiful and devastating The Visitor and the hilarious About Schmidt have mined this vein. But Eastwood's film feels like a parable about all of America itself, played across two tiny lawns. And the ending is unprecedented, with a beauty and perfection that recalls the master, John Ford. I know when you start this film you think it's going to be one of those "let's all learn racial understanding and harmony" stories. But there is so much more waiting in this film for you, and most of it is buried in Eastwood's crouched, uneasy presence as an actor; and his relaxed and comfortable mastery as a director.

Has anybody noticed the incredible run of films Clint Eastwood has directed in the last six years? Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Flags of our Fathers, Letters from Iwo Jima, The Changeling, and Gran Torino is an insane brilliant run of films in such a short period. They would permanently establish the person who directed them in the pantheon forever. They are, in my own opinion, the best films Eastwood has made. I have long thought he was a talented, but indulgent director. His films tended to run a little long, let performances get flabby and could be careless about the mise-en-scene. But today he is showing the kind of control and singularity of purpose to put him in the company of Wyler, Hawks and Ford. And he started this run of films in his mid-70s!Of course, he is lucky to have Clint Eastwood available as an actor. He is put to particularly good use in Gran Torino, easily treading the line between intimidation, humor and pathos. The role is unimaginable for another actor. But his judicious use of moving camera, his carefully selected angles, his brilliance at casting--how rare it is to see one of those "same old" faces in an Eastwood film as of late--his staging. I think Richard Schickel, who wrote a fine biography of Eastwood about 12 years ago, is going to regret having done that so soon, or else will have to issue an updated edition to account for Eastwood's incredible accomplishment.

September 12, 2009
Much Ado About Nothing (1993) I wasn't really watching this is as film buff, but in preparation for directing this Shakespeare play at school. I wanted to remember what I liked (and note what I disliked) about Kenneth Branagh's adaptation. Every good artist borrows from others. Great artists steal. (Somebody famous said that, but I don't we'll ever know who said it first.) This was not my introduction to the play, which was the television adaptation aired in 1973, based on a Broadway production directed by A.J. Antoon for the New York Shakespeare Festival starring Sam Waterston and Kathleen Widdoes. That production was set in Teddy Roosevelt-Ragtime America, which was all the rage that year of The Sting. But neither of those productions inspired my desire to direct the play.That inspiration came from a passage of the book Tragedy and Comedy by critic and sometime writer and director, Walter Kerr. He was one of the greatest writers of the 20th century on the subject of comedy, most notably in the book The Silent Clowns, an excerpt from which is attached to my Film Studies page. He made a detailed and insightful analysis of the Beatrice-Benedick "Kill Claudio" scene in which he makes a strong argument that it is a comic scene. Branagh does not stage it that way, nor does Antoon really, although there are a few comic undertones in the latter. But Kerr claims it is meant to be flat-out funny and that overly earnest interpretations of the scene have damaged it the way mopey-melancholy productions of Chekhov have distorted that writer's work. I don't know if I can pull it off, but I certainly would like to try.

However, back to Branagh. The good--the extremely handsome physical production, based on the warm sunny tones of Tuscany (not Shakespeare's Sicily, which is rather bleached and craggy); the fine (with one exception), wildly mixed cast. Branagh and Thompson are as fine as you would expect. Denzel Washington is a natural aristocrat. Keanu Reeves's limited vocal range is put to good use. It's always fine to see Richard Briers and Brian Blessed, regulars in the Branagh films. Robert Sean Leonard and Kate Beckinsale, at the beginning of their careers, are just right as the fresh-faced young lovers. But Michael Keaton's turn as Dogberry is a misfire, for at least two reasons. First, Branagh reveals in his notes that he believes Dogberry is a dangerous lunatic. This is a complete misconception. Dogberry represents Shakespeare's groundlings--he is one of them. Not educated, not completely equipped to mix with his "betters," but honest and hard-working. He actually catches the villains when the "superior" people couldn't even recognize the evil in front of them. And Keaton's performance is bizarre and incomprehensible. Literally incomprehensible. Most of what he says cannot be understood, with his lockjaw fake Cornwall accent. (It sounds as though Dogberry had been traumatized by Robert Newton in Treasure Island.)There is a lot of intelligent film-making, especially revealed by a close examination of the ways in which the screenplay has re-configured the play. The Steadicam work is spot-on, with a particularly bravura final, very long tracking shot, in and out of several different settings with choreography by the people to match that of the camera. It would take a lot to justify anyone taking on this play for the screen again, at least for a generation.

Baby Face (1933) This is available as part of a DVD set of films called Forbidden Hollywood, films originally released in the early 1930s which had the kind of risky subject matter, situation or dialogue that helped inspire the Production Code, which became effective in 1934. This is the code agreed upon by the major distributors which limited the length of open-mouth kisses, kept one leg on the floor of anyone sitting on a bed, kept married couples in separate twin beds and even banned the expletive, "Nuts!"Baby Face shows a very young Barbara Stanwyck sleeping her way to the top of a company, only to find true love at the very tippy-top. That's boring, but her sleazy trip is a lot of fun through a lot of men like greasy MGM villain Douglas Dumbrille, and a hunky John Wayne sporting a suit and tie. The film was close enough in time to the silent era for director Alfred E. Green to remember a lot of the shorthand storytelling techniques that make films of the period so enjoyable. I particularly liked the stuffy banker making the Walk of Shame the "morning after", embarrassed to meet the cleaning lady vacuuming the carpet in the early dawn light and greeting him with a cheery "good morning" which he returns, fingering his collar and hoping no one will notice his face or the fact that he's wearing a now-rumpled full-dress suit at 6:00 AM. Stanwyck seems to have been born sexy, without ever having been really pretty. She is the definition of power on screen!September 9, 2009

It is always good to see Buster Keaton again and particularly in a classic such as Sherlock, Jr. (1924). By now I have been thoroughly conditioned to think about the way set out by Walter Kerr in his superb The Silent Clowns. (I will attach this excerpt to my Film Studies page.) In it, Kerr really explores how deeply Keaton inhabits and embodies film itself. It is easy to see, even from a casual viewing, how this film embraces ideas from surrealism and post-modern meta-art.

But none of this should cause us to forget that Keaton wanted laughs, and there are some really good ones here (I love the routine in the opening sequence revolving around finding money in the rubbish pile). As is often the case, a lot of the big stunt gags receive more of a "Wow" or an "Ah" than a laugh, but audience involvement is audience involvement. It was interesting to see the class's reaction, particularly to Buster's character. We don't have those sort of naive semi-rural characters in popular culture today the way they did in the 20s-50s. I suppose it's a sign of the times that we no longer assume that people outside of the cities are uninformed and unsophisticated, given the Internet and satellite television!

Speaking of the Internet, you can watch Sherlock, Jr. for yourself here.

September 8, 2009
The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) Just finished watching this with the Film Studies class and as good as I remembered it, it was even better seeing it again. One particular pleasure is the way it addressed all the most evident implications of its story premise. [Spoiler alert] Movie character steps off screen...enchants heroine...has real-world experiences; then real character steps into movie--both events have frustrating side-effects for people in the real world and the movie world. Finally, the heroine is forced to choose between the real world and the movie world, chooses the real, and suffers for it. Given its magical premise, the story makes consistent character sense and examines all the possible outcomes before selecting the one that is most dramatically satisfying.

I also forgot that there are some very good laughs in the film, and very amusing performances by the film-within-the-film actors. I adore the moment when the stuffy maitre d' gets to throw his menus to floor and break out in a deliriously happy tap dance. The real films of the 1930s rarely exhibited such full-throated joy.

And Gordon Willis' photography is marvelous as always. The color of the real world is drained in a plausible, not kitschy, fake-nostalgic way. Being a 1985 film, the colors are the result of careful photography and color timing, and not the mere twist of a dial in a digital post-production suite. Minor note--the eyelines of the film characters looking down on the theatergoers appears virtually perfect. Somebody really did their homework to make that illusion so convincing.

September 6, 2009
Sunshine Cleaning (2008) It's a shame when one of the special features is more moving and insightful than the film it accompanies. Obviously, the "hook" of this film is the idea of sweet young women, not involved in crime or violence, taking on the grotesquerie of cleaning up after terrible crime scenes-- murders, suicides, accidents, etc. That's the "joke." But to sustain as a film, there's going to have be something else. So the screenwriter cooked up a story about the reconciliation between two feuding sisters. Fine. That's a reasonable basis for a film. But there must be a connection between the top layer--the cleaning service, and the narrative substructure, the family story. Otherwise your film could be about a bakery or an antique shop.

[Spoiler alert] The writer made a stab at this--the mother of the two women was a suicide and they discovered her body when they were small children. This backstory is, as is S.O.P. these days, revealed in fragments of montage as the film progresses. In their careers as cleaners, we see the girls comforting the loved ones of the victims. But there is a vital step missing which is highlighted in a special feature on the DVD about real-life women who clean up crime scenes. What these women do is protect people from the horror of dealing with the real and messy detritus of the death of someone they loved. The body is gone, but there is usually blood and much worse things left behind. And in the story of Sunshine Cleaning, out heroines are sparing their customers the horror that they themselves had to undergo as young children--of dealing with the awful physical facts of death, especially when it concerns a loved one.

A near-miss. The film is still sweet and worth your time, but it could have been deeply moving instead of pleasant. Perhaps the "missing link" was lost when the film was re-edited by its distributor after sitting on a shelf for a year. Too bad.September 5, 2009Knowing (2009) Here we have another exhibit in the rapidly-growing gallery of Movies That Drop Dead in The Last Ten Minutes. The first time I remember one that dropped with this heavy and thud was a Ron Howard-Tom Cruise epic called Far and Away. I'm sure there are lots of earlier examples, but that's the first one I remember noticing. A.I. is a classic example; Duplicity was guilty of it earlier this year. You know the experience. You're going along, having a good time, feeling drawn into the story and the characters. You might even be wondering, "Why wasn't this film a hit? Did the marketing people screw up?" And then you see it--the sudden plummet from fun, or excitement or suspense or whatever it is that gets your heart started, to..."What the...?" [Spoiler alert for the rest of this post] In the case of Knowing, we've seen movies where the world was going to end before. We've bitten our nails and wondered How Ever Will Our Hero Save Us? This time he doesn't. The world ends. Nicholas Cage ships his kids off to join the aliens and then there's a whole bunch of cool CGI which shows us...Everything And Every One Burning Up To A Crisp. What did the filmmakers imagine the audience was going to say to each other as they picked up their empty popcorn buckets and filed out of that one? "Sure do love seeing my own inevitable doom. Yes sir, nothing I love to spend $11 on more than finding out that There's No Hope We're All Doomed!!"What were they thinking? These kinds of problems can surely be spotted in the script stage. Why do they go ahead? Or does that explain why this film was released by Summit Entertainment and not by Paramount or 20th Century Fox? (I should exempt Fox--they released a screwed-up version of The Day The Earth Stood Still last year that offered No Hope For Humanity. What's with these Hollywood types? Are they so upset about the environment or animal cruelty or the interruption of their chi that they want us all to die? Are they aware they're in the entertainment business?Speaking of CGI, Knowing boasts some of the best-looking and some of the phoniest-looking CGI. plunked down next to each other, cheek-by-jowl. I mean, literally, from one shot to the next in the same sequence, such as an airplane or a subway crash--a shot that seemed to be the exact replication of your worst nightmare was followed by a shot that looked like someone playing with rubber toys in the bathtub. These CGI animators seem to be unaware that actual objects have weight and volume and that they displace other things in the universe. Weird. My recommendation--watch this movie until about 1 hour and 40 minutes in, then take the disc out and send it back to Netflix.

September 4, 2009
I Love You, Man (2009) The Judd Apatow boy-man comedy is such an established genre, that now they can make them without any involvement from Judd Apatow. Perhaps Apatow's non-involvement was the reason there was not quite so much focus on personal bodily functions that I stopped finding hilarious around my seventh birthday. But the Apatow influence was felt in the presence of real, warm friendship between men even while they were snapping towels in the locker room. And the film did acknowledge that you might be a towel-snapper yourself, and that doesn't make you gay. (Actually, I think mainstream male culture--sports and camping and such--is much more homoerotic than those of us who are interested in the arts and spend more of our time looking at and being with females.) {Paul Rudd and Jason Segal are always a pleasure. I wish Segal had had in the screenplay--he might have made his own character more well-rounded and believable. The film took a bone-jarring turn to the left about a half-hour from the end, apparently because somebody realized that movies were supposed to have plots and plots mean conflict. So they manufactured some completely implausible, mechanical conflict and then resolved in the most obvious and predictable ways. It would have been nice to see someone exercise the courage to dispense with the Screenwriting 101 B.S. that Hollywood is obsessed with. (Most of the really first-rate writers today are learning to dispense with formula and, indeed, even with outlines, and beginning to create the way novelists and artists do.) Anyway, it was an enjoyable ride, if not a gut-buster. Not much to be said about any cinema craft here. A couple of montages, and the rest of the craft of the movie was limited to pointing the camera at funny people saying and doing funny things and cutting the film when that stopped. Not bad.

August 31, 2009
Diary of a Chambermaid (1964) I know the title sounds like soft-core porn, but it is fact a relatively conventional film for Luis Buñuel, the former Surrealist, best-loved (by me) for The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, The Exterminating Angel and Viridania. But though Chambermaid's events could all happen in real life, the film still appears to be a parable or allegory of France (or Europe) on the eve of the rise of Fascism. The title chambermaid is content to observe the follies of her bourgeois employers, particularly the sweet old man who makes a boot fetish seem sort of charming. But she goes on to become engaged to a man in order to frame him for a murder he probably did commit. Then she marries a different man for the crassest of motives. Meanwhile, anti-Semitism and narrow-minded nationalism goes on its merry way over the body of a murdered child, whose body is discovered covered in snails.A special personal pleasure about this film--it comes from that era in European filmmaking (there wasn't much of it in the States) when they were making widescreen films in black and white. This is very wide--2.35--and the cinematographer uses an extremely short focal length lens which causes a distortion around the edge of the frames (especially noticeable when the camera moves) which has to be deliberate--perhaps a reflection of this distorted world.I don't have the time, space or background knowledge to give this film its due--it would require another viewing. I have a friend who refuses to read a book unless there is a possibility he would read it again. I wouldn't say that for books--the investment is too great. But that might be a good philosophy for film-viewing--don't bother seeing a film you wouldn't see again. (Those films just make you feel dirty, anyway.)

August 30, 2009
Defiance (2008) Director, co-writer and co-producer Ed Zwick is a good and decent man and he makes good and decent movies. They may not be ground-breaking cinematically, but you usually find yourself moved somewhere in the course of them, and you certainly never feel sullied and abused the way so many Hollywood blockbusters do, treating the audience like a cheap pick-up to be stimulated for a while and then rudely dumped in the street. So, given that the story is dramatic and is steeped in human suffering, I can say that I enjoyed watching the film. I felt better while I was watching it. In case you don't know, the film tells a story based on true events about Jews in Belarus who evaded the SS and its minions and hid in the nearby forests, stealing food as they needed, evading capture and occasionally conducting raids on Nazi or Nazi-sympathetic persons. Some of the allied themselves with units of the Red Army as partisans, some did not.Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber were excellent as the brothers who lead their group of Jews; both were unafraid to let their characters appear weak or foolish at times. Whereas there is a movement in film these days to use minimal resources (in particular the Dogme movement), Zwick is unafraid to use whatever could be useful--slow motion, blurred stills, subjective sound, score music. I usually dislike the mickey-mouse scoring of James Newton Howard, but this time it seemed OK. Largely understated and supportive. This movie will not make cinema history, but it will engross you for its 2-1/4 hours and, hopefully, restore a little of your faith in humanity, which is what I think Mr. Zwick is after.

August 29, 2009
Pal Joey (1957) This film is likely to be of little interest to my high school students. It is a Frank Sinatra vehicle, made at the height of his powers, loosely based on a 1940 Broadway musical which made a star of Sinatra's sometime co-star, Gene Kelly. The title character is a self-centered SOB, and when he finally does something for somebody else, the story is over. That could make it tough to put up with. And to Sinatra's credit, he never tries to round the corners off this unpleasant character. But still and all, the main reason to see this film is to see Sinatra sing "I Could Write A Book," "The Lady Is A Tramp," "I Didn't Know What Time It Was," and a few other standards from the late 30s, some from Pal Joey and others from other plays by the same team (Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart). The director, George Sidney, was usually vulgar and sloppy, content with characters reduced to types and the most obvious camera set-ups. But the film is lit, shot and edited with a lot more skill than would have been necessary for a star vehicle of this period--it even boasts two well-used zoom shots (I usually hate zooms, but these were justified and most have looked quite startling in 1957). If you want to see some substance behind the "ring-a-ding-ding" "va-va-va-voom" culture of the late 50s and early 60s, this just might be the single best example. It certainly should be Sinatra's time-capsule film.

August 28, 2009
Inglourious Basterds (2009) You gotta say, Quentin Tarantino always observes Rule #1: Never Be Boring. It must be said at the outset that this movie is a rollicking good time. I mean, assuming you're a little sick, of course. Although Basterds is supposed to be about WWII, it is actually about WWII movies, mostly the cheesy 60s and 70s international "all-star" (meaning all B-list) co-productions that I grew up with and I suspect Tarantino found on videocassettes. Like most of his movies, it is not for a moment meant to be "believable" or plausible. Tarantino shows little respect for the people Hitchcock called the "plausibles." Neither considered plausibility a significant goal for a film artist. I bring up Hitchcock advisedly, because Tarantino's greatest advance in this movie is attention to what was Hitchcock's greatest weapon: suspense. I don't remember this kind of suspense in a Tarantino film before. Usually people are spewing such a torrent of funny, artificial, but rhythmic and engaging words that Tarantino never had time to stop and make you wonder or even worry what was going to happen next. I believe this was a deliberate goal since Tarantino even includes a clip from Sabotage, an English Hitchcock film, a clip that Hitchcock often referred to himself to illustrate the difference between surprise and suspense.It used to bother me that all of Tarantino's work was intentionally derivative, usually of second-rate film material. But then I recalled that all of Shakespeare's works were based on works by other, lesser writers (all writers are "lesser" than Shakespeare), that Beethoven's Diabelli Variations is based on a trite little ditty and that I myself have written a number of plays and scripts based on works by others. So I had to abandon those scruples.But Tarantino goes farther--his references call attention to themselves, including jarring supertitles, loud musical stings, intermittent narration and a number of other rather theatrical (as in "live theater") effects. [One reference in Basterds appeals to the truly trivial-minded--the copyright notice for the film appears on the title card, as it did on many films in the 70s, especially independent productions. Nowadays, copyright notices are tucked away neatly in the end roles, usually in the part that appears only after everyone but the projectionist has left. You have to be something beyond a mere film fan to have noticed that, and I did, which says something sad about me and Mr. Tarantino. But all his films are intended to remind you that you are watching a film, that the subject under discussion is not what really happened in World War II, but the stories we like to tell ourselves about it. In this case, we have a completely imaginary revenge fantasy (just how imaginary is revealed in the final wonderful but preposterous sequence). And in that respect, Tarantino speaks to a basic aspect of the human soul. Scientists have discovered that our brain is organized to turn the events of life into narrative. Story-telling is not cultural, it is biological. Everything becomes a story, and all history is based on some distortion, given that as soon as something happens our brain, without our asking, starts to re-arrange things into a good tale. So Mr. Tarantino can be forgiven, or even celebrated for his constant reminder that what you are seeing is not the truth, but just a story--because that is simply basic human nature. So the "secondary" artist becomes a "primary" artist.The usual take on Tarantino is that he just re-combines elements of the third-rate chop-socky and horror movies that he saw in his videostore clerking days. But clearly he wandered into the Hitchcock, Lang, Renoir and DeSica aisles, judging from this movie.Greatest improvement over previous Tarantino work: The clever and peversely loveable Jew Hunter, Colonel Hans Landa, played by Christopher Waltz a German actor who recalls the suave villainy of Peter Lorre and Claude Rains from the 1930s and 40s.Strangest phenomenon: This still felt like a Tarantino film even though at least half of the dialogue was subtitled. (And hats off to the superb casting department for bringing all these faces which are new to American audiences!) QT had to discard his greatest weapon, those wonderful rambling snarky monologues, replete with contemporary cultural references.

August 27, 2009
My first entry: I want to encourage you, my students to create a similar sort of blog at, to keep an informal journal of your impressions of the films you're watching, both inside and outside of class. As the course progresses, I hope to see you employ more and more of the analytical tools we will be developing in class, especially your awareness of the elements of film and the ways those elements are employed in the advancement of narrative and the development of that elusive concept, style.The Great Buck Howard (2009) A very unprepossessing film to start this blog with. The purpose of these journals is not to write a review for a general reader, so I will dispense with a summary of the plot--I can never read those things myself. It is about the minor leagues of show business and I enjoyed the film at least in part because of my own knowledge of and experience around those backwaters. You might not feel that way yourself.Not much to say about the film in terms of cinematic technique--it is very straightforward technically, even a little old-fashioned, in the use of first-person narration. Happily, that narration doesn't get too cute. There's some very nice cinematography--shooting on stage has a special set of challenges. There is a lovely theatrical (as in "stage") effect as the title character loses his nerve in a Vegas showroom, and all the ambient light fades to black except the candles on the tables. The last time I saw that was in films by the stage director Morton DaCosta (Auntie Mame, The Music Man) who thought nothing of fading out the lights on the set and putting a follow spot on the principal characters in lieu of a standard fade-out. Colin Hanks is still not much more than pleasant--a very pale shadow of his father's charisma. But John Malkovich is absolutely completely convincing as a showman. His offstage character may have been thinly conceived and thinly worked out, but Malkovich is very believable as a man who can hold the stage and command an audience. That quality is lacking in a surprising number of actors--the quality of "command." Evidently the story is based on writer/director Sean McGinly's own experiences, so it will be interesting to see if he has other stories to tell in the future.