Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Not hellish, but not that good either

Horror is a young person's genre. First, I think because a young person is naturally sensation-seeking, and as most young people in developed nations live fairly protected lives, the artificial stimulus of horror stories is welcome. Over time, life knocks the desire to gaze at terrible things out of you. Second, the form is limited and genre rules are easy to grasp, so that the viewer can evaluate to what extent creators are respecting, disrespecting or bending the genre. (This may also be true of superhero stories.)

And most importantly, as Carrie demonstrated in epochal fashion, horror offers opportunities for metaphor about the transition from childhood to adult life. One is experiencing strange transformations--these may be caused by nature, by heredity or by terrible errors in judgment. This part of your life is about sudden, unanticipated change, which is often at the heart of horror stories.

The problem is that the box marked "horror" tends to be small and there are a limited number of tricks to be found in it. That may be one reason that people tend to graduate from interest in the form as they mature. A limited number of weird things can happen--a limited number of explanations are offered--ghosts, vampires, zombies, werewolves. They are vanquished or they are not. The evil continues or it does not. The scares fall within a limited range, and so the endings and the offered meanings.

The western and the film noir are platforms which can support many types of stories, styles approaches and metaphoric landscapes. Horror does not have nearly the adaptability. And evil always comes from without rather than within, which limits the story's resonance.

So the only reason to invest time in the film Jennifer's Body (2009) is to see whether Diablo Cody, inspired writer of Juno and The United States of Tara could inject some of her wit and insight into the young female mind into a horror film. The answer is no. There are about two funny lines, and the rest is a tired rehash about high school female rivalry. It seems they were trying to make something better than the premise suggests--they even shot and then deleted a nude scene for Megan Fox, which would have meant a lot at the box office.

But this is the kind of film in which a small flame begins in a night club, whole building is burnt to the ground in 45 seconds and although we are told that many people perished we do not see anyone running from the building other than the principals. There's a gratuitous girl-girl kissing scene and pretty risible levitation scenes (although they did lampshade the humor of the levitation.) And the problem with humor in a teen horror film is that they are always bordering on self-parody as it is; starting with the actors, who appear to be bordering 30, rather than 16.

Add to that some very sluggish pacing from the direction and the editing, especially in the first half of the film, and it appears that this film was just a bump in Diablo Cody's road to more worthy projects.

And yet, it's true, Satanism may be the only explanation for success in indie rock.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

"Who is that guy?"

For anyone who has ever asked that question, there were once two paperback volumes called "Who Is That?" breaking down character actors from Classic Hollywood into archetypal groups and providing names and photos. Now there is a small, but valuable webpage providing a similar service called That Guy. Especially good for those of us above the age when it takes at least two people to remember anyone's name.

Oh, and that's Richard Jaeckel up there.


I have been interested in live theater almost as long as film and have more hands-on experience in the former when one includes non-professional and semi-professional activity. And because of my interest in both media, and because it is often impossible to see plays live in the theater for years at a time, I have always had a special curiosity about film adaptations of theater pieces.

One of the principal differences between the media is the use of dialogue. For film, dialogue is one of the possible modes of expression, but it is only one and it is always subservient to image, and often in an inferior position to other elements of the soundtrack, such as music and effects. Great movie dialogue is often elliptical, enigmatic, riddled with subtext. "Forget it, Jake, it's Chinatown." "If you build it, he will come." "Go ahead, make my day." "We rob banks." No poetry here, except the poetry of understatement, fused with story and character.

Whereas in the theater, dialogue is the principal means of expression. Characters tell us what they're thinking, what they're feeling, what they're going to do, what they just did, what happened offstage. None of this is necessary or even desirable in film. And in theater, they often make beautiful music with their speech--I don't need to quotes, open Shakespeare to any page.

This makes translation from stage to screen so tricky, because the dialogue may be the very seat of the play's value, but could prevent it from being effective onscreen. There are successful talky movies--Network, The Maltese Falcon, My Dinner With Andre, gabfests all. But that talk has been designed for film, designed to work in concert with all the other elements, and it knows that dialogue in film has two audiences--onscreen character and film viewer. And somehow, it takes less time to grasp the ideas when the camera can show us those eyes, those lips, those brows that are issuing that speech. It's almost like that thing where you can't understand what someone is saying until you put your glasses on.

I missed Bent (1997) on stage, and to be honest, the subject has little fascination for me. I'm sure one can argue that homosexuals were treated worse than Jews, but death does not seem to me to be a matter of relativity. The film has some interest because it represents Clive Owen in an early leading role, two years before his breakout film, Croupier. The first half hour of the film eschews the play's politics and seems determined to upset or offend the non-gay audience with a great deal of simulated gay porn (in that definition I include a performance by Mick Jagger in drag). Finally, the film settles down to what it's going to be about, and 45 minutes in, commences the relationship which is the centerpiece of the film.

So after a long patch of trying to be "cinematic" Bent settles down to be a straightforward dialogue-driven theater adaptation. In this mode it presents its one and only point of interest. The two principal characters are gay men imprisoned by the Nazis (one pretending to be Jewish). They are under constant surveillance and are not permitted to touch. Using words only, standing stock still, side by side, they have an extreme erotic encounter. This has several functions. It establishes the bond between them. It establishes the power of words. It makes for some discomfort among much of the non-gay audience; at the same time, most must recognize the common elements between homosexual and heterosexual encounters-- which both relieves and increases the discomfort. And despite the fact that the driving aspect of the encounter is verbal, the film medium reinforces it by maintaining a steady, still gaze, fixing the characters in the center of the frame and reinforcing the stillness around them.

After all, stillness in the theater is the default mode. A fixed frame, fixed set, often the words the only animating factor. But such a circumstance is special, heightened, in film. Stillness demands special attention on screen. So for a moment, theater and film themselves touch hands and work together.

Then it falls apart. Because, presumably following the lead of the play, in a subsequent scene the verbal sexual encounter is repeated. And where it might have had a cumulative effect in the theater, because we are in the world of words and more words is more meaning, it is simply redundant in film. Because the action, not the word, is the key in film, and we have seen and registered this action. It means nothing to repeat it, even if the actual words are different this time than last. And from there on, the film grinds to its stagy conclusion in highly formal, artificial compositions which only heighten the writer's and director's failure to bridge, or even acknowledge the gap between stage and screen.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Auteur vs. studio animation

The animated films 9 (2009) and Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs (2009) seem to represent a yin and yang of animation in America today. The former is clearly an example of what Frank Capra called, "one man one movie" or what the French called the auteur theory. Cloudy is just as clearly a studio creation, but in no way inferior because of that. The two films were created by two different processes (human, not technological) and those differences are reflected in each product.

9 is a very personal vision, based on a student film made by director Shane Acker. As is the modus for the UCLA animation program, the original short was pretty much a one-man show. It was a dialogue-free fable of mechanical rag dolls surviving apocalypse and making the first tentative steps toward carrying on civilization. The film energized a lot of people, including Tim Burton and an expansion to feature length was created, with experienced animation and kiddy-show writer Pamela Pettler supporting Acker and dozens if not hundreds of artists and animators bringing the piece up to feature length. The result has dialogue and more incidents, and more fleshed-out characters--albeit all of them types--the plucky, brave one, the ingenious nervous one, etc., but doesn't say much more than the nearly silent short. At the end, it's just, "the indomitable human spirit will continue" even if that human spirit is represented by inexplicable mechanical rag dolls. (And by the way, what is the motive power for these things? Springs? Batteries? The director's desire to keep the movie going?)

It is marvelous to look at and listen to, with European-style ruins and a serviceable score by Deborah Lurie. But the question arises, who is the audience for this film? It is too dark and ambiguous for young children, but lack the irony or complexity of a Triplets of Belleville or Persepolis, animated films for adults. It seems to be all about design and mood, and the target audience would seem to be adult animation geeks. (There is no way I can imagine taking a date to this movie.) I applaud Tim Burton and others for supporting this fine effort from a talented filmmaker and Focus Features for taking on the distribution, but I think they could have reached their entire audience with a screening at Comic-Con. (Side note--Christopher Plummer played the hero's nemesis in both Up and 9 this year. Time for voice casting people to work their rolodexes harder, as the fine Mr. Plummer is in danger of becoming an aural cliche.)

Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs is, as its opening credit slyly acknowledges, "A Film By...A Lot of People." In that one moment it establishes both a charming self-deprecating tone and a satirical jab at standard Hollywood practice. This studio product (credited to Sony Pictures Imageworks) has its eye firmly on the audience in the best sense of the word; much the way Rocky and Bullwinkle entertained children and adults at once. Unlike 9, it is based on a pre-existing property, albeit one the merely offers a strong visual idea with only a hint of story structure--the hard work had to be done by the filmmakers.

It reaches the adults, not as Dreamworks films do with smarmy double-entendre, contemporary pop-culture references and endless self-reference, but by being smart, fast-moving and character-grounded all the time. The animation bespeaks a knowledge of, and affection for the work of Tex Avery, Frank Tashlin, Bob Clampett (especially the style of movement), and, of course (especially in matters of timing), Chuck Jones.

Here is a moment that made me laugh aloud; our hero has triggered a huge slapstick catastrophe (details not necessary here) which, among many other things, causes a fish to be sailing through the air. At first the fish is not happy with this form of locomotion, until it realizes that it is now free of its fishbowl and about to land in the ocean; just as the fish's face lights up, it is snatched up by a bird--not just a bird, but a ratbird, a feckless creation of the hero some time before--and Life has delivered one of its inevitable boomerangs. Maybe I am a cruel or cynical person, but I thought that was really funny.

And the film has real, warm and believable sentiment between the gags, especially as represented by the character of Flint's father, voiced by James Caan. The design of the character (see illustration) is original, yet behind the stylization we recognize a reality, which is also true for the writing of the character, a man who loves his son just as he is bewildered by him. (And isn't that true of most of us parents?) The design is far simpler and sunnier than that of 9, yet it isn't insulting. I was struck with the contrast in the palette between the grayness of the town when it was engaged in sardine fishery and its transformation when the food-weather begins.

One film driven by a vision, one driven by its own awareness of its audience; both worthy, but, paradoxically in this case, the crowd-pleaser really does please.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Proto noir

I am afraid that film buffs like me are the reason that moody little romantic melodramas like Moontide (1942) are being marketed as "film noir" although they don't fit that label historically nor thematically, especially since it arrives two years before Double Indemnity, when the form really announced and defined itself.

But as much of noir buff as I am, I sought Moontide out because of a new interest in Ida Lupino and an abiding affection for the work of Jean Gabin, who to me incorporates the tough and tender combination of Spencer Tracy and Humphrey Bogart, plus a foreshadowing of Belmondo and an ineffable something of his own. Gabin was one of the few actors who looked the men he played, men who worked with their hands for a living and were given to violence, yet had some poetry in their souls--a man both men and women felt drawn to.

Whereas film noir's subject matter comes from the American hard-boiled detective genre as exemplified by Hammett and Chandler, and which in turn is derived from Hemingway; Moontide seems to connect to early realists like Zola, Gorky or Norris.

Ways in which Moontide resembles film noir:
  • Extraordinary Oscar-nominated low-key photography credited to Charles G. Clarke (who has no noir credits) with, reportedly, an uncredited assist by Lucien Ballard, who worked on The Lodger, Laura and The Killing to name just a few in a longer and more distinguished career than Clarke's;
  • Low-down, waterfront atmosphere with much night and fog;
  • Crime-haunted characters;
  • A protagonist given to drinking, violence and black-outs, yet a poetic sensibility, too;
  • The hero makes a terrible error in judgment with dire consequences (i.e., leaving his bride alone on their wedding night to be attacked by...)
  • A treacherous friend who betrays the hero; and
  • A hard-boiled heroine, probably once a "working girl"
Ways in which Moontide differs from film noir:
  • Although supposedly set in San Pedro, lacks a clear American flavor, being completely studio-bound, with a quasi-European never-never land feeling;
  • Lack of an urban setting--this is not fatal, as in Out of the Past, but it detracts from a real noir flavor.
  • No sense of the past coming back to rule the lives of the characters,, in fact little reflection of the effect of time on the character's lives;
  • Little hard-boiled quality at all (other than Ida Lupino's persona), only one crime, and that either of passion or inadvertence, no police, no detectives;
  • Little sense of fatality flowing from the hero's mistakes or flaws, and the hero is never a fall guy, despite his friend Tiny's efforts to make him one;
  • No femme fatale--sexuality generally kept on a low burner;
  • Little sense of concealment of forbidden thoughts or actions;
  • the inconclusiveness and weak humor of Claude Rains' character, who seems to be an observer, but makes no interesting observations;
  • Other than Lupino, few noir-style actors; much as I love Thomas Mitchell, his earnestness is wrong for noir and he is miscast in this role; and
  • a hopeful, positive ending
Nonetheless, for noir fans, there's a lot to enjoy, and frankly the combination of Gabin, Lupino, Rains and Mitchell should be enough to attract a real film enthusiast, but don't come expecting full-blown noir, but hints and inclinations in that directino.


Jonathan Mostow is a decent 2nd-tier maker of potboilers including U-571 and Terminator 3 (both featuring technology and in the latter, killer robots), and so was perhaps just the right person to make Surrogates (2009), a sub-Avatar meditation on the idea of virtual identities in the wired world. I am surprised I have seen so little comment on Cameron's use of the term "avatar" which on the internet means a handle for a self-constructed profile, which may or may not be accurate; in any case, your "avatar" is your virtual face.

Surrogates pursues this idea more directly (Avatar has other ecological fish to fry), and to its credit, avoids the term "robot," since a robot, properly speaking, is at least partially autonomous, whereas these machines are carrying out the operator's will from moment-to-moment. These surrogates are much more literally avatars, the public face of an individual. I admire Bruce Willis's good humor about himself, given that his surrogate sports a head of hair the likes of which have not been seen on his scalp since before Moonlighting. The actors' images are otherwise digitally airbrushed and, it appears, their performances are "smoothed out" -- micro-expressions and tiny shifts of weight removed to make them look more mechanical. The idea is that this would be the way we would present ourselves to the world.

An autobiographical note. For about 20 years I was a transactional attorney, negotiating contracts in the entertainment and communications field. After a few years of fumbling, I good to be pretty good at it. One of the "tricks" for which I was noted was that I liked to see people face-to-face; both the people in my company whose position I was representing and the people on the other side of the table. There is an incredible amount communicated through face, tilt of the head, body language, hands and even tiny vocal inflections not adequately communicated on a phone line. Even today I think I would prefer an in-person meeting to the best video conference. It's one of the things that makes live theater unique, even after its story-telling methods have been co-opted by film and television. There is literally nothing like being in the same room with a real person.

Surrogates is about a society that has elected to forego that experience, to substitute a simulation; the metaphor for a life lived through Facebook, Twitter and blog comments is unmistakeable. It doesn't have a lot to say about it: the film starts as a sort-of bent detective film, and the starts to morph into something like Unbreakable, unsurprising, given the movie's graphic novel origins. Sadly, the solution to the story is exactly what you expected, and features lines such as, "My son will not have died in vain" and "It all ends here." [Personal note again-- I have not been as prolific a writer as I would have hoped, and one of the reasons has to be the paralyzing fear that I will write a line like "It all ends here." Should I do so, I think I would have to close my laptop lid forever.]

But the movie does have the saving virtue of a brisk 90-minute running time, and Mr. Mostow and his associates can be proud that their reach has not exceeded their modest grasp.

Thursday, March 25, 2010


Drama is character and character is choices, and hard choices make good drama. I can't get enough of European films about the Second World War, probably because there was little separation between scenes of armed conflict and the home front. It was All-War All-The-Time; a war fought every waking moment by every occupant of the continent. And the wide swath of Nazi occupation made for difficult, really impossible choices for nearly every adult, the kinds of choices Americans have rarely been confronted with, and which would paralyze many with a Manichean view of the world.

The title of Bertrand Tavernier's Safe Conduct (2002) is better in the original French: Laissez-Passer, "let pass." What will you let pass? Arguably a companion piece to Truffaut's Last Metro, its filmmaker-heros try to maintain personal and artistic integrity working for a German-owned film company operating in occupied France. Whereas in The Last Metro, all of the heroine's choices proceed from her fateful choice to marry a Jew, here our two heros, a screenwriter and an assistant director must constantly slalom through the obstacle course set by their German masters as they maintain their own integrity and loyalty.

From a film history perspective, these men and women are engaged in making the polite middle-brow "Cinema of Quality" against which the French New Wave violently rebelled in the late 1950s and early 1960s. For most Americans, the going will be a bit thick with names and film titles tossed around which will have little or no recognition. When they express regret for the death of Harry Baur, it means so much more if one has seen something of Baur's marvelous work. I would certainly recommend one see Le Corbusier either before or after seeing Safe Conduct in order to view the one certifiable masterpiece produced by Continental Films during the Occupation.

It is easy to condemn these men after the fact as collaborationists, but to do so you must honestly assess what you yourself would do under the circumstances. And they still take tremendous risks, in one case biking hundreds of miles and parachuting into Allied territory to deliver intelligence to the British, who throw their doubts about the informer's honesty in his face. They dodge long-term commitments, resist propaganda and try to live honestly and decently in a deceitful and indecent environment. Safe Passage is a demanding, but fast-moving and thoroughly absorbing and humane document.

Watching copyright movies online free and legal

Let us state at the outset that the best way to see a film is in a theater, with other people, in the dark, with the best available projectors and sound system. That experience is still irreplaceable, which is being proven all over again with the 3D boom.

My next choice is to watch on a good large-scale monitor, which I treated myself to this past holiday season with a decent home sound system. I confess it, I'm a (late) baby-boomer, and I still like my entertainment to be "sit back" rather than "lean forward." I am more relaxed and patient in my cozy family room than I am in my home office, where I tend to work on my computer (although I do have a wireless modem).

But for many, and particularly many students, the best, or at least most convenient option is to watch films on a computer monitor, usually a laptop. Obviously, there are a lot of ways and places to watch movies online. Personally, as a teacher and a former copyright advocate I would never go near a torrent site, both for ethical reasons and because law enforcement types lurk there. But there are plenty of legitimate places to see feature films online, if that's your best available option.

First, every serious film student should know about The Internet Archive, which is a collective project to preserve the entire contents of the internet specifically and of the public domain generally. This includes books, audio programming, visual materials, everything that can be stored on a computer, including motion pictures.

Public domain films are a mixed bag, because they've generally become public domain through becoming old and/or neglected. Their materials are often in bad shape. But there are a large handful of genuine classics in the public domain, including His Girl Friday, The 39 Steps, My Man Godfrey and Night of the Living Dead, not to mention international classics such as M and Grand Illusion. But the Internet Archive has LOTS of films others than commercial features, including old educational and industrial films, home movies, commercials and mash-ups of the foregoing. And if you find something you like, it's very easy to download onto your computer or handheld device.

Even better, there are legitimate and legal places to see excellent copyright films on line, including serious classics. One is Crackle, which is evidently programmed by Sony Entertainment, parent of Columbia Studios. There's a lot of television and other ephemera, but just focusing on the complete feature films to be found here, there's All The King's Men, Bram Stoker's Dracula, Cat Ballou, Dr. Strangelove, Drunken Master, Fat City, Five Easy Pieces, Ghostbusters, Holiday, Hope and Glory, La Femme Nikita, Lady From Shanghai, The Last Detail, Living In Oblivion, The Mouse That Roared, My Best Friend's Wedding, Roxanne, Rudy, Stripes, Underworld U.S.A., Wild Things, and The Wrong Box. Some fun trash there too, including some Matt Helm, Kung Fu and Three Stooges movies.

The Online Video Guide is an index or pointer to a number of sites which permit the viewing of features (and a lot of other material) on line, including Hulu, Joost and Fancast. The legal status of a number of these is a bit gray, but if we are going to be practical, the risks belong to the websites, and if material is improperly posted, the chances are it will be taken down upon notice, under the provisions of the Digital Millenium Copyright Act.

I urge my readers: don't just seek out the recent hits. That's like trying to live on a diet of ice cream and Twizzlers. The Internet is a buffet, so don't fill up on the first thing you see! Try some new things--you might even like them.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Because they can

2012 (2009) is to filmmaking what Demolition Derby is to actual auto racing. It's just a lot of stuff blowing up and falling down and it's a lot of fun and it doesn't improve your mind or your soul or teach you anything about anything, no not one little bit.

It's common to trace disaster porn back to The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and the disaster films that trailed it in the 1970s. But really the impulse goes back farther, at least to the early 50s, when we were being regularly attacked by Martians in walking cylinders or grouchy awakened dinosaurs or giant ants or indefinable blobs. Whether it was the end of World War II or the beginning of the Cold War, but we sensed pretty well that the jig was up, and that security was purely an illusion. And back then, if the producers could have convincing blown up the whole world, they would have done it. (They did so, albeit offscreen in Kiss Me Deadly and Dr. Strangelove).

But now we can really show it--at least well enough to convince our 2009-10 eyes, although who knows how primitive and hokey this film will look in 10 years. (One of my problems with both African Queen and The Birds is that their unconvincing effects made the entire premises of the films hard to swallow).

There was a lot of talk when the film was released last fall that it had something to do with Mayan predictions of disaster, and there was a lot of talk about what we're doing wrong. But this isn't one of those If Only We Had Listened To The Scientists In Time movies. The whole reason the Earth is imploding is tossed off in a couple of minutes and doesn't seem to be important to anyone except one schmuck Indian scientist who gets wiped out in a tsunami. So there.

The final proof that the film is after nothing but cheap thrills is the heavy reliance on wellworn story tropes. Seriously--a character says, "There's something coming between us" and a giant chasm opens up between them. As they say on SNL, "Really?" In fact this page at TV lists literally dozens of hackneyed story tropes that 2012 employs with downright glee and complete contempt for concepts of originality and insight into the human condition.

In the words of Big Jim McBob and Billy Sol Hurok, "They blowed up real good."


I can't say The African Queen (1951) is a film that's close to my heart. It's very good, but it's never been a go-to Sunday afternoon movie for me. I detect a chilliness to all of John Huston's work, a detachment and skeptical irony that make his films admirable but not loveable. But a lot of people love this movie and they will be very happy that it is finally available on DVD and Blu-ray. I really liked this mini-documentary on the restoration, which highlights a lot of the important issues in film restoration as a whole:

Magic powers

My first thought on seeing Tim Burton's new interpretation of Alice in Wonderland (2010) is that although the Disney company was not integrally involved, (as far as they know the project was largely developed by Joe Roth, who has a production deal at Disney, but is not an employee) it achieves one of Walt Disney's personal goals: to seamlessly integrate animation and live action. Here the animation is 3D (that is, the figures are modeled by computer rather than drawn--the 3D exhibition is a separate issue), and the blending of live-action performance skills with traditional animation performance and movement skills seems absolutely complete. In some cases, such as Helena Bonham-Carter's Red Queen, the actress herself has been turned into a partial cartoon, recognizable yet distorted (reminiscent of what Disney animators did with Ed Wynn's appearance in their version of the Mad Hatter in the 1951 film.)

I can hardly fault Roth and Burton for concocting an actual plot to guide the film. Carroll's books neither had nor needed plot. They are odd improvisations in nonsense and veiled satire, never meant to be anything other than an intriguing diversion. It is hardly novel to note that while dramatic structure is virtually a necessity in works which unfold over time (theater, films, music) it is not a sine qua non for the printed word. The hinge seems to have been a look at Tenniel's illustration of "Jabberwocky." While Carroll's poem refers to an unnamed, but male hero, the film's creators could have looked at this view and said, "Why couldn't this be a teen-aged Alice?" (Note "Joan of Arc" imagery in the illustration at top.)

Not surprisingly, what they came up with is a coming-of-age story, and a female empowerment one as well. Again, the purists are upset that Burton's Alice is a 19-year-old who knows a few things and is unwilling to accept arbitrary authority. Personally, I found it refreshing. Carroll's Alice is a tedious little literalist, constantly battling the enchanting nonsense all around her (in exactly the way a 6 or 7 year-old would), which pits her against what little narrative thrust the stories have. At least in "Looking Glass" she has a clear goal of trying to find her way back (and trying to find out what "Jabberwocky" means).

The motor underlying Alice's quest journey in the Burton film is an understanding of the use and misuse of power. The Red Queen (who is an amalgam of Carroll's Red Queen and Queen of Hearts) attempts to use power arbitrarily and cruelly. The Mad Hatter has abdicated his; the Dormouse acts as if he can wield power when he has none; the list goes on. Finally, the Jabberwocky derives most of its power from the fear of those observing it. Alice conquers that, and she conquers the fear of being different or disruptive in her own buttoned-up Victorian era. Yes, the conclusion is improbable, but consistent and satisfying.

The 3D projection resembles Viewmaster. It is fun, but I suspect the film's imagery is perfectly enjoyable "flat" which could not be said for Avatar, which was clearly conceived to be be immersive.

A quibble: I enjoyed the Mad Hatter's silly dance of victory, but did it have to be done to a contemporary beat track, which nails the film down to a particular time? Foolish mistake.

An appreciation: The frabjous day and the frumious bandersnatch (which figure prominently in the film) have been rescued from semi-obscurity. The mome raths outgrabe!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Passion is better with talent and hard work

Moon (2009) was overlooked here in the States, but it won Best Film at the British Independent Film Awards. This may have been for the feat of creating a convincing sci-fi film for what is reportedly less than the equivalent of $5 million US. And that is with 400 special effects shots, including substantial CGI, much of which is undetectable (I cannot say the same for the lunar surface model shots, which are substandard). Those CGI shots are essential for the central premise of the story, and they are greatly aided by the fine work of Sam Rockwell. (That premise is hinted at by the illustration I selected.)

While for many people the takeaway of Moon seems to be that you can do good science fiction on a low budget, they are missing the point. Science fiction has always been about the present. I'm not much worried about what my life would be like if I was mining helium on the moon. But I am concerned about what my work life takes away from me, and that is especially true if I work for a large, faceless, multinational corporation. They have no compunction about taking from us everything that makes us ourselves. And that is the dilemma of Sam Bell, the protagonist of this film. He has become a pale photocopy of himself, his integrity literally collapsing. I mean, literally. There is a loneliness, a melancholy to this film which reminds me of the feeling I got from a number of bad jobs I've had--just wondering when the day or the job itself will be over and when I'll be able to spend my time with decent, worthwhile human beings again.

I should add that the film ends with a small, but poetically right and satisfying triumph, so the melancholy does not linger to the end, and a ray of hope is offered.

Obviously, a film like this is a passion project, as was the super-lowbudget indie Moonlight Serenade (2009), but here is the proof that passion is not enough. This film mirrors my personal experience in ultra lowbudget film: the project was premised on a genre of music--that music was well represented and well-produced, and everything surrounding it was either amateurish or shabby. (This may explain why the film has been on the shelf since being shot in 2006.) Amy Adams sings better than I thought, and her co-star Alec Newman is acceptable, although given his complete lack of box office appeal, I wonder they didn't go to New York and select from any one of dozens of handsome young men who sing far better and may even have been able to do their own piano playing.

It's not a terrible idea to bring together two young lovers over a common love of the Great American Songbook. (That may be my own bias, as I fell in love with that repertoire in my college years, and it is a passion my wife shares.) But you still need a story. And the one here is thin, thin, thin. Burned-out Wall Street yuppie maintains his sanity playing the Old Tunes, meets up with aspiring singer who needs accompanist--brief fight--final reconciliation. And that's literally all there is. Oh, the wonderful Harriet Harris seems to want to be Alec Newman's mother instead of his assistant (and how insulting is it that a bright, hardworking mature woman like Harris has to be assistant to a fledgling).

Speaking of thin, the sets appear to be made of cardboard and the impression is compounded by the DP's penchant for hyper-short lenses on very cheap video, yielding a distorted and smeared image.

The music, on the other hand, is virtually over-produced and plentiful, although, unfortunately, not continuous, else it would have drowned the super-pedestrian dialogue. (This is the kind of movie that, after the hero plays very well, has to have a scene where his friend the professional musician tells him he played very well. Nothing else happens in this scene--nothing.) The voices are rendered in a hyper-artificial echo, which is jarring in the scenes taking place in ordinary environments, such as apartments and sidewalks. They did take the risk of including non-diagetic songs, that is, songs that are not taking place in the real world, but in the fanciful universe of musicals in which people sing anywhere, anytime.

That incidentally, is the only explanation for Harriet Harris's participation, as she gets to sing "Lover Man, Where Can You Be?" while roaming around the cheap office set (which looks as though it might be an actual cheap office). I did not check the chapter stops on the DVD, but I would recommend simply jumping from song to song and skipping everything else. It's not like you have to see the entire film because you're interested in the writer-director's future. He has none.

Political action as art

It's my intention that this blog be reflective, not review-oriented, but I have to say flat out: The Cove was the best movie I've seen released in 2009, regardless of category. Yes, it won awards as a documentary, and yes it is perceived as political, since its intention is to challenge an existing power structure.

But it is a terrific action film, a suspense film, a spy film, a paranoid thriller, like The Parallax View or Enemy of the State. And it's a compelling statement of the power of film and, in an era when we are able to fabricate entire universes, film's capacity to reveal the unadorned truth. And the power of that unadorned truth to change the world. I can't express how much we need that now.

Simply put, these men and women set out to write a wrong--the mass slaughter of dolphins by a small community of fishermen in a remote town in Japan. Instead of organizing protests and letter-writing campaigns or lobbying politicians (all of which have been tried), they formed a virtual Impossible Mission force to infiltrate the forbidden area and plant cameras disguised in man-made rocks created by what used by the model-making division of Industrial Light and Magic. They even brought (unlawful) infrared and heat-seeking camera equipment to record what they'd done (see illustration). The trials they go through to plant these cameras are the most nail-bitingly exciting cinema seen in years.

And astonishingly, the cameras which had to be placed somewhat blindly and left to see what they would record, picked up both beautiful and awful images. The shot of sunrise on the cove, with artfully arranged figures in the foreground of the breathtaking scenery and a touch of smoke at the side looks like something arranged by John Ford. Then the slaughter follows, and it outranks any horror sequence seen in many years.

The fact that the film tells its story so briskly and efficiently via brilliant editing by Geoffrey Fishman, that it has stunning original cinematography and a very effective music score is just icing on the cake. Not since The Battle of Algiers (which was not a documentary) has there been such an effective political film. It is a testament to the faith of its makers in film and in the ability of others to recognize justice (and its absence).

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Wasted on the young

I don't know if you've noticed, but children are not idiots. Not all of them, anyway. And you can speak to them as if they're going to be adults someday and be rewarded for the effort. The makers of I Capture The Castle (2003) have done so, and while they haven't been showered with Shrek-type riches, I suspect their work will be looked at respect and affection for a long time.

This would follow suit for the book Castle is based on, which is evidently a Young Adult favorite in Britain. It's a blend of coming-of-age story with eccentric-family story. And there is an interesting dichotomy between the beauty of the film's images and the messiness of the relationships in it. Nothing quite works out as you expect and that is quite admirable.

The story is told by the aptly-named Cassandra, a very smart 17-year-old girl bubbling at the frontier of love and longing, but still able to view her disintegrating family with an unbiased eye. Father is both genius and failure, stepmother both muse and betrayer, sister both princess and harlot. The charming Americans who turn up as neighbors and landlords are both saviors and destroyers.

Children's literature (and the films based on it) isn't supposed to be like that. We should be able to tell good from bad, fair from foul. The castle is charming and magnificent on the outside and completely barren and crumbling inside, like the family itself, like the promises of the adult world. Leave it to a British film to make muddling-through into a virtue--but muddling without compromising yourself. Write for passion, marry for love, work for life.

One cannot pass on this film without noting the high proportion of young actors whose careers continued to blossom after this film. Cassandra is played by Romola Garai, from New Moon and Emma on Masterpiece Classics; her sister is played by Rose Byrne of Damages; Henry Cavill, seen in Whatever Works; Marc Blucas, previously known from the TV version of Buffy, and who is even busier today. One suspects that director Tim Fywell, who was in his mid-50s when he made the film, was in touch with his inner teen.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Wild ride

If I tell you: "low budget indie, character study, brilliant lead performance by Tilda Swinton" you probably think you know what I'm talking about. Slow-paced, serious, probably with Swinton in deep historical drag, playing a Very Solemn and Important Person. Wrong.

Julia (2008) is a truly wild ride through the head of someone with a lot of screws loose (loosened mostly by alcohol). The kind of person who has never been able to keep a job, yet thinks if she can just pull off a successful child kidnapping, her life will be all straightened out. This is a character study wrapped in a loopy action film, with lots of unexpected turns and surprises along the way. (I hesitate to use the word twist, because a "twist" is usually convenient for the screenwriter, the characters or both. Nothing in this movie is convenient.)

The film was shot quick and dirty, probably on video and runs over two hours. Long films are long usually because (a) the story has to be that long, (b) the pace is slow, and/or (c) nobody could figure out what to get rid of. Julia is sloppy, but it is neither slow nor repetitive. It keeps going, even after you think you can't continue this trip any more with this lunatic. (This is the kind of movie with lots of scenes where people with guns scream at each other for prolonged periods of time.)

And yet, and yet...She grows, she changes, she learns. Not in the cliched way of a focus-grouped studio picture, but in the crucible of terrible experience, loss and disappointment. She figures out--at least a little bit--what's important, moves from narcissism to genuine caring for another person, and your gratitude for witnessing that journey justifies the length of the trip.

Incidentally, Swinton's Yank accent is absolutely flawless except for the word "medicine," which she pronounces in two syllables, Brit-style. I can't fault the French director, Erick Zonka, for not catching it, but it's a shame to break the illusion for even a second. And it's nice to see the oft-used but seldom-featured Saul Rubinek in a more rewarding role this time.

Some writers complain that we don't know where Julia's demons come from--how did she become a self-loathing drunk? Clearly, they are looking for a "rubber duck." My wife, the drive-by therapist figured this out years ago: It's all your mother's fault. There--analysis done. Hand me the popcorn.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Bumps in the night

Don't trust those wacko kids who are good at music. It was true for The Bad Seed in 1956 and it's true for Orphan (2009) today. Young piano virtuosos are probably psycho killers.

We know the filmmakers meant to make something of substance, by casting Vera Famiga, Peter Saarsgard and CC Pounder. I'm not saying they thought they were making Last Year at Marienbad, but they probably intended a quality entertainment product, like the starrily-cast Omen, another predecessor to this film in the "evil kid" genre (which has degenerated into the Chucky films). And there is a very nice story twist which not only surprises, but it bends the genre and even suggests that the film would justify a second viewing.

Until that twist, however, the film is paint-by-numbers evil kid; after the twist, it goes into all-out action, so in a way, the film is never really completely itself. To keep it alive during the first hour, while it is purely character driven, there are a number of phony-suspense "jump" scares which mean nothing but are there evidently to remind the folks that it is a horror movie, and not a Lifetime story of a troubled adoption.

Personal complaint: The family is supposed to be intelligent, sensitive, articulate. The mom composes music and evidently once taught music at Yale. So how come there is not one picture, not one book not one magazine in the whole house (except the children's rooms)? What is it with these bully production designers that they put us in these dark sterile houses where no one lives, or at least thinks?

While Orphan is that rarest of things these days, a film actually produced by a major distributor/studio (Warner), Paranormal Activity (2007) is far more typical: a rock-bottom budgeted independent which was eventually picked up by a major (Paramount). The parallels with Blair Witch are too obvious to spend time and space on. The brief: weird unexplained stuff being captured on substandard equipment, to help make it spookier.

Where Blair Witch had some spooky woods for the kids to get lost in, and different agendas for the various characters, Paranormal gives us a dull suburban house and a dull couple given to small-change bickering from time to time. I was astonished to see a script credit, so dull is the chatter that this tiresome pair mouths throughout. They literally talk about nothing except the spooky doings--they don't even argue about breakfast cereal or cleaning the bathroom. Clearly they are not actual characters, but placeholders created by the filmmakers in order to be spooked.

And how are they and we to be spooked? Well, they lie in a dark bedroom at night and a couple of underpaid (or unpaid) production assistants kick over some boxes downstairs. Yup. That's it. There's some noise downstairs at night. Hell, I didn't hear as much noise downstairs in this movie as I do when my heavy-footed cat is stomping around in the middle of the night. There is literally one scare in the movie--when it is nearly over--and the Interwebs report that it was thought up by Steven Spielberg. I'm amazed he had the time to sit through this boring turkey.

This is exactly the kind of independent movie that would have been improved by MORE studio interference.

Monday, March 15, 2010

The landscape of funny

Couples Retreat (2009) and Big Fan (2009) demonstrate the extreme poles of film comedy production in the US at this time, in budget, aims and results.

Couples Retreat is a full-on studio production with recognized stars, at least within the comedy feature film world, presumably a budget healthy enough for expensive location work, moderately expensive guest stars and an undoubtedly overpriced script by Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau, who once made a good film called Swingers, back during the Clinton administration. Have you seen Clinton lately? Couples Retreat is just as bloated and insincere. And worst sin of all, nothing funny whatsoever is said or done in this movie. We've seen couples squabble in movies, and it can be funny. Yes, it needs to be grounded in reality, but there's a touch of hyperbole--some form of overstatement or rigidity in the characters that makes for humor. But these characters say and do exactly what ordinary people would say and do, and it is like reality TV without the preening and the sudden outbreaks of bad taste. Occasionally the film will begin jokes, but not actually deliver them. A "yoga" instructor keeps rubbing his crotch against the wives' crotches to the consternation of the film, and then--get this--then--you'll never believe it--nothing happens. Oh, the men bitch a bit.

Truly, the film is vaguely shaped as if they'd intended to make a comedy to start out, but there is literally no comic element in the story, characters or dialogue. I would like Vaughn and Favreau to host a screening with a talkback and challenge them to stop the film and point out where the funny bits were. Polanski's Macbeth had bigger laughs.

Big Fan is also not funny, but it is a successful comedy nonetheless. It is a very small film, very independent, shot on scruffy video, written and directed by former Onion editor Rob Siegel, who also wrote The Wrestler. Both films reflect the sterility of displacing one's passions into a repetitive and exterior pursuit like professional sports. Paul (Oswalt's character) puts everything into loving the NY Giants and receives almost nothing in return, other than the approbation of a call-in radio host and Paul's one friend. The truly curious thing about the story, is that the first part of it, which concerns the film's "hook", in which Paul is beaten to a pulp by the player he idolizes, and chooses to do nothing about it, doesn't pay off or really relate to the second half of the story, in which Paul seeks out his nemesis, Philadelphia Pete, rabid Eagles fan, who spars with Paul on the call-in radio show.

Clearly, Siegel is not after satire. The film begins like a Jason Reitman film, based around a stubborn contrarian. If it was a studio film, Paul would meet a girl who awake him to the limitations of his life, and finally (think Fever Pitch with Jimmy Fallon), he would let go of his rabid fandom a little bit and become a "more rounded" person.

Siegel and Oswalt aren't having any. Paul's life is small--rattling between a menial job and late-night radio glory--but it works for him and he doesn't need any more than that and doesn't want any more than that. The proof: At his worst, Paul takes immense joy in reviewing the Giant's upcoming season, still more than six months away. It is enough.

One other note--the film is quite accurate visually in that it shows just how dark things are in the greater New York area (the film is set in Staten Island) during a long, hard winter. [A polar opposite to the sun-drenched, yet spiritually parched Couples Retreat.] The Giants might just be the thing to get you through. In any case, I'm so glad the suits and the focus groups never got their hands on this melancholy gem.

Saturday, March 13, 2010


Perhaps one of the main differences between artist and entertainer is trust of the audience. An entertainer is like a sweaty politician. He's desperate to make certain he is getting through all the time. You cannot be trusted to go off on your own, make your own conclusions, think for yourself. You must be constantly guided, monitored, manipulated. You must be kept subordinate to the entertainer. He will not risk mutiny.

An artist is willing to approach you as an equal. Engage your interest and maintain however they might, you will be allowed to walk around the subject, think for yourself, connect the dots yourself. Paradoxically, when the mind is engaged, the heart may be more truly engaged. Yes, an entertainment can give you a rush of emotions, but it is only a rush. An artist wants to engage your emotions to touch your soul.

I am not certain if The Hurt Locker (2008) was the best film in theaters last year. But it is a work that trusts its audience. It risks boredom, confusion and disorientation--not in the smarmy superior way that a Godard or an Antonioni film does, patronizing the bourgeois audience as if to say, "Oh, so you're the sort that wants coherent narrative." Hurt Locker seems intent on reproducing the experience of its own characters, the grinding repetitiveness coupled with insanely volatile danger. Both handheld and zoom lens camera techniques limit one's perspective--it is hard to tell what is going on where--just as it is for the participants.

The film trusts you to follow the main character's journey, which becomes an obsession that moves in inexplicable directions; trusts you not to worry over the details of bomb-defusing (Specifically, the film just omits the scene that would be obligatory in any commercial entertainment in which the bomb expert explains what order the wires have to be cut in and the various types of switches used, etc., etc.); it is enough that Sgt. James caresses these bits of plastic and wire with an odd devotion; trusts you enough to avoid tediously explaining its title (Reportedly, the title was not even explained to the actors involved). Life is inexplicable and unexplained, and see--look at this--isn't this captivating? How could an explanation make that better? And best of all, there is no discussion of the politics--remarkable for a film written by the man credited with the story for In The Valley of Elah. But the politics are easily implied from the sheer weight of repetition and the lack of progress from one bomb scene to the next. If you can't read what that means, you're not going to get much of anything from the film.

One cheesy aspect unworthy of the film is the casting trick in which every famous actor who turns up--Guy Pearce, Ralph Fiennes and David Morse--dies in fairly short order in the film. This is a corollary to the Charlie Chan rule of casting in B movies and network detective shows: The Best Known Guest Star Is Always The Perpetrator. One knows walking in that one is not coming to see a Guy Pearce movie, so it is a reasonable expectation that the only reason he is here is to get blown up. Sorry guys, Hitchcock played the ultimate game with audience expectations about stars with Janet Leigh in Psycho and we are never going to fall for that again.

Otherwise, I enjoyed being treated like a grown-up. Pretty rare for American film today.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Saigon on the Rio Grande

Although my Dad was a Navy man and not a big John Wayne fan, he loved those old John Ford cavalry Westerns. There was an element of wonderful rich fantasy of men living and working together when men and officers would mount up together and we would hear the stout male chorus, which may have been meant to literally be the voices of the men we're seeing ride (usually in backlighting to put them in strong relief), or it may be their spiritual voices singing the joy of this life of shared service and sacrifice. I liked the fantasy, too, and I think it is a tragedy of my generation that we were not compelled to experience that life.

I guess Sam Peckinpah resented the fantasy, because in Major Dundee (1965), he set out to expose it as a hollow fraud. Or maybe he just figured that story had been told and that there were other stories to tell. Dundee feels like a sour fantasia on Fort Apache, both films featuring martinet renegade commanders dealing with threatened Indian attack. Dundee begins with a massacre scene that at the time may have seemed out of The Searchers, but in a few years would seem like an echo of My Lai.

OK, so we're launched into a story of the search for three missing children. Except that the mission led by super-straight, squared jawed Moses Heston as Dundee requires the participation of a disaffected Confederate war prisoner (the Civil War is still going on) played by heavily-mascaraed-Piccadilly-Circus-fop Richard Harris. Then the Indians give back the kids but the Major decides to pursue revenge anyway, pushing into Mexico. Then the Major gets hurt and goes on a bender and has to be retrieved by the potentially disloyal Confederate officer. They handily beat the Indians, but nearly get their butts kicked by the French Foreign Legion, whom they had foolishly crossed earlier in the story. The film has so many story lines (I left out a few, including a half-hearted romance), that it feels like an anthology.

Everyone who writes about the film notes that it is a mess. Some say this may merely have been a reflection of the conditions under which it was produced. But it seems strongly possible that the mess was built into the very conception of the project.

What holds the film together is the disintegration of Dundee's character. And by Dundee's character, I mean both that he loses his grip on reality and therefore on his own identity, AND that he demonstrates less and less good character, with regard to simple human decency (made all the more remarkable because it's happening to good old Charlton Hur). By the end of the film, the mission has lost its mission and plunges ahead without any clear definition of victory or even how to get out. In 1965, none of this was evident in Indochina. Escalation was the watchword, and stalemate would not appear inevitable for another three years.

Prescience or coincidence? On such coincidences, artistic reputations are made.

Fixing Kane

TO: Orson Welles
FROM: George Schaefer, President of RKO Pictures
CC: A. Billingsley, Contracts Dept.

We have just received the results of the test screening and focus group panels and we have a few suggestions that we think will help this very fine film reach the large audience it deserves.

We got a lot of comments on the lighting. Everything seems to be completely dark or completely light. I think the boys in the printing department could take another pass at an answer print and see if we can't smooth all that out.

The beginning is completely confusing. Several of the responders told us they thought they'd wandered into a horror picture with that big spooky castle. Also, the music is kind of downbeat. Maybe you could ask Benny Herrmann to put something peppy in there to sort of counter-balance the gloom and doom.

Big story mistake--you introduce your main character with just his lips, then he dies and you never see him and you never who he is. Actually, the continuity boys tell me that we don't get a good clear look at our main character until about 20 minutes in. I know there's all that newsreel stuff, but with all the make-ups and everything--well, you know, most of our audience only knows you from the radio. They don't know what you look like. Maybe we should look for a chance to show 'em your big beautiful pan right up front.

Then we jump to the newsreel without a speck of explanation. By the time that's over (and by the way, some of that footage likes kind of scratchy--can we do something about that?), we're about 12 minutes into the picture and nobody has any idea what's going on yet. Why not have your Mercury boys run in for half a day and shoot a couple of lines to go before the newsreel--something like, "Is the Charles Foster Kane newsreel piece ready yet?" "Sure, boss!" "Let's have a look." I know I'm no Herman Mankiewicz. You boys can punch up the dialogue. But give the scene a little set-up, a little context, see what I mean?

Then you set your character Thompson off on his quest. A lot of people wondered why you kept hiding his face. I thought maybe you didn't want to embarrass your old friend Bill Alland, as he is no Victor Mature, looks-wise. I know you probably will reject this at first, but I want you to think it over seriously. We have some very good young leading men under contract here--Robert Ryan, Robert Mitchum, some others--who might be very good for your reporter character. I think we could probably shoot some cut-ins and loop in the new actor's voice, and then you'd have a real leading man instead of this character lurking in the shadow. (Also, can you make him look less Jewish?)

From there on, the picture gets more and more bewildering. There's a whole lot of people telling all kinds of stories, including some people who tell things they couldn't possibly know, and it all whirls by. This guy has money, he gets married--we never even see that love story, Orson, how could you skip a whole love story--then he's middle aged, then he's old, then he's middle-aged again and he's broke and he's still rich and who the hell knows or cares, because he's kind of a creep except that sometimes he's a nice guy.

Was there something wrong with the camera tripods? All the shots seemed to be from down low, close to the ground. Gregg Toland should have had the camera boys fix that. Also some of the takes go on a real long time. We should go pick up some reverse angles to break things up a bit and have Bob Wise cut those in. That would help with all those scenes where everyone is talking at the same time.

All of the above is well and good, but Orson, here's where we have our big problem. This fellow's just not sympathetic. We don't like him, and we're never given a reason to like him except that he's played by a cute guy named Orson Welles. Have Herman write something sympathetic--we never see how he felt when his Mom died. Maybe he could bust out in the arms of Susan. Or when he lost his wife and kid. For heaven's sake--he loses his son and namesake and we never see a thing from him. The only time I warmed up to the buzzard was when he busted up his girlfriend's boudoir.

Igrant you, Orson, this picture may be called a classic someday, but right now we have to get butts into seats. So I hope you'll give these ideas your best consideration and see what we can't do to have an old-fashioned hit.

P.S. What the hell is Joe Cotten doing in the screening room scene?

TO: George Schaefer
FROM: A. Billingsley, Contract Dept.


Did you forget you gave Orson final cut on this picture?

TO: A. Billingsley, Contract Dept.
FROM: George Schaefer


Monday, March 8, 2010

First as tragedy, then as farce

Admittedly, it's an impossible question for a person like me who views, on average about 200 movies per year, but people (students especially) ask nonetheless, "What's your favorite movie?"

The questioner should understand that she is not asking, "What do you think is the best movie--worthiest movie--most artful movie..." Presumably the question invites discussion of a guilty pleasure. And the fact is, I cling to my bosom a lot of movies that are not very good as movies. The W.C. Fields vehicle It's A Gift is virtually a working manual of crudeness of technique. The Producers barely makes any sense and the last ten minutes or so of the film completely collapse. There's scarcely a musical made that really holds up under serious scrutiny, so they're all out, as are Jackie Chan films.

So perhaps my choice is a bit weasel-y, because it is an Official Recognized Classic. But once one considers the complete and utter destruction of human life due to male pride and vanity, what other response is possible, but laughter? So Dr. Strangelove is, theoretically, that most perfect of comedies--one that makes you laugh to (and at) death.

Any sane person laughs at that movie, then goes home, or upstairs to bed and has the night terrors (my personal definition of a perfect comedy). For that reason, although there has been much scathing satire in the ensuing 46 years since Strangelove's release, few have attempted that kind of large-scale gallows humor.

Thus, In The Loop (2009) sneaks in the side door of catastrophic satire. Presidents, Prime Ministers and Premiers are banned from the landscape, and our gaze is not permitted to go any higher than the sight of cabinet officers, their minions and enforcers. (In fact, the film suggests that critical policy is set without the knowledge or consent of elected officials.) The story, in a nutshell, is that of Britain being dragged into an American incursion in the Middle East primarily due to the thoughtless words of a thoughtless Cabinet Minister.

The film employs the faux-documentary modus best known here from The Office. The value of the technique is to convey the idea that one is hearing things one is Not Supposed To Hear. Interestingly, Strangelove uses some of the same techniques--the attack on the quarantined air base is shot with hand held grainy footage that must have looked very rough in its time. The War Room appears to have been shot with available light (obviously, the light is actually designed, most probably by the DP, Gilbert Taylor, but it appears to make no concessions to the movie camera, as it is alternately flat and harsh. It all lends an air of reality to some rather baroque performances and dialogue. (Although Peter Sellers's rendition of President Muffley's phone call to Premier Kissoff is a model of precisely observed acting.)

In The Loop even echoes Strangelove's immortal line, "There is no fighting in the war room" with a tense negotiation taking place in the meditation room at the UN. This setting is evidently based on fact as told to the writers of the film. According to the director, at the end of a screening of In The Loop to a group of Washington insiders, one of them raised his hand and said, "Can we just say we're sorry?"

Watch it and laugh--if you can handle the truth.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Swoon to death

A few posts ago, I wrote about a cluster of films with writers as the central characters. Writers in movies can be tough to dramatize, and poets even tougher. Many of their most critical struggles are internal. What do you do--show a guy staring at a piece of paper? Best dramatization of the writer's dilemma is in 1776: Jefferson is trying to write the Declaration of Independence. He scribbles something, reads it and crumples the paper. Stares into space. Writes something. Crumples the paper. Stares into space. Without writing anything else, he crumples the paper. Even his unwritten thoughts are unacceptable!

Bright Star (2009) concerns the romance between poet John Keats and his young neighbor, Fanny Brawne, with whom Keats was emotionally intimate. The obstacles are not the usual: parental opposition or social-cultural differences, but poverty and disease. Problem is for a storyteller--the story is over at the moment it begins. They cannot marry, they will not marry because he is too poor and sick. In time he dies of being poor and sick. How to keep the ball in the air for 119 minutes? There is a bit of fooling around with an emotional triangle, between Keats, Fanny and Charles Brown, Keats friend and sponsor, who appears to be jealous of Fanny. Ultimately, this thread leads nowhere, but to Keats early death, foretold at the outset.

Unfortunately, Keats's poetry, unlike dramatic verse, is difficult to comprehend aurally the first time around. Only the poem "Bright Star" which is repeated a few times, and slowly makes an impact. But I cannot say that the film "cracked" the problem of dramatizing the life of a poet.

The good news about Bright Star is that it brought Jane Campion back to theaters, as Amelia (2009) brings back Mira Nair. But Amelia demonstrates that while we may think of a life as being packed with dramatic events, that does not in itself provide a dramatic shape for those events. And drama, especially on film, is about structure. Amelia Earhart's life follows a strangely straight line. She emerges as the result of a publicity search for a woman pilot to stand alongside Lindbergh in the public eye. That she is actually a competent pilot is just a bonus. The film pursues this angle strongly in the first two acts and then drops it without exploring its significance.

Anyway, the story arc is that Earhart becomes famous, first for being famous, then for flying. She (and her publicist-husband) set her higher and higher tasks for a flyer and she develops a wider and wider circle of celebrity acquaintances. As determinedly played by Hillary Swank, she is intent on furthering aviation as a viable pursuit for women. Then one day, she flies away and never comes back. And as pleasant as the movie is up to this point, its failure to come to grips with the central enigma of Earhart's life--her disappearance--makes one wonder why the filmmakers embarked on the project at all. At first, I think it might be an interesting take on publicity and celebrity, in the mode of Coppolla's Tucker, which remains a spectacularly underrated film. It might have been about Earhart's strange marriage to Putnam, which seems to begin as a business arrangement, threatens to become more than that, and at the end, is simply unclear. Was Putnam grief-stricken at her loss? We don't know from this movie.

I think it is fair to say that, even if it is just out to amuse and distract for 90 minutes, every movie needs to know what it's about and make that clear to the audience. Mira Nair has not been doing well in that department lately.

One last observation--the film continues to mark the progress of digital special effects for the simple reason that no attention ever was called to them. And in a film like this, which has to be filled wall-to-wall with such effects in order to conjure up the world of the late 20s to the late 30s, it is only helpful to the narrative illusion that one has become unaware of such things.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Movies are getting pinker

A recent article in The New York Times describes how researchers have found that film editing rhythms have changed in recent years. Yes, they've gotten faster and shots have gotten shorter. Everyone knows that.

What's more interesting is that since 1960, cuts are coming at a rate which is more regular and more comfortable, and more closely aligned to the way we perceive the world around us naturally. Metaphorically, the speeds of the cuts correspond to the beats of our hearts, or at least the pulsations of our eye-brain connections.

Of course, a director or an editor might prefer to be jarring. For a film such as In The Loop, one might one to cultivate an air of "naturalness" to enchance the simulated reality and add a layer of comfort to its prickly comedy; OR one might one to make the film disorienting and disturbing so as to subliminally warn the audience: "weird and wrong stuff is happening here."

Presumably, this trend makes more recent films "easier" to watch. Does it make them more rewarding? (P.S. In order to understand the title of this post, you're going to have read the Times piece.)


By 1969, the Western had become a decadent form. It had passed through its classical era in the hands of Ford, Hawks and Walsh and even a post-classical era via Anthony Mann and Bud Boetticher. But by the 1960's, unless it had John Wayne, who was ballooning up into a landmark, like a human Monument Valley, a Western had to have Something Else. Maybe it had a new take on some aging stars, like Ride The High Country, vast scope like How The West Was Won, super violence like The Wild Bunch, or transference into an existential meta-genre, as in the Dollars movies by Sergio Leone.

McKenna's Gold (1969) is perpetrated not by experienced Western hands (other than star Gregory Peck) but by many of the people responsible for the first super-action picture, The Guns of Navarone. That film helped popularize the multi-star vehicle and introduced a certain gradiosity into what could have been a small-scale story about an expert team sent on a dangerous mission. (Picture, for instance, if the film had been made in a British studio in the 50's starring Stanley Baker.) It is not sufficient that the mission is dangerous and difficult. It must Alter The Entire Course of The War. This was, perhaps, to be expected from the writer of High Noon and Bridge On The River Kwai, Carl Foreman, who wrote and produced McKenna's, working with his Navarone director, the always-erratic J. Lee Thompson.

McKenna's is similarly overblown. Not content with their wobbly variation on The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, the film features such noted Mexican actors as Omar Sharif and Keenan Wynn (although Eli Wallach, strangely, plays a non-Mexican!), such famous Native Americans as Ted Cassidy (Lurch) and Julie Newmar (nee Newmeyer aka Catwoman), plus Western perennials Edward G. Robinson (Little Caesar), Lee J. Cobb (Willy Loman), Burgess Meredith (The Penguin), Telly Savalas (Kojak) and Anthony Quayle (super-bland Englishman in a million pictures). Also, there's Raymond Massey, who only plays good men, as in Abraham Lincoln in Illinois, crazy men as in Arsenic and Old Lace and men who try to be good so hard it makes them crazy (as in Santa Fe Trail and East of Eden).

Oh, by the way, all those character actors (except Savalas) enter the film in one fell swoop about 30 minutes into the picture and are all dead within 30 minutes after that, having performed no apparent function in the story. One can almost imagine them all showing up in a van, on vacation, going to visit their pal Greg Peck, and getting talked into doing some wacky bits in this Western, and getting written out when it's time to go back to Palm Springs.

The film was shot in at least four different picturesque canyon locations in Utah and Arizona, and evidently there was a different script used in each location, because the whole thing feels scotch-taped together. Finally they all find the titular gold (did I mention they were looking for McKenna's gold?), but they can't take it. Whether that was because it was being protected by Apaches, it caused earthquakes, or it just gave everybody the hoodoos, I couldn't tell. Then they all rode away, including Omar Sharif, who was a real meany and should have been tossed into a canyon, only he wasn't.

What's telling about the movie is not what a mess it is, but that they believed they could get away with in 1969, since it had horses and pretty canyons.

Oh, in one scene Julie Newmar takes a swim. That scene is pretty good.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Lies like truth

The name of this blog comes from a remark attributed to Jean-Luc Godard that film is "truth twenty-four times per second." With digital technology, this is becoming less and less true. We think we are sensitized to the presence of effect shots, but how many of the scenes in this demo reel would you have identified as an effect? I mean really--Ugly Betty crashing into a bus shelter? This development, as wonderful as it is for the budgets and the aesthetic expressiveness of film (and filmed television), is starting to throw one of its basic premises--its basis in perceptible physical reality--into doubt. Or does it? What do you think?

Link: Stargate Studios Virtual Backlot Demo

Monday, March 1, 2010


What new thing can be said about Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958)? If it is not Hitchcock's best film, it is certainly his most written-about and commented upon film. I am sure that is engendered by both its strangeness and its apparently personal nature. Surely something meant to be a mere entertainment would not need to be this twisted and perverse. The viewer feels that Hitchcock must be trying to tell us something, whether he means to or not.

I will confine myself to a couple of observations and random thoughts that this latest viewing in Film Studies inspired. First, having seen Rope just this past fall, I noted what seems to have been an aesthetic doodle, an unfulfilled impulse in that film, his first in color. There is a use of color reflected from neon signs outside the apartment which is the entire mise-en-scene of the film. It suggests the intrusion of the outside world and the garishness of the color suggests an air of sickness which has pervaded the principal characters. But it never really pays off--it feels like a flourish.

Whereas in Vertigo, the conversion of Judy into Madeleine is consistently signaled by the reflection of the green neon outside of Judy's hotel window. Coupled with a strange white light, when Madeleine finally reappears, she seems to have emerged from the world of the dead. I wonder if Hitchcock would have arrived at that idea without the half-experiment in Rope.

My other thought is literally perverse. The air is full of remakes of Hitchcock films and reworking of his ideas. Nearly all of Brian DePalma's career is based on reworking of Hitchcock. DePalma even literally reworked Vertigo as Obsession, also featuring a Bernard Herrmann score. This is just silly. Why say what's already been said?

My concept is to layer ideas of gender identity onto Vertigo. A man falls in love with a woman who dies before his eyes. Then he meets a transvestite, who we learn (but he does not) IS the woman he fell in love with. When the man learns his lover is a man, he pressures him to get transgender surgery. Of course it's weird, but it preserves Hitchcock's central conceit, that the person you fall in love with may just be a person in your own head. Maybe I can sell it to HBO. Whaddaya think?